Ellen and Miriam Talk Ropes and the Ties That Bind
A SERMON FOR KOL NIDRE 5778
Rabbi Ellen Lippmann
Student Rabbi Miriam Grossman
MIRIAM: On Yom Kippur, the High Priest of the ancient Temple would enter the Kodesh ha K’doshim, the Holy of Holies with a rope tied round his ankle. There he would atone, plead, pray on behalf of his people. According to the Zohar, a central Jewish mystical text, the purpose of the rope was to pull the priest back out from that sacred space, lest in entering G-d’s innermost chamber the priest faced something so intense and spiritually volatile he could not survive. If the High Priest died in that holy space, no one would be able to go in after him since he was the only human being allowed to enter in the first place. If the High Priest died, he would have to be pulled out by a rope, which the Zohar says was woven from gold.
Today, there is no Temple. And instead of sending one emissary to encounter that which is powerful and intense, that which is honest and devastating and raw, we face it together. There is no more High Priest. No more rope wrapped around one ankle. Instead, we are bound to each other. We are tied to each other on a small planet. We are linked by air and soil and water. We are bound up with each other in our struggles for liberation and in our capacity to comfort and sustain one another.
ELLEN: But who were those others who tied the priest’s rope? Who fed the high priest, who sat with him while he prepared, who listened to his fears? Even he was clearly not alone except in the moment of entering the Holy of Holies. Maybe the story of the high priest and the hidden story of his friends or helpers or allies really teaches us in this way too that we need one another, we can’t be lone wolves, or think we each have all the answers, all the bravery, all the risk-taking. We need each other.
MIRIAM: From sunset to sunset, on Yom Kippur we face ourselves and our world with an intensity we don’t often reach the rest of the year. We sit with the ways we have fallen short. We sit with our mortality. We sit with the ways we, individually and collectively, have alienated or denigrated other people. Alone, any of it could be too much. Alone, we could easily lose ourselves to guilt, worry, panic. Alone, we might wander through the chambers of some Temple in our own minds, lost in questions and doubt, never able to leave and do the work of transformation this day demands. But on Yom Kippur we physically gather together en mass, as we have tonight. We sing “Ashamnu- we have done wrong” and “Hoshienu- save us”. We plead, we pray, we dream and mourn and remember in the plural. On Yom Kippur, even in facing the hardest things, especially in facing the hardest things, we are not alone.
ELLEN: We are not alone. But where are we headed? and how will we get there? I think we begin by recognizing that we are not alone, and that unexpected others might be our allies.
What is an ally? Someone who will defend you? Who will you defend? Always? Sometimes? Up to what point of danger or risk?
On my front door there is a poster I got at one of the many protests and rallies I attended during the year. This one has a drawing of three women, all Black or Brown, one wearing a hijab. It says “We all belong here. We will defend each other.” It is for me a prayer, an aspiration: We DO all belong here, and I HOPE we will defend each other when needed.
MIRIAM: There is a chassidic teaching that says there is a rope tying every person to G-d and that when a wrong is committed that rope is severed. Through teshuva we make a knot. And in tying that knot we make the rope shorter, we draw closer to G-d. Regardless of what G-d, or of being tied to G-d means to you, I think all of us can say: we are tied to each other. And that the work of holding up the ties, the connections, the safety nets, is hard. Sometimes our hands burn, sometimes we sever a cord. The process of teshuva is a process of drawing nearer to each other, of tightening and strengthening the ropes, the lines from person to person, from community to community. In thinking of this kind of interconnectedness, there are moments that have stayed with me, pulled me closer to a vision of solidarity and teshuva, a vision of repair and return between people.
Last year, I spoke on this bimah about Standing Rock. I had just returned from my first trip to the Water Protector’s encampment in North Dakota, where thousands fought to stop the Dakota Access pipeline. I shared that 8 years prior, I had lived and worked on Standing Rock Reservation. I remember what it felt like to become accountable to people there, to be woven into the ongoing struggle, to be handed a rope.
8 years ago, I was partnered with a woman named Jen. I remember when I learned how Jen’s brother Luke died. A tall, brown, Lakota man, a loving brother, a son, Luke was shot by a white police officer. He died in parking lot at age 21. I remember when Jen told me. How she shook her head and looked away. How I thought of my own brother, tall and white, who would get to stay a boy. Who would get to stay alive. Hearing how Luke died, did not feel like a gold rope was being wrapped round my ankle. It did not feel like anyone was asking for a high priest. There was no call for a white savior.
It felt, and still feels, like someone I loved, someone who is still a friend, was holding up a sinking ship with a rope between her hands, her palms burning and raw, as she fought to lift that sinking barge with her beloved family onboard. It felt like she said “Here, you hold on too. Here grab this. Here don’t walk away just because you can. Here. Hold on. And when I say pull, you pull with me. If there are enough of us, bound up together, if a thousand of us are holding on, maybe we will not all go down.”
For me, grabbing that rope meant facing up close truths about the ways communities of color are policed in cities and reservations and towns across this country, for the supposed “safety” of white folks like me. Grabbing that rope meant sitting in close proximity to devastating grief with Jen and her mother. And when I returned to Standing Rock years later to stand against the Dakota Access Pipeline, grabbing the rope meant facing the urgency of climate catastrophe in a way I had long been afraid to do. Sometimes I have not been the ally, the comrade, the co-conspirator I want to be. Sometimes I have let go of the rope. But mostly I have surrounded myself with friends and community, people who keep me holding on, pulling my weight, my stance wide, as I watch their hands grab on too.
ELLEN: The ropes binding us together are sometimes unseen but palpable. I told you on erev Rosh HaShanah that I had been a maid in a motel. It was the summer of 1970, the Kent State shootings had just happened, and many schools, including mine, shut down. In Boston, some enterprising students formed a “People’s University.” I was interested in what they were doing until they started having meetings they said would be for students and workers - held on weekdays at 11 am! I was working at a motel with career maids, and I knew none of them would be able to nor might want to meet with young privileged students so heedless that they didn’t realize a Tuesday at 11 was not a time for a meeting with workers. I stuck with the maids. They were older and tougher and smarter than me, and they took me under their wings, and taught me useful skills like how to really make a bed or how to use one of the motel rooms for a break with TV watching and take-out food. When I first started working with JFREJ on the needs of domestic workers, I remembered those maids who taught me that the needs of low wage workers are crucial in a country where everyone rich and poor pretends to be middle class. When I first started marching at 5 AM a few years ago with New York’s fast food workers, I remembered those tough maids too, and I spoke and chanted and sang and cheered and woke up the folks on 5th Avenue in the maids’ honor. The maids and domestic workers and fast food workers all held each other up and were willing to take a chance on young, unknowing me. The maids I met at 21 I owe big time and will never be able to repay them. I can’t even get their successors a living wage.
MIRIAM: Sometimes I have felt the rope fray in my hands as I struggle to find the right place to grasp on.
Last Fall, when I went back to Standing Rock, I was arrested with a group of clergy acting in solidarity with the Water Protectors. In an act of civil disobedience, we held a sit-in in the ND state house and prayed and chanted until we were arrested. We were released on bail the next day. A group of Catholic workers refused bail and chose to stay in jail for weeks as part of a separate plan to jam up the penal system making additional arrests more difficult for the already overcrowded department.
When I returned from my arrest a day later, I eventually joined my friend Waste Win Young, a leader in the movement who used the funds we at Kolot raised to help buy three yurts for Water Protectors to live in through the winter. In one of those yurts, I meet a Water Protector who was moved by the Catholic worker’s sacrifice. She asked why I had not done it too. The truth was simple, in the coming weeks I had to work. I had to return to school. In jail, I had been responsible for other people who had medicine and family and partners to return home to. I had done the most I could at the time and I was aware of how small that was in the face of centuries of colonization and brutality. This woman was disappointed, annoyed that I had not stayed in jail.
At first I felt depleted. I had spent the last day in harsh conditions, being held and cuffed for hours through the night. It hurt that in some way I had tried to show up but it was not enough. Until I remembered that this woman had been among the first to be attacked by the highly militarized police who had arrived at the camp a few weeks earlier. She was traumatized and she was leading other Water Protectors with no chance to regroup or recover. It was not her job to congratulate me for what I had done. It was not her job to make me feel comfortable or proud. My job was to show up when asked, to offer what I could at the time and to recognize that it was not enough. Once I accepted the tension and awkwardness, I was more at peace. This was a historic devastating breathtaking struggle and it was not about me. I did not need to feel guilty and did not need to take up space with that guilt. I needed to keep showing up. I am strong and I am not the center of this, I thought as I clasped that rope, now a little frayed between my hands, and steadied myself to pull.
There is no more high priest. There is no-one to guide us entirely in the work of teshuva and atonement across cultures, the work of transformation across lines of power and oppression. There is no one to do this work on our behalf and there is no way to do it without making mistakes and coming up short. We are left to bind ourselves to each other, to hold on to each other. We are left to do it imperfectly. We are left to try anyway.
ELLEN: Sometimes my rope too frays and threatens to break.
I still remember vividly one day at a community-organizing retreat for clergy and other leaders of religious communities. A Kolot leader who came raised some questions that some of Kolot’s LGBTQI members had asked him to address there, mostly whether there was room in the collective agenda for attention to LGBTQI concerns of any kind. Not so unusual but it was a group in which no one had ever mentioned the word gay or queer. This was way back in 2010 after all. I was the only “queer” person in the room, so after hearing a lot of homophobia expressed, I thought I’d better say that I hoped everyone understood they were not only dissing members of our congregations but were in fact also talking about me. And I wanted to know if, after years of my getting on buses to Albany for the rights of the varied congregants represented in that room, some of the clergy and other leaders there would get on the bus for my rights as a lesbian, specifically in those days the early fights for marriage equality. Mostly they said no. Some of them were white Irish or Italian Catholic priests, some were Black ministers (men and women), some were non-clergy leaders of churches. No mosques represented back then, and we were one of two Jewish congregations. Mostly they said no. I was hurt, and angry, and tempted to say,”Well,then, I am not going with you to fight for immigration rights, either!” I didn’t say it. I knew then and now how important immigration rights are. I have gone on to work for lots of different peoples’ rights, sometimes in religious communities’ organizations. I still think it is important for me to work on the issues I find crucial, whether all of me is acknowledged or not. But it makes it much harder. I took on some wariness that day. Sometimes being an ally or wanting one is a tricky business.
There has been a lot of talk this year that says something like, “We don’t agree with everything but we ARE allies/supporters/friends” OR “I can’t be an ally to those folks, their words are too offensive to me.” As with my 2010 story, it can work, but is hard, and sometimes the balance tilts, the rope breaks. How then do we move forward?
What does it mean to ask for forgiveness? What does it mean to forgive? What does it mean to “return”? What happens between “ratzo” and “shov,” between the time you ran away and the time you returned? When do you just keep showing up? To echo Abraham as he tried to keep God from destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, what if you agree 50% of the time? Will you still work together? What if it is only 30%? Or 10? The answer probably depends on how offensive the offense has been, and how deeply it hurts a part of you that is necessary to who you are. For some of us Jews, for example, that can mean feeling offended by something that feels anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish.
So I was blown away by the statement that to me was so clearly teshuva, by the organizers of tomorrow’s March for Racial Justice. They are commemorating a terrible killing of Black people in Elaine, Arkansas, on September 30, 1919, so worked for many months to plan the march on september 30. They were not thinking about Yom Kippur. I assume most or all are not Jewish, so why would they? A lot of Jews got upset or angry. And then came a good ally moment: First, a small group of Jewish justice leaders reached out to tell the organizers that September 30 is Yom Kippur this year, and to express some of their hurt and worry that Jews would be seen as absent from the march. And then the march organizers put out their statement. They said in part, “The organizers of the March for Racial Justice did not realize that September 30 was Yom Kippur … Choosing this date, we now know, was a grave and hurtful oversight on our part. It was unintentional and we are sorry for this pain as well as for the time it has taken for us to respond. Our mistake highlights the need for our communities to form stronger relationships.” They offered to help organize marches for this Sunday across the country in different cities. And Jewish communities rallied: We will be joining Jews from across the city on Sunday, as well as many many others for whom this is front line crucial. All ropes fray sometimes, and many have noted that their lovely statement leaves out Jews of Color, implying that all people of color are not Jewish and all Jews are white. More relationship building needed.
This need for stronger relationships is key, I think. More and more I find myself agreeing to be part of a letter, an action, a march because I am asked by people I know and already love or trust. Communally, this forming of stronger relationships is crucial. If we are all to come together, to feel bound together, we need to be together at the start, sitting at the planning table, in on the late night phone calls, consulted or consulting in the behind-the- scenes asks. And we will only get asked to be at those tables if we already have strengthening relationships, the ties that bind.
MIRIAM: Kol Nidre is the one night a year when the whole community wears tallitot. If you have one on, or are near one, I invite you to bring the tzit tzit, the knots, into your hands. (Pause.) These knots, these small ropes and strings, are meant to serve as reminders of how we intend to live. In the Talmud there are stories where tzit tzit come to life and gently slap rabbis who are swept up in lust and mischief and are not making the best decisions in front of other people. This is...hilarious. But it means that tzit tzit, in a serious way, are meant to be daily physical reminders of the ways we are tied to other people and to the lives we want to live.
Take them in your hands, set them in the palm or between your finger, or if they are not in your hands- imagine them. This year who will you bind yourself to? Who will help you secure the ropes when they frey? What work, what movements, what justice seeking, meaning making, deep healing will you be bound up with? If you do not wear tzit tzit everyday, as most of us here do not, what could serve daily as a reminder of the ways we are all bound together? Or the ways you intend to hold on. Is it sign on your door? Art on your wall? A relationship that keeps you tethered to yourself and to the world?
Now, I invite you to hold onto the tzit tzit of someone next to you- with permission from them. (Pause.)
This year may we be bound up with people who will help us face the holy of holies, that which is powerful and raw, that which is honest and devastating. May we be bound up with each other in the work of teshuva and transformation. May we know that none of us are holding on alone.