By Dafna Freiberg Bearson
(Yom Kippur I gave this sermon at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, CA.)
On the holiest day, in the holiest place, the holiest person went alone into the holiest room. The ancient ritual of Yom Kippur – which we read of in today’s Torah portion – presents us with a vision of holiness in the literal sense of the Hebrew word kedusha, which means separation. The High Priest goes further and further inward until alone, in splendid isolation, he is privileged to perform the purification rituals to atone for the people’s sins.
Today, in our own small way, we emulate his practice. We retreat from our daily activities – from the very essentials of life itself: eating and drinking. We stop the clock for a day to examine what we have become – and to wonder what we might yet be. Alone in a crowded room, we each look deeply inward.
Yet today’s haftorah tells us to do something entirely different. In contrast to the High Priest’s retreat into isolation, Isaiah tears down the edifice of ritual and urges us to look beyond it. God rejects prayer and fasting, Isaiah tells us, unless it is coupled with righteous action.
The Haftorah begins: “Adonai says: Build up, build up a highway! Clear a road! Remove all obstacles from the road of my people!”
It’s April and I am on a highway aboard Greece’s version of a Greyhound bus going North. It’s been 45 minutes of gorgeous, winding Greek country roads when a flash of red in the distance catches my eye. A gas station! As we draw nearer, thousands of camping tents of all colors sprout up beside the road until suddenly they flood my vision. We pass the gas station and, just like that, the tents disappear, as if they were never really there. Only the highway remains.
The bus didn’t stop at the gas station. No one really does. I didn’t realize until later that night that this gas station – engulfed by a makeshift refugee camp filled with 3,000 Syrian, Kurdish, Iraqi, and Afghan families – would become my second home over the next two months.
A week after I began volunteering at what we called “EKO gas station refugee camp,” I was going tent to tent asking families what clothing they needed most. Though the refugees had close to nothing and lived in an unofficial camp on the side of a highway, I was greeted with effusive hospitality at every single tent. Invitations to share a cup of tea or strong coffee, oranges that had been handed out in the morning – anything they had, they invited me to share.
“Salaam,” I said to a man sitting outside of one of the few larger white and blue tents provided by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He smiled at me and said, “Welcome!”
Rashid introduced himself. His English was surprisingly good. And although I was a stranger, he shared his story:
Rashid and his wife were both teachers in Homs, Syria. They had stable jobs and enough money to live a decent life with their beautiful 3-year old daughter, and her grandparents. Rashid’s wife was 6 months pregnant with their second child. But one day bombs destroyed their home, and Rashid’s parents urged the family to escape Syria, saying: “Your children, they have everything ahead of them. For the sake of your children, go!”
The family spent most of their savings to pay a smuggler who promised to take them to Turkey. From there, they would go to Europe, hoping to build a better life.
Early in the morning on the day of their departure, Rashid woke up his family. Through sleepy eyes, his 3-year-old daughter asked him where they were going. Remembering her love of flowers, Rashid reassured his daughter:
“To a beautiful garden.”
The Haftorah reads: “But the wicked are like the troubled sea, which cannot rest, whose waters toss up mire and mud.”
Rashid calls it the “Sea of Death,” a sea that has swallowed too many of their friends and family. Yet it was a risk worth taking to escape the civil war at home. After walking 125 miles through Turkey, the family boarded a plastic fishing boat meant for a maximum of six people. There were 55, standing, bodies pressed up against one another, petrified by fear until – after what felt like eternity – they arrived on the shore of Greece. Rashid held his family and cried – out of happiness. “I thought I had saved their lives,” he said.
The Haftorah declares: “Cry with a full throat, without restraint; raise your voice like a rams horn!”
By the time Rashid and his family arrived, the border from Greece into Macedonia had been abruptly closed. Like so many others with nowhere else to go, they camped at EKO gas station where I sat with him that day. To the right a highway, to the left farmland. To the south, a breadcrumb trail of escape that thousands of families paved on their way to various EU countries. To the north, a border barred by a metal fence built on broken dreams.
I couldn’t help but notice that Rashid wears Keens, shiny blue skiing sunglasses, a baseball cap, and a California 1927 t-shirt. He looks as if he could be a teacher in Berkeley, or the father of one of my friends. He even gave me his email! He seemed just like any person, only he is a refugee.
As he told me his story, his eyes shone with fierce determination. His voice only broke when he spoke about his three-year-old daughter.
For the two months they have lived in the camp, his daughter has had nightmares. Every morning, she wakes up in her tent wearing the same clothes she has worn since the night they left Homs, and asks her father:
“Where is the beautiful garden?”
Over the course of my stay, I met many people in the camp and listened to their stories. Fatima who mourned the loss of her 7-year-old sister. Nour whose twinkling laugh made it hard to believe his 41- year-old father had been killed by ISIS. 12-year-old Haneen who is suicidal, 13-year-old Mohammad who has an indentation in his neck from when shrapnel hit him, 17-year-old Abdullah who describes surviving torture the way my friends and I discuss getting through a difficult exam. Babies born into a world not willing to welcome them. Parents who can’t raise their voices on their children’s behalf. Children who grow up without access to a normal life.
All of them ask the same questions: Why doesn’t the world care? Why am I not important?
A friend back home asks me: But what am I supposed to do? I cannot end the Syrian Civil War or change US policy. Where do I start?
First, when it comes to world affairs we – the people – are not powerless. But more importantly, this isn’t about international affairs or politics. This is simply about 14-year-old Fatima, 13-year-old Nour, and Rashid’s 3-year-old daughter. And when we forget about them – the real humans, the children – we can feel overwhelmed, powerless and saddened by the gravity of it all. If we give in to this numbness, we forfeit the obligation, privilege and fulfillment of helping a fellow human being. Simple actions make a world of difference.
I know this because I have seen it:
“We need magic here,” declared 13-year-old Nour, an aspiring magician himself. A few days later, a troupe of clowns from England appeared and for an hour, they filled the camp with belly-deep laughter.
Two young volunteers – one from France and one from England – set up a make-shift kitchen in the camp, where refugees flocked to transform fresh vegetables into traditional Syrian dishes for lunch each day.
A Spanish woman gave baths to babies in a women-only tent, so mothers could have a safe space to sleep, laugh, and cry when they needed.
My sisters sent videos of themselves telling silly jokes and expressing friendship in simple English that I shared with the children in the camp. “Your sisters all the way in America are thinking about me,” the children said, smiling.
When my mom visited me, I introduced her to a 23-year-old woman named Sumaya. As they embraced, Sumaya was reminded of her own mother who she had not seen in years, and she began to sob. My mother held her, and held her tighter, until finally Sumaya let go of her loneliness and soaked in a mother’s love.
After I returned home from Greece, my father spoke on the phone to my best friend from the camp – 18-year old Abdullahziz – complimenting his artwork. My father also poured hours into helping me write this drash, so that it would be possible for me to share these stories today.
My friends share the posts written by refugees on Facebook. I text with refugees every day on WhatsApp.
Community members call their state representatives and donate hard-earned money to organizations caring for refugees.
Like another volunteer said, “Maybe these things are just a drop in the ocean, but the ocean is made of drops.”
The Haftorah asserts: “This is the fast [Adonai] desire[s]: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke 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.”
Why do I share these stories today? Certainly it doesn’t hurt to be reminded that there is more that most of us can do. If you’re interested in getting involved there are cards with my contact info in the lobby.
But why discuss this specifically today, on Yom Kippur? Does the sense that we haven’t adequately fulfilled the mandate to pursue justice invalidate our fast? Should we put off fasting until we can get it right?
I don’t think that’s the message of the Haftorah. On the contrary, Isaiah is teaching us how to make our fast meaningful.
Rabbi Julia Andelman writes, “We must not enter Yom Kippur under the assumption that fasting and prayer alone can bring about atonement for our sins. If we spend the day fervently engaged in ritual activities and then return to our lives as if nothing has changed – as if spiritual self-reflection has nothing to do with how we conduct ourselves in the world – then we have missed the point entirely.”
While it may be more comfortable to engage with biblical readings and sermons addressing exclusively our own lives, our real task on Yom Kippur is to discern what the world needs us for – what is our unique purpose, and to remind ourselves of our obligation to fulfill that task. From right here in Berkeley to refugee camps in Greece, the world desperately seeks our attention. Yom Kippur offers us the opportunity to commit – amidst all our obligations: homework, family, jobs – to do our individual part to make the world a better place.
As I read this Haftorah, I not only hear a call to action, but also see our people’s story intertwined with the refugee story.
In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:
Why should you not hate the stranger? – asks the Torah. Because you once stood where [s]he stands now. You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt.
The Torah tells us often to care for our neighbor, but it also reminds us to care for the stranger at least 36 times.
Perhaps the greatest insight of Judaism is the realization that when we look in the eyes of the stranger we inevitably see ourselves. We rediscover our best selves not by looking inward, but by reaching out with compassion.
Today’s haftorah isn’t just read to rebuke us for our failures. Isaiah proclaims that by doing good deeds: “Then shall your light burst through like the dawn and your healing spring up quickly.”
It’s not just those we seek to help who are healed, but in the process of extending kindness, we ourselves are healed, too. In EKO – a place of so much pain – I’ve never felt so much love.
“My friend, my friend,” children called to me each day. We played football. We danced late into the night to the Macarena. I slept in the tent of a family that treated me like their daughter. I was taught more Arabic and Kurdish – and we giggled at my pronunciation. We sang, we danced in a circle. We celebrated a baby’s first steps. A couple got engaged. A school was built. Life continues in a refugee camp. Laughter exists in a refugee camp. To me, the laughter says it all: there is hope.
In the words of the haftorah, “Adonai will guide you always, slaking your thirst in parched places and give strength to your bones. You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose waters do not fail.”
May we embrace Isaiah’s challenge to move beyond prayer and actively repair the brokenness in ourselves and the world around us; to see ourselves in each stranger and reach out to strangers and friends with compassion. So that someday soon each child will grow up in a beautiful garden.
Dafna Freiberg Bearson is a Junior at U.C. Berkeley.