Open the Door to Justice

A creaky door. EEEEEEE!

Once there was an elderly man who spent his whole life carrying an oil can.

Whenever he heard a door creak, it would aggravate him. So, he would take out his oil can, and pour oil on the hinges of the door, so that it would open and shut without a squeaking noise. Sometimes he would come across doors that were annoyingly difficult to open. The latches did not unlock smoothly as expected. So, he would take his can, and grease the latch, until the door would work without a hitch.

Thus, he passed through life lubricating the hard places, making it easier for those who came after him.[1]

Yom Kippur Eve.  We enter a door this day as we measure our deeds in reflection and prayer.

We look back on 5777, the last year. It has been one where too many doors of injustice seemed to have opened again and again.  Doors of unfairness, prejudices, inequalities, discriminations, seem to open daily in the news.

Pitchu Li Sha’arei Tzedek – Open for me the gates of justice, I will enter them and sing your praises – expresses Psalm 118.[2] The last ten days we have stood, poised, in the hallway of a new year. In the corridor of these ten days, on each side, are doors of injustice, and doors of justice. Can there even be a question which doors we should lubricate? Making it easier for those that come after us?

The Talmud teaches, “If you see wrongdoing by a member of your household, and do not protest – you are held accountable. And so, it is in relation to the members of our city. And so, it is in relation to the world.” As Jews, it is our responsibility to reproach those that transgress in our homes, our countries and our world. The medieval commentator teaches us that we must be chutzpadik, speak out truth to power: “the whole people are punished for the sins of the king, if they do not protest the king’s actions to him.”

This High Holy Days, hundreds of Reform Rabbis across this country have agreed, in one voice, to speak out, as is our sacred obligation. We are not being political, we are honoring the call and imperative of Jewish tradition. Like the prophets before us, we are speaking about opening doors of justice, we are propelling and supporting each other, to deliver a stern warning against complacency, and we are offering a call to action. If our President, Senate, or House of Representatives, will not open doors to justice, if they choose to open doors of injustice, we will speak out.

As proud Jews and Americans, we must say to our President and to our government: “You cannot dehumanize, degrade and stigmatize whole categories of people in this nation. Every Jew, every Muslim, every gay, transgender, disabled, black, brown, white, woman, man and child is beloved of God and precious in the Holy One’s sight. We the people, all the people, are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of the Divine. All the people are worthy of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”[3]

We must open the doors of justice by speaking out: Against white supremacists carrying Confederate flags, emboldened, to think that they once again can terrorize and intimidate those of color.

We must open the doors of justice by speaking out: To those who do not understand that black lives matter, and that we have created a system of injustice in this country, where African-Americans are discriminated against.

We must open the doors of justice by speaking out: Against Nazis, open-carrying torches and guns, shouting “Jews will not replace us,” and who reminded us, blatantly, that anti-semitism still lives behind doors that just need to be re-opened.

We must open the doors of justice by speaking out: When women are cat-called, demeaned and harassed, when they do not receive equal pay for equal work, or are denied opportunities to progress in the workplace because of gender.

We must open the doors of justice by speaking out: For the Dreamers, who know nothing but the American way of life, and just want an opportunity to give back to the country that has raised them.

We must open the doors of justice by speaking out: Advocating for refugees, who deserve to be welcomed in this country, for we too, have been refugees in Jewish history, even in the most recent of pasts.

We must open the doors of justice by speaking out: When discrimination and rights are denied our gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender, queer, and agender citizens.

We must open the doors to justice by speaking out: When health coverage becomes a matter of debate, when preconditions preclude coverage, or make coverage unaffordable, when legislation will put lives of Americans at risk.

We must open the doors of justice by speaking out: Advocating for those who need our help and support through natural disasters and humanitarian crises.

We must open the doors of justice by speaking out: When we see corruption, and hear lies.

We must open the doors of justice by speaking out: By calling our elected representatives, writing them letters, texting their offices, attending their open forums, and engaging in conversations with our friends, families, and community.

We are standing in a hallway where too many are pouring oil on squeaky door hinges of injustice. Lubricating them carefully, so that they will open more easily than ever before. Let us work to slam those doors shut, to lock them up.

We must open the doors of justice by, as Abraham Joshua Heschel expressed it: praying with our feet.  The banners provided by the Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center, at peaceful protests this year, read a riff on the prophet Micah: “Do Justice, Love Mercy, March Proudly.” Let us walk by the doors of injustice, speaking truth, outside them and through them, and open doors of justice by using our right to protest.

Soon after the last US election, some of us joined a Women’s March upon Washington DC, to advocate, and to make sure that the social causes, close to the hearts of women, their male and agender allies, were high on the radar of the current administration. Signs were colorful to say the least.

“Women’s Rights are Human Rights”

“The earth will survive climate change. We Won’t”

“Flint Michigan has not had Clean Water in 1001 Days”

“So Bad Even Introverts are Here”

“My arms are tired from holding up this sign since the 1960’s”.

An enormous movement shining the light on open doors of injustice, crossed the United States, and spilled into countries beyond our own borders, concerned for the American soul.

This August, several months later, Cantor Rhoda Harrison and I went to Washington DC, to join the Ministers March for Justice, to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr’s march on Washington 54 years ago. We joined over 3000 Ministers – rabbis, cantors, priests, nuns, reverends, monks, imams, Sikhs – dressed in a multiplicity of ritual garb – speaking out for voting rights, healthcare, criminal justice reform, and economic justice – issues that have been a pox on our society for too many years. Like M.L.K., we have a dream of a better America and, we came out in force to hold Attorney General Sessions accountable, for all people’s civil rights.

Cantor Harrison and I marched in the tradition of Rabbi David Einhorn, founding rabbi of this congregation, who spoke out as an abolitionist. We marched in the tradition of Rabbi Abraham Schusterman, who walked alongside the Revd. Dr. Martin Luther King. They in their time, sought to lubricate and open the doors of justice by their protests. In our time, so must we.

We must open the doors of justice not just nationally but locally.

There are multiple stories in the world how one person can make a difference. The man who picks up starfish by the sea shore. The seamstress who sews notes of encouragement into orphan’s clothes. Why? Because there is indeed truth to this notion that through our individual actions, each one of us, can change this world.

I am inspired by our Bar and Bat Mitzvah children, who live out this idea with their Mitzvah projects. From our own congregation: Carly Sacks who collected canned goods for the Reisterstown Crisis Center.  Julian Hammer, who collected swim gear for under-privileged children, that he was working with at the pool. Nikki Nudelman, who volunteered her time at Future Care Nursing Home assisting the residents. And so many more that share with you their Mitzvah projects in The Connection newsletter.

These kids stepped out of the corridor of their own lives, and opened doors of justice through their actions. Let us ask ourselves, how we as adults can also open the doors of justice, by our deeds, and make a difference in a world that needs us, now, more than ever?

Our Social Action Committee provides amazing opportunities for you to open doors on righteous acts. From participating in the High Holy Day food drive (have you brought your bags back yet?);

O the school supply drive;

To making hundreds of casseroles at Holy Casseroley that feed the hungry at Paul’s Place;

Or feeding children and their families dislocated by illness at Ronald McDonald House.

Our Social Action Committee is always looking for volunteers to clean up roads in their Adopt-a-Highway program.

They raise money for pancreatic cancer by participating in Purple Stride.

Right now, at this season, they are collecting gift cards for those effected by the recent hurricanes.

They partner with the Women of Har Sinai Congregation, to empower the women at Har Sinai, and women from Paul Place and Chanah at the annual Women’s Seder.

Have you read up on the amazing partnership they have with Owings Mills High Schoo,l to tutor and nurture under-served populations such as immigrants? You too could volunteer to become a mentor and make a difference.

Whether within our wonderful synagogue, or with some other worthwhile justice organization, now is  the time to open a door to justice, as our Jewish tradition commands us to do.  Now is the time, to find your passion to repair the world, to make it a better place. If each of us as individuals just picked up one cause, and dedicated ourselves to that, collectively we will all make a difference.

It is overwhelming to listen to the injustices in our news right now.  Too many doors are being pried open, swung open, and are being built into the fabric of our societ,y that create unfairness, disconnect and societal chaos. Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, sounded the warning: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.  Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”

Last week, a congregant, about to walk out of the door of this building, in praise of my sermon, told me that it was a success because they did not fall asleep! It reminded me of this story.

A large crowd turned out to hear a rabbi, including one man who was reputed to be a great scholar.

The following morning the rabbi met the man on the street. “How did you like my sermon?” he asked.

“Your sermon made it possible for me to sleep all night,” was the reply.

“Was the subject matter so deep, or was it my delivery?” was the next question. “Neither” was the answer “but when I sleep during the day, I can’t sleep at night.”[4]

This past year, 5777, was a year in which during the day, there was much in the world that has kept too many of us up at night. So many doors of injustice are being oiled and are opening in front of us. The beginning of the year 5778 is already shaping up to be a year of challenge.

What are you going to do to make a difference?

A creaky door. EEEEEEE!

Let those who come after us look back on this time of our history, as not just a time when the doors to injustice were being opened, but when a dor tzedek, a righteous generation arose, and lubricated doors of justice, spoke out, protested, and worked to make a difference, for those that will come after them.

Pitchu Li Sha’arei Tzedek – Open for me the gates of justice, I will enter them and sing your praises – expresses Psalm 118. Pitchu Lanu Sha’arei Tzedek –  Let us open the gates of justice, let us be a Dor Tzedek, so the generations to come  after us will sing our praise.

 

[1] From Stories for Public Speakers compiled and edited by Morris Mandel, p. 171

[2] Vs. 19

 

[3] One Voice for the New Year, 2017 co-authored by Rabbis Elka Abrahamson and Judy Shanks and many members of the CCAR.

[4] From Stories for Public Speakers compiled and edited by Morris Mandel, p. 263

 

On the Journey for Justice

How is this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetze, like a sheep?

Hm. Perhaps I am racing ahead a bit…

Let me tell you a true story.

Last Monday I literally ran out of the office.

I had spent the whole day calendaring with our Interim Educator  and I was late, very late, for a very important date! I felt a little overdressed with somewhere to go. I took one look at the sun belting down as I got into my car… and thought to myself: “I should have packed sunscreen and brought a bottle of water – oh, well!” as I then drove the fifteen minutes downtown to the grounds of the South Carolina State House.

The reason: I had just received word that weekend that America’s Journey for Justice had been re-routed from Charlotte to Columbia and this area was to be an anchor city for four days of the march. Rabbi Marcus and Rabbi Doberne-Shorr were marching as well as many other Carolinian colleagues and rabbis from around the country. The very least I could do was spend an hour in Tikkun Olam/repairing the world work, along with these my colleagues in my temporary “home-town”.

But perhaps I am racing ahead on the journey of telling you this story.

Let me back up some.

At the beginning of this summer, the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, the Union for Reform Judaism’s social action and lobbying arm announced that Reform Jews, Rabbis and Youth would have the opportunity to march with the National Association for the Advancement of Color People on America’s Journey for Justice. This historic journey, an 860 mile march from Selma, Alabama to Washington DC, is designed to mobilize activists and place focus on the national advocacy agenda for the right of every American to a fair criminal justice system, uncorrupted and unfettered access to the ballot box, sustainable jobs with a living wage, and equitable public education. At the State House, they were just readying to surpass 500 miles of their trek. In every state that the journeyers visit… a different social issue is focused on.[i]

In the Torah portions of last week, this week, and next week, almost every few verses a different social issue is focused on. Last week, Shoftim, this week Ki Tetze and next week, Ki Tavo, like this Journey for Justice, focus on the laws to make a society fair, equable, safe and well run. Beginning with the emphatic words of Shoftim “Justice, justice you shall pursue”[ii], the laws notated in our three Torah portions deal with in Rabbi Gunther Plaut’s, phraseology:  “the social weal.”

In amongst the many laws of these three Torah sections we find commandments on issues as far and wide as fair economics, murder, the rules of war, the rebellious son, how to deal with the criminal, maintaining good societal boundaries, physical hygiene, charging interest, fulfilling vows and much, nuch more for the well running of a fair society.

We also find one really strange law that the rabbis have puzzled over for centuries. This is the law of sha’atnez. “You shall not wear cloth combining wool and linen.”[iii]

Commentators have asked many hard questions about this law. Why are we not allowed to wear wool and linen together? The rabbis called this rule a Chok, a specific type of rule that is there for no apparent reason. As the 11th century commentator Rabbi Shlomo bar Yitzchak, RASHI, wrote: “What is this command? What logic is there to it?” Why can’t we wear linen and wool together? There is no reason, or no reason that we are capable of grasping.

Now, just because we don’t know “why”  in Jewish tradition, does not mean that commentators have not tried to ascertain some logic.

Which brings me back to my sheep.

The Kabbalists, the mystics of Judaism suggest that at the end of days, when the world is of an elevated consciousness, there will also be a radical change to the state of animals, who will evolve into an intellectual state similar to that of current humans. With that in mind, the commentator Rav Avraham Isaac Kook wrote at the end of the nineteenth century:

“Man, in his boundless egocentricity, approaches the poor cow and sheep. From one he seizes its milk, and from the other, its fleece…. There would be no impropriety in taking the wool were the sheep burdened by its load; but we remove the wool when its natural owner needs it. Intellectually, we recognize that this is a form of theft — oppression of the weak at the hands of the strong.”[iv]

In the time to come, when animals consciousness is raised, Rav Kook suggests that we will need to be able to distinguish between the difference of wool and linen. Linen taken from the flax plant will not impoverish the plant. But fleecing the sheep, will take from the animal something it needs.

Whether we buy into the notion that the consciousness of animals will be elevated at the end of days, or the analogy that Rav Kook makes to try to understand why wool and linen cannot be worn together,  does not matter. The essential lesson that Rav Kook is teaching is similar to the message that those marching on America’s Journey for Justice are trying to convey.  In our society, it is a form of theft, when we oppress the weak at the hands of the strong.

We fleece fellow Americans when they must work long hours but are unable to make a living wage.

We fleece fellow Americans when they do not have access to bulk stores like Sam’s Club or Costco, where only the rich can shop, because transportation will not take those of lesser economic circumstance out of the neighborhood, where only expensive mom and pop stores provide the essentials of life.

We fleece fellow Americans when their children do not have access to the same educational  opportunities that the kids in richer neighborhoods are given.

We fleece ourselves as s society when these children do not have the education tools, such as paper, text books, computers, that will stretch their thinking to be the best it can be.

We fleece fellow Americans when they are given longer sentences because of the color of their skin and nationality for similar offences to white people.

We fleece fellow Americans when they do not have the same access to voting rights.

When I ran out of the office last Monday, the words of last week’s Torah portion and this week’s Torah portion were ringing in my ears. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” The Social Weal needs to be fair and equitable. What am I, a Jewish leader, doing to make it happen? What are we as Jewish individuals doing to make it happen? What are we as a Jewish community doing to make it happen?

As people of privilege, it is easy for us to sit comfortably in our home and our synagogue and just talk the talk of justice. The Journey for Justice, was walking the walk, in the hope that footsteps would be heard and echoed throughout the land. Their steps and voices will grow louder as they get closer to the Washington Mall. Their steps and voices will grow louder as we amplify their story in the press and pulpit, in our homes and on our ways.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of that historic march 50 years ago as “praying with his feet.” Last Monday I witnessed Blacks, Jews and others, journeying, praying with their feet. Let us pray with our feet, our hands, our minds, our heart, our determination, that we too can be involved in some small or large way in our lives, in making for a more equitable and fair society.  Living up to the words of Torah, perpetuating the Jewish legacy of justice for us and for the society we live in.

And let us say… Amen.

[i] http://www.naacp.org/ajfj

[ii] Deut 16:20

[iii] Deut 22:11

[iv] Otzarot HaRe’iyah vol. II, p. 97