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A Referendum on the American Dream – Yom Kippur

Engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty are the words of the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

These were the first words that many of our ancestors saw upon arriving in New York Harbor. The statue’s torch lit the way to what many considered a “Goldene Medene,” a new Promised Land of freedom and opportunity.

My grandmother didn’t come through Ellis Island. Seeking to enter the United States in the early 1920s, my great-grandparents entered New York by way of Canada, to establish British citizenship and circumvent quotas on immigrants from Eastern Europe. My grandmother was born while they were still in Montreal. Once they crossed over into New York, my great-grandmother, previously one of Warsaw’s elite, scrubbed floors, while my great-grandfather candled eggs. Soon, they had enough money to open a grocery store in Harlem. They enrolled their three children in the New York public schools and an Orthodox cheder, and saw to it that all of them went to college.

Their hard work ensured that their descendants would have access to a good education, gainful employment, and a level of material comfort that they could not even imagine for themselves. My grandmother spoke fondly of the subsidized education she received at Hunter High School and Hunter College. She was known to say that the branch of the New York Public Library across the street from her apartment “saved her life.” When my she died, at nearly 97 years old, all eight of her grandchildren were college graduates (and two have doctorates!). And perhaps more important to her, a bookkeeper who had married an accountant, she still had money in the bank.

Many of us have stories like these, great “American Dream” narratives of coming here with nothing, working hard to make something of ourselves, and giving a better life to the next generation. These would be great “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” narratives, except for one thing. We did not pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Every one of us had some kind of help getting to where we are today.

There were relatives who sent money and set us up with our first jobs. There was a vast network of Jewish and secular benevolent societies that provided education, medical care, free loans, and legal aid to people who were new to this country. State and local governments stepped in to assist and protect new Americans: providing free public education for the children of immigrants, and regulation of threats to public health and safety posed by tenements and sweatshops.

This assistance to new Americans wasn’t perfect, but it was widespread, in both the Jewish and public spheres. This is because welcoming the stranger is deeply rooted in both the Jewish narrative and the American narrative. We, the Jewish people, are a nation of exiles. And we, the American people, are a nation of immigrants.

Jews have been immigrating to, and settling in, America since a group of Sephardic Jews arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654. The question of what role Jews would play in this nascent country came to the foreground in 1790, when George Washington himself visited the Hebrew Congregations of Newport, Rhode Island. In a letter to the congregation, Washington stated that tolerance of diversity was not an indulgence, but a basic human right, and that the country he served as president would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

For a people who had been repeatedly pushed down into the status of second-class citizen—or denied citizenship altogether—America felt akin to Canaan, the biblical Promised Land. For the first time in millennia, it felt like we might be able to stop our perpetual wandering.

But even the Promised Land isn’t promised unconditionally, as we read in this morning’s Torah portion, Nitzavim:

“And later generations will ask—the children who succeed you, and foreigners who come from distant lands and see the plagues and diseases that the Eternal has inflicted upon that land…just like the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorroh… all nations will ask, ‘Why did the Eternal do thus to the land?’ … They will be told, ‘Because they forsook the covenant that the Eternal … made with them when God freed them from the land of Egypt….” (Deut. 29:21-27).

This passage was likely written by a people already in exile, trying to understand their displacement from the land given by God to their ancestors. The Promised Land wasn’t something we thought we could lose. Suddenly, we found ourselves strangers in a strange land, wondering how we got there.

It shouldn’t have been such a mystery to us. The narratives of the Torah are rife with stories of punishment, destruction and exile. Adam and Eve lost their place in the Garden of Eden for disobeying God’s command. Noah and his family watched as the rest of the world’s corrupt inhabitants drowned in a flood. The architects of Babel were scattered into 70 nations for attempting to storm the gates of heaven. And the people of Sodom and Gomorroh disappeared beneath a maelstrom of fire and brimstone.

The plain text of the Torah attributes Sodom’s fate to the perversion of its inhabitants, who attempt to assault two strangers staying in the home of Abraham’s nephew, Lot. But the rabbis suggest that the people of Sodom didn’t come after the strangers because of their depravity, but because of their unwillingness to share their resources.

Legend has it that Sodom was a place of great wealth. Neither human beings walking below, nor birds flying above, could see through the dense foliage of the fruit-bearing trees. Gold flakes clung to the roots of their vegetables.

Rather than feel blessed by their abundance, the people of Sodom began to fear that foreigners would take what was rightfully theirs, saying: “We live in peace and plenty…What need have we to look after wayfarers, who come to us only to deprive us? Come, let us see to it that the duty of entertaining foot travelers be forgotten in our land!”

So the people of Sodom developed an elaborate anti-wayfarer campaign. They charged people to cross the bridge into their town, and doubled the price if they tried to evade the toll by wading through a river. If a wayfarer was too tall or too short for their bed, the people would cut them or stretch them to fit. If they begged in the street, people in Sodom would give them coins, but instruct the local shopkeepers not to sell them food. When the stranger inevitably died, the people would retrieve their “donations” from the stranger’s pockets.

The animosity of the people of Sodom was not reserved for the stranger. They had a corrupt and perverted judicial system that enabled them to steal from each other, to be violent towards one another, and even to torture those who took pity on the less fortunate, all without fear of consequences.

The rabbis explain that God’s punishment of Sodom is a response to the outcry of Lot’s daughter, who is tortured by the townspeople after they discover that she has been secretly sustaining an impoverished person by sneaking him food in her water jar. As she is burned alive, she cries out: “God of the universe … exact justice and judgment in my behalf from the people of Sodom” (BOL 36:30-32).

The price of their selfishness and greed was exile and destruction. Not because of the isolated actions of its individuals, but because, according to Rabbi Eliezar, “wickedness became public policy endorsed and approved by the authorities” (PDRE 25, EC 105).

A few years ago, we might have heard this story and thought, “What does this have to do with us? We would never do anything like that here in America!”

But only three weeks ago, 48 Venezuelan immigrants were lured out of a San Antonio shelter and promised expedited working papers and other assistance if they boarded a plane to a “sanctuary city.” Instead, the plane, chartered by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, flew them to Martha’s Vineyard, without notifying any social services they were coming, and left them there. This was just one of a series of political stunts, in which state leaders bussed unsuspecting migrants to New York and DC, as if to say, as the people of Sodom did, “what need do we have of wayfarers?”

It is not only immigrants and refugees who suffer from this scarcity mentality. Citizens of this nation also fall victim to the fearmongering rhetoric of “us versus them.” In retelling the story of the wickedness of Sodom, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg reminds us that, “The crime so heinous that the whole city had to go up in flames was that of hoarding resources and leaving the economically vulnerable to suffer without assistance.” She continues: “Gosh, good thing these Biblical stories are really just old tales that don’t have any resonance with our world today, huh?”

We, as a society, have failed to live up to the promise that was made to our immigrant ancestors. We can no longer promise every child a free, quality public education, access to health care, or even safety from gun violence in our schools. Instead of addressing these very real threats to education, politicians focus on “protecting” children from learning our nation’s complicated history. Moreover, they target educators, librarians, healthcare providers, and athletic coaches who support LGBTQ students.

Our criminal justice system disproportionately targets poor people and people of color, for both police brutality and mass incarceration, while corporations make profits off prisoners.

During the pandemic, it became that much clearer how many people were one emergency away from financial ruin. And yet, there has been little movement to provide a safety net for those at risk, whether that be public health policy, labor unions, or increasing access to health care, childcare, housing, or nutrition assistance. Instead, we’ve watched the rich get richer, while child hunger, predatory student loan interest, and the eviction crisis resume.

And in order to ensure that we maintain this nightmarish status quo, many of those in power continue to pass legislation suppressing the voting rights of tens of millions of American citizens, mostly the poor, the elderly, and people of color.

Over the last few years, our political sphere has become so charged and so shameless that it can be tempting to throw in the towel. But apathy is not an option for us, as Jews or as Americans, because every election is a referendum on the American Dream.

Even a so-called “minor” election is an opportunity for us to decide who we want to be as a nation. Do we want to be Canaan, a land of promise and plenty, or do we want to be Sodom, a land of fear-mongering and self-preservation?

Rabbi Ruttenberg points out that God asks Abraham essentially the same question, when he argues on behalf of the city. She writes:

“They came to an agreement: The city could be spared if a minimal number of righteous people could be found within its gates. Genesis didn’t define what ‘righteous’ meant, but I imagine it was this:

“People who saw what was happening around them and refused to be silent.  People who saw the exploitation of others and, even if they themselves were not personally impacted by the horrors perpetuated, they refused to be complicit.  People who refused to let the poor and the non-resident be punished for the greed of those in power. Who raised their voice in protest, and put themselves at risk for the benefit of others’ sustenance and safety.  Who resisted evil at every turn, and created spaces of protection and nourishment for those in need.  Who said no.  Even when it wasn’t convenient.  Even when there were risks involved.  Even when they might have had to sacrifice some of their own comfort in order to do so.  Who didn’t turn away, didn’t scroll by, didn’t say, hey, it’s not as bad as it used to be so that must mean that it’s good enough.  Who stayed engaged, the whole time.

Sodom wasn’t saved.  There weren’t enough righteous people to carry the city through.

What about here?  

Are there?”

Rabbi Ruttenberg’s question is very real to us as we begin this new year. Our democracy provides a way for us to stand up and be counted. But we must work to ensure that everyone has access to our electoral process.

In the lead up to the 2020 election, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism started a statewide campaign in Pennsylvania, encouraging civic engagement and making a massive impact. For this year’s midterm elections, RAC-PA continues its just elections work by focusing on voter registration, engagement and protection. Partnering with OnePA, New PA Project Education Fund and the League of Women Voters of PA, they aim to reach new voters through phone calls, in person voter registration, and handwritten postcards. They are also recruiting much needed poll workers throughout the state. This campaign is called Every Voice, Every Vote, and if you haven’t already, I urge you to contact our members Karen Gurmankin and Cheryl Turetsky to learn how you can be a part of it.

At the start of this Torah portion, we are given a roster of the types of people standing on the banks of the Jordan, preparing to enter the Promised Land: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God—your tribal heads, your elders, and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer—to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God” (Deut. 29:9-11).

Even in the patriarchal, particularistic religion of ancient Israel, Moses goes out of his way to mention groups that we might expect to be left on the margins. The speech is addressed, not only to the elders, the officials, and the men, but also to the women and the children, the day laborers, and the strangers in our midst. Everyone is included. And everyone is commanded to participate.

God reminds us: “I make this covenant…not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day…and those who are not with us here this day” (Deut. 29: 14). “Those who are not with us today,” includes those of us who are sitting here this morning.

Every year at Passover, we remind ourselves that, in every generation, we are obligated to imagine that we, personally, went forth from Egypt, so that we will never lose our empathy for the downtrodden and the oppressed. And every year in November, we have the opportunity to put that empathy into action.

When we stood on the banks of the Jordan, we entered into a covenant that commanded us help the poor, the vulnerable, and the stranger. Centuries later, when we passed through the “Golden Door” into this great country, we also entered into a sacred covenant, to take every opportunity that was granted to us, and to make sure that others would have the same, or better, opportunities than we once did. 

As we open the door to a new year, may we continue to work hard to honor these covenants. May we be ever-vigilant to protect the rights of the homeless and the hungry, the citizen, the stranger, and the tempest-tost. May we remember that we are a nation whose founders swore to give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” And may we work diligently to fulfill that vision of a Promised Land inscribed on our nation’s entrance, “I lift my lamp beside the Golden Door.”  And let us say, Amen.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz