Our Kids – Yom Kippur 5776/2015

6748772-3x4-700x933They have become the most powerful symbols of the past year. But before they were symbols, they were people.

Early each morning, sometimes before sunrise, 3 year-old Aylan would sneak quietly out of his bed, shuffle softly against the stone floor of his small home, and crack open the door of his parents bedroom. He would peek in, to see if anyone was stirring. If he saw the grown-ups sleeping soundly, he would walk over to the side of the bed where his father, Abdullah, was snoring away. Standing inches away from his father’s face, Aylan would try to wake him by timidly whispering, “Babba? Babba?” If that didn’t work, the boy would start to raise his voice: “Babba! Babba! Is it time to wake up?” Some mornings, there might be a little poking involved, or maybe even a leap onto the bed. Eventually, Abdullah would open his eyes, grab the boy in a tight embrace, pull him into the bed, and give him a big kiss, singing, “ṣabāḥul kẖayr, good morning, sweet boy!”

Abdullah would take the giggling, smiling boy into his room to get dressed while their mother, Rehenna, made breakfast. Invariably, Aylan would demand to be dressed in a t-shirt, shorts, and his very favorite brown velcro sneakers. Once the shoes were securely strapped to his feet, he would hop around the house with playful energy and a smile that could just as easily take over his face as it could light up a room.

By all accounts, Aylan Kurdi was a typical 3 year-old boy. He loved imaginative play, teddy bears, soccer, and his big brother, Ghalib. He could have been anyone’s son, or even my daughter, who is the same age, and reminds me so much of him.

Freddie Gray was also a fairly typical young man. So much about his character – his soul, his smile, his laughter – might remind you of your own son or daughter. He was sweet with his elders and generally respectful of authority. Even as a young adult, Freddie visited his disabled mother every day. He was known as the neighborhood funny guy, the class clown. True, he was never a great student, and, thanks to his asthma, he was no athlete. But he perpetually had a vivacious smile, a brightness that was matched by his bold fashion sense. He was affable, never took things too seriously, and did everything he could to make others laugh, like peppering his interactions with silly jokes and purposefully off-key singing.  Maybe that’s why they called him “Pepper.” An ex-girlfriend summed him up like this: ““He was so loyal, so kindhearted, so warm. Every time you saw him, you just smiled, because you knew you were going to have a good day.”

As familiar as Freddie may have been, however, the circumstances surrounding his life were anything but, at least to most of us who gather today in this sanctuary: Freddie was born to an undereducated single mother who struggled with addiction, and raised in an impoverished Baltimore neighborhood called Sandtown. Sandtown is nearly 100 percent African-American, and its sons and daughters make up a disproportionate share of Maryland’s state prisons. While Sandtown has no grocery stores or restaurants, it is filled with boarded and decaying rowhouses and projects, like the dilapidated Gilmor Homes building where Freddie grew up. These are not just ugly places to live. They’re also dangerous: Having been built cheaply and haphazardly, many of Sandtown’s homes were later discovered to have dangerously high concentrations of lead paint. The walls and windowsills of Freddie’s childhood home contained enough lead to poison him and his siblings, leaving them incapable of leading fully functional adult lives.

In his important recent book, Our Kids, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam demonstrates how poverty in today’s America, like the environment where Freddie grew up, creates a vicious and violent vortex from which it is nearly impossible to escape. This reality is especially true for black kids: Black poverty tends to be worse than white poverty to begin with, and lingering racial biases – like the fact that black men are disproportionately likely to be stopped and searched by police – make the climb out of poverty more difficult for African-Americans.

That’s why the circumstances surrounding Freddie’s death, while foreign to most of us, were typical of his neighborhood: We don’t know exactly what happened, but here’s what we do know: Last April, Freddie was arrested following a foot chase. It isn’t clear why he ran, other than a fear of the police typical of his peers. But we do know that, after he was caught, officers were filmed dragging his limp, handcuffed body, and putting him in the back of a police van. We know that the officers did not put a seatbelt on him, a violation of department policy. We know that, again against department policy, they did not offer him medical attention, despite several requests. We know that he was not breathing when he arrived at the station. And we know that he was eventually taken to the hospital, where he died, a week later, of a severe spinal injury.

Similarly, the circumstances surrounding Aylan’s life and death are so foreign to most of us, and yet totally typical in his part of the world: He was born in Damascus, where his father Abdullah was a barber. When civil war erupted, and intense and brutal fighting engulfed the capital, Abdullah moved the family to Aleppo, and then to Kobane, and then from city to city, followed by violence wherever they went.

Aylan’s family eventually settled in Turkey, and Abdullah worked to save money to eventually find a safer and more permanent home for the family. Maybe they would settle somewhere in Europe, or maybe they would join Abdullah’s sister in Vancouver. Aylan was overjoyed about the adventure ahead. He spent many nights over those weeks too excited to sleep, imagining what his new life would be like. Eventually, Abdullah saved enough to pay smugglers to sneak the family into Greece.

Late one night, Abdullah and Rehenna woke their boys. They dressed the bleary eyed kids – Aylan, of course, in his favorite red t-shirt and blue shorts – and made sure to strap the velcro on Aylan’s favorite brown sneakers extra tight for the journey ahead. They boarded the smugglers’ small boat under cover of darkness. But the raft was overloaded, and when it hit choppy waters, the captain panicked, jumped overboard, and swam for shore.

The boat capsized. The life vests aboard the vessel turned out to be fake, and Abdullah was the only family member who knew how to swim. He tried to keep his wife and sons above water, but massive waves kept pushing them down, and soon enough, Rehenna, Ghalib and Aylan drowned in the turbulent Aegean waters. As day broke a few hours later, a Turkish policeman discovered Aylan’s limp, lifeless body slumped facedown on the beach. He was still wearing his red t-shirt and blue shorts; his favorite brown velcro sneakers still fastened firmly to his tiny feet.

Before they became symbols of the fight against institutional racism and of the global refugee crisis, they were people. And though many of the circumstances that surrounded their lives and that surrounded their deaths may be unfamiliar and even unfathomable to many of us, in the basic and infinitely and equally precious humanity they share with us and with our own children, Freddie Gray, Aylan Kurdi, and the countless others caught in circumstances similar to theirs, are no different than any of our sons, or any of our daughters.

It is our shared humanity that makes us responsible for their welfare, that calls on us to treat all kids, especially disadvantaged and marginalized kids, as our kids, to ensure to the best of our ability that the circumstances of their lives match what we would want for our own children.

Our tradition makes explicit this moral responsibility through appeal to historical experience: “You shall love the stranger/ the outcast/ the disadvantaged as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Consider the reality that, were we alive in virtually any other era of Jewish history, Aylan or Freddie could have easily been our kids. Had we been alive not in 2015 C.E. but rather in 1515 B.C.E., our kids would have been born into the slums of ancient Egypt, into lives of debilitating restriction and inescapable inequality; into a society where the majority population viewed them with derision as inherently inferior, as fearsome others, as abominations to be marginalized. Had we been alive then and not now, we, too, would have had to strap sandals onto little feet to escape from a war-ravaged country into an unknown and harsh wilderness. Had we been alive in 1915, we would have been the ones loading our kids onto dilapidated and overcrowded boats to flee the poverty and pogroms of the shtetl to make the uncertain journey across an ocean to a new world. Had we been alive then, our kids would might have been born into the hovels and tenements of the Lower East Side, where they were likely to get swept up into gangs, violence, liquor, and crime. Had we been alive in 1945, it would have been our kids targeted by the authorities because of their ethnicity, and it might have been our kids who trembled as they fled their homes from the terror of a brutal dictatorship.

The Bible invokes our collective memory of oppression no less than 36 times, harnessing our history over and again so that we connect the crises others face today with our crises yesterday, to see their story as our story, to experience their reality as personally as we would our own. The Torah trains us to want for others, and particularly for others who are disadvantaged, what we would want for ourselves.

And our tradition imparts the moral responsibility to treat all kids like our kids as an extension of our theology: The Torah’s most basic faith claim is Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad – God is One. If God is one, then all is one. As Rabbi Ed Feinstein puts it, “God is Melech ha-Olam, Sovereign of All, the God of global concern. In God, there is no such thing as care for our own apart from concern for the other, because in God there is no such thing as the other.” In God, you and me, us and them, ours and theirs is all ultimately an illusion – an insight that is now supported by the cutting edge in contemporary physics. We may be separated on the surface, but on the deepest level of reality, we are totally interconnected, manifestations of the same oneness.  That means there is ultimately no distinction between my parents and your parents, or between you and me, because we are all brothers and sisters, children of one parent. And there is no distinction between my kids and your kids because, in a one-God universe, they are all our kids.

This insight is so central to our purpose as Jews that we are called to meditate on it today, on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, through confronting a powerful morality play starring an ancient Israelite prophet named Jonah.

You know the story: God instructs Jonah to go to Nineveh and tell them to change their wicked ways. Jonah, however, doesn’t want to save Nineveh. So he runs away and boards a ship to Tarshish, a distant city in exactly the opposite direction.

Why does Jonah run? Here’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein’s masterful explanation:

Historically, Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. In 722 BCE, the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and exiled its population. They besieged Jerusalem, humiliated its king, and carried off its treasures. For an Israelite, Nineveh was the enemy, the world center of evil, the heart of darkness. Save Nineveh? Why would Jonah want to save Nineveh?

It’s a fair objection. But if Nineveh is Israel’s enemy, and the Israelites are God’s chosen, then why does God care what happens to the people of Nineveh? Why does God send Jonah in the first place?

Because, to God, Assyrian children are as important as Israelite children. They are all God’s kids. And as such, God believes the welfare of the people of Nineveh ought to be the Jewish people’s concern, too. In a monotheistic tradition, their kids are our kids.

But Jonah doesn’t agree with the tradition on behalf of which he purports to prophesy. He doesn’t believe, or at least he does not want to believe, that it’s his responsibility to save Nineveh. Their kids are their problem, he insists, not mine.

So Jonah boards the ship to Tarshish. He escapes down into the hold and slips into a deep sleep. God then sends a tempest that threatens to sink the ship. The panicked captain finds Jonah and exclaims, “How can you sleep?!” How can you rest in oblivious serenity when the tempest rages about you? How can you live in this world of injustice and suffering and retreat to your comfortable chambers and shut your eyes?

The captain’s words seem to snap Jonah out of his complacency. He realizes that he is the cause of the storm, and volunteers to be thrown overboard in order to save his shipmates.

Does this act signify that Jonah finally understands that his actions have consequences beyond his usual sphere of concern, that he is responsible for the welfare of others, or is it merely his way of continuing to escape?

It’s hard to know for sure, so God sends a big fish to swallow Jonah to hammer home the teaching. Rabbi Feinstein explains:

At the bottom of the sea, far from the world, Jonah sits alone in the dark, putrid innards of the fish. Welcome to God’s classroom. You craved a life protected from the needs and claims of others? You yearned for a refuge from the cries of a suffering world, from responsibility for any but your very own? Congratulations. You’ve found your reality! How do you like it? How does it smell? A little like death? Engagement with the world is more than a cultural value; it is the very life breath of the Jewish soul. Cut off from the world and turned entirely inward, the Jewish soul suffocates.

The only way to be totally disconnected from other people so as to have no responsibility for them is to be dead. Life is interconnected, and those relationships demand we be responsible for each other.  

Did Jonah learn his lesson? There’s only one way to know for sure. God tells the fish to spit Jonah out onto dry land and then again instructs Jonah to go save Nineveh. This time, Jonah obeys. He reaches the city and prophesies impending doom. The people of Nineveh actually repent, and God saves the city.

But God’s compassion for the people of Nineveh infuriates Jonah. Nineveh’s salvation was precisely the outcome Jonah was seeking to avoid in the first place. If Nineveh’s kids are spared, he fears, then the privilege of Israel’s kids is diminished.

God realizes that Jonah has not gotten the point, so God devises another lesson: God creates a giant plant and makes it grow over Jonah’s head to shield him from the sun. The next morning, God sends a worm to devour the plant. As the sun begins to beat down on Jonah’s head, Jonah is devastated by the loss of his beloved, protecting plant. God points out to Jonah: “You are concerned about the plant, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow…Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people…?”

The story ends there, abruptly. We don’t know if Jonah finally learned his lesson. But that’s not really the point. The point is whether we’ve learned it. God’s question is left unanswered at the end of the Book of Jonah, because it’s a question posed to each of us, right here, right now: Just as each of your children are infinitely precious to you, can you understand that each and every person on the planet infinitely precious to God, since they are all God’s children? And if both you and I are God’s children, and we and they are God’s children, then can you strive to see each other, and each other’s children, as possessing equally incalculable worth? Can you walk in the world with the awareness that all of God’s kids are your kids, too? How might we act differently if we were to see all kids as our kids?

How might we act if we thought of the poor kid born in the slums of Baltimore, or Chicago, or Richmond, as our kid, too? Might we be more inclined to rail against those policies and systems that trap so many of our kids in lives of poverty?

How might we act if we thought of the young black man whose spine was snapped while in police custody for the crime of being afraid of the police, as our kids, too? Might we be more inclined to advocate for safeguards against the racial bias still so tragically prevalent in our law-enforcement and systems of justice?

How might we act if we thought of the Syrian kid fleeing the only home he’s ever known, embarking upon the arduous journey from Syria to Turkey, from Hungary to Germany, trembling in the cold of night, asleep in fields and deserts and railway stations across the globe, threatened by those who wish to thwart his efforts to seek asylum, as our kid, too? Might we demand our leaders take in more refugees, increase humanitarian aid, and prioritize resolving the crisis in Syria? [PAUSE]

Can we, like God, and unlike Jonah, see all kids as our kids? That’s the eternal Jewish question, asked of us each year on Yom Kippur. And it is a question that takes on a special significance in our time, when inequality of all kinds has become a yawning chasm on the local, national, and international levels. In Our Kids, Putnam demonstrates, with a devastating collection of the best available data, that the main cause of this deepening inequality is that we no longer see other people’s kids as our kids. We love our own kids, and are apathetic about theirs. We want to give our kids every advantage, but aren’t concerned that others don’t have equal opportunities to succeed.

Our apathy about the future of other people’s kids is not only a moral failing, it is also ultimately self-defeating. Since we are all interconnected, what happens to other people’s kids will inevitably impact us, too. As Putnam proves, when poverty is allowed to fester, even the wealthy are eventually affected. When inequality persists, more inequality becomes tolerable. Suffering elsewhere cannot be contained by borders or walls or oceans; it eventually reaches our shores, too. That is what Martin Luther King Jr. meant when he wrote from a Birmingham Jail, “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. All life is interrelated.”

Like the fire burning down the house next door, whose flames could easily spread to our own home if they aren’t extinguished, we cannot abide the suffering of someone’s else kids just because they’re not our own; we cannot tolerate injustice just because it is happening to someone else.

Our father Abraham was the first to teach us, and the world, this lesson. According to the rabbis of the midrash, there once was a birah doleket, a palace in flames. Most people passed right by the burning palace, saying “Not my palace, not my problem.” Only one person bothered to stop and consider whether there was anyone trapped inside, whether the owner needed help, or whether there was simply no one else around to put out flames that needed extinguishing. According to our rabbis, Abraham was called to be the first Jew because he was like that unique person. He saw a world on fire with injustice and suffering, and was the only one in his time who stopped to ask what he could do to help put out the flames.

That’s what it means to be a Jew. To see the palace on fire and say, “Even if it’s not my palace, it’s still my problem.”

The fire is still raging all around us. The inhabitants of the palace are still in peril, and the owner of the palace needs our help. In this New Year, let’s join together, grab a bucket, and get to work.

Shanah tovah.

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