This is my D'var Torah for Parashiyot Mattot-Mas'ei, on July 18, 2020.
This is a Rubik’s Cube:
The Rubik’s Cube starts all jumbled up, with random colors mixed together all over each side. The goal is to get every one of the six sides to be entirely one single color. This is tricky because whenever you move one thing toward one side, you move another thing off its place somewhere else.
Sometimes it’s possible to work the Rubik’s Cube by solving a whole side and then moving on to the next one. Even if you do it this way, you still have to dislodge something from that side temporarily while you are fixing up another side. You have to make the perfect side imperfect again for a bit in the process of tackling another side of the cube. Everything is connected, so moving something into place also involves moving something out of place for a moment. If you’re really good, you can move it back.
I think of an ethical life as a Rubik’s Cube that is partially solved, maybe one or two or even four sides solved but others stubbornly not. Moral dilemmas are usually like this too. You have a number of ideas that make sense, several sides of the picture are solved, but the whole thing isn’t, and something is completely messed up elsewhere,. Part of what makes it right on this side is making it wrong on that side.
So we have a partially solved Rubik’s Cube in the parasha. It’s the case of the accidental killer and the city of refuge. The situation is that someone has killed another person -- God forbid, chas v’challilah -- and no one questions that A killed B. It might have been a flying axe blade, or even a push because A didn’t know B was there. It happened. That’s clear.
It’s also true that A is not an enemy to B. There’s no specific motivation anyone suggests, no grudge between them. This is attested by other people in a court. That side is clear.
There is the family of B, who have suffered a terrible loss. They are bereft, and they are considered by the Torah in its time to be justified in seeking the death of A. It’s more than understandable; things can’t just be let go. And tthe Torah believes that the community as a whole is in danger whenever blood is spilled and nothing is resolved. Members of thefamily of B are given the name of go’el ha-dam, “redeemer of blood” or “redeemer of life.” It’s sometimes translated as “avenger”, but in the Torah it’s not a negative name. They are considered to be standing up and acting for the value of life. Another side that’s clear.
There is a lot of clarity here, many sides of the ethical Rubik’s Cube lined up, but there is no way to get the last side in place. If A, the killer, is put to death, that’s an unjust punishment. If A pays money to the family of B, that is considered an insult to the life of B and the idea that human life is beyond all value. If nothing happens, that’s also not just and does not respect human life.
The Torah feels both that the family of B is entitled to try to kill A, and that A should not be killed.
So the Torah instructs the people to set up cities of refuge, arei miklat, where A can safely escape the family of B. There has to be a city in every region of the land and every region just outside the land where some of the tribes live. The cities are supervised by the Levi’im, a special group of leaders. Person A stays there until the death of the current kohen gadol, the high priest, and only then can go free.
Again God forbid that anyone be killed at the hand of another, whether intentionally or unintentionally. I have been trying to think about the law of ir miklat as a response to all the unsolved Rubik’s Cubes in our social life. Situations where life and death have been at stake. Every motivation on each side is right, every suggestion for what to do is right at least in its own terms, but there is no picture as a whole that is right. Or at least it’s not as right as each of the pieces of it.
And in that situation the Torah institutes miklat -- refuge, shelter. It’s an end to killing, a suspension of the violence, and it’s not proposed as a solution. Everyone is frozen in their current imperfect situation, no one forgets what originally happened, and everyone is prevented from making it worse.
This doesn’t happen all by itself. The Levites are involved. They are leaders with a special spiritual role, who live not with their own tribes but linked across all the other tribes throughout the land. And the high priest is somehow involved. He is a leader whose job each year is to restore the community to spiritual balance, to cleanse the Temple and the community from all the wrongs that have happened in the past year every Yom Kippur.
Two of the life-and-death realities that are ongoing right now are the pandemic and the question of school in the fall, and the racial justice issues around policing and incarceration. Two really challenging Rubik’s Cubes. This week as I’ve had the parasha in mind I’ve been particularly attuned to how some sides are solved and clear, and yet the whole is not solved at all.
In my world as a parent, there are a whole bunch of statements that are clear about keeping students safe and keeping teachers safe, about the importance of learning and of schools for the overall wellbeing of kids and of families.... and yet it does not look anything like the Rubik’s Cube as a whole is any more solved than before. Some people think that it’s enough to solve one side and stop, and others think it’s enough to solve a different side.
Over the past two weeks, while criminal justice reform work in legislatures and agencies has not been the major news, we’ve had very visible conflicts in print and digital media, with statements about the importance of keeping the claims of people of color in the center, and with statements about the importance of open inquiry and critial investigation around proposed solutions. Some people think it’s enough to solve one side and stop, and other think it’s enough to solve a different side. The Rubik’s Cube as a whole looks very disarranged.
So what would the ir miklat, the city of refuge, look like today? I have been thinking that people are exhausted by the efforts of trying to solve even a single side, to reach some moral clarity on either of these issues. This exhaustion itself creates a heightened possibility that we will harm each other more, even by accident, that we will harm ourselves. A summertime ir miklat doesn’t require anyone to let go of the clarity they have achieved. It’s a pause, with a commitment to being careful, a promise not to make anything worse.
Just as each region in the land had its own city of refuge, maybe each ethical “region” where there is conflict and violence needs it own way and time of refuge right now.
Maybe we could take turns. I said in my e-mail yesterday that I think all of our educational leaders and all of our racial justice leaders and all of our police leader should take a week or two away, to find a city of refuge. I think we all deserve a miklat as well, a safe refuge for a time, because we’ve all been pried open and exposed for months now.
And I know I have been looking for Levi’im, for leaders to oversee these dilemmas who are especially grounded in service to us, and who connect the many tribe. I have been looking for the Kohen Gadol. A purifying figure or a purifying group, who are willing to put maybe not their lives at stake, but at least their reputations on the line. Leaders who will say: We know these things seem impossibly complex. But we want to be in this game; we want to solve these Rubik’s Cubes. We want people to stand around us and cheer us on. We don’t want fear of death and fear of killing and fear of harming to be all there is to say with certainty. We want to hope to be more certain, and we want to attack the Rubik’s Cube with creative problem solving, and we want people to value the magical things in our schools and our society, in every beautiful color. We want to be inspired, and we want to be inspiring.
We don’t know how to solve the Rubik’s Cube of racial justice yet, nor do we know how to solve the Rubik’s Cube of school this fall. We have a lot of sides worked out, but we aren’t going to get the rest of them by running ourselves past exhaustion, with times and places of refuge, guided by the right people.
You who have heard me speak know that slow down is not my usual message, and “just do a mitzvah and another and it will all work out” is not my philosophy. Miklat should be a very specific kind of pause. The Torah tells us every year to seek cities and places of refuge, starting in this mid-summer portion and over the nex six weeks. It will come up in the Torah every couple of weeks -- and then the Torah will say it’s time to head toward the promised land,. Time to finish wandering. But we can’t march if we don’t have the refuge we need. I hope you will find some in the next weeks, and I hope you’ll do your part to make sure other people find them too.
This was my Dvar Torah for (Zoom) services on June 6, 2020. I'm making reference here to the Bar Mitzvah of Seth Brown.
I want to thank the Browns again for this simcha and as I told them, usually my words of Torah are light on days like this, but sometimes the world thrusts events at us that call for some Torah that can’t wait. So I will take a few minutes for words of Torah after the week we have had. I am going to speak quietly and with humility, not pretending to be possessed of every insight about race in America or to be a tzaddik myself in this area. I will add some more to this at our program on Monday evening.
And this is Torah from a particular point of view, the Torah of this particular Jew who is white and has many privileges, who has been thinking most of all about the black people who are closest to me, namely my own cousins and members of this Temple community, some of whom are children. I have been thinking about how I see the world and change in the world, because of where I come from. My formative experiences center on the mid- to late-1970s. Saturday night TV in that time in my house was The Jeffersons, Bridget Loves Bernie, Mary Tyler Moore – the television of a world moving toward integration of every kind – and I was a Sesame Street child, who took for granted Gordon and Susan and Bob and Luis and Maria. In there was the struggle for Soviet Jewry, which was everywhere in my Jewish world, and seemed like the same thing.
And one of the records always playing in my home was Marlo Thomas’s “ Free to Be You and Me.” Here’s the verse that for a long time was my anthem: “There’s a land that I see where the children are free, and I say it ain’t far to that land from where we are.”
I was taught to see that better world not too far away, to know it wasn’t here but to believe it was being created by people like my parents and their friends and my teachers and by me and my friends. The question I never had until a few years ago is how far is that land, really, from where we are. If it has taken so long to get there since the mid-1970s, is that because it is in fact farther than I thought, or is it close enough to see but there is a river in between with dangerous rapids and we have not built the bridge, is it close enough but we have for some reason refused to pay the money to clear the road that would get us there straight and fast.
Or to say it like the Torah would, as we are in the book of Numbers -- why is such a short walk from Egypt to the promised land taking forty years.
So what is the basic spiritual outlook of someone trying to get us to that land?
In the Talmud (Yerushalmi Nedarim) two rabbis debate: If you had to sum up the Torah, basically, how would you do it? Rabbi Akiva says that the most important principle of the Torah is in Leviticus, “Love your neighbor like yourself” (19:18). Ben Azzai, who was a younger scholar, said it’s a different verse, from back in Genesis: “This is the book of the story of humanity: In the day God created the human, in the likeness of God God created him" (5:1).
Rabbi Akiva says: It’s all about of love of other people, and the action that flows from that love. The major thing is to stretch yourself – first to the limit of the comfort zone you have with people who are like you, and then a bit beyond that. Get to the person who is near you, and figure out how they are not basically different from you but basically like you. There is effort to care, the effort is to look for something in common, and the effort is actually to do something helpful or caring.
Ben Azzai says, basically, Okay Boomer. Flower child. Love is great, but if you’re really loving you’re going to reach a limit pretty soon. We can only love so many people. It’s exhausting and there’s going to be resistance because of that. At some point you’ll make your neighborhood of concern bigger, sure, and then you’ll stop and you’ll decide that the other people aren’t your neighbor. You’ll say that you can’t find anything like yourself, you tried but you couldn’t. You’ll start coming up with reasons not to love certain people.
No, says Ben Azzai, we need a bigger frame. This is the book of the story of all humanity. If you’re going to stretch, stretch your imagination to include all people. In the Torah, a book is a place to keep records. A book is bigger than our hearts. It’s where the data is, whether we have an emotional attachment to it or not. And we know that a book is also stories, and stories take us farther than neighbors can and stories get us talking about them. Books and stories are going to take us to neighborhoods we’re just not going to get to otherwise even in our own towns, to prisons we’re never going to visit ourselves. Get some data, learn some history. Learn where your neighborhood itself comes from, who built it.
Rabbi Akiva would say back: You young people, you think you share enough brilliant articles on Facebook you’ll change the world. The brain might see farther than the heart, but it is weaker. If you learn more than you can do, you are in danger of overwhelm, and of not being able to see an ending that’s different from the terrible stories that have been told so far. At some point you have to decide to care, or you have to decide to act, and you can only do that by knowing someone new or by knowing someone familiar in a new way. So work on stretching what like-yourself means to you. And when you made your neighborhood a bit bigger, now try to love all the neighborhoods in your city. This is how it really works. Most people need relationships to change. We don’t have a book with the right ending yet, because no one has written it, and the only way to write it is to love our way there.
Who’s right – I find something compelling in both approaches and both critiques. I wish I knew if one was more right. But be one of them, commit to at least one of these middot, these qualities, and get someone to hold you accountable. If you’re an Akiva, get yourself an Akiva-guide and also a Ben Azzai to challenge you, and vice versa. Please please, I beg you here, please hold me accountable.
I would like to think that this week’s protests happened because we have all been living for weeks in a daily reality of being more attuned than usual to life and death. The germ that is killing is literally novel, that’s its very name, and we have been hiding because that’s what is necessary. The way George Floyd was killed – from that we have been hiding too long. We have been saving lives for months now, lives we know and lives of strangers we can’t see, all of a sudden we’ve been doing it, and at great personal discomfort and sacrifice. When it comes to black lives, why can’t we do the same.
Post #3 – okay, more snide and angry, and still not the heart of the matter.
If we set the presidential bar at cynical, even I could do a better job than President Trump did last night:
1. Call George Floyd’s killing murder. Sure, that might make it impossible for there to be a fair trial anywhere in the U.S. but you’ve never been that concerned about the niceties of the legal process, so why start now.
2. Declare that you are ordering the Attorney General and the Department of Justice to set up a special unit right now to solve police brutality against African-Americans once and for all. You plan to be the president to do what no Democratic leader has ever succeeded in doing and you’re going to be the greatest protector of civil rights ever.
3. Co-opt the people you think are the “good protesters.” Don’t just give a litany of who all the bad ones are. Tell one of the many vivid stories of protestors protecting people or property. Your commanders surely told you that their job would be easier if the peaceful protestors had the upper hand on their own. Why not get the credit for making that happen?
4. Do some I-told-you-so. Say how the current protesters who are out in masks and respecting distance are just like the freedom-loving protesters against COVID-19 restrictions, and you are big supporter of everyone’s First Amendment rights. (That’s the Amendment right before the Second Amendment.)
5. Throw your opponents a bone. Mention that many of the violent protesters are actually using the past week to advance a pro-gun, anti-government agenda that has nothing to do with George Floyd. Call on them to clear the field and tell them “I alone can get that done”, so they should trust you or get ready to be put away for a very long time.
Presidential Speechmaking 101 involves telling stories of hope in the middle of a bad time. Bad transformed to good, that’s the arc. Sure, we see through that and it’s not enough. But it’s the formula you start with. Some even find it reassuring. The president has no ability in this area. Whenever he mentioned positive figures last night – a nurse, an African-American law enforcement “hero”, etc. – the sentence or thought always ended with disaster – “shot and killed”, “afraid to leave their homes.” Look through all his major speeches and this is the overall pattern. It’s all backward.
And that’s what scares me about the president. He doesn’t know what direction hope is in, even when constructing a sentence.
He doesn’t have the human emotions that go with telling those kind of narratives genuinely or even cynically. Which is just the starting point before you are anywhere near getting complex good things done. Why this is the case -- that’s for him and his loved ones to deal with if they so choose. The country is paying the price of having presidential power in such hands. That’s why I hold for dear life onto other leaders at all levels who are not like this, to get us through what I hope are the final months.
I tried to begin writing today not from anger but from reflection and even hope. Very hard to do right now. Anger comes more naturally. I write snide very well – you should see the first drafts, and there's a snider post to come.
This is a preface to links below about a president with a spotty record on race and civil rights responding very differently than our current president about race, civli rights, police, and violence.
Why am I posting this? When I think about presidential leadership right now, I need to locate hope.
Vaclav Havel wrote: “Hope is not prognostication... [It] is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success... Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
For years every summer I would try to write a Rosh Hashanah sermon about hope, and I would look at it and throw it away because I couldn’t even define it. Then I had an insight related to the Jewish festival of Chanukkah. I realized that the miracle we talk about in that story isn’t the one we always talk about. Hope is the reality that someone at an earlier time of destruction hid away a source of light and energy -- knowing that a later time someone else would dig it up, and it would give them the start they need.
On March 15, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson addressed the Congress. It was not long after Bloody Sunday in Alabama. This was the speech where he dared to appropriate the phrase “We shall overcome.” This was a president who had a previous record of opposing civil rights more than twice as long as his more recent support. Below is the speech to read or to watch it in full or a video of excepts.
The thrice-daily Jewish prayer known as the Amidah (the “standing” prayer) was originally called simply “Hatefillah” or “The Prayer” – the prayer par excellence, in other words. It opens with a section known as Avot/Imahot or “Ancestors.” Throughout the pandemic, and now this past week, I have been using that prayer to make myself focus on legacies and the individuals who passed them for us or who hid them to be discovered. People in my family history, American and Jewish figures of the past, great moral and theological teachers. We don’t have enough on our own. We need to go dig out the jars of special oil, the energies that seem buried, that will get us started.
For this particular day after President Trump's address of yesterday, for me, LBJ is an alternative idea of presidential leadership, another way that a white leader carrying plenty of racism spoke to a moment.
Read the text below or here: https://www.historyplace.com/speeches/johnson.htm
I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of Democracy. I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and of all colors, from every section of this country, to join me in that cause.
At times, history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. There, long suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many of them were brutally assaulted. One good man--a man of God--was killed.
There is no cause for pride in what has happened in Selma. There is no cause for self-satisfaction in the long denial of equal rights of millions of Americans. But there is cause for hope and for faith in our Democracy in what is happening here tonight. For the cries of pain and the hymns and protests of oppressed people have summoned into convocation all the majesty of this great government--the government of the greatest nation on earth. Our mission is at once the oldest and the most basic of this country--to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man. In our time we have come to live with the moments of great crises. Our lives have been marked with debate about great issues, issues of war and peace, issues of prosperity and depression.
But rarely in any time does an issue lay bare the secret heart of America itself. Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, or our welfare or our security, but rather to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved nation. The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue. And should we defeat every enemy, and should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation. For, with a country as with a person, "what is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"
There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.
And we are met here tonight as Americans--not as Democrats or Republicans; we're met here as Americans to solve that problem. This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose.
The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every American heart, North and South: "All men are created equal." "Government by consent of the governed." "Give me liberty or give me death." And those are not just clever words, and those are not just empty theories. In their name Americans have fought and died for two centuries and tonight around the world they stand there as guardians of our liberty risking their lives. Those words are promised to every citizen that he shall share in the dignity of man. This dignity cannot be found in a man's possessions. It cannot be found in his power or in his position. It really rests on his right to be treated as a man equal in opportunity to all others. It says that he shall share in freedom. He shall choose his leaders, educate his children, provide for his family according to his ability and his merits as a human being.
To apply any other test, to deny a man his hopes because of his color or race or his religion or the place of his birth is not only to do injustice, it is to deny Americans and to dishonor the dead who gave their lives for American freedom. Our fathers believed that if this noble view of the rights of man was to flourish it must be rooted in democracy. This most basic right of all was the right to choose your own leaders. The history of this country in large measure is the history of expansion of the right to all of our people.
Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult. But about this there can and should be no argument: every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to insure that right. Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in this country men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes.
Every device of which human ingenuity is capable, has been used to deny this right. The Negro citizen may go to register only to be told that the day is wrong, or the hour is late, or the official in charge is absent. And if he persists and, if he manages to present himself to the registrar, he may be disqualified because he did not spell out his middle name, or because he abbreviated a word on the application. And if he manages to fill out an application, he is given a test. The registrar is the sole judge of whether he passes this test. He may be asked to recite the entire Constitution, or explain the most complex provisions of state law.
And even a college degree cannot be used to prove that he can read and write. For the fact is that the only way to pass these barriers is to show a white skin. Experience has clearly shown that the existing process of law cannot overcome systematic and ingenious discrimination. No law that we now have on the books, and I have helped to put three of them there, can insure the right to vote when local officials are determined to deny it. In such a case, our duty must be clear to all of us. The Constitution says that no person shall be kept from voting because of his race or his color.
We have all sworn an oath before God to support and to defend that Constitution. We must now act in obedience to that oath. Wednesday, I will send to Congress a law designed to eliminate illegal barriers to the right to vote. The broad principles of that bill will be in the hands of the Democratic and Republican leaders tomorrow. After they have reviewed it, it will come here formally as a bill. I am grateful for this opportunity to come here tonight at the invitation of the leadership to reason with my friends, to give them my views and to visit with my former colleagues.
I have had prepared a more comprehensive analysis of the legislation which I had intended to transmit to the clerk tomorrow, but which I will submit to the clerks tonight. But I want to really discuss the main proposals of this legislation. This bill will strike down restrictions to voting in all elections, federal, state and local, which have been used to deny Negroes the right to vote.
This bill will establish a simple, uniform standard which cannot be used, however ingenious the effort, to flout our Constitution. It will provide for citizens to be registered by officials of the United States Government, if the state officials refuse to register them. It will eliminate tedious, unnecessary lawsuits which delay the right to vote. Finally, this legislation will insure that properly registered individuals are not prohibited from voting. I will welcome the suggestions from all the members of Congress--I have no doubt that I will get some--on ways and means to strengthen this law and to make it effective.
But experience has plainly shown that this is the only path to carry out the command of the Constitution. To those who seek to avoid action by their national government in their home communities, who want to and who seek to maintain purely local control over elections, the answer is simple: open your polling places to all your people. Allow men and women to register and vote whatever the color of their skin. Extend the rights of citizenship to every citizen of this land. There is no Constitutional issue here. The command of the Constitution is plain. There is no moral issue. It is wrong--deadly wrong--to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country.
There is no issue of state's rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights. I have not the slightest doubt what will be your answer. But the last time a President sent a civil rights bill to the Congress it contained a provision to protect voting rights in Federal elections. That civil rights bill was passed after eight long months of debate. And when that bill came to my desk from the Congress for signature, the heart of the voting provision had been eliminated.
This time, on this issue, there must be no delay, or no hesitation, or no compromise with our purpose. We cannot, we must not, refuse to protect the right of every American to vote in every election that he may desire to participate in.
And we ought not, and we cannot, and we must not wait another eight months before we get a bill. We have already waited 100 years and more and the time for waiting is gone. So I ask you to join me in working long hours and nights and weekends, if necessary, to pass this bill. And I don't make that request lightly, for, from the window where I sit, with the problems of our country, I recognize that from outside this chamber is the outraged conscience of a nation, the grave concern of many nations and the harsh judgment of history on our acts.
But even if we pass this bill the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it's not just Negroes, but really it's all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.
And we shall overcome.
As a man whose roots go deeply into Southern soil, I know how agonizing racial feelings are. I know how difficult it is to reshape the attitudes and the structure of our society. But a century has passed--more than 100 years--since the Negro was freed. And he is not fully free tonight. It was more than 100 years ago that Abraham Lincoln--a great President of another party--signed the Emancipation Proclamation. But emancipation is a proclamation and not a fact.
A century has passed--more than 100 years--since equality was promised, and yet the Negro is not equal. A century has passed since the day of promise, and the promise is unkept. The time of justice has now come, and I tell you that I believe sincerely that no force can hold it back. It is right in the eyes of man and God that it should come, and when it does, I think that day will brighten the lives of every American. For Negroes are not the only victims. How many white children have gone uneducated? How many white families have lived in stark poverty? How many white lives have been scarred by fear, because we wasted energy and our substance to maintain the barriers of hatred and terror?
And so I say to all of you here and to all in the nation tonight that those who appeal to you to hold on to the past do so at the cost of denying you your future. This great rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all--all, black and white, North and South, sharecropper and city dweller. These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease. They are our enemies, not our fellow man, not our neighbor.
And these enemies too--poverty, disease and ignorance--we shall overcome.
Now let none of us in any section look with prideful righteousness on the troubles in another section or the problems of our neighbors. There is really no part of America where the promise of equality has been fully kept. In Buffalo as well as in Birmingham, in Philadelphia as well as Selma, Americans are struggling for the fruits of freedom.
This is one nation. What happens in Selma and Cincinnati is a matter of legitimate concern to every American. But let each of us look within our own hearts and our own communities and let each of us put our shoulder to the wheel to root out injustice wherever it exists. As we meet here in this peaceful historic chamber tonight, men from the South, some of whom were at Iwo Jima, men from the North who have carried Old Glory to the far corners of the world and who brought it back without a stain on it, men from the east and from the west are all fighting together without regard to religion or color or region in Vietnam.
Men from every region fought for us across the world 20 years ago. And now in these common dangers, in these common sacrifices, the South made its contribution of honor and gallantry no less than any other region in the great republic.
And in some instances, a great many of them, more. And I have not the slightest doubt that good men from everywhere in this country, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Golden Gate to the harbors along the Atlantic, will rally now together in this cause to vindicate the freedom of all Americans. For all of us owe this duty and I believe that all of us will respond to it.
Your president makes that request of every American.
The real hero of this struggle is the American Negro. His actions and protests, his courage to risk safety, and even to risk his life, have awakened the conscience of this nation. His demonstrations have been designed to call attention to injustice, designed to provoke change; designed to stir reform. He has been called upon to make good the promise of America.
And who among us can say that we would have made the same progress were it not for his persistent bravery and his faith in American democracy? For at the real heart of the battle for equality is a deep-seated belief in the democratic process. Equality depends, not on the force of arms or tear gas, but depends upon the force of moral right--not on recourse to violence, but on respect for law and order.
There have been many pressures upon your President and there will be others as the days come and go. But I pledge to you tonight that we intend to fight this battle where it should be fought--in the courts, and in the Congress, and the hearts of men. We must preserve the right of free speech and the right of free assembly. But the right of free speech does not carry with it--as has been said--the right to holler fire in a crowded theatre.
We must preserve the right to free assembly. But free assembly does not carry with it the right to block public thoroughfares to traffic. We do have a right to protest. And a right to march under conditions that do not infringe the Constitutional rights of our neighbors. And I intend to protect all those rights as long as I am permitted to serve in this office.
We will guard against violence, knowing it strikes from our hands the very weapons which we seek--progress, obedience to law, and belief in American values. In Selma, as elsewhere, we seek and pray for peace. We seek order, we seek unity, but we will not accept the peace of stifled rights or the order imposed by fear, or the unity that stifles protest--for peace cannot be purchased at the cost of liberty.
In Selma tonight--and we had a good day there--as in every city we are working for a just and peaceful settlement. We must all remember after this speech I'm making tonight, after the police and the F.B.I. and the Marshals have all gone, and after you have promptly passed this bill, the people of Selma and the other cities of the nation must still live and work together.
And when the attention of the nation has gone elsewhere they must try to heal the wounds and to build a new community. This cannot be easily done on a battleground of violence as the history of the South itself shows. It is in recognition of this that men of both races have shown such an outstandingly impressive responsibility in recent days--last Tuesday and again today.
The bill I am presenting to you will be known as a civil rights bill. But in a larger sense, most of the program I am recommending is a civil rights program. Its object is to open the city of hope to all people of all races, because all Americans just must have the right to vote, and we are going to give them that right.
All Americans must have the privileges of citizenship, regardless of race, and they are going to have those privileges of citizenship regardless of race.
But I would like to caution you and remind you that to exercise these privileges takes much more than just legal rights. It requires a trained mind and a healthy body. It requires a decent home and the chance to find a job and the opportunity to escape from the clutches of poverty.
Of course people cannot contribute to the nation if they are never taught to read or write; if their bodies are stunted from hunger; if their sickness goes untended; if their life is spent in hopeless poverty, just drawing a welfare check.
So we want to open the gates to opportunity. But we're also going to give all our people, black and white, the help that they need to walk through those gates. My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, in a small Mexican-American school. Few of them could speak English and I couldn't speak much Spanish. My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast and hungry. And they knew even in their youth the pain of prejudice. They never seemed to know why people disliked them, but they knew it was so because I saw it in their eyes.
I often walked home late in the afternoon after the classes were finished wishing there was more that I could do. But all I knew was to teach them the little that I knew, hoping that I might help them against the hardships that lay ahead. And somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child.
I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students, and to help people like them all over this country. But now I do have that chance.
And I'll let you in on a secret--I mean to use it. And I hope that you will use it with me.
This is the richest, most powerful country which ever occupied this globe. The might of past empires is little compared to ours. But I do not want to be the president who built empires, or sought grandeur, or extended dominion.
I want to be the president who educated young children to the wonders of their world. I want to be the President who helped to feed the hungry and to prepare them to be taxpayers instead of tax eaters. I want to be the President who helped the poor to find their own way and who protected the right of every citizen to vote in every election. I want to be the President who helped to end hatred among his fellow men and who promoted love among the people of all races, all regions and all parties. I want to be the President who helped to end war among the brothers of this earth.
And so, at the request of your beloved Speaker and the Senator from Montana, the Majority Leader, the Senator from Illinois, the Minority Leader, Mr. McCullock and other members of both parties, I came here tonight, not as President Roosevelt came down one time in person to veto a bonus bill; not as President Truman came down one time to urge passage of a railroad bill, but I came down here to ask you to share this task with me. And to share it with the people that we both work for.
I want this to be the Congress--Republicans and Democrats alike--which did all these things for all these people. Beyond this great chamber--out yonder--in fifty states are the people that we serve. Who can tell what deep and unspoken hopes are in their hearts tonight as they sit there and listen? We all can guess, from our own lives, how difficult they often find their own pursuit of happiness, how many problems each little family has. They look most of all to themselves for their future, but I think that they also look to each of us.
Above the pyramid on the Great Seal of the United States it says in latin, "God has favored our undertaking." God will not favor everything that we do. It is rather our duty to divine His will. But I cannot help but believe that He truly understands and that He really favors the undertaking that we begin here tonight.
This is an attempt to write down something I’ve never written out before: how I decide whom to vote for in elections for national office. This is how I understand what I am doing. There’s plenty here to discuss or argue about.
Voting is in one way the most morally consequential thing we do. The outcome of a vote, especially for national office, has far more of an impact that the generous or committed acts of most individuals (myself, at least) or the money we give to nonprofits.
It’s worth approaching the vote in the spirit of Rabbi Moses Maimonides’ teaching that we should always regard the world as in a perfect balance between merit and guilt, such that our next act will decide whether we will earn a judgment of merit or a judgment of destruction. While most elections are not decided by our single vote, we know well that they can be. It’s important to vote with the thought that your vote could be the one that decides about budgets and military actions and how laws are implemented and enforced. Who will eat and who will go hungry, whose illnesses will be researched and treated, whose lives will be risked in battle, who will live or die in another land because America does or does not act in those places.
I am writing this as an American patriot, a lover of my country, who is also a Jew trying to follow the spiritual and ethical teachings of my Torah and aware of my place in the long history of the Jews. I have for a decade not been registered with a political party. Political acts and decisions are religious acts for me; the parties are practical instruments.
If I had to put this into a flow chart, this is how I break it down. I’m going to do all of this in theory, conceptually.
At the root for me is an idea that the political philosopher Michael Walzer puts this way: “[T]hink of the welfare of the most vulnerable people in the country. And then vote, gladly, for the candidate who minimizes their vulnerability.”
There is a lot here. Walzer (who is worth knowing a lot about, and I should write about him separately sometime) says right before this quote that it’s not about whether you like or inspired by a candidate, or whether you judge the candidate to be a good person in some fundamental way (more on this below). It’s about what that person can deliver in terms of the most vulnerable.
I think this would be an ethical imperative for me regardless of my Jewish principles. For me it’s a fundamental part of Torah. I generally apply this in the spirit of the political theorist John Rawls. Rawls argued that inequality, or something that increases inequality, can be justified morally so long as it also benefits the most vulnerable in society.
And Walzer argues that today, the first part of that is to minimize vulnerability. There is also a step beyond that, which is transforming the conditions that allow anyone to be vulnerable – but first, who minimizes their vulnerability.
The vulnerability I have always thought about first is economic vulnerability – whether it’s not being able to afford adequate shelter or food, or not being able to afford adequate medical care. With that, I have thought about economic vulnerability that comes from discrimination, on the basis of color and other bases, and the discrimination itself. More lately, I have come to think much more about the vulnerability of refugees.
1. So first I want to know – does the candidate even care? And not just about certain vulnerable groups, but about all of them. Everyone has blind spots, and many have come up through the ranks on the basis of work on behalf of a particular group. But caring only about vulnerable whites or vulnerable people of color, to the exclusion of other vulnerable people, isn’t enough.
This isn’t only about policies. I think certain policy approaches show more caring about vulnerability. But I’m always open to the candidate who argues for why another approach is also caring and is effective. Anyone who is sincere makes my first cut. Even if the policies being offered have been associated in the past, or are associated today, with people or groups who clearly don’t care about the most vulnerable.
2. Walzer argues specifically about our era that ‘[w]hat the most vulnerable people need right now is the protection afforded by a strong constitutionalism. The defense of civil liberties and civil rights… -- this is a centrist politics.” I would add another element to this “centrism”, which is a defense of the idea of America as a whole, made up of different groups with different origins and with different philosophies.
Some of this is about policies and the ways laws are enforced. It’s also about a political culture – the responsibility not to divide. I look for a candidate who speaks about America expansively and inclusively in her or his rhetoric, and who can disagree with passion without demonizing.
3. There are two things I think about next: Are the candidate’s policies reasonable approaches to minimizing vulnerability? Is the candidate someone who could actually accomplish something that minimizes vulnerability?
While these two don’t come in a particular order, I have been thinking more and more about the second question, the leadership dimension. One candidate might have a better set of policy ideas, but be a terrible leader – ineffective, bad at mobilizing people, wilting under pressure, and/or polarizing. Having that person in office hardly minimizes the vulnerability of the vulnerable.
The “How To Be President” initiative I helped found is about aspects of leadership beyond policy choices. I am looking for a leader who is clear-eyed about things like failure and compromise; who has forcefully, driven-ness and humility; who knows that not all your allies are good people and not all your opponents are evil; who has a way of thinking about how decisions at the top affect everyone; who has a way of knowing how to ache when policies fail or ignore some Americans, and when to push through in the face of that pain.
4. There are also Jewish issues, meaning issues of the interests of the Jewish community. A lot of Jewish issues are covered already in the earlier passes -- particularly with regard to hate, bias, discrimination, religious freedom for minorities. But other things being relatively equal, the candidate who has a blind spot about anti-Semitism will fall back in my line.
Then when it comes to Israel, I am looking for the candidate who believes Israel is a fundamentally democratic country; who understands the dangers Israelis live with in their region; who supports justice for both Jews and Arabs in Israel-Palestine and does not place the responsibility for the conflict solely on Israelis; who knows that most Jewish-American supporters of Israel have no truck with Muslim-haters, racists and the religiously intolerant just because those people might also support Israel.
5. Usually, these cover everything for me in the decision tree. Sometimes, in a given election, there is a specific issue of the moment. I reserve the right to figure out where it should fit in my general scheme.
I never get someone who is perfect on all these criteria. Elections are always choices between two or more actual candidates. Each time, I try to assess who is best overall on these criteria, and I figure out how I am going to weigh each consideration as I go. If the choices each have serious flaws, I don’t know how I am going to “dock” for them until I do it.
I don’t vote to feel good about what I believe or to have the satisfaction of “being right.” Lives are on the line. As long I keep my eye on why I am voting, whose lives depend on my vote, I believe I am doing the best I can.
Go to my post from a couple years ago, with links to the text and to a later reading of the letter from King himself. Simply the most important teaching about what it means to be religious that I think I have ever read:
A bad week for anti-Semitism in the U.S., wrapped around a controversy about anti-Semitism itself. There was the murder of Jews at a kosher market in Jersey City, which seems to be an anti-Semitic hate crime. The president of the United States, addressing the Israeli-American Council, threw in some gratuitous remarks about the Jews in front of him (wealthy, real estate developers, "not nice people at all"), his own ambassador to Israel ("he loves this country, but he loves Israel"), and in general the ways Jews should love Israel. The president's rhetoric frames a question of how to assess a leader with power who says and does things that are good for Jews and also says and does things that are bad for Jews.
The bigger controversy has been about an executive order the president signed related to anti-Semitism on college campuses. The debate within the Jewish community has been about whether the executive order defines what Jewishness is in a way that is detrimental to Jews as Americans or simply counter to how we define ourselves. (There is another debate about the right of free speech; I'm not addressing that here.)
I'm posting here links to a number of texts that relate to how the concepts of "nation" and "religion" apply to Jews. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but it's a suggestive one. These come from both inside the Jewish community and outside. One is not friendly.
There is an inside question for Jews of "what kind of group are we", and a number of outside questions including "how should our group be described in American law."
I may add to this list. I am going to speak about this on Shabbat morning.
It is not easy to take a day off of school or work for the High Holy Days. As school pressures have become more demanding, even at younger ages, the decision about bringing children to services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur on a school day might be more difficult for a parent than ever before. In places like New Hampshire -- any place where there are few Jewish families in any school -- there can be a lot to navigate in terms of homework, tests, and after-school activities.
So here are five reasons to take your child out of school and bring them to services anyway!
1. It's amazing to see so many people taking time all at once to make ourselves and the world better.
This is the essence of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
It's one thing to say that each of us should always be trying to be a better person. It's another to see hundreds of people focused on that all at once.
We can show our children: Look how many people are working on bringing out the good in themselves and each other. It matters so much to them that a lot of them are taking off from work, and from school.
This is what being Jewish is all about.
2. So many Jews!
Especially outside of, say, Israel and New York, when do you see the Jewish community so big?
If you are a child in a place where your family is the only Jewish family around, or one of the only ones, you may not feel like you are part of something big and important. Being a minority can feel special. But seeing you're part of something bigger when you're Jewish is also special, and can make it easier all the times when being a minority is hard.
3. Shofar is really cool.
During Rosh Hashanah daytime services, and at the very end of Yom Kippur, the shofar (ram's horn) is sounded. On Rosh Hashanah, there is a specific order of blasts, long and short and very short and very long. It's really like nothing else we ever do in a service.
It's ancient and primal. The shofar itself is pretty exotic. In our synagogue, there are different looking shofars that our blowers use.
Plus, in a lot of synagogues, the kids are invited to come up really close even in a service where there are hundreds of people. You get the best seat.
Also, not to be sneezed at -- the Torah scroll. Not everyone gets to see it up close when it's open. But we have been copying it word for word for more than two thousand years, onto parchment scrolls.
4. Learning to be different
Coming out on a weekday to a religious service, and especially a Jewish one -- that's pretty countercultural. It's good to fly in the face of the culture of conformity and achievement, at least here and there.
It's good for our kids to learn that standing proud in your identity is important and not easy, but worthwhile if the cause matters. It can even feel good. Especially when you can tell your friends later about the shofar, or a Hebrew word.
Being different takes effort. You have to explain things about yourself and your culture, you have to know about your heritage. A lot of the work belongs to parents -- to be the ones to explain and advocate toward teachers and coaches. By the way, I (or whoever are the rabbi or Jewish leaders where you are) am right behind you, to equip you or to make calls on your behalf.
5. Hanging out
There's the service, and then there's not being in the service. Kids get to see other kids who are Jewish too and more or less their own age. But it's not Hebrew School, so they get to hang out and catch up and even connect with new kids.
There's always a couch or a room or some corner in the synagogue to find and claim. Kids get to make the place their own.
Behind almost any adult synagogue regular, or or almost any rabbi, there are stories and memories of what we did on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur when we weren't in the service.
All that -- and you and your child or children will hopefully find services meaningful too -- words, teachings, songs and melodies.
So even if it's hard, and even if you yourself the parent have a lot of questions about what's going on and what it all means, think about coming to services on the High Holy Days and sharing this experience with your family.
Got any thoughts or reasons of your own? Leave them in the comments!
If you are in our area and don't already have a synagogue for the High Holy Days, we would love to have you at Beth Abraham. Click here to learn more or get in touch.