Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah-Bo

Life matters. I think this may be one universal truth upon which the whole world can agree. Life matters. I wish I could extend the sentence to argue, “ALL life matters.” I pray for the day when I can argue, “ALL life matters EQUALLY.” Alas, at this point in our existence, all I can say is, “Life matters.”
Several years ago, a congregant accosted his Rabbi about how meaningless prayer was in his life. “You have us read a prayer about God bringing peace to the earth. There is no peace on earth!” The Rabbi responded, “This is why it is a prayer and not an affirmation. You are correct; the world is not at peace. How about joining in our prayer to make it happen?” He quickly responded, “People have been saying these prayers for thousands of years, it ain’t working! If there is a God, He hasn’t cared to listen.” The saddened Rabbi thought for a moment and then offered, “Certainly God listened. God heard your cry against injustice; that is why you are here. God cannot do what we will not do. Saying the words of peace, but not doing the work of peace will never bring us peace. You’re aflame with the passion to get rid of the violence … come, let’s work.”

This story always reminds me of a great book title. The book is okay, but the title is amazing: “There Is No Messiah, And You’re It!” The work is not going to be done unless we do the work; if we do the work, the world changes. This is a simple enough formula, so why is it that the world does not change? We have lots of people doing lots of good work, yet it seems as though the news gets worse day after day. Why is it that we cannot seem to make headway on the path to reconciliation with each other?

This weekend begins the annual commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Each year, our nation sets aside special days to honor special Americans. Dr. King’s day falls on the weekend, and his birthday is actually Friday. It happens that Dr. King touched many lives and was influenced by many, as well. One of his most spiritually influential friends was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. These modern day prophets learned from each other, marched together, and took on racism and the Vietnam War, together. Jointly, they and others opened our eyes and our hearts to see each other’s dignity with greater clarity and with a sense of radical amazement … the epiphanic “wow” that happens when one realizes he is walking amongst miracles … each one of us. They taught us that fear and hate serve only to exile us further from each other. Fear and hate drive us to “circle our wagons” and defend them with violence, if necessary. When stuck in “fear” mode, we fail to see that our “wagons” are actually built just like everyone else’s wagons. Our wagons may look different, they may carry different loads, but they are made from the same stuff.

Why is it that we cannot seem to make headway on the path to reconciliation with each other? We spend more time afraid of affirming each other than healing the breach between us and pushing each other forward. In this week’s Torah portion, the final plague strikes Egypt. Why did it take ten plagues to force Egypt to let Israel go free from slavery? Why did no one stand up to Pharaoh before? We know from history that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We also know that most people follow even the worst ideologies when they live in a place of privilege or are too afraid to speak up. Egypt’s failure to speak up and stand up to Pharaoh devastated the entire nation. Our story teaches us that our enslavement came because Pharaoh was too afraid at how many Israelites lived in his land. That fear drove an entire nation to do horrific things to their neighbors. One horrific “leader” ultimately caused blight on the animals and the land, illness, and then ultimately the death of the first born in every home and every field. Even as Israel celebrates this day as the day that slavery ended, no one can look past the destruction of an entire civilization because of fear and bigotry. Certainly, this phenomenon replicates throughout history. This was the Inquisition and the Crusades before it. This was the Shoah (Holocaust) and the arrest and interment of Asian Americans in the United States during World War II. This is the story of Black America. This story replicates because humanity has not yet figured out how to experience the blessing of being … for all of us.

Why is it that we cannot seem to make headway on the path to reconciliation with each other? We have not yet learned how to listen to voices of our prophets, biblical and modern: “Amongst each other, we walk among miracles.” The confluence of the King Holiday, the birthdays of these two great men, and the warning provided us in our reading of Torah ought to teach us that world will not heal so long as we accept the status quo. The world is changing and the protection of “privilege” that falsely secures so many is eroding. The day will come soon, when even those who have known power will be only a fraction of a large and diverse society. It is too late then to first open our eyes and our souls to the blessing every person brings to the communal table. I pray that we take the first steps this weekend.

To that end, join us at Monmouth Reform Temple tonight. The choir of Pilgrim Baptist Church will join ours in leading our Sabbath worship. My dear friend Pastor Terrence Porter will help lead our Sabbath Worship. My brother in spirit, Dr. Everett McCorvey (Chair of the Opera Department of the University of Kentucky, Conductor of the National Chorale, and founder of the American Spiritual Ensemble) will preach and join our Cantor in singing. What a night it will be. Services are at 7pm and a dessert fellowship will follow. Shabbat Shalom.