Liz Schalet and Liz Vladeck, on the Isaiah haftarah from Yom Kippur

We offer today a translation and interpretation of portions of Isaiah by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, who leads a congregation in Western Mass and is better known as the Velveteen Rabbi, along with our own commentary

LIZ S - Text/Reader 1:

Build a highway! 
Clear a road! 
Remove all obstacles from My people's path!

LIZ V - Commentary:

We make the road by walking—how do we do this? What does it mean? With whom do we walk?

LIZ S - Text/Reader:

So says the One who dwells on high, 
whose name is holy: 
"I dwell in high holiness —
but also with the oppressed 
and those whose spirits are low.
I breathe new life into the low-spirited, 
I restore the hearts of the oppressed. 

Your sinful greed made Me angry. 
I lashed out; I hid My face.” 

 

LIZ V - Commentary:

Looking at the world around us now it is hard not to feel that God’s face is hidden. It is hidden from the workers who, making minimum wages, don’t even know from day to know when, whether, or how much they might earn—and how much money they will bring home at the end of the week; whether they will be able to put food on the table and take care of their families. It is hidden from the black men, women and children who have lost their lives in encounters with police that should never have happened, let alone turned so arbitrary and violent. It is hidden from the hundreds of thousands of refugees - children, women, men, doctors, nurses, aid workers, dying in their homes, dying at sea, dying in the most horrible circumstances.

LIZ S - Text/Reader:

"The wicked are like a choppy sea, 
never at rest, 
whose waters are dark with mud. 
There is no rest," says my God,
"for the wicked."

 

 

LIZ V - Commentary:

Too often it seems it is the wicked who rest, while we are restless wondering what to do, how to be even a drop in the sea of work that is needed to make the waters more smooth and clear.  

LIZ S - Text/Reader:

"Cry out, don't hold back. 
Raise your voice like a shofar! 
Remind My people they have transgressed;
remind the house of Jacob of their misdeeds.

 

LIZ V - Every day they seek me, 
eager to learn My ways. 
As if they were a righteous nation
which hasn't abandoned justice, 
they ask Me for the right way. 
They are eager to be near Me.

LIZ S - Commentary

A little over a year ago, I was working in an employment law firm on behalf of people who had been mistreated by their employers. I was helping individuals get compensated for the mistreatment they'd received--harassment, poor working conditions, unlawful wage schemes . But I wasn't doing anything to change the system. It was always each employee for herself, while the employers viewed these monetary settlements as just another cost of doing business.  It became clear to me that I wasn’t heeding the words in Isaiah: "Cry out, don't hold back. Raise your voice like a shofar!

So, with the support of my family and friends and knowing the activist community in New York was there for us, myself and four other women, created a new law firm dedicated to empowering workers, to further social justice goals. Our mission is to not only get our individual clients the compensation they deserve but to build a worker movement of individuals who feel empowered to fight on their own behalf and on behalf of others in similar situations. We are taking on campaign cases and still our success has not brought about the sea changes still hoped for, so we continue to struggle with this situation and many others.  

LIZ V - Our City has created a new Office of Labor Policy and Standards—one of the first in the country—which I am honored to lead. We focus on concrete things, like making sure people can care for themselves or their family when they’re sick without worrying about losing a day’s pay. We’re looking at broader initiatives, like a law that would limit unpredictable scheduling practices which hurt workers—especially low-wage workers, women, people of color—when they don’t know when they will work or how much money they will make. I rejoice in the exciting political moment that has brought so much energy and innovation to these deeply-rooted problems - and I recognize how many of you contributed to the creation of this Office, whether by directly, mindfully, strategically working for its creation all these years, or through your support and showing up for social movements around our city that created the political space and will that made the creation of our Office possible. But at the same time, every day as I go to work, I think to myself, it is not enough. Justice is too far away. Yet I go to work every day even though it is not enough. This is the tension that I find myself wrestling with—especially at Yom Kippur.

 

LIZ S - Reader/Text
They ask, 'Why, when we fasted, 
did You not see us? 
When we starved our bodies, You paid no heed!'"

 

LIZ V - Commentary:

In other verses of Isaiah (1:16-17), we are told to “wash ourselves clean and cease to do evil, to devote ourselves to justice and aid the wronged.” And so we fast on Yom Kippur. But here we are told it is not enough.

LIZ S - Reader/Text
"Because on your fast day 
you're thinking about your business!
You're oppressing your workers! 
Your fast is marred with ego and argument.
You strike with a wicked fist.
Your fasting today 
will not make your voice heard on high!"
"Is this the fast I want? 
A day for people to starve their bodies?
Do I want you to bow your heads like the reeds,
to mortify your bodies 
with coarse cloth and ashes?
You call that a fast, a day
when Adonai will look upon you with favor?"

"No! 
This is the fast I want: 
unlock the chains of wickedness,
untie the knots of servitude. 
Let the oppressed go free, 
their bonds broken.
Share your bread with the hungry, 
and welcome the homeless into your home.
When you see the naked, clothe them. 
All people are your kin: 
do not ignore them."

LIZ V - Commentary

“All people are your kin.” Earlier in our text, we were scolded for acting as if we are a righteous nation, the people of Israel. Maybe on this day some of us are thinking about our business, some of us are oppressing our workers. But we identify as a congregation committed to doing justice - Justice, Justice shall you pursue, we say to one another. And so maybe our fast is not enough because it is self-focused, because we reflect only on our relationships with, our actions towards those we think of us as our “kin,” instead of “all people.”

This is what our privileges allow us to do: our white privilege, our class privilege, the privileges that allow us still to think of the oppressed in our world today as “other,” to see our efforts to sound the shofar as charity instead of an act of our own survival. In our jobs, in our activism, in our lives outside this space, many of us do good works, and seek justice. BUT when we think about our clients, our constituents, our fellow activists, our members, do we view ourselves as doing the work, FOR them, or WITH them? We sound this shofar: whether you are just beginning to do the good work, whether you are preparing to just show up, or whether you seek to do justice every day, ask yourselves the question—every day—what are the micro- and macro-supports that you can use your privileges and experiences of injustice to deploy?

LIZ S - Ask yourself, is there a way for me to make a change this year? Can we all ask, how can I help? Maybe it is treating a worker better, the stocker we see in the market, a doorman, a cleaner, a train conductor? Maybe it is giving more financially to homeless organizations or groups that fight poverty? Maybe it is hosting a fundraiser. Going to a protest, writing an email, Or maybe it is getting involved in the social justice or gemulit chasidim comm at Kolot Chayeinu.  At social justice last year, there were over 50 actions, campaigns and projects that the Kolot Chayeinu social justice committee folks were involved with. This year, we hope to hold another large event dealing with Refugees issues, can you help out?  Let us work together to untie the knots of servitude, share our bread, and multiply the light of others to shine in the darkness.

 

LIZ V - Text/Reader:

"Then you will shine like the dawn, 
and healing will rise up within you. 
Your righteousness will vindicate you; 
the presence of God will guard your safety.
Then, when you call, Adonai will answer. 
When you cry out
God will say, 'Here I am.'"

 

BOTH - May our light shine in the darkness

 

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