Rabbi Cohen’s Yom Kippur Morning 5777 Sermon – “Do Not Remain Indifferent”

Yom Kippur Morning 5777
October 12, 2016
Rabbi Heidi M. Cohen

Do Not Remain Indifferent


Like many of our middle school youth, I was in 9th grade when I was introduced to the Holocaust. My favorite teacher of all time, Frank Toler, pushed me to not only learn about the Holocaust, but also teach. He introduced me to a number of books, articles and stories from survivors.

From a Junior High Project to continued learning in High School and College, and then my rabbinic thesis about Holocaust education in religious schools, Jewish day schools and even public schools, the one person who influenced my work was Elie Wiesel.

Shortly after arriving in Orange County, I went to hear Elie Wiesel speak at B’nai Israel. At the end of the event, I took one of my last hardbound copies of my thesis to the front, waiting patiently and finally presented it to Mr. Wiesel. “Mr. Wiesel, it is such a pleasure to meet you! You have been a major influence in my life and education and I am honored to be serving as a rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom. I recently wrote my rabbinic thesis on Holocaust Education and would be honored just knowing you have a copy of this in your library.” He was so gracious and warm. He took my thesis and told me he looked forward to reading it. To be honest, I didn’t think he would actually take the time to read a 150-page thesis on Holocaust education in America, he has enough to do. But two weeks later, I received a hand written note from Elie Wiesel demonstrating he clearly read it! The note is framed and hanging in a place of honor in my office

Over the past few years, thanks to Chapman University and Marilyn Harran, who brought Elie Wiesel in as a scholar in residence, I’ve had other opportunities to meet with him and have conversations that were a little more composed than the first time I met him 18 years ago.

On July 2, Elie Wiesel died. I cried in the car as I heard the news and immediately called my mom who shares my passion for Holocaust study. While I knew he was sick, loss is always painful. This was a loss not only for those who personally knew him but for the whole world.

Elie Wiesel was more than a Holocaust survivor. He was a voice of conscience regarding global humanitarian issues. In 1986, Wiesel received the Nobel Peace prize and said, “I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.”

Wiesel was born in Sighet, Translyvania in 1928. At 15, he and his family were deported to Auschwitz. His mother and one sister were murdered immediately. His father died in Buchenwald before liberation and two other sisters survived the war. He details all the events in his book, Night, which thankfully is required reading in High Schools. But getting the book published initially in the 1950s and 60s was no easy task. The world was not ready to read about the atrocities of the Holocaust. As unbelievable as the events were to him as he was living them, publishers were not sure the world was ready to receive them. It would be 50 years after Night was first published that it would find its way to the top of the best seller’s list thanks to Oprah Winfrey’s book club. Throughout his entire career he would write 50 books.

His mission to share his personal experiences of the Holocaust was not only to ensure that the truth be revealed but also to be a moral compass challenging complacency about history. He often said, “the opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.”

Elie Wiesel not only spoke about issues of anti-Semitism, but also about hate, bigotry and intolerance in all forms. He taught that each of us should see ourselves in one another and that all deserving of being treated with dignity and respect. From visiting the Cambodian refugee camps in the 1980s as he witnessed “spectacles of horror” in which he said, “That these things could happen again simply means that the world didn’t learn – or that the world didn’t want to learn,” to his chastisement of President Reagan for visiting a cemetery in Germany that housed the remains of German soldiers, that led to Reagan adding Bergen Belsen to his itinerary; And then challenging President Bill Clinton to better address the atrocities unfolding in Yugoslovia. No one had more courage to stand up to sitting Presidents and call them out regarding human rights violations than Elie Wiesel.

Silence, indifference, this is an inexcusable sin for Wiesel and it should be for us. As Miriam Goldberg, editor of Intermountain Jewish News wrote, “It was not just the cruelty of the Nazis that wounded him so deeply. It was the cruel indifference of the world. It was leaders such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who would not bomb the rail lines to Auschwitz. It was the European citizenries who turned in their Jewish neighbors to the Gestapo. It was the populace who watched the trains to the death camps speed by, and who said nothing, did nothing. It was the residents of the towns with Jewish ghettos, who did not even try to smuggle food, who turned a blind eye. It was indifference, as much as hate that churned the insides of Elie Wiesel. And the world kept silent.” (Intermountain Jewish News Editorial, July 8, 2016)

This summer, our world was struck by the deafening sound of violence and pain, From the tragic killing of 13 year old Hallel Yaffa Ariel in the midst of Palestinian violence, to the brutal attacks in Orlando, Turkey, and Baghdad, Nice. Unforgiving attacks on police officers in Dallas and Louisiana and racially charged killings of Alton Sterling and Philander Castile. Jews attacking Jews as they try to pray peacefully at the Kotel, anti-Semitic tweets in the middle of an already charged political season and feeling like respectful discourse has gone out the window.

We see a world in which, as Rabbi Aaron Panken writes, “what unites all these phenomena is that opposing groups feel free to defame and denigrate, to attack and attempt to destroy their opponents in manifold ways that now far transcend the bounds of rational discourse and relationship.”

Elie Wiesel reminds us that this is not the time to sit back in stunned silence and just wait to see what might happen. Rather it is our obligation to speak up when the world seems to be spiraling downward.


Our world is spinning in so many directions at a rate that is hard to keep up with. Social media and instantaneous news updates have brought the world to our fingertips. We know what is happening a moment after it occurs, in ‘real time’ and we are flooded with images that can be disturbing and numbing. In the past, one could say, ‘I didn’t know,’ because it took time to share information with the world. As opposed to today, that unless we turn off all of our communication outlets, there is no excuse of ‘I didn’t know.’ We are inundated with media at each moment, from notifications on our phones that scroll the latest headlines, to 24-hour news channels, the information highway becomes so congested that we start to tune it all out. We become complacent and go on with our business because something is happening over there and not right here in my immediate vicinity. We become numb and no longer hear it – the pain in our world.

Think about this for a moment. How often have you said, “what can I do about it?” or remained silent because “This is too great a problem that my one voice won’t change anything.” Or “no one cares about what I have to say.”

I’m standing here this morning reminding you that what you have to say does matter. We cannot be like Jonah, who we will read about later this afternoon, and run away from our responsibility to speak out. Remember when God told Jonah to go to Ninevah and speak out against their wickedness of idolatry and that they should change their ways or be destroyed? Instead of traveling only 500 miles east to fulfill God’s instructions, Jonah went more than 2500 miles the opposite direction to avoid God, thinking that distance could prevent him from having to actually speak out. But God still found him; distance is no match for God. And we cannot run away from our responsibility to speak out and work toward change.

Elie Wiesel wrote: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides.”

In case you missed it, this is an election year. Our congregation is filled with Democrats, Republicans, Independents and those FEW still trying to wade through it all. And as we uncover every piece of information what must remain at the forefront is what Elie Wiesel spent his life teaching us, we cannot remain indifferent. Let’s face it, politics is messy! We’ve seen this over the past week, actually, over this whole election cycle. And there are moments that we want to throw our hands up and just say, I’m done! As Californian’s, and because we are not a battleground state with the intense advertising as other states we might wonder if our vote even matters in the end. The fact is, every voice, every vote matters.  This is not just a Presidential election – there are a lot of other ballot measures to consider and not be indifferent about. And every person should speak out what they believe, but in a respectful manner. Without getting into my own personal comments on my personal Facebook post this past weekend I put out there my own personal raw emotions and I respect each person for sharing theirs, even if we don’t all agree. Criticism is healthy in a democracy, but we are still obligated to treat each other with respect. Disagreement is not an excuse for saying anything vulgar or insulting and attacking one another. Democracy is about every person having the right to speak and share opinions. And when we walk into that voting booth, or mail in our ballot, it is a very personal choice.

Unfortunately, this story of lack of respect amongst people is a very old story, told and retold again. Two months ago, we observed Tisha B’Av, the ninth of Av, during which we commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. Along with reasons of territorial conquest by the Babylonians and Romans, we are taught that one of the reasons the Temple was destroyed was because of baseless hatred between Jews, sinat chinam. We are taught that the Jews in Israel were silent as they mistreated one another.

The Talmud relates a tale from the time of the Second Temple about two men, Kamsa and bar Kamsa. A wealthy man in the town sent his servant to give an invitation to a party to a man named Kamsa. However, the servant gave the invitation to Bar Kamsa instead who of course, showed up to the party. However, Bar Kamsa was an enemy of the man throwing the party and when he arrived, the host wanted Bar Kamsa thrown out. Not wanting to be embarrassed Bar Kamsa tried to make amends with the man and even tried to appease him by first offering to pay for whatever food he ate that night, to paying for half the cost of the party to offering to pay for the entire celebration. But to no avail, the man insisted Bar Kamsa leave immediately. Bar Kamsa left the party angry, but not before he turned to the rabbis who were in attendance and chided them for not speaking up in his defense, especially as he was trying to make amends. Events progressed such that Bar Kamsa takes side with the Romans and through his actions of trying to make an offering on behalf of Caesar, tempers flare and the Romans lay siege to Jerusalem. Rabbi Yochanan blames the rabbis, especially those at the party and then those at the Temple. Because they did not speak up for respect amongst one another that the Temple was destroyed.

Today, there are people on all sides who feel that it’s not even worth it to speak out because someone will only berate them, just like the rabbis who remained silent or indifferent. But taking the risk of everyone not always agreeing with you is sometimes the necessary action needed so as not to remain indifferent.

We have a lot of work to do AND IT’S GOING TO REQUIRE ALL OF US. None of us can remain indifferent

There is too much at stake for you and me, our children and grandchildren. And we cannot simply say, ‘it will be what it will be, my voice does not matter. Rather, it is all of our responsibilities to speak up and make sure that we are not silent.

That is why, each and every person who is 18 and older, it is our responsibility to vote on November 8. Those who are under 18, you can first, get permission to miss school and volunteer in polling places. And even though you cannot vote, it is your responsibility to learn about the issues and understand each of them. Just this past spring I took our Post Confirmation class to the Religious Action Center in Washington DC so they could learn about the issues happening in our country through a Reform Jewish values lens. Some of our teens are excited that this will be their first election that they get to vote while others are frustrated wondering what kind of change can they create without a vote. The Religious Action Center taught them and reminds all of us in the Reform Movement that we do have an important vote in the structure of our country.

California is especially on the forefront of this with the creation of Reform California. This program established by Reform congregations in California in an effort to be more active in our political system is setting the foundation for other states and Reform congregations to address issues that all of us as Reform Jews are concerned about.

From hunger, which we as a congregation have worked tirelessly and in our seventh year of Mitzvah Meals; to issues of civil rights, the bipartisan work of criminal justice reform, immigration, gun violence, and the environment. We have a lot of work to do toward tikun olam and I hope that together with reimagining our Social Action and Social Justice committees we will be able to work together with the Reform movement

in ensuring that our voices are heard. We cannot be indifferent and it is our responsibility to not only vote this coming November. We must be informed and take what Judaism teaches us and make qualitative and quantitative change in our world. TBS has a history of doing the work to change the world, we are once again ready to step up as leaders in Reform CA/to make our voices heard/to show that bipartisian work is how to get things done. If you are able and want to be a part of helping TBS begin to organize this important work, then I invite you to be in contact with me or Cindy Grossberg.

The world is made whole when we all work together, engage in respectful discourse, and ensure that those who truly have no voice are remembered and made whole again. This is tikun olam, this is how we repair our world, but we all must be in it together and as one people with many opinions and visions that will build a future our grandchildren will be proud to inherit.

On this Yom Kippur we stand before God in judgment between life and death. We remember Elie Wiesel of blessed memory who reminded us that we cannot remain indifferent and Jonah who teaches us that we cannot run away from our responsibilities! It is right now that we must take responsibility for our world, our country, our community and ourselves. It is up to us to listen to what is being said and speak out for justice and against intolerance. Because if we leave it to someone else to do it for us, then we cannot say, it’s not my problem, because we made it our problem by being indifferent.

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