The Voice of the Voiceless© - Rosh Hashanah Day 2 2779/2018

The Voice of the Voiceless©Rosh Hashanah Day 2 2779/2018 - Rabbi David BaumCongregation Shaarei Kodesh


Have you ever thought about the sounds we don’t hear anymore?  I was thinking writing a Kaddish for sounds that we do not hear anymore.  I want you to think about sounds we don’t hear anymore

Where do sounds go when they die?

The sound of a rotary telephone…

Sounds like the ding of a typewriter when it gets to the end of the line or how it sounds when it hits the paper…

The sound of the AOL dial up…

Anymore?  Yell one out!

There are some sounds that just do not stand the test of time.  But today, we all heard that there are some sounds that we will never say Kaddish for – like the sound of the shofar.

Rosh Hashanah has many titles – Yom Harat HaOlam, the day the world was created, Yom HaDin – the day of judgement, but in the Torah, it is best known as Yom Teruah.  The mitzvah of today isn't blowing the shofar, it is to hear it, to hear the voices of those who are voiceless during the year.

Today, I want to us to focus on the voices that are present but not heard, the voices of the people in families and communities; the voices of those suffering from addiction, the voices of the senior, and the voice of the child.  These are the sounds that we CAN'T so kaddish for because they are just too important.  These broken sounds represent the broken people in our lives.

As we all know, there are different sounds of the shofar, but perhaps the most powerful sounds are the Shevarim and the Terurah.  Shevarim comes from the word 'shever' which means broken.  The idea of brokenness appears in a number of significant places in Judaism:  We begin the Seder breaking a whole piece of matzah representing those in slavery and the poor. When the bride and groom stand under the wedding canopy, a glass is shattered into pieces to remind them of the brokenness of the world.  Shevarim consists of three broken sounds; teruah consists of 9 broken sounds – a short staccato of sounds.

Who are the Teruah sounds in our lives?

Every year, our community hears more and more of the voices of the broken– and we are starting to listen.

I wanted to share a story with you about a family friend. He has three children.  People ask him about his children, the ones who are married, with successful careers, with children on their own.  But they don't ask about his oldest child, the child who struggles with addiction.  Maybe they don't want to hear:  “She relapsed, she's back in treatment.”  Whenever I see him, I ask him how his children are...all of them, especially her.

One day he said, “Thank you, thank you for asking about her...no one ever does.”

There's a famous Yiddish phrase, Past Nischt roughly translated as “It's not what Jews do.”  Jews aren't addicts, Jews don't abuse women, Jews don't.  Maybe we should stop saying that.  We may be the chosen people, but we aren't perfect.  We are susceptible to the same pitfalls as others.

We have relatives who struggle with addiction...and we have relatives who have died from addiction.  I know I have, and I'm sure, many people in this room have as well.

Last year, we received a call from someone:  Rabbi, I run an AA meeting at a local church, but unfortunately, they are kicking us out, we have nowhere to go, I know that synagogues don't typically do this, but can we have the AA meeting at Shaarei Kodesh.  I asked him, are you Jewish?  Yes, the man replied.  “Well, if you're Jewish, and there are other Jews who struggle with addiction, than synagogues need to house meetings for you, and not just you, but for people of all faiths.”  And since about three years ago, they have met in our space almost weekly, and we added an Al-Anon group, a group for people who have family members who struggle with addiction. 

This year, a synagogue in our community lost a teenager to an overdose and we our Federation and synagogues came together to take action.

One of our congregants got in touch with a friend, Lisa Hillman, who was a well-known development professional in the Jewish community and was also a broadcast journalist.  Through her years, she held a secret from her community, and even her rabbi:  she had a son who struggled with addiction.  She wrote a book about her son Jacob's struggle with addiction called Secret No More: A True Story of Hope for Parents with an Addicted Child.  In the book, she speaks about the shame she felt, but the shame started to lift once she gave voice to her son's struggles and her own.  He wasn't weak, and she was not a bad mother; he was suffering from an illness, and so was she.  Both she and her son Jacob addressed the rabbis in our community, our local Jewish high schools, and an open speaking event.

CSK co-sponsored the event, and the biggest surprise was to see who came.  The room was filled with Jews who drove from all over South Florida, who had never stepped foot on our Federation campus, who probably haven't been in a Jewish setting since their bar or bat mitzvah.  In the Q & A portion of the evening, the audience thanked her profusely for giving them a voice, and many tears were shed.  There were also parents with their kids with them.  I will never forget one mother who stood up and said to Jacob, “Scare my kids straight!”  Lisa's son Jacob answered, “Here's the truth, my friends, the friends who gave me my first drink, my first hit off a joint, my first pill, they are fine now.  But I'm not, because I have a disease.”  It's not a weakness, it's a disease.  There are voices out there that we have to listen to, that we have to acknowledge, that we have to care for, that's the role of a synagogue, that's what we do as a holy congregation.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles, once told me the following story:  a man with a long beard who was about 6'4 and 260 pounds, tattoos up and down his arms and neck, and leather biker vest was standing alone in the sanctuary of his shul.  Rabbi Feinstein looked around, he probably wondered, where's security?  He went up to the man and asked him if he could help him.  He said, “Rabbi, I haven't held a Torah since my bar mitzvah.  I'm in recovery now, I've been sober for 11 months and 1 day.  I feel like I'm becoming whole again I'm ready to come home.  I never thought I'd be able to hold a Torah again Rabbi...can I?”  This man, whom you might immediately run away from if you saw him in a dark alley, sobbed in the rabbi's arms, as they held the Sefer Torah together.

Those struggling with addiction have 12 steps, just like the nine bursts we hear in Teruah;  perhaps we can learn from them.  Redemption and self-improvement are processes rather than miraculous and sudden epiphanies. The short staccato sounds remind us that progress is often measured in small steps, one foot after the other. And the steps remind us that we can always return – that's what this holiday is all about.

I invite you all to Shaarei Kodesh this Shabbat to learn more about the Jewish approach to addiction for our Shabbat Shuvah, a shabbat of returning, as we hear from Rabbi Mark Rotenberg, who started his career at Beit Tesuvah, a Jewish recovery center and synagogue in Los Angeles, and now works as a treatment counselor.  Rabbi Rotenberg will speak about the Unspoken Truth about Addiction in the Jewish Community and how 12-step recovery relates to Judaism.

Who else are we not asking about, who else are we not listening to?

The Shevarim, the three sounds interrupted by pauses can help us hear the voice of those whom we may not hear because they are physically or mentally breaking down.

I asked someone in shul the other day, what voices are present in your life but you don't hear.  He said, “a senior relative, one who has dementia.  At family gatherings, they sit on the side.  They say things here and there, but nobody listens.”  This is our greatest fear – that we will not be heard when we are not the same as we once were.

Paul McCartney wrote these lyrics when he was 16 years old:

When I get older losing my hair
Many years from now
Will you still be sending me a valentine
Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?
If I'd been out till quarter to three
Would you lock the door?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me
When I'm sixty four?

The Mishnah (Pirkei Avot 5:21) says that 60 is the year of old age, 70 fullness of years, 80 is the year of strength, 90 one is bent over, and 100, the Mishnah says that one is as good as dead and completely gone from the world.  I think the song, and the Mishnah, probably needs a little updating.  We are living longer than we used to, it's not uncommon to live until 94, and couple of weeks ago, we celebrated one of our congregant's 100th birthday and he serenaded us to a beautiful rendition of Young At Heart.

But living longer has it's challenges.

We begin our high holiday season prayer liturgy on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah with the Selichot service.  It’s in that service that we the following:

שְׁמַע קוֹלֵנוּ יְיָ אֱ-לֹֹהֵינוּ חוּס וְרַחֵם עָלֵינוּ וְקַבֵּל בְּרַחֲמִים וּבְרָצוֹן אֶת־תְּפִלָּתֵנוּ: . אַל תַּשְׁלִיכֵנוּ מִלְּפָנֶיךָ וְרוּחַ קָדְשְׁךָ אַל תִּקַּח מִמֶּנוּ: אַל תַּשְׁלִיכֵנוּ לְעֵת זִקְנָה כִּכְלוֹת כֹּחֵנוּ אַל תַּעַזְבֵנוּ:

Hear our voice, Adonai our God, be kind, and have compassion for us.  Willingly and lovingly accept our prayer.  Do not cast us away from You; to not take Your holy presence from us, do not cast us away as we grow old; do not desert us as our strength diminishes.”

There's a famous passage in the Talmud about the two sets of the tablets of the Ten Commandments and they are related to these high holidays.  The first set of Tablets, carved by God, were destroyed by Moses when he saw the people sinning, the second set were carved by Moses.  In the Talmud, Rav Yosef told us where the broken set were placed:  “The whole Tablets and the broken tablets were placed in the holy ark together. From here we learn that we treat a scholar who has forgotten his learning with time with respect.

The shofar reminds us to give voice and dignity to our seniors, especially those who are diminished from what they once were.

This year, I think about an empty seat in our sanctuary.  Marilyn Kaye sat in that seat almost every Shabbat and holiday in my nine years at Shaarei Kodesh.  As she aged, and couldn't drive anymore, our congregants took turns picking her up at home and bringing her to that chair.  As her physical condition worsened, we got her a different chair, the only chair with arm rests in the sanctuary and a cushion for her back.  But this last year, she fell gravely ill.  She had to have a tracheotomy, a procedure that literally takes your voice away.  She was stuck in a hospital bed; a machine breathing for her.  So instead of her coming to shul, the shul came to her.  She would be visited by the young, the kids whom she gave lollipops to on Shabbat; and she was visited by her friends of all different ages.  On her birthday, our Sunshine committee, the committee that helps care for people in our community, surrounded her hospital bed, wearing gowns and masks, with a cake she couldn't eat, but with a smile on her face that lit up the room, and our hearts.  She passed away on Rosh Chodesh Elul, on the cusp of the new year, but she taught us all a lesson:  if someone cannot speak, we must speak for them; if they cannot come to the center, we will bring the center to them.

Finally, we have the Tekiah – the sound that precedes them all.  I like to think of this sound as the sound of our children.

As I was thinking of this theme, of voices present but not heard, I thought about my own voice.  I was so quiet in Middle School.  I went from a private school with a class of 12 to a public school where every class had 30 – 40 students.  It was hard not to get lost in the shuffle.  I rarely raised my hand, and I doubt if my teachers even knew what my voice sounded like.  But my grades were good, and one of my teacher's noticed.  They talked to my parents about putting me in honors classes.  This was during a time when honors classes were not so well sought after by students and parents.  Thankfully, a caring teacher listened to my silent voice, and gave me a voice.

What voices are we ignoring because we cannot hear them?  We often times find it difficult to find the right fit for our oldest son in school.  He needs the right teacher, the right students to be surrounded with.  This year, after a tumultuous first week, our middle son, not as loud as his older brother looked at us and said, “What about my teacher?  Is she right the fit for me?”  It's easy to overlook the quiet children in our lives.

In the book of Kings, we read about Elijah the prophet who was running away from Jezebell who threatened his life.  He hid in a cave...alone.  God came to him and told him to come out and stand outside of the cave.  That's when God passed by Elijah.  There was a great and mighty wind that came that split the mountains and shattered rocks, but God wasn't in the wind;  After the wind—an earthquake shook the very ground he stood on; but the LORD was not in the earthquake.  And After the earthquake came a great fire; but God was not in the fire. And after the fire—a soft murmuring sound – the Kol Demmah Dakkah.  And God was in that voice.

It was the still small voice within, the silent voice, where God is found.

During our high holidays, the main characters are Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar – they are the loudest voices, but there is another voice that we often times ignore, even though he speaks:  Isaac.  Dr. Ora Horn Prouser, a Jewish Bible Scholar, wrote a book called Esau's Blessing.  In the book, she looks at different characters in the Tanach and finds evidence for how the characters we all know struggled with various challenges.  She finds that Esau exhibited symptoms of ADHD, Moses struggled with a speech disorder, Samson struggled with conduct disorders, Hannah and Jonah suffered from depression, Jacob dealt with physical disabilities, and Isaac may have been a person with intellectual disabilities.  She looks at the Akeidah, the story of the binding of Isaac, and notices how he totally trusts his father Abraham.  He is completely passive, like a child with intellectual disabilities whose parents have cared for him and guarded him throughout his life.2

Those voices grow up, and if we listen to them, not only can we learn from them, but they can add to our lives.  This summer, I had the opportunity to visit Kibbutz Kishorit, located in the Western Galilee.  It is a kibbutz that serves as home for life for adults with special needs.
Kishorit members live full, independent lives, and mature and grow old with dignity.

It is one of the most inspiring places in all of Israel, and I'm not exaggerating.  The kibbutz is built on the concept that each person can give back to the community in their own way.  There are about 175 residents with disabilities who live and work side by side with non-disabled residents.  The special needs residents learn how to define themselves through their capabilities - not through their illness: In keeping with kibbutz principles, each person contributes according to his abilities and receives according to his or her needs.

One of the residents with special needs had trouble interacting with other adults.  Every time this person was with others, they ended up harming others and themselves, but the young man was calm and nurturing with animals.  So they started raising puppies, schnauzers and dachshunds, and he started training them.  The program has grown and now the puppies are winning contests all over the world.  I saw with my own eyes the rooms filled with trophies from contests from all over the world.


The kibbutz houses a communications center that produces a monthly television show for mainstream Israeli TV, a therapeutic riding stable, an organic vegetable garden, a bakery, a free-range egg farm that sells 500,000 eggs annually, the largest organic goat dairy in Israel which produces 500,000 liters of goat milk, a cheese factory, a vineyard and a winery.

We may think it is the people with disabilities who benefit most from the kibbutz, but it's actually the people who work there without disabilities, who hear the voices of those who had been voiceless and looked over all their lives.  And perhaps we too can grow by hearing their voices, and making them an integral part of our lives.  We hope you can join us on Feb 1 to hear about an incredible place in Israel called Aleh Negev, a village for special needs children and adults, one of many Jewish National Fund projects.

This year, we heard the voice of the voiceless, and we listened:

The voice of the teens from Parkland, young victims of gun violence...
The voice of the victims of sexual abuse from the Catholic church...
The voice of young women like Aly Raisman sexually abused by coaches...
The voices of women who faced harassment who raised their voices with a hashtag #metoo...
The voice of the children separated from their families when they came to this country seeking refuge...

The final voice is the Tekiah Gedolah – the voice that represents all the future voices that we will hear this year.  It reminds us that we are here to give voice to the voiceless, both within our homes and in the world.

That's what this time of year is all about – giving voice to the voiceless, helping the broken people become whole, because when we make others whole, we make ourselves whole.  May we all find ourselves, our own Avodah, our holy work by helping others, and may we all find God this year in the voices of the voiceless.




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