Using Our Power (Rabbi Widzer’s Sermon Yom Kippur Morning 5783 – October 5, 2022)
My family claims that I provide my own soundtrack to life. And I suspect that’s true. I’ll catch myself humming a tune or singing a lyric from some piece of music that connects to whatever I am currently doing or thinking about. Does anyone else do that? I happen to be a fan of musical theatre, so it’s as likely as not that the song going through my mind, and occasionally out of my mouth, is from one Broadway production or another. My taste in shows is pretty broad, so it might be a snippet from Rent or Big River or Wicked that I’m singing. And I know just about every word to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
From time to time in the past year I have found myself singing a line from In the Heights, the first Tony-award winning musical from Lin-Manuel Miranda, which was made into a movie and released last summer. In the show, the hot summertime temperatures in Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan cause the electricity to fail, afflicting the Latino community there with a blackout. At one point, several characters sing the words, “Powerless, we are powerless,” referring not only to absence of electricity, but also to their lack of political power. They feel helpless in the face of circumstances to affect any change.
“Powerless, we are powerless.” War has been raging in Ukraine for more than half a year. Iran grows closer to building a nuclear bomb, while suppressing dissent and women’s rights. Our climate continues to heat up and change, causing floods, droughts, hurricanes, and other natural disasters to increase in severity. Gun violence continues to plague American cities, subjecting grocery store shoppers, parade attenders, and school children to unacceptable amounts of violence. Violent crime is on the rise in many places in our nation, as are hate crimes, targeting people because of how they look, who they are, what they believe, or whom they love. Bigotry, discrimination, antisemitism, and hateful speech are more and more openly accepted in our public discourse. The need for systemic immigration reform, the loss of reproductive freedom, inflation and economic disparity … “Powerless, we are powerless.” It can feel like there is so much going on in our world that we cannot control. It feels like the world, as it is, is not one that we have any power to change.
We may wonder: do we have to just accede to the world as it is, let things go as they are going, accept that things are fated to be this way? Do we have any power we can exercise? Is this all part of God’s plan for the world, for our society, for us? Are we able to work against the way things are, push back against what seems wrong in our world, try to change the world from what it IS to what it might YET be? What’s our Jewish opportunity or responsibility here?
Spoiler alert – if you listened to the words of the prophet Isaiah in the Haftarah reading, you know what the answer will be. But this discussion of our human potential for power in this world is worth examining from a theological perspective.
In some Jewish forms of theology, the world is the way that it is because God makes it so. There is nothing that happens without it being God’s plan or intention. Humans have little agency or power, since God is completely in charge of everything in our world. We may not understand why God is permitting climate change or gun violence or the war in Ukraine, but in this view of God, we don’t have to understand. God has total control. To use the phrase of one of my confirmation students, God is “large and in charge.” The world is unalterable by human beings because the world is however God intends it to be.
We see this in the Bible. In story after story, God is quite busy determining the course of human history. God creates everything in an orderly fashion. God nearly destroys it all in a massive flood. God selects Abraham for a special destiny, foretelling his descendants’ eventual slavery in Egypt, but reassuring him that the Israelites would be brought back into the land. God knows and God controls everything that happens.
But even in the Torah, there is tension with this notion of everything being predetermined by God, that the world can only be set as it actually is. We see instances where human beings have free will, where they exercise their power to make moral choices. Adam and Eve choose to eat fruit from the forbidden tree, disobeying God. Abraham chooses to argue with God to try to save the lives of the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah. And in a passage that we read this morning, God explicitly acknowledges humanity’s power to make choices that alter their reality. God proclaims to the assembled Israelites: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life!” It’s pretty clear what God wants us to choose (who would choose curses?), but the implication is that we have a choice. Even amidst the Torah’s all-controlling God imagery, there are chances for us to use our free will and make choices that will affect the world.
In the post-Biblical era, our sages wrestled with this question of predetermination and human free will. Can we change what will happen in our world? Can we make choices that will alter God’s design? Rabbi Akiva paradoxically taught, “Everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice exists.” In the 12th century, the Spanish Jewish scholar, Bachya ibn Pakuda, taught that, even if everything is pre-ordained and determined by God, we nevertheless have the obligation to believe and behave as if we have free will. Only then will our moral choices make a difference in our lives. Believing that we have the power to influence our world, believing that our choices make a difference, is fundamental to what it means to be a human being. Even if the changes we might make are already pre-ordained by God, we can choose to try to change the world. We don’t have to accept things just as they are. We have the free will to try and make things different.
Our friend, the prophet Isaiah, surely believed this. The author of our Haftarah passage this morning lived in the 6th century BCE, probably in exile in Babylon with those who had been taken captive when the Land of Israel was conquered. As Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut explains, “At the time of [Isaiah’s] preaching, his fellow exiles in Babylon had apparently developed a stratified social structure that allowed the rich to exploit the poor. … They still prayed and fasted and thought that this was enough.” Isaiah boldly told the powers-that-be that their world, as it was, was not the world as it should be. Oppressing workers, embracing false piety, allowing the “menacing hand, the malicious word” to reign – these would not do. Isaiah foresaw a world where bread would be shared with the hungry, the homeless would be housed, and the enslaved set free. He was not willing to accept how things were without speaking up and trying to convince his society to improve itself.
Despite all of the problems in our society today, we do not have to accept the world as it is. These circumstances are not unalterable or unchangeable. We are not doomed to things always just being the way they are. We are not powerless. We have free will and moral agency. We have the ability to make change.
So how do we use our power to do that? I think that there are four modes of social action and social justice worth highlighting.
The first method is education and raising awareness. Have you seen in bathroom stalls the flyers with information about domestic violence? Have you seen in airports and bus terminals signs about human trafficking? TV shows on sensitive topics like depression or substance abuse often end with information to aid a suffering person to get help. These are efforts that draw attention to problems that need solving or changes that need to be made. This can be personal, too. The next time someone near you uses a slur, or tells an inappropriate joke, or makes a derogatory or discriminatory comment, call them out on it. When it’s done out of ignorance, you can help educate someone. When it’s done out of meanness, you can raise awareness of the need to rectify the situation. All of these examples help move the world as it is towards the world as it should be.
A second way to make a difference is through collections. As a congregation, we do pretty well with this: even today, with BeaSTY’s help, we are collecting hundreds of pounds of food for LCAC. We have collected dozens of kitchen towels and oven mitts for Afghan refugees and numerous other items through various B’nai Mitzvah collection drives. But, in Chicago, Dorian Carter, Rachel Hart Klaymand, and Kathy Goldberg, went bigger. In 1999, they created “The Glass Slipper Project,” a non-profit organization that collects gently used or new formal dresses, shoes, make up, and accessories to create a free prom boutique for high school juniors and seniors who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford the cost of clothes for prom. To date, “The Glass Slipper Project” has helped more than 20,000 students in Chicago attend their proms in style.  And there are similar organizations all around the country.
Syd Mandelbaum is another organizer of collections. Active in the music industry in the early ‘90s, he noticed that rock concerts often had huge amounts of food leftover backstage. He founded “Rock and Wrap It Up!” to collect the prepared but uneaten food and get it to local food pantries and feeding programs. He now works with film and tv productions, sports franchises, and hotel chains in addition to music venues, recovering nearly 750,000 pounds of food in 2019 alone. “The Glass Slipper Project,” “Rock and Wrap It Up!” and so many other efforts at collections help change world as it is to the world we want it to be by ensuring that those in need can share in others’ bounty.
A third way to use our power to make change is by direct service. TBS has a team of volunteers teaching English as a second language to recently arrived Afghan refugees. We are a proud sponsor of “Together We Rise Against Hunger,” which brings people together to pack thousands of meals for those who are hungry around the globe. In the spring, as one of our 36th anniversary events, we’ll host a “Yom Chesed,” a day of hands-on opportunities to make a difference in many different ways.
One of my mitzvah heroes in direct service is Jackie Silverman. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Jackie was instrumental in transforming a small facility helping women in need of food, shelter, and security into what is now the New Orleans Women’s and Children’s Shelter. From Jackie’s vision, it has grown to be the largest organization of its kind in the area, offering shelter, case management, education, and employment assistance to over 200 people annually. Even during COVID, the Shelter was able to help women and families experiencing homelessness, keeping them safe and helping them transition into permanent housing. Jackie, and all who provide hands-on help to others, help change the world as it is to the world we want it to be.
While direct service is critical, it may not be enough to solve systemic problems. As a congregation, we could make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches all day, every day, and still not solve the problem of hunger. Sometimes advocacy efforts are needed to change the bigger systems in place to address the bigger problems. David Levitt, a middle school student in Florida, understood this. He knew there were hungry people in his town. He also noticed that his school cafeteria threw out tons of unserved food each day. When he heard about a man in Kentucky who was donating food from schools to hungry people, he thought that he could do it, too. David was looking for a project to work on as part of becoming Bar Mitzvah, so he set about getting his school to donate the unserved leftover cafeteria food to a local shelter. He wrote and called and petitioned the local school board to have the lunchroom food donated. They agreed and the school began donating the leftover food every day.
Then David realized that if his school could do it, so could other schools. Again, he called and petitioned and spoke and met with local officials and soon every school in his district donated their food. He went to the county politicians and had them enact regulations for every school in the county. And then, working with a Florida state legislator, David was ultimately responsible for the passage of a state law requiring the collection and redistribution of all cafeteria leftovers from all public schools in Florida. The state law went into effect by David’s 16th birthday! Having started as a Bar Mitzvah project, David Levitt’s advocacy work created a system to donate thousands of pounds of food to hungry people.
Advocacy is an important way of using our power to make change. Writing letters to our representatives, publishing op-eds in local newspapers and websites, making phone calls, sending postcards, meeting with legislators, working in coalitions with other like-minded people, lobbying our elected officials, all of these are advocacy efforts designed to address the larger systemic issues that can’t be solved solely by direct action. Each year, we bring our TBS teenagers to the preeminent Jewish social justice seminar, the L’Taken program of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, to learn advocacy skills. Perhaps, upon their return, we will ask them to hold a workshop and teach the rest of us.
There is one other way we can use advocacy to demonstrate our power, individually and collectively. And that is to vote. Our tradition makes it very clear. It is a Jewish responsibility to vote. The great sage, Rabbi Hillel, taught, “Al tifrosh min hatzibur,” “Do not separate yourself from the community.” And for a community to succeed, for a community to be strong, it must have the active participation of all of its members. Abstaining, refraining, or disengaging from making group decisions robs the community of your input. Voting is a sacred Jewish act.
Let’s honor that commitment to voting. If you have actively voted for 50 years or more, would you please raise your hand? (Keep them up.) For 40 years or more? 30? 20? 10? If you have been voting for less than 10? That’s a wonderful sight to see, the commitment we have made to voting in the past. (Hands down.)
And now to the future. If you are registered to vote for the first time in 2022, would you please raise your hand? Now, regardless if it is the first year or the fiftieth year or more, if you are registered to vote for the November 2022 election, please raise your hand. (Keep them up.)
That’s good, all these people registered to vote. If you are NOT yet registered to vote, or if you have a college student or child out of state who wants to vote in Virginia, the deadline for registration is October 17.
As a reminder, please note that neither Rabbi Hillel nor I have mentioned for whom to vote. Our individual understanding of Jewish values, and how they come to bear on the great affairs of our country, may lead some of us to vote one way and others in another way. We might disagree over public policy choices or candidates or ballot initiatives. We might give different weight to different parts of our tradition that incline us towards one position or another. But regardless of who or what you vote for, the Jewish thing to do is to use your power, advocate, and VOTE. Isaiah would have told us to do the same.
There is no shortage of things that are wrong in our world. The list of problems we face globally, nationally, locally, and personally, may feel endless. It can seem overwhelming, like there is no way to change anything, like it doesn’t matter if we do anything, like the world is predetermined to be the way that it is. But that’s not the truth. That’s not what Isaiah believed. We are not powerless, no matter what the Broadway characters might sing. We have the ability to affect change in our world, like Dorian Carter, Rachel Hart Klaymand, and Kathy Goldberg, like Syd Mandelbaum, like Jackie Silverman, like David Levitt, like our members who bring in food for LCAC or tutor Afghan refugees, like our teenagers at L’Taken, like everyone one of you who pledges to vote in the upcoming election. We do not have to accept the world as it is. We can work to make it the world as we want it to be.
Then, as Isaiah says, “Then shall your light blaze forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily, your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Eternal shall be your rear guard. Then, when you call, the Eternal will answer. When you cry, God will say, ‘Here I am.’”
May we always recognize and use our power to make positive change in the world.
May our efforts merit us a good signing and sealing for the year ahead.
And let us say, Amen.
 Deuteronomy 30:19.
 Pirkei Avot 3:15.
 Haftarah commentary, p, 639. See p. xxxvi-xxxvii for general background
 Isaiah 58:1-14.
 See www.glassslipperproject.org and https://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/fashion/ct-life-0422-glass-slipper-project-20180416-story.html?askdfh
 See https://www.rockandwrapitup.org.
 See https://nowcs.org/about/.
 My thanks to Danny Siegel, Naomi Eisenberger, the Ziv Tzedakah Fund, and the Good People Fund, from whom I learned about David Levitt and so many of these Mitzvah Heroes.
 Pirkei Avot 2:5.
 Isaiah 58: 8-9.