“The Fierce Urgency of Now”

Last week at this time, while all of you were gathered around your Seder tables, either in your homes, or at the Temple, and while I was laying in bed with the flu, my wife and son were in Reno, Nevada celebrating Pesach with Barrie’s side of the family.  Though the food was comforting, and the Napa wine was flowing, poor Barrie was confronted with an unfortunate side-effect of being married to a rabbi: her parents asked her to lead the seder in my absence.  She tells me that she did a pretty good job, of which I have no doubt, and she even told me how she sprinkled in some of my teachings, about the plagues, about archeological issues, and more that she had picked up from reading my sermons.

At the end of the seder, Barrie’s father wished to carry on a long family tradition, which was to close the evening with a reading of the “I Have a Dream” speech by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  The tradition stemmed from an earlier family Hagaddah they had used for decades and which, though now outdated, still served as a connection between the themes of Passover and modern day civil rights. And so, despite having long moved on to a new Haggadah, Barrie’s father still closed each seder with Dr. King’s speech.

When Barrie told me about her family’s seder this year, however, she noted that this year listening to the words of Dr. King felt heavy. As her father struggled through what should have long ago become a reality rather than a dream, both Barrie and her mother felt tears begin to well in their eyes. In today’s political and socio-economic climate, Barrie’s family noted that while in previous years they could discuss the parts of MLK’s dream that had come true, or at least seemed to be on their way, they were not able to celebrate and hope as much in 2018.

I know the “I Have a Dream” speech.  In fact, if you’ve ever been in my office, you will have seen it, framed, and hanging above my couch where I can see it each day.  Dr. King’s work, and the work of the Reform Jewish movement, are so interlinked that many of my colleagues, like myself, hold a strong connection to Dr. King.  Though it’s been awhile since the High Holy Days, many of you will remember how I spoke about the work of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and how in our building, with our leaders, historic civil rights bills were drafted such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act 1965, the Civil Rights Restoration Act, the Fair Housing Act Amendments of 1988, and the Civil Rights Act of 1991.  Dr. King’s ambitions for social justice were, and continue to be, our ambitions.  And with the 50th anniversary of his assassination occurring just this past Wednesday, it is fitting that we as a movement, we as Jews, sat around tables and discussed freedom, tyranny, and oppression at our Passover seders.

On Wednesday morning, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the Director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, spoke at the Rally to End Racism in Washington D.C.  Knowing Rabbi Pesner personally and professionally, I have had the pleasure of seeing him speak, seeing him preach, and issues like racism and civil liberties are those that he takes very seriously.  Rabbi Pesner felt what Barrie’s family felt, and what many of us feel: at this Passover, at this 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King, we are witnessing our country take steps backward, rather than forward on these and many issues.  At the rally, Rabbi Pesner spoke to a crowd of thousands saying:

Dr. King preached that “we are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now…there is such a thing as being too late.” For Stephon Clark, we are already too late. For Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and far too many other people of color killed by law enforcement, it is too late.

 

But it is not too late for us to act to stop this cycle of injustice, to dismantle the structures of inequality and oppression that undercut our nation’s commitment to justice and equality for all. For the young people of color caught up in the school-to-prison pipeline, we cannot be too late. For all those facing voter suppression, we cannot be too late.

 

Rabbi Pesner is correct.  All of you know that one of the strongest pillars of Reform Judaism is not just hope for justice, but work for justice; renewing creation each day, and working to repair this world.  After Shabbat Shalom, the words tikkun olam are the first Hebrew words our children speak.  The pain of those around us, Jews and non-Jews alike, is felt within our hearts; the pangs of their hunger resonate in our stomachs; the bitter cold wind hitting those without shelter cause us to shiver.   So we at Temple Israel respond.  The action, the social action, that this Temple performs is parallel to the values of our movement.  And as a founding member of the Reform Union, we must lead the pack, and serve as an example, a light unto the nations, to shine, showing what even small Reform Congregations can do.

In Rabbi Pesner’s speech, he reminded the crowd that in 1964, in the fight against segregation in St. Augustine, Florida, 17 Reform rabbis left a rabbinic convention happening in New Jersey and joined the Black activists.  Rabbi Pesner told the crowd the story:

They joined Black activists at segregated restaurants and, together, jumped into the swimming pool of a segregated motor lodge. The motel manager dumped acid into the pool to get them out. The police used a cattle prod on a young woman. In jail, a local rabbi came to visit his 17 colleagues. He didn’t offer support. He came to tell them they shouldn’t have come to St. Augustine. He came to tell these rabbis that they were causing trouble.

To this Rabbi Pesner added, “Well, we know that sometimes we need to cause, as Congressman John Lewis says, ‘good trouble.’”

You may have seen in some of my writings over these past weeks that I have been working hard with the community to build relationships, build bridges, and build professional partnerships.  In the past nine months, I have joined the leadership of the Interfaith Leaders of Greater Lafayette and the Downtown Ministers; I have met with Lafayette Transitional Housing, the United Way, Lafayette Urban Ministry, Legal Aid, WALLA, and other non-profits to see how we can help them achieve the goals we too hold for our community.  I do this because I am a Reform Rabbi, of a Reform Temple, and I am privileged to preach each week to a dedicated and caring group of individuals who carry with them the torch of social justice, and who have inspired me by their actions this year.

So, in the coming months, with all of your help, I hope that, in addition to the social justice work we already do, we will cause some “good trouble” together.  I hope that we will do so because Dr. King’s prophetic vision remains unrealized in 2018.  I hope that Temple Israel will be the voice that speaks loudly to combat the wrongs of 2018, the new plagues that we see as this Passover season comes to a close: the plagues of white supremacy, homophobia, Islamaphobia, and antisemitism.

There is a special Torah and Haftarah reading that is to be done for chol hamo-eid Pesach, the Shabbat that falls during Pesach.  The Haftarah reading is that of Ezekiel 36:37-37:14, the vision of the “dry bones.”  The haftarah states:

[God] said to me, [Ezekiel] “O mortal, can these bones live again?” I replied, “O GOD, only You know.”  And [God] said to me, “Prophesy over these bones and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of Adonai!  Thus said GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live again.  I will lay sinews upon you, and cover you with flesh, and form skin over you. And I will put breath into you, and you shall live again.”

 

The Haftarah continues with Ezekiel witnessing this vision of flesh and skin covering the bones, and breath breathed into them as they stood on their feet, once again.  Until today, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with such a vision from one of our prophets.  But tonight, as Passover closes this week, at the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, I see that we, Reform Jews, can prophesize over of the bones of this great crusader of justice, and our actions can breathe life into his spirit and his work.  May this be our charge moving forward from here, and may next year, at this time, we see more, not less, of Dr. King’s dream realized.

 

 

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