A disclaimer: when I write a sermon, there's always a hook. It's a story or a joke or a thing that helps you to remember the message for the future. Like a few months ago when I surveyed the congregation about their favorite 'Peanuts' character in the leadup to a Dvar Torah about why I don't like Lucy yanks the football back from Charlie Brown. That one was about justice.
Or last year, when I gave the sermon about putting together a puzzle with my daughter, even though it was short a piece. That one was about death and bereavement, and coming to terms with loss through memory and ritual, which we call Yizkor and Kaddish.
So this year you'll remember this sermon as the one about Colin Kaepernick. The disclaimer is this: guys, it's not really about Colin Kaepernick anymore than those other two speeches were about puzzles or the artwork of Charles Schultz. In ten years, when you remember (if you remember) that time the rabbi spoke about Colin Kaepernick, try to remember that it wasn't really about Colin Kaepernick.
So. Colin Kaepernick. For those of you who need a reminder, Kaepernick is the backup quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. He is African-American. And last month during the national anthem, he took a knee. When asked about it after the game, Kaepernick said "There are bodies in the streets and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder." Kaepernick was referring, of course, to a rash of shooting deaths of black individuals by the hand of police officers in the United States in the past few months, and even years, going back to August of 2014, when the police shooting of Michael Brown in Fergusen, Missouri sparked a nationwide outcry. Since Kaepernick started his protest, several more black men have been shot and killed by police, including a man in Tulsa named Terrance Cutcher who was shot while waiting for help along a highway where his car had stalled, and another man, Keith Scott, who’s shooting prompted three days of rioting in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Since just January of this year, law enforcement officers have shot and killed 194 black people. A study by the 'Guardian' newspaper in London found that young black men in the United States are nine times more likely than any other American to be killed by police.
Although this sermon isn't actually about racial disparities in policing in America, I would be remiss if I didn't stop to say something about it. We as a country have a history of racial inequality that constantly festers beneath the surface of our history as a proud and prosperous democracy. As Jews we are called upon by the Torah and especially our prophets to ensure that justice and law enforcement are blind to matters of color.
No, my interest in Colin Kaepernick isn't what he's protesting, it's how. More specifically, it's the reaction to the how, and how that might parallel some aspects of Judaism that might give us a chance to reflect.
You see, Kaepernick is choosing to protest at precisely the moment when Americans at a sporting event stand, take off their hat, turn towards the flag in the stadium, and sing a song composed over two-hundred years ago about the war of 1812 about a flag. That song, the 'Star Spangled Banner' by Francis Scott Key, was adopted as the national anthem in 1931 by congress. It's use at sporting events, from the professional ranks to your local little league game, began in 1917 with the US entry into World War I. It was discontinued and then resurrected in 1941 at World War II. We've been singing it ever since.
Pundits and politicians and sportswriters have had a field day opining their thoughts about Kaepernick's kneeling. To summarize their responses, there are basically two schools of thought. On the one hand, many folks either think that Kaepernick is expressing a legitimate position in a manner that is befitting of America's first amendment right to free speech. The other opinion is that Kaepernick is disrespecting our country, it's values, it's history, the brave men and women of the military, and so on, by kneeling rather than standing for the anthem. They feel that the symbol of kneeling - and what that implies - disrespects the symbol of the anthem and the symbol of the flag, and what they stand for.
This sermon that you'll remember as 'the time the rabbi talked about Colin Kaepernick' is actually about symbols.
Flags (pause) and songs (pause) are symbols. They don't inherently represent anything: nowhere is it written that our flag emotionally or intellectually support US government policy abroad, or that it stands for our military. Nope, the flag is a piece of cloth with three colors, 13 stripes and fifty stars. If I was cold, I could use it as a blanket, or douse it in gasoline and burn it for warmth.
Of course, you and I both know that's not true: burning a flag is an act suffused with tremendous emotion and controversy. I may disagree with a law or a decision, but never in my life have I ever considered burning a flag. It feels like an extreme act of treachery, and would put a person in the same came as Islamic jihadists in fundamentalist theocracies. These are not the people I want to be associated with.
People get really fired up, though, about Kaepernick disrespecting the flag and the anthem. A survey by Yahoo sports showed that if protests like Kaepernicks spread throughout the NFL, 44% of fans say they'd 'stop watching football'. Which, to be honest, I kind of doubt. Have you seen the bars on Lincoln on a Sunday when the Broncos are on? If a bar owner shut off the weekly football game in protest of Kaepernick, he'd either start a riot or go broke inside of a month, and probably both.
People are passionate about their symbols, especially when they imbue them with all kinds of meaning, regardless of whether the symbol inherently carries all of the meaning they claim.
Let's talk about Jewish symbols. Raise your hands:
How many of you think that you need to kiss a kippah if it falls on the ground?
How many of you think that you need to kiss a tallit if it falls on the ground?
How many of you think that you need to fast for forty days if you drop the Torah on the ground while carrying it?
What if I told you none of those things was true?
Firstly; a kippah is hat. It has no spiritual relevance in-and-of itself. While clearly it would be a symbolic act of disrespect to throw one’s kippah upon the floor and stomp on it or spit on it, nowhere in Jewish law is there mention of a remedy if one drops their kippah. Sometimes, if a person drops a prayer book or a Jewish holy book like a Mishnah, you’ll see them kiss it upon recovery. However, although the custom is widespread, no laws are written of it and the custom is of unknown origin. So too the kissing of mezuzahs, and Sifrei Torah, and Tzitzit. The Spanish rabbi, Rabbi David Abudraham wrote in the 14th century that when one takes off their tefillin, the little black boxes worn in morning prayer on non-holidays or Shabbats, that one should kiss them. It is likely the custom begins there for all the above items.
But for a kippah, to kiss? Feh!
For a tallit, it became custom to kiss the fringes, the tzittzit, after reciting the blessing. But nowhere is it mentioned in legal sources. They tell you what to say and when, they tell you whether to bless it again if it falls off, they tell you what the strings should look like and how big the tallit is and whether a cape counts as a tallis and what to do if you sleep in your tallit and on and on and on. The word kiss: it ain’t there. In fact, one of the classic arguments of the mishnah is the following:
"shnayim ochzin b’tallit, zeh omer ani matzatihah v’kullah sheli - Two find a tallit on the ground, one grabs the end and says ‘its all mine’ and the other simultaneous grabs the other end and says ‘its all mine’."
What do you do? You cut it in half.
Cut a tallit in half you say ?!? Rabbi! How dare we desecrate a holy symbol!
But see, it’s not a holy symbol. The tallit 2000 yrs ago was a shroud, or a cloak, or a toga. It’s just another word in Mishnaic times for ‘clothes’. Of course they fell on the ground. Of course you could sub-divide it into a smaller portion. There’s nothing magical or special about a tallis - until we, over the past 2000 years, evolve and change our manners of dress, and our way of practicing our religion, and the frequency with which we put on a tallis, and also the meaning we imbue the tallit with.
At some point, the Tallit moved out of the category of ‘mundane clothes’ and into the category of ‘sacred garment’. Kind of like a flag, or a song.
But you really want to know about the Torah. Is it really a myth that if a Torah falls, one does not need to fast? Sort of.
It’s not a law. The laws around the Torah service itself are actually quite few: the rules involve who should read, how to bless, how many portions of reading one does for a given day, and the readings for each day. They address the words to say in the torah service, and the lifting and binding. It doesn’t mention dropping.
The legal questions about dropping the Torah involve a critical issue: does the Torah need to be inspected to determine if it has been rendered pasul - unsuitable for use, if it is dropped? The answer is: no. Assume it is fine and read it.
Isaac Ben Asher HaLevi, the RiBa, in the 11th c, said that if one drops a Torah, he should refrain from eating meat or drinking wine that night, and add a prayer of repentance the next day.
in the 17th c. the Ramaz, Rabbi Moses Zacuto of Amsterdam, noted that if a person drops a Torah themself, if they are pious, they take upon themself the custom to fast by skipping three meals over two days. An 18th century Rabbi, the Meorei Ohr, has a much more stringent ruling: all individuals that witness the fall fast for 40 days. Others say, everyone fasts one day, and adds a penitential prayer. The most definitive opinion on the matter is the most thorough. 20th c rav Eliezer Waldbaum rules that only the dropper fasts, and only if they are healthy, and if they feel too weak to do it, they may find person in the community to take on the obligation for them, and if one that witnesses it wants to do something pious, it should be moderate and not a hardship. And potentially, it would be preferable if any decision involved tzedakah or Torah learning, either instead of, or in addition to, fasting. Boom.
So that’s the law. So why do Jews get so caught up in the reverence for and fear of the handling of the Torah?
It’s because… it is a symbol. It embodies all of the meaning of Judaism and commandments and our ancient history, and it tells the story of how we met God.
It is our flag and song, and so much more. That is why we rise when it rises. That is why we face towards it when it parades through the kehillah, the congregation. That is why we kiss our siddur and tap the Torah, or tap it with our tztizit and kiss them.
But our Rabbis also knew all this about over-fetishizing the Torah as some kind of Golden Calf-like object, and feared it. Which is why all of us, including the holder of the Torah, bow at an early part in the Torah service and sing:
Gadlu l’adoni iti unerommema shelo yachdav - ‘We give glory to God, and we will sing out of God’s unity’.
That ‘bow’ is there to remind us that the Torah, while important and sacred and holy, is just 80 pages of parchment, 248 columns, 79,986 words, 304,805 letters in black ink. It is God to who our praise is due, and the book is a symbol that we all love and praise, and embodying all the expectations and stories of but it is, at the end, a symbol, and nothing more.
Yet adorning and glorifying that symbol is a laudable thing that we do. Congregations around the world add a silver breastplate or jangling crowns to the top of it. We this year at Har Mishpacha updated our our beautiful hundred-year old Torah by getting a brand new mantle on it, with a piece of artwork commissioned just for the occasion. The painting, as you can see, has the mountains in beautiful afternoon colors, with the letters ‘shin - lamed - vav - mem’ “shalom” tucked subtly in the background. To elevate and beautify our Torah shows our reverence for it. We want it to be beautiful because we want it’s outsides to reflect its insides: full of wonder and meaning.
Yet we are the ones that give those words meaning through our actions.
It is the words within it that we elevate by performing them; the justice we are called to; the compassion we are expected to live; the repentance and forgiveness it expects from us at this time of year; the God that it helps us to understand; that we show our love for by honoring and revering the book itself. But the deeds precede the book itself.
I would sooner dump a Torah on the ground and trample it with my own two feet than be a party to perverting justice, or disregard the Divinity of my fellow man by being hateful or violent.
The Torah is a symbol, and an important one, but no more so than the deeds it represents.
Colin Kaepernick’s story is instructive to us, in that it lets us consider the meaning of our most sacred symbols. Kaepernick wants to express to us, ‘ hey: America. The freedoms and rights that we hold so dear are not being upheld for all citizens, and if I have to be disrespectful to a symbol to illustrate it, I will.’
We blow the shofar as a symbol of the new year, to remind us to be reflective and regretful of our misdeeds, and to return to the Torah and it’s lessons, not as a symbol for an empty gesture of sitting or standing, but as a real act of turning, teshuvah, to begin the 10 days of repentance.
May this Rosh Hashanah 5777 be one in which we all are worthy of being not just revereing the Torah as a symbol but living its example, each and every day, through torah, avodah, and gmilut chasadim ; study, prayer, and righteous action that elevates and sustains our fellow man.