Syria, Power of Speech, Importance of Human Dignity

emma-mainIntroduction (Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman)
We are here tonight to measure ourselves against a cosmic yardstick as our planet has turned once more around the sun. We are here to notice how we have been buffeted, dented, shaped, polished by the world this year, and to notice the dimensions of the imprint that we have left in the world this time around.
While we stand here tonight, our world wrestles with the very questions that we ask these yamim noraim. Who shall live and who shall die? Who by fire? Who by the sword? Who shall find rest? And who shall wander with no refuge?
It is all about us, and it is not about us at all.
For the Syrian people, the answers are not only in God’s hands, but in ours as well. Tonight we may compare ourselves to clay, but we are also the potters. 
At the end of a week of high-stakes global diplomacy, political maneuvering, anticipatory vote-counting, hope, cynicism, and more Syrians slaughtered, we are here tonight to ask who we are, standing in relation. What is our part in Syria? Who are the Syrians to us?
Eleven year old Omar said, “Once I was asleep and I woke up because I heard the shells fall next to our house. I was so scared my tongue was frozen. I couldn’t even talk.”
Wael, age sixteen, said “I have seen children slaughtered. I don’t think I’ll ever be OK again.” Each of the two million refugees and the millions who remain in Syria carries their own horrors.
On Yom Kippur, we must turn inward but we may not turn away. Together, tonight, we invite this community to turn towards our fellow human beings in Syria. We are rabbis, not policy experts, and we will not stray into areas beyond our experience. We are not here to advocate for any particular strategy of intervention, but we know that we cannot just stand by when a leader unleashes the intolerable and immoral horror of chemical weapons on his citizens. We standing here tonight cannot implement American foreign policy, but we must take responsibility for what we can do:
Tonight we are here to affirm, with heaven and earth our witnesses, that human dignity is paramount and that our words matter.
ALLEN-MORRISHuman Dignity is Paramount (Rabbi Morris Allen)
Jan Karski was a Polish Catholic resistance fighter during the Second World War. A memorial to him sits in Warsaw outside the new Jewish Museum. I wondered why it was there. What I learned was that he was a witness, who saw Jews being put on cattle cars, who saw the killings, and who told the truth.
On July 28, 1943, 70 years ago, this 29-year old met with President Roosevelt in the Oval Office. According to historical documents, he became the first Polish resistance fighter to personally tell the President of the United States about the tragedy occurring in and around Poland and its impact on Polish Jewry. He would share information about the heroic battles fought by the Jews inside the Warsaw ghetto, and would tell him about extermination camps in Poland—most specifically Belzec, which he had surreptitiously seen. It is reported that during that July 1943 meeting with President Roosevelt, the President inquired about the condition of horses in Poland during the war.
In 1995, Karski was asked how it was possible that so many Jews were killed and no one intervened to stop the genocide. He said:
It was easy for the Nazis to kill Jews, because they did it. The allies considered it impossible and too costly to rescue the Jews, because they didn’t do it. The Jews were abandoned by all governments, church hierarchies and societies, but thousands of Jews survived because thousands of individuals in Poland, France, Belgium, Denmark, and Holland helped to save Jews. Now, every government and church says, “We tried to help the Jews,” because they are ashamed, they want to keep their reputations … No one did enough.
We speak about Jan Karski tonight because we stand at a critical moment in world affairs, but an even more critical moment in human affairs. For while we seemingly have avoided American bombing inside Syria and pray that the stockpile of chemical weapons are truly removed and destroyed, tonight was never going to be about equating the Shoa with the civil war still raging in Syria. But the challenge to the moral fiber of our souls is no less compelling.
Tonight is about us but not simply about us. Tonight we worry about humanity, our real fears, our reluctance to stand firm for human dignity and the value of human life. Karski reminds us of the possibility of acting for the good of humanity. Being a witness demands responsibility. Yet having lived through decades of seemingly endless war, violent pictures streaming onto our TVs and computer screens, we have become inured to scenes of degradation and human debasement. On Yom Kippur we must confront that horrible truth about our society and ourselves and begin to turn away from indifference.
Tonight we offer a different picture of what it means to be fully human standing before the Divine presence.  We come here tonight to be reminded of a truth: life has meaning. We come here tonight to seek the greatness that comes with the embrace of that truth. We already know that we are all so vulnerable to error and to human failings. But the call of this moment is to rise above those failings, not to be defeated by them. It is why over the course of the day we will repeat time and again the al chets and the ashamnus—not because we suffer from short-term memory loss, but because we suffer from long-term indifference. Tonight with the metaphoric books open before the heavenly throne, we are here to uphold the dignity of the human being.
If it were so easy, we wouldn’t need this day at all. But in order to uphold the value of human dignity we have to first confront the painful truth about what it means to be human. Being human means being mortal. So today we first confront the truth that we will die. But humanity was gifted with something that automatically separated us from those horses in Poland. To be human is also to recognize that we are created btzelem elohim, in the image of God. Those two truths, however, live in tension one with the other. All too many people over the centuries delude themselves into thinking that given the divine image with which they were born that they can build their own towers of Babel. That they can ascend to the heavens and transform that image into some God-like eternity. They forget the real truth that ever since Adam, we will all die.
And so once a year, we gather together to publicly confront our mortality. But in doing so with seriousness, we are then left with this question to answer—What indeed will be our legacy? For some, it is simply an economic matter and they work hard all their life to leave something of material value to those who survive them. And there is nothing wrong with that. But it fails the test of greatness to which this night calls us. Tonight reminds us that we are asked to leave something else entirely—a legacy that says we have understood the preciousness of the gift we have been given being created in God’s image, and will thus bequeath to the world, the necessity of defending human dignity through our actions, through our words, and through our works. Yom Kippur asks one profound and purposeful question: How will we be remembered?
But mind you, it is the very fact that we are created btzelem elohim that creates another tension with which we live tonight. Judaism places at the center the following dialectic of God’s plan for humanity. On one hand being created btzelem elohim means we are created with intelligence and with the ability to choose and thus that same intelligence and choice makes us capable of rebelliousness or indifference or possibly sin. Understanding this tension, the rabbis imagined the following conversation between God and the angels prior to the creation of humanity. God turned to the angels assembled around and said “Shall we create humanity in our image?” A group of these angels stepped forward and offered this advice: “Adonai, consider humanity’s potential for evil, they will lie, they will murder, they will be unfaithful, they will create weapons to destroy your world. Don’t go through this plan.” However, the Divine urge to create a human partner was so great that no argument, however honest, was tolerated. The angels continually assaulted God but ultimately they could not dissuade God of God’s plan. So they said, “The earth is the Lord’s – do with as you see fit.”
We are human beings, and we can either through our actions give purpose to God’s creation of humanity or through our actions demonstrate the tragic cynical belief of the angels. Recent events in our world have shown us how difficult it is to stand tall for human dignity. Indeed in the 70 years since the unspeakable truths of the Shoa were shared with then President Roosevelt, we have watched and rationalized away our silence in the face of the killing fields of Cambodia, the Balkans, Rwanda, Tibet, Sudan, Darfur and now Syria.
In a world in which there are no easy answers, there also can be no hiding behind no answer. Yom Kippur reminds us of the first clash regarding human dignity and responsibility. “Where is Abel?“ God calls out to Cain.  The first question ever asked by humanity in Torah is Cain’s response: hashomer achi anochi—Am I my brother’s keeper? Yom Kippur is the resounding answer of yes to that question.  In a world where too many are willing to live with the mark of Cain and the legacy of indifference, Yom Kippur demands of us what Jan Karski understood intuitively—we must serve as witnesses to and as guardians of human dignity, borne out of being created btzelem elohim. That demand is ever-present and so too must our willingness to act. At stake is our humanity. Our rabbis interpreted the verse Adonai tzilcha (Psalms 121:5) in the following way— when we bend down and shirk our responsibility, when our shadow is not present then God’s presence is contracted. When we stand tall and that shadow expands– then both God and humanity are elevated. Tonight, tomorrow and through the rest of the year, our task is to stand tall—to cast the shadow of God’s presence as a result of our actions.
Our Words Matter (Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman)
Tonight of all nights you’re going to say that our words matter? Wasn’t the first thing we did when we got in here annulling all our promises for the year ahead, before we even make them? 
We need Kol Nidre precisely because our words need to matter. In our culture, we spew words everywhere. See you next week. I’ll get to that before I go. I’m sure I’m right about this one. Even these small words, the ones we say without thinking, bind us to action. These nedarim shift reality: what was not required of us before they were uttered is now required. The commitments we make, knowingly or unknowingly, have a life of their own. Over the centuries, our neighbors have wondered if Kol Nidre makes us untrustworthy, lets us out of our commitments, makes us a people who have no responsibility for our words.
On the contrary, Kol Nidre demands that we attach gravity to our words. No utterance can be ignored; we must fulfill even the promises we have forgotten unless they have been annulled. The formula we recited tonight cannot annul our true promises, the ones we undertake wholeheartedly and consciously and of our own volition, the times when we use language to create obligations that set the moral boundaries of our world. Kol Nidre operates on the stray wisps of promises that we have forgotten, reminding us of the power of every utterance.
Our power of language is the essence of being human. We read in Bereshit וַיִּיצֶר יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָאָדָם עָפָר מִן הָאֲדָמָה וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים וַיְהִי הָאָדָם לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה: God created the human being as dust from the earth and blew into our nostrils the breath of life; the human being became a living soul. Targum Unkelos, the Aramaic translation that has accompanied our study of Torah for nearly two millennia, translates nefesh haya here as רוח ממללא, a speaking wind, a talking spirit. The responsibility that we create through speech distinguishes us from any other being. Made in the image of מי שאמר והיה העולם, the one whose speaking brought the world into being, we too create worlds with our words. 
Our human capacity for language has terrifyingly real consequences. Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak teaches in the Talmud: כל המלבין פני חבירו ברבים כאילו שופך דמים Anyone who embarrasses a fellow person in public, it is as if they have shed blood. On Yom Kippur, we revisit and try to repair the moments of the past year when our speaking did grave harm. Our mahzor begins Yom Kippur with Avraham Danziger’s tefillah zakah, a prayer for purity. At its core is awareness of the power of speaking: בראת בי פה ולשון ונתת בהם כח לדבר בהם האותיות הקדושות אשר בהן בראת שמים וארץ God, you have created within me a mouth and a tongue and you have given them the power to speak with them the holy letters with which you created the heavens and instead I embarrassed people, laughed at others, gossiped, lied, and caused arguments. We enter Yom Kippur with a profound sense of awe at the capacity of our own words to create and to destroy.
Nearly a month ago, the Syrian government attacked its own people with chemical weapons, torturing and killing hundreds of civilians and adding to the already unfathomable human toll of this conflict. Since then, we have been in national conversation about the power of speech – about the obligation to protect that our president affirmed by setting a red line a year ago, and the potential consequences of taking action or failing to take action, measured against his words. Today, those words spoken a year ago in a press briefing room, echo in the lives of militants and civilians halfway around the world. Those words spoken require us to take responsibility for the lives of our fellow human beings. Those words created a world for all of us. 
But it is more than those words, already spoken, rehashed, analyzed, and acted on, that matter. In this moment, all of us hold words that matter as well. The words we have not yet released have a sacred task – to give voice and bear witness to the suffering of the Syrian people, and to commit ourselves to be part of their healing.
Our words have a physical impact on our world, and they come from the physicality of our own being. Hasidic thinkers divide human communication into component parts of kol (voice) and dibbur (speaking). Kol is undifferentiated sound and pure emotionality – on these yamim noraim, the voice of the shofar. Dibbur, our content, communicates meaning by breaking kol into words and language – today, our prayers expressed in words. Each of these components, kol and dibbur, is primary at different moments. Sometimes our thoughts tumble into words faster than our lips can move to hold them. And sometimes only our pure kol, the sound of our wailing, will carry what is truly in our hearts.
Rabbi David Solomon Eibenschutz, an 18th century shtetl rebbe, identified a third component of our voices – hevel, the breath that undergirds both kol and dibbur. Each of our voices carries all three of these components at every moment – the breath, hevel, that supports the pure sound, kol, of our voices, and the words, dibbur, that we string together to make speech, intelligible because of the sound we produce as air passes through our vocal chords. Eibenschutz saw the three components in a hierarchy: “Kol is more important than dibbur, because dibbur is ultimately a limited form of kol. And dibbur is more important than hevel, because in the breath you cannot even hear the voice, the kol.” This month, all three of these elements, hevel, kol, and dibbur, have emerged from human beings around the world as we relate to Syria.
We have heard the kol, the pure voice that by its very being demands a response, the cries that proceed any ability to speak. This month we have heard the kol of the Syrian people crying out in suffering. This is the same kol of Abel’s blood calling out from the earth, the kol of Ishmael that God heard and responded to in the wilderness, Joseph’s sobbing kol that all of Egypt heard when he revealed himself to his brothers, Rachel’s wailing kol longing for the Jewish people in exile. These are the voices of human beings who cannot explain in words what they have experienced, the arresting, emotional cries that we cannot allow to resonate unheeded.
We have produced the hevel, the sharp intake of breath when we learned about the new dimensions of Syrians’ suffering. We have made the hevel of action and the hevel of inaction – in this hevel, we are not always hearing and responding to the kol.
And the dibbur? The dibbur, the words, are the responsibility of those of us who have the luxury of time to catch our breath. If the kol is caught inside a world turned upside-down, it is the dibbur that must somehow create another kind of world. We know the power of our words when we use them to create worlds. Our words bear witness, our words offer comfort, our words stand us in solidarity. Hearing the kol of suffering, feeling the breath enter our lungs, we have a sacred obligation to offer our dibbur, our words, to be part of healing – the healing that comes from allowing no human being to be invisible, regardless of where they were born.
As we form our dibbur in the year ahead, we know that our words must hold and project the kol of human beings who have suffered and whose words have been lost, like the child Omar who felt his tongue to be frozen. To give words to Syrian voices along with our own is to affirm our most powerful, core capacity as human beings. We learn and tell the stories of this crisis, we advocate for interventions that will protect human lives, and we pray and commit ourselves to work for a world where human dignity is sacred. Standing as witnesses half a world away, each of us must speak the words that will ultimately make us more human.
Conclusion (Rabbi Morris Allen)
Even as we seek atonement from God, Yom Kippur demands that we see ourselves as God’s allies and partners. Yom Kippur gives Jews a consciousness about the world we live in. It seeks that we continually live the words we speak, and be resolute on behalf of human dignity.
Tomorrow we will hear the words of the prophet Isaiah. Tonight those words remind us of our task. Isaiah encountered a world like our own, a world content to fulfill a ritual lacking ethical depth. He encountered a people that lived with neither compassion nor responsibility for the world around them. And so they cried: “Why when we fasted did You God not see? Why when we starved our bodies You, God, paid no heed?” Isaiah thunders:
Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress your laborers. Is such a fast I desire bowing the head like a bulrush – you call that a fast? No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock the fetters of wickedness, to untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free. To share your bread with the hungry to take the wretched poor into your home when you see the naked clothe them, do not ignore your own flesh. Call Shabbat delight –then you can seek the favor of Adonai.
So that is what we are asking of you tonight: to make this fast one in which your compassion and your sense of responsibility to live the words you speak and to safeguard the dignity of humanity is at the forefront of your daily actions. In a few moments, you will be receiving a business card – on one side a picture of Jan Karski, on the other a child in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan.  The card asks of you two things: to understand the sacred trust inherent in your words, vows and promises; and to witness and act on behalf of those who will remain vulnerable regardless of outcomes in Washington, Damascus or Moscow. There is one group that we ask you to support with a donation– be it $5, $18, or $1800. If a Polish catholic could raise his voice for the Jews of Europe in 1943, we can pay it forward by supporting, an NGO founded by a group of Israelis who care deeply about their country and deeply about the world they live in.
Here is how they describe themselves:
We are a group of Israeli citizens who love their homeland and believe in a Jewish tradition and culture that values a compassionate, open-minded respect for the sanctity of human life and dignity. Along with this commitment to human life, we are also devoted to faithfully defending Israel’s borders and citizens in the face of threat.
We are a people who ingathered their exiles and built a “Startup Nation” out of a nation of refugees. Today, we feel a moral and ethical duty to become “the voice of the voiceless” and in this particular case, even if it is the voice of the vulnerable populations among some of our toughest and cruelest enemies.
We believe in the sanctity of human life and dignity as reflected in the Jewish “halacha” and in the Israeli Declaration of Independence: “Devote yourself to justice, aid the wronged, uphold the rights of the orphan, defend the cause of the widow” (Isaiah 1:16-17).
We know that silence is lethal. Silence and inaction in the face of human transgression, in the face of broken vows is the antithesis of what this day and our people are to be about. Take this card, keep it in your wallet and fulfill its request from this day forward. Then this will be the fast that God desires. And this will be the world where God’s presence truly is evident.