“The Homeless and the House of New Life”


Rabbi Lisa Edwards Yom Kippur AM drash 2018 5779

“Welcome to the neighborhood,” Tracy said to the family she encountered up the street from us early one morning while she was on a walk. A lot of you know Tracy, so it won’t surprise you to know that in the weeks since, she has befriended this family of 5 with 2 kids in school, who sleep most nights sitting up in a van borrowed from a relative.

“The family” as we call them at our house, is experiencing most of the ways our system means well, and doesn’t work. Eligible for lots of the “programs” that would (and sometimes do) provide assistance, they also frequently encounter long waiting lists — for shelters they’re loath to use anyway because the family doesn’t want to be split up, for viable apartments where housing owners will work with government programs, etc. Three adults able and wanting to work, and sometimes working, two kids who love school.

Our social safety net is full of holes, friends. I know I don’t need to tell you. Even with an advocate like Tracy, willing to make phone calls, bring them food, troubleshoot and brainstorm, there is no easy way out of the difficulties they find themselves in — sadly, they’re a perfect example of the troubles our nation and our city are facing right now — FACING is the right word. They put beautiful faces on our growing statistics.

From an article I read last week:

Los Angeles sits at the epicenter of California’s homelessness crisis. In the last six years, homelessness has risen by 75% across most of LA county, while the city itself has more homeless residents than Seattle and San Francisco combined. As the state directs more attention to solving this problem through affordable housing, LA has ramped up its own efforts to house the unsheltered.[1]

Last week I mentioned Yip Harburg, the lyricist of Somewhere Over the Rainbow and Brother Can You Spare a Dime? Harburg grew up at the turn of the last century, and became politically active in and around the Depression, saying his parents “never had one moment’s rest from worrying about money for the next day.”[2]

We don’t have to go back to the Depression to find those feelings. We can go up the streets we live on, in truth, we need go no farther than this sanctuary this morning. So it seems to me that a day when we fast by choice, in our efforts to become better people, is a good day to take some time to think about how we’re going to help get ourselves and our friends and our neighbors out of the predicaments they find themselves in.

I wish I could – oh how I wish I could – now lay out for you the perfect plan for all of us to engage in — the way we as a congregation and individuals could do this and this and this and TA DA! it will all be solved.

I know I can’t do that because if it were doable, Tracy would have done it already!

It can be overwhelming, I know. There are so many holes in the social fabric, so many odd turns and twists that cause one person to go one way and others another and find themselves equally vulnerable.

The good news is that though we live in a city where homelessness is rising, we also live in a city where lots of people want to work against that rising tide, not by making people leave the city, but by housing people who need housing. By employing people ready to be employed. By helping kids stay in school (and get to school, and have food to eat while they’re at school). By giving folks a safe place to park if sleeping in their vehicle is all they’ve got right now. And on and on and on…

The city and the county governments really are teaming up with agencies and foundations and congregations and individuals, many volunteers, trying to work together toward solutions, or if not solutions, at least temporary ways to improve people’s lives on the ground, on the street, literally where they live.

I know I’ve been talking to you a lot lately about other places — flying us off to the land of OZ and Neverland. . . and BCC in the 1970s — flights of fantasy — places that might make us long for home — and this morning, let’s stay home, let’s stay here where we belong — in Los Angeles at BCC, Beth Chayim Chadashim, our house of new life, let’s be here now as we arewho we are — today on Yom Kippur 5779/2018, the Day of Atonement (the day of At One ment) and merely 10 days into a brand new Jewish year filled with possibilities.

The bad news is this housing crisis — the one here and now and in our city — is decades in the making and it won’t be disappearing anytime soon. And I know, the overwhelm factor can be … overwhelming.

Our Jewish tradition knows this too.

And it accounts for it. “It is not yours to finish the task, neither are you free to desist from engaging in it.” How many of you have heard some version of this famous phrase that comes to us from the Mishnah, from Pirkei Avot — the Sayings of our Ancestors — some of which is possibly the most read, most familiar text from Jewish tradition.

Another much quoted (and misattributed) phrase from Pirkei Avot comes from the sage Hillel the Elder who famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”

I read recently a 2016 article from Tablet Magazine tracking a series of misattributions of some version of this teaching: it seems to have become a sort of standard among Republicans from Ronald Reagan to George Romney to Ivanka Trump crediting the line to Emma Watson who plays young Hermione in the Harry Potter movies. To be fair, Watson did use a version of the phrase (unattributed) in a speech she gave to the United Nations.[3]

And I suppose that if Ronald Reagan really had been the one to originate it, I wouldn’t be using it right now. But these two phrases together, as overquoted and misattributed as they are, really go to the heart of the matter for us: no matter when the housing crisis in LA began, it is here NOW in our city. And so are we.

No matter how hard it may be to solve so chronic and gnarly a problem, we we NOT free to desist from engaging in it.

You/We don’t have to devote our entire lives to it right now. We don’t have to invite homeless families into our homes to live. But there are things, big and small, we can do.

Another verse, this one from Torah itself, that haunts me these days is a stand alone (sort of) verse in the book of Deuteronomy. It comes just a few chapters before the chapter we read this morning. It is part, as our Torah portion this morning is a part, of the last speech Moses gives to the Israelites as they stand on the east shore of the Jordan after their 40 years sojourn in the wilderness. Physically ready, are they spiritually ready? Moses wonders, as they stand at the water’s edge about to cross the Jordan River into the long illusive Promised Land [hmm, Promised Land — and i promised you no Oz and no Neverland this morning…

And MOSES, now age 120, and having recently been reminded by God that he is not going with them into the Promised Land, is still trying to tell them, as fast and as thoroughly as he can, everything he thinks they need to know, everything he thinks they have forgotten or will forget or have not yet learned, before he dies (whoops — i forgot the spoiler alert!) before Moses dies and leaves them in the capable hands of Joshua to trek that last mile or so through yet another parting sea.

The verse I love seems innocuous enough, in a long list of interesting advice — instructions, commandments. It is this:

כִּ֤י תִבְנֶה֙ בַּ֣יִת חָדָ֔שׁ וְעָשִׂ֥יתָ מַעֲקֶ֖ה לְגַגֶּ֑ךָ וְלֹֽא־תָשִׂ֤ים דָּמִים֙ בְּבֵיתֶ֔ךָ כִּֽי־יִפֹּ֥ל הַנֹּפֵ֖ל מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃ (ס)

When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it[4]

When I read this verse to Tracy recently she said, “does anyone know what a parapet is these days?” And we imagined some of you picturing twin cats up on our roof — a pair of pets —

[Lisa: put up the first slide]

By the way, does anyone know what this kind of roof is called?

It’s called a “catslide roof,” and they seldom have parapets [show the next slide]

— a parapet is a railing, by the way, a fence around the roof so that no one “slides” off it and gets injured or killed, “that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.”

What are they doing up there on your roof anyway? People, I mean, not cats, cats we know would just be having fun up there and not in any danger at all !! a roof is just a playground for cats, hence, catslide roof!

When this verse, this commandment was written, it must have been quite common for people to be up on roofs. (I am reminded of our dear friend, Will Korthoff — i am everyday, actually — who died on this day 4 years ago — arggh, 4 years already — in a motorcycle accident — bringing to new life for us all the familiar phrase from our liturgy — who shall live and who shall die? I am reminded of Will now because his “mission” in life was to put solar panels on roofs all over California – well, everywhere – as he did on BCC’s roof at our new building, and the roof of Tracy’s and my home. When Will climbed without a ladder one day onto the roof at our house, i mentioned we had a ladder he could use. “Who needs a ladder when you have monkey feet?” he replied, looking over our parapet at me standing below).

Where was I? Oh yes, speculating on why people are up on roofs, why this commandment to save a life is in Torah when there are so many ways to save lives that might be more likely…

People go up on roofs to build a roof in the first place, to repair one that has a hole (like the log cabin in my childhood playground), to see out to sea (a “widow’s walk” is another term for a parapeted — fenced in — rooftop, where worried wives could watch for their seafaring husbands to return from their voyages. Legends and stories tell of some who were widowed but did not know it, watching daily, endlessly from their “widow’s walk”, a poignant image indeed of hope…and dread).

Or maybe when this verse was written, it wasn’t about contractors, or seafarers (we were still in the wilderness after all, though imagining the Promised Land with its gorgeous sea beside it), certainly it wasn’t yet about solar panel-ists.

Maybe it was also using a house as a metaphorical home.

In the verse I read you about not bringing blood guilt on your house if someone should fall from your roof, the Hebrew phrase for the person falling is ha-nofel — the faller, the one falling —

כִּֽי־יִפֹּ֥ל הַנֹּפֵ֖ל מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃

If the faller should fall from it.

Who is falling right now from the roof of our home? From our Home of New Life– who among our congregation needs us to provide a parapet, a railing? And who in our home that is between the Pico-Robertson and Pico-Fairfax neighborhoods? And who in our home that is the City of Los Angeles? Loved by so many of us, tolerated by others, so in need of being made better and full, really full of people who would love to help make it better – many of us here, yes?

Our Talmud, yet another timeless resource to guide our path on this earth, took up my parapet verse, and took it down off the roof, took it inside:

Whoever can prevent his household from committing a sin but does not, is responsible for the sins of his household; if someone can prevent their fellow citizens, they are responsible for the sins of those fellow citizens; if the whole world, they — we — are responsible for the sins of the whole world. (Babylonian Talmud 54b)[5] https://ajws.org/dvar-tzedek/ki-tetze-5776/

Let’s take that in a slightly different direction, and focus less on that we’re responsible for the sins of the whole world (might as well crawl into a hole right now), but say that we are responsible for helping repair and prevent and heal as many wounds as we can.

A few minutes ago we read yet another POWERFUL passage from the Bible — our haftarah for Yom Kippur morning from the Book of Isaiah, in which God says in no uncertain terms — go ahead and fast today, if you must, I don’t really care if you do or not, but don’t fast without changing, don’t fast without doing better, don’t fast without helping My creations, including yourselves:

Isaiah 58:6-7

(6) No, says God, this is the fast I desire:[ALL OF THESE ARE ASKED AS QUESTIONS BY THE WAY, IS NOT THIS THE FAST? — or as we might say, are not these things the tshuvah — the turning, the change, the repair — I DESIRE?: to break the bonds of injustice and remove the heavy yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and release those enslaved? (7) Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the poor that are cast out to your house? And when you see the naked, that thou cover them, and that you do not hide yourself from your own kin?

The teachings our ancestors set before us today are not subtle, are they?

Here’s another Jewish teaching often cited when we call each other to come make a difference in the world, but contemplate how difficult that can be:

Kol ha-o-lam ku-lo gesher tzar me’od

V’ha-i-kar lo l’fached klal

The whole world is a very narrow bridge;

the important thing is not to be afraid.

-Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav

I recently discovered that the actual teaching from which this song and famous phrase derives says something slightly different. Not that the important thing is not to be afraid, but rather, the important thing is not to frighten yourself.[6]

Oh friends, there is so much to be worried about these days, frightened about, anxious about, overwhelmed by…believe me i know how easy it is to scare oneself — into hiding, into turning away, into binge watching netflix where we’re likely to watch some show that scares us even more (the Americans, anyone? The Handmaid’s Tale? We could make a long list, i know). Not that there’s anything wrong with binge watching (I’m starting tomorrow!). I just mean…well, you know what I mean. We can do this, people. Together, we can do SOMETHING, NOT EVERYTHING, but some things.

One of the best reasons perhaps for being part of a congregation, a community, even one that itself is always in need of volunteer efforts and more sharing of resources from within it, is so that we can each do what we each can do — it will always be that some can do more and some can do less — and that we’ll still get something done, still have enough to keep going.

In Torah when God first offers manna in the wilderness, after the Israelites astonishment wears off…do you remember this scene in Exodus? I love it: When the Israelites first see manna all over the ground, not knowing what it is, they say, Maan hu? Literally, “what is it?” but maybe better translated as “what the hell is this? Are we supposed to eat this? Ick, It’s been sitting on the ground all night.” And they tried to invoke the 4 second rule!

Wait, that’s not the exact part I wanted to tell you about, it’s the next moment, when Moses says (and this is an actual quotation from Torah, by the way, not my version): “That is the bread God has given you to eat, and here is what God has commanded: ‘Gather as much of it as each of you requires to eat, an omer to a person for as many of you as there are, you shall each fetch for those in your tent.’

The Israelites did so, some gathering much, some little. But when they measured it by the omer, anyone who had gathered much had no excess, and anyone who had gathered little had no deficiency; they had gathered as much as they needed to eat.” [Exodus 16:13-18]

Again, “… anyone who had gathered much had no excess, and anyone who had gathered little had no deficiency…”

This isn’t a government giveaway. They’re told, “gather enough for each in your tent.” People were allowed the dignity of work to bring food to their family.

And as always happens when people work, some gathered much, some little. This was in the days before the 1% and the 99%, so we’re told, “anyone who had gathered much had no excess, and anyone who had gathered little had no deficiency; they had gathered as much as they needed to eat.” This isn’t magic, this is people sharing what they have.

Oh wait, maybe that is magic.

But if it is, we have a lot of magic around here — in this congregation. And I think we have a few more tricks up our sleeves. We’ve been sharing with each other and with the world around us for decades now.

We can do this friends. We can build a parapet around our congregation, and even before they climb to our roof, we can help assure no one falls off.

BCC member Jessica Donath and I have invited a guest to be here with us this afternoon… the Rev. Anna Olson from St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Koreatown. Rev. Olson is a new friend to me and Jessica, but an old, dear friend of our old dear friends Felicia Park-Rogers and Rabbi Rachel Timoner. So she’s got good creds. Jessica and I invited her because Jessica heard her speak on the radio about what she and her congregation are doing to make a small dent in the plight of a few people in Los Angeles who need a little help.   She’s here to meet with us during the break in a few minutes, not to tell us what to do, but to help us figure out what, if anything, we want to do as individuals and as a community going forward. We know already we’re not going to solve all the problems; but do we know already (I hope so) that we’re going to come together and try to tackle a few?

I hope you’ll be able to join me in conversation with Rev. Olson during our break — we’ll gather in RM._ at 2pm for about 45 minutes. By the way, Rev. Olson has come to talk with us during our break during HER break — she’s on sabbatical right now — so Anna, i’m especially appreciative that you’re here with us today and that your daughter, Naomi, has also chosen to join us.

Especially on a fast day, it’s not ours to finish the task, but especially on fast day, on a day of atonement, on a day when we are trying our best to get right with God and with each other, we can take a little time to figure out how to wrap our roofs with railings [show slide of railed catslide roof],

how to repair our safety nets, how to make our houses — LA and BCC — safe havens, real homes. Let us choose life, that we and our dear ones may live…in safety, in comfort, and in love.

G’mar chatimah tovah — may we all “slide” into this new year sealed for a year of goodness and of doing good.

[1] An article about ADUs Auxilary Dwelling Units https://www.greenwichtime.com/technology/businessinsider/article/People-in-Los-Angeles-are-offering-to-shelter-the-13233479.php


[2] https://www.nytimes.com/1994/07/10/nyregion/theater-whimsical-and-wise-lyrics-by-yip-harburg.html

[3] https://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/213190/if-not-now-when-a-recent-history-of-hillels-misattributed-maxim-from-ivanka-trump-to-ronald-reagan

[4] Deuteronomy/D’varim 22:8

[5] My reminder of this passage in this context came from the beautiful d’var Torah on Ki Tetze by Aaron Dorfman, found here: https://ajws.org/dvar-tzedek/ki-tetze-5776/

[6] LISA: insert your d’var Torah from A Wider Bridge honoring Arthur Slepian last year