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Pursuing Justice, If Not Now, When?

10/11/2017 10:25:25 AM


Rabbi Laura J. Abrasley

Rabbi Abrasley delivered this Yom Kippur Morning Sermon 5778 on Sept. 30, 2017
My friend, Rabbi David Spinrad, a rabbi at The Temple in Atlanta, called me the week I returned from my summer vacation. David and I were classmates in rabbinical school, and our families formed a fast friendship that first year we all spent together in Jerusalem. David and I speak a couple of times a year – to catch up and offer each other a rabbinical shoulder to reflect upon. The week he called was the one just after Charlottesville, that brazen display of white nationalism, and the counter-protests challenging it, which shook our nation in the heat of late summer.

David and I spoke at length about this protest of the city’s decision to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee. We were struck at how quickly things became violent with racial taunting and physical skirmishes. We lamented the unnecessary loss of young life when the rally turned deadly, and Heather Martin, a 32-year-old counter protester, was struck by a car, driven by a white nationalist, that plowed into a crowd of peaceful protesters near the city’s downtown area. (1)

At times, our conversation teetered on the edge of disbelief. The past year seemed so full of difficult challenges and strife in our country. We worried together that the advancement of progressive ideals had become paralyzed. We shared our sorrow that we were witnessing a new permission to hate one another. We found ourselves exhausted from months upon months of moral outrage, coupled with a deep uncertainty about our ability to challenge and change this new reality. How could the ugliness of racism, Islamaphobia, sexism, classism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and countless other social ills still be wrecking such deep havoc on our country in 2017?   

But it would be David’s parting words as we ended our call that still echo in my ears. “If we do nothing Laura, what are we going to tell our children?” How can we look them in the eye and ever explain away that our response to injustice was to stand by, seething with silent moral condemnation and weeping for what was?  We are leaders in a tradition that commands us to pursue justice. “If we do nothing, what are we going to tell our children?”

Justice, and the pursuit of it with an unbridled passion, is a potent, powerful, fundamental Jewish idea. In my understanding of our shared faith, the entire textual tradition insists that pursuing justice is a “religious obligation, perhaps at the very core of what it means to be a Jew.” (2) This religious imperative can be found in multiple texts, but perhaps at its most strident is the section of Torah we read in the week I spoke with Rabbi Spinrad. The portion is called Shoftim or Judges. It opens with a directive that the Israelites should appoint judges and officials for the tribes…and that these judges will govern the people with due justice. These judges and officials will hand down mishpat tzedek – ‘righteous judgments.’ It reminds us not to twist judgment, to be careful about showing too much favoritism, to remove ourselves from the temptation to avoid bribery and to be careful lest we pervert the words of justice. (3)

The portion goes on to state a command, an obligation among all obligations, one that I find the most compelling in Judaism: “tzedek, tzedek, tirdof – justice, justice you shall pursue.”(4) Countless commentators in Jewish tradition are fascinated here by repetition of the word tzedek. They argue endlessly about how to interpret the double usage of the word justice. While this is fascinating, I think the verb – lirdof or ‘to pursue’ – is where we find the core meaning. It erases all ambiguity about how justice should be done. Justice, it says, is not something to do but rather, something that we must pursue. Our obligation is to run after it, to chase it down, to hunt for it, perhaps as if our very life depended on it.

I discovered this fundamental Jewish idea of pursuing justice quite by accident as a teenager. After attending a weekend long youth group event, I came home wearing a silver bracelet. It bore the name of a Russian refusenik, a Soviet Jew who had been denied a visa to exit the USSR. I took the persecution of Soviet Jewry personally, feeling a sense of solidarity with the Jews of Russia at the time who could not live open Jewish lives and were often forced into assimilation. Perhaps it had to do with growing up Jewish in Texas. Finding my place in Judaism gave me a sense of belonging, comfort and purpose. I could not imagine living in a place where my right to be myself, to express my ideas and opinions, would be denied. In truth, I did not yet have the adult perspective to realize how privileged I was to be living in a tolerant and mostly welcoming community. Speaking out for Russian Jews taught me how I might use my own voice for justice

Over the years, my pursuit of justice has often been spurred when I feel a deep personal connection to an issue. My wife, Julie, and I were living in Boston and planning our Jewish wedding in 2003 when the Massachusetts Supreme Court issued its landmark decision for full civil marriage equality. We attended advocacy meetings, participated in difficult conversations and rallied with others on the steps of State House to fight off the proposed constitutional amendments designed to take away this new right. I remember the surreal, revolutionary satisfaction as Julie and I held hands in Brookline’s Town Hall and applied for a marriage license in preparation for our June 2004 ceremony.  

A few years later and living in Los Angeles as a graduate student, I learned firsthand about the significance of access to affordable health care. We lived in an expensive city with a young child on only one income; we had to make some difficult choices about how to take care of each other and our health care needs. While we somehow always managed to figure things out and were cushioned by our families, I worried that an unexpected accident or diagnosis would be devastating. In those last few years in Los Angeles, I joined with other religious and non-profit leaders in a community organizing initiative working to educate and enroll California residents as the Affordable Health Care Act came into law. Because everyone deserved access to good, affordable health care.

We gather today for what many understand as the most solemn holiday in the Jewish calendar. The texts we read on this Yom Kippur, this day of introspection, call us to let go of our preoccupation with everyday living and focus solely on the big picture. The day demands we ask the big questions.

Who are we? How do we want to find meaning in our lives? What really matters to us? How do we hope to leave our mark on this world? What legacy do we wish for our children?

The Torah text from Deuteronomy we just read tells of a spectacular, seminal moment in the lives of our ancestors. Moses reminds them that they stand together in inclusive, connected community, each person valuable and worthy of entering into an everlasting covenant with God. He foretold that they were not simply making a promise for themselves, but for all of us who ever were or will be in relationship. We are commanded to “choose life, so that you and your children might live.” (5)

The prophetic Haftorah from Isaiah then pulls us even further outside of our tendency to dwell within our own suffering. It compels us to remember that ritual observance is not enough to quell the unrest of the challenges that befall us. Prayer alone will not save us. The path towards righteousness is not paved with empty ritual, but rather with the ongoing steady work of creating a just society where the hungry are always fed, the homeless no longer lack for shelter, and the oppressed can finally feel the power of free choice.

At Temple Shalom, we put the imperatives found in these formative texts into everyday action. Our members and the broader Newton community have a long, dedicated history of helping to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and redeem the oppressed. We take action though direct service in innumerable ways.

Allow me to remind you of just a few:

  • A monthly food donation of tuna and whole-grain crackers to Family Table, a program of Jewish Family and Children’s Service
  • Brotherhood’s Red Cross Blood Drive which takes place every fall
  • Our annual Mitzvah Mall where we purchase thoughtful holiday gifts through small contributions to non-profit and charitable organizations
  • Sisterhood’s award-winning efforts to bring awareness of and support for those in our lives who suffer from issues of emotional and mental health well-being
  • Today’s ongoing High Holy Day Food Drive
  • Our education program’s efforts to not just welcome, but truly support a community of diverse learning styles

I am particularly proud of our Social Action team and the remarkable way this congregation made these texts come to life last year when we joined with other synagogues in the greater Boston area to address the international refugee crisis. As part of this effort, you, Temple Shalom members, came together. You filled our social hall to capacity to hear and learn about the issue. You overflowed the rooms where we met to organize our efforts, made countless contacts and phone calls and formed small teams to get things done. You raised over $30,000, furnished an apartment and paid for the first year of rent for a young family who arrived from Jordan in February of this year. A dedicated group of volunteers from Temple Shalom continues to work with this family as they settle into their new life in Framingham.

But my social consciousness of today, in this new reality, cries out for more than our action. We must still do justice – and we have a strong foundation of that work here. But we must answer the higher call. We must rodef tzedek - pursue justice – as if our very life depended on it. Because I fear if we do not, we will not be able to look our children, and our grandchildren, in the eye years from now.

I want to tell my son, and all of our sons and daughters, that we did the right thing. That we used our hands, our voices, our hearts to help rid the world of hate and injustice. That we felt the discomfort of speaking out against violence and hatred towards women, towards people of color, expressions of gender identity and religious differences. That we worked to end poverty, climate change, lack of healthcare access and any number of issues that continue to challenge our country everyday. That perhaps we disagreed with our neighbor, but respected her enough to listen thoughtfully, sharing our own views and stories and advocated for positive change with our elected officials. 

The challenges in our world are indeed great. There are moments when I feel my own personal wellspring of empathy and advocacy is drying up, numbed to my own pain and the suffering of others. I have days where I feel assaulted by the world and its brokenness.

But I cannot sit idly by. The time has come to dig deep and replenish efforts to pursue justice. I am commanded to tzedek, tzedek tirdof – to pursue justice with my full self. And I’m asking all of you to join me on this journey. I want us to figure out together how we can live out this ideal in ways that will protect our children and inspire them to take up the work. I want us to be a community that lives out the doubled-down nature the language this commandment demands. We will seek out tzedek, tzedek – justice, justice – and pursue as it with all of our heart, with all of our soul, and with all of our might.

My grandmother, Ellen Brochstein, moved to this country when she was a teenager. Born in Danzig, Germany in 1922, Ellen escaped the country of her birth in 1939 with her parents and brother. Ellen rarely spoke about her life in Germany before she and her family fled to Houston. When pressed, she would share the story of Kristallnacht (the night of broken glass) in November of 1938. And how it served as a turning point for her father that staying in Germany was no longer an option. She gently reminded us to take note of the lessons from that time. That we should never forget to take care of each other, our community and those who need our help.

“Speak out when you see a wrong. Do your part to fix the world. Never forget that everyone deserves equality and freedom.”

Ellen did not live to see me ordained a rabbi. But she always called me her rabbi. She was my biggest fan.

She once told me that I was going to be a wonderful rabbi if I used my rooted sense of self to guide myself and others in a quest to live out Judaism’s most powerful ideas – to see each person as deserving of love, to seek out justice and social change even when it feels impossible and to open my heart to connection, community and God.

It is because of my grandmother, Ellen, that I have been blessed to follow the path of a rodef tzedek – one who pursues justice – all the days of my life. It is because of my son, Noah, that, today, I double down on my own efforts to pursue justice in my lifetime.  

I promise to remember the lessons from Ellen. I vow to teach them to Noah. We will together chase after and fight for justice with a sense of renewed purpose.

And I ask you to join me as we follow this path together knowing that the moral texts of our tradition demand our active pursuit of justice, equality, and love.

We don’t know yet what it could look like. And we will gather soon to begin figuring out what’s next.

But we know that we can fill the room with hundreds of people eager to learn, to organize, ready to do but also to pursue, to listen to the stories and to find a collective action where we can make substantial change in our world – for ourselves, those in our community who most need our help and for our children and their children. Now is the time. We cannot wait.

As the great Rabbi Hillel once taught:

Im ain ani li mi li – If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

Ucheshe’ani le’atzmi ma ani – And if I am only for myself, who will be for me?

V’im lo achshav aimatai – And if not now, when?(6)

(1) NY Times, Man Charged After White Nationalist Rally in Charlottesville Ends in Deadly Violence, August 12, 2017

(2), “Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue: Commentary on Parashat Shoftim.” Rabbi Bradley Artson

(3) Parashat Shoftim – Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9

(4) Deuteronomy 16:20

(5) Deuteronomy 30:19

(6) Pirkei Avot 1:14

Sun, November 17 2019 19 Cheshvan 5780