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Yom Kippur, 5776 Sermon by Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller

In a famous Talmudic passage, the Rabbis tackle a case of disputed ownership.  Two [people appear before a Court, both] holding onto the same garment. One of them says, Ani m’tzatiha – “I found it,” and the other says, Ani m’tzatiha –  “I found it.” One says: Kula sheli – “It is all mine,” and the other says: Kula sheli –  “It is all mine.” In such a case, the Rabbis conclude that each party must swear that his true share in the garment is not less than half… If they both do this, the garment (or its value) is then divided between them.  

What a brilliant piece of facilitation by the ancient Rabbis.  Let’s look at a key assumption that underlies their approach. This is the assumption that people are reluctant to lie, especially under oath.  If so, then requiring each party to swear that they really own no less than half of the object could cause claimants who had been lying to give up their claim and go home, thus resolving the dispute. 

In studying this famous passage, I must admit that my first problem with the text was the premise that people care all that much about telling the truth.  Was it just me, or was it naïve of the Rabbis’ to assume that people are so averse to lying under oath? After some discussion, I realized that just as the Rabbis were a product of their time, I am a product of mine. In the Rabbis’ time, people may truly have been much more afraid to lie than many are now, especially in court. But between the advertising and the politics of our time, my confidence in people’s honesty is shaky. 

Honesty is the bedrock of relationships. And Yom Kippur is all about relationships – with ourselves; with God; with each other; even with those who are affected by our actions without our knowing them. The big relationship task of this season is teshuvah, often translated as repentance. But while “repentance” refers to both remorse and the righting of wrongs, teshuvah includes these but is also a broader venture. Teshuvah means not only repair but return, and in a relationship, return is a holistic phenomenon. When we return to connection with someone else, or even with ourselves, it is never a return to the past or to the relationship exactly as it was.  Potentially, after a process of teshuvah, a relationship is actually better and stronger than it ever was. That must be because one part of a relationship affects the other parts – we are whole people, not parts, as much as we may sometimes feel or even be forced to pretend otherwise.

If teshuvah and people and relationships are holistic, meaning they are all of a piece rather than pieces, then what might this mean for teshuvah in our relationships with our community?  The Days of Awe call us to attend not only to our individual relationships, but also to our participation in communal life. 

The original petitioners in the Talmudic case may have used the claim of kula sheli (it’s all mine) merely as a negotiating bid for personal gain. And the Rabbis smartly call their bluff and orchestrate a compromise. But, gathered here on Yom Kippur to consider not how to resolve property disputes but how to return fully to all of our relationships, the words kula sheli are ringing in my ears. I wonder if claiming “It’s all mine” could mean something completely different? As I contemplate a society facing dangerous divisions, frightening and heartbreaking patterns of violence and alarming public expressions of disrespect, I wonder: What if the claim kula sheli could be turned inside out? Instead being self-serving, claiming “It’s all mine” might actually be the most honest and courageous approach we can take to the divisive climate we face. 

Let’s start with something close to home. We live in the most connected times, in which we can access information, entertainment and social contacts online at any time. And yet we are often strangely isolated from each other. We don’t know our neighbors as well as people used to, and we are often reluctant to ask for favors, even from other members of the congregation. When we need a ride to a doctor appointment or to services, we have not always known whom to call, even though I truly believe that this sanctuary is full of people who would like to show up for each other. The key to becoming a community where this kind of care flows regularly and joyfully among us could be an attitude of kula sheli – it’s all mine.  In other words, your joys and challenges – they are mine too. My simcha’s and my needs – they are yours in which to share and, if you can, to help.  The chance to cook or buy a meal for someone, to give someone a ride, to visit someone who is not able to get out, are chances to claim this community as all yours. The word mitzvah comes from the same root as tzevet – team – and tzavta – junction – all these opportunities are junctions at which we can meet new people and grow our sense of living as part of a team. I am thrilled to share that we are setting up a new model of how we will organize ourselves to show up for each other as a community. Our new Chesed Committee will be sending out details in the coming month about how you can volunteer and ask for support. 

How might a new way of saying kula sheli help us to address the glaring rifts in our larger community? Our current public discourse portrays a traditional interpretation of kula sheli – it’s either all mine or it’s all yours. You are either for my side or the other side, whether the sides are black and brown people against police or the supporters of one political candidate or another, or the Israelis versus the Palestinians. What could it mean to say, “it’s all mine” in a way that brings us together rather than dividing us? How can we respect the differences among people and still reach for claiming our connection to all people, rather than accepting the small quarters of humanity into which we have been cornered? Our new way of saying “It’s all mine” would have to incorporate the understanding that it is also “all ours.”

Over the last two weeks, some members of the congregation have given this perspective a try. As part of Reform CA – a network of 90 Reform congregations – and Faith in Action, our local interfaith organizing group, we have came together to support California’s Proposition 57, a bill that proposes important reforms to our sentencing and parole systems. The bill, supported by Governor Brown who himself is openly doing teshuvah for his part in the excessive imprisonment of Californians, will particularly benefit people of color and young people who have suffered under sentencing policies that have gone awry. 

We decided to participate in canvassing to encourage people to vote and to promote Prop 57. Most of us had not done this before.  To prepare, in addition to learning details of the bill and the practical aspects of canvassing, we shared our own stories of why racial justice and specifically criminal justice matter to us. As it turned out, we were a group of white Jews, and some of us found it hard to connect our personal stories to racism. Just as anti-Semitism was wrongly named in WWII as “The Jewish Question,” racism is wrongly treated as a problem about people of color, rather than one that involves everyone. There was one woman with us who was especially nervous about going door to door.  It wasn’t that she was shy, but rather she was especially aware of a dynamic of racism in which white people presume to be experts and to know what’s best for people of color.  How could she presume to talk about racism with the people of color who might answer the door? I appreciated her candor. This is a real bind. But our fear of doing something wrong can make the bind much worse.  One of the organizers who was leading us is an African American man who encouraged her to listen well to people, be herself and not work too hard at being “perfectly un-racist.” As he explained, her fear of making a mistake could actually lead her to come across as not genuine, thus making the very mistake she wants to avoid. He also talked about the power of meeting another person in a way that allows room for real human encounter. In this kind of meeting where both people fully “show up,” both people can be changed. 

This is the kind of encounter, over and over, through much more than one campaign, that can help us to apply a new understanding of kula sheli – it’s all mine – to the major conflicts of our time. To do this, we have to understand that these conflicts – and the people they impact – really are ours. This kula sheli is not about ownership, but about belonging. While as Jews we are blessed to belong to a particular people within the human family – and if you are here, you are part of us – the truth is that we also belong to and with all people. All people are ours. And just as anti-semitism is not a Jewish problem, the problems of racism, violence and poverty belong to all of us to solve. And the solutions we create together will improve the world not only for some groups but for all of us.  We can be part of creating these solutions by listening with humility to people whose experiences differ widely from our own even when it makes us uncomfortable, and by not letting our fears stop us from bringing ourselves to all kinds of relationships. There is honesty in this kind of effort, as much honesty is required as when we are under oath. Our Reform CA group invites you to join us this afternoon at 2pm to talk about racism as a Jewish community and to learn about the Prop 57 campaign.  Within this conversation, we will make a space for people of color to meet together if you choose. 

Here’s one more story about a garment. A sister and brother appear before their rabbi both grasping onto a single coat. They only have this one coat between them, and each feels sure that she or he needs it more than the other. The rabbi cannot solve the dispute and sends the pair away telling them to return in three days. Immediately upon leaving, the sister and brother look at themselves and both realize how selfish they have been, how unable to see each other’s needs. Each turns to the other to apologize and put the coat firmly into the other’s hands. Again, they cannot agree, but this time it is because they both want the other person to wear the coat. In three days they cannot see their way to resolution, and so they return to the rabbi. Seeing the change and hearing the story, the rabbi thinks for a few moments, then disappears into to his closet and reappears with a warm coat, saying “I have this extra coat. I haven’t worn or even seen it in a year – take the coat and you will each have one.” The siblings thank the rabbi and begin to leave, when the woman stops.  “Rabbi, if you don’t mind my asking, why didn’t you give us the coat when we came the first time?” “Well,” the rabbi answered honestly. “You were both so sure that you needed your coat that I guess I felt I needed mine too.”

Small-mindedness (called in Jewish mysticism mochin d’katnut) and generous broad-mindedness (mochin d’gadlut) are both contagious.  In the coming year, may we have the courage to lead and to spread generosity with a broad-minded understanding that we belong fully to the world, that it is fully ours. May we find many ways to say from that open-hearted place: It’s all mine. Kula sheli.

[1] Mishnah Baba Metzia 1:1

Sat, December 14 2019 16 Kislev 5780