David Z. Vaisberg
Senior Rabbi of Temple B'nai Abraham

Enough already

There’s a story told among certain Hasidic circles of the second Lubavitcher Rebbe, a great scholar, who was once so intent on his studies that he failed to hear the cries of his baby son. The first rebbe, his father, heard these cries, and went down and took the baby in his arms, rocking him back to sleep. The first Rebbe then went down to his son, still focused, and said, my son, I’m not sure what of what it is that you have been studying, but whatever it is that made you block out those cries, it is most certainly not Torah.

Another story, of a man named Middle Passage, has really stuck with me. The middle passage, of course, from which Middle took his name, was the terrible route over which Africans were stolen from Africa and transported to America to be taken into slavery. Middle said to one of my colleagues that “you have to know where you came from to know where you are going”[1]. He came from his home in Colorado to march the 1000 mile trek from Selma to Washington DC with the NAACP, many rabbis, and other supporters.

While most marchers would walk 20 to 40 miles, Middle marched 922 miles, carrying an American flag, his American dream, the entire way. He held it out proudly in the sunshine, and protected it under his coat in the rain.

He believed in the power of relationships and encounter to address the issues plaguing this nation. Cornell Brooks, president of the NAACP, pointed out that Middle Passage would come from both sides, with challenge and with friendship — he would “gently note the importance of both addressing racial profiling and reaching out to … bothers and sisters in blue — who behind their badges and guns are human beings like all of us.” Brooks recalled “Middle saying to state troopers at the top of his voice at the top of the day, “show me some love”— and then giving them a strong shoulder bump”[2].

Middle ended up giving his life to this sacred cause. Though his spirit was so strong, his heart was not, and he collapsed at mile 922, giving everything he had for freedom and good life to all, in the country he loved so much.

זכרונו צדיק לברכה. May the memory of this righteous man be for a blessing.

So what exactly was this march about? Earlier this summer, Cornell Brooks, realizing that a major action was necessary to address all the issues of racial inequality that have surfaced in recent years, decided that it was time to mirror the Israelites’ 40-year-march to freedom with a 40-day- and thousand-mile-march from Selma, a place of major civil-rights-fight symbolism, to Washington DC, the beating heart of our nation, to rally and lobby our government for change. The freedom banner under which they marched stated “Our lives, our votes, our jobs and our schools matter.” And, seeing the need for this important work, the Religious Action Center and the Central Conference of American Rabbis joined in, pledging a rabbi and a Torah for every step of the way. Indeed, more than 200 rabbis walked alongside the rest of the marchers, sharing stories, learning about the lives of so many, and fighting for a holier world. At the concluding rally at Capitol Hill at which eight of us from Temple Emanu-El were present, Brooks pointed out that Torah could not possibly be carried by a single person… “it takes many hands to carry God’s words 1000 miles.” And indeed it did.

I am proud to be part of a religious movement so deeply involved in the fight for civil rights. Let us recall that both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted in the conference room of our very own Religious Action Center, and that Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, the then president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations — now the Union for Reform Judaism — proudly marched at the side of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., famously carrying the Torah from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 to proclaim its message of freedom, justice, and hope.

Though we have accomplished a great deal over this past century, there is still so much that needs to be done, and there remain many obstacles in our path. One of these obstacles, unfortunately, is analogous to the story of the second Rebbe and his son. Our lawmakers seem to spend so much time discussing the nature of the problem and determining who is to blame that their debating voices end up drowning out the voices of those crying out for help. They study, and keep on studying, while millions suffer and scream.

More than 50 years ago, Dr. King wrote in The Other America words that still hold true today.

But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity [3].

Not enough people are really hearing that so many are suffering. When a person falls off his bike, even if he was riding recklessly, the first thing we do is show compassion and make sure he is ok. We don’t jump to criticism, we don’t jump to lecturing, we don’t run the other way, we ask “are you ok,” and “how can I help you.” When we encounter suffering, the first thing we must always do is bring comfort and healing.

For us to debate the plights of people of color in this great nation is fine when we are actively working toward a solution, and it is fine as long as alleviating some suffering is close at hand. But it is not fine when the debates prevent and delay necessary action — when those deliberations give us a sense that we’re doing our jobs to help others, all the while dulling our senses to block out those cries.

Why is it that God rescued our people from slavery in Egypt? After nearly four hundred years, we learn, “The Children of Israel groaned from the servitude, and they cried out; and their plea for help went up to God, from the servitude. God hearkened to their moaning, God called to mind his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob, God saw the Children of Israel, and God knew”[4].

Our story is not, the children of Israel endured 400 years of slavery and finally stood up for themselves and cleaned up their act and learned the ways of Egypt. Our story is, our people suffered under another people who worshiped their own interests. Our people cried out, and were redeemed by a power greater than our own.

So too do many peoples here in the United States need redemption, from a power greater than theirs, from the collective power of the many to whom Cornell Brooks alluded, who carried God’s word 1000 miles.

And it is upon us, as Jews, to work for this redemption, for a people who has yet to leave the chains of Egypt behind.

Here’s why:

First, as we discussed last week, we are a people devoted to bringing righteousness to this world. We may not stand idly by while our neighbor’s blood is shed, we must love our neighbors as ourselves, we must be kind to the stranger, and justice—tzedek—must be at the center of our pursuit. And not just justice that is obvious and clear, but murky justice too, where what is right may be difficult to quantify with data and statistics. Nachmanides, in his commentary on Deuteronomy 6:18, which says “You are to do what is right and what is good in the eyes of the Eternal” — , writes,

At first Moses stated that you are to keep God’s statutes and His testimonies which He commanded you. Then Moses goes on to add that even where God has not commanded you, be careful to do what is good and right in God’s eyes, for God loves the good and the right. This is a great principle, for it is impossible to mention in the Torah all aspects of a person’s conduct with neighbors and friends, all his various transactions, and the ordinances of all societies and countries. But since God mentioned many of them — Do not go up and down as a talebearer, Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge, Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor, Do not curse the deaf, Rise up before the elderly, and the like — God stated in a general way that in all matters, one should do what is good and right, including compromise and going beyond the strict letter of the law.

It is not enough to do only what is legally demanded or makes sense. As long as we know in our kishkes that something needs to be done to right a wrong and bring healing to this world, we must fill in the blanks and act. This is what it means to do what is right and good in the eyes of God and to act as an am kadosh, a holy people.

Now, for the second reason: the story of African Americans in this country is one with which we Jews are all too familiar. Knowing that we came from slavery and were granted freedom from God is part of our DNA. Knowing what it is to be oppressed and denigrated — to live, work and thrive at the pleasure of others, rather than by our own desire and rights, is something we have faced through more than 2000 years of exile. Knowing what it is to be less than equal in this very nation is something with which we are all too familiar. Let us recall how it was only in the years after World War II that Jews were allowed many of the opportunities and privileges — economic, educational, professional, residential, and so on — that only had been afforded previously to those considered white. In fact, anti-miscegenation laws proscribing marriages between whites and blacks did not consider Jews white enough to be able to violate these laws[5]. We Jews know discrimination and subjugation at the hands of privileged majorities all too well. And we are commanded to demonstrate that we’ve learned from our sufferings and redemptions by fighting for all those who have experienced our story. “The other, you are not to oppress: you yourselves know (well) the feelings of the other, for others were you in the land of Egypt”[6].

So we have an obligation to act out of tzedek, and also as a direct mitzvah from our history and shared experience. But there’s a third reason that you may not have considered— כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה — All of Israel is required to care for one another, and this is a value essential to the survival of our people. Though it may be counterintuitive to many, we are a diverse community, with many people of color. Our very own Temple Emanu-El includes people of many colors and backgrounds. Our very own Cantor is a person of color. We are not a people of homogeneity.

According to 2002 estimates, 20% of Jews were people of color, be they Asian, Middle Eastern, South American, Native American, or African. Some are Jews by choice, and some are Jews by birth, many who have come from communities that date back to the original exile in North Africa, Ethiopia, and Southern Africa. And while many of the 20% of Jews are in Israel, according to surveys from the year 2000, 7% of the six million Jews living in the United States self-identified as African-American, Asian, Latino/Hispanic, Native American or mixed-race. 7% or 420 000 Jews, as of 15 years ago.[7] Given our successful integration into society and our growing inclusiveness, I’m sure our diversity has only grown.

In the book In Every Tongue: The Racial and Ethnic Diversity of the Jewish People, Lewis Gordon reflects on his experiences as a black Jamaican Jew arriving in New York in the 1970s at the age of nine. He had an opportunity to learn what it meant to be the target of racism and antisemitism at the same time. Gordon writes,

I discovered the limits on mobility, that there were places one could not walk, that there were public facilities that one could not use, simply because one was black. In most of these cases, it was not because of some law that was still active on the books. There were simply communities of white people who saw my presence in “their” schools, parks, and streets as an act of pollution. My first encounter with Antisemitism also occurred during that period. White Christian children would throw pennies on the ground. “For the Jews,” they would say. I asked them why they did that. “Jews are cheap and greedy,” they would say. When I told them I was a Jew, they either didn’t believe me or simply retorted, “Then pick up the penny”[8].

And there are many parts of this country still, in which people of color fear for their safety as they walk down the street, and let’s be clear, there are Jews who are people of color… there are Jews who by virtue of their appearance, have been, are, and will be grouped together with those subjugated by the privileged majorities.

For the sake of all Jews, for the sake of all those who have suffered under the yoke of oppression, and for the sake of righteousness and justice, it is time for us all to open our hearts to the cries of those in need. We have started here at Temple Emanu-El, meeting with the Anti-Racist Alliance[9], learning about our own prejudices, and forging relationships with the NAACP, and we’ve began the long hard work of praying with our feet, lobbying in Washington. When one person in this nation suffers, and when one of our own people suffers, we may not rest. So this year, let us all take action to fight for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all who live within our borders. The work may be great, and more than one person can handle, but as Cornell Brooks pointed out, many hands can accomplish God’s work. Change, as Te-Nehisi Coates points out in Between the World and Me, is not made from the singular actions of exceptional individuals[10]; it is made on the backs of many. Change happens when entire peoples work to raise each other up. Change happens when we hear the cries of others and reach down to help them up.

The Prophet Isaiah calls out, “If you remove the chains of oppression, the menacing hand, the malicious word; if you offer your compassion to those who hunger and satisfy the suffering—then shall all light shine through the darkness, and your night become bright as noon”[11].

May we heed this call and fill our world with light.

And may this interpretive Avinu Malkeinu guide us on our way.

Avinu Malkenu, Creator of speech, guide our speech.
Creator of words, teach us words of love and respect.
Creator of words, remove from our mouths words of hate and degradation.

Avinu Malkenu, creator of souls, help us speak to the souls of those with whom we differ. Creator of souls, let our soul be open to what you, the Soul of All, have made common to all. Creator of souls, open our own soul that it may encompass the world.

Avinu Malkenu, creator of courage, help us speak out against hateful speech.
Creator of courage, help us stand on the front lines with those who speak out for justice.
Creator of courage, help us work within our privileged lives to create new privilege for those who are left out.

Avinu Malkenu, creator of outrage, teach us how to rise above niceness to shout out for righteousness.

Creator of outrage, teach us to rise above politeness and learn how to demand.
Creator of outrage, help us call out impolitely for an equitable society.

Avinu Malkenu, creator of humanity, let others hear in our forcefulness the voice of our humanity, as you help us hear in others’ strident cries the voice of theirs.

Avinu Malkenu, bring about the day when all us shouters can speak peacefully, and when words of fury and demand will be transformed to songs of gratitude for the new world You have created.

Avinu malkenu, choneinu va-aneinu , ki ain banu ma-asim. Aseh imanu tzedakah va-chesed, v’hoshi- einu.

Avinu Malkenu, show us grace and respond to us, for we have no deeds to show. Make for us justice and love, and deliver us [12].

This sermon is to be delivered at Temple Emanu-El of Edison, New Jersey at Yom Kippur morning services on September 23, 2015. 

[1] http://rabbijillperlman.blogspot.com/2015/09/journeying-for-racial-justice-marching.html

[2] http://www.commondreams.org/newswire/2015/09/14/naacp-official-statement-passing-justicesummer-marcher-middle-passage

[3] Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., The Other America, 1968

[4] Exodus 2:23–25.

[5] Tobin, Diane, Tobin, Gary A. & Scott Rubin. Foreward by Lewis Gordon. In Every Tongue: the Racial and Ethnic Diversity of the Jewish People. San Francisco: Institute for Jewish and Community Research, 2005.

[6] Exodus 23:9.

[7] Tobin et al.

[8] Ibid., 5.

[9] The Anti-Racist Alliance is an off-shoot of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond.

[10] Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me, New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015. 96.

[11] Isaiah 58:9–10.

[12] From the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

About the Author
Rabbi David Z. Vaisberg is Senior Rabbi of Temple B'nai Abraham in Livingston, New Jersey.
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