The Responsibilities of Privilege


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about luck.

It all started this past summer, when my friend Nadya invited me to her naturalization ceremony. Now, I’d never been to such a ceremony before. But I assumed it would be a small and intimate gathering. I was not prepared for the crowd I encountered when I stepped off the elevator on the 7th floor of the U.S. federal court building downtown. Dozens of prospective Americans were there, along with their family and friends; Daughters of the American Revolution were handing out miniature American flags; civic leaders were there to welcome new citizens; and volunteers were helping people register to vote.

It was not quite the Ellis Island scenes that I remember from movies and family lore, but, for a moment, it felt close. I could sense the ghosts of my own grandparents and great-grandparents, who, like hundreds of thousands of their fellow landsmen, fled the violence, persecution, and hardships of Eastern Europe for this goldina Medina, enduring great trials to start here anew.

My fingers grazed the contours of my great-grandfather Joseph’s bejeweled belt-buckle ring, which I had recently started wearing on my right ring-finger. This ring, which he purchased some years after he came to America, was likely the first object of value he was able to buy in his adopted country, saving for years wages earned from his job as a delicatessen busboy. Perhaps to commemorate the fact that the first birthday my great-grandfather celebrated in America was his 21st, it has become a tradition in my family for the ring to be passed down to first-born sons on their 21st birthdays. My father gave me the ring on my 21st birthday, just as his father did for him, and I will pass it on to Shemaya when he turns 21. As I felt the weight of this ring on my finger, I felt the weight of my great-grandfather’s experience: leaving his homeland, crossing an ocean by boat, severing ties from his family, and starting over in an unknown land.

As I sat waiting for the ceremony to begin, watching immigrant after immigrant approach the court clerk and turn in all their paperwork — the final step in what is, for many immigrants, a complicated, arduous, and lengthy process — I felt an overwhelming sense of how lucky I am. Only a cosmic roll of the dice determined the fact that I would be born here while, to borrow a phrase from Emma Lazarus, “huddled masses,” elsewhere in the world yearned to breathe free. Here was a room filled with people who once were among those huddled masses, who had risked and sacrificed a great deal, who had worked extremely hard for long periods of time, just in order to attain what I received by virtue of having been born here. Many of them took those chances not for their own welfare, but rather to provide for their children and grandchildren but a fraction of the wealth and privilege and opportunity and security into which I had the extreme fortune of being born. And, meanwhile, countless others around the world — crushed by oppression, threatened by violence, rendered homeless by war, or simply wishing for a better life — want but will never make it to that room, those for whom the “golden door” of America has been padlocked shut.

You may not know it, but the power of luck is one of Yom Kippur’s central insights. On the one hand, Yom Kippur insists that it is within our power to determine our future, that none of us are chained to our past, that every single one of us, no matter how far along we are in life, no matter how deeply ingrained our habits, no matter the limitations of our environment or our biology, has the capacity to change, to make for ourselves new pathways and a better life.

And yet, at the same time, Yom Kippur also reminds us that our ability to chart our own future is either inhibited or helped by the luck of the draw.

The core of the ancient Yom Kippur service — practiced by our ancestors and preserved for us in today’s Torah reading and liturgy, involved the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies, the most sacred part of the Temple, with two goats. One of the goats was sacrificed there in the shrine. The other was sent off to an inaccessible place in the desert. The two goats, according to rabbinic tradition, had to be similar in color, age, size, and appearance; virtually identical.

Given the fact that these two goats had to be indistinguishable from one another, what differentiated their fate? Only the chance designation of a lottery:

Aaron shall take the two goats and let them stand before Adonai at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for Adonai and the other marked for Azazel (Leviticus 16:7-8).

Strange, right? This moment, so powerful, so significant; this moment that will determine the different fates of two animals, this moment upon which depends the atonement of the Children of Israel, whether or not they will be inscribed for life in the year to come, whether we will be the beneficiaries of blessing or the bearers of burden depends…on a lottery.

In fact, some commentators take this idea even further, saying that this holiday, called in Hebrew Yom ha-Kippurim, should actually be understood as Yom k’Purim, meaning a day that is like PURIM! Why? Because just as in the Purim story the fate of the Jews is determined by a lottery — the Hebrew word Purim itself means lots —so too on Yom Kippur is fate, the fate of these two goats in the Temple service, anyway, determined by a lottery.

But when you stop to think about it, it’s not strange at all. The Temple service of the High Priest is life itself, expressed in the poetry of ritual. It reminds us that much in our lives and in our world is beyond our control, that so much in life is a roll of the dice. Luck so often determines whether we will receive blessing or curse, and therefore the possibilities for our futures are so often either constrained or enhanced by whatever hand fate deals to us.

Just like the goats in the Temple ritual, lots are cast upon us — not just today, but every day — lots which will determine life and death, blessing and curse.

Just as an illustration, consider for a moment the odds that you would have been born in the last 100 years, which is a fraction of the time human beings have existed on earth, a time of unparalleled peace, prosperity, and wellbeing;

Or the odds that you would be born in the United States of America, a country with just over 4% of the world’s population;

Or the odds that this country — a radical experiment in self-government unprecedented in human history — would have endured for nearly two and a half centuries;

Or the odds that you would be born to a family with a middle-class household income (considering three-quarters of the world population has a net worth of under $10,000).

If any combination of those things are true about you, you are almost unfathomably lucky.

What can only be described as luck — or a lack thereof — determines our nationality, the environment in which we grow up, our genes, our skin color, and our physical appearance. And these factors, which we did not choose and are beyond our control, enable some of us to have an easier path to success than others.

In our society, for example, boys, just by virtue of having been born male, have advantages not similarly enjoyed by girls. White people typically have easier paths to success than people of color. Protestant Christians have privileges that those in minority religious communities don’t have. Being born in the United States means you have a head start on those born in the developing world.

And, while our difficult history – and the stubborn persistence of anti-Semitism – makes many of us in the Jewish community loathe to admit it, to be born a Jew in this time and place likely means that you are born with nearly unrivaled privilege. After all, if you were born Jewish in America, chances are good that your complexion enables you to be identified as white, that your family was at least comfortably middle-class, that your parents are highly-educated professionals, and that you have at least a bachelor’s degree. Those characterizations of course don’t describe every American Jew. But even if they don’t describe you personally, most of us in the American Jewish community, statistically speaking, fit that profile.

Those of us who have benefited most from life’s lottery tend to deny the role of luck in our lives. We like to think of our social and economic situations as entirely the products of our own agency, which also implies that those who are worse off deserve their misfortune. Yet while we can certainly attribute some percentage of our successes or our failures to our hard work and effort, it is also true that, if life were a race, some of us get to start much closer to the finish line…thanks only to, essentially, a lucky roll of the dice.

“But wait,” I hear you saying. “Isn’t this blasphemy? Does God really play dice with the universe?” Isn’t God the all-powerful author of creation? And isn’t God just in every way, rewarding each according to his or her merits and punishing each according to his or her transgressions? If we were fortunate to have been born with certain privileges, doesn’t that mean God has willed it so, that God saw us as worthy of blessing, and others less so, and blessed or cursed us accordingly?

While there certainly have been voices throughout Jewish history that have tried to argue that a good, just, and omnipotent God orchestrates what happens on earth, most disagree with that viewpoint. Instead, our tradition insists “olam k’minhago noheg, the world follows its natural course,” (Maimonides, Shemonah Perakim 8:10, quoting Avodah Zarah 54b). God does not directly control what happens in our world. Rather, God set the universe in motion, established the laws that govern the cosmos, and then allowed creation to function really and freely within those parameters. God does not coerce or dictate outcomes; doing so would violate the order that God created and refuses to break.

Instead, God’s role in our world is limited. As Maimonides puts it, God restricts God’s self to teaching human beings right from wrong; to meeting us in each moment, guiding us — using only the power of persuasion — to use our free will for good.

Our starting points in the race of life, along with the thousands of small and large, helpful or harmful, occurrences that may happen to us along the way, are almost entirely up to chance. We have the freedom to decide on the best steps to take in our lives, and God’s voice is always there, if we attune ourselves to hear it, guiding us in the best possible direction. But we are all of us helped along or hindered by impartial, undiscerning, indifferent fortune.

While our lives are heavily influenced by “factors we did not choose and for which we deserve no credit or blame,” Yom Kippur teaches that luck does not get the final word. Our liturgy today imparts to us guidance about how to live in a world where our future depends a great deal on how lucky or unlucky we are: It says, “U’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a ha-g’zeirah, Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah have the power to transform the harshness of our destiny.” It may not be in our power to change our fate, but it is within our power to be aware of and correct the inequities of fortune. And we do this, according to our liturgy, through Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah.

Teshuvah is normally translated as repentance. But it is better understood as turning. In teshuvah, we fully examine where we are, striving to see ourselves honestly. Where we find ourselves on the wrong path — because of the choices we have made, the pull of our ingrained nature, or the influence of our environment — we commit to turning toward a better way of living. Then, we engage in the hard but necessary work in each moment of living as best we can, differently than we had before.

But sometimes fate can deal us such a hand that it renders change extremely hard. Sometimes, it even makes it impossible. That’s why a core tenet of teshuvah is the requirement that we forgive others, and ourselves. Just because someone didn’t catch a break, whether at birth or at some other point in life, doesn’t mean they deserve a life of struggle.

It’s not that we shouldn’t hold people responsible for their bad deeds. And it’s not that we can never blame people for their failures. But the notion of teshuvah means recognizing, with understanding and compassion, that where we are in life often involves some amount of good or bad luck. And this recognition is the first step toward rectifying the unfairness of destiny.

The second step is Tefillah. Tefillah is normally translated as prayer. But the word “prayer” in English implies a request for help. By and large, that’s not what prayer is in Jewish tradition. Rather, in Judaism, prayer is more about self-examination, appreciation, and gratitude. The root of the Hebrew word for prayer is pillel, which literally means to think, to consider, to inspect. And the verb for praying, להתפלל, is reflexive. In other words, tefillah literally means introspection.

Introspection can help undo the injustices of fortune by providing us opportunities to examine and understand our own privilege, the ways in which we have innate advantages – like our sex or our skin color or our nationality – that made it easier for us to succeed. Conversely, it can help us recognize the ways in which others, through no fault of their own, have inherent disadvantages. Tefillah then invites us to be grateful for the gifts of our privilege, moving us away from feelings of entitlement or guilt, guiding us toward compassion for and generosity toward those who have been less fortunate, and helping us become aware of the unique work each of us is called do in the world.

The feelings of compassion and responsibility elicited through Tefillah lead directly to the third step, tzedakah. The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out that, while we usually think of tzedakah as charity, it actuality has the opposite meaning. Charity is a voluntary action or donation to help someone in need. Charity implies the recipient has no right to the gift and that the donor is under no obligation to give it.

Tzedakah, on the other hand, means justice or fairness, making things right. The implication is that the world, when left to its own devices, is unfair. Some people are born with more privilege than others. Jewish tradition demands that we have a duty to rectify this inequality, to repair a world in which a few are born with privileges while most are disadvantaged, to help make of our world a more level playing-field.

In fact, this is precisely what our tradition means by tikkun olam, repairing the world. In the Talmudic texts where the idea originated, the term is a shorthand for recalibrating a world out of balance (Jane Kanarek, “What Does Tikkun Olam Actually Mean?” in Righteous Indignation). Repairing the world is about more than individual acts of giving. Rather, it is about using all the tools at our disposal, including public policy, to correct systemic injustices and make life’s race more fair.

The principles of tzedakah and tikkun olam don’t necessarily mean we have to make everything completely equal. But they do mean that “those who have benefited most from luck — from being born a certain place, a certain color, to certain people in a certain economic bracket, sent to certain schools, introduced to certain people” — have an obligation to lift up those who have benefited less from life’s lottery. And the more blessings one has, the more he or she is required to give.

We do this not simply because it is kind, which it is, or because it makes us feel good, which it does. We perform the mitzvah of tzedakah because, as the 16th century sage Rabbi Moshe Alshich taught, we are not entitled to everything we possess; because the privileged and disadvantaged are equally God’s children and therefore have an equal share in the inheritance of God’s world; because we are tasked with the fair distribution of that inheritance; and, ultimately, because, when we lift each other up, we all benefit (Torah Moshe, Leviticus 19:9).

Earlier I mentioned my great-grandfather, Joseph Knopf (of blessed memory). My great-grandfather fled the hardships of his native Galicia, leaving behind family and familiarity to start a new life in America as a young man. He never to my knowledge became wealthy, but he got to see his children grow up as Americans, with privileges and opportunities that would have been beyond his wildest imagination in the Old Country.

His son, my grandfather, Jay (of blessed memory), whose wedding band I wear on my left ring-finger, used to tell me that, as he grew up, his immigrant parents constantly reminded him how fortunate he was. That was why, he said, he joined the Army during World War II. His privilege gave him responsibilities. And even after he came home having been shot in the head by German snipers during the Battle of Hurtgen Forest, he never lost the feeling of being extraordinarily lucky, and dedicated his life to helping and lifting up others, both professionally as a psychologist and in his private life.

I have been thinking a lot about my Grandpa lately: about the freedoms he and his generation fought and died to preserve and about the prosperity that his sacrifices helped to create; about how I was lucky to be born into and benefit my whole life from those blessings; about how many others in our world, through no fault of their own, are not similarly blessed, and about how we owe them our compassion and support. I think about how I was born with privileges that helped me prosper thanks in part to what he bequeathed to me, and about how others haven’t been so lucky. And, ultimately, I think about how he taught me that to whom much is given, much is required.

This day is both Yom Ha-Kippurim, a day that evokes life’s lottery; and Yom Kippur, a day of atonement, a day for repairing what is broken, a day for reconciling with each other and God. The paradox built into this day serves to remind us that, in a world where so much is determined by chance, fortune doesn’t have to have the final word. We get a say, too. We may not be able to fix everything, but we can accomplish a great deal. The randomness built into creation generates division and injustice; winners and losers. But we serve a God who insists that all have infinite worth. God has given us power and agency, guiding us to respond to the inequities of our random world by serving the One in whose eyes all are equal, the One who cannot abide injustice, the One who embodies the truth that we are all of us interconnected.

Yom Kippur invites us to honestly and gratefully acknowledge our privileges and consider with compassion those less fortunate; to lift up those who have less, and to rectify the inequities of our world — not just through individual acts of generosity, but through advancing the conditions that ensure everyone has an equal chance to succeed in life’s race — remembering that to whom much is given, much is required. Yes, life may sometimes be unfair. But this day declares that we can transform a world broken by the harshness of destiny into a world repaired by the harmony of justice.

Yom Kippur 5779

September 19, 2018

Temple Beth-El, Richmond, Virginia

This entry was posted in Sermons and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s