Sermon: Yom Kippur 5778, Neilah – Take a knee, being together as a community

Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 5 October 2017

American football player Colin Kaepernick began a peaceful yet powerful demonstration last year on the pitch. During the national anthem he took a knee in protest against the oppression of people of colour. The stand was triggered by the police brutality exhibited in many videos that went viral, with some recordings even showing police shooting and killing unarmed black men.

The initial kneeling did not gain a huge following. However last week, when President Donald Trump got involved it acted as a catalyst. He said, using more expletives than I would, that he wished the NFL players would be fired for disrespecting the flag. Trump chose not to address the actual reason that many are taking a knee, reinforcing to those who protest the feeling that Black Lives don’t matter.

The reaction to Trump’s comments has gained the protest the traction it needed and in the past week an increasing number of Americans have taken a knee. The protest has moved outside of the world of sports. Stevie Wonder, in his recent concert, was helped on to one knee, and images have taken the media by storm with various other celebrities kneeling in solidarity with the NFL players, and with people of colour. Now the countries scientists have joined, with the hashtag scientists on one knee bringing the protest back into the very real, day to day world and showing the wider society of America that they too can be part of the movement for equality.

It is common, when people feel very emotional about an issue that is of high importance, that the community would feel divided. We need look no further than any of our Mishnaic and talmudic literature, the arguments of Hillel and Shammai, or the sages, to see the struggles that happen when the community wants to see a change. American basketball player LeBron James said in a recent interview, ‘It’s not about dividing. We as American people need to just come together even more strongly.’

At times of conflict or when we are faced with difficulty it may seem easier to fly solo and remove ourselves from the community in an act of self-preservation. It is easier not to care, not to love, because then we minimize the ways that we can be hurt. But Judaism teaches us early on in our narrative, ‘it is not good for a man to be alone’. The customs and traditions of our religion demonstrate that, especially in times of difficulty and uncertainty, we need to be with our community.

No one enforces this ideal more than Hillel the elder who said in Pirkei Avot 2:5, ‘Do not separate yourself from the community.’ Commentary on this by the 15th century Italian rabbi, Bartenura, states that rather than removing ourselves in times of trouble, we need to reunite with our congregation, share in their troubles and then we will live to see our communities consolation. When we are together as a community we can share the pain, even when it doesn’t directly affect us. As the saying goes, a problem shared, is a problem halved.

Our tradition has many practices that aim to create deep connections in our communities. Throughout the year we are given three opportunities to come together and memorialize our loved ones during a Yizkor service. Although our memories are our own, and our grief is personal, coming together in our moments of solitude can offer relief from our own pain. We can seek comfort in the presence of other people who know what we have been through because they have been through it too. We see the sorrow in one another’s eyes.

However Judaism prescribes that we are not just a community in our commiserations, but also in our celebrations, as well as just in the mundane everyday. The prescription of the presence of ten people, a minyan, when we say many of our prayers, as well as the obligation on us to visit the sick and those in mourning, means that in our Jewish lives we are constantly surrounded by others. I believe that this means that in times of need we already have established the kehilah kedoshah that we need to find our comfort.

As we move forward through our New Year let us take comfort in our community and its traditions that bring us together in times of joy and in times of need. Let us take a stand, or a knee, for what we believe is important. And ultimately, let us never feel  that we are alone.