(This was delivered at a HIAS event in DC on September 24, 2019. The event was co-sponsored by several congregations, including the one I serve, Machar.)
I’d like to ask you this question: What can we do when our government does something unforgivable?
We are here to support refugees in 5780 — and in all years. Many of us are here because our families were once refugees. Without the protections this country used to give to those fleeing persecution, without the chance to prosper the United States once gave the oppressed and downtrodden, many of us would not be here. I know I would likely not be here: my great-grandfather would probably have been dragged into the Czar’s army, consumed like so many other young men by war, revolution, or starvation.
But today, our government rejects the very best of the American character, enacting upon others the very worst of its treatment of the oppressed, rejecting them and consigning them to lives of despair because of who they are.
And so I ask you to think about the question: What are we to do when our government, with little more than the stroke of a pen, commits acts of callousness, cruelty, and discrimination? When it does so in our names? What forgiveness can there be for the suffering of millions imposed in our names?
Jewish tradition tells us that when our people transgress, even if we ourselves have not committed the same offense, we are responsible. The Al Cheit that many will recite during the High Holidays says, over and over, al cheit she-chatanu — for the sin we have sinned — even if no one in the room has committed the listed sins. The Vidui — the confessional recited by many on Yom Kippur — has each member of the community take upon themselves the misdeeds of others. The Vidui reminds us v’hirshanu — we have caused others to do evil.
We may not be guilty, but we are all responsible.
We do not have the luxury of saying “not in my name” or even “not my president.” The High Holidays remind us: say what you must. Disapprove of what you will. It matters not, for our country’s cruelty is upon all our heads. Fixing what we can is upon all our shoulders.
What can we do when our government commits unforgivable acts of cruelty?
What can we do?
Millennia-old Jewish wisdom’s answer is simple: we own this. We may not be guilty, but we are responsible. We must treat our government’s transgressions as our own and do what we can to atone — even if there can be no forgiveness.
We must take action to bring love where there has been cruelty. We must shout, pitchu li shaarei tzedek — open up the gates of righteousness for me — to make it clear to all our representatives that we, as a country, must. Do. Better. For refugees, this means fighting to keep our country’s doors open. Win or lose that fight, opening the gates of righteousness means supporting refugees in our communities. It means showing true love of the stranger in our land so that they are strangers no longer, but are truly our own.
Whether we have transgressed, these transgressions are ours. And so, I ask that you resolve this with me, in the spirit of tochekha, of loving rebuke:
In 5780, may we act to correct our society and our government. May we speak out against the cruelty of 5779. May we act to open the doors to refugees. May we act to make refugees truly our own people. May we act to straighten our path and our nation’s path. And may we thus atone — even if we might not be forgiven — so that justice and kindness light our path forward and guide our future.
And let us say together, Amen.