Lost and Found

Yom Kippur, 5779

All of us here are familiar with that sinking feeling we get in the pit of our stomachs when we realize we’ve completely forgotten where in the massive parking lot we’ve left our car.  Or when the last bag has come off the conveyor belt at the airport and we realize that our bag is not going to appear.  Or when we realize that we don’t have our cell phone nor a clue to where it might be. Yet, thanks to the wonders of our technological age, our sinking feeling is often replaced by relief when what we lost is found.  Today, there’s an app called Find My Car, and one called Find My Iphone, and then there’s Tile, a little tiny electronic chip you can attach to your luggage to track where it is.  

Losing and then finding goes on all through our life. One of the first games we parents play with our children is peekaboo: hiding and then revealing; one of the first games children play with their friends is “Hide and Seek.”    

Yom Kippur, as well, is about losing and finding. The Chasidic rabbi, Nachman of Bratzlav, told the story that amongst the angels, there is one group appointed with the task of looking for things that have been lost.  When they find them, they blow on shofars to celebrate. Nachman suggested, by this story, that we should understand the blowing of the shofar on the High Holy Days not as a sound of wailing or of warning to repent and turn back from our sins but rather as a joyous sound, a sign that we have successfully found what we have lost.  

So, this morning, I want to explore with you what we have lost, in the hopes of our getting it back, again.  There has been a lot we have lost this last year.  I am talking here about something deeper than Democrats being depressed about the selection of conservative judges to federal posts or Republicans being dismayed that their party has been hijacked by right-wing extremists. The losses are more profound than that: Endangered species are threatened anew; global warming is denied; pollution safeguards are rolled back; consumer safety nets are reduced; our trust in our government, never great to begin with, is at a historic low; privacy seems reduced at every turn.  Our feelings of powerlessness seem to grow each day, our optimism and our hopes for the future steadily eroded.  There is a lot we have lost this year. 

But as deadly serious as many of these loses are, there is an even more fundamental loss that I believe we have been experiencing, and that is the loss of our connection to other human beings. The Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, explored this loss almost 100 years ago.  There are two choices we have to experience the world, he taught: An I/It approach and an I/Thou approach.  In the I/It approach, we treat the world and all those who are in it as objects for us to use, manipulate, ignore or discard.  We treat other people as things.  Conversely, in the I/Thou  approach, we experience others as unique, precious and worthy of deep engagement.  

As we have lost our sense of connection to other human beings, we have not only divided up our country into red and blue states, but quickly dismissed those whose political color is different than ours with words like “traitors, rednecks, tree-huggers, granola chewers” or “deplorables, terrorist supporters, racists….”  The list goes on and on.  We no longer simply disagree with one another, we now lump together all those with whom we disagree and simply, hate them. Then, having demonized the “other,” too many times we seek to silence and suppress them. We are increasingly quick, on all sides, to interrupt, shout down, or threaten those whose views are different from ours.  

When we reduce others to objects, there follows a general loss in civility.  If I don’t have to care about you – for after all, I don’t even know you – I can bring my barking dog into department stores. I can sit on the Expo line and blast my Iphone without using my headphones.  I can cut you off with my car or speed between the double yellow lines to cut you off because, well because you don’t count.  If you’re a server at a restaurant, I can summon you, snap at you, humiliate you, because you’re an object, a grey background to the world that I am inhabiting.  The rudeness, the lack of manners, the lack of civility is not only because we don’t feel that we owe others anything, it’s because we are so busy taking “selfies,” that we don’t even recognize the humanity of those who are before us. 

When we no longer see the humanity of those who aren’t Americans then it is easy to have zero tolerance for them. When we no longer see the humanity of others then it is possible to amass dozens of weapons, assemble them in a Las Vegas hotel room, and fire away down on the crowd below because they are not fellow human beings but rather are objects. When we no longer see the humanity of others, one can then light fires that destroy homes and tens of thousands of acres; entertainment moguls can act as if the women who work with them are objects to be used; and the rich and powerful can view women simply as objects to be grabbed.

From the macro to the micro, we have lost, profoundly, the sense that other people matter.  Whether it’s the slaughter of the Rohinga Muslims in Myanmar or the mass murder of the Yazidis by ISIS; whether it’s the millions of refugees displaced by the Syrian war or the Libyan civil war; whether it’s the assaults on gay men in African countries or on the Jews in Paris and Stockholm; whether it’s the 58,000 homeless people that still fill the streets of Los Angeles; whether it’s the denigration of political opponents or the sexual intimidation of women; whether it’s the sheer rudeness in our streets and public spaces, the underlying issue is the same.  We have lost a sense of respect towards others, we have lost the sense that they too, have histories, and stories and feelings. 

This is also true of our relationship with this planet, with our environment.  A few months ago, I sent out to the congregation, an extraordinary video made by one of our former confirmation students (Adam Schmalholz) who deserves our praise.  In this video, he delivered a poetic rap about our relationship to the environment, and he brilliantly noted:  “Why is it that we speak of my house, my car, my spouse, my job but yet when it comes to air, water, land and trees, we speak of the planet, the earth, the air, the ocean?”  “Why not,” he demanded, “refer to it as our earth, our air, our ocean?”  It’s again, the difference between seeing the world as an It or treating our world as a Thou.

Yom Kippur is about realizing what we have lost and what we need to do to reclaim it, to make it ours again, to restore ourselves to our former state of wholeness, so that the shofar can be blown in celebration.  To do this, we need to practice seeing our relationship with the world, with our government, with others, as an interpersonal relationship, as an I/Thou not as an I/It.  The first step is to see, truly see, the face of others. 

There is a story told of a rabbinic argument as to when a new day begins.  One rabbi said, “when the first rays of sunlight pierce the darkness.”  Another said, “when there’s enough light to distinguish the blue stripes on a tallis.” Still another said, “when you can see and recognize the face of another who is in the same space with you.”  When we can see and recognize the face of another.  That’s when light comes.  

When we see, truly see, the face of another, we can then open the door for others, we can let them have a turn before us.  When we truly see the face of another, we don’t then view all immigrants as criminals, all strangers as enemies, and we speak out against those who do. When we truly see the face of another, we stop demonizing those with whom we disagree. Not stop arguing with them, not stop opposing them but stop making them the enemy. We still need to engage with them, even though, at times, that may be difficult.   

Second, we have to find again, the sense that we have obligations to others, even to strangers in our society.  The Torah portion for this afternoon commands us that when we reap our wheat or barley fields, we cannot strip them bare.  We have to leave the grain standing in the corners of the fields so the needy can come and take it. So, too, when we pick the grapes from our vines or beat down the olives from our trees, we must leave some, as well, for others in need.  We must not oppress those who are powerless, who have no one to champion their cause.

We can do this. In Santa Rosa, during the devasting fires, there was a restaurant that served thousands of free meals, for weeks, to fire fighters, and to those made homeless by the fire.  We can do this!  I see it in the community volunteer work in which some of you are engaged.  There are homeless shelters, soup kitchens and feeding projects, pro-bono legal work to help the evicted, literacy volunteer groups, free clinics, women’s shelters, rape hot lines, recovery groups, mental health support groups, dogs for the blind, hospital visitors and volunteers….That work is going on, and we need to be part of it. 

How are we going to deal with the critical issue of global warming, if we can’t warm to the people who are around us?  How can we deal with the relatively abstract notion of carbon levels in the air, if we can’t relate to the concrete people who are before us?  We need to reach out not just for their sake but for ours, to keep alive in us a sense of compassion, and a sense of duty, and in order to sustain our humanity.  For we can only be fully human in the presence of others.  The Jewish sage, Hillel, beautifully put it two thousand years ago:  “Who am I if I am not in relationship with others around me?”

And third: In a world that is increasingly fragmented, in which it seems that we have so little in common with those around us that we owe so little to them, we also need the comfort, the security, the presence of community, to remind us that there are others in the world. We must find again, for ourselves, renewed connection with others. That is what Moses stated to the Israelites in this morning’s Torah Portion.  “Atem nitzavim hayom, kulchem,” “All of you stand here as a collective, as a community.  Men, women, children, choppers of wood, drawers of water.”  “The commandments we have been given,” says Moses, “are for all of us.”  And of what do they consist but of regulating how we are to live with others, how we are to treat them with decency The entry into the world of I and Thou, me and you, comes primarily through community.

It comes from this community. This is the place where we are reminded not of our rights but our obligations.  Not of I, but of we.  We need a congregation to let us know when a loved one of someone in our community has died so we can practice reaching out to them.  We need a community so when I call you and say, “listen, I need a favor for someone in the congregation who could use your expertise,” you are given the blessing, the blessing, of being able to respond to help another. We need a congregation, so when disasters happen in different parts of the US, we have a central place to forward our donations to those in need.  

My favorite Chasidic story tells of a man who is lost in the woods.  He wanders, hungry and cold, for many days, and just as he is about to give up hope, he comes across another man in the woods.  “Brother,” he calls out, “can you help me out of here, I’ve been lost for many days.”  “I’m sorry brother,” the other replies, “I, too, am lost.  But take my hand and together, we will find our way out.”  Notice the elements, here:  they call one another “brother,” they take each other’s hand.  It is in our I/Thou relationships, when we truly see the other, that we have the best chance of reclaiming what has been lost.  

Let us, then, take one another’s hands and lift up one another.  And if we can’t take each other’s hands, let us, at least encourage one another, let us recognize one another, let us respect one another.  May, in this New Year, we find what has been lost. May we find, again, our empathy for others, may we find again our optimism, may we find again renewed hope, may we recover lost trust, may we find, once more, for ourselves, a renewed joy in life, as we look upon others, and see our faces reflected in theirs.