Today’s episode is composed of two memorable moments from our 5784 High Holiday services in which lay leaders took to the bima. In the first excerpt from our Kol Nidre service, Tim Graves delivered a drash about his own personal, painful journey of teshuvah as he embraces sobriety. In the second from our Yom Kippur service, Jackie Rassner delivered a drash about the Bring Chicago Home campaign to combat homelessness. In both sermons, we find that the key to changing the world is often changing ourselves.
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Produced by Mishkan Chicago. Music composed, produced, and performed by Kalman Strauss.
Hi, I’m Tim. If this was two or three years ago (pretend we weren’t still in pandemic mode) I wouldn’t be standing here. I’d be sitting out there, almost assuredly buzzed, perhaps even drunk, and I would have had a bottle stashed somewhere in the building, because at that time, I was never to far away from a bottle of cheap vodka, and I didn’t care where I was when I was drinking it.
See, when I came to Mishkan nine years ago, I wasn’t even Jewish but I was a broken man. I had given up on organized religion in my youth. I didn’t believe in Gd per say, and I definitely didn’t believe in a GD that would love someone like me, I didn’t believe there was a spark of redemption available for myself. The universe, the power I choose to call Gd, put Rabbi Lizzi and Mishkan into my life at a time I was struggling to be fully in recovery, find myself and trying to figure out how to be a good father among many other challenges.
Over the ensuing nine years, with many bumps in the road, 5 trips to rehab (the last one made possible by our Mishkan community and the blessing that is Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish recovery community in LA) and with the continued love and support of this congregation, I am standing here before you a man on the mend. I am standing before you as someone who has forgiven themselves and who has been forgiven by many of those I hurt.
I stand here today as a representative of those of us in the community who are struggling with or who have beaten a substance use disorder. Those of us who are neurodivergent and who live with mental health issues. Those of us who are queer or questioning, those of us who are parents. Those of us who may be none of those things, but who have missed the mark this past year in some ways and those of us who are wondering whether we will ever find love again because of our past transgressions. Those of us who in some ways persist and refuse to quit moving forward and are willing to do the work and return to the path.
The road that led me here began with something so simple, and yet so powerful. I had to admit out loud that I was not on the path that the universe, GD, had intended for me. I had to confess, out loud to the people around me, all of the things I had been doing, all of the lies, all of the things that I was ashamed of and worked so hard to keep hidden, but I couldn’t hide them from Gd and I could no longer hide them from others.
The secrets I had kept only served to reinforce the disconnection I felt from the world, from the people I loved and Gd, and reinforce the worthlessness and self loathing that made me believe that I was not worthy of anyone’s love, especially Gd’s. But the secrets began to be too great, too heavy for me to carry, I had to let them out or I felt like I would explode. And once I started talking, I did explode, it all came pouring out, as it came out, something amazing happened: the world began to open up for me. I had made my world so small, I had been so alone, filled with fear and cutting off everyone, including Gd, and now as I confessed my deepest darkest secrets, I was all of a sudden connected again. Connected to the people around me and to Gd.
Once I confessed, I could begin to make true teshuvah. In recovery we say that we are only as sick as our secrets. For me, I know today that is true.
My confessions two years ago were things you can usually only hear in church basements, surrounded by other alcoholics and addicts: secret drinking, weekly binges, not caring about my future, not caring about the damage I was doing to my body (and I had the heart attack to prove it), lying to loved ones, lying to Rabbi Lizzi and the other clergy, lying to myself.
Today, my confessions aren’t as juicy:
I have lied — to my mother about why I can’t take her call.
I have stolen — from the self-checkout at Jewel “accidentally” and justified it
I have sinned the sin of lashon hara — misusing words — against others
I have sinned the sin of lashon hara — misusing words — against myself.
So, now that you know that about me, let’s talk about us. Why are we confessing out loud to sins we didn’t do ourselves?
Our machzor uses collective language to describe every sin we name when we confess out loud: “We have transgressed, We stolen, We have slandered.” Why aren’t I responsible for only my own stuff?
I believe that when we wake up every morning and decide to be Jewish, we take upon us not only the mitzvot, but also the responsibility and obligations of being part of the community at large. Our transgressions become a part of the community’s collective transgressions, which in turn become part of the larger Global Jewish community’s transgressions.
Rav Issac Luria, the 16th Century Kabbalist, wrote that confession is written in the plural, “’We have sinned,’ because all Israel is considered like one body and every person is a limb of that body. So, we confess to all the sins of all the parts of our body.”
That makes sense to me, but I think there is something even deeper at work. I think that a lot of us walk around all year in our bubbles. We go about our lives as individuals, loosely connected to our community. A Shabbat service here, a Small Group there, maybe a Shabbat dinner every once in a while, maybe none of those things throughout the whole year. The “we” can be lost in the whirlwind that is our lives.
Maybe, if you are like I used to be, you don’t think you deserve to be part of a community, a society, and that you will have to go it alone forever. Maybe you think you don’t need to ask for help or lean on other people. I believe today, that is not the case, for me or anyone. We are Israel, the people of the book and none of us is alone.
By standing together for confession, we are reminded we are a part of that body Rav Luria wrote about. By standing together and not making individuals stand before us and confess to the community individually how they missed the mark (like I did up top), we are saying, I am with you. I don’t want you to feel shame or embarrassment, so I’ll say your sins, and you’ll say mine, and we are in this together. Because we’re part of one body.
This collectivism is the power that I rely on to keep it going some days. It is the power I use to gird myself when I must apologize and make teshuvah, the knowledge that no matter what happens, that I am a part of something bigger, that I deserve to be here and that there are people in the community who have also missed the mark. We all miss the mark, and today, we all come together and say WE have sinned.
So when you stand here tonight and beat (or gently tap) your chest, do it proudly as a member of this community, as a part of the global Jewish community and remember: Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, all of us are responsible for each other
I have a confession to make. While I’ve always been someone who cares about social justice, the issue of homelessness didn’t get much of my attention until I saw it through the eyes of my children.
I grew up in Naperville, an area that had very few visibly homeless people, and my only interactions with people who were unhoused was when they were being labeled panhandlers or beggars, and we averted our eyes on trips to the city.
But making the conscious choice to raise my children in Chicago meant that I was also raising them with the daily awareness of the fact that not all people have homes. The drive to preschool included passing folks daily who were asking for assistance, money, or food and on most days with lack of resources in my car and three screaming children I just drove by, my head dipped in shame.
If I’ve learned anything about parenting, I know that my kids learn more from watching what I do then from what I say to do. So from the time they were born I committed to always returning the grocery cart, saying please and thank you and offering anyone who enters our home a drink or snack.
I thought I was doing a good job but I was ignoring what I was teaching them right in front of me on our daily drives. So to right this wrong I reached out to Lincoln Park Community Services, a shelter near our home that houses 120 individuals to get involved. For several years in a row, we threw them a Hanukkah party that no one asked for, but we showed up and celebrated. We made meals for the shelter, often in community with other Mishakanites. We lived near the Old Town Art Fair and used our lucrative lemonade stand spot to raise money for the shelter. And it felt like, ok here this is the thing that we are doing.
This is how we are showing up and being good citizens. This is how I was teaching btzelem elohim — that each person is created in the image of the divine. Each human is worthy of dignity and being seen. Or as I would whisper into their little ears on walks with them strapped to my chest, “every person is a person.”
It wasn’t until I reached out to Mishkan wanting to get more involved in the justice work in the fall of 2020 that I realized that we were trying to solve a gushing wound with a small Band-Aid. Meals, parties and donations to shelters are not going to fix a housing crisis affecting 68,000 people. More on that in a minute.
I reached out because like many white people in the summer of 2020 I was feeling A LOT. Guilt, shame, confusion and the strong desire to do something. It took the murder of George Floyd to make me fully understand what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel meant when he said, “In a free society, some may be guilty, but all are responsible.” I know I am not the only one who was shaken awake, suddenly wondering what my responsibility in this was, too. It propelled me on the journey of learning how to be an active anti-racist. With a group of fellow white Mishkanites on Zoom we worked our way through the book, Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla Saad.
As we worked through the book we were forced to reckon with the privilege we hold and the systems that have upheld it. Jews come in all colors and races. And here in America, a large number of Jews — just look around the room — look white. We considered our white privilege and how that intersected with our Jewish identity. How were our parents and grandparents both oppressed and lifted up through America’s systems? What were we, white Jews, offered that others were not? And what, if anything, are we willing to give up to create equity? How uncomfortable am I willing to be in my quest to be an anti-racist?
I think in a lot of ways this is what Isiaah is here to teach us when he says “Is such the fast I desire, A day for men to starve their bodies? No, this is the fast I desire: It is to share your bread with the hungry, And to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him.”… Or, I would paraphrase the good thing you do on Yom Kippur is not the physical fasting. And the good thing we did in book club wasn’t having hard conversations. These uncomfortable things are how we learn that we all need to do big hard things. At book club, and today, we wrestle with challenging feelings and memories. We push through and atone for the mistakes we have made. But, it’s what we do in the remaining 364 days that teaches us about who we really are.
I thought that showing up as an anti-racist would involve speaking up when someone says a coded remark or tasteless joke. I thought it would mean not just scrolling past a racist facebook post and instead actually addressing them. I thought I was already doing a great job at this. I was only scratching the surface.
At the same time as the book club I was beginning to dabble in Mishkan’s social justice work and got involved with the Economic Justice team. They were focused on Chicago’s housing crisis, one that has only gotten worse in the past 3 years. Currently, 68,000 Chicagoans are homeless defined by not having an address to call their own and not having the ability to obtain one. Three quarters of the homeless population are people of color, 36,000 are Black. 18,000 children are homeless — that’s 10 Copernicus Centers filled with children who don’t have a home. A full quarter of CPS students will experience homelessness. This number includes the homelessness we see, in tent cities, from our cars or in shelters. It also includes the homelessness we don’t see. Those who are doubled up, staying somewhere that they are not on the lease or mortgage. These folks may have a roof over their head for the night but they don’t know how long they will be welcome. At any moment they could be asked to leave. They don’t get to experience the safety one feels in their own space. The feeling of unwinding, of turning off, of being their true authentic self in one’s home– you can’t do that without a home to call your own. This was a problem, but the Economic Justice team in partnership with JCUA, One Northside, Labor Unions and many other community organizations had a possible solution.
The proposed solution was the Bring Chicago Home campaign. A proposal to raise the real estate transfer tax on real estate purchases over a million dollars to create a dedicated annual funding source to combat homelessness. Money that would go directly to creating more affordable housing with wrap around services. Two weeks ago, we introduced the ordinance at City Hall. We need the City Council to vote yes next month to send it to the people. Bring Chicago Home will be a referendum on our ballot in March 2024 and each one of us Chicagoans will get a vote.
The connection between the Bring Chicago Home initiative and anti-racist work, to me, is clear. Chicago’s history of racial inequality and red lining has led to a deeply segregated, city of haves and have nots. I found myself leveling up in my discomfort — agitating my alderperson, being interviewed by the news regarding my support, leading chants on a megaphone. In October of 2022 I agreed to attend a rally at City Hall during Mayor Lightfoot’s budget address. I was surprised to find out that morning that we would actually be inside the building, setting up tents and representing what we dubbed the 51st ward made up of the 68,000 unhoused Chicagoans. I was nervous we would get in trouble or there would be police interference and I had to dig deep to find courage. Every uncomfortable action I take in service of Bring Chicago Home is rooted in the lessons learned from Layla Saad. I was deliberately choosing to do big hard things in service of equity for Chicagoans.
The easiest thing for me to say today is, learn from my journey, find the cause that speaks to you and start reading books, learning more and doing something to address that problem. And YES! You should do that. There are so many ways to get involved at Mishkan and help to repair the world. You can serve at the Uptown Cafe, or the Beth Emet food kitchen, collect and distribute items for refugees, to name a few options.But only systemic change will end the need for these services in the first place.
And there is a moment here to make that kind of system-level change. If you are a registered Chicago voter YOU have the opportunity to change history.
It’s rare that you get the chance in politics to actually vote for the change you want to see. But on March 19th we will head to the polls and vote on the Bring Chicago Home referendum. And I am asking you to vote yes. And I understand that for some of us that is “voting against our interests’ ‘because it is accurate to say that I will one day purchase a house over a million dollars and that I will be required to pay an increased real estate transfer tax.
But, it’s not accurate to say that I’m voting against my interests. Because I’m interested in a whole lot more than how much money I pay in taxes. I’m interested in living in a city that ensures that all children have the benefits that mine take for granted, a safe place to sleep at night, a place to shower and be clean and the consistency and routine that comes from having a home to call their own. I’m interested in allowing seniors to age with dignity in the comfort of their own space and not on the street. I’m interested in living amongst folks who have access to treatment for their mental health or drug addictions. I’m someone who believes housing is a human right and it’s in my interest to live in a city where that is true.
Now I know there is pushback to this ordinance. I know that the commercial real estate industry is still recovering from the blow of Covid. I know that people are concerned about how this will affect not just them as individuals but the real estate industry as a whole in Chicago, suggesting that housing and rent prices may rise and drive people out of Chicago. We believe these objections are exaggerated — though it’s true that there are unknowns. But what is known is that tonight, 68,000 Chicagoans are homeless. That 18,000 children don’t have a bed to call their own tonight — 10 times the seats here. We know that something must be done to right this wrong and we have an opportunity right now to take a huge step towards ending homelessness in Chicago — let’s take it.
If you’d like to talk more with me about this I’ll be at the Social Justice table out in the lobby for the next half hour and I’d love to continue the conversation, and follow up after the holiday if necessary too. The folks at Mishkan can tell you how to get in touch with me. And if you’re moved by what you heard today and want to get involved, please stop by the table and let us know.
The truth is, we all want to end homelessness. And it is a fair question to ask who should pay for that and how. Will it hurt to vote yes? Maybe. Will it cost more money for some to buy a house? Yes. It will hurt a little, just like today hurts a little. But in both cases, you are getting a chance to do something and make change. Today is the holy day of atonement, a day to reflect on your choices, assess them, and make goals to do differently in the new year. Today you are creating something — a vision of the best version of your future self. I invite you to consider the voting booth a time machine that puts you back in this moment. Because six months from now it may be hard to remember the changes we committed to. But on March 19th, you have a direct opportunity to make Isaiah proud, put your words into action and live out how you know how to be the best of yourself. And if we can do that, I believe we will see a better Chicago, for all of us.