Our journey through the year can be defined by the holidays which we observe and Parashat Emor includes one of the lists of the cycle of those holidays. Shabbat and the festivals are described in great detail as are the days which we have come to know as Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, the High Holy Days.
Regarding those days, the Torah’s description of Yom Kippur resonates with us in its commandments regarding self-denial and the promise of atonement. But the holiday described just before it is not as familiar. There is no mention of t’shuva, repentance. There is no mention of turning the page on the calendar to a New Year. There is no mention of apples and honey and not even a reference to the name Rosh Hashana as that is a term applied to this day much later in our history. So, what is mentioned? That day is called Yom Zichron Teruah, a day commemorated with loud blasts of a horn.
Of course our Rosh Hashana wouldn’t be the same without the blowing of the Shofar but the development over history has taken the holiday far beyond whatever its original meaning was. The Torah is not clear as to exactly what the blast from the horn was supposed to mean. But, for two thousand years now, the blast has meant the call to action, the awakening of the conscience, the determination to build a better life and a better world.
And, while the Torah uses the word T’ruah to refer to all the sounds that are blown from the Shofar, one of the series of three sounds that we blow is known specifically as T’ruah: 9 staccato notes which in the mystical tradition convey the sense of brokenness, the sense of a world desperately in need of repair. T’ruah also conveys the sense of urgency as it sounds like an unrelenting alarm clock which will not give us rest until it is heeded.
For many in the Jewish community, the word T’ruah now symbolizes something else as well. It symbolizes rabbis, cantors, rabbinical and cantorial students and laypeople from all the movements within Judaism who have come together determined to work for human rights here in the United States, in Israel and in the territories. T’ruah was the name taken by the organization that was once called Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. While continuing to hold great respect for the Israeli organization of Rabbis for Human Rights, the North American organization ended its formal relationship with the Israeli group several years ago in order to focus on human rights issues here at home in addition to those in Israel. A new name was chosen: T’ruah: the Rabbinical Call for Human Rights.
I had been a member of the board of RHR-North America for a few years when I was asked to serve as national co-chair of this new organization with a new name, an expanded vision and a new executive director, Rabbi Jill Jacobs.
I served in the role of co-chair for two years and since my term ended, I have served on the board. It has been an honor and a privilege to have done so and while my term on the board will be complete as of June and I will be stepping down I do so with only the greatest respect and admiration for Rabbi Jacobs, the T’ruah staff, for the organization and for the work that T’ruah continues to accomplish.
Among other efforts, T’ruah has taken American Jews physically and spiritually to the tomato fields of Florida to support the work of the Coalition for Immokalee Workers who have had great success in righting some of the terrible wrongs that had literally enslaved farm workers in the tomato industry.
T’ruah has awakened American Jews to wrestle with the complicated, delicate and critical issue of policing and to strongly oppose the disgraceful expansion of solitary confinement.
T’ruah has successfully brought to light the use of funds by charitable organizations to support efforts that evict Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem from their homes in deference to Jewish settlers.
But, most importantly T’ruah has reminded us that human rights has to be high on the agenda of the Jewish community. As we face issues of immigration and refugee status and sanctuary here at home and as Israel faces the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War which brought such tremendously positive results in terms of security and the return to the kotel and the Old City of Jerusalem but which has carried with it for the Palestinian people ramifications which can not be ignored or minimized, the questions of human rights become even more critical.
I am proud to have been part of the leadership of T’ruah: and I will continue to support and encourage your support for this vital, sacred work.
The foundation of our commitment to human rights as Jews is found throughout our tradition. It is found in Beraysheet which reminds us that we are created equally in the image of God. It is found in Leviticus which as we read last week we are called on to love our neighbor as ourselves. It is found in the Mishna which commands that the honor of another be as dear to us as our own. It can even be inferred from our counting of the omer which urges us to see freedom as carrying with it obligations responsibilities as we move towards the mountain top.
As a people, we can not ignore the commitment to human rights.
And, what applies for us as Jews applies for all people.
I will close therefore with the eloquent and courageous words of Senator John McCain who, in a recent essay, criticized Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who had claimed that conditioning our foreign policy too heavily on values creates obstacles to advance our national interest.
In response, Senator McCain, no stranger to the horrendous effects of human rights abuses, wrote: “I consider myself a realist. I have certainly seen my share of the world as it really is and not how I wish it would be. What I’ve learned is that it is foolish to view realism and idealism as incompatible or to consider our power and wealth as encumbered by the demands of justice, morality and conscience. In the real world, as lived and experienced by real people, the demand for human rights and dignity, the longing for liberty and justice and opportunity, the hatred of oppression and corruption and cruelty is reality. By denying this experience, we deny the aspirations of billions of people.”
Thank you Senator McCain for those brave, inspiring words and thank you for reminding us that human rights is not a partisan issue. We can disagree on specifics but we can not ignore our responsibilities as human beings.
And thank you to T’ruah for what you have taught me and what you continue to teach all of us: that, as Jews, must always be committed to principles of human rights.
Each day must be a Yom T’ruah, each day we must listen to the sound of a world desperately in need of repair and we must listen to the cries of those who depend upon us to insure their rights as human beings.
It is a call we must heed every day as we continue our journey through the years.