“Hoy hasha’ananim b’tzion, Woe to them that are at ease in Zion.” (Amos 6:1)
“Sit back, relax, and enjoy.” I used to love those words. The first time remember hearing them it was in this city of Philadelphia. I was about 8 years old, and I sat in the back row of the Forrest Theater, just a few blocks from where I write this entry in fact, as I saw Les Miserables. I saw it 48 times that year, while my big brother Geoff played the role of Gavroche (Yes, I watched him fake-die on stage 48 times, and as a little brother that’s a big deal). I also recall that year being my first serious confrontation with poverty. I grew up comfortable in the suburbs, never once wondering where my next meal would come from, or where I could shower or sleep. But every night that year, outside the Forrest Theater, I passed the same man, and every night he asked me for money. I ignored him, and not because I had nothing to give him, but because that is what we were told to do. “Sit back, relax, and enjoy.”
It’s only suitable that I’m back in the city where I first encountered- or, rather ignored- homelessness and now find profound resonance in the address that Rev. Dr. William Barber II delivered to the Central Conference of American Rabbis today.
You could call it a dose of prophetic caffeine. He talked to us as a partner in God’s work of civic healing and a courageous champion of justice in the public square. Rev. Barber reminded us to celebrate our tradition’s unwillingness to accept the world as it is and continually renew our obligation to wake up and pursue the world as it should be. The words of Scripture rolled off his tongue, as he lifted up two texts from the Hebrew Prophets and one from his own tradition, from Jesus’ first sermon, in which he recognizes the Divine spirit is within him.
Rev. Barber addressed the very real and horrid living conditions of countless Americans in our communities: poor access to healthcare and education, unconscionable incarceration rates (particularly among African Americans and Latinos), hateful immigration policies, and continuous voter suppression in the South. A quick glance at the reality of any one of these issues– or hearing just one of the millions of stories of suffering in our wealthy nation– is enough to make you instantly tearful, angry, or just plain hopelessness.
In my work at Temple Israel in Boston I spend hours each week organizing hand-in-hand with other communities around these issues. Sharing and listening to stories is how we connect; it’s how we energize and animate our sense of responsibility for each other. As many storytellers say, “the shortest distance between two people is a story.” This winter in particular in Boston the suffering has been relentless– the perfect storm, in a sense: homelessness and food insecurity are on the rise, and we had our our worst winter weather ever. So hearing a prophetic sermon is nothing new to my rabbinate, particularly in this season. But listening to the words of Amos, “Woe to them that are at ease,” as I sat blocks away from the Forrest Theater where 28 years ago I myself would “sit back, relax, and enjoy,” forced me to recall that homeless stranger who sat outside in the cold.
My mind drifted back and forth between the imagery of streets of Philly in the ’80s and the resonant words of Rev. Barber until I heard him say: “prophetic hope can’t come until we touch the honest message of despair.” How do we “touch the honest message of despair”?
We American Jews are, as a group, among the most privileged in the United States. Of course this doesn’t reflect everyone (and we always have to be careful in our assumptions), but it’s just a fact: we’ve never had it this good. Arguably, we American Jews are as privileged, protected, and powerful as we have ever been at any moment in Jewish history. So how do we touch the honest message of despair?
The Prophet Amos’ word for “one who is at ease”- Hasha’an– usually in the Bible connotes a perverse state of arrogance (especially throughout Isaiah). Hasha’an is one who not only is comfortable but also apathetic to poverty, out-of-touch with the message of despair.
In the Torah the Israelites are cautioned repeatedly regarding the state of comfort. Just a few weeks ago, on the Shabbat before Purim (the period of utmost “comfort,” in a way), we read a special passage from Deuteronomy that tells the Israelites that they must “remember what Amalek did to [them] while leaving Egypt,” attacking their stragglers, their most vulnerable…. Usually we focus on the remembrance aspect of the commandment, or the evil of the Amalekites, but perhaps we should be calling more attention to the timing of the commandment–when must the Israelites recall the period of their most extreme discomfort? “V’haya b’haniach Adonai Elohecha mikol oyvecha misaviv, when the Eternal your God grants you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Eternal your God is giving to you.” That is, when you’re comfortable, able to “sit back, relax, and enjoy.”
Similarly, it’s not accidental that the commandment to bless food– to cultivate an attitude of gratitude– comes directly after the commandment to fill your belly (“savata uveirachta— be sated, and then bless”). There’s a danger in having a full stomach- one might become haughty, ungrateful, lazy. Perhaps when we are too comfortable, we are vulnerable; vulnerable to the pernicious propensity “to sit back, relax, and enjoy” too much; vulnerable to forfeiting the inheritance of our prophetic literature; vulnerable to behaving less like our prophets and more like those whom our prophets derided.
Perhaps this is why Rev. Barber’s rhetoric was not merely rhetorical. He actually came with more than a message– he came with an honest question to pose to the leaders of the Reform Jewish community. He asked, “who will refuse to be at ease in Zion?” Again and again, he asked us, “who will refuse to be at ease?”
Years after my 48 Les Miserables shows, when I was fifteen and in NFTY, I asked my then advisor Avram Mandel, “what do you do when someone asks you for money and you have nothing to give?” I recall him replying, “I don’t know but I start by looking him in the eyes.”
If, as Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage,” then the question for us, for our communities, our congregations, our legislators, our families, our children is and will continue to be: who will refuse to be a passive audience?
Matthew Soffer is rabbi of Temple Israel of Boston, MA