Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Friday, August 18, 2017

After Charlottesville

Let’s get one thing straight, folks: racism in America is not new. Anti-semitism in America is not new. People marching openly in the streets with loaded guns and ropes set for hanging is not new.

What is new, is that we have a President who, in his rash and irreverent behavior, openly stokes the fires of this old-fashioned hate. The individual who is supposed to represent the principled unity and great potential of our country is spouting false moral equivalences and bemoaning a culture rift that he keeps snipping open…tweet by tweet by tweet by tweet.

But I’m not here tonight to stoop to that level. Your emotions are already high. I can empathize - I can say that I feel the racing heartbeat, the dumbfounded shaking of the head, the welling of tears. So as much as I want to, I can’t, we can’t, no one right now can dispel the supremely uncomfortable feelings that keep us from concentrating; those feelings that are keeping us compulsively scrolling and swiping and waking up from nightmares.

I’m hyper-aware of how serious and alarming this sounds. I have moments when I say, “Come on! It’s just a fringe group of psychopaths and sick opportunists. Let’s not blow this out of proportion.” But proportion is precisely the thing. Our country has spent years relegating these extremists to the margins. But now they have been given a megaphone and they’re yelling with a new confidence from the edges, making us feel like we’re surrounded. They’re heaving bricks of centuries-old slurs at an America that is still weak from its rocky foundation but was trying, seemed to be trying, is trying, to build a sounder civil structure.

In these moments of befuddlement and emotional desperation, I return to a moment that changed me forever while touring the Rosa Parks Museum Montgomery, Alabama. In the museum, there is a life-sized diorama of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sitting at his kitchen table. The diorama depicts him in January of 1956, in the midst of the Montgomery bus boycott. He’s just received a call in which a man threatened: get out of Montgomery or you and your family will die. Dr. King is left with a decision: get out of town with his family, or stay and resist. Both are valid choices. Which one is right for him?

In Stride Toward Freedom, Dr. King tells us how he made his decision:

I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.

The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory: “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.

I hold that image of Dr. King in my mind, because it is all of us sitting at our kitchen tables, sitting in front of our TVs, our iPhones. We’re exhausted, we’re unsure what to do next. We want to lead the charge, but we just don’t know where to go from here. And let’s say it, we’re scared.

So we take our problem to God – but not as a scapegoat and not necessarily because we expect God to provide a clear, direct answer. When we turn to God, we have the words of the Shema at hand – “Hear, Israel, The Eternal our God is One.” Our job as Jews, at this juncture, is to listen. We must listen past the obnoxiously loud voices, listen more keenly for the quiet voices – the voices of the vulnerable – the voices of our partners who we have not met yet. We listen for the whispers of resistance – because only peaceful quiet can infiltrate the hard stones of that hateful noise.

In these whispers, in this quiet, we find God. If we listen, we can hear the Divine challenge 
to look past the impulsivity of hate and attach ourselves to the eternal arc of goodness.

And yes, it is so much harder to the do the latter. So how do we start?

Frankly, we have already. We tend to want to fight bluster with bluster, grand gestures with grand stands. Yes, we do those things, but more importantly, we work in our own community.

What do we do? Our Immigrant Friends initiative struck such a chord that we had to limit attendance at the Accompaniment training session next week.

We do we do? We continue to strengthen our bonds to local churches and the Muslim community of Westchester. Just this week I was on the phone with a number of our local ministers.

Many of you have been calling our representatives, donating to organizations that act as watchdogs and advocates, marching and signing petitions. Keep on, keep on!

Through the last few weeks, I keep coming back to this one passage from Pirkei Avot:

Hillel used to say: A brutish man cannot fear sin; an ignorant man cannot be pious, nor can the shy man learn, or the impatient man teach. He who engages excessively in business cannot become wise. In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.

Let’s break it down: “a brutish man cannot fear sin” – those who hate in their hearts will not be intimidated by consequences or mandates, in fact, these things fuel them. Know that.

“An ignorant man cannot be pious,” – devotion comes from seeking truth but not professing to know it quite yet. Compromise is a virtue.

“Nor can the shy man learn, or the impatient man teach,” – there is a time to be quiet and there is a time to speak up.

“He who engages excessively in business cannot become wise,” – because he only cares about his own gain.

Finally, “in a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” – when you see the world falling apart around you, you can refuse to crumble. Or as a modern sage told us: When they go low, we go high.

So upward we go. Mee Shebeirach avoteinu v’imoteinu, may the one who blessed our ancestors with courage, bless us with a listening ear - the ability to hear the quiet voice of love that never stops humming, despite all the yelling that attempts to suppress it. We will sing, we will pray, we will cry, we will march…but we will not fight.

Why not fight? Fighting is for wartime. But isn’t this war? To understand, I give you the words of the poet Yehuda Amichai, that sees peace not as a decision or something to be won, but a natural blossoming in the world, brought into being by our strong, confident whispers and our actions:

NOT THE ONE of an armistice,

not even the one of the vision of wolf and lamb,

as in your heart after an excitement:


without the commotion of turning swords into plowshares, without
words, without
the sound of heavy seals; let it be light

on top like lazy white foam.

Let it be like wild flowers,

suddenly, an imperative of the field; wild peace.