Yom Kippur 5772: The Bull of Ba’al

Note: “The Bull of Ba’al” was my working title, not one that I used on Yom Kippur.  It’s inspired by this graphic that was posted on Facebook around the time that Occupy Wall Street hit the national news, about a week before Yom Kippur.

Actually, the Golden Calf story took place at the base of Mt. Sinai, not in Canaan.  Ba’al was one of the principle deities of Canaan, and there would have been nothing wrong with Canaanites worshipping him; but for Israelites it meant they were forsaking principles that they had just agreed to.

Kol Nidrey 5772

My cousin Rachel Gordon sometimes comes to spend Yom Kippur with us.  This year, feeling rather overwhelmed about being in graduate school, she decided to stay in Boston.

But instead of having a low-key day, she’s now one of the organizers of the Occupy Boston Kol Nidrey Service.

Our congregant Eli Gottlieb was at Occupy Boston a couple days ago.  I sent him the link yesterday to the Kol Nidrey service my cousin’s organizing, and he wrote back saying, “Wow, thanks for the link to the service.”

He’s also written a very cogent summary of the demands of the Occupy movement: Money shouldn’t be allowed to control the political process, and human values — and the worth of human beings — need to be put front and center in a way that the alliance of money and political power has subverted.

I noticed congregant Emma Potik, and Trojan Barry Goldman, in videos (here too) released by the Occupy Albany “General Assembly” — that is, the group of people who showed up last Sunday and talked about what to do — and I contacted them each for their perspective on the process and the results here in Albany.

BTW, there’s a sit-in at the State Capitol planned for 2pm tomorrow, and the next General Assembly will be at the Grand Street Community Arts Center on Sunday at 5.  [Note on October 13:  3rd General Assembly Sunday October 16, 5-9pm, same place.]

Our congregant Abby Lublin was in NYC last weekend with Occupy Wall Streetnot getting arrested.  In addition to giving me much insight about the encampment there, she mentioned that protests are springing up all over, and not only in big places.

So I went to look.  And I’ve been watching the numbers grow on the OccupyTogether website — from less than 300 cities checking in on Wednesday morning, to around a thousand, worldwide, by tonight.  [About 1,650 by tonight, 13 Oct 2011.]  Not all of them have actions planned, but the growth in 3 days is amazing.  Viral.  (And I mean that in the best possible way.)

When I saw that there’s a group in Duluth, MN, where my activist aunt lives, I emailed her and suggested that she sign up.  Which she did.

There are people checking into “Occupy Together” from Tel Aviv/YafoJerusalemCairo, Amman, BeirutDamascusBaghdad, Tehran, Riyadh Saudi Arabia, San’a Yemen, Kabul Afghanistan, Benghazi and Tripoli in Libya.  [Note: By the end of Yom Kippur, none of these were on the map other than Tel Aviv/Yafo, Jerusaem, and Cairo.  If you search by city name on the Occupy Together Meetup website, you get ambiguous results.  Beirut has “one occupier” but still doesn’t show up on the map.]

And TroySchenectadySaratoga, Glens Falls, Whitehall.  Grand Forks, ND, and Sioux Falls, SD.

When our congregant Ben Godgart told me a little bit about his encounters with the Israeli tent-camp protesters over the summer, I asked him for the words to some of the protests and chants he’d heard.  So he checked in with friends over Facebook and got the results to me the next day.

This is the most amazing thing I have ever seen in my lifetime in my own country.  The generation driving these protests has access to a personal broadcast and communication technology that has never existed before.  They — and I — are tech-savvy.  This movement, like the Israeli tent encampments and the Arab Spring, are driven by the availability of instant, world-wide communication.  Not just in terms of calling people together and getting the word out about what’s happening, but also in sharing best practices and networking.

But they didn’t pull this out of thin air.

I’m too young to have experienced the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  I wasn’t around at the creation of the State of Israel.  Women have had the vote for nearly twice my lifetime.

But I remember Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Takhrir Square, the tent encampments in Israel over the summer.

All of these have added up, along with the organizing and process lessons of feminism and the environmental movement and probably plenty of others that I haven’t thought of.

And now I will say, “I remember when it began at Liberty Plaza.”  It’s like watching the first human step onto the moon when I was little.

It started in July with a webpage (probably Tweets and Facebook too, but this is what I know about).  It was posted by a group called AdBusters.  It said:


Just the the Montgomery Bus Boycott, nobody knew at the beginning what would happen.  Nobody knows how long it will last.  Or who will emerge as leaders.  But this thing has legs.

In 3 sentences, this is what I think is going on:

People are standing up with the demand that the value and dignity of human beings be put front and center in political and economic policy discussions, from where it has been absent.  They recognize that multi-national corporate America has the best political process that money can buy.  We, the people, are relegated to being their “consumer groups” or “party bases,” our job being to support those powers with our money and our votes.

On this day on which we confront our highest standards and our most profound truths, it is fitting that we look at this movement which is unfolding around us hourly, and see what truths it has for us.

Because we find Jewish values not only in the ordinary and everyday but in the extraordinary as well.  We struggle with how to bring the holy and the ordinary together — how to live out our ideals in the everydayness of every day, but also in the out-of-the-ordinary moments of great possibility.  So I want to see how the values of Yom Kippur mirror the values of this movement.

1) a  כל נדרי/Kol Nidrey is about the power of words to shape our future.

  • It calls us to consider very carefully what we commit ourselves to, before we say it out loud.
  • It affirms that we can, indeed, shape the future through words which are linked to deeds.
  • It challenges us to choose our words wisely.
  • It reminds us that words are the strongest, most powerful tools that we have.

I pray that the profound commitment to non-violence on their part that we have witnessed continues.  That the commitment to words rather than blows remains.

But it’s not just about words.  It’s about words being put into action.

2) The Reform Torah reading is NitzavimNitzav/נצב is a very special word. It doesn’t just mean “stand.” It means “stand in relationship.” To each other, to our whole selves, to our environment, to our most deeply-held principles.  To be a whole person, in a holistic relationship with our surroundings, wholly present to those we meet.

It’s very hard to be נצבים/nitzavim in huge groups.  It’s hard to stand in true relationship to an abstract group.  Our own Jewish history is the history of staying small and local, even as we were scattered and populated continents around the world.  It’s a model that’s being followed in the “OccupyTogether” movement, as local responses spring up all over the world.

Wed morning, the website where people can register had about 280 cities, mostly in the US. By that afternoon, over 300.  By midnight, over 400.  Thursday morning — 541 cities

Thursday noon — 600, including Tel Aviv/Yafo, Damascus, Baghdad, and Cairo.  Troy, Saratoga, Albany … and Whitehall!  By Thursday evening:  over 780, and every continent except Antarctica. By this afternoon, pushing a thousand, including Riyadh Saudi Arabia, Sana’a Yemen, Benghazi and Tripoli, Libya, and Kabul. [By Saturday night, however, Damascus, Baghdad, Riyadh, Sana’a, Benghazi, Tripoli, and Kabul were gone.]

But also Schenectady, Glens Falls, Utica, Syracuse, Oneonta, Buffalo.

That doesn’t mean that something is happening everywhere.  Or that it’s more than a street protest.  But some places, people are meeting each other, organizing, educating.

In NYC and Boston and the other larger encampments, functioning communities are developing.  It’s been 3 weeks today.  Abby Lublin described how, when it starts to rain, people run over and hold big umbrellas over the media area, since structures or anything strung from the trees are forbidden.  There’s an understanding that getting the word out is essential to what they’re doing.  After an “action” people gravitate to the kitchen, knowing that people need to be fed.  As evening comes people turn to clean-up.  Volunteers distribute dry socks.

Eli Gottlieb reported from Boston:

The funny thing is, most of the actual functions of the occupation camp seem to mostly run themselves pretty well. Everyone knows that the people working on the Legal, Food, Medical, and Logistical working-groups are actually enabling the whole operation, so nobody interferes with them…

Except the anarchists, who eventually blocked so many proposals at General Assembly that they were told to go away and form an Anarchists’ Caucus if they only wanted to block everything. They formed one.   (Eli Gottlieb 10/6/11)

Any community that can successfully insist that the Anarchists organize is really doing something amazing!

But it’s a pretty big tent.  Emma Potik told me of a man at the first Albany General Assembly who hung around for an hour before he spoke.  “I’m a conservative, I’m a capitalist, I believe in capitalism,” he said, “but I don’t believe in the losses being socialized and the profits being privatized.”  Which is, incidentally, quoting Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, who addressed Occupy Wall Street earlier this week.

Watching Stiglitz speak was my first experience with what’s come to be called The People’s Microphone: since amplified voices are banned, someone who needs to get people’s attention and speak begins by calling “Mic check!” which is then repeated by the people who can hear it.  Everything that is said is spoken in short phrases, repeated aloud by the listeners, and in that way transmitted to the whole group.

Words are this movement’s most basic tool, but at the same time, at its best, people are modelling what they want.  It’s a model city, a model society, a model decision-making process, and a model democracy that include anarchists and socialists and capitalists.

Yes, it’s disproportionately young people.  Young white people, though that’s shifting.   Young white people with the economic and existential security to take risks.  And also, as young people, they are more likely to have the freedom from responsibilities that allows them to take bigger risks — skipping work or school, getting arrested, living outside.  Frankly, they have the physical stamina to do things that I couldn’t do anymore, like staying up till 1 in the morning strategizing and educating.  And they have fewer years of disappointment and failed expectations to hold them back.

They also often have less experience in facilitating, strategizing, organizing.  They’ve had less time to learn people-skills.  Patience and long-term thinking isn’t necessarily as ingrained as it may be later.

Of course, they may have more experience, skills, and patience than many people no matter how old they are, too!  I’m not trying to paint everyone with one brush.

And the fact is, from what I’m seen and heard, there is an incredible understanding among protesters (of all ages) that they must learn, must educate themselves and each other, must not fall into the pitfalls that can turn a united movement into “us against them” fragments.

3) The YK morning Haftarah is all about social justice (see esp. Isaiah chapter 58) and it calls on us to “Cry aloud!” on behalf of this justice.  It insists that God is on the side of the poor, the miserable, the hungry, the homeless, those who aren’t getting a fair shake from their society.  In Rabbi Shefa Gold’s translation:

Cry out! Make a stink for God’s sake!
Let the people of this country of yours know
that they’re making a big mistake,
They’re your people!

In other words, convert the introspection of Yom Kippur into action in the world.

And that’s exactly what these communities are doing.  But not only in terms of “crying aloud” to the outside.  One of the principles is that the gatherings need to be spaces where everybody’s voice is heard, where all points of view are present.  There’s an honest attempt to put this into practice.  And that means that even a lone individual, if they can stick to their guns, can insist that something not be adopted by the group if it violates deeply-held core principles.

For instance:

The final adoption of the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City — the first official document to come out of Occupy Wall Street — was held up while a group of 5 people of color, all South Asians,  insisted that it not gloss over the very real oppression and marginalization that they experience every day.  They were pressured to stand down.  But they didn’t.  And in the end, they made an important difference in the wording of the opening paragraphs. [Two accounts here and here written by two of the women.  Well worth reading.]

Here in Albany, Emma spoke to me about the extent to which there was shared power and meaningful talk.  No grandstanding about “everybody’s going to have a voice,” everybody just has a voice.  No “We’ll take your feedback under advisement,” your feedback IS the advisement.

It was messy, but so are the debates of Congress or any other parliamentary body.  The messiness is sometimes in the back room, where you can’t see it.

Here, you don’t feel like decisions are being made without you.  You don’t feel like you’re wasting your time by being there.  Even if it takes longer, the time that you spend there is more valuable.

Nitzavim again:

אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:  רָאשֵׁיכֶם שִׁבְטֵיכֶם, זִקְנֵיכֶם וְשֹׁטְרֵיכֶם, כֹּל, אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל.  י טַפְּכֶם נְשֵׁיכֶם–וְגֵרְךָ, אֲשֶׁר בְּקֶרֶב מַחֲנֶיךָ:  מֵחֹטֵב עֵצֶיךָ, עַד שֹׁאֵב מֵימֶיךָ.  יא לְעָבְרְךָ, בִּבְרִית יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ–וּבְאָלָתוֹ:  אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כֹּרֵת עִמְּךָ הַיּוֹם.  יב לְמַעַן הָקִים-אֹתְךָ הַיּוֹם לוֹ לְעָם, וְהוּא יִהְיֶה-לְּךָ לֵאלֹהִים–כַּאֲשֶׁר, דִּבֶּר-לָךְ; וְכַאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ, לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב.

“You are gathered — every one of you” — and it goes on to list the people who serve the needs of others as well as the leaders and the ordinary “Jew in the pew.”

You an also translate that a bit creatively, as “You, yourself, are complete as you נצב/nitzav here, as you engage.”  All of you is here.  You bring your whole self.

And what is the purpose?  לְעָבְרְךָ בִּבְרִית/l’ov-r’cha biv’rit To enter and establish a covenant.  A covenant with God, yes; with the eternal values that, as a people, we have pledged to put  into practice in the world.  Therefore, it is also a covenant with each other.  A covenant of mutual responsibility.  In other words, a social contract.

This contract was made just before the people took on the responsibility of governing themselves and others, as they prepared to cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan.

But 40 years before, we stood at Mount Sinai, our tradition tells us, and said, “Everything that the Eternal has said, we will do and we will listen!”  We made a ברית/brit there with God, pledged ourselves to uphold eternal values.

It as a pact of mutual responsibility.  We’ve been working out the terms of our responsibilities ever since, an on-going work.  Isaiah told us some of what we have to do, and not do.  Kol Nidrey reminds us of the incredible power of words in shaping our communal and individual lives.  The Torah contains a rough draft of our social contract and the prophets insisted that we had to live up to it.  We’ve been fine-tuning it for more than a hundred generations.

But there’s a lot that is as fresh and contemporary as the day it was first spoken:

But while we were still at Mt. Sinai, we got impatient and scared and proceeded to worship the Bull of Ba’al — the golden calf, which was a representation of one of the main deities of the Canaaites — while we were still camped out, occupying Mt. Sinai!

And God lost God’s proverbial temper, and Moses took on/played a spectacular leadership role, and facilitated a reconciliation — mostly by getting God to stand down — and then Moses went back up to find out what the guiding principles were next.  And the story tells us:

God got as close to Moses as was possible — shielding Moses from God’s raw power until God had passed by — and God proclaimed (SING):

ה’ ה’ אל רחום וחנון ארך אפיים ורב חסד ואמת

The Eternal, the Eternal, God compassionate and gracious, patient and full of lovingkindness and truth

נוצר חסד לאלפים

Showing lovingkindness to thousands

נושא עון ופשע וחטאה

Lifting up/carrying away transgression and iniquity and missing-the-mark

ונקה (לא ינקה) …

And clearing…

ויאמר ה’: שלחתי כדברך

.”And the Eternal said: “I have pardoned, according to your words.

[Note:  I obviously didn’t look these quotes up, or I would have noticed that the response , “And the Eternal said: ‘I have pardoned, according to your words,’” is from Numbers 14:20, after another huge communal sin, the refusal to enter the Land of Israel after the report of the spies, resulting in 40 years’ wandering in the desert.  The pardon is referring to God’s stated intention to wipe out the whole people and start over with Moses.  Once again Moses mediates a solution.]

And our rabbis, God bless them, took that and created part of our Kol Nidrey ritual.  In fact, they imagined that Moses went up Mt. Sinai at the beginning of Elul — last month, the month of preparation for Yom Kippur, when we too begin the yearly process of trying to repair our relationships with God and with each other — and 40 days later, he came down, satisfied that the ברית/brit, the covenant was still in effect, that enough of a reconciliation had been effected that God and the Jews could continue to muddle on in partnershiop, into the future.  On the 40th day after the beginning of a new month.  That would be … on the 10th day of the next month, the 10th day of Tishrey.  That’s tonight.  Yom Kippur.

By Yom Kippur, God had gotten to the place where God could say (SING), ויאמר ה’: שלחתי כדברך — “OK, I forgive, in accordance with what you’ve been saying.”

It was a major breach of contract.  Just as the social contract is being breached, big-time, in our country.

As candidate Elizabeth Warren said:

There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own.  Nobody.  You built a factory out there — good for you.

But I want to be clear.  You moved your goods to arket on the roads the rest of uspaid for.  You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate.  You were safe in your facotyr because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for.  You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory…

Now look.  You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea — God bless!  Keep a big hunk of it.  But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

People want their democracy and their economy back, and we’ve known for some time, as a society, that something is terribly wrong.

Dylan Ratigan, of MSNBC, identified this as the “third wave.”  The first was the energy that went into the Tea Party — which now supports the rights of the very rich.

The second wave was the energy created during the campaign of Barack Obama, who hasn’t transformed America as so many hoped he would.

Finding the balance as we go forward is a constant challenge.  Have you seen the image of the dancer balanced on the back of the Wall Street Bull?

A note: Capitalism per se is not the problem, from a Jewish point of view.  We were created with an urge to get, to make, to create, and this is essential to what makes us human.  But it  causes destruction when it is out of balance with our urge to care for, to respect, and to be relationship with.

Capitalism is based on the premise that it’s your responsibility to take care of yourself.

Socialism is based on the premise that it’s our responsibility to take care of each other.

Rabbi Hillel got it into 10 words, nearly 2,000 years ago:

If I’m not responsible for taking care of myself, who is?      אם אין אני לי מי לי/Im eyn ani li mi li?

And if I don’t take any responsibility for others, what have I become?       וכשאני לאצמי מה אני/Uch-sheh-ani l’atsmi, mah ani?

And he left us with the challenge:   אם לא עכשיו אמתי/Im lo ach-shav, eymatai?????    If not now, WHEN?

If not now, when 1% of Americans own over 40% of American wealth and the bottom 80%, which is probably every one of us in this room, make do with sharing only 7%, then when?

[Note: This was one of those moments where I was unconscious of my own privilege.  According to the US Census Bureau, the cutoff for that upper 20% is around $100,000 yearly income per household.  Leo and Martha Levy corrected me, and I apologized and gave the correct information the next day.  I can’t find the info that I found before — will link if I do.]

If not now, when 94% of the time, the candidate who raises the most money wins the election — regardless of rhetoric, age, party, demographics  — and most of that money doesn’t come from individual voters, then when?

[I have since seen somewhat lower percentages elsewhere.  But the problem’s there.]

If not now, when the income and wealth gap is greater than it has been at any time since the Great Depression — then when?

Barry Goldman, a Jewish Trojan who’s getting involved a bit in the life of this congregation, wrote a couple days ago:

I don’t want to occupy Wall Street, I want, along with my neighbors to once again fully occupy the city I call home, Troy.

Occupy.  Live there.  Hold the space, as Abby Lublin said to me.  Fill it, explore it, keep it available for yourself and others.  But it also means to hold it in קדושה/k’dushah, in holiness: make it safe space for all who enter.  Make living out your best values your daily practice here.

So I say … Occupy Mt. Sinai!  Live there.  Hold the space.  Fill it, explore it, keep it available. Honor its meanings and teachings: both the ones it has come to represent, and the actual ones you learn from your experience and from other human beings (or beings in general) there.  Learn to live these teachings.

[At this point I came down off the bimah/platform, turned off my lapel mic, took a deep breath, and called:]

Mic check!

[A couple of people echoed, and by the next line the echoed response was very loud, and the congregation continued to echo to the end.]

You’re going to have to speak loudly

so the people downstairs can hear!




Which I’m translating this year as:

When the dust settles,

whenever that may be

and whatever that may look like,

May what comes of this, and what endures,

be good for all of us.