Yom Kippur 5779: The Power of Proximity

By: R’ Lauren Henderson

The haftarah we’re about to read was written for a people trying to find their way home.

In 539 BCE, the emperor Cyrus exiled the Jewish people from Babylonia to Persia, and then, two years later, had a change of heart and decided to let them return home. But it seemed that their exile had hardened them. They forgot what Judaism was supposed to be for. It became a set of rote obligations like fasting and prayer that had no purpose or effect on their inner lives.

And so when these people started making the trek back home, the prophet Isaiah knew that this was an chance for them to recreate themselves and their society. He wanted to push them to not just return to “how things used to be” when they were living in their own land and in control of their lives, but to use the experience of having been in exile to reimagine an even better life for themselves and their children.

So as Avra’s chanting this haftarah and we’re following along, I want to invite you to focus on this question: What kind of society is it that this prophet wants us to create? What does it look like? How do people behave here? See if you can answer these questions for yourself, and I’ll share a few of my ideas afterward.

I wish we could put up butcher paper all over this room and give you markers and pens so we could dream up together the kind of world that Isaiah inspires us to create. But I want to focus on a single aspect of this new society: the value of Proximity.

In Isaiah’s imagination, the Jewish people returning home now understand what the purpose of religion truly is: to help them show up as more compassionate human beings out in the world and sensitize them to the world’s pain. They have an instinctive response to poverty: they share their bread with the hungry, take the poor into their homes, clothe the naked, and don’t turn away when they see a homeless person or another human being on the street who’s clearly struggling. In this renewed society, those who dwell on high don’t just hang out in places of wealth and privilege; they, like God, in verse 15, actually go down and spend time with the poor, the lowly, the depressed.

This is a society where people aren’t afraid to get proximate to those in their pain and suffering.

This past June, Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer fighting against the death penalty and wrongful incarceration cases, spoke to a room of business leaders about what he called “The Power of Proximity.”

He tells a story about one of his first cases as a lawyer working with children who had been prosecuted as adults. He met a 14 year old boy who lived in a home with his mother, and she had a boyfriend who would come home drunk and violent. One night this boyfriend came home, told his mother to go into the kitchen, and punched her in the face. She fell down onto the floor, bleeding and unconscious, and her son came running into the room to help her. He tried to revive her and stop the bleeding, but after 10 minutes she was still unconscious, and he thought his mother was dead.

Meanwhile, the boyfriend stumbled into the bedroom and laid down on the bed and fell asleep. The boy went into the bedroom to pick up the phone and call the police, call an ambulance, but then remembered that this man stored a handgun in the nightstand. He went and pulled out the gun, walked over to where his mother’s boyfriend was sleeping, pointed the gun at the man who was snoring. When he stopped snoring, the boy jumped, and when he jumped he pulled the trigger and shot the man in the head, killing him instantly. A horrible, tragic moment.

The boy was small for his age, and had never been in trouble before, so he might have been tried as a juvenile, were it not for the fact that his mother’s boyfriend happened to be a deputy sheriff. So the prosecutor insisted that he be tried as an adult, and was sent to the adult jail.

Bryan Stevenson got to the jail after the boy had already been there for three days, and noticed how terrified the boy looked. He wouldn’t say a word – he just kept staring up at his lawyer, silent. And Bryan said, “Look, I can’t help you if you won’t talk to me – you have to say something.”

He got up and moved his chair closer to the boy, but still he wouldn’t say anything, and then Bryan just leaned on the boy, put his arm around him, because he didn’t know what else to do, and said again, “Look, you gotta talk to me, please, I can’t help you if you don’t talk to me.”

All of the sudden, the boy started to cry. And then the boy started to talk. Not about what happened with his mom, not about what happened with the man, but about his last three days in this adult jail. About the men who had hurt him on the first night, the sexual assault, the numbers of men who just kept hurting him, and he sat there just sobbing hysterically for an hour. Finally Bryan said, “I will help you – we’re gonna get you out of here.”

As Bryan tells the story to the room of business leaders, Stevenson said: “When I left the jail, the question in my mind was, Who is responsible for this?”

And the answer is, We are.

We’ve allowed ourselves to become distant from some of the most vulnerable people in our society. In any given day there are some 10,000 children being housed in adult jails, and we’ve allowed narratives to emerge that separate us from some of these children. And I believe proximity is the solution, because YOU in that space would react just like I did. You’d have the same burden I do.

I know in my gut that he’s right. And you probably know it too. It’s in proximity to others that we become implicated in responsibility for them. Once you’ve been close to someone like that, once you know their story, sat with them in their pain, held them in your arms, you don’t get to go back to being a distant spectator.  And I believe that our motivation to support one another, our righteous passion, flows directly from how much we let ourselves get close to each other’s pain and suffering.

For a long time – and sometimes even still – I thought that the kind of people who were activists were those who just got out of bed in the morning angry and fired up about the world’s pain, injustice, and oppression. “They” – I’m not sure who “they” were exactly – would read a headline in the New York Times about a new anti-immigration policy and feel their blood boil, and then take it to the streets.

I envy those folks, those who are able to feel that righteous rage when something’s happening that demands our emotional, visceral response. I envy that feeling because it’s powerful, because it can lead us to mobilize, to extend ourselves beyond what we’re normally capable of, because it wakes us out of our everyday slumbering existence and points us to the fires that are raging all over the place that need our attention. I thought there was something wrong with me that I didn’t anger quickly or easily, even when I knew there was plenty to be angry about.

But I’ve learned about myself that my own motivation toward activism flows not from the number of headlines in my newsfeed, not from the constant back and forth between my politically active and very brilliant friends, but directly in proportion to how proximate I’ve gotten to the actual people who are experiencing oppression among us, and in our city.

Many of you know that I help to organize Mishkan’s Justice Team, which you heard about earlier. When I first arrived at Mishkan and learned that this would be a part of my rabbinic work, it made me pretty nervous, one because I was brand new, but also because I didn’t think I had the kind of fire and righteous anger that it would take to mobilize a community toward collective action.

I thought I’d have to convince our partners that I had the kind of passion that I saw among the activists I admired. Maybe I could just keep people fooled long enough until I actually learned something useful and had a few answers. But Bryan Stevenson flipped my notion entirely on its head. He says: “Too often we wait until we have all the answers until we get closer to those who are marginalized. I’m actually persuaded that we have to get closer…even if we don’t have any answers. The power is in the proximity.”

I tried to follow my own advice that I spoke about on Rosh Hashanah, and told myself I just needed to show up, without answers, without guarantees that anything will change right away. Over the past few years, we started trying to create meaningful ways for Mishkan community members to get proximate to one another around social justice issues, and to get proximate to the root causes and manifestations of suffering in our city too.

Just yesterday morning, a group of our community members gathered with other faith communities at ICE headquarters to stand in proximity and prayer with a man named Oscar Robles and his family. Oscar, who has lived in this country undocumented since he was a teenager, is now 43 and married with two daughters who are US citizens. He has dutifully attended his ICE check-ins with the understanding that he does not pose any kind of threat. But over the past two years, Oscar has been asked to check-in more frequently with ICE, and the fear every time is that they could decide to deport him right there on the spot.

A number of big shots in Chicago politics spoke during the press conference, talking about how Oscar would make a model citizen, how our system was broken, how they would fight for him and his family, but the most important thing to Oscar himself was that we offered prayers at the end. Every time he goes in for his ICE check-in, he asks faith leaders from around the city to come and offer prayers – he calls them his angels. So we huddled in close, under the looming overhang of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and prayed, to our Heavenly Father, to Av HaRachamim, to our Source of Compassion, Love, and Justice. We placed our hands on Oscar’s back to strengthen him. None of us had answers, or guarantees. But it moved me, so much, to see our community members there, right next to Oscar and his family and each other. This force is like a magnet – once you have gotten close, you will be pulled back in again and again, knowing that your presence is what’s being asked for.

I want to invite all of us to get more proximate this year, whether it’s joining other Mishkanites at the MASK Sukkot Soiree in a few weeks, showing up at Oscar’s next ICE check-in in March, or starting up a Justice Team chavurah in your neighborhood. Getting proximate to each other means that we will need to let go of having all the answers ourselves and instead open ourselves up to new sources of knowledge beyond our own bubbles and social circles. It will, at times, be painful and inconvenient. But I can tell you that proximity is our best hope for healing the alienation in our society and within ourselves.

G’mar chatimah tova – may we all be sealed in the book of intimacy and closeness in this year to come.