My newspaper column earlier this month told the story of the civil rights march I participated in Columbia, which was on a hot and humid day. Of course, I was committed to the cause of justice, but I myself, “Was this a good choice?”
The truth was that I was not really in physical shape to do this kind of intense march. I remember saying to myself, after about three hours of marching, “What have I gotten myself into?”
Lunchtime came and I ate a sandwich and felt renewed again. I said to my rabbinic colleagues that it was my turn to carry the Torah at the head of the line alongside the person who carried the American flag. As we returned to formation and the march began, I felt so proud to carry the Torah. I looked ahead of me and beheld the road going straight upward. It was uphill all the way. By the time I got to the top I said, “Someone please take this Torah now.” A black man said, “I would be honored to take it.” I said, “You may have it and thank you.”
The greatest moment was at the end when we gathered in the parking lot and the leaders said, “Rabbi Bloom you did your part. Here is a tee shirt and a poster."Thanks," I answered. We got into the bus and returned to the Marine Corp Reserve Training Center. We all embraced each other, took pictures and spoke of our experiences. I was tired and somewhat grumpy but also proud of what we accomplished that day.
How true it is that the most meaningful things we accomplish are the hardest challenges we take on in life. Why is that so? Is it that human beings are goal oriented? Is there an innate desire to hold onto a principle or value, to test not just our bodies but our spirits as well? If the answer to these two questions is yes then what does that teach us about the tests we face on Yom Kippur which are both physical and spiritual? Our mitzvah is to follow one of our core values which is to seek peace and pursue peace around the world.
No doubt that the civil rights marches over fifty years ago, particularly the one from Selma to Montgomery Alabama, is a good example of the physical and the spiritual coming together. I remember reading Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel, a great Jewish scholar and teacher, who walked in those marches and wrote. “When I walked, I could feel my knees were praying.” I got the point especially when my knees started shaking too.
I am not just speaking about marches for social justice causes or sports marathons but there is more to it than these examples of physical endurance and social values. It is also about people who do things for others and push themselves to the very limit of their physical and emotional endurance yet carry on because they believe in what they do. I have met many people over the years who have faced immeasurable challenges in their personal lives where they could have given up but persevered nevertheless. Folks who faced medical disabilities, and caregivers who endured the stress of caring for their loved ones with such challenges as dementia, stroke, Parkinson’s, cancer or other illnesses that can debilitate a human being. Caregivers, in particular, who care for their spouses, parents or children understand the test they face and yet they carry on often times never letting on in public the suffering they experience and the stress they feel every day of their lives.
I listen to their confessions of guilt regarding their frustrations that they can’t do more for their loved ones. Some experience behind closed doors the anger and even resentment how their lives have been impacted. It is a different kind of march which seems to never end and there is no tee shirt at the end. Many times when the march is over their spouse is gone. Yet, they tell me that there is a feeling of relief and peace that they did the right thing for their loved one. They went the entire way and did their part too.
I fully recognize that the analogy correlating the physical and the spiritual goes to an entirely new level when we see how thousands march for their very lives across Europe. I am sure that the millions of refugees fleeing the Middle East, putting their lives on the line, are clinging to the hope that Europe will be a safe haven for them and their families. These people have left nations which were and continue to be adversaries of Israel. Yet, how do we ignore their suffering? Why does Europe still fail to work together and do their part to deal humanely with this largest refugee crisis since World War Two? Why do gulf Arab states refuse to open their borders to provide safe havens? For many of the refugees their march is a death march and for others it is the last hope for life.
Hasn't the time come when we, not only as a country but we as the Jewish community, and even we as a Temple should help? If not then do we not have something to think about regarding a communal atonement?
On a more personal level, the idea of accomplishing something hard and being prepared to sacrifice our comforts to help others is part and parcel of Yom Kippur. This special day calls upon us to experience physical discomfort by fasting. It is hard and uncomfortable. We want to quit fasting and eat something or drink. Again we see the symbiosis of the physical and spiritual coming together. At the end after it is over and we recover with food and drink we begin to think about what we accomplished and hopefully get over the discomfort and feel some pride in what we did and what we learned about ourselves. Sometimes we learned where we could do better in life. Other times we realized that we saw the goodness in us too.
Realizing when we do good, no matter how hard it is, [elicits] a feeling [that emerges -- omit] of being at peace, despite the pain that accompanies our growth. Is this not part of living? Is this not part of the spirituality that challenges us to think deeply about our moral compass? One rabbi taught, One cannot achieve world peace until one finds an inner peace first. That statement resonates for me because I believe that Yom Kippur is all about the march to find inner peace and that is what atonement is all about.
Just as there is always much to work to do [on -- omit] in our personal lives so too there is much we have accomplished. We have a right on this day to think about the good we do as well. Yom Kippur should provide us with a moment to reflect upon the things which give us pride, even if performing these acts took a lot out of us. One reading from the Mahzor is a new interpretative reading of Avinu Malkeinu.
It is not about a plea to God to help us be better; instead, despite our failings, it is a prayer that reminds God and us that we do good in the world. It is says, “For every act of goodness, let us affirm the good we have done.” “acts of healing and repair, self constraint and self control, generosity and compassion, offering our children love and support, honoring our parents with care and respect, acts of friendship and hospitality, acts of forgiveness and reconciliation, serving others, acting with integrity and honesty, caring for our health and for our loved ones, strengthening our Jewish community, and acts of civi engagement and tikkun olam repairing the world.”
The march for justice or the march for inner peace is often times brutal. The march for life itself as we witness in Europe is equally compelling. Both challenge us to the core of our endurance. Coping with our own issues and helping others can also challenge our morality and even at times our sanity. Let these next 24 hours bring us to a better place even if it is uphill at times. May we emerge with the satisfaction that we did our part for ourselves and for the world too.
It is written the Psalms, "Depart from evil and do good. Seek peace and pursue it"(34:15). The rabbis asked, "How do we pursue peace?" Rabbi Eleazer said, "if someone stays in their own place and keeps silent, how shall that person pursue peace?" The answer is he has to go forth from his place and circle the world and pursue peace. In other words seek peace in your own locale and pursue peace around the world. (The fathers according to rabbi Natan)