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Erev Yom Kippur Dvar Torah
10/8/2011, Tishrei, 5772
David Fisher

Erev tov.

I got to Newton this afternoon after a long overnight bus from school in Oberlin, OH, and feel very lucky for the opportunity to spend this day with my parents and community at home. As many of you know, it's been a year of travel for me. I've enjoyed the opportunity to learn, work, and live with communities of all sorts across the planet - from the crew of a transatlantic freighter, to a farming community in Northern Italy, to a kibbutz in the sparsely populated Arava valley of southern Israel, to a missionary center in rural Kentucky, to Oberlin Ohio – and so on. When Rabbi Audrey asked me to share a brief reflection on what I've learned, I was not sure where to start! The truth is that I can barely make sense of all these experiences myself. And, that is why I am here. I am here to open the Machzor, and search. *PAUSE*

After one of the most intensely formative years I have lived – I've learned to rely more steadfastly on the most central words of the tradition. I think that today's haftorah, from the book of Isaiah, offers not only the central lesson of Judaism but a clear answer to why I have experienced this year of life as deeply stabilizing – in spite of all the moments along the way when I really did not know where I was going. Relying on those closest to me for emotional support through my transitions, and witnessing the immense generosity of human nature – especially through my interreligious work – has deepened my own Jewish faith. I can find no more fitting explanation for my interpretation of Isaiah, than to share my experience partnering with service ministries in rural Kentucky over the past year.

Quoting from today's Haftorah in Isaiah 58, describing our fast:

Is such the fast I desire, A day when men starve their bodies? Is it a bowing the head like a bulrush And lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, A day when the lord is favorable? No, this is the day I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yolk To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, And to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to cloth him, And not to ignore your own kin. Then your light shall burst forth like the dawn, And your healing spring up quickly.

As I read him, Isaiah demands a social dedication so deep as to obliterate "otherness" altogether. I think that this is the path to inner resilience and faith, social progress, and fulfillment of Jewish purpose at the highest level.

When you see the naked, to clothe him, And not to ignore your kin. Then when you call, the lord will answer; When you cry, He will say: "Here I am – Hineini"

Reflecting on the words of Isaiah, my memory turns to where I began truly understanding them on my own terms. This time last year, I was finishing preparations for my first trip to Harlan County, Kentucky, with a delegation of Oberlin College volunteers. We partnered there with Heritage ministries during the last week in October 2010. The stunning autumn landscape stood in stark contrast with local and regional challenges surrounding mountaintop removal coal-mining. Our visit was also awash with hospitality, and possibly even more good food than a fleet of Jewish grandmothers would ask us to eat. The loving people we met were an inspiration amidst social difficulties of the region, where local poverty rates exceed 30%. The more I learned about the immediate Harlan County community and Appalachian region more broadly, the more I appreciated the generosity of the culture and the more I realized the complexity of challenges that the people are facing.

As the first Jew to have an opportunity to work with a ministry in the area, I admit that I did carry some nervousness alongside my hopes for collaboration. We arrived on a Sunday evening, and the first thing I was going to have to explain to our host on Monday morning was that we had misplaced the check for our lodging fee, and would need to send it after returning home. Our delegation came on behalf of a student organization, Immerse Yourself in Service, a group that provides alternative fall/spring break opportunities. I had hoped that our work with Heritage Ministries would blossom into a robust and long-term partnership for many years to come. On day one though, we couldn't pay for our lodging. So there I was: the first Jew, the first Oberlin student to organize work in the area – and I knew that I was about to make a great impression. This was my state of mind as our group of seven gathered in the living room of a house we did not have rent money for, to meet with our host, Jeff Sim. And, partnering with his evangelical ministry, the missing check represented a healthy list of concerns I had about working together.

Jeff sat with us and explained his eagerness and curiosity to work together, although we were the first non-church group to partner for community service with Heritage Ministries, which he and his wife direct together. His calm demeanor would remain a centering presence throughout the week, whether he was methodically building a roof or sitting with us at a camp fire and roasting a hot dog. Jeff has a quiet and calming clarity of purpose, and stamina for long days and weeks of leading home-repair teams. He warmly welcomed us in joining him for a week of working with the local community, and cautiously explained that he would enjoy learning about our beliefs while sharing his own, if we were interested to ask. When I told him about the check, I should have known that he would not mind – these things happen, and that was that. We shook hands and went out to begin insulating windows for the winter.

As we drove from job to job that week, I familiarized myself with the car radio, and decided that the best music for our diverse group of left-leaning college students would be the Christian rock station. As we rolled through the week listening to music that had at first felt quite foreign, we started to realize that the soundtrack was a perfect match for our week in rural Kentucky: for those who sang, Jesus was an expression of absolute justice, the fullest compassion, forgiving and loving.

Returning to the words of Isaiah, is his charge not to pursue a purity of love as fully as possible; to accept others (and ourselves) warts and all; to embrace others' physical needs as our own? Better understanding the meaning of love and service for my evangelical friends and colleagues in Kentucky, they have not simply shown me how to love them in spite of our proudly held political and religious difference. They have played a critical role in the transformation of my own understanding of Judaism.

When you see the naked, to clothe him, And not to ignore your kin. Then when you call, the lord will answer; When you cry, He will say: "Here I am – Hineini"

These words bring my mind to my second trip to Kentucky, this past summer – to memories of driving from work site to work site in the passenger seat of Jeff's pickup truck, as he explained why he and his wife dedicated their lives to service a handful of years ago. His eyes relaxed with a smile, and I could see him looking back on the transformational moments of being called to a life of service. I think back now, to my own search for meaning, as a high school student – I would ponder why activism projects I enjoyed pursuing actually mattered. Isaiah fills in the gap for me. I do believe that we humans are here for a reason, and that the search for moral truth is of inherent value; and so I must look beyond the natural. I have always experienced my own religious journey as Jeff does his – a call of accountability from beyond myself, beyond humanity alone. Isaiah is there to remind us that theology is just this simple: we need not faith for faith's sake, we need faith in the ontological truth of our moral purpose in life.

When you see the naked, to clothe him, And not to ignore your kin. Then when you call, the lord will answer; When you cry, He will say: "Here I am – Hineini"

It is no coincidence that the most important day in our calendar revolves around these words. Our task, it would seem, is astonishingly simple - at least on paper. I am called to be my fullest self in supporting others as fully as I can. This is to approach the Divine, to obliterate considerations of distinctions between myself and others; to come within earshot of Gd whispering "Hineini" in my own moments of pain.

The real challenge is allowing others to be there for me. I am reminded of the many friends who fed me warm meals in Kentucky this summer, who lent me a dry roof, who just wanted to welcome me into their homes as a friend. More difficult, I am reminded of needing a friend's shoulder to cry on, as my year of international transitions overwhelmed me. I remember my parents' words of encouragement to follow through with my overwhelming travel schedule, in moments of doubt before I left for Israel. Too often, I've been taught to pursue fierce independence. I've come to embrace dependence. So I'm here to visit my family, with a simple truth: I need you guys.

Without people of absolute generosity in my own life as a whole, including the most supportive family anyone could ask for, I would never have made it through the challenging transitions of this year. Our fast is here to bring us down to earth, more and more intensely as we work through this day; to remind us that others' compassion for us is our salvation – we people need each other. Isaiah is not just about supporting the physical needs of our most vulnerable. We must not only clothe the naked, we must never ignore our kin – those closest to us.

Our tradition puts forward that this ultimate moral obligation is woven into the fabric of the world and of our own being. Isaiah does not ask us to follow halakhic obligations, be they ritual laws, kashrut, or laws of tzedekah, with any thought of a world to come. When the words of tradition articulate Teshuva - return to the Divine - in the prayers of my own lips, I am called to unveil the source of morality in this world and in my own life, here and now. Not through prayer alone, but through building interdependence.

When you see the naked, to clothe him, And not to ignore your kin. Then when you call, the lord will answer; When you cry, He will say: "Here I am – Hineini"