We Still Have Much Work to Do

Torah Thought: Shelach Lecha June 19, 2020

I am beginning to feel like the rabbi who came to a new congregation and delivered his first sermon.  The congregation waited with eager anticipation for his initial Shabbat message, and the rabbi did not disappoint. He electrified them with his eloquence, knowledge, and oratorical style.  The congregation was ecstatic.

The following week a hush came over the congregation as the new rabbi stepped to the podium to deliver his second sermon. To the congregation’s shock, he repeated verbatim his message of the previous week. The officers huddled in the back of the sanctuary after the service and decided: “Lets’ not say anything. Perhaps he was nervous or confused.”

Wen the rabbi delivered the exact same message—word for word—a third time, though, the Board of Trustees convened an emergency meeting and confronted their new rabbi: “We don’t understand, the president said. “You inspired and moved us with your brilliant sermon three weeks ago, but then in the following weeks you simply repeated what you said before. Why?”

“That’s easy,” the rabbi responded. “When you all do as I instructed you in the first sermon, I will be happy to give you another.”

 The rabbi’s answer reverberates in my mind today.

When I was 20 years-old, a rising junior at Hamilton College with no clear idea what I wanted to do after graduation, for a reason no one has ever explained, my home synagogue, Temple Sharey Tefilo in East Orange, NJ invited me to conduct a summer Shabbat Eve service when the rabbi was on vacation: It was my first sermon ever and I referenced a recent cover of Life Magazine: The photo depicted a beautiful little girl about three years old, held lovingly in the arms of her father.  Both father and daughter were identically clad—in the white robe and hood of the Ku Klux Klan

The message for me—and I hope for the congregation on that summer Shabbat eve—was clear.  We must be taught to hate, but the hope that ignited in my heart and mind that night was that we can also be taught to love.

Events of recent weeks have frustrated us so much!

Have we made any progress at all in civil rights? Has anything changed when a driving a car or committing a minor infraction while being Black can result not in a reprimand but in a death sentence? Have we achieved anything at all when Black parents cannot be sure their children are safe for the night until they lovingly tuck them into bed?

Today is Juneteenth, the day to celebrate the Liberation of those who had been slaves in the United States. But any thoughts I have of celebrating are sullied by frustration and anger over the horrific events of recent weeks. It should not be a capital crime in the land of the free and the home of the brave to drive while Black, to jog while Black, to protest while Black, or even to commit a petty crime while Black.

My frustration at this time calls to my mind God’s frustration in this week’s Torah portion. In parashat Shelach Lecha, God’s frustration with the children of Israel’s total lack of faith is so overwhelming that the Eternal One cries out:  “How long will this people spurn me? Stand back Moses and let me destroy them, and I will make you a new and better people to lead.”

It is a tempting offer, to be sure. Time and again, the people have exasperated Moses with their lack of faith. They complain about having not enough water, they complain about the food available to them in the desert. They build a golden calf, when Moses is gone too long on the mount. And now after all God has done for them, they lack the faith to carry out the mission for which the Eternal One liberated them from Egypt in the first place.

But Moses stays God’s hand.

“God,” Moses  pleads, You can’t destroy the people whom your brought out of Egypt This is Your people, and You have charge me to help You lead them from slavery to show the world a new way of life based on justice, righteousness, caring and compassion. You cannot abandon them now!”

The most wonderful feature of this week’s lesson is: God listens to Moses.  He relents and proclaims the immortal words:

“I have pardoned as you have asked.”

These are the very words we proclaim on the Eve of Yom Kippur after the Cantor concludes the singing of Kol Nidre.

These words give us hope.  If God could forgive the Children of Israel for their horrible sins, then we have reason to believe that if we repent, God will forgive us as well.

The sins the White race have committed against people of color are beyond egregious.  We traveled across the sea to hunt them as animal. We chained them to the holds of ships. We sold them like chattel at slave market, and we have impeded their march to equality at every step along the pages of history since.

Have we made progress? Undoubtedly.

But recent events make it clear how far we have to go.

The miracle of modern technology brings our transgression into sharper relief than ever before.

In the 60s, martyrs of the civil rights struggle like James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were just names attached to gruesome but grainy photographs.

Now, we see the brutality played and replayed over and over in living color before our very eyes. Now the faces and the anguish of many of the victims of racism is inescapable:

George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Ahmoud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Freddy Gray, Sandra Bland, Sam Dubose, Alton Sterling, Terence Crutcher, Aiyanna Stanley-Jones, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Atatiana Jefferson, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tanisha Anderson, Trayvon Martin, and too many more—

These are real people. We can see their faces, see the torture they experienced and hear their plaintive cries—some literally ringing in our ears—as an indictment for 2,000 years of kidnapping, murder, exploitation and abuse.

This week’s Torah portion is Moses’ finest our because he urges God not to give up on the people even after they have shown their faithlessness time after time. Moses brings God back from the brink of despair.

Those of us who believe in full equality are also at this time on the brink of despair.  But I hope the message of the Torah resonates with us. We cannot give up. No matter how frustrated and angry we are, we must find the strength to keep writing of our anger, keep speaking out and keep marching.

We may not achieve full equality in our lifetimes, but we must not give in to despair. We must find the strength to continue the struggle and if we do, we too may hope that God will say to us as the Eternal One proclaimed to the children of Israel.

“I have pardoned your sins of the past as your actions demonstrate you have requested.”

So, I come to the end of another Torah Thought.  The portion is different, but like the new rabbi in his congregation, my message is very much the same as I delivered last week and the week before:

God urges us to do all we can to build a society of justice caring equality and compassion.  We still have so much work to do.






In the Face of Injustice

The day before he was indicted I tweeted that Derek Chauvin should be charged with murder in the death of George Floyd.

A friend of 56 years tweeted angrily in reaction: “It is unbecoming for a religious leader to interfere in a matter in the temporal world …you are not the prosecutor, and you don’t know all of the facts…Judaism has absolutely nothing to do with what happened in Minneapolis.”

I responded:

“Judaism has EVERYTHING to do with what happened in Minneapolis … and as for the facts: Three cops looked on while one of their number pressed his knee into the neck of a handcuffed man until he died. If Mr. Floyd did anything to mandate his arrest, the manpower was clearly there to do it without killing him. This is murder.”

In the days following Mr. Floyd’s murder, Jews around the world celebrated the Festival of Shavuot, which marks the anniversary of when God transmitted the Torah to our people on Mt. Sinai.

Our tradition teaches that all Jews everywhere and all future generations miraculously were there to take part in that singly important moment in our religious journey.

To stand at Sinai does not mean simply to worship, give charity and to study.

To stand at Sinai means to pledge our utmost to fill the world, as God charged Abraham,   “with righteousness and justice.” (Genesis 18:19)

To stand at Sinai means among many other things:

To worship no other gods, not to swear falsely, not to bear false witness, to treat the stranger with dignity and respect, to care for the widowed and the orphaned and not to follow the crowd to do what is wrong.

To stand at Sinai means to have special consideration for the minorities and the disadvantaged.

On Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement, one of the sins we ask forgiveness for is “abuse of power.” There is no more intimidating symbol of power than a uniformed officer of the law. And there is no group of people abused by that power more frequently in our country than those who are Black .

Unless we protest injustice especially when perpetrated against minorities and the disadvantaged, then we Jews today deserve the indictment hurled by the prophet Amos at the Jews of Samaria in the name of God almost 3000 years ago:

“I hate, I despise your feasts, and I will take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” (Amos 5:21)

Unless we raise our voices to protest the murders of people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arberry, Eric Garner, and Trayvon Martin and countless other Black men and women murdered for the “crime of being black” then all of our Sabbath, Holy Day and Festival observances are abominations in the sight of God.

Make no mistake. I do not condone violent protests that burn buildings, damage property and inflict bodily harm.  But I am violently opposed to the callousness of a system that allows the abuse of minorities to continue unchecked until anger and frustration boil over.

Though none of us can bring this scourge to an end singlehandedly, each of us can raise our voices in protest. Each of us can reach out to those we know in the African American community to acknowledge the pain they feel and express our support.

No, none of us can end oppression by ourselves, but with understanding and compassion we can move the world just a bit closer to another time of which the prophet Amos dreamed: “When justice will well up as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:24)