The singer and songwriter Jewel Kilcher penned these words:
And lend your voices only to sounds of freedom.
No longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from.
Fill your lives with love and bravery and you shall lead a life uncommon.
Life. In Judaism we learn that the greatest mitzvah one can perform is p’ku-ach nefesh, to save a life. A Shabbat-observant Jew must violate the laws of Shabbat if in doing so she can save a person’s physical life. A community should sell off its most precious possession, a Torah scroll, to raise money to ransom someone who has been wrongly imprisoned or kidnapped in order to save the person’s physical, spiritual, and emotional life. We are commanded to refrain from gossiping because gossip is considered paramount to killing the life of the speaker, the hearer, and the person about whom they are gossiping.
We know these laws, even recite them sometimes. But really, don’t we mostly take life for granted? How often do we fill our lives with love and bravery in order to stand with people for whom each moment they are alive, each breath they take, they are aware of the precarious line between being alive and not?
My colleague, Cantor Michael Zoosman, has devoted his professional life to ending the death penalty. Mike works as a prison chaplain in the U.S. federal prison system.
Just before Rosh Hashanah, Mike learned about two federal inmates scheduled to be executed during the ten days of Awe. One of those inmates, while not halakhically Jewish, had adopted some Jewish practices as a part of his spiritual life.
Mike attended a pre-execution press conference about abolition of the death penalty at the Capitol in Washington, just last Tuesday. He spoke on behalf of the Jewish abolitionist community – of which I have been a part, testifying in New Hampshire five times in the past ten years – every time that a death penalty repeal bill was brought before a state house or senate committee for a hearing.
About 30 minutes before the schedule execution of the first inmate, Mike, dressed in High Holy Day white robe, offered short remarks – and then sounded his shofar in protest.
The other inmate, the one who included Jewish practices as a part of his spiritual life, wrote to Mike for some time. In one of his final communi¬cations, the inmate offered Mike the words of the priestly benediction. Mike tried to reach the U.S. president’s son-in-law through his Chabad rabbi, with the hope that Jared Kushner or the rabbi would advocate for the inmate’s life. The Chabad rabbi refused because the inmate is not halakhically Jewish. Mike knew that he exhausted all avenues in his attempt to save this man’s life; he was executed on September 24.
In Mike’s final letter to the inmate, he mentioned that as a federal chap¬lain, he felt compelled to apologize to the inmate for what our country was about to do. The inmate, during this season of forgiveness responded as follows:
“I am writing to thank you for your compassion. Though this is a dark time, I am so appreciative of those who have chosen to reach out to me and let me know they respect and acknowledge my humanity. You are now someone I am adding to that list. Thank you. It means a lot. I accept your apology. I thank you for your prayers achi [“my brother”]. In return may Abba Yah [“Father God”] bless you with favor and mercy. Shalom v’Ahava [“Peace and love].
Life is complicated and so can be our responses to it. Very few Jewish clergy choose the path of chaplaincy. And of those who do, you can probably count on one hand the number who work as prison chaplains, often, like Cantor Michael Zoosman, advocating tirelessly to save the lives of people who have committed heinous, heinous crimes.
And yet if we truly believe that every life is sacred and precious, we don’t get to pick who is worthy of living and who is not. In particular, we are not permitted to oppose the death penalty – “except in cases of [fill in the blank].” Judaism is clear – life and death are matters only for God; humans don’t get to take a life – particularly in a country in which the criminal system is wrought with human error, racism, classism, and multiple other injustices.
And yet far too many people have and do make that decision – concluding that certain lives are less valuable than their own. This should sadly be clear by now following the killings of Black Americans. Since last Yom Kippur, we have shaken our heads in pain and shed tears of shame and hurt at the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Atatiana Jefferson, Daniel Prude, and Breonna Taylor. One powerful poem I recently read includes the names of 36 additional Black Americans killed over the past several years while jogging, decorating for a party, selling music, sleeping, attending Bible study, shopping, pulling over to the side of a road because of car trouble, reading a book, taking a walk, or asking the police a question. Is it any wonder that a movement called Black Lives Matter emerged?
Those of you who object to the expression “Black Lives Matter,” asserting that all lives matter, please understand this: To say that Black lives matter is not to say that other lives do not; indeed, it is to recognize that all lives matter. Black Lives Matter focuses on improving the safety and well-being of Black people in the U.S., achieving racial justice, and ending racial disparities. People of goodwill face the hard task of recognizing that so many societal ills continue to exist, and that white privilege is very real.
If you are still struggling with the notion of “Black Lives Matter,” try this analogy. When someone says, “save the rainforests,” it’s not that other forests aren’t worthy of saving – it’s that rain forests face special risk.
If we don’t take radical steps to stop the depletion of the rain forests, our climate is likely to change in ways that are beyond repair. We will lose countless species, for one. And if we don’t take radical steps to stop the killing of Black Americans, our societal fabric is likely to change in ways that are beyond repair. We will lose our humanity, to begin.
If you wish to be part of a conversation on being Jewish and Anti-Racist, the TBJ Social Action group will lead a discussion this afternoon at 2:30 on Zoom. The link can be found in the email you received late last week with the information and links for all Yom Kippur services and events.
One Talmudic teaching about life posits this: When you destroy a life, it is as if you have destroyed the world, and when you save a life, it is as if you have saved the world. The idea is simple: each person represents a world. When any person dies, so does that world.
It’s so clear that Judaism’s primacy is on life. While death is a normal part of the cycle of life, we don’t look forward to it, celebrate it, or seek because of some great eternal afterlife. Our emphasis is on this life, in the flesh, here and now. When death comes, we are taught, we must accept it, grieve, and continue living forever changed by the loved one’s absence.
And yet, there is one situation in which death is not the normal part of the cycle of life: when your child dies. It doesn’t matter if you are 85 and your child is 60, you are 35 and your child is 10, or you are 25 and your child is a newborn.
The death of a child is the reverse order of nature and not something any parent should ever, ever, ever experience.
A few years ago, I recognized that some adults in our congregation could use support from people who were living with similar challenges. We convened three different support groups: one for parents of struggling adult children, one for the children or partners of people with memory loss, and one for parents who had experienced the death of a child. The first group met once or twice, the second group convened for about a year, and the third group, had it not been for the coronavirus, would still be meeting. Their need for each other was and is overwhelming.
And their need for the rest of us is just as important. A death of a child that happened 40 years ago is as fresh as the death of a child that happened last year. Birthdates, yahrtzeits, and holidays, are particularly hard. Please don’t avoid bereaved parents. You won’t cause pain if you bring up their child or say something like, “I imagine the Holy Days must be hard for you. How are you doing today?” You won’t cause pain because they are always remembering their child. Silence is what hurts.
Our Torah reading this morning reminds us that before us are life and death, and that we must choose life. Our choosing must encompass all lives – especially the ones that are despised, at risk, vulnerable, and forever broken. Only then will we live a life filled with love and bravery.
Ken y’hi ratzon. May this be God’s will for us all. Shanah tovah.
The singer and songwriter Jewel Kilcher penned these words: