Isaac L. Peretz (1852–1915) was a writer from Poland, considered one of the greats of 20th-century Yiddish literature. One of his most famous works is the short story “Bontshe Shvayg” (“Bontsche the Silent”):
On earth, during his life, Bontsha was never celebrated and never celebrated anyone else. He walked through life completely silent. “In silence he was born, in silence he lived, and in silence he died and – in even vaster silence he was put in the ground. ” To his great surprise when he entered into heaven he was met with fanfare fit for a king. Abraham embraced him, offered him a throne and a crown. The welcome was more than any person could imagine and it was all done before he had the chance to be judged for his actions on earth. With all of the singing angels encircling him and another hug from Abraham, he froze and again became silent.
Just then, he heard another voice, one that did not bring sweet sounds to his ears. This time, the Prosecutor entered and shut down the party. The Defender says he never complained and was lonely all his life. The Prosecutor rebuts that he was silent all his life, silent with a ravingly drunk father who dragged him out of his house in the snow. Begged for food only with his eyes and even remained silent on his own behalf when he was thrown in jail. Back and forth the Prosecutor and Defender listed the events of his life. As the proceedings seemed to draw to a close, Bontsha began to tremble. Then the Judge rose from his chair and offered words in a resplendent voice, a calming voice, a voice of pure love. Bontsha wept sweet tears as the Judge said, “My child, you have always suffered, and you have kept silent. In that world, no one understood you and you did not understand yourself. You never understood your sleeping strength. In Paradise, the world of truth, you will be rewarded. Because of your silence, the Judge cannot pass judgement or offer reward. What is it that you would like?” Bontsha responds, really? The Judge says, really. Bontsha says, really? The Judge says, really, what is it that you want in Paradise? The Prosecutor and the Defender wait for the silent man to speak. Bontsha finally has the courage to lift his eyes and make his request. “Every day for breakfast, all I want is a hot roll with butter.”
No silence had ever been as silent as that moment. No breath, no exhale, only silence. In that moment, the Prosecutor laughs a wickedly, bitter laugh.
This story serves as a warning that if we fail to speak time after time, when it is truly important we won’t know for what to ask.
The Talmud (Shabbat 54b) teaches,
כל מי שאפשר למחות לאנשי ביתו ולא מיחה נתפס על אנשי ביתו באנשי עירו נתפס על אנשי עירו בכל העולם כולו נתפס על כל העולם כולו
If you see wrongdoing by a member of your household and you do not protest – you are held accountable. And so it is in relation to the members of your city. And so it is in relation to the world.
As Jews we are held accountable in ever-widening circles of responsibility to rebuke transgressors within our homes, in our country, in our world. One medieval commentator teaches that we must voice hard truths even to those with great power, for “the whole people are punished for the sins of the king if they do not protest the king’s actions to him.”
Unlike Bontsha, today I speak words of protest, joining around a hundred of my Reform rabbinic colleagues across the nation in fulfillment of our sacred obligation. For the first time in recent history, Reform rabbis will be sharing the same message compiled by Rabbi Elka Abrahamson, Rabbi Judy Shanks, and many others in synagogues, Hillels, and community centers across the country. We are saying that we will not be silent. We, like the prophets before us, draw from the deepest wisdom of our tradition to deliver a stern warning against complacency — and an impassioned call for action. We call on you to rise up and say in thousands of ways, every day, as proud Jews and proud Americans:
You cannot dehumanize, degrade, and stigmatize whole categories of people in this nation. Every Jew, every Muslim, every gay, transgender, disabled, black, brown, white, woman, man and child is beloved of God and precious in the Holy One’s sight. We the people, all the people, are created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of the Divine.
Rosh Hashanah is Yom Teruah, the Day of sounding the Shofar, whose piercing tones sound an alarm, express our fears, and especially in these times compel us to respond with a resounding call for justice.
The shofar blasts…
Tekiah — The Sound of Certainty
As rabbis we are, from sea to shining sea, speaking to our congregations to declare in unison: acts of hatred, intimidation, and divisiveness will not be tolerated in the United States. We stand upon the shoulders of the sages, poets, and rabbis in every generation who fought for freedom. We speak in memory of every Jew and in memory of all people who tragically and senselessly lost their lives at the hands of evil oppressors. We call on our political leaders; progressives and conservatives alike, to rigorously uphold the values brilliantly articulated in the founding documents of our country, the “immortal declaration” that all [men] people are created equal. We call on every elected leader to responsibly represent our country’s history and advance its noble visions of tolerance. On this first day of the New Year we are “Proclaiming liberty throughout all the land,” not just words on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, as a direct quote from the Torah in Leviticus. (Lev 25:10).
The shofar blasts a second time…
Shvarim — The Sound of Brokenness
Something crumbled inside me when I watched the televised images of Charlottesville’s beautiful streets filled with messages of hate. The wound reopened when a few miles from our homes protestors from the right and left clashed violently in Berkeley. How many of you had the same reaction? How much more vandalism? how many clashes? which other cities? We must not accept some warped version of a “new-normal” in the form of racism and anti-Semitism. Let us never grow numb to the brokenness, but let our pain fuel our vows to respond. We can do so with peaceful protests like ours in Burlingame a few weeks ago. And by building alliances and by speaking in unison with other minorities and faith communities. Neither silence nor complacency nor waiting anxiously for the next damaging event are options. Not for us. Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, possessed a rare understanding of utter brokenness. His words sound a warning to us today, he said,
We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor — never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor — never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.
May we never be neutral, never silent in the face of threats or of discrimination toward anyone. As the Psalmist says, Let us interfere as healers of the broken[hearted], and [be the] binders of their wounds.
The shofar blasts a third time…
Truah — The Sound of Urgency
The events of these simmering weeks are a wake-up call to our Jewish community. Racism is wrong whether it seeps into explicit anti-Semitism or not. The Talmud teaches that God created us all from the first Adam so that no human being could ever say, “my lineage is greater than yours.” But just in case we thought the white supremacists were after someone else, or that the Confederate flag has nothing to do with modern day Nazi sympathizers, or that we were somehow safe in the fact that most — but certainly not all — Jews in America are white. Those fiery torches illuminated another truth, one we learn and forget only to learn again this day: if one minority group’s rights are threatened, we are all threatened. As Martin Luther King taught us, “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny,” whether we are the least powerful or the most powerful person in our world.
On this Rosh Hashanah, through this sermon, I join our destiny with Reform Rabbis around the country who rise to the call of pursuing justice. We are joining our voices with the Reform Movement through a document called the Brit Olam – Covenant with our World. By signing the Brit Olam we are committing to advocating for the powerless to those in positions of power to create, support, and enforce just policies.
In our congregation, we are continuing our work of reducing Hunger and Homelessness through Home and Hope and a Mitzvah Day in conjunction with CALL Primrose in November. We are a founding member of the Muslim-Jewish Connection which promotes deep relationships between Jews and Muslims on the peninsula so that we can stand up with and stand for one another. We are also working on issues related to the environment, economic disparity, anti-bias/Anti-Semitism, and vulnerable communities. We are also joining our voices with other Reform California to join with congregations across the state to stand up for initiatives in the California legislature. This is just the beginning. Our congregation has made Tikkun Olam a priority this year and we are counting on you to take part in all the ways you can.
The Shofar blasts a final time…
Tekiah Gdolah — The Endless Pursuit of Justice
Tzedek tzedek tirdof the Torah admonishes: “Justice, justice you shall pursue, so that you may live and inherit the land which I, God, give to you.” Our sacred text reminds us that for a community truly to inherit its place in the world, thoughtful leaders at every level must be dedicated to equality and to unity. Every community relies on passionate and engaged citizens. It relies on you to be insistent advocates for tolerance and enduring kindness between the diverse peoples of our nation. To pursue justice is to create a society that protects every citizen. Let us be relentless, tireless builders of that society here, now – in this New Year.
Today, we decide that we will not risk being Silent Bontsha; we will not pass through life as shadows.