The following sermon was pre-recorded and shown on Saturday, September 26th for the Shabbat Shuvah service for Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was written and recorded before the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the non-indictment of the police officers who murdered Breonna Taylor in Louisville.
In July this year, I did something that I’ve never done before – I fasted for Tisha B’av. Throughout our history, this day has been one of tragedy, and has served as a reminder of the tragedies that have been enacted upon the Jewish people throughout time and space. Up until this year, this day didn’t have much significance to me. But with all of the death and destruction that we’ve witnessed this year, I needed Tisha B’av. I needed a full day to reflect and mourn all that we’ve lost. To sit with myself, without food or water, and feel my humanity – and the humanity of others. For in our mourning, we feel our most empowered to see and protect the humanity of each and every person.
And that’s been the power of the Black Lives Matter movement for years now – turning our mourning into a resounding call for justice, love, compassion, and community. I still remember the moment that I first heard the name Michael Brown, and how he was killed in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, and how at the time I was only two years older than him. I still remember the video of Eric Garner in New York. Trayvon Martin was a teenager, Tamir Rice was a kid. Michelle Cusseaux and Daniel Prude needed help. Jacob Blake was trying to help. Sandra Bland was just driving, so was Philando Castile. And the list of names grows longer and longer – George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor.
This summer, as I joined the momentum of what is now the largest protest movement in United States history, I also began asking myself a lot of questions about our new reality, and the unearthed injustices that had been laid bare: How do I keep myself and my loved ones safe? What do my communities need right now to thrive? Who do I need to help and support? How can I be my best self when injustice and hatred and bigotry surround me?
Asking all of these questions has been difficult, and they have only multiplied as we glided our way through Elul and now into the sacredness of the High Holidays. As we take hold of this period of introspection and transition, I believe that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, a teacher and light unto all of us, has provided us with the question to move forward, so that 5781 may be a better year for our world. Writing only a year before a white supremacist would assassinate him in Memphis, Dr. King calls on all of us, from all backgrounds and experiences, to answer the question: Where do we go from here? And, even more fully – where do we go from here, chaos or community?
This is the question, the choice we must reckon with. We are in a period of collective grieving and interconnected hardship not experienced in our lifetimes. We have lost so many loved ones, and our entire sense of normalcy has been upended because of COVID-19. We’ve witnessed the swelling effects of what some are calling COVID-1619, our country’s refusal to address the legacy of slavery and its renewed forms that perpetuate systemic racism. On top of both of these, we have natural disasters, economic disasters, and healthcare disasters that each and every day destroy lives and communities. And – we have an election. An election that may be one of the most stark in history, with enormous consequences on the other side.
So where do we go from here? Will we choose the treacherous road of chaos, inequality, and oppression; or we will choose the righteous path of community, love, and justice?
As always, our tradition provides us with the wisdom we need in this moment. In our Torah over the last few weeks, we’ve read about the clear, decisive choices that the Israelites must make about their future. After years of wandering, of learning how to become a holy people, the Israelites are standing on the edge of the Promised Land. It’s here that God presents the Israelites with a choice between life and death, blessing and curse. Moses implores the Israelites to choose life, to rise up and meet the expectations set before them; to move forward, as Moses says to Joshua, with strength and resolve to serve God and to serve one another. And while we all must indeed move forward with strength, we must also move forward with compassion, repentance, and repair. Our Yom Kippur liturgy calls on us to look inside ourselves, to truly understand where we have wronged others, and collectively, take responsibility for the immense harm and damage that has been inflicted upon our communities and world. And in the year of 2020, there is so much repair and reconciliation to be created – by all of us.
My friends, our Torah and our tradition point us down the righteous path of community, love, and justice for all people. But in this year, of all years, we must make a clear, decisive choice between chaos and community.
Where will we go from here? For far too many of the people who came before us, the answer was toward injustice; toward hatred, bigotry, oppression. Toward what Dr. King named the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism”. But no matter what our history looks like, we have a choice right now. So how will we choose today?
Will we allow white privilege and white fragility to keep us from hearing the cry of the most vulnerable right now? Or will we heed the call of Black Lives Matter and ensure that Black Jews and Black people throughout this country live in safety, and with love and justice?
Will we allow our beliefs about Israel, or our experiences with antisemitism, to keep us from building important coalitions with other marginalized groups? Or will we do the hard work of staying in dialogue, in relationship with all people working for a better world?
Will we allow our ideas on policing and the criminal injustice system to overshadow the tragic experiences of so many? Or will we listen deeply, read more, and fight for policies that will save lives in our communities.
My friends, we can not allow for our comfort, our complacency to lead us right now. In this emotional, intense time in the world, there can be no room for sitting on the sideline. For if we, the ones striving for community, love, and justice throughout the world do not act, the side of chaos, injustice, and oppression will most certainly win. Where do we go from here? We go toward protesting injustice, toward donating to social justice organizations, and toward having hard conversations with family and friends. And all of us, this fall, with so much at stake for our country and world, must move toward voting. Because justice is on the ballot, love is on the ballot, and yes, community, one in which every person is seen in the image of God, is on the ballot.
As I close, I’d like to leave you with the words of Dr. King: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.” More than 50 years later, Dr. King’s prophetic words ring true for this moment. Each and every day, all of us get to make the choice between community and chaos, blessing and curse. May we choose wisely, and with love upon our hearts, so that in 5781, in this new year, we may build the world of our dreams. Shabbat Shalom.