Yom Kippur Day 5774: “Both/And, not Either/Or”

The call to social justice is so strong in our tradition. We heard it just now, in the words of Isaiah that we read this afternoon:

This is the fast I desire

To unlock fetters of wickedness

And untie the cords of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free

To break off every yoke

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

And not to ignore your own kin. 

This is a powerful call to social justice. It reverberates across the generations as we read it on the most sacred day of the year. But while we heed this call, and think about its’ message, we also need to not forget the later words of Isaiah in the haftarah:

If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath.

From pursuing your affairs on my holy day

If you call the Sabbath a delight.

Adonai’s holy day honored

And if you honor it and go not your ways

Nor look to your affairs, not strike bargains—

Then you can seek the favor of God.

While the earlier words speak of the need for justice and righteousness, it is not over and above the need for ritual and practice, but in addition to ritual and practice. A fast without the social consciousness of those in need, a fast without regard or those who are oppressed, or suffering, is worthless. Yet we still must fast. And we should not dishonor the sacred days, and observe them in meaningful ways.

So while the earlier words of Isaiah are an important call to us, putting them alongside the latter words of Isaiah is an important reminder that Judaism and indeed life itself, is a both/and proposition, and not an either/or proposition. Jewish tradition is a tradition that honors both ethics and law, acts of lovingkindness and acts of ritual, justice as well as practice. When we hear the words of Isaiah we need to be holding both of these together, at the same time, and recognize that our tradition is the all of it. Jewish tradition is both/and, not either/or.

This is at the same time a deeply satisfying, yet very difficult principle. For while many times the both/and is complementary—hot fudge and whipped cream, for example—and sometimes the both/and can be harmlessly redundant—suspenders and a belt—more often than not the both/and are opposites of each other, if not diametric opposites than at least countervailing forces which pull us in either direction. Competing values which need to be brought into balance.

It is a paradox, holding of two competing ideas at the same time. Yet it is human. And necessary.

It is, as Ernst Kurtz writes in The Spirituality of Imperfection, the source of spirituality: “All spirituality—but especially a spirituality of imperfection—involves the perceiving, embracing, and living out of a paradox. A paradox is an apparent contradiction: Two things seem to exclude each other, but in truth need not do so…Openness to paradox allows both the understanding and the acceptance of our human condition as “both/and” rather than “either-or.” (62) It is by living through that paradox of “both/and” that we are able to truly understand and thus transcend ourselves, and have a sense of the spiritual

He writes, “It is precisely our two fold nature that spirituality embraces, and it is in embracing this spirituality that we embrace the world—reality as it is—thus discovering who we are.”

In our Jewish tradition we see that “both/and” is written into the very fabric of creation. The metaphoric story of Creation as told in Genesis in the Torah is one of separation and distinction—water separated from water, earth separated from sky, land separated from the sea. And while the distinctions are needed to form individual identity and so would seem to be an “either/or” proposition—water or land—in truth they are not independent but interdependent. We can not have one without the other. The water needs the land to be water, and the land needs the water to be land. Both/and.

And rooted in the idea of creation, from a midrashic point of view, is not only physical creation, but spiritual creation. With the creation of the world, as the story goes, God also created certain attributes which are built into the fabric of creation. In our ancient midrash we can find the following story:

There was a king who had delicate glass cups. He said to himself, “If I pour hot water into them, they will expand and burst; if I pour cold water into them, they will contract and shatter.” So what did he do? He mixed hot water with cold, and poured it into them, and they did not break.

So it was with God. When it came time to create the world, God reflected, “If I create the world with the attribute of rachamim, compassion, alone, there will be an overflow of sin [because no one will fear judgment.] But if I create the world with din alone, the world could not exist [because it would be too strict.] So I will create it with both justice and compassion, and it will endure.” (Gen. Rabbah 12:15)

It is these attributes which we think about today. We have the image of the throne on these days, God on High sitting in a regal chair. The image is a metaphor for judgment, for knowing that on this day we take an accounting for our deeds and misdeeds, actions and inactions. And we hope and pray, as our ancient sages teach, that God moves over the course of Yom Kippur from the Throne of Din to the Throne of Rachamim. From strict judgment, and punishment, to compassion, and forgiveness.

But we know that we as humans, with our imperfections, live in the intersection of the two, that we need both din and rachamim. We need compassion and we need boundaries. We need it as parents—our children need rules to guide them, but compassion to help them along. We need it with our friends and fellow community members, we want to be giving and extend ourselves, but also need to draw boundaries and maintain our personal space. We need it in our groups and communities, we want to be open and welcoming and inclusive, but we also need to maintain boundaries to help identify what our groups and communities stand for.

Where does the intersection lay? That is the most difficult aspect. How do we balance, where do draw the line? The “both/and” of din and rachamim is a fine line to navigate. We create a balance but we don’t always know if we are making the right decision. And perhaps the most challenging is when we apply this principle to issues of social justice.

I would like to share with you how personally this has been a struggle for me. I want, for me personally and for us as a community, to be our most compassionate at all times. Yet there are times we need to draw a line. Some of you may have noticed the “No Trespassing” sign outside our office doors. How we got there was a series of serious and thoughtful and difficult conversations.

We have had people sleeping under our overhang off and on for some time. And for several months it was not a problem. People would usually arrive after we had all left, and usually pack up before anyone arrived in the morning. There was no issue, and I was glad folks had a place to sleep with the awning. The times people would be here later in the morning, I would kindly ask them to move on—we had people coming, or Beit Sefer starting, and couldn’t block our door—and they graciously obliged.

But then things started to change. People started staying later, and were harder to rouse in the morning. They were not as gracious when I, or someone else, kindly asked them to leave. And things progressed somewhat quickly to the point there was garbage around our entry way and building, urine and sometimes feces found around the plantings, graffiti tags on our walk way and hypodermic needles scattered all around our building.

And so while it was difficult to decide what to do, for the sake of the health and safety of all those who come to this building, we needed to take more action. After consultation with homeless advocates, and the police, we put up the sign.

You should know that for no one involved in these conversations—staff and leadership—were they easy conversations to have. Because here we felt the difficult pull of the both/and of din and rachamim. Compassion and aiding those less fortunate is a primary principle of Judaism and of this covenantal community. We host the overflow shelter, give to the food bank, and devote significant time and energy to issues of tikkun olam. At the same time we need to be mindful of the safety and security of all of those who call this their Jewish home and ultimately, think deeply about what is truly going to serve the best needs of those we are trying to help.

It was not an either/or decision. It was a both/and decision. Because it has to be, and that is what makes it so difficult. When we apply the idea of din and rachamim to social justice—we need to be compassionate, and we need to draw boundaries. We can not have one without the other, because though we strive for compassion, sometimes just being compassionate is not necessarily what is best for all those involved. There can be such a thing as too much compassion, as the midrash teaches.

Along the same issue of homelessness we have been speaking in our community about the need for low barrier shelter, and Interfaith Works, of which TBH is a member, has been working with other agencies and city leaders on establishing a shelter. The current sheltering system in our city is tenuous—some like our overflow shelter and others relying on volunteer effort, others out of reach for some because of strict regulations and requirements. A low barrier shelter would provide stability and access to our local homeless population.

Based on our experience here, and what I have learned about homelessness in our city, such a shelter is most definitely needed, and one that goes a long way to not only meeting immediate needs of those who are homeless but providing a vehicle for connecting those who are homeless to other services and aid that they require. With drug addiction and mental illness increasingly a factor in our homeless population, the need for a more professional approach to homeless services is warranted.

One of the hardest aspects it seems in the establishment of a low barrier shelter, dubbed “The People’s House,” is the settling on a location. The most recent proposal on 10th Avenue off of Eastside Street, which is now currently off the table, has sparked opposition among the residents of the Eastside neighborhood. And I know, not only by what is reported in the papers, but because I live in the Eastside neighborhood and have been part of intra-neighborhood conversations on the subject.

I am in support of the shelter proposal, and I was not opposed to the 10th Avenue location when it was an option. I recognize and sympathize with my neighbors who have concerns about the location since it was near (though not technically in) a residential neighborhood and near schools. They want what I want, what we all want, safety for our kids, clean neighborhoods. But where I differ is that I believe that the presence of a shelter does not mean safety is compromised, and the absence of a shelter does not mean safety is guaranteed. Indeed, I believe a shelter would support the health, safety and welfare of everyone—both/and.

And what has disturbed me most about the negative reaction against the shelter has not been the fact that we disagree, that is healthy of course, but the fact that many opponents approached the issue from an either/or rather than a both/and stance. For example, one of the arguments is that funding a low barrier shelter is taking money away from other homeless solutions like rapid rehousing, represented by SideWalk, another agency under the aegis of Interfaith Works. It is true that a limited pool of money limits the amount of funds available all around. But to argue one against the other is counterproductive, and not recognizing the both/and approach. It doesn’t recognize that yes in the long term we need to get people connected to services and yes in the short term people need a roof over their head.

But the most difficult to hear is when the principle of either/or is applied not only to ideas but to other people. A group in opposition to the shelter called “Concerned Eastside Neighbors” printed and circulated their own leaflet of information, explaining their position.  And at the top of their literature it says, “low barrier for them, high risk for us.”

Drawing such distinctions between “them” and “us” is problematic and destructive.  The fear around the homeless—the “them” in this case—is staggering—opponents point to a potential increase in crime, or drug use, or weapons or presence of sex offenders in our neighborhood after the establishment of a shelter while they ignore the gun owners, or sex offenders, or drug addicts or felons who may already be there, but aren’t looked at twice because they can afford to pay the rent or the mortgage. When we draw the lines between “us” and “them,” the only result is discrimination against a class of people (in this case, discrimination based on circumstance and means) and the dehumanization of those we deem to be “other.”

I don’t mean to make light of concerns. But we need to be able to approach this from a more holistic approach. We need to think not either us or them but both us and them. We are in this together, we all have responsibility to one another. Those in vocal opposition to the shelter not only saw not only the homeless as an us/them, and either/or, but also see caring for the homeless as an us/them, as someone else’s issue, rather than everyone’s issue, which it is. That is what this paradox of life and spirituality has taught us, there is no us and them, there is only us. Justice demands seeing just “us”. We won’t solve the issue of homelessness until we all take responsibility for it: me, you, Interfaith Works, Eastside neighbors, city leadership and the homeless themselves.

For indeed the us versus them falls away when we realize the them can be us and the us, them. A midrash teaches: “It is written in Deuteronomy ‘you shall surely give to the poor, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to the poor, because for this thing Adonai will bless you.’ Rabbi Nahman relates that the key to why we help the poor is in the word ‘because,’ which in Hebrew is biglal, as he says ‘Fortune is a wheel’ (galgal).” The word for “because” and the word for “wheel” are related. In other words, we help the poor when we can because there may be a future time when the tables are turned. Because in the present we have means and another doesn’t, does not mean that in the future we won’t be the one without means and another with. There is no us or them.

This principle of mutuality, of reciprocity, is fundamental. It is what it means to live in covenant with one another, to share the sense of duty and obligation. It is to say, as our Talmud does, that we are responsible for one another. Which is why too it was so troubling when we had the issues at the Temple. For we should still expect from one another regardless of station or circumstance a certain level of mutual respect and appreciation. Even the poor are obligated to give tzedakah, our tradition teaches. We were put in a difficult position because our compassion was not met with compassion, and knowing that limitless compassion, as the midrash teaches, would shatter the glass.

But again that is the difficult position of being human. The difficult position of having to live our lives in the “both/and” and not the “either/or.”

The source of spirituality is in the paradox of the both/and. It is the message of Isaiah, when we read the entirety of his message. It is how we live our lives and navigate our every day. We are, as the midrash teaches, constantly between din and rachamim, strict justice and compassion. We are constantly navigating competing values and trying to makes sense within differing claims. We are not either-or. And we must remember this as we go through life, as we approach social justice, as we extend our hand to the homeless as we must do.

And we remember it not in how we hold competing values and ideas, but in how we hold each other.

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