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Torah Reflections

Sermon: Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity

This sermon was given on January 22, 2017 to the Unitarian Universalists of the Chester River.

Yesterday, Jews around the world read from the first chapters of the biblical book of Exodus. And yesterday, hundreds of thousands of people—men, women and children, people of every gender and sexual expression, and all colors, ages and ability–participated in the Women’s March on Washington and in sister marches around the world.

These two things are more connected than you might imagine. Let me explain.

Yesterday’s reading from Exodus told of a new king in Egypt, one who differed greatly from those who came before. This Pharaoh was especially worried about the country’s resident aliens—the Israelites. And so Pharaoh did what national leaders have done from time immemorial–he gave a speech:

He said to his people, “Look, [these] people, the Children of Israel, are more numerous and stronger than we are. Come on, let’s use our wits against them, and keep them from growing, and then, if a war occurs, they could join our enemies and make war upon us… Exodus 1:9-10

After rallying the nation, and as an attempt to prevent this outcome, Pharaoh implemented measures designed to weaken and oppress the Israelites. He taxed them nearly to death, forced them to build public works projects, and ultimately enslaved them. But Pharaoh wasn’t satisfied with the results of these measures. So he called the midwives:

Now Pharaoh said to the midwives of the Hebrews—the name of the first one was Shifrah and the name of the second one was Puah– he said, “When you help the Hebrew women to give birth, look at the birth stool and if its a son, put him to death. (Exodus 1:16)

But the midwives refused to obey him, thereby providing us with what is arguably the first recorded instance of nonviolent civil disobedience in world literature.

Shifrah and Puah were, the text reports– in awe of the Divine. They responded to a moral and spiritual imperative that transcended ethnic, religious, and national bonds. They chose love instead of hate, compassion instead of indifference and courage instead of fear—simply because it was the right thing to do.

Yesterday, I attended the Women’s March on Washington, and I will have more to say about that a bit later. But for now, I want to talk about why I did. For me, marching wasn’t so much a political act as it was a moral and spiritual imperative.

In this, I am inspired by—among others–the life and work of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel believed that the teachings of the Hebrew prophets were a clarion call for social action in the United States. He worked tirelessly for civil rights –at times alongside the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.–and against the Vietnam War.

Heschel was born in Poland where he received a traditional Jewish education and Orthodox ordination. He then moved to Berlin, where he pursued his doctorate and a liberal rabbinic ordination. In late October 1938, while Heschel was still living in Germany, he was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Poland. Just six weeks before the German invasion, Heschel left Warsaw for London. His sisters and his mother—still in Poland—died at the hands of the Nazis.

Eventually, Heschel immigrated to the United States. And from 1946 until his death in 1972, he served as Professor of Jewish Ethics and Mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

“For him,” wrote his daughter Susannah, “politics and theology were always intertwined. After the civil rights march in Selma [in which he marched], he said, ‘I felt my legs were praying.’

Even as social protest was for him a religious experience, religion without indignation at political evils was also impossible: “To speak about God and remain silent on Vietnam is blasphemous,” he wrote.”

The title of this talk comes from a telegram that Rabbi Heschel sent to President John F. Kennedy in June of 1963 on the eve of a meeting of religious leaders at the White House. It reads:

“Likelihood exists that Negro problem will be like the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement not just solemn declarations. We forfeit the right to worship…as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes…I propose that you Mr. President declare a state of moral emergency…The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.” (MGSA, p. vii)

I’ve been working quietly on various causes for most of my life. But when our new president was elected, it became clear to me that the time for working quietly has passed. I could no longer ignore my teacher’s words. I could no longer write or speak about God or Spirit or the Sacred and remain silent. And I can no longer prioritize my inner work over my work in the world.

So when I first learned of the Women’s March in the days following the election, I overcame my introverted and agoraphobic tendencies and signed on without a second thought. The more I learned, the more committed I became. Consider this excerpt from the March’s mission statement:

“In the spirit of democracy and honoring the champions of human rights, dignity, and justice who have come before us, we join in diversity to show our presence in numbers too great to ignore. The Women’s March on Washington will send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office, and to the world that women’s rights are human rights. We stand together, recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us.”

The March organizers created a Why I March hashtag. These are just a tiny sample of social media posts that carried it:

  • Because we are the next generation and if we don’t get involved now, we may be stuck with a world we don’t believe in.
  • Because as a straight, white, middle class male, I’m probably the least at risk from what this administration is going to try to pull. Because on the surface, I am the demographic this administration is talking to and hoping to reach. And I want to be there to say, “This is not okay!” What you do to my brothers and sisters, you do to me.
  • Because criticizing our country’s moral failures is the essence of patriotism

The thousands of signs carried yesterday added other reasons. A couple of my favorites:

  • We are better than this
  • Don’t worry; we’ll clean up this mess. Moms always do.

The March was incredibly diverse—perhaps historically so. We were feminists, environmentalists, Black Lives Matter, union members, and clergy. We were Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians and Socialist. We rallied for immigrant rights, equal rights and women’s rights and for safe water and affordable healthcare. We were Black, White, Latino, Native American and Asian American. We were Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Unitarian and Atheist. And we were every color of the LGBTQIA rainbow. We marched with canes and crutches and in wheelchairs and walkers; with babies in strollers and kids on our shoulders.

In spite of massive crowds, long lines, and confusion, we were peaceful, kind and protective of one another. We chanted, “This is what Democracy looks like” and I thought to myself , “THIS is my America.”

Today I find myself sore and tired, but happier and more optimistic than I have been in a long time. And I’ve been thinking about Martin Niemoller’s words about the Nazi rise to power:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

But yesterday, the socialists and the trade unionist and the Jews marched together and spoke out for one another. We spoke out for each other because we know that defending any of us is defending all of us.

Late last night, the organizers of the Women’s March reminded us that this is a marathon, not a sprint. Our labor has just begun. The Scottish novelist Alasdair Gray urged us to “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.” We are the midwives for the birth of that renewed nation, a better nation—not a greater one. It is up to us to bring it into the world and to guard it and protect it, to nurture it and to love it into being. These times demand moral grandeur and spiritual audacity from every one of us. It’s time for us to teach our feet to pray.

Ameyn, ken yehi ratzon. Amen, so may it be.

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