I am daunted by the task of speaking tonight. I feel a great weight on my shoulders.
I feel the weight of nine vibrant lives, snuffed-out. I feel the weight of expectation – the expectations that you, a diverse group with diverse opinions, have of me as your rabbi, the expectations that the Reform Movement – also diverse yet clear in its missions and values – has of me as one of their rabbinic representatives, and the expectations that I have for myself as a rabbi and as a human being.
I feel the weight of Tradition – the Reform Jewish tradition of social activism, of speaking out for justice, and the Jewish traditions that I deeply believe bring meaning and purpose to my life.
I feel the weight of the prophets standing at my back. Men and women of God who took to the streets and decried their understanding of God’s will, whether the people found it popular or repugnant. Who carries on their legacy, if not me?
And I feel the weight of Torah – the yoke of the Law, as it has been called – heavily weighing me down. How do I live with it’s values and its contradictions? How do I reconcile its ideals with the reality of the world around me?
And finally, I feel the weight of the Priesthood, whose legacy I also carry forward – the legacy of men who enacted sacred rituals and rites in order to comfort their people.
I am daunted by the these tasks. I do not venture into this sermon easily tonight.
In the wake of tragedy, each of us struggles to respond. What are our obligations? What is our role? What are we capable of? What are we not capable of? How do we live in a world that one day is abhorrent to us and the next day inspires us?
Even when I don’t have all the answers, I seek to comfort and be comforted. But in the wake of last week’s inexcusable tragedy, I find myself floundering. Each one of us finds comfort in different ways. Some find comfort through action, while others find comfort in faith, in tradition, or simply in the loving arms of another. For me, each of these responses brings a measure of comfort, and thus, I feel torn as to which path to choose tonight.
I want to act. I am angry.
Religious intolerance, racial discrimination and hate-motivated violence have no place in our society, which aspires to be a haven for people of all faiths, races and ethnicities.
I want to do something – do whatever it takes to repair our world, to bring it one step closer to the dreams we have for it, and for ourselves. I know there are many possible actions and responses to choose from, and none of them is perfect. There are no easy answers. No action, no advocacy, will solve all our many problems. And yet, especially on this historic day of long awaited progress, how can I stand here and say that it is better not to act, even if acting is only one step, is only one problem solved at a time?
I want to preach.
I want to stand up, as my friend and colleague, Rabbi Jill Perlman did, this week, at a prayer vigil at an AME church. I want to teach, as she did, about Moses, who in last week’s parasha, called out to his brother, Aaron, get your fire pan and run – run into the midst of our people. “And Aron ran,” she wrote, “He rushed in and he stood among the people…he literally stood between the dead and the living – Vayamod bein hameitim uvein hahayyim – Aaron stood between the dead and the living in an attempt to stem the flow of blood, to prevent more people from perishing from the advancing plague.”
Rabbi Perlman goes on to teach the midrashic tradition that Aaron fought the Angel of Death on behalf of his people that day. “He stood his ground, he stood between life and death – and the plague was checked.
I want to stand my ground, like Aaron.
I want to stand next to my friend Jill – stand between life and death – and speak out against the plagues in our own society. The plagues of hate and ignorance, intolerance and complacency. I want to demand that we take more responsibility – not as as a society, not as a government, but as human beings, for providing care and help for those with mental illness, and for providing better education to counter ignorance, and I want to demand that we, as human beings, care more about the right to live than we do about the right to own.
I want to weep.
I want to wrap my arms around the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church community, around those nine bereaved families, around anyone who has ever had someone they love ripped from their arms because of hate, because of ignorance, and yes, because of guns. I want to share words of condolence, such as my friend and colleague, Rabbi Jen Gubitz, wrote this week, when she shared these words:
Dear Mother Emanual, we are so profoundly saddened for your loss. We are so profoundly saddened for your losses. For thousands of years, in Jewish tradition, upon hearing of a death, we recite these words – Baruch Da’ayan Ha’emet, Blessed is the True Judge. And we tear Kriyah – we tear, rip, rend our clothing to expose our hearts. We expose our hearts breaking for you and, dare I say, with you.
I want to write sympathy card after sympathy card. I want to tell them how sorry I am and how sad I am. I want to say that while I will never understand what it is like to be African American, or to be hated simply for the color of my skin, that I do know what it is like to be a minority and to carry the weight of a history of oppression and hatred. My people too, have been enslaved. We have been hunted and murdered. We have been hated for our identity and our beliefs and our bloodlines.
I know what it is to fear that I and my loved ones might be targeted for these things. I know how it feels to want to keep my synagogue doors open and welcoming to the stranger, but to choose to keep them locked instead for fear of another Dylan Roof wandering into our midst – armed and hateful.
I want to turn to Torah and to the Wise Traditions of my people.
I want to learn from this week’s Haftarah portion, where a man named Jephthah makes a terrible vow. Jephtah wanted victory over his enemy so badly – or maybe understandably, he wanted to defend his land and his people, his home – so badly, that he makes this terrible vow: If You, God, will deliver my enemy into my hands, than in return, whatever comes forth first from the doors of my house to meet me when I return, I shall offer it up to You as a burnt offering.
Jephtah’s enemy is delivered into his hands, and when he returns home, it is his beloved daughter who first comes forth from his house to meet him. His daughter, whom he must then sacrifice in accordance to his vow.
The Torah teaches us that we must protect ourselves from those who wish to kill us. But the Torah also teaches us, here, in this story of Jephthah’s daughter, that protecting ourselves, our homes, even perhaps our very lives, can come at a steep price.
It seems almost unfair sometimes, that Jewish tradition holds, above all, the value of pikuach nefesh, the value of life. Our Sages taught: “He who takes one life it is as though he has destroyed the universe”. And yet, it is unfair, because the very same value of pikuach nefesh justifies the decision to arm ourselves against our enemies. He who saves a life, it is as if he has saved the world. How are we supposed to live with this contradiction? How are we supposed to understand it?
I wonder, with deep humility, if the trick isn’t to figure out how to do both – protect life and save life – as safely and as considerately and as fairly as possible.
The right answers are never the easy answers and Judaism has much to say about the cost of one life for the sake of the many, and about when it’s okay to kill another and when it is not. I could write a sermon a week and it would take years to work through it all; to come to some clarity. Torah is not meant to give us quick or easy answers. Torah is meant to be wrestled with; To be studied over time. We must protect life and we must figure out a way to make the world a place where we can safely turn our swords into plowshares.
And finally, I want to find comfort in faith.
I want to remember where Mother Emanuel’s name comes from. Emanuel, in Hebrew is prounounced, im anu El, God is with us. I find comfort in that, even in the darkest of times. Perhaps God can not change this world, but God has given us the ability to change it. And while we struggle to do so, Im anu El, God is with us.
Though last week was terribly dark, today’s Supreme Court decision to make Marriage Equality a reality for all Americans, affirms my faith in our ability to fight for what we believe in and, by doing so, make the world a better place.
Maimonides said, Ani Ma’amin, I believe with a perfect faith. Faith is terribly hard to hold on to, especially in the wake of so many challenging issues, especially when humanity looks in the mirror and is ashamed of what we see. But today we looked better in the mirror – more equal, less hateful. More humane.
And so – yesh li Tikvah – I have hope. And so – Ani Ma’amin – I have faith.
And so, in the end, I will act on my conscience. I will stand up for what I believe to be true and just, but not without first consulting my sacred texts and tradition, and struggling with the complex and sometimes contradictory messaging therein. And in the meantime, I will seek to comfort and be comforted. To cling to my fellow man, and to God – both of whom I believe in, even when they let me down.
My colleague Rabbi David Widzer wrote today, “The work of equality, in all realms, is never done. We both mark its darkest moments and celebrate its triumphs with the faith that we are always called to the pursuit of justice.”
I want to do all these things. I want you to do them too.
Yir’defu Zedek – Let us pursue justice unabashedly.
Yir’defu Yichud – Let us pursue solidarity, remembering always that our commonalities are far greater than our diversities.
v’Yir’defu Shalom – And through both our pursuits of justice and solidarity, let us come to finally know peace.
Kein Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s Will.