I am a rabbi, I am a mother, a wife, a grandmother, a faithful friend, and a human being. These are blessed gifts in my life in relationship to others. Celebrating another New Year in the Hebrew calendar, I am cognizant of our fleeting days, and the gross unfaithfulness and ungracefulness with which human beings squander relationships in this gift of life, and the malice that marks much of human relations.
I am a leader in interfaith relationships in my community, I am a social justice advocate, and I am a member of the NC NAACP, in faithful partnership with my congregation Temple Beth Or, and with Judaism’s Reform Movement: issue by issue, march by march, hand in hand. During the precipice of the New Year, as Jews are turning in introspection, examining our lives, realigning our values with our faith, these Days of Awe call for highly personal reflection of our own lives in relationship with the discord of our times, and specifically with the racial injustice that pervades American culture.
My heart aches at the anguish of police shootings of Black men, from Tulsa to Charlotte, from California, to Baltimore. My heart aches from the abject prejudice that confronts Americans of color and affronts their freedom as citizens of the United States.
As a rabbi, as a Jew, I know what it is like to have my synagogue, and even my own life threatened. I have lived through weeks where my children were followed by police at their public schools because of the threats to my family. But in reality, I know nothing of the heartache of people of color. When the threats to my family subsided, in a short time, my children were back to their care free life. A flash in the pan compared to those who have to worry daily: will one of my own be the next Keith Scott, or Michael Brown?
I ask for forgiveness during this Jewish season of repentance: on my behalf, on behalf of my community, and on behalf of the United States. No matter how many marches we have marched together, Jews and Blacks, together for justice, I have not been there to march the Black children of my community to school each day, where the police arrest as many young Black children, as they guard against harm, like they did my children.
In Jewish tradition, true repentance requires that one asks forgiveness, and then turns to a new path that will not lead one back to those sins of yesterday. The Torah reading for Yom Kippur called Nitzavim incorporates that idea by laying out the new path and committing the entire community to walk toward a better world.
In Deuteronomy the inclusive words speak so poignantly for the Israelites of old and for us today: Atem nitzavim hayom, kol chem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem. You are standing here today, all of you before the Lord your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the people of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God.” (Deut 29:9-11)
What do we make of the detail of this Hebrew scripture, notoriously known for being terse? Wouldn’t it have been enough to say: “All of you are standing here before God?” But, the text names everyone from the leaders, to the children, to the stranger, and then specifically the woodchopper and the water drawer. It is an all-inclusive teaching straight from the Bible. If you might think that it is up to the clergy to keep the covenant and do the hard work, you are mistaken. The parallelism in the text starting with the leaders and ending with the woodchopper and water drawer shouts out that there is no division or classism in God’s society. Everyone is responsible. Everyone is accountable.
And lest we think this is an ancient teaching for ancient days listen to what Deuteronomy instructs a couple of verses later: “It is not with you alone who I make this covenant, it is for those standing here this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.” (Deut 29:14) This idea, the very basis of democratic society for all peoples and all backgrounds, is given for all time. It is not only for those who heard those words that day. It is for every successive generation of humanity. We all stand as equals before God, and we all stand as equals in the covenant to honor God’s world.
The classism, the racism, the ethnocentric partitions, those are the false classifications that oppressive cultures create because they do not understand these words from the scripture. “We are standing here this day:” “This is our time, this is our vote.” Nitzavim instructs us to claim democracy, equal rights for every citizen, undaunted by the road blocks that others construct along the way.
We know those road blocks all too well. We know them from history, and we know them from the story of the North Carolina legislature and governor who enacted the most comprehensive voter suppression laws in the country just days after the Supreme Court stripped parts of the Voter Rights Act saying that the provisions for preclearance need to be updated by the Federal government. While the Federal government has not taken one step to reauthorize the Voters Rights Act, North Carolina has led the way in eradicating the protections the Voter Rights Act used to provide.
Even so, even with preclearance gone, even without the Voter Rights Act protections, the racist, voter suppression laws of North Carolina, have been struck down again and again in court. Nevertheless, North Carolina’s governor and legislators still don’t understand that democracy means every citizen has the right to unfettered access to the polls. We have fewer and fewer polling places, in every county in North Carolina, because one political party chair instructed the partisan voting commissioners in each county to specifically limit access for African Americans. He says this is not racist policy, it is only because African Americans don’t vote for his party. These words are a contradiction in terms. Someone tweet Webster’s and tell them North Carolina has the ultimate example of the definition of racism to add to their dictionary. Instructions like these go to the heart of voter suppression. They divide citizens out on the basis of oppressive, class-based, society; rather than expansively opening our democracy to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
Lest we still not understand the teaching the scripture reiterates: “Surely this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day in not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond your reach. It is not in the heavens, that you say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, that you say, “Who shall cross the sea and get it for us and impart it to us…. No the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to observe it.” (Deut 30: 11-13).
Is not that the very principal that undergirds American democracy, that all of us are responsible for the leadership of our country?! Each one of us has a voice and a vote. And each one of us has a responsibility to uphold our democracy. It is not enough to decry the oppression of the other and say I cannot do anything about it, because they have all the control. No citizen should be bullied into believing that voting is beyond their reach.
The politics of fear that pervades our country today cannot define us or sway our standards. Bullying and fear are powerful motivators. In Maslow’s theory of human needs, if one cannot get beyond fears for basic security, there is no hope for relationship and meaning in life. That fear is hijacking the core values of humanity and democracy.
We cannot give in to it. For, there is a force greater than fear. There is a force that fuels relationships rather than foments mistrust. There is a force that unites, even in the face of the weightiest of dangers.
That force is what gets us out of bed each day. It is how we put one foot in front of another, and how we summons the courage to move forward even in the face of grave evil. That force is faith, faith in God, and faith in the image of God planted in every human being.
We can, every one of us, assure voting rights for every American. We can update our own and members of our community’s voter registration to match changes of address, names, or other pertinent information. We can register new voters, who have been discouraged from registering and participating in our democracy. We can help voters get absentee ballots and turn them in. We can assist with transportation to the polls. We can educate the community and teach them that this thing “is not in the heavens or across the sea, it is in their mouth and their heart to observe it.”
We cannot sit by and wait for the courts to throw out more laws while the election is right before us. To do nothing, to remain indifferent is not an option. We have an obligation to act to transform our democracy and define once and for all that voting rights are for everyone: from the leaders, the stock brokers, and the executives; to those breaking their back for an inadequate minimum wage, to the infirmed, to those buried in college debt, the elderly, and the homeless, to people of color, to Muslims, to new citizens and old. Voter rights are for Blacks and Latinos, from young adults to seniors, the disabled, to the multi-millionaire. We cannot and will not accept the classism and racism that divides and oppresses Americans and pits us against one another.
How do we bring about the reforms our government needs to replace racism and classism with a government of the people, by the people and for the people?
How do we enact the laws needed for reform and transparency in police departments across the US?
How do we work for a livable minimum wage in every job?
And, that’s not all. When they are registered, our work will have just begun. Then we have to get them to the polls.
So, how are we going to replace the most racist voter suppression laws in America?
Get them to the polls.
How are we going to eradicate the racism in our judicial system, that incarcerates African Americans at six times the rate of whites. (“Criminal Justice Fact Sheet”. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP. Retrieved 2014-04-08.)
Get them to the polls.
How do we provide equal educational opportunity for all youth, rich and poor, black, and white?
Get them to the polls.
How do we get the government out of our bathrooms and repeal HB 2, and anti-LGBT laws across the land?
Get them to the polls.
Centuries ago Rav Nachum of Bratzlav taught in a time fraught with its own fear and destruction: Kol ha olam kulo geshser tzar meod, v’haikar lo l’faked ba.
“The whole world is one narrow bridge, and the key, the important thing is not to be afraid.”
There will always be forces trying to hold down the Black community, or the Jewish community, or the LGBT community, or Muslims, or atheists, and all of the above plus more. The blessing that we have in our communities of faith is that we do not have to face that narrow bridge alone. When we put our hands in the hands of our brothers and sisters, when we lift our voices together, we cross that narrow bridge. We unite to fulfill the covenant of democracy. We stand together the leaders and the water carriers, crossing that narrow bridge. It is not in the heavens or across the sea. The covenant is right here before us in our mouths and in our hearts. We will conquer xenophobia and the fomenting of fear; and replace it with true democracy, where every person has a voice and a vote.
Let us stand here today, every one of us, standing with and for all humanity. This is our time; this is our vote.
Rabbi Lucy H.F. Dinner serves Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, North Carolina.