Rabbi Deborah J. Brin • Jewish Ceremonies, Rituals & Pastoral Counseling
©2021 Rabbi Deborah J. Brin — Member: Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association
Rabbi Deborah J. Brin
Albuquerque, New Mexico • Jewish Ceremonies, Rituals & Pastoral Counseling
Strengthen Our Hands — Kol Nidre, 5776/2015
Sunday, 11 October 2015
Rabbi Deborah J. Brin
The call came a few days before Rosh HaShannah.A plan was in
the making to hold an interfaith vigil for immigrant justice
between Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur, and the caller wanted
to know if I could be one of the speakers. This is the busiest time
of year for any congregational rabbi and my plate was totally full.
My reaction was swift and certain: I said “no”. As soon as I hung
up, I began to reconsider. A few minutes later, I called back. Justin
was overjoyed when I told him that this is such an important
issue for us in Albuquerque and around the world that even
though it was so close to Yom Kippur, I would be there. The two
main organizers of the event were Rachel LaZar of El Centro and
Justin Remer–Thamert of the New Mexico Faith Coalition for
Last Thursday, I wrote my three-minute talk, grabbed my shofar
and went to the vigil in the Barelas neighborhood. Out of the
approximately 150 men, women, girls and boys present, there
were maybe 4 Jews and about 15 other non-Hispanics. There was
no press coverage. The Catholic priest spoke first, in both English
and Spanish. Then I spoke. I explained about our High Holy Days,
about missing the mark, and about the symbolism of the shofar.
This is some of what I said to them: “This ten day time period is a
time of reflection followed by action… As for individuals, so it is
for communities. [This] is a time when we look at our collective
responsibilities and think about where we may have fallen short,
and how we can do better. It is clear that one of the ways that we
can do better as a community is to address the concerns of
immigrants to this country and their families.
We need to wake up to the terrible trauma and devastation to our
communities when family members are separated from one
another and people are forced to live in the shadows because they
don’t have the right pieces of paper and have no way to obtain
“During these High Holy Days, we blow a ram’s horn during
services. It is called a ‘shofar’. We are taught that the shofar is
sounded to wake us up from our habit of walking around the
world as if we are asleep; to refocus our attention on what we
need to be doing, and to remember what we need to do in order
to live up to our goals and aspirations as a society to treat one
another with dignity and respect and to help those we can.”
Then I told them that I was going to “sound the shofar for justice
for immigrants. It is also a symbolic ‘wake-up’ call to all of the
citizens and political leaders in our country. The shofar is calling
to all of us to awaken to the issues and concerns of migrants in
our midst. The shofar is urging us to identify what is wrong with
our immigration system and to work together to create
compassionate and respectful solutions that bring people out of
the shadows, and reunite families.”
Rachel LaZar summarized what I had said in Spanish, and then I
sounded the shofar – I blew a tekiah, a shevarim, a t’ruah, and a
I stayed for the rest of the vigil. Watching everyone around me,
listening to the rapid Spanish, hearing the translations into
English when they were offered, I floated in my mind between the
present and the past; between thoughts about the traumas and
struggles of this Barelas community, and the traumas and
struggles of our recent past. In that liminal state, I had two stark
memories. One was from rabbinical school and one was a line
from one of my mother’s poems that you heard earlier this
evening. The line that echoed in my ear was: “we repent the
weakness of our hands”. [Excerpted from “In the Fall” Harvest
Ruth F. Brin].
My rabbinical school classmate, Mordechai Liebling, is the child of
holocaust survivors. It was from him that I first learned that the
trauma our parents experience is passed directly to us.
We studied the Holocaust for most of a year, and on one of the
many days that we were discussing it, Mordechai asked the rest of
us what we keep in the suitcases under our beds. To his surprise,
and to ours, it turned out that he was the only one who kept
important papers, a few family photos, cash and a valid, up-to-
date passport in an easy to grab case under his bed. It got us all
thinking what we would do if we had to flee suddenly. What
would we take?
What was my unconscious mind, what the mystics call ‘the still
small voice’, trying to communicate to me?
We all know about the chaos in our world today, the thousands
upon thousands of migrants fleeing Syria; and others who have
fled from hotspots all over the world, from: Asia, Afghanistan,
Africa, Nigeria and the Sudan, the Ukraine, and South America,
mostly from Columbia. Just a few months ago, the UN released its
estimate that in 2014 there were 60 million displaced people and
homeless refugees wandering from place to place looking for
food, shelter and safety. This is the highest number of displaced
people since World War II. The UN breaks that vast number down
into more understandable bits. Worldwide one in every 122
humans is displaced and that means that everyday more that
42,500 people pack up and flee their homes. Startlingly, more
than half of these displaced people and refugees are children.
Four months ago, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, a man
named Antonio Guterres, was quoted as saying,
“With huge shortages of funding and wide gaps in the global
regime for protecting victims of war, people in need of
compassion, aid and refuge are being abandoned. For an age
of unprecedented mass displacement, we need an
unprecedented humanitarian response and a renewed global
commitment to tolerance and protection for people fleeing
conflict & persecution." [‘Worldwide displacement hits all-
time high as war and persecution increase’ 18 June 2015.
These are complex and desperately urgent issues that no one
knows how to solve. In the September 18th issue of the Forward,
there was a provocative piece about the current refugee crisis by
Deborah Lipstadt, a Professor of Modern Jewish History and
Holocaust Studies at Emory University. In her article she
acknowledges the inevitability that our holocaust memories and
traumas will be triggered by the current crisis. She, like us, is
struggling to discern what is truly happening.
She has made donations to refugee assistance funds, and still she
wonders: Do we need to make distinctions between those fleeing
a war zone and those who are seeking to leave a poor country
with limited opportunities? How will Europe be changed by
integrating these massive numbers of people – will they be
integrated, will they be able to function in a democratic society or
will this lead to a rightwing backlash? Why haven’t the oil-rich
Gulf States, who are Muslim, not taken in any of these Muslim
Lipstadt closed her article by saying, ‘when people are drowning
and babies are suffering the time to deliberate and search for
answers may well be a luxury’. Here in the United States we are
insulated from the ceaseless waves of migrants by an ocean and
the European Union. These are dark, frightening and chaotic
times at home and all over the world.
What is there to do? Whatever we can do, small or large. Reb
Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, zaycher tzadik livracha, used to tell us
that we are all on this earth-plane because we are here to be
deployed. I can hear him asking each of us: what is your mission
to accomplish during this lifetime?
Think about it. Yom Kippur is a long day of communal prayer and
fasting. As the music of the liturgy washes over us, it is an
opportune time to think deeply about ourselves and to ask what
we are each called to do.
What should we do? As my mother said in her poem, may her
memory be a blessing: ‘We repent the weakness of our hands…
mourning [our dead] we are forced into the jaws of self-analysis,
into the claws of politics, into the canine teeth of empire.” What
should we do? Whatever we are called to do. Whatever we can do.
Many of us will send donations to organizations providing direct
aid to the refugees. Some of us may venture into the ‘claws of
politics and the canine teeth of empire’ in order to get our
government to bring more refugees here sooner than the legal
process currently allows. Still others of us may choose to get
involved with issues of immigrant justice right here in New
Mexico. We are all different from one another and our
contributions to the solutions will be different. There are two
critical questions to ask ourselves as we go through our day-to-
day life: who can we help, and how can we do it?
We need to be careful. Our busyness can keep us inflexible as we
rush from one thing to the next trying to hold up our piece of the
sky. Our busyness can limit our horizons, like horses with blinders
on, we see only where we need to go and what we need to do to
get through the day.
Even if we are used to it, it is a place of constriction. If we are
asked to do one more thing – we say “no”.
Yom Kippur calls us to lift our heads up and gain a wider
perspective. We need to prepare ourselves to notice opportunities
when they present themselves. When we do notice, when we see
beyond the demands of our own lives we toggle the switch to
“yes”. “Yes” is the place of possibility and collaboration.
You may have heard the story about the starfish. The original
story was called “The Star Thrower” and was written by Loren
Eiseley and published in 1969. The popular version goes
something like this: A man was walking on the beach one day and
noticed a young girl who was reaching down, picking up a starfish
and throwing it in the ocean.
As he approached, he called out, “Hello! What are you doing?” The
girl looked up and said, “I’m throwing starfish into the ocean”.
“Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” asked the man.
“The tide stranded them. If I don’t throw them in the water
before the sun comes up, they’ll die” came the answer. “Surely
you realize that there are miles of beach, and thousands of
starfish. You’ll never throw them all back, there are too many.
You can’t possibly make a difference.” The girl listened politely,
then picked up another starfish. As she threw it back into the sea,
she said, “It made a difference for that one.”
Our actions, small or large, will make a difference.
In this coming year, let us grease the gears so that we can switch
more easily between the needs of our own lives and the needs of
the wider world. In this coming year let us notice opportunities as
they arise to help others and say “yes”.
If we do, we will not need to repent our lack of willingness or our
inability to act. And we will not regret the weakness of our hands.
Let us open our hearts and strengthen our hands. Let us do what
we can. Remember what Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a
small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the
world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
For an age of
we need an unprecedented
and a renewed global
commitment to tolerance
and protection for people
fleeing conflict and