Tuesday, January 20, 2015

We Can No Longer Abide the Silence

Delivered MLK/Abraham Joshua Heschel Shabbat,
January 16th, 2015

by Rabbi Shira Stutman

We are currently reading in the Torah about a shepherd named Moses. One day he is off with his sheep, and he sees a bush, burning. God’s voice comes from the bush and tells Moses to go to Egypt and help to free his people, the Hebrew people, enslaved too long. Moses is nervous: “How will Pharaoh listen, since I am a man of impeded speech?” (Ex 6:12).

It is humbling to try to speak on race after the year we have just had. Or to be more precise, after the publicizing of what actually happens year after year. People just paid more attention this year. So now what are we going to do about it?

For a white woman like myself, silence is the easiest option. I think of Moses off in Midian, far from Egypt with his sheep. But God did not permit him his silence. As long as people were suffering, he did not warrant silence. Our God is a God of grace but is also a God of justice--and it was time for justice.

And so Moses went--but not without fear. Who am I, he asks? He tells this to God in last week’s Torah portion, and again in this week’s. Who am I to go? I don’t have the right words.

Tonight, let us acknowledge that we can no longer abide the silence. We have to find our voices.

Until the media covers not only the death of 12 people at a Paris magazine, and not only the heartbreaking murder of 4 Jews at a Kosher supermarket, but also the death of upwards of 2,000 Nigerians the same week at the hands of similar extremists.
Until black teenagers can walk down the streets without fear of being stopped and frisked or shot and killed for no reason.
Until our country funds education and employment more than it funds incarceration.
Until people of color receive a fair share of the wealth of this rich country--rather than disproportionate wealth accruing to mostly white elites, as it has over the past 20 years.
Until we recognize the places we are complicit--for we are all complicit - and decide that we don’t want our wealth and well-being to come at the expense of any other human being, ever.

But everyone in this room tonight, you already knew of these struggles. You knew last year, too, and what good did it do us?

A small while ago, sitting with a group of friends, telling a story I find funny, about returning a box of cookies at a local supermarket because my kids didn’t like them. One friend, a black man, tells another story, not as funny, about the same exact store, about how he tried to return something but was not permitted. I make excuses--it was because he didn’t have a receipt (he did, I hadn’t); it was because he didn’t speak to the right person (he spoke to a few); it was because he had bought spoiled meat, but I had only bought some cookies. (That last one really doesn’t make any sense.) “They thought I stole it,” he finally said flatly.

And I realized too late: my job was not to persuade my friend that this injustice didn’t happen, or to make it better, but instead to bear witness to the very real and truly wrong thing that had happened. “That’s awful,” I said.

I wish I had the perfect words. I didn’t. But not having the perfect words did not give me--does not give any one of us--permission to sit this one out. As long as there is still injustice in this country, we are all in exile - we have not yet reached the promised land. And the reality is that some of us are suffering in our exile more than others.

At the end of the day, we are all the shepherd Moses, standing before God. We have a choice to make. We can stand silent on a hillside in Midian, even as the world around us burns. Or we can listen, and when it’s right, open up our mouths, maybe with the simplest truth know, even when we are pretty sure we don’t yet have the right words.

And then we remember that we are not alone. We find our Miriams and Aarons, the ones who can find the words when there are none, who help us act when we feel helpless. Moses needed his brother and sister to speak out to Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of slavery and through the desert, together.

One day, maybe, we will find ourselves on Sinai like Moses, and we will in that holy encounter discover that we, too, have the right words to say. But in the meantime, let us muddle through together, working tirelessly for the justice that we do not all experience but that all of us--each and every one of us--so deeply and profoundly deserves. Tonight, may our voices, lifted up together, inspire us to action, and may those actions begin to bring about a world of uncompromising justice and unending beauty, just as the Holy One intended.

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