Back in October 2012 an organization called LIFE (Living Independently Forever) which is a group home for high functioning adults with learning difficulties, organized a trip to Washington DC. Like other trips to DC, this group visited the National Mall, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Smithsonian and Arlington National Cemetery. Two young women by the names of Lindsey and Jamie, were caregivers for these adults. Lindsey and Jamie had been friends since elementary school and were now in their late twenties. They thrived in creating activities for these very special people by lighting up their lives with knitting, painting and small trips.
Lindsey and Jamie, like many young people, kept a running joke between them; they had their own personal meme. They would take silly photographs and text them back and forth and sometimes post them online. Like the time one of them pretended to smoke a cigarette in front of a no-smoking sign or another time when they posed in front of famous statues, mimicking the pose. These women would take the photos and text them to each other, or post them online with funny comments.
So when they went to Arlington National Cemetery, Lindsey saw a sign. It was black with brass lettering that said, “Silence and Respect.” When she saw it and inspiration struck. Lindsey quickly ran over to it, and in a moment of complete thoughtlessness, decided to pose in front of it by pretending she was shouting and swearing, all the while flipping the bird. Jamie snapped the photo for their collection. Imagine her now, in a photo in front of a sign that “Silence and Respect” and she was fake yelling.
Except the sign was placed there for a reason. Anyone who has ever gone to Arlington National Cemetery knows that sign. It’s posted outside of the Tomb of the Unknown. The burial place of remains of our veterans that are yet to be identified. A soldier is permanently stationed outside the tomb. It’s a solemn place, many would say a sacred place.
The day the photo was taken, Jamie, with Lindsey’s permission, posted the photo on Facebook for their very modest-sized friend group so they could see it as part of their meme, or running gag.
Now a few weeks later, while celebrating Jamie’s birthday, their phones blew up with messages. Someone had found the photo and brought it to the attention of hordes of online strangers, none of whom knew Lindsey or Jamie.
You can imagine what happened next: an outpouring of rage across the internet tagging Lindsey and her photo. A new Facebook page, “Fire Lindsey.” had been created. It attracted 12,000 followers. These online commentators started calling her out for being inappropriately irreverent. But within a few minutes this page also became a meeting place of hate and shame. Instead of just holding her accountable, the comments became harsher saying things like, “Lindsey Stone hates the military. “She hates soldiers, she hates people.” Another read, “You’re just pure evil.” Spurred on by the shame, these commentators used the page to organize themselves to find out more about Lindsey and where she worked. The comments kept getting worse, including calling for to be arrested, committed to an insane asylum,to be raped and to be killed. This all happened in one night.
The morning after the birthday party, news cameras appeared in droves outside her home. When she showed up to her job, she was indeed fired. Her boyfriend left her. She barely left the house. Lindsey couldn’t find work for over a year. When she did find a new job, she never socialized with coworkers because maybe her new employer would find out about her, and she would lose this job too. Since the incident happened, she hasn’t dated anyone, because she is just too afraid to trust others with her story.
What Lindsey did was wrong. As a veteran and as a rabbi, it bothers me that someone would be so thoughtless to take a sacred space like The Tomb of The Unknown . It was morally wrong. Even though she never meant to hurt anyone, and she in fact did not hurt anyone, Lindsey’s actions are still wrong.
But it was one moment of being wrong. It was a single moment in a young woman’s life where she made a mistake. The response, however, to this single moment that went on forever. There was a tsunami of shame and pillory. She said over and over again that she regretted and was sorry for what she did. She released a statement of apology. Jamie took the post down. But as one of the trolls said sarcastically after she deleted the post, “Sorry Jamie, your post lives on forever.” After being called out for one thoughtless moment,she became trapped in fear, now playing out over and over again across the globe forever.
I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about this story and the culture that it symbolizes. This “call out” culture that has taken over our lives. For those that don’t know, call-out means naming people publicly that you think have done something wrong. Maybe someone we know or don’t know or think we know, makes a mistake or says something we don’t like and we call them out and shout their name and tell the world how wrong they are. Basically, it’s the story of Lindsey. It’s the story of so many people, famous and not famous people, who have made a mistake in their lives and because of the culture we live in, they can never be forgiven. Their actions are never forgotten, their past is not the past, they have no future because they couldn’t let go of the past. Their life is ruined forever.
Lindsey is just one story, but there are many more. Political gaffes, mistakes in judgements, inopportune moments, all pounced on and ground into dust. Each can be isolated as a single phenomenon, but together make up an entire culture. A call out culture that allows us just to wait for other people to mess up so we can unleash our own indignation upon them. A culture that rewards us for shaming each other. A culture that tells us that our own fury is righteous if we can just shame each other into paranoid silence.
I see it here in this congregation, around Shabbat dinner tables and meeting rooms. I see it in our larger community in boardrooms and chat rooms. I see it globally, online. I see this call out culture that searches for our worst moments and terrible mistakes and holds it up to our face and says you are nothing more to me than this moment. You can never be more than this moment. You are nothing more than this.
It’s this culture of calling out that I want to discuss with you today. Why do we do this? How did we get here? How have religion and other systems played a roll? How can we change it, if at all? On this most holy day of Yom Kippur, it’s time to call out this call out culture. It’s time to flip the script. Instead of calling each other out, it’s time to call ourselves out. To lay bear real truth and hopefully to activate something inside of us to grow, to heal and to step into a different space, a holy space.
I don’t know anyone who likes being called out. Sometimes we do things that we think are just against the rules without realizing that we are actually hurting other people. Like that time as a teenager when I came home late after curfew. I was out having a great time seeing a girl and I just didn’t want to go home. This was before cell phones, so I didn’t have to text or call. Sorry kids, you do have it worse than we did. I pulled up to the house and it was dark. There were no lights on anywhere and I opened the door slowly and quietly. I took my shoes off on the patio so I wouldn’t make noise. As I passed through the living room on the way to my bedroom I thought I had made it. Only thirty feet to go and I’d be home free. “Noah!” I heard from the dark. I froze. “Get over here right now!” Busted. I got caught. Called my name right out.
I certainly did not like that. But I didn’t realize then what I know now. When we don’t come home on time and if we don’t call, we scare the people we love. We can hurt them. We can take relationships for granted. There are lots of times we get called out like this. Maybe you drank milk from the carton, or left your socks on the couch. Or didn’t put the dirty dishes into the dishwasher and left them on the counter — next to the dishwasher. Or maybe you said something overly rude at a dinner party. Maybe you didn’t come home from work when you said you would, because things got busy, but you missed dinner and bathtime — again. Or maybe you took advantage of a friend in business. Or you lied out of shame. Or you pushed a rumor just to create drama because it makes you feel relevant and important in the workplace.
In those moments when we are called out, we deserve it. I deserved to be caught after curfew. I deserve to be called out leaving my socks on the couch. I certainly deserve it by leaving dishes out. I mean it’s right there, just six more inches and it would be in the dishwasher! And we should come home to family, and slow our speech. Being called out there is a reminder that we can do better. It’s a reminder that we made a commitment in love to another person. It’s a reminder that we live in a covenant with them — in a life-long relationship that is as deep and accountable as it is loving. Being called out like that is part of what it means to be a covenanted person. To have a covenant with friends, family and God.
But this is not the kind of calling out I’m talking about with you today. I’m talking about the kind of culture that destroys lives, destroys communities, and destroyed the future. A culture we built and we are responsible for.
There is a law from the Torah that speaks to the very idea of building a culture. The Torah says, “When you build a new house, you shall put a guard rail along the rooftop, so that you do not bring blood upon your house should anyone fall from it.” (Deut 22:8) The teaching is clear enough. One must put up the guardrail so that they prevent others from falling off the roof. The Midrash adds that if you fail to build the guardrail upon the roof of your house, it is considered a bad house, and if you choose to go up to the roof and fall from you actually deserve to fall, because you know you built a bad house. ( Deut. 22:9-7)
The idea of the Torah and the Midrash together is that we should not be surprised if we create a bad house that bad things will happen in that house. The culture of calling out is exactly the house we built. We built a bad house. We built an entire global culture that is lurking for things to be angry at; a culture that waits for others to mess up. A house whose foundation is fury, whose cornerstone is contempt, whose, banisters are bitterness, whose walls and windows are wickedness and whose roof is ruined. When we build a bad house, we should not be surprised by the life that is lived in that house.
Is it so shocking to us that when we create a culture that searches with gusto for people’s worst moments, and then lay waste to their souls, that we find ourselves in a soulless world? Is it so surprising that if we spend our time destroying other people for their mistakes, that the world itself is not destroyed? Is it really a wonder when we foment shame and disgrace, that find ourselves in a shameful world that seemingly has no room for grace?
When we build a bad house, we will live in a bad house. When we build a world of darkness, we become the darkness. When we build a world of shame, we become shameful. We live in the culture we create. If we build a bad house, then we deserve to fall off the roof. Our lives are our responsibility.
We have built this call out culture and we have to tear it down and build something new. So let’s tear it down.
We might want to blame others for our call out culture. We can blame social media, politics and religion. That’s natural, but it is misplaced. All three systems share responsibility but they are each created by us, but are not us.
Some of us blame social media. Since the dawn of the new information age we can communicate now more effectively instantly and globally. But we didn’t foresee that the very thing that can bring us together turned into the very thing that tears us apart. We can text our friend on the other side of the world. We can buy anything through your phone and it will be delivered to your house. There is hardly a wedding or a bris or a baby naming I do today that someone isn’t video chatting in a friend from another country who couldn’t be there. Yet, what has been heralded as a tool of mass communication has become a weapon of mass destruction.
It’s like an atom bomb in reverse. When the bomb goes off, a chain reaction spreads destruction over hundreds of miles destroying millions of lives. When we call someone out online, when we shame them and ridicule them – the opposite is true. Millions focus their ire in a chain reaction onto a single person, breaking them. Cities are destroyed by bombs, souls are destroyed by tweets.
In this call out culture we seek to own, to destroy and to ravage each other’s point of view. Anyone can pass judgement on anyone anonymously without facts, truth or moral judgment. In this unforgiving call out culture, the people who survive the call out apocalypse are those that thrive on it. People without shame. Those who are loud and care not for facts or morals, those whose pugnacity and unrepentantance is the core of their being.
The truth is, however, we can’t just blame social media for this bad house. It’s a tool that has tapped into something deeper in our psyche. Every time we read a post or a Tweet, every time we click on an article, every time a friend or influencer tells us to think a certain way— to hop on the call out band wagon— to add hate upon hate, shame upon shame, every single time we have to decide whether to go along with it. We decide to share, we decide to like, and we decide to comment, not the screen. Social media is a system, it begins and ends with a screen in your hand and in front of your face, not inside your soul.
Some of us blame politics. All the studies show that we are more politically divided than ever. Our politics have moved beyond anger to contempt. Anger is an emotion that comes and goes. We can be angry in the morning but not in the evening. We can’t hold onto anger, but contempt is sticky. It endures. Contempt says that I don’t just disagree with your ideas, I disagree with your humanity. A politics of protest, a politics of contempt, a politics that negates the souls of other human beings contributes to this bad house. It’s because we don’t feel like we have any power, we call each other out to feel powerful. We feel really good in calling each other out because it makes us feel like we are winning even when we have done nothing to actually make a difference. It makes us feel righteous.
You can’t only blame politics for calling each other out either. Politics is a system like social media for capturing the mood of America. Politicians do not just create the culture, they live off of it. Furthermore, politics only address outcomes —policy — not the deepest part of ourselves. There is still something deeper inside of us that needs to be addressed to be questioned, if we want to tear down this bad house.
Some of us blame religion for this call out culture too. This one hits much closer to home. It’s terrifying to think what that Godly voice might say about us, especially if we are called out for being somehow naturally bad or for reminding us of our mistakes all the time. It’s frightening to think God thinks the worst of us, especially if we think the worst of ourselves already.
On a communal level, there are too many times in religious spaces where we call out congregants for messing up. I’ve met so many good people who feel uncomfortable in synagogues because they’ve felt called out. They’ve been told that there is no place for them here. They’ve been told that what they believe, or how they act or who they love is broken or wrong or unacceptable. I’ve sat with too many people who struggle with themselves and feel no home in God’s house.
Some of you are here and know the sting of what it feels like to be called out. To feel alone. To sit while others stand, or stand while others sit. To be unsure if this is your home or if you have to elsewhere. Unsure if you are truly loved, or just tolerated. Some of you feel off inside. Having your differences point out to you only to confirm the worst story you are already telling yourself about yourself. To those that feel this way, please know that you are known. Please see that you are seen. Please know that here is where you are heard.
We can blame these systems, social media, politics and religion, for creating a call out culture, but none of them get to the bottom of what is really at stake. None of these systems or tools get to the source of why we feel the need to destroy each other — the need to shy away from grace, the need to pull back from compassion. None of these cultural patterns go the deepest part of ourselves, because they are all just artifacts of society. Working euphemisms, for groups of people, for collectives of individuals, and for bouquets of souls.
Friends, if we want to build again, we cannot look only to systemic change. We have to begin with the smallest and most foundational unit. We have to begin with you. We have to begin with me. We have to begin with each of us. We have to begin with the soul. We have to begin with the brokenness we all feel. We have to begin with the lack of agency and power that reminds us of our own failures. We have to begin with the voices in our heads that remind us that we are nothing. That ringing in our ear that says that we will never live up to the dreams of our parents or our teachers. The voice that discourages us to be vulnerable. The voice that says we can’t be kind. We have to fear. We have to hide. We have to destroy.
If you want to change the world for the better, if you want to tear down the vile culture and build it up a better one, if you want to build a good house, God’s house, you cannot start with the frame, you have to start with the foundation. You have to build up your soul for the better. To show yourself instead of hide yourself. To have courage instead of fear. To heal and not to destroy.
And so let us flip the script. Let us build again.
Imagine what kind of world we could build knowing that calling out someone could draw them closer and not farther away? If we could lift them up instead of tearing them down? Imagine what accountability would look like if we called them out in love instead of hate? If we could draw out from each of us the greatness that is within us all instead of shaming us for not yet achieving greatness?
Let us use the best soul-system we have to find a way of calling out people, not for how they fail, but for how might yet succeed. What kind of world could religion build knowing that calling out someone could draw them closer and not farther away to the life they dreamed of living?
The best soul-system there is our Torah. In the Torah, the word for calling out is Vayikra. It means both to name something and to call it out. Each book of the Torah uses this same word for different purposes, and each book shares a different facet of God’s call out culture. The Book of books, the Torah uses the word Vayikra to add up to greatest calling of all.
Genesis begins with a calling. In the beginning, God makes the most daring decision ever in history. God decides not to be alone. God calls the world into a relationship. On the first day of the world, God said let there be light and “called the light day ‘day’ and the darkness, God called, ‘night.’ (Gen. 1:5) God called upon the world to be with the Divine. On the second day, God fashioned the firmament and called out again, calling the bubble that allows for everything on earth to live Shamayim, Heaven. (Gen. 1:6) And so it went every day until one day Adam and Eve were hiding in the Garden of Eden. They were afraid and ashamed and God calls them out looking for them. (Gen. 3:9)
The calling out of Genesis say to you that the world matters to God. Each of us is created in for relationship. You are made of the cosmos. You’re soul-potential is infinite. Your life is invaluable. God does not want you to hide, especially from yourself. God is looking for you, no matter how imperfect you are. God is calling to you.
In Exodus, God again uses the same word when calling Moses from the burning bush. (Exodus 3:4-6) Moses too was hiding. God calls him out, not because he ran away from Egypt but because God wants him to run to Egypt. God calls him from stumbling through his life to marching for others. God calls him from living by accident to living on purpose. God calls Moses out from his past and into the future. God calls Moses out to find the greatness that is inside of him. God calls him out so that he can begin the process of redemption.
The calling of Exodus says that your life matters so much that you cannot live by accident. You must let go of the past so you can seize the future. God calls upon you to hear the voice that is commanding you to find your purpose in life, the voice that says to look for meaning, and drive towards redemption not just for yourself but for those who are still enslaved.
God calls again in Leviticus. The entire name of the book is Vayikra. Each time God calls, God reaches into the world to draw it closer and closer. From outside the universe to the top of the mountain, and now into the inner sanctum, the holy of holies. This time God calls from the Tent of Meeting.”( Lev. 1:1). God calls to Moses saying, “Come in here.” Come close to Me. The sacrificial system of Leviticus teaches that what God wants is your failures, your guilt, your shame, your sin. God wants those things to take them away from you. God calls you out not because of your capacity to sin, but for capacity to forgive. God calls us out to forgive us. To raise us up, not push us down.
The calling of Leviticus is holiness because the holiest thing you can do is take away someone else’s shame. God says I’m calling you out not because you are perfect but because you are not. I’m calling you out so that your worst moments become My worst moments. God is no longer outside the world, but inside its heart. God no longer calls you out from someplace far away, but from within the home we build together. In a good house. In God’s house.
In Numbers, we find the laws of our sacred calendar. God calls us out to to create and name certain days as holy those holidays and times of the year are to come together as a community. To remember the past and create the future. Seven times the word mikra, from the same word as vayikra, is used to describe our times together.
The calling of Numbers is that of space and time. It says we have to make time to encourage each other. We have to make time to lift each other up. We have to make time for family, for community, to show up for each other.
If you want to create a positive culture you have to create a positive culture. If you want to create a world of love, you have to create a world of love. If you want to build a world of peace and goodness you have build a world of peace and goodness. In Numbers, God transfers that responsibility for calling people out to us. The world becomes our responsibility.
Finally in Deuteronomy, after years and years of God calling out, Moses finally returns the call. (Deut. 32:3). At the last moments of Moses’ life, when he has said everything that he has said and written, when Moses saw the Promised Land but could not enter, he calls out God one last time. Here, at this last moment, Moses is doing what we are doing here today on Yom Kippur, he asking for forgiveness. Asking for each of us to remember that our lives are precious. Our souls matter. And a world built on love,on relationships, on forgiveness is possible. Even if it is a world of the future- one that we dream of but might not ever experience.
Over and over again the Torah calls out to you. God is calling you out. Every book of the Torah calls out in some way. Genesis: you are called upon because you are are precious and matter to God. Exodus: You are called upon to find you have a purpose. Leviticus: You are called upon to not shy away from your failures. Numbers: You are called upon to make time and take responsibility for creating the world you dream of. Deuteronomy: You are called upon to call back. To work for the next generation. Each of these is a special calling, but they lead up to the greatest call of them all — you.
God’s greatest gift to the world is you. You are made in the image of God and the Holy One does not put average inside of anyone. You might feel average, you might feel alone but you are not. You are never alone in the covenant. You have greatness inside of you that is ready to be activated and elevated, to be called out.
What kind of world can we build if we take up the Torah’s calling? What if, instead of catching people doing their worst, we caught people doing their best? I saw that! I saw you buy that lunch! I caught you feeding the hungry! I caught slipping a few more bucks into the tzedakah box! I see you, taking off of work to catch your kids ballgame! I see you giving up that parking space on Yom Kippur!
I see you, reading with your child. I see you teaching them to be a mensch. I caught you giving a hug for no reason, for sharing your sadness with me, for sitting with a friend in the hospital. For taking in a kid who is lonely or lost. Imagine the kind of culture called out of us if we make the Torah’s calling the center of our lives.
There is greatness inside of you, and the Torah calls it out over and over again. You are God’s gift to the world, so you can act like a gift to others. To give of your time, your love, and your energy. You are called to give compassion, and goodness and sweetness. God calls you out for your greatness, so you can call out the greatness in others.
This is the kind of call out culture that we need. We need to throw away the culture that finds joy in another’s pain and hurt. We need to throw away a paradigm that judges others only for their faults. We need to tear down this bad house and build up a good house, our house, God’s house. We need to hear the calling of Torah, and take our Godly responsibility to find flourishing each other’s eyes. This is why God called out Adam. This is why God called out Eve, why God called out Moses, and why the Torah is calling out to you.
God wants what is inside of you, but humanity needs what is inside of you. We all need each other to build a more loving and holy house together. Our house. God’s house.
Today, Yom Kippur, is the day to reach deep inside and call ourselves out. Today is the day to go into your holy of holies and find what God has put inside of you. The capacity for greatness. The capacity for love. The capacity for goodness. The capacity for forgiveness. This holy day, is the day we show up for others, to love more, to care more, to forgive and be forgiven more. This day, Yom Kippur, is a holy day. It is my day. It is your day. It is our day. It is God’s day. A day to flip the script. To tear and to sew. To break and to build. Today is the day where everything matters. It is your day to be called out.
Gmar Chatima Tova – May you be sealed into the Book of Life.