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High Holidays 5779

Erev Rosh Hashanah

Panim el Panim: In Kinship with One Another

By Rabbi Benjamin Barnett

You, Not It

I remember passing an ad once for Blackberry, when Blackberry was the hot new thing. It said, “Make all of your clients one inch tall.” I often think of that ad and consider how I might make everyone I encounter life-size.

It’s an amazing thing that we would actually have to work not to diminish people. Countering this inclination is at the heart of our theme this year at Havurah — Panim el Panim. Literally, “face to face,” what we are translating as “Encountering one another.”

Martin Buber, whose wisdom will be featured this year as we live this theme, taught that “all actual life is encounter.” For him, every person, and every thing, is regarded either as a “you” (sometimes translated “thou,” as his most famous work, I and Thou, is known in English) or as an “it.” I encounter the other as a “you,” a whole being with a unique story and vantage point of their own, or too often render them an “it,” an object seen through the lens of my experience, existing in service to me. Each person we meet, warns Buber, can — and often does — become a means to an end, merely one piece in a person's narrative. Our work is to honor each person on their own terms, to affirm each being as an end in and of themself.


The Torah tells us that “God would speak to Moses panim el panim — face to face, as one speaks with a dear friend” (Exodus 33:11). There is a sense of closeness, of kinship, expressed through panim el panim.

This notion of kinship has been illuminated for me of late through the work and wisdom of Father Gregory Boyle. The founder of the L.A.-based Homeboy Industries, the world’s largest gang-intervention program, he writes extensively and delightfully about his relationships with the young men and women with whom he works.

There are some touching and hilarious moments in Father Boyle’s books, interactions that for him point toward a continuous cycle of deepening kinship. One is with a young man he calls “Lencho.” Lencho had been in and out of juvenile detention and prison for most of his life. Like many others, he arrived at Homeboy Industries when he got out.

Father Boyle describes sitting across from Lencho when they first meet in his office.

“His neck is blackened by the name of his gang—stretching from jawbone to collarbone. His head is shaved and covered with alarming tattoos. Most startling of all (though impressive) are two exquisitely etched devil’s horns planted on his forehead.

“He says, ‘You know … I’m having a hard time finding a job.’

“I think, Well, maybe we can put our heads together on this one.”

Father Boyle did connect Lencho with work and narrates a call from him after a couple days on the job. “I mean, yesterday, after work, I’m sittin’ at the back a’ the bus, dirty and tired, and, I mean, I just couldn’t help myself. I kept turning to total strangers—‘Just comin’ back, first day on the job.’ (He turns to another.) ‘Just gettin’ off—my first day at work.'

“He tells me this, and I can’t help but imagine the people on the bus—half wondering if mothers are clutching their kids more closely. Surely someone is overhearing Lencho and thinking: ‘Bien hecho—nice goin’.’ I suspect it’s equally certain that someone catching Lencho’s outburst reflects inwardly, What a waste of a perfectly good job."

“The wrong idea has taken root in the world,” Father Boyle continues. “And the idea is this: there just might be lives out there that matter less than other lives.”

One of Torah’s most powerful expressions of kinship is when the daughter of Pharaoh scoops up the infant Moses as he floats helplessly on the Nile. She uncovers the basket and sees a baby crying. Va-taḥmol alav, the Torah says: “And she felt compassion for him." And she said, "This is one of the Hebrew children.” The moment of kinship breaks through. This male Hebrew baby has been decreed by her father to be killed, so what is she doing having compassion on him? But it was not a choice. Being human and seeing another human vulnerable, she feels that vulnerability and acts on his behalf. In an instant they are kin — he is in fact is taken in as her own child.

The Torah knows that as humans we do not always respond to vulnerability with compassion. When we are in power — tragically — we are likely to abuse the one who is weaker. That is why we are reminded dozens of times in Torah not to oppress the stranger. And so Torah gives us this act by Pharaoh’s daughter as an emblem: The stranger, the vulnerable person, the one you find suffering — don’t just help them. See them as your kin.

Gregory Boyle reminds his readers of Mother Teresa’s insight that we have “forgotten that we belong to each other.” Ultimately, I believe, the aspiration for kinship extends in all directions. For one of our actions last month calling for the release of detained immigrants, a caravan of us drove to the prison in Sheridan, where 123 men had been detained, in hopes of delivering our (as yet unanswered) letter to the ICE field director. Our plan was to pick up the phone at the kiosk once we entered the driveway and tell the corrections officer at the desk about our intention to deliver the letter, requesting that they pass it on to ICE officers. The officer on the phone said she couldn’t take mail for ICE. She urged us to leave. The leaders of the caravan sat in our car and weighed our options. In less than a minute we saw a white pickup coming up the drive from the prison. It sped toward us then swerved to a stop, blocking the way forward. A burly, bearded corrections officer stepped quickly out of the car and firmly let us know that we couldn’t stay there. We responded that we were happy to leave and that we simply hoped he would deliver our letter to ICE.

I extended the letter toward him. He shook his head a little and said, “You know it’s not us who wants this. It’s the ‘higher ups’ who are making this happen.” I assured him we were well aware of that. “We’re not looking to make your life harder,” I said. I kept the letter held out toward him. He paused a moment longer, then took it and glanced through it. Sure, he said, he would deliver the letter. I thanked him and then, pointing to the line of cars behind us, asked if he’d be willing to receive a letter from each of them as well. He smiled a bit and then, seemingly finding no reason not to play along, said, yes. He looked back and noticed that some people would probably be taking pictures. He then mumbled about the chicken and rice he had spilled on his uniform and chuckled a little. “I was just eating lunch,” he playfully offered. We laughed, and I said he looked great. As we turned around and drove the way we came, I looked back and saw him greeting each car with a pleasant demeanor and taking the letters one by one.

And there we were, in front of the Sheridan federal prison, a corrections officer and a bunch of bleeding-heart faith activists, in kinship with one another.

Kinship Amidst Opposition

I have also had other, more difficult encounters with law enforcement. To feel kinship in those moments is much more challenging. A couple weeks ago I called the office of the ICE regional director to urge the release of those detained in Sheridan. A field officer answered and, to my surprise, rather than just agreeing to convey my message, challenged me with questions. Let’s just say he did not seem to appreciate my call or the calls others had been making. Since he was engaging me, I asked him back: “Don’t you think our request makes sense? Why should these men be locked up in prison in horrendous conditions while their asylum cases are evaluated? Why should we be treating them like this?” He told me that he had been out to Sheridan and that they were being treated very well. “Some of these men,” he claimed, “are getting medical treatment for the first time in their lives.” The implications in that statement are quite disturbing. Meanwhile, several of the firsthand accounts described individuals being denied basic medical care despite their great suffering, and I told him so. “I don’t know where you got your information,” he said, “but I can assure you that they are being treated very well.” I told him that we were hearing these accounts from lawyers who had met directly with those detained and had recorded their stories verbatim. He suggested that the lawyers were making things up to have the case appear more sympathetic. The conversation ended shortly after that.

I take being a faith activist seriously. For me, that means striving to see the Divine in everyone I encounter — to see wholeness, and fear, and suffering, to see each person’s humanity. That does not mean that we always find common ground. In this case, either the immigration lawyers or the officer were lying. I am pretty clear on which one I think it was. Sometimes we need to choose sides. Yet I can still recognize this officer’s humanity even as I challenge his actions, and more importantly the system of injustice within which he is functioning. Living panim el panim does not alleviate the need for opposition. On the contrary, it asks us to stay right there with it but to do so in line with our deepest values and a wider understanding of tension and justice.

On the day that Rabbi Joey and I, along with twenty other faith leaders, were arrested at the ICE building, I had a moment with the officer who was preparing to place me in handcuffs. In spite of himself, I think, he let on that his mother is Jewish. In our back and forth, I eventually said to him, “I am here because my great-grandparents would be treated as criminals today; I imagine yours would as well.” He shrugged a bit, but did not refute me. In that moment I felt myself straddling kinship and opposition.

Who knew that tension better than the patriarch Jacob? Having fled for his life from his own brother twenty years prior, he was now returning to the land of his childhood, preparing to meet him again. The night before, he sent his whole family and all his animals across the river, and was left alone. “And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” The man, or the angel — an aspect of his brother Esau? Jacob’s alter ego — his fear, or his conscience? — was stronger, but Jacob was steadfast in the struggle. He could not defeat him, but he would not let him go. Before dawn broke, Jacob wrested from this being a blessing — his new name, our name: Yisrael — Israel, “Godwrestler.”

As dawn arrived and the mysterious figure disappeared, Jacob named the place Peni’el, “the face of God” — “for I have seen God,” he declares, “panim el panim — face to face, yet my life has been saved.” In addition to nearness and intimacy, panim el panim often incorporates and is even born of struggle. There is a vulnerability in living panim el panim. A lot is asked of us as we encounter the other.

And that means any other. Perhaps the closer the relationship the more awesome the task. To know and be known — in relationship, in family, in community — is to wrestle, to wrest kinship and blessing from opposition. Ezer kenegdo is the phrase used in Genesis to describe what is needed for the first human when they are alone. Often translated something like “helpmate” or “fitting helper,” it actually carries connotations of both support and opposition. Ezer is helper and neged means “against." So it might literally be more like “a helper against you.” (A friend once drashed at a wedding that this is a very Jewish thing — a helper…to you! Where is it written that life should be easy?) Even in our most intimate relationships, encounters involve wrestling. And out in the world, even as we are neged, we can still remember that we belong to each other.

There is a tension here, that I want to make sure we are holding: recognizing the possibilities for kinship everywhere and actively cultivating them, while standing firmly in who we are and what we are fighting for. I have to admit that the kinship I sensed with the officers from Homeland Security felt for me ambivalent. As if I could have said, “I feel you panim el panim with me, and I honor and appreciate that. But I’m curious if you also stand panim el panim with someone who doesn’t carry the authority and privilege that I do.” I don’t know. Maybe some of them do. But the system for which they are vehicles views each undocumented immigrant as an “it,” not a “you.” That seems crystal clear right now. And so while I will actively seek out those encounters with each person in the equation, I believe that our deepest panim el panim commitment is to the powerless — as Torah demands, in the language of its time and place: the widow, the orphan, the stranger.

Kinship Wherever Possible

And if we hope to truly transform conflict and tension, and genuinely build safer and more generous ways of being in this world, then we must meet panim el panim as a means to see our way into relationship where we are not yet in relationship. We need to begin with one another and expand it outward wherever possible. And I believe that each of us needs to discern what that means.

I want to conclude with a story recounted by Barbara Kingsolver in her book Small Wonder. In short, it goes like this: In a remote Iranian village, a sixteen-month old boy wandered off. After a few days and nights of terror spent by the boys’ parents and other loved ones, the boy was found by the father and his search party, five kilometers outside of the village, curled in the arms of a she-bear. The boy was safe, warm, and smelling of milk.

Kingsolver poses the question we each might ask: “How is it possible that a huge, hungry bear would take a pitifully small, delicate human child to her breast rather than rip him into food?” In answering her own question, she offers this:

But she was a mammal, a mother. She was lactating, so she must have had young of her own somewhere—possibly killed, or dead of disease, so that she was driven by the pure chemistry of maternity to take this small, warm neonate to her belly and hold him there, gently. You could read this story and declare “impossible,” even though many witnesses have sworn it’s true. Or you could read this story and think of how warm lives are drawn to one another in cold places, think of the unconquerable force of a mother’s love, the fact of the DNA code that we share in its great majority with other mammals—you could think of all that and say, Of course the bear nursed the baby. He was crying from hunger, she had milk. Small wonder.

Friends, we are needed right now. That gentler universe is waiting for us. From deep within and amidst the cries of all those whose humanity is being denied, who are being cast aside as dispensable, that universe within which all beings belong to each other is waiting to be uncovered.

Let us invest these days in reminding ourselves of the power available when we see one another in the fullness of who we are, when we understand each other as kin.

L’shanah tovah tikateivu — May we each be inscribed this year for life.


Yom Kippur

Al Chet
By the Tikkun Olam Committee

This is our communal confession: the Al Chet. Together we acknowledge the wrongs we have committed, the actions we could have taken but chose not to, and the actions we didn’t know to take at all. Here we take collective responsibility for our lives and for that of our community.

Perhaps instead of translating this as holding each other accountable we simply hold each other. In this way together we create the space for teshuvah – this turning and returning to our best selves.

The Al Chet is said multiple times during Yom Kippur. It’s on page 466 in the machzor with an alternative translation on page 27 in the supplement. The version we have created for today is through the lens of our Tikkun Olam Committee and the work we continue to do around Immigrant Justice, Climate Action, and Poverty & Homelessness.

Together we do this work, and together we ask for forgiveness.

Immigrant Justice

*For the wrong that we have done before you by not speaking out when words like illegal and alien are used against our fellow humans beings.

*For the wrong that we have done before you, knowing we would do anything to ensure our own children’s safety but remaining silent when those seeking the same for their children are criminalized, separated or imprisoned.

*For the wrong that we have done before you by absorbing the narrative of the Good Immigrant & the Bad Immigrant. Forgetting there was a time that our parents and grandparents were the “bad immigrants.”

*For the wrong that we have done before you by denying our country’s role in the root causes of migration.

*For the wrong that we have done before you by not seeking out the stories of the people who are locked away at Sheridan, NORCOR or the NW Detention Center.

*For the wrong that we have done before you by closing our eyes to the importance of Oregon’s 30-year-old Sanctuary Law and its value to many in our community.

For all these failings and more, forgive us, pardon us, help us atone.

Climate Action

*For the wrong that we have done before you by allowing businesses, government officials, and ourselves, to prioritize profits over the health and dignity of our planet and all people.

*For the wrong that we have done before you by using more than our share of the Earth’s resources.

*For the wrong that we have done before you by not taking action because we believe it won't make a difference.

*For the wrong that we have done before you by not calling our elected officials to let them know what we think and how we want them to act on our behalf.

*For the wrong that we have done before you by not taking even a small step, or the next step, to reduce our carbon footprint.

*For the wrong that we have done before you by not following our parents instruction to turn off the lights when we leave the room.

For all these failings and more, forgive us, pardon us, help us atone.

Poverty & Homelessness

*For the wrong that we have done before you in turning our eyes away from people experiencing homelessness on the streets of our city – because we feel guilty, or we are busy, or we feel helpless.

*For the wrong that we have done before you in the closing of our hearts by not sharing with our own children the fact that there are four thousand homeless children in Portland and how these homeless children are more similar to them than different.

*For the wrong that we have done before you by failing to speak up when others make pejorative statements about people experiencing homelessness – and by making those statements ourselves.

*For the wrong that we have done before you by not giving a portion of what we spend on our own remodeling projects to an organization working on homeless issues.

*For the wrong that we have done before you in failing to affirm the dignity and humanity of people experiencing homelessness -- by smiling to them, by speaking with them, by seeing them.

*For the wrong that we have done before you by putting off volunteer work focusing on issues of homelessness.

For all these failings and more, forgive us, pardon us, help us atone.

In Addition

*For the wrong that we have done before you by postponing difficult conversations with each other.

-about Israel

-about Palestinian human rights

-about white privilege

*For the wrong that we have done before you by failing to appreciate the interconnectedness of all humanity.

For all these failings and more, forgive us, pardon us, help us atone.

Yom Kippur Drash

By Karen St. Clair

Click here to read Karen St. Clair's drash.

Tue, July 23 2024 17 Tammuz 5784