This blog is the seventh and final in a series from Rabbis Organizing Rabbis connecting the period of the Omer to the issue of race and class structural inequality. Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is a joint project of the CCAR’s Peace & Justice Committee, the URJ’s Just Congregations, and the Religious Action Center.
Three years ago, when ALEC* rolled out model, corporate-designed, legislation in State Legislatures across the country, they targeted North Carolina as their test State for the most comprehensive of their initiatives. Within a few months the North Carolina legislature stripped State support programs in health care, education, aid to the poor, voter rights and more. Living in North Carolina’s capital I had been called in the past to lobby for one social justice cause or another. Early in 2012, those calls multiplied exponentially. Everyday brought a new crisis: State mental health beds drastically cut; teachers fleeing public schools; 500,000 left off of Medicaid roles… The deleterious legislation pulled at my heart; how could I sit idly by watching my State swallowed in this vortex of callous, corporate-funded, self-righteousness?
In short order, I realized that if I continued to answer the multiple calls for justice I would lose myself. There was no way any one citizen could speak to each of these critical issues. That’s when I heard of Rev. Dr. William Barber’s answer to the assault on North Carolina, as he was gearing up for the first year of Moral Monday Demonstrations. Barber, a minister and the president of the North Carolina NAACP, had been paving the road to advocacy for “the poor, the orphan, and the widow” for years and was primed to move for our State.
Barber fluently communicates with the wisdom and tenacity of the prophets; and he opens the podium, inviting young and old to speak truth to power. Barber’s leadership has garnered tens of thousands from all economic and social backgrounds to protect basic rights of jobs, health, education, and voting.
It quickly became apparent that working with Dr. Barber was the path to maintain my integrity against the assault on my State. I became a regular at Moral Monday meetings, sometimes marching, sometimes speaking, knocking on legislators’ doors and asking for comprehensive response so that the rights of children, the poor, and the sick, would not be sacrificed for the bottom line of the top earners.
Though much of the legislation being enacted disproportionately affects people of color, the NAACP and Reverend Barber made it clear from the start that the Movement is not about one race, party, religion, or gender. Rather, it is about humanity and the precious soul in every living being. Rev. Barber embraces leaders from religious groups ranging from Christian, to Muslim, Jewish, Atheist, and beyond. He invites professors from universities and single mothers who never had the opportunity to finish high school to the dais. All of us teaching from the depth of our personal backgrounds bring the core of our faith, intellect, and experience. This diversity of perspectives comes together to offer one united message: “We all count.”
Over the years of my rabbinate I have become versed in speaking before sanctuaries of worshipers, halls filled with students, convocations of legislators, and meetings with leaders. None of that quite prepared me for the impact of speaking before and with thousands of impassioned demonstrators, flowing to the music and to the cause, rallying for action. There you feel the pulse beating through the chants of the crowd, answering the call as you speak, and committing to bring that shared vision to reality. In the eyes of one, you see reflected the craving of the thousands. In that moment you know that the power of humanity, the glory of humanity, the blessing of humanity, will rise again and again over the forces that oppress. And therein lays hope and promise.
As we near the conclusion of the Counting of the Omer, and as we begin the reading of the Book of Numbers, the message of the Moral Movement shouts out of the prescience of this convergence. We count the Omer to remind us not to take our harvest for granted, to remind us that our bounty is not our bounty; but, rather, a gift that God brings forth from the earth. When we count the Israelites, in this first parasha of the book of Numbers, we do not count souls or heads. We count ½ shekels, one per person. In that way the rich and the poor are equal; the wood cutter and the CEO have the same value; no life is valued as greater than another. Thus it becomes apparent that the regard we afford the least among us reflects the greatest regard we have for human life. Each life matters. WE ALL COUNT.
Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is project of the Reform Movement’s social justice initiatives: the CCAR’s Committee on Peace, Justice and Civil Liberties, the Religious Action Center, and Just Congregations.
Rabbi Lucy Dinner serves Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, North Carolina.