The Call to Justice

Happy is the people who know the teruah, O Lord they walk in the light of your presence.                   Psalm 89


Once there was a brother and a sister, who each had a Shofar from the head of the same ram. When one of the shofars was blown, the other Shofar would vibrate and hum. The two children would play with the shofars all the time, blowing them back and forth.

One day, the boy was playing in the woods with his friends and it began to get dark. His friends ran back home, but the little boy stayed, absorbed in his game. Soon it became quite dark, and he realized he was alone and could not find his way home. He wandered for a while, but eventually he knew he would have to spend the night in the woods. Cold and frightened, he sat down under a tree to rest. He opened up his knapsack to see if he had anything to eat, and he found that he had his Shofar. He knew then that he was saved.

He picked up the shofar and blew a long, low blast. Far away, in the house, his sister heard her Shofar hum. She knew her brother was in trouble, and she picked up her Shofar and blew back at him. They blew back and forth through the night until she guided her brother all the way back to their home.

I love this story. It is, a parable built upon a religious metaphor found in many rabbinic stories that teach the same basic premise: God is ready and willing to call us to return: return to our better selves, to the safety and security of community, to the teaching and rules and requirements of our faith. We have only to hear and answer to make it so.

But this story takes the metaphor further. It is not only about us and God. It is about brothers and sisters, people, human beings; taking care of each other. It is about using God’s gift of compassion and empathy to guide others home, but it is also about owning our responsibility to participate in that act of salvation.

In the story, we are the young boy who was so easily distracted. We are caught up in our ‘games,’-- our daily tasks and responsibilities. At first we lose track of time, but if we are not careful we lose track of ourselves; our responsibility for our community and our responsibility to the world. And so, the High Holy Days and the call of the Shofar return each year to call us home.

And just like the story of the sister and brother, the sounding of the Shofar has a two way frequency.

On one hand, we are taught, the sounding of the shofar is meant to guarantee we will be written into the book of life. Remembering how Isaac in an act of ultimate faith, nearly sacrificed his own life (at his father’s hand) only to be replaced on the altar by the Ram We blow that ram’s horn to ‘remind God’ of this special relationship we share. (Reuven Hammer, Entering the High Holy Days, pp70-71)

According to the Midrash, God instructed Abraham that whenever his children were in danger of punishment because of sin, they were to blow the shofar- that act would ‘remind God’ as it were, of the merits earned by the binding of Isaac, and the people would therefore be forgiven. The blowing of the shofar, then, serves as a means of arousing God to Mercy. (Hammer, p70)

Yet a heavenly pardon is only the first part of the equation! The Shofar is also to act as a sacred alarm clock! It is meant to rouse us from our stupor, our complacency and our ambivalence. With its three calls: Tekiah-Shevarim-Teruah!

As Rabbi Richard Levy teaches:
The sharp blast of the Tekiah is meant to clear our heads and ‘rouse ourselves from smugness, self satisfaction, callousness and self righteousness.

The broken refrain of Shevarim is there to open our ears to the cries of the afflicted and the oppressed, calling us to open our hearts with compassion and love.

And the Teruah is nothing less than a call to battle, there to inspire us to join the struggle against evil and suffering. The sounds of the Shofar compel us to acknowledge the imperfection of the world. (Rabbi Richard Levy, Wings of Awe)

We are at a moment in time when the WHOLE world seems to need that shofar blast like never before! The Middle East remain in perpetual turmoil resulting in an unfolding refugee crisis as many tens of thousands flee from Syria, Afghanistan, North Africa as well as the Balkans, attempting to find refuge in Europe and other places around the globe.

A substantive discussion about gun violence, mental health and stricter gun regulations continues to go around in circles. Our law enforcement community is the object of resentment and violence. Coupled with painfully high racial tensions around the country.

The initial question is not whether one is compelled to speak about social justice and advocacy. The challenge, is how do we begin?

It’s tricky here. We’re a big place with a significant spectrum of views. Conservatives, liberals, lots of people in between. There is simply no way we will ever all agree on the issues. How then, do we as a congregation, successfully stand up for social justice when the means toward that end are defined differently by different people?

By adopting political scientist Harry Clor’s modal outlook as explained in his book, On Moderation. Moderation is based on the recognition that things do not fit neatly together. So, instead of insisting that other’s perspectives are wrong if they are not in line with ours, we can accept politics as likely to be a competition between legitimate opposing interests; see philosophy as a tension between competing half-truths; and personality as a battleground of valuable but incompatible traits. To be a person who aspires to moderation is to acknowledge that each of us has our own version of the truth. (David Brooks, The Road to Character, p70)

My job as your rabbi is not to tell you what to believe. It is to engage you in the dialogue, to remind you that every community is sure to contain a variety of perspectives, interests and truths within. But it is also my responsibility to nudge you towards greater social awareness, compassion and action, to remind you that our faith requires us to protect the vulnerable within our society.

I may not be your shofar blower tonight, but it is my responsibility, nonetheless, to challenge us all to heed the call to justice anew.

TEKIAH…we cannot remain indifferent…

The themes of creation, revelation and redemption are at the center of our master story as Jewish people not to mention a major section of all our worship services as well. We thank God for creating the world and us as humans within it. We thank God for the gift of Torah, whose truths were revealed to us at Mount Sinai. And we thank God for redeeming us from slavery in Egypt.

It is this last idea, that is repeated again and again in the Torah, in our prayer book and in our consciousness as Jews. Hotzeiti me-eretz mitzraim l’hiot leilohim. I brought you forth from the land of Egypt to be Your God. Connected to this pivotal moment in our people’s history is the commandment to protect and remember the stranger, “For we were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

We, as Jews understand what it is to be slaves, to be refugees….to be other. It is upon us therefore to take a particular interest in making our world as just as it can possibly be. For the great theologian, teacher, author and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel indifference to evil is worse than evil itself… for in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” 

Much of the time we are guilty of neutrality or indifference particularly when it comes to issues of race and privilege. As a white person I rarely think about my ‘whiteness’ unless I am filling out forms for my children at school. I don’t usually consider the social power the color of my skin carries with it. I am basically oblivious to the access and privileges my whiteness extends.

Yet, in the past year, I think we have all been called upon to confront the reality of racial bias in ways that have been neglected since the days of Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel.

While some naively felt that the election of a black president was proof positive that America is no longer a country with racial inequality the rise of groups like #Blacklives matter and the negative if not angry reactions that occur regularly in response show we are still not comfortable recognizing how endemic such inequalities continue to be.

An honest and open conversation about social biases as they relate to race, education and economic status is not a comfortable one to have. For it compels us to recognize our own role, however implicit in maintaining that status quo. Regardless of your personal view of the #blacklives matter movement, responding that ‘all lives matter’ not only misses the point but misunderstands the problem.

“It is true that all lives matter,” UC Berkeley Professor Judith Butler writes, “but it is equally true that not all lives are understood to matter which is precisely why it is most important to name the lives that have not mattered, and are struggling to matter in the way they deserve.” (NYT, “What’s wrong with ‘all lives matter’”, 1/12/15)

To me, as a white, highly educated, economically comfortable person I feel this is the conversation we most desperately need to have. And it’s not enough to talk, or even walk, though over 200 Reform Rabbis did just that, joining in the NAACP’s 40 day Journey for Justice to highlight racial inequality in America-- an echo of those famous marches in Selma, Alabama 50 years ago.

For us here in San Antonio, it isn’t only about African Americans. The conversation here is also about people of Hispanic descent. It is about the 20% of residents who live below the poverty line, it is about the literacy rate and it is about economic and social disparity that lead to a perpetual cycle of inequality that exists right outside our door. In this very neighborhood in fact.

Shevarim…Open our ears and eyes to the reality around us.

But statistics don’t tell the stories of real people’s lives. Of single mothers working 2 or 3 jobs to feed and clothe their children. Of parents who aren’t able to be home to help their kids with homework, or cook them a nutritious meal or speak with them about their day. Or the thousands of homeless people in our city who seek shelter at places like Haven For Hope or receive food support from the San Antonio Food Bank.

The people who clean our houses, who maintain our schools and our synagogue Keep our streets and our parks clean, who work washing dishes in the kitchens of the restaurants where we like to eat-- their lives and their futures matter. And the future of a just society relies on us noticing.

For sure there are many local initiates and social service organizations focused on improving education outcomes, developing a smarter workforce, promoting innovation and diversifying our economy.(Robert Rivard, The Rivard Report, 1/8/14)

There are many members of our congregation who volunteer their time, financially contribute and genuinely care about creating a more equitable and sustainable life for the people of our city and by extension people of color around the globe. But we can do a better job still, of hearing stories, honoring lives, and creating better paths to success for people’s futures.

We do this because it is at the core of our ethical mandate as Jews. And we do this because it is part of our historical legacy. Whether it was 1 generation ago or 6 or 7, our families were once there too. Maybe educated, maybe not, often arriving in America with little family, few possessions, almost no money--facing discrimination because of their accents, their dress, their religion.

We would be arrogant to think we always had ‘this’.

My father’s father was a truck driver, my mother’s father was a Fuller Brush salesman. As first generation Americans, they lacked many privileges, yet their strong work ethic, a piercing desire to move from poverty and hopelessness to economic stability and upward mobility for their children was their driving force.

Yet it would be naïve to not acknowledge that the whiteness of their skin, enabled them to more easily push their children forward with the confidence that with smarts and determination they would be assured a measure of success.

Teruah…We must actively engage in making change happen.

Our congregation has a long history of interfaith- relations and standing up for those in need. We are incredibly proud of Rabbi David Jacobson’s legacy helping to de-segregate San Antonio in partnership with the bishops of the Catholic and episcopal Dioceses and the many congregants who have worked for social and racial justice in San Antonio and beyond throughout our 141 year history. We must continue that work in our own way.

This year, we are beginning once again to consider how best to continue that legacy. One way is to build connections with our local African American Community. So for the first time we’ll take part in a Sabbath Exchange with Antioch Baptist Church over Martin Luther King Jr weekend. Gathering in each other’s places of worship to celebrate the Sabbath and Dr. King’s Legacy of the Beloved Community, emphasizing commonality to strengthen understanding and connection we’ll share in prayer and music and fellowship. Pastor Kenneth Kemp informed me that as far as he knows, this will be the first ‘exchange’ of its kind in the history of San Antonio.

Another way we will raise awareness and engage in discussions on important issues is to host a series of Social Advocacy panels to learn about and debate critical issues of the day, educating ourselves and those around us, on concrete ways to affect social change in our community. Our first gathering will be a dinner and discussion right after services on Friday, October 9th. We will hear from experts on Hate Speech and the limits of the first amendment as it relates not only to the Jewish community but impacts others as well. Thanks to Barry Menick, Madeline Reichert and Geri Gregory among others for turning this idea into a reality.

And there is more to do still. Now is the time to re-invigorate acts of Social Justice in our congregation. We’re looking for inspired members to help build bridges in our community and beyond; to work on the issues of hunger and illiteracy and other important areas as well. Without input, energy and dedication from members of our congregation, a sense of purpose can only go so far. Your leadership, your passion, your commitment are essential to the cause. If you have a desire to heed the shofar’s call and heal the world, I am interested in hearing from you.

Once there was a brother and a sister, who each had a Shofar from the head of the same ram. When one of the shofars was blown, the other Shofar would vibrate and hum.

This year, when we hear the pleading sound of our brother’s shofar, may we respond, inspired to make good on the influence we possess. May we respond by looking out for and reaching out to those who also need to be guided home.

May we respond by committing to hear the call of all those in need.