Yom Kippur 5776: Rabbi Greg Wolfe

Making Room For More: A Journey From Separation to At-One-Ment

Rabbi Greg Wolfe
Congregation Bet Haverim
Yom Kippur 5776
Davis, CA

The venerated rabbi, theologian, and civil rights activist, Abraham Joshua Heschel, conceived of Moses’ meeting and pleading with Pharaoh as the very first conference on religion and race. Needless to say, it did not go so well. Moses began the talks: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go!”  While Pharaoh retorted: “Who is the Lord, that I should heed this voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go!” Though God did eventually intervene and set the Israelites free, after numerous attempts, Heschel is quick to point out, in his address to the first US Conference on Religion and Race in January of 1963 that “the exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.” (From AJ Heschel speech at Conference on Religion and Race, January 1963)

52 years have now passed since Rabbi Heschel—who marched with Dr. King in Selma, praying, as he said, with his feet—shared these stirring words with representatives from more than 70 American faith-based organizations gathered with the goal of speaking with one voice on racial issues to their fellow citizens and to the world. 3,000 years have passed since the Exodus! 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation! 51 years since the landmark Civil Rights Act! Yet, in this past year alone, we have been repeatedly shocked to see that there are still systemic “pharaohs” that exist in these United States, which continue to disadvantage, harm, and embitter the lives of our fellow African American citizens. Today, the journey to justice and freedom is still far from complete! A new generation of Moseses, Aarons and Miriams—from across all races and religions—is needed to rise up; all those who are not afraid to challenge the Pharaohs of our day and stand up for freedom, justice and equality for all! In the words of the American, Jewish poet, Emma Lazarus: “Until we are all free, we are none of us free!”

A wise rabbi once asked his students how they knew when the night had ended and the morning had begun. One student ventured, “Is it when you can look into the distance and tell the difference between an apple tree or a pear tree?” “No,” the rabbi shook his head. “Well, then,” another student wondered, “is it when you can look out and tell the difference between a dog and a goat in the distance?” “No, that’s not it either.” “Well, then, when does the night end and the morning begin?,” the students demanded. Said the rabbi with a sigh, “It is when you can look into the eyes of any man, woman or child and see that they are your brother or sister. Because if you cannot do that, then no matter what time it is, it is still night.”

Can we look into the eyes of our African American brothers and sisters, some of whom are Jewish, too, and even begin to imagine what our lives might be like if we were them? What if you were randomly, and regularly, stopped while driving down the road, for no other reason than you were Jewish, and you could not be sure that you would be treated fairly by the police? What if you worried daily about your kids returning home safely from a trip to the store to buy milk? What if you couldn’t fully be yourself lest you aroused suspicion? If you lived in a world where others perceived that you instilled, by your very appearance, fear and mistrust? Where people hated you so much that they might burst into your house of worship and massacre as many as they could?  Oh, wait! This sounds so familiar. Maybe we can relate! Maybe we have to relate, to remember that this has been our story more times than we care to count. We do, I believe, easily feel a kinship and compassion for the plight of African Americans today. We instinctively recoil at the injustice of a system, our system, that still perpetuates fear, inequality, and prejudice. We join with others in bemoaning the stark and often horrific realities facing black people in many parts of our country, even in California. But, in fact, we Jews don’t live that reality any more and we enjoy, by and large, the privilege and protection that comes along with being white. So we forget. We turn away. I am just like you. I turn off the news and sleep comfortably in my bed. You and I are not the ones being being singled out and mistreated this time.

Haverim, this is our story. Not only have we suffered millennia of persecution, our Torah commands us: “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof/ Justice, justice you shall pursue!” (Deut. 16:20). Not, “do justice when it is convenient.” Justice must be actively, doggedly pursued; especially when it’s difficult, when it’s complex, when it’s challenging, as these issues of racial injustice are.  The exodus is not complete until all are free and we can be valuable and sensitive allies, working with leaders in the black community and others who are the guiding lights in the campaign for racial justice across our land.  Our Jewish sense of justice, which stands at the heart of our Torah, compels us to be involved and not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor! So when the NAACP organized “America’s Journey for Justice” this summer– a historic 860-mile, 40 day march from Selma, Alabama to Washington, D.C.—over 200 Reform Rabbis from around the country joined with hundreds of other extraordinary individuals to raise their voices for justice and equality and to raise awareness about the racial justice issues that impact all of us in our country today.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”  The black lives that are being lost every day, matter. They need to matter to us, too. We can no longer turn away or pretend that they are not our brothers and sisters. This crisis of racial injustice that pervades the land calls us to honor the human dignity that Judaism teaches is inherent in each and every person. In the Book of Genesis, God created different kinds of plants and a whole array of animals. In contrast, the Torah does not say that God created different kinds of humans, people of different colors and races! The Torah teaches us, instead, that God created one single being, from which we are all descended. Elie Wiesel taught, “A Jew must be sensitive to the pain of all human beings. A Jew cannot remain indifferent to human suffering, whether in other countries or in our own cities and towns. The mission of the Jewish people has never been to make the world more Jewish, but to make it more human.”

Our challenging task of helping to humanize the world must begin with an examination of our own human nature. Why are we so fascinated with erecting and perpetuating barriers that divide the world up into us and them, black and white, neighbor and neighbor? Robert Frost’s poem, Mending Wall, explores the complexities of our human relationship with walls; challenging us to consider that mending a wall, actually, heals nothing at all.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing: 5
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made, 10
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.      15
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.  20
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across 25
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it       30
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,         35
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there,
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.     40
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”    45

There is something in us, in nature, too, that abhors a wall, that seeks uninterrupted connection with all of life. After all, what does a pine cone have to fear from an apple; though each appears as different as can be, one from the other. And, yet, something there is within us that does love a wall. Armed with ancient adages and time-tested tradition, we keep on mending the walls—our societal structures that restrict and confine, and punish—with sisyphusian resolve, for no particular reason at all… but, ultimately, at our own peril.

The process of maintaining the wall in this poem is doomed from the start as the wear and tear of time—and human activity—succeed in breaking down this barrier each year. But the traditional meeting each spring finds the neighbors, once again, resurrecting the precarious boulders, nevertheless, out of habit, or fear, perhaps, but with only fanciful spells to hold the ever-tottering wall in place.  The speaker wonders whether he could plant a wild notion in his neighbor’s mind: that a fence is not really needed and that one should think first what it is that is being walled in or walled out. Certainly, someone might take offense at a fence!  “Good fences make good neighbors,” comes the retort at the neighbors’ annual conference. The neighbor, set in his ways, means to keep things just as they are. It’s like talking to a wall! “No, no, no! I will not let them go!” The echo of the Pharaoh rings, as if from the dark-ages, in the response of the “old stone savage” grasping hard-heartedly to his need for a wall.

Perhaps, we, too, have wondered why we need so many walls, questioned why some are let in and others are walled out. And who gets to decide whose neighbor is who, anyway?  Perhaps, we also believe, at some level, that good fences do make good neighbors because it makes us more comfortable, everything orderly and in its place. But in the end, these walls separate us from one another, and even from ourselves. Yom Kippur invites us to look at ourselves and our society and break down these walls, visible and not so visible. At-one-ment is the spiritual goal for which we are striving during these Days of Awe. An at-one-ment, especially, with all our neighbors, with all those with whom we share this world.

(intoning) Michael Brown, Eric Garner,  Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and so many others whose names we do not know—like a litany of ashamnus, we beat our communal breasts over each tragic loss. Each name, each human life lost is a painful reminder of our society’s horrible transgressions, a warning sign that there is something deeply wrong here in America.

On this Yom Kippur, as we engage in our own cheshbon hanefesh, soul searching, we must peek behind the walls of our own protection and we must ask ourselves tough questions, unafraid to see the truth: Where are these walls that divide, privilege and punish? What part have we played in mending these walls? How have we benefitted from the walls that are in place? And, most significantly, what can we do tear down these walls of separation, that have caused, and continue to cause, so much harm, fear and degradation, and build in their place bridges of true understanding, help and hope?

The walls that exist in America are very real, separating out people of color, especially those in the African American communities, from their white neighbors. We need only peruse the data for blacks and whites in the areas of education, income, employment, and rates of incarceration to see that it is not the walls that we keep mending that are crumbling but, in many cases, the black communities themselves. And we cannot be, nor should we be, refraining from shouldering our share of the responsibility for this sad state of affairs. Heschel challenged us 50 years ago, at that inaugural conference, with words that still sting our hearts with their truth today: “By negligence and silence we have all become accessory before the God of mercy to the injustice committed against the Negroes by men of our nation. Our derelictions are many. We have failed to demand, to insist, to challenge,[and] to chastise…. An honest estimation of the moral state of our society will disclose: Some are guilty, but all are responsible.” (From AJ Heschel speech at Conference on Religion and Race, January 1963) We have a moral obligation to raise our voices. It is up to all of us to create an environment where racial injustices are simply not tolerated. Each time we are silent, we add one more heavy stone back onto the wall.

A significant root of many of these problems is the wall we have created around access to quality public education, and most of us are beneficiaries of this lopsided system. The very way in which our public schools are financed only exacerbates the situation.  Because of the black-white wealth gap, richer white families live in school districts with greater property tax revenue supporting higher education spending. Differences in early education opportunities add up over the school career and result in large achievement gaps down the road. While the gap has closed between high school graduation rates for blacks and white since 1962, a year just before Rabbi Heschel’s speech, the gap in college completion rates has actually widened, from a 6% difference to a 10% difference in the intervening half-century. The Urban Wire on Race, Ethnicity and Gender reports: “For most families, college is the ticket to a middle-class life, improving economic mobility for children and protecting families from financial distress.” (http://www.urban.org/urban-wire/black-white-higher-education-gap-larger-today-50-years-ago)

The economic walls are just as sturdy and forbidding. Black families earn one-thirteenth that of white families, while the black unemployment rates are double those of whites. Twice as many black children in our country are poor as their white neighbors; a shocking two out of every five! These economic disadvantages have a disastrous impact on the community as a whole, limiting opportunities and crippling communal structures.

Some of our walls have kept African Americans out—of good schools, the job market, access to economic opportunity—and other walls have locked them in, with just as devastating results. My colleague, Rabbi David Spinrad, shares that “In the past 40 years we have seen more than a 600 percent increase in incarceration rates, a mass incarceration that exerts tremendous control over black communities…. Upon release, they are branded as felons. Employment and housing discrimination against them is legal for the rest of their lives. In communities defined almost entirely by race and class, one in three men is likely to have been imprisoned. Where incarceration is normalized, communities are decimated. Thriving economies become next to impossible. If you are young in one of these communities, prison becomes an almost inevitable potential for your future. (From David Spinrad’s Rosh Hashanah sermon, where he is a rabbi at The Temple in Atlanta)

The deep and complex challenges of racism in our country will, of course, not be solved by one rabbi’s sermon, nor by the hundreds of rabbis’ sermons that are being delivered during these Holy Days on racial justice.  Not by our good will alone will we tackle this all-encompassing problem.

But there are things that we can do to begin. We can learn, we can listen and we can legislate.

Learn! Right here at Bet Haverim we will have an exciting opportunity to meet with Rabbi Jessica Oleon Kirschner, from Reform CA and Just Congregations, who will lead our first Lunch and Learn of the year entitled, “From Ferguson to Charleston and Beyond:  Creating a Jewish reflection and response to racial injustice in our own time.” Join us in the Sukkah for a free lunch on Saturday, October 3rd at 12:30 where we will examine together what these challenges around racial justice can mean for each of us as individual Jews, for our Jewish community, and how we might become better allies with people and communities of color in the coming year.

Listen! Join us in a community-wide event to hear Keshia Thomas at Congregation B’nai Israel on Tuesday, October 6th at 6:30 PM. Keshia is an inspiring African American woman who is a civil rights activist working diligently for racial justice. She participated in the NAACP’s “Journey for Justice” for all 40 days from Selma to Washington D.C. this summer!  Come and meet this special individual.

Legislate! Join Reform congregations around California in contacting Governor Brown the day after Yom Kippur and encouraging him to sign Assembly Bill 953 designed to help fight racial profiling by the police.  This important bill has passed both state houses, but the Governor needs to know we are urging him to give it his support. There are fliers available with more information so you can take part in creating a fairer more just system.

This is just a small beginning. Racial injustice is a human emergency that requires a human response. We must start with a look at how things actually are, and our part in allowing the walls of racism to persist, so that we can begin to be more aware of and more knowledgable about these critical issues. We must feel moved and disturbed by the pain that is so palpable caused by racial injustice. Then we must draw strength, inspiration, and guidance from the values of our Jewish tradition that can lift our hearts and activate our hands. We must listen to the stories of those who live daily with racism and hear from them how we can be strong allies. Let us build relationships as individuals, and as a community, with communities of color in and around Davis to strengthen our bonds with one another. We must commit ourselves for the long term to the ongoing learning, work and dialogue that is necessary to create a powerful, effective and collaborative response to ending the realities of racism today.

Rabbi Heschel reminds us that “the universe is done. The greater masterpiece still undone, still in the process of being created, is history.” And only we can write that history book. A history in which there are no walls dividing us, where the light of justice shines on all, and the exodus has finally been completed! On this day of at-one-ment, may our fasts make room for more: more love, more understanding, more true relationships. May we rededicate our hearts and hands to mending ourselves and not walls; mending the hearts and spirits of those, created in God’s image, who are suffering; mending the rifts in our society that keep us from knowing one another and becoming true neighbors. One by one, O Holy One, let us work to remove the stones from our hearts that keep us separate from You and all Your children, and use these stones, instead, to build bridges of hope and possibility, righteousness and freedom.

ken yhi ratzon