The Pope, the Earth, & At-ONE-ment: Kol Nidre at the Lincoln Memorial

Torah Scroll & Welcome to the Pope, Kol Nidre eveniing at Lincoln Memorial

 [This sermon was spoken at the Lincoln Memorial by Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, Director of Social Justice Organizing at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, as part of the observance of Yom Kippur sponsored by The Shalom Center on September 22-23, 2015. Liebling is a member of the Board of The Shalom Center.]

Shalom, salaam, shanti, peace!

 It’s really amazing to be here, celebrating Yom Kippur in solidarity with the Pope’s visit --  amazing to me personally because I got a master’s degree in History of American Civilization, before becoming a rabbi --  and even more so when I think of my dad who was a Holocaust survivor.  I remember when I went out on Easter while I was in college , he told me that when he was a young man in Poland, the Jews would never go out of the house on Easter because they would be attacked by the young Catholic men.

 And here we are  celebrating Yom Kippur at the Lincoln Memorial to reinforce the message of a Pope, the Prince of the Church --  a message of inter-connectedness, justice, sustainability and spiritual wholeness. I would venture to say that has never happened before in history.  Just that alone should cause our circuits to rewire the hard drive about possibilities for change.

I especially want to recognize, from among those who have gathered here tonobght,  Steve Norris and others from Beyond Extreme Energy who are in Day 15 of an 18-day fast in front of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to convince them to stop giving permits for fracking

Tonight is also a special night for the Earth. In the northern hemisphere it is the fall equinox and in the southern the spring equinox. In a few hours the earth will be in perfect balance in its trajectory around the sun. It is the night when things change over.

There could not be a more perfect moment for Yom Kippur as we try to align ourselves with what we believe is true and best. In many traditions around the world the equinox is a time of prayers and purification,

We join with our brothers and sisters in forests, jungles, mountains and deserts around the world in acknowledging our dependence on celestial orbits, and our place in the solar system.

Even as we affirm the possibility for change   and our desire for it on this Day of Atonement. there are contradictions before our eyes. If you look beyond the Washington Monument you will see the Capitol building, which was literally built upon the bones of the Native people. Where we sit now was the domain of the Piscataway Nation. We ask their permission to be here and apologize for the sins of our nation.

The genocide of the Native Peoples and the stealing of their lands by white settlers is the original sin of America  -- the template for racism, slavery and the rape of the land. Until our nation officially atones for this. we can never be a healthy society. And let me add that even as we celebrate the Pope’s efforts, the church still has much to do to atone for its actions against native peoples.

The Lincoln Memorial is also a reminder of unfinished work. It is a symbol of fighting for freedom: The civil war was fought to end slavery and preserve the union. The struggle for full freedom is still not over. Right in this place,  Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the “I have a dream” speech, and though the civil rights movement made significant gains, we are still working to make Black Lives Matter.

As you gaze forward to the Washington Monument, with the Capitol behind it, and with the Lincoln Memorial behind you …we sit at the spiritual center of civil religion in the United States, the great symbols of our democracy -- a democracy  that has made great strides from a time when only white men with property could vote, but whose promise has yet to be fulfilled. We are still fighting to make sure that everyone can vote and has an equal say.

You might know of Vincent Harding, a close colleague of Dr. King, who drafted his famous anti-Vietnam war speech at Riverside Church.  Vincent worked his entire life for justice, and before his death last year, talked about America’s great experiment with democracy, emphasizing that we cannot give up on it. Today our democracy is in danger and we need to strengthen it.  

The thought system that sanctioned genocide and slavery and still sanctions the concentration of wealth, racism and the rape of the Earth has a false assumption at its core: that we are all separate individuals.  It puts forth the myth that our survival and well-being depend on domination of people and of the planet.  

We are most fortunate in our time that science and spiritual wisdom come  together to teach that everything is connected and mutually inter-dependent. Nothing in the universe can exist on its own. Absolutely everything exists only in relationship  -- every sub-atomic particle, every molecule, every blade of grass, every cell, every person can only live , be, exist in relationship.

 Western culture has made a fetish of the individual, created the idolatry of the self. I believe that one of the reasons that the cultural genocide of native Americans continues --  is their insistence on the interconnectedness of all life and valuing the community above the individual – values that are antithetical to the American myth of individualism.

Remember that the core of the Jewish liturgy is the Sh’ma -- declaring the Oneness of God, the interconnected Oneness of all that is. We too can be a subversive culture.

Similarly, the heart of Pope Francis’s encyclical is the knowledge that all of life, including Mother Earth, is deeply connected. 

In my personal theology, I understand God as the connective tissue of the universe, that which makes life possible. I prefer the Hebrew word “Yah” for God, which my teacher Rabbi Arthur Waskow translated as the Breath of Life. Borrowing from him, I ask us all to notice our breaths and let us breathe deeply -- knowing that what you breathe in is what the trees and other beings have breathed out,  and what you breathe out, the trees and others around you will breath in. We are all being breathed by the Breath of Life. 

For me God is not a separate, conscious being but is the web of existence. Anything that tears that web, that tears the connective tissue of life, is what I would call a misdeed,

some might say a sin, and in Judaism even as we differentiate between intentional and unintentional acts, we need to take responsibility for our actions. 

I hesitate to use the word sin, because for many people it is heavily associated with guilt and shame.  Judaism understands that that we all sin regularly, hence the long public confessions on Yom Kippur. In the Torah there are many classifications of sin each with the appropriate sacrifice. When there was a clear system of atonement it was easier to say “I messed up, this is the prescribed repentance, I’ll try and do better again.” It was understood that it does not mean you are a bad person.

 Repentance or atonement requires noticing the effect of our actions whether it be on others or the earth, taking responsibility for them, asking for forgiveness and not repeating it. Sometimes we end up repenting for the same kinds of acts for years until we learn. Repentance is a word some people don’t relate to, a word from an old spiritual technology and perhaps is better understood as taking responsibility for the consequences of your actions and resolving to make good -- along the lines of Restorative justice.

So here we are here on the day of atonement- or as my teacher Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi taught, the day of At-One-Ment.  Our spiritual task today -- with powerful political and social implications -- is to ask what is the atonement or in Hebrew the tshuva, the return -- that each of us needs to make to move closer to At-One-Ment - to feel in our hearts and know in our guts that what happens to the oceans, to the forests, to other species, to other people is also happening to us.

We begin with our hearts. Pope Francis wrote that we must “Dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it."

He also wrote, “We are a society that has forgotten how to weep – how to have compassion. We must weep for the loss of our humanity... We must seek reconciliation with those dehumanized by the sins of racism and greed. Only then can we restore our relationship with God.”

Similarly when the revered Buddhist teacher and activist Thich Nat Hanh was asked, “What do we most need to do to save the world?’”  he surprised the questioners by answering, “What we most need to do is to hear within ourselves the sounds of the Earth crying.”

 Similarly there are many Hasidic stories about the importance of a broken heart.

 It is easy to be overwhelmed by the pain and sadness in the world. Just imagine allowing yourself to feel the pain of a parent unable to provide food for children and listening to them cry from hunger; or of a child with asthma living in an inner city desperately gasping for air on a day of poor air quality; or take in the devastation of the forest fires in California, to viscerally take in trees and animals becoming a ball of fire.


But the greater danger is numbness -- tuning it all out. We live in a society that does not want to us to feel what is happening -- a society of distractions and addictions -- shopping, alcohol, hard drugs, screens.  When we numb ourselves to what is happening, we diminish our capacity for both joy and sadness, for feeling alive. Numbness prevents us from feeling connected. Numbness denies our love for life.

Also for many of us the privilege of being white or economically secure shields us from even seeing the suffering that many of our brothers and sisters endure- and we need to step beyond our comfort zones to feel the pain of their lives.

Feeling the pain of the world is a subversive act because it leads to action. Feeling the sadness puts us in touch with our anger at the way the world is.

My teacher the environmental activist and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy reminds us:

“You can not fall for the ploy of the industrial growth society to pathologize that pain.  . . . It is a measure of your evolution, it is a measure of your humanity, it is a measure of your nobility that you have a heart, mind big enough to see and empathize with the outrage being inflicted on our world and all our relations!”

 Sadness and anger are appropriate, healthy responses to the state of the world. When we do that our activism comes from feelings of love and connection. The scholar and activist  Donnella Meadows  wrote:

“When I really let myself experience the state of the world, my first reaction is bottomless, unutterable sorrow. That moves quickly into outrage. The sorrow I can deal with; the outrage I used to suppress—after all, it might offend someone. Now I use it to give me courage. When I get mad, I have to move. With half-suppressed anger, I tend to swing out and do something impetuous and ignorant. But a fully felt, grounded, familiar anger can move me through a lifetime commitment to make things better.”


So how do we allow ourselves to feel the pain in the world around us and not be overwhelmed, or be paralyzed by despair.

I suggest several possibilities:

1.           Find some like minded people you can share your feelings with; alone it is difficult to bear, but here the cause and the remedy are the same: you are feeling the pain because you feel connected and by sharing that with others, and knowing you are not alone you can turn it into energy.

Allow yourself to sit with someone, or a group, and weep over something you heard or saw in the news, or just share your deep sadness about it.  When we do it together energy is unleashed.

2.    There are visualization and meditation techniques for welcoming in the sadness and have it pass through you. I have learned some from Joanna Macy. You find them on her website- Joanna  Briefly you visualize the bad news as black smoke, breathe it in, pass it through your heart and breathe it out. I sometimes do it listening to the news.

3.You can be part of an activist group, and be engaged in ongoing action, that can give you the context to feel the sadness, weep even, while rooted in action that prevents you from being overwhelmed with despair.

4. You can have a regular spiritual practice, be it meditation, prayer or whatever suits you, and bring those feelings to your practice, allow your practice to be your anchor as you allow yourself to feel compassion for the pain in the world.

5. You can be part of a synagogue or other spiritual community that supports activists and welcomes in their concerns for the world and provides a context to feel the sadness and move forward.

6.    Last week I heard Tim DeChristopher speak.  He spent two years in jail after an act of civil disobedience trying to disrupt the leasing of federal lands to energy corporations. He was asked about despair. He said he often feels the weight of deep despair and that he has learned to use it. He explained: in smooth sailing a weight is a hindrance but in stormy weather it keeps you stable, he uses his despair as an anchor when he is working against very powerful forces that could throw him off course.

I hope that is a helpful set of suggestions.

 Allowing ourselves to feel the connection, the at-one-ment  leads to our taking responsibility for our own actions  -- be they carrying a travelling cup with us so we don’t use throw-away take-out cups, paying careful attention to notice our own unconscious racial bias, or many other small conscious acts that keep us in integrity so that we can do the larger structural change work with authenticity.

The structures and ideology of the society we live in deny the interconnection of being.  Pope Francis articulates what many others have been saying we need a paradigm shift, that puts the common good and cooperation at the heart of our institutions replacing the current paradigm of possession, mastery and manipulation. Our current economic model is based on the assumption of infinite resources and expansion. We only have one Earth, infinite production is not possible, our collective survival requires that we change the model. 

“This is not the time for illusion or evasion; it is time for transformation.” David Orr (2011)

There is no separation between social justice, living in harmony with our environment, and spiritual fulfillment.  "They" are one, and that One begins by a shift in consciousness, recognizing that we live within an ecological system.  And to quote Pope Francis, “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice into debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

And from this change in consciousness, motivated by love, we work to make the structural changes.

 Even if at times we feel pessimistic or in despair, there is work to be done and it does not depend on whether we feel hopeful or hopeless. As Joanna Macy said, nobody asked David on his way to fight Goliath if he was feeling hopeful.

 We are living in a time of great possibility. More and more people every day realize that what we have now is not working.  We need to work with that energy, even with the angry folks who disagree with us.

 Here are a few of the many positive signs.  Engineers and scientists tell us that we have the technology to provide all the power we need with renewable energy.

Stephen Hawken in his book Blessed Unrest documents that there are hundreds of thousands of organizations around the world working for the common good. He likened them to the immune system of an organism protecting, repairing and restoring the organism which is our planet. He wrote,

“When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren't pessimistic, you don't understand data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren't optimistic, you haven't got a pulse.”


There are grass roots efforts in 188 countries working with all connected on line.

The Pope is the most widely followed spiritual leader on the planet speaking to 1.2 billion Catholics. He is a prophet in our time, speaking truth to power, to the President, to the joint session of Congress and to world leaders at the UN.

There is more grass-roots community organizing going on in our country than ever before. Just counting the faith community, 25,000 churches, synagogues, and mosques are involved.  The Black Lives Matter movement has ignited a new generation of activists and has swept across the country.

We know that our current system is unsustainable, we know there will be great changes, we have the responsibility to put our energy, grounded in love and connection, into making what comes next socially just, environmentally sustainable and spiritually fulfilling.


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: