[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,