Immigration Sermon: Standing Up To Say Amen, Rabbi Ari Margolis

Sample Sermon on Immigration Reform

Sample Sermon on Immigration Reform and Social Justice - "Standing Up To Say Amen"

Yom Kippur 5774

By Rabbi Ari Margolis, Temple Beth Or, Raleigh, NC


And let us say...Amen. Ah, you're all very well trained by now! How many times over the course of this New Year have we said "Amen" so far? It seems that we say it almost every page (which, for those of you who are keeping track, has been 49 pages so far). Amen comes from the Hebrew root aleph, mem, nun,which connotes belief. So, when we say Amen, it's an affirmation - we essentially declare, "I believe."

With all the "Amens" that surround us, an element of our services invites us to consider: What do we believe in? Really, truly, deeply, with all your heart. What do you believe? Where do you find your "Amens?"

A few years ago, an editor, John Brockman, posed a similar question to a number of leading thinkers, "What do you believe, but cannot prove?" Flowing out of the minds of accomplished geniuses in the realms of science, literature, art, music, and scholarship came discourses that ranged from whether or not we are alone in this universe, to whether or not cockroaches have consciousness.

One of my favorite essays in this book follows a discussion about flipping coins. Theoretical physicist Leonard Susskind of Stanford University had the following conversation with one of his students who needed some help understanding statistical analysis:

STUDENT: I flipped this coin 1,000 times. You taught us that the probability of getting heads is one-half...but it didn't work. I got 513. What's wrong?

PROFESSOR: You forgot about the margin of error. If you flip a certain number of times, the margin of error is about the square root of the number of flips. For 1,000 flips, the margin of error is about 30. So, you were within the margin of error.

STUDENT: Ah, now I get it! Every time I flip 1,000 times, I will always get something between 470 and 530 heads. Every single time! Wow, now that's a fact I can count on!

PROFESSOR: No, no! What it means is that you will probably get between 470 and 530.

STUDENT: You mean I could get 200 heads? Or 850 heads? Or even all heads?

PROFESSOR: Probably not.

STUDENT: Maybe the problem is that I didn't make enough flips. Should I go home and try it a million times? Will that work better?

PROFESSOR: Probably.

STUDENT: Come on, Professor. Tell me something I can trust. You keep telling me what "probably" means by giving me more "probablys." Tell me what probability means without using the word "probably."

PROFESSOR: Hmm. Well, how about this - it means I would be surprised if the answer were outside the margin of error.

STUDENT: You mean all that stuff you taught us about statistical mechanics and quantum mechanics and mathematical probability – all it means is that you'd personally be surprised if it didn't work?

Well, Professor Susskind was left speechless. In his essay, he went on to state that despite the fact that probability theory does allow for a chance that a coin will land on heads 1,000,000 times out of 1,000,000 flips, it is his belief that it will never happen. Oh, the scientific conundrum of a theory: we cannot prove such a statement to be true; we can only disprove it. Statistical analysis is at the core of Professor Susskind's work, his teaching and research that produced the field of string theory of particles and space, which has added to our understanding of quantum mechanics. Yet, at its core, all his work hinges on an "Amen," on "I believe."

We all have assumptions that we hold strongly in our hearts, beliefs upon which we build our sense of reality, even if we cannot always prove them. Some of these are solidified through experience and learning: As a recovering chemical engineer, I say "Amen" to science – I believe that gravity holds me to this bimah, that muscles in my diaphragm push air through my vocal chords, creating a wave of energy that can move into your ears, where your body performs natural mathematical calculations that transform those waves into a comprehensive understanding of ideas I am trying to convey, allowing you to respond to the prompt: "Let us say...Amen."

Other "Amens" come from our guts: I believe in love and beauty that shines from beneath the surface, helping us reach the soul – from this Amen sprouts the basis of my relationships and my rabbinate. I believe that each of us has the potential to impact our world this year for the better. Amen. I believe in my heart of hearts that the Cubs will win the World Series...just not this year. Can I get an...Amen.

Our attitudes towards the world around us hinge on the Amens that we say, the beliefs we hold deep in our hearts. And these beliefs should also inspire the actions that we take, the work that we do in this world, particularly when we see a world that falls short of what we know in our hearts to be possible.

Oliver Morton, award-winning Science writer, who has an asteroid named after him (10176 OliverMorton), also responded to the question, "What do you believe but cannot prove?" His Amen is:

"The belief that there is a future much better, in terms of reduced human suffering and increased human potential, than the present, and that...what will make it better is a greater, subtler knowledge of the world at large. If I can't prove this, why do I believe it? Because it's better than believing the alternative. Because it provides a context for social and political action that would otherwise be futile. . ."

In many ways, Mr. Morton described our Jewish concept of tikkun olam – repairing the world. His belief aligns with that of our tradition: that we can possibly leave this world better off than how we inherited it – the basis of our Jewish drive for social justice.

However, as Mr. Morton further pushes his thoughts, his idea becomes an "Amen." He continues:

"Besides the question of why [do I believe this], though, there's the question of how. And the answer to that one is 'with difficulty.' It is not an easy thing for me to make myself believe. But it is what I want to believe, and on my best days I do."

Belief can be tricky for us – some of us are quite logical and do not like the thought that facets of our lives and our world-views are essentially grounded in faith. Especially in the face of evidence that stands contrary to what we strive to hold in our hearts, we can encounter significant crossroads and existential wondering. But sometimes such dissonance between the world as it is and the conviction that it can and should be different becomes our basis for inspiration.

Last night, Rabbi Dinner shared a wonderful example of one who chose to maintain his "Amen" in the face of great odds, as she reminded us that we just recently marked the 50th Anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's famous declaration of his beliefs on Mount Lincoln. Much of his "Amen" has become the reality of our world today. A few minutes ago, Jonathan Kramer beautifully read an important passage from our Haftarah in which the prophet Isaiah implores us to make Yom Kippur a time not only to reflect on what we believe can be possible, but to start getting out and doing it – to feed the hungry and clothe the naked; to free the oppressed and support the vulnerable. We are not here today just to say our "Amens," but rather, to create them.

But how do we begin? And where? As Rabbi Dinner alluded to last night, there are many areas in our society begging us to take a stand and make a difference. Zemer Lexie, our principal, Max Socol, and I have all joined Rabbi Dinner at the Moral Monday gatherings this summer because we all found that our Jewish values and beliefs aligned with the issues that the organizers have sought to impact.

As a people, we believe in justice – our Torah teaches: "tzedek, tzedek, tirdof" - justice, righteousness, shall you pursue. We know that we have needed others to stand for us in the past. We now have the obligation to stand by and with others when society has marginalized them. Amen.

As a people, we believe in education – we have always invested in education – a house of learning has been a central part of almost every Jewish community. We have an obligation to advocate for the institutions of education. North Carolina has slipped from being average to becoming 48th amongst states in the amount of money invested per student in our school system. Many of us stand up for investments in education because we believe that our schools should allow our youth to have the strongest possible opportunities to achieve an education. Amen.

As Reform Jews, our movement believes in comprehensive immigration reform. We remember that our stories here in America have hinged on coming here from other countries. A system that currently separates children from their parents, a system that has deported qualified Jewish educators and leaders from their communities because visa statuses were not granted, a system that does not treat the "ger toshav," "the foreigner who lives among us" with dignity and respect is one that we have an obligation to fix. Much of our current immigration system is filled with injustices that both parties recognize quite a bit of bi-partisan support for its reform. This is why our Reform movement – the Union for Reform Judaism and our Central Conference of American Rabbis have embraced immigration reform as a priority for this year, so there can be more liberty and justice for all. Amen.

Moral Mondays (organized by the NAACP behind Rev. William Barber III) have highlighted these issues, as well as others in their attempts to advocate for the vulnerable in our society. The movement started small but carried behind it a real belief that these gatherings could impact the discourse and policies of those making decisions for our state. As more and more people said "Amen," these weekly demonstrations grew into the thousands and have brought national attention to our local issues that may otherwise have gone unnoticed. And it has certainly helped the newest Jewish Social Action group – Carolina Jews for Justice – expand its network of Jews dedicated to acts of tikkun olam in our state. This organization, co-founded by Max Socol along with others in our TBO family, is fast becoming a place to enact our Jewish Amens.

So, I ask you – what do you believe? What is your Amen? I am not here to say that we all have to go to Moral Mondays – it is but one example of a way to put our Amens into action. Let us work to find our own places for action. If you believe more needs to be done about voter rights, join a registration drive. If you're concerned about the amount of violence in our country, take part in a campaign to call our local and national officials and make your Amen heard. Sign up for our Mitzvah Day – we are working with a slew of organizations that are each doing important work to improve our world. Perhaps one of them will inspire you. If we have not yet found our Amens, Rabbi Hillel of the Mishnah offered three helpful questions:

Question 1: Im ein ani li, mi li? If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

Question 2: U'ch'she-anochi l'atzmi, mah ani? But when I am for myself alone, what am I?

Question 3: V'im lo achshav, eimatai? And if not now, when?

Hillel's first two questions help us identify the commitments we wish to make in this year. Start with self-interest...What do I care about? Where is my passion? What concerns me so much that it is keeping me awake at night? Meanwhile, Hillel's second question demands that we expand our thinking to how others are impacted, as well. He urges us to balance our own needs with those of our larger community.

V'im lo achshav, eimatai? And if not now, when? Goes without saying. Rabbi Hillel is using Jewish guilt to call us to action.

On Yom Kippur, we are reminded that as Jewish people, we are here to act upon our beliefs. It is the day we reset our reality and inform our path, moving forward. This day is about standing up, re-kindling our sense of what we believe and inspiring our actions, as a community, in the year to come – a reminder that we cannot remain neutral and stand idly by. If not now, when?

Now is our time to believe - To believe that we can leave the past year behind us. But the only way to do so is by working to help our beliefs come alive in the year to come. We cannot allow ourselves to become complacent in hoping and wishing. Rather, we have to put action behind our prayers to create the justice we know to be good and right. Pray like everything depends on God, work as if everything depends on you.

Why do we fast on this day? Not to starve our bodies, but rather to purify them. We have done our work on the individual self. This is our day to cleanse ourselves, to wipe the slate clean on the personal level, so that we can be more motivated to move wholeheartedly into the world and affect it. So that we can unshackle the fetters of the oppressed, feed the hungry, care for those most vulnerable, seek justice. So that we can find the confidence, the belief that we can make an impact – that we are part of a bigger whole, one that we can only make whole if we are all contributing, all acting, all getting involved. This purity of soul and of mission is the belief, the faith, the Amen we seek on this day, and it is the power of the day. Our meaningful fasts lift ourselves above the ordinary stresses of our lives to escape the existential doldrums that can eat away at our souls and perspective of self-worth.

Today is a gift: the day we can once again start fresh reconnecting with what we believe. But the world does not get to do so. Rather we are the ones charged with partnering with God to bring to life the values, ideals, and society that has been envisioned by our ancestors before us through Torah, and passed on to us in order to make our own. This is the day we are called upon to answer the pleas of Isaiah and Dr. King and the questions of Rabbi Hillel. It is the day for us not just to say "Amen" – we believe – but to spread our Amens – to go forth, now, in pursuit of a world that is more full, more just, more worthy of our belief. And let us create...Amen.