A sermon by Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor: Kol Nidre 5784

At the end of each day of creation, God said, “V’henei tov (And Behold, it is good).” When God completed the work of creation, God said, “V’henei tov me’od (And Behold, it is very good).”  Yes, the world we have inherited is very good – but it is far from perfect and very far from complete.  Some of the impediments to completing the world are part of the natural world: there are earthquakes, storms, volcanoes, natural disasters….   Some of the impediments are due to the human impact on the world around us: using dangerous chemicals to control the environment, pollution, improper waste management, and other environmental abuses leading to global warming.  But some of the most egregious impediments derive from what we humans do to other humans.  Some of these actions come from baseless hatred and xenophobia leading to war and needless bloodshed.  But some of these problems come from unfair and unequal sharing of resources.  Of all the impediments to making the world into the world it could and should be, the sharing of resources should be the easiest to address – but, ah, human nature – our basest instincts — often get in the way. 

New York City is reported to have the highest population of homeless individuals in the US.  Currently over 70,000 people are known to be homeless in NYC, that represents approximately a little less than 1% (.89 to be exact) of the 8.2 million residents in the 5 Boroughs.  Walking down the streets in NYC the numbers seem much higher.  Walking around Los Angeles, San Francisco, Austin TX, Boston, or any major city, the plight of the homeless seems more and more acute.  Add into those numbers, the myriads of migrants, and we have a crisis of heartbreaking proportions.

The national average of those considered food insecure is 10.9%. Looking at NYC again, the percentage of NYC residents who are considered food insecure is 14.6%.    

Now let us look at our beautiful island of Nantucket.  While the population swells to about 80,000 in July and August, it is commonly believed that the year-round population is 14,255 (according to 2021 census data – though there is a chance that this was under-reported for many of the reasons that many major urban centers report less than robust returns of census data).  Our Nantucket Food, Fuel and Rental Assistance Program, under the supervision of the Nantucket Interfaith Council, has just released the Fiscal 2023 impact report (covering July 1, 2022 – June 30, 2023).  From that report, we learn that over 3076 individuals (of which 757 were children, and 73 were seniors) received food assistance.  That means that food insecurity is felt by 22% of the year-round population (compare that to the national average of 10.9% and NYC’s 14.6%).  Further, in the High School, which has a student population of 554, 218 or 40% qualify for the National Student Lunch program – meaning that they are children whose families receive SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance) from the government.  16 students of the entire school population PK-12 of 1666 students are ”homeless” and many more live in tenuous housing situations.  The actual homeless population during the winter months is difficult to quantify, many camp out in the Serengeti, or live in cars, or in illegal basement settings.  The problem has become so difficult that the Interfaith Council just brought into our orbit A Warming Place, which will provide shelter, on an emergency basis for up to 12 adults, 7 days a week, from November to April.  

It is often the case that some in society look upon those in need or under duress with derision.  This seems to be endemic to human nature from our earliest times. Take for example the plight of the Tzarua, the leper in Biblical times: they were expelled from society, made to live on the fringes of the encampments, and people would run from them shouting Tamay! (Unclean).  Imagine the fear, the isolation and the feelings of rejection. Its modern day parallel is found in the plight of those people we have often, unconsciously treated as “other”: the homeless. At the beginning of the housing crisis of the 1980’s people in New York would drive down streets like the Bowery and roll up their car-windows and lock their doors.  People closed their eyes to the sight of the near skeletal, dirty, and putrid person reaching out a hand or offering to wipe one’s windshield.  Some people would have crossed a street just to avoid an encounter with a beggar — or to avoid looking at the beggar’s eyes.  Many people were stricken with fear and revulsion, their senses are offended by the beggar’s appearance and odor. Many feared for their own safety when confronted with the poor and homeless, and the de-institutionalization of many people with emotional or cognitive issues, made for an unmedicated addition to those on the streets.

Forty years later, we still are confounded when approached by someone asking for a handout, or seeing someone camping out on the street.  Sometimes, we reach into our pockets for some spare coins and offer them as we quicken our pace down the street — sometimes with a smile in our hearts because we felt we did the correct thing; but even then, the voice inside of us screams Tamay!  We think of the futility of giving a few coins to just one person, when there are so many out there who need help. Sometimes, we want to do something but are frozen into inactivity pondering what we could do to be of some help.  Then we can go home, with our feelings, with our cares, with our troubles, but we can go home.  While the poor person’s home is any place: sometimes safe, most of the time not; sometimes warm, but most of the time not.  Time is marked by meals, or no-meals; and time is marked by sleeping or not sleeping.

We ponder the problems of the poor and homeless, and we search for answers or solutions.  The rabbis and prophets have all considered the life of the poverty-stricken.  It is not a new problem, and our tradition provides us with insights to help us understand the poor and what might be done to ease the suffering of poverty.

The Book of Proverbs states, M’chetat dalim raysham“ (the ruin of the poor is their poverty).  Property robs a person of her or his humanity — poverty dehumanizes.  As we read in Exodus Rabbah (Mishpatim 31:14), “If all of the afflictions in the world were placed on one side of a scale and poverty on the other, poverty would outweigh them all.”  Poverty outweighs all of the world’s afflictions, precisely because it degrades the person in the sight of others.  Poverty causes us to look at someone differently and to act differently towards them.  V’yikra Rabbah notes, “the poor person is the lowliest of God’s creatures, not only in the eyes of others but in his own eyes as well.”  It is a terrible thing when one loses self-respect or stops valuing his or her own life.  Even the poor person’s efforts to be self-sufficient on the streets are quickly frustrated — yet food must come from somewhere if one is going to eat.  Talmud Betza 32b states, “The world is darkened for one who has to look forward to the tables of others for sustenance.”  When one cannot even provide for personal needs; when clothing, shelter and food must be forgotten or begged for, one’s humanity is ripped away.  

The rabbis indicate ways that we can better the lives of those individuals who are impoverished.  Baba Batra (9b) suggests that we recognize a person’s humanity by the way we treat him or her, “The one who gives a coin to a poor person is regarded with six blessings, but the one who encourages that person with kind words is rewarded with eleven blessings.”  Thus, the primary task is to begin to treat others with dignity.  This notion is expressed in a Midrash which says that if you have nothing to give to one who is poor, you are to console that person with kind words and say, “My soul goes out to you as I have nothing to give you.”  This is the true act of Gemilut chasadim — loving-kindness, for it is action with compassion and empathy.

Another source of guidance is RMBM (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon), whose eighth and highest degree of charity is “to anticipate charity by preventing poverty; to assist the reduced fellow, either by a considerable gift or loan of money, or by teaching the person a trade, or seeing that the person is set up in business so that the person may earn an honest living and not be forced to the dreadful alternative of extending a hand for charity.”  (Mishneh Torah Matnot Aniyim 10:7) It is clear that most of us are not in the position to do exactly as RMBM instructed.  However, each of us can take RMBM’s message and search for our own way to apply it.  This action can take myriad forms but we must first recognize our responsibilities.  For once we realize what we must do, this allows us to act.  We need not make major changes in personality, nor do we need to begin with major tasks, doing little things opens us up to the possibilities of doing more.  By doing this kind of work, we allow ourselves to be affected and touched by the individuals that we aid.  

These thoughts should inform our actions when we return to places where food and shelter insecurity seem so rampant. But what of the situation on this magical place of Nantucket?  So many people who are employed during the season find no work when summer residents leave the island.  The people who are the very infrastructure of this island are often in need in the cold months.  Many are unable to pay rent or pay for heating fuel.  Some come to this island to work, but because of health issues or accidents become unable to work at all, and they have no other place to live, because they moved here.   Many come for the season to work (quite a number on J1 visas) in restaurants or hotels.  Because it is the very beginning of the season, they are often not paid for 8 to 12 weeks.  Some of you know that in May, the island’s Food Pantry was overrun with those needing food, or personal hygiene supplies.  They didn’t anticipate the high cost of even the simplest and most basic supplies.  

We should be proud of the response of many in this congregation who helped to put stock on the bare shelves in those initial weeks of this summer season, by donating directly or ordering supplies on Amazon.  This congregation spent an evening after a shabbat service preparing bags of feminine hygiene supplies to assist the Food Pantry.  And many honor loved ones or the memories of beloved family members by donating to the Food Pantry. As a congregation, Shirat HaYam is a major supporter of the Nantucket Interfaith Council’s efforts to ameliorate food and housing insecurity.  All of those actions are mitzvot – divinely inspired actions.  But there is so much more that we can—and must—do. 

The first is to learn about the problem here – and if you also live elsewhere, in your home community.  Spend an afternoon in the food pantry here or anywhere – and talk to the people who come in.  Ask them to share their stories if they are willing.  Volunteer to spend a night or two in a shelter.  Donate according to your ability.  Advocate for affordable housing.  Advocate for support services for those in need: psychological support, domestic abuse refuge, job-training, transitional housing.  Our homes will become more precious to us.  Even a simple meal will provoke gratitude when we realize how tenuous life can sometimes be. For those on island October 1st, please buy tickets to the Autumn Social which is the only fundraising event of the year for the Nantucket Interfaith Council’s Nantucket Food Fuel and Rental Assistance Program, the Food Pantry, the medical transportation fund, and now A Warming Place.  If you will not be here, consider donating the cost of tickets so that we can enable those who would not normally be able to enjoy a festive meal – or make a donation through Shirat HaYam or directly to

But the most important lesson comes from Rabbi Shelomo of Karlin who said, “If you want to raise a person from mud and filth, do not think it is enough to keep standing on top and reaching a helping hand down.  You must go all the way down yourself, down into the mire.  Then take hold of that person with strong hands and pull that person and yourself into the light.”

It sometimes becomes so easy to say what “they” must do to correct the problem.  We look at the thousands of people who are without homes and become exasperated.  It is easy to say that there is nothing we could do to help — that it would only be a ‘drop in the bucket.’  In the film, “The Year of Living Dangerously” the character Billy Quan is asked why, when confronted with all the poverty in Jakarta, did he choose to support one woman and her child as opposed to distributing his resources.  He replies, “You must help the individual God puts before you — that is your duty.”

We must force ourselves to open our eyes, to see the person standing before us — to see his or her state and respond as our tradition demands of us.  To raise a person from their poverty, we must restore their humanity.  In order to restore another person’s humanity, we must first discover our own humanity.  For we have the power to raise up the poor individual and by doing so we raise ourselves.  We, ourselves, gain a new sense of self-worth.  In Talmud Shabbat (102b) we find, “There is no poverty in a place of wealth.”  While many on this island are wealthy, this is not yet a place of wealth until we truly begin the work at hand.  This cannot become a place of wealth until it becomes a place rich in deeds — rich in action — deeds that benefit everyone — deeds that provide every person with the dignity that is deserved.  Only when this happens, when every person is afforded dignity, will this become a place of wealth, for there will be no poverty.

Kayn Yehee Ratzon!

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