L’shanah tovah u’metukah: A good and sweet New Year to all.
As you probably know, most rabbis spend months thinking about what they’re going to say during the High Holy Days, hoping to craft a sermon that is timely, relevant, meaningful, and inspiring. So it would probably not surprise any of you that last Tuesday, when Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the House was going to begin an Impeachment inquiry of our President, many of us asked ourselves: Do I toss out what I wrote, and write something entirely new? Or do I try to make what I had written connect with the news of the day (which would have been impossible, since the news of the day keeps changing daily, if not hourly).
These have been, to say the least, difficult and perturbing times. Our country is in a state of crisis, and we—the American People–are sharply divided. Many of us have been filled with great grief and anguish over all that is being dismantled. After each rollback of environmental regulations or protections of civil rights, we haven’t known what we should or could do to stop more damage from happening.
So what insight, or wisdom, might I offer tonight that might help us navigate through these turbulent times? What hope might I be able to offer as we head into this New Year?
It is simple: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
As many of you know, these words were delivered by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. in a sermon he gave in 1964. He said these words even though he knew there was still so much that needed to be done to bring about the equality that was promised by the Constitution. He knew that though change does happen, it is often painfully slow.
Today, 55 years later, we too know that so much must still be done to truly bring about equality and justice for all people: those living within our borders and those living beyond them–regardless of the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, their religious beliefs and practices, their countries of origin, their economic status. We know that despite the progress that has been made, racism and fear and demonization of the other are still deeply embedded in the systems and structures upon which this country is built and continues to operate.
This past August, during a trip to Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, I saw so clearly how the racism and fear and demonization of the other that existed during the years of slavery and Jim Crow in the South and many other parts of this country is the same racism and fear and demonization of the other that is present today—though now also directed at those who immigrated here from other countries, as well as those who still hope to make the United States their home.
I saw it so clearly, and . . .I saw something else: a glimpse, a fleeting glimpse, of the arc of the moral universe. There, in the midst of an area that is so sullied by such a hateful and violent past, I saw that arc. It is long, very long, as Dr. King said. It is likely even longer than the arc of our own lifetimes. And yet–despite our deepest fears, despite our great uncertainty for the future of this country, I saw that it does indeed bend toward justice.
Let me tell you why.
This summer, I joined 47 other Reform rabbis for a conference in Montgomery and Selma. It turned out to be a kind of spiritual pilgrimage, one that transformed me, and all of us, in profound ways.
In the two days we were there, we visited some of the historic locations of the Civil Rights Movement. Though I am sure I learned much of this in history classes or in books, none of it became real until I stood there, on the very ground where those brave individuals had stood and marched, just 55 years ago.
I wish I had time to tell you all of what we experienced. I’ll highlight just two of our experiences, and then share with you some of my insights.
On the second day of our journey we toured parts of Selma, guided by Joanne Bland, a powerful leader and activist in the struggle for voting rights. In 1965, at 11 years old, Bland joined 600 courageous leaders and ordinary citizens who attempted to march from Selma to the steps of the capitol in Montgomery, to demand the right of African American people to vote. Many of you know what happened. As they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge, they were met by State troopers and local law enforcement who beat them with night sticks and trampled them with horses. After finally receiving court-ordered protection to march, they set out again, 3200 people walking 12 miles a day and sleeping in fields. Included among them was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who when later asked if he’d found time to pray along the way, said he felt he’d prayed with his feet. By the time they reached Montgomery on March 25, they were 25,000 strong.
Less than five months later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
After we said goodbye to Ms. Bland, we set out, 48 of us slowly walking across the very same bridge. We were silent; we felt humbled to be following in such giant footsteps.
The second: On our final morning, we went to Dexter Parsonage, where Dr. King had lived from 1954 to 1960. We were guided by Dr. Shirley Cherry, who grew up poor in the segregated South, where she was banned from attending school or walking into a library. She told us that her mother would work 16-hour days pressing the robes of Ku Klux Klansmen. She also told us how, as a black child in the South, she had been raised to never look a white person in the eye. It was Dr. King, she said, who had given her a sense of her own dignity. That sense of inner dignity, along with the education she received from her grandmother who operated a school for the black children, propelled her to graduate from Tuskegee Institute, earn her masters at the University of Rhode Island, and teach public school for 31 years. She returned to Montgomery in her retirement, she said, to honor Dr. King and the great gift of self-dignity he had given her.
As we climbed the steps to the house, Dr. Cherry pointed out the gash on the porch where the bomb had hit when a white terrorist tried to bomb the home. She led us into Dr. King’s study and library, where on his desk we saw a copy of the Bible opened to the words of the prophet Amos. And as we gathered around the kitchen table, Dr. Cherry took us back to that night when Dr. King, filled with fear and uncertainty, prayed fervently, asking G-d to give him courage and strength. He heard G-d speaking directly to him, she said, telling him that he wasn’t alone. Hearing her tell the story was so powerful for all of us. It was as if the courage and strength that had been given to Dr. King that night radiated out to those of us gathered around the table. As leaders in our communities, living through these difficult and challenging times, we too sometimes feel afraid, and alone. We feel the weight of responsibility on our shoulders–to lead our communities, to stand up to and speak out against the injustices we see in our own day.
There are many things I took from this journey, insights and understandings that I am still unpacking. Some have already given me renewed energy for the road ahead, for doing the work of justice, as Jewish Tradition demands. “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof: Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” “Why the doubling of the word?” asked commentators. One said it means we must pursue justice under any circumstances, whether it benefits us or disadvantages us, whether in word or action, whether on behalf of Jew or someone who is not Jewish. (Bachya ben Asher). Another says the word tzedek is repeated because in matters of justice, one may never stand still.
I’d like to share three insights tonight. I hope and pray that they may help give us all renewed energy for the work of pursuing justice, in whatever lies before us in the New Year ahead.
First. The attitudes toward and treatment of those seeking to immigrate to this country, whether because they are fleeing dangerous situations or are seeking a better life for themselves and their families, are an extension, a continuation of the deeply embedded racial attitudes and sense of white superiority that existed in the South, and that continue to exist today in too many pockets around the country.
Maybe you already knew this, but I didn’t. Not really. I hadn’t fully grasped the connection until the first day, when we were at the Legacy Museum, which chronicles the history of slavery and Montgomery’s role in it. In the opening exhibit there were cells—like jail cells–where many different people—represented by holographic images—were speaking, crying, singing, calling out. As I looked and listened, I couldn’t help but think of the photographs in the news this past summer, of men, women, and children being held in cages in the detention centers in El Paso and other places along the border. As news of these conditions spread, many of us raised our voices in moral outrage. We know deep in our bones: this is not how you treat vulnerable, scared, innocent people.
Yes, it is true that every country has a need and a right to establish fair and reasonable immigration policies. Every country can, and must, establish criteria and processes to determine how people can cross its borders and become citizens or residents.
Racism, at its core, is fear and demonization of the other. As I stood in the museum, I saw so clearly: in our day, we face an extension of the racism that has long existed. But now, it is directed at those who may or may not have darker skin, those who may or may not speak English, those who are poor and without the resources that we here in the United States have simply because we were born in this country. They are not criminals, drug dealers, or rapists (Donald Trump, Trump, interview on Fox News’ “Media Buzz,” July 5, 2015). They are our mothers, our fathers, our sisters, our brothers, our friends. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.
As Jews, we are taught that every human being is created B’tzelem Elohim, in the divine image, and therefore deserves to be treated with dignity. We are also told not to wrong or oppress strangers [“V’ger lo tilchattz], v’atem yadatem et nefesh ha’ger . . . for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 23:9).
Some of us also know, from personal experience or stories we’ve heard, how so many countries closed their borders to Jews who were seeking safety and refuge during World War II. We must speak up and out, and not allow fear and demonization of the other guide our government’s policies toward those who, like all those who ever sought a better life for themselves and their families, simply seek to find a safe and secure home.
My second insight. We had been asked to read the book The Dark at the End of the Street to help us prepare for the trip. From it, I learned that it was not Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a group of male leaders who instigated the changes that eventually brought an end to segregation and won African Americans their civil rights, but rather, ordinary people, many of whom were women, each playing her or his small but significant role in bringing about change.
I learned, for example, that it was a relatively small group of women who brilliantly organized the Montgomery bus boycott.
One small detail of their effort stood out to me. It was 1955—long before copy machines, cell phones, the internet, or social media. As soon as news of Rosa Parks’ arrest spread, Jo Ann Robinson, one of the unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, called a colleague at Alabama State University and asked to use the college’s mimeograph machines. When night fell, Robinson and a few others met and mimeographed, cut, and bundled 52,500 flyers. Mimeographed. Early the next morning, more women delivered the flyers around town. By midafternoon, “practically every black man, woman, and child in Montgomery knew the plan and was passing the word along.” (McGuire, p. 99). For the next 381 days, the command center organized a fleet of nearly 300 private automobiles that picked up passengers at 42 locations and ferried them around town. Different groups sponsored activities or went door to door to raise money for gas and other necessities.
I found the detail of the mimeograph machine, along with the other seemingly minor details, both humbling and inspiring. So often, we succumb to a feeling of powerlessness and paralysis. We mistakenly see ourselves as impotent relative to those who hold power and authority. But in truth, we are so much more powerful than we give ourselves credit for. It is our fear that keeps us small.
It took ordinary people each doing their own small part to bring an end to segregation on the buses: some drove, others made sandwiches, and still others raised money.
It is true: . . . a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.
On my last day in Montgomery, after our gathering had ended, I walked to the Freedom Fighters’ Museum a few miles away. On my way, I passed the fountain in the center of town that marked the spot where enslaved people had been bought and sold. At that very moment, a group of young African American women were walking by it, talking and laughing, seemingly oblivious to where they were. Or maybe they knew exactly where they were. That’s when I saw it—the arc of the moral universe, bending toward justice. Change can and does happen. We just don’t always live long enough to witness it.
Which leads me to the final insight I’d like to share with you tonight. It comes from a story that Brian Stevenson shares in his book Just Mercy, which we had also been asked to read. At the book’s end, he tells how he had been invited by Ms. Johnnie Carr, who in many ways had been the true architect of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Whenever Rosa Parks would be in town, Ms. Carr would occasionally invite Brian Stevenson to join them. They’d meet at Virginia Durr’s house. Ms. Durr, Stevenson explains, was also a larger-than-life personality; she continued to work for justice well into her 90’s.
Stevenson writes, “. . . .mostly, I just loved hearing her [Rosa Parks] and Ms. Carr and Ms. Durr talk. They would talk and talk and talk. Laughing, telling stories, and bearing witness about what could be done when people stood up (or sat down, in Ms. Parks’s case). They were always so spirited together. Even after all they’d done, their focus was always on what they still planned to do for civil rights.”
Most of the time, he said, he would just sit and listen. But one time, Rosa Parks invited him to tell her who he was and what he was doing. He told her about the Equal Justice Initiative, about how he was trying to help people on death row, to stop the death penalty, to free people who’ve been wrongly convicted . . .. and so on.
“Ms. Parks leaned back, smiling,” he writes. ‘Ooooh, honey, all that’s going to make you tired, tired, tired.’ “We all laughed,” he writes, and then he continued: “I looked down, a little embarrassed. Then Ms. Carr leaned forward and put her finger in my face and talked to me just like my grandmother used to talk to me. She said, “That’s why you’ve got to be brave, brave, brave.” (p. 292).
I love this story.
Just as there was much to do in the lifetime of these remarkable and courageous women, so too there is much to do in our own. Many of us are already doing a lot: protesting and working on behalf of immigrants and asylum seekers, contributing to organizations that are doing important work, cooking meals for those who are hungry, working to protect our environment. It is all important. Each one of us is doing our own small part to help make this world a better place, and to bring about greater justice.
And . . . some of us have been feeling tired. I know I have. We see that the road ahead is long, very long. It is sometimes hard to believe, to trust, that someday, justice will prevail. But the journey I took, not just the physical journey to the South but also the spiritual journey we all were on, allowed me to connect the dots, and see more clearly that someday, justice will prevail, because the arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice, though far slower than any of us would like. And so, just like Brian Stevenson and all those who have ever worked and will continue to work for justice, we too must continue to do what we can to bend that arc, each in our own small but significant way. And if ever we grow tired or lose courage or doubt the possibility to achieve what it is that we are working for, then we must remember, and help one another remember: we’ve got to be brave, brave, brave.
Ken Y’hi Ratzon; may be it so. L’shanah tovah.
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