Here is the text of my speech:
Last week, the Jewish community celebrated the holiday of Rosh Hashana, which marks the new year on the Jewish calendar. This Saturday, it will observe Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. Today marks the mid-point between these holy days: this entire period from Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur is known as the Aseret Yamei HaTeshuvah, the ten days of repentance. These holidays are among the most important of the Jewish calendar: Rosh Hashana is not only the new year, but is also the day on which, our tradition tells us, we stand for judgment, not only as individuals, but also as nations.
On Rosh Hashanah, each nation is led in, with its governors going in first, to stand before the True Judge. We are obligated to do cheshbon hanefesh – to take an accounting of our souls, as individuals and as a nation. On Rosh Hashana, judgment is rendered, and on Yom Kippur, the verdict is sealed. In between, there is a last chance. As individuals, and as nations, we have one last opportunity to make right what we have done wrong.
There is no mystery about how to accomplish this. The liturgy of these holy days tells us:
מעבירין את רוע הגזירה
We can overturn the evil decree.
Repentance is not easy. The Jewish tradition is explicit: God does not forgive wrongs that one human being does to another. Only the victim can offer forgiveness, and only the person who committed the wrong can make amends, and the process of doing so requires real work: they must acknowledge their wrongdoing, they must ask forgiveness and repair the breach by making restitution, and then, if the opportunity arises again to commit the same wrong, they must not give in to it. Only then is full repentance achieved.
Today, at the mid-point between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, I find myself standing here once again to ask our representatives to take an accounting of your souls.
This week, I ask you, to consider it as if you stood before your Maker. As you are judged by the True Judge, how will you account for yourselves?
How will you defend taking health insurance away from over 32 million people? How will you account for making the most vulnerable among us – the elderly, the children, people with disabilities, the poor – how will you account for making them more vulnerable, and for many of them, for their deaths?
What will you say is a justification for making it impossible for those with pre-existing conditions to get care? How will you justify the evil of terminating coverage – and the lives that depend on that coverage – with lifetime coverage limits?
On the morning of Yom Kippur, Jews throughout the world will read the words of the prophet Isaiah[i] in which God condemns the superficial piety of the people, who ask why God did not hear their prayers or respond to their fasting and self-affliction.
God’s answer is blunt:
“Behold, in the day of your fast you pursue your business, and oppress your laborers, Behold, ye fast for strife and contention, and to smite with the fist of wickedness…”
God continues, if you want your prayers to be heard, what you must do is, “to loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the cords of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke…. to share thy food with the hungry, and bring the poor that are cast out to thy house, when thou seest the naked, cover him, and hide not thyself from thine own flesh…”
This is the prayer that God will hear.
Your words are of no interest to God without your hand helping those who have less than you, and your prayers and pieties are disgusting, as long as you do not help those who are struggling.
This period of time is a period of repentance, reconciliation, and repairing the breaches between people. You who have power, it is not too late. The judgment has been made, but the verdict has not been sealed. If you want to do what is right and good, there is still time:
Acknowledge that the Graham-Cassidy bill is immoral; make restitution by voting no; and when your colleagues try once again to raise another bill that hurts the vulnerable, merely for the sake of “showing that they’re doing something, refuse from the very beginning to go along with it. Then you will show that you have truly repented.
The Republican health care bill that strips children, families and elderly people of affordable coverage is the very definition of an unjust law.
Isaiah (10) warns, “Woe to you who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.”