Parashat Vaera/ Intergenerational Social Justice Shabbat
By Rabbi Heather Miller
This evening’s service began with a great story by Ms. Purple about the power of recognizing we are all in the same boat. Why is this powerful? Because it recognizes that anything any of us does in the world affects everyone else. That means if we do something beautiful and wonderful in the world, the whole world benefits. Likewise, if we do something lousy, well, the whole world feels it.
Earlier this week, some pretty terrible events took place– violence was perpetuated at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and at a Kosher supermarket. A former congregant immediately wrote me to ask me for some spiritual guidance. She couldn’t understand how cold and mean people could be– how extremist terroists could be– to resort to violence to get their agenda across. She was not only saddened and disappointed by the state of affairs, but she honestly felt powerless in the situation– what difference could she make?
She wrote to me:
I know that we need to do something, but what, I do not know. Looking to you for advice. As caring humans, we feel the pain of suffering in the world– even if the event happened thousands of miles away. The effects of the violence in Paris were not only felt there (where the Jewish synagogue was asked to cancel Shabbat Services for the first time since WWII, non-Jewish neighbors asked Jewish neighbors to take down mezuzot from their doorposts so as not to jeopardize the whole building, and the streets were flooded with security forces), but also we felt the terror in our own communities here. Synagogues and kosher markets were asked to be vigilant in their security measures and take all the necessary precautions. It is scary. What happened way over there, by a small group of people, affects us all.
We, as a caring Jewish community, even feel acts of terror and oppression centuries and millenia later. For example, this week’s Torah portion, Vaera, reminds us of the oppression and fear the Israelites experienced 3,000 years ago and 7,500 miles away: when a new Pharaoh rose to power in Egypt to torment the Israelites.
It is amazing the difference that just one pharaoh can make on the world. But, just as one tyrant can negatively affect the world, can’t one righteous person also make a big difference? The answer is of course: YES!
Like Ms. Purple said: we can all make a difference because we are all connected– we are all in the same boat.
This weekend points to an obvious example of that: We celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy– he worked for equal rights for every person regardless of race. As the film, Selma, shows, he summoned religious leaders of all faiths who believed in the humanity of every person to march together in Selma. He made a difference.
He was able to do this because individuals in the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee had already individually knocked on doors and raised awareness about the issues. They made a difference.
Rosa Parks decided to not submit to a system that would make her move to the back of the bus just because of the color of her skin. She made a difference. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was front and center in the movement and reminded Jews everywhere that equality for all is a Jewish value. He made a difference.
Each person who spoke with their neighbor about the importance of Civil Rights for all made a difference. And, each and every person who showed up to rallies and marches to be counted among those who cared made a difference.
That’s how transformational change is made. One by one– one person at a time deciding that they will act to make a difference.
How do we stand up and count ourselves among this group? Where do we even start? It can be overwhelming.
We know that Moses, who recognized the injustices committed against the Israelites denied that he could make a difference at least at first. He had doubts that he could make a difference because of his speech impediment. He cried out to God saying:
הֵן בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֹא-שָׁמְעוּ אֵלַי, וְאֵי יִשְׁמָעֵנִי פַרְעֹה, וַאֲנִי עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם .
“The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech!”
He was expressing his fear that he was just one person. How could ONE PERSON make a difference? Imagine if he let those fears stay with him and he just shrunk into the footnotes of history? Thank Goodness one day, he mustered up enough courage to stand up and act for what he knew to be right. And from there, Aaron helped. And from there, the people followed their lead. And, the rest is history.
We don’t have to be Moses, or Martin Luther King, Jr. or any of the giants of justice that we know. All we have to do is work in our little corner of the world– to stand up against injustice when we see it. To not ignore it but to be counted and to make a difference in the best way we know how. To decide that we won’t shrink into the footnotes of history, but rather that we will stand up and be counted. To do SOMETHING.
This is the best advice I can give to anyone who feels overwhelmed by the overwhelming suffering experienced around the world.The Mishnah tells us in Pirkei Avot:
לא עליך כל המלאכה לגמור, ולא אתה בן חורין ליבטל.
— It is not upon us to complete the task, but neither are we free to decide not to try.
We have to stand up and try. I mean, what’s the alternative? And, really who are you not to stand up and be counted as someone who at least tried to make a difference. The self-help guru Marianne Williamson once wrote:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us most. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and famous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in all of us. And when we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
(She wrote this passage in her 1989 spiritual best-seller, “A Return To Love.”)
Let us let the legacy of Dr. King and really the celebration of all who courageously decided to stand up to be counted inspire us to act. And with each action, we will steer the course of our momentum toward progress. Afterall, we are in the same boat and each person’s good action
brings us all to a better place. Amen.