Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Responding to Charlottesville

Montgomery County, MD, like all of the DMV is diverse.  MoCO, is particularly diverse, and so Charlottesville hit people here hard.  Here is the faith response from our community.
(I begin speaking at 1:04)

I was pleased, although not surprised, to run into several of my fellow-speakers yesterday at the Ministers March in DC.  I would like to think that progressive faith has finally awoken again.

Here is the text (more or less) of my remarks above:

I’m going to be a bit unseasonal for a minute.  The Jewish holiday of Purim is celebrated in the late winter/early spring - February or March. It is, superficially, a festive holiday marking the salvation of the Jewish people from the evil advisor to a foolish king (yes, really). The advisor takes umbrage at the fact that a Jew refuses to bow down to him, and so he marks the entire population in that kingdom for slaughter. This fate is averted by the actions of a woman, the niece of the man who refused to bow, who earlier in the story had just happened to become the consort of the king. She takes her life in her hands and goes to see the king to ask that the decree of slaughter be averted. 
A very abbreviated version of the story of the book of Esther -- but what is remarkable about this religious book is that nowhere is God explicitly mentioned in it.
Nevertheless, the tradition teaches that God is, indeed, present in the story, but hidden.  The sages say (Hullin 139B), “From where do the Hebrew Scriptures [the Torah] bring the name Esther? From the verse in Deuteronomy 31:18. ‘But I [God] will surely conceal my face הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר פָּנַי [“haster astir panai“ ]. '” The name Esther is interpreted the phrase for a “concealed God.” 
In the Purim story, it is left to humans to act. In the story of Esther, God is not missing, merely hidden. God is never directly mentioned in the story, but God acts, unseen, through us.  In the fourth chapter of the book of Esther, Mordechai, Esther’s unbowing uncle, comes to her and tells her that she must use the power and privilege that she has to save her people, and adds, “and who knows if it were not for just such a time as this that you were raised to power?”
Just as in that story God moves the characters into place but leaves them to act, so it is up to us to act. Those of us with privilege must use it. We must all stand together at this time, and at all times.
It is, I think, not merely serendipity that the portion in the Hebrew scriptures that Jews read last week begins with the command: to see. “See, I place before you the blessing and the curse,” it says.  Which we will choose?
Although this is a moment in which many of us are afraid, it is also, partly, a blessing. The fear that some of us have always lived in because of racism has become recognized by many who did not really see it before. Anti-semitism, which is often dismissed as unimportant because some Jews are light-skinned and benefit from that, has been revealed as a still-powerful force.  Racism, sexism, Islamophobia, anti-semitism:  these have the same root, and when you see one, you will see the others. All the intersectional forces which strip power from some of us can be seen clearly – if we have the will to see it.
And whether we choose to see or not – that will determine which path we walk down. 
 Jewish tradition warns elsewhere (Midrash Tanhuma, Mishpatim 2 )“‘With the justice that a person with power does, he sustains the earth, but the fraudulent person destroys it. If one …[sets oneself] aside in the corner of the house, and says, ‘What have the affairs of society to do with me? What’s in it for me to take part in their disputes? Why should I listen to their voices? I’m fine [without this],’ this person destroys the world. This is the meaning of ‘the fraudulent person destroys [the world].’”
Tomorrow there will be an eclipse. Light will seem to be swallowed by darkness. But it isn't really. It's just that the view of it is blocked for a few minutes.  Just now in the world, we too look around us and the world appears to be darkness. Like an eclipse the light seems to be blotted out, but that glorious light continues whether we see it or not. But in this world, to make sure that the light is revealed, to uncover the concealed face of God, it is upon us to act: first for those who are threatened, to help keep them safe; second to our lawmakers and leaders and anyone who by words or by silence, by acts or by inaction, lets racism and white supremacism flourish. They must know not only that we oppose them, but that we will act to oppose them and to vote them out; and third, to the people who believe such evil and especially those who act on it and teach it to others. We have to find ways to reach them, and educate them and end the cycles of ignorance, poverty, and violence in our nation.
Esther had to choose, Do I risk my life and go before the king to save my people or shall I pretend nothing is wrong and live my life of luxury unruffled by the storm outside my door? We too, must learn to see, and then we must choose.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said in 1972: "… morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible."

And here's a bit of lagniappe. I didn't say it, but it seems appropos to the events of Charlottesville and their tiki torches.

Isaiah 50
י  מִי בָכֶם יְרֵא יְהוָה, שֹׁמֵעַ בְּקוֹל עַבְדּוֹ--אֲשֶׁר הָלַךְ חֲשֵׁכִים, וְאֵין נֹגַהּ לוֹ, יִבְטַח בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה, וְיִשָּׁעֵן בֵּאלֹהָיו.  {ס}
10 Who is among you that feareth the LORD, that obeys the voice of His servant? though he walks in darkness, and has no light, let him trust in the name of the LORD, and stay upon his God. 
יא  הֵן כֻּלְּכֶם קֹדְחֵי אֵשׁ, מְאַזְּרֵי זִיקוֹת; לְכוּ בְּאוּר אֶשְׁכֶם, וּבְזִיקוֹת בִּעַרְתֶּם--מִיָּדִי הָיְתָה-זֹּאת לָכֶם, לְמַעֲצֵבָה תִּשְׁכָּבוּן.  {ס}
11 Behold, all ye that kindle a fire, that gird yourselves with firebrands, begone in the flame of your fire, and among the brands that ye have kindled. This shall ye have of My hand; ye shall lie down in sorrow.


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