Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat Sh’mot 5781 Nechemta
I felt the need to speak to you this morning, though it was not part of our original plan. I felt the need to speak to you in the week that the Reverend Doctor Raphael Warnock, John Lewis’s pastor, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr was baptized, gave his first sermon at age 19, and served as pastor for the rest of his life—the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Reverend Warnock became the first Black Senator from the state of Georgia. I felt the need to speak to you in the week that Jon Ossoff, John Lewis’s intern, became the first Jewish senator from the State of Georgia. In the week when a Black-Jewish alliance in the South won the Senate for the Democrats, making our member, Chuck Schumer, the first Jewish Senate Majority Leader, making the first Black-Indian Woman Vice President, Kamala Harris, the tie breaker in the Senate, and saving America from the depraved current leadership of the Republican party. I need to make sure we all know and saw that Ossoff and Warnock campaigned together, backed each other up and defended each other against racist and anti-Semitic attacks, and they won together, in the state where Stacey Abrams showed us the future of democracy. I felt the need to speak to you in the week when White Supremacy threw a temper tantrum, in which White Supremacy, as it faces existential threat, tried to prevent the peaceful transfer of power in the United States. It tried to block democracy, as it’s been doing effectively for most of our history. Because democracy will be the demise of White Supremacy, and Georgia is the harbinger of that demise.
We’re going to remember this week for the rest of our lives.
Now, while we are shaken by the very real dangers unleashed and on display this week, the 6MWNE t-shirts, which stand for 6 Million Were Not Enough, the Camp Auschwitz t-shirts, which need no explanation, the gallows with the noose erected near the Capitol, the Confederate Flags waved inside the Capitol and hung yesterday on the Museum of Jewish Heritage here in New York, the fact that 45 percent of Republicans polled said they think the siege on the Capitol building was justified, the fact that the insurrectionists and all of the white nationalists and many of that 45% are armed to the teeth, the facts that are coming out now that there were many off duty police officers in that crowd and that it seems they had help from inside, the fact that this has now been done and we have all seen it, making a coup and violent insurrection something imaginable in this country, the fact that four years of the steady dismantling of democracy has taken an immeasurable toll, a toll that we can’t even fully perceive, all of this is actually dangerous.
But I want to remind us that all of this is happening, the entire last four years, because we are winning. Because the movements for justice, dignity, and equality are winning. And despite the Trump presidency, we’re still winning. The Biden-Harris administration will be the most diverse administration in American history. And they cannot stop this forward movement.
I want to remind us of how well our democracy is holding up against relentless assault. And that is because of grassroots organizers like the Stacey Abrams’s, the everyday activists like the 10,000 people who participated in Get Organized Brooklyn right here, and the hundreds of thousands of people who got out the vote, and the movement builders and the guardians of civil society, and because of journalists, and fearless truth-tellers. In 2016 we knew that this man was a fascist, though we were afraid to use the word and said more polite things like autocrat, or authoritarian. We knew. We were warned by the Masha Gessens and the Timothy Snyders that our democracy was in danger and it could die on his watch. We knew that he would never voluntarily relinquish power. This could have been so much worse. We could have not had an election at all this year. It could have not been fair. He could have won. We could have had an actual coup, or an actual civil war. Those things are still, of course, possible, but here we are, 11 days before the inauguration, and this was the coup? It was pretty feeble. It was a desecration of our Capitol building and our government and our values, but no one was actually afraid that the insurrectionists would succeed.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg teaches that the Jewish people live in a dialectic between the reality and the dream. The dream is the messianic vision, a world of justice, dignity, equality and harmony for all life. We are to commit ourselves to the dream, and to see ourselves as responsible for it, never giving up. But we’re also never to look away from the reality, even when it is very ugly.
In the parasha this week, Moses sees a bush on fire but not consumed. He stops and turns aside to look. In Sh’mot Rabba, the rabbis suggest that the reason God chose Moses to call at the burning bush was because this was not the first time that Moses turned aside to look. “The Holy Blessed One said: “You left aside your business and went to see the sorrow of Israel, and acted toward them as brothers act.” When, at the bush, Moses turned aside to see, “The Holy Blessed One saw Moses, who turned aside to see the burdens of his brothers.”
It was Moses’s willingness to turn to see the suffering and oppression around him in Egypt– the injustice, the hate — that merited him being chosen to lead the people out of Egypt.
This week we saw the reality of white supremacy, we saw the extreme edge of the 74 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump. We saw where we are as a nation. We saw that the palace is on fire, our society, our world is ablaze with white supremacy, and there is no way to make our democracy whole without looking squarely at it, as Rabbi Sharon Brous taught us, to either remove or pay for the stolen beam at the foundation of our house, meaning that the edifice of our society was built on the theft of human lives and freedom. And in the Talmud, the rabbis consider, when you find that your house was built on a stolen beam, whether you must take the house apart and remove the beam or whether you can simply pay restitution for the theft. The white supremacy on display this week was another reminder that there is no way to avoid taking account of all of the theft that undergirds our society, and the ideology and systems that have been maintained ever since, from slavery until now. We can look away and pretend it isn’t real, but if we ever want to heal, if we ever want a whole democracy, we must turn aside from our business and see.
This is what it is to be a Jew, to live right inside of all of the ugliness of reality, to see it squarely, and also to hold on to the dream. Civil rights elder Vincent Harding described a river that is always flowing from the reality to the dream. The river is sometimes frozen, he said, and the flow is hidden under the surface. Other times the river is turbulent and rapid. But it is always flowing. The river is inevitable. The river cannot be stopped. We are not the resistance, Michelle Alexander taught us, we are the river. A mixed multitude who, in a few weeks of Torah will make our way to freedom, linking arms together, across all of our differences, moving always toward justice, equality, dignity, harmony for all life, toward freedom.
Let us turn aside to see the reality. Let us not be afraid. Let us hold on to the dream and have trust and faith that it is coming. Let us remember that we are the river, and together, we’re on our way there.