The Leopard In Our Sanctuary: a Yom Kippur Sermon from Rabbi Jonah Pesner

iVx8_GH2Rabbi Jonah Pesner, a JOIN for Justice board member and the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, delivered this sermon at Temple Israel on Yom Kippur in 2004. The words remain a powerful and timely call to action for our Jewish community to organize for justice. The sermon is excerpted below, and you can read the full version on the Just Congregations website.  


And here we sit
And praying.

Is this the fast God desires of us?

Now you don’t actually need Isaiah
To ask you that today.
You truly don’t need me to tell you
What you already know
About the injustices
In our community
And those
Facing this great nation.
There is no person in this sanctuary
Who is unmoved by the suffering
We witness in our world.
I believe we are a congregation
Of enormous compassion.
Who among us
Would close his hand to the needy person?
Who among us
Would close her ears to the cries of the oppressed?

I also believe that our shared desire
For a just society
Reflects deep patriotism
As well as concern
For our fellow human beings.
We can all agree that America in general
And the Boston community in particular
Are at once blessed with prosperity,
Freedom, and at times incredible goodness.
The grandson of immigrants
Who fled the pogroms
And poverty of Europe
And came here with nothing;
I know how blessed I am
To live in a beautiful home in Newton, Massachusetts
And have the freedom
To speak these words tonight.
I thank You God.

But we can also agree
That there is a tremendous gap
Between the just society
That we envision for ourselves
And the reality in which we live.

The roar of the leopard in our sanctuary today;
The lashing of his tail,
And the echo of Isaiah’s call
In our own ears
Is the haunting question: WHY?
Why is there such a dramatic disconnect
Between the world as it is
And the world as we believe it should be?
Why have we become satisfied
With the social structures of inequity?
Why have we failed to expect
That which we know to be right?

The roar is a call to action.
Bold public action,
To hold our civic society
Accountable to the standards
Of morality that reflect
Our deeply held beliefs
As individual Jews
And our shared vision –
Articulated by our tradition
At once ancient and timeless –
Our vision of a world redeemed.

Isaiah’s call to pious, worshipping individuals
Is to become linked together
As a community of righteousness
In which the hungry are fed,
And the oppressed are free.
“Your tzedek – your justice shall go before you,”
He says.
“The presence of God shall be your rear guard!”
God will follow after us,
If only we would
March together
Focused on the vision
Of a just world.

Isaiah refuses to allow
Our individual convictions
To languish in isolation.
I believe his call
Is for the power
Of communal solutions
To communal injustice.

See the complete sermon here.  

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