We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest

We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest

Rabbi Debora S. Gordon at Troy Interfaith MLK Service

14 January 2018, Bethel Baptist Church

[Leah Penniman’s introduction:] Our family joined Berith Sholom in 2005 after visiting every other synagogue in the Capital District. As a Black Jewish farmer with a Sephardic spouse, multiracial children, and a profound commitment to justice, Berith Sholom was the one congregation that offered a reflection of self and an unapologetic embrace of all our complexity. Rabbi Debora Gordon has offered her musical genius, profound knowledge of Torah, and personal friendship to our family and to the entire congregation all these years, for which we are deeply grateful.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in blessed memory, advised us that, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” One of the things that we cherish most about our beloved Rabbi is that she is never silent on things that matter most. Rooted deeply in “tikkun olam” – the healing and repair of the world – Rabbi Gordon has spent her 20 years at Berith Sholom Congregation giving voice and taking action on matters of justice. She stands up for the Movement for Black Lives from the pulpit and in the streets. She stands up for immigrant rights, in word and deed. She advocates for children with different abilities, for the elderly and the hungry, and for people experiencing intimate partner violence. And in acts of great moral courage, she boldly questions and challenges the State of Israel on its human rights abuses in Palestine. She “talks the talk and walks the walk.”

Rabbi Gordon is carrying on a long legacy of solidarity between the Black and Jewish community. Just as Jewish students and clergy showed up for Freedom Summer, just as Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld sustained beatings in Mississippi for his Civil Rights Work, just as Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner paid the ultimate price in the swamps of Mississippi, our Rabbi is showing up whole-heartedly for this community. Rabbi Gordon has been attending since shortly after she moved to the area and started bringing her multiracial family once she became a parent over 10 years ago. She is deeply honored and humbled to speak with you today.

I am honored and humbled to stand before you to preach this afternoon.  Thank you Leah Penniman for that introduction; you and your family’s work inspire me.  My thanks to the Martin Luther King Committee of Troy Area United Ministries for believing in me and inviting me to deliver the message today.  And thank you to each of you who is here this afternoon.  The world has need of your energy and your commitment.

I struggled for a long time with how to start this drash, this sermon.  There is too much to say.  There is so much good work going on today — and such great need for it. 

As I wrote, I researched, and I learned history that inspires and teaches me.  I read the words of preachers and teachers who have moved me.  And I asked, over and over, “What is the message that I need to bring today?”

And this is the message that I received: 

Bad things are happening.  (But you know that.)

Good things are happening.  (But you know that.)

Don’t give up.

♫ We who believe in freedom cannot rest

We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LoPofPzkJ4U  (Sweet Honey in the Rock with VocalEssence)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6Uus–gFrc   (Sweet Honey in the Rock in performance)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KRiveZNEqjs  (Toshi Reagon, Angelique Kidjo, Taina Asili, Climbing PoeTree and more at the Women’s March in Washington DC on January 21st, 2017)

“I can’t hear you.”  [Congregation joined in louder:]

♫ We who believe in freedom cannot rest

We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.

Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons,

Is as important as the killing of White men, White mothers’ sons.

We who believe in freedom…

The older I get, the better I know that secret to my going on

Is when the reins are in the hands of the young, who dare to run against the storm.

To me, young people come first, they have the courage where we fail,

And if I could but shed some light, as … they carry us through the gale.

We who believe in freedom…

That which touches me most is that I had the chance to work with people

Passing on to others that which was passed on to me.

Struggling myself don’t mean a whole lot; I’ve come to realize

That teaching others to stand and fight, it is the only way our struggle survives.

♫ We who believe in freedom cannot rest

We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.

[Note: There are 3 more verses. Listen to one of the recordings.]

That’s “Ella’s Song.”  The words are those of a woman whose name many of you may not know:  Miss Ella Baker, a Civil Rights activist who was active for over 50 years.  In 1940 she was the highest-ranking woman working for the NAACP and later served as the interim executive director of the SCLC (the Southern Christian Leadership Conference).  It was during that time that she was inspired by the young activists who had organized lunch-counter sit-ins, and convinced the SCLC to fund a conference for student organizers at Shaw University in 1960.  At that conference was born the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, SNCC.  Miss Baker then spent years mentoring, listening to, and supporting young activists, many of whom went on to do work that brought them to national prominence — names you have heard, including Julian Bond, Stokely Carmichael, and Rosa Parks.  Another of those young activists was Bernice Johnson Reagon, a member of the original SNCC Freedom Singers organized in 1962.  Ms. Reagon, of course, went on to found Sweet Honey in the Rock; and she set those words to music.  

[I learned afterward from Deacon Leon Dukes, who had welcomed us on behalf of Bethel Baptist Church, that he knew Ella Baker when he was part of SNCC.  “Thank you for mentioning Ella Baker,” he said. “Not many people know about her.”]

That’s the message.  You know it.  But I need you to feel it.   I want to re-energize you, and strengthen you — and by “you” I mean “us” — so we can go on doing the work we do.  Because our job is not to finish the work, but to leave the world a better place than we found it.

I believe that it is truly necessary to repair whatever comes to me broken.  I believe it is our responsibility to model the interconnectedness of humanity, of life, of the planet.  As Rev. Dr. King wrote when he was in jail in Birmingham, Alabama:

“We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

Whether I or you or anyone will ever see this work finished is not a question I spend much time on.  My question is: What would the world look like if we all quit trying?

Rabbi Tarfon [TARfone] said nearly 2,000 years ago: 

לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה.

Lo alecha ham’lachah ligmor, v’lo atah ben-chorin libatel mimenah.

You are not responsible for completing the work,

But you are not free to quit, either. 

      (Pirkey Avot/Chapters of the Ancestors 2:11, sometimes listed as 2:16)

The completion of the work is not laid upon us, but not a one of us is free to give up on it.

The past 2 years have been overwhelming and disheartening in too many ways.  After so many advances over the last 50 or 60 or 100 years — from Jim Crow to integrated schools and lunch counters; from a hundred years of voter suppression in the wake of the Civil War to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to the most diverse electorate in American history electing Barak Obama as President in 2008; from “The War on Drugs” to a small but steady drop in incarceration and probation also starting in 2008;

From “the love that dare are not speak its name” to marriage equality; from a married woman not being able to get a credit card in her own name to women as Chief Financial Officers of Fortune 500 companies (though let’s be real, it’s only about 10%); from Love Canal and the Cauyahoga River catching on fire, to that magical first view of the earth as a blue-green planet hanging in the sky as seen from the moon and the birth of the environmental movement; from “ketchup is a vegetable” [Ronald Reagan] to school cafeterias sourcing their food locally; from “she was asking for it” to #MeToo — we’ve seen so much progress!

And have you noticed the amazing diversity in skin and hair, and especially in the way families are portrayed, in advertising?  If the marketing world is showing black and Latino families, biracial families, single parent families, same-sex-parent families, then you know there is a real change in our country.  People expect to see people like them in advertising, but apparently now people also expect to see people *not* like them in their world.

And all this change has brought backlash.  It has frightened people who have no context for understanding what’s happening to their world, a world which is changing economically as well as socially.  That fear has bred hate and rage, and those emotions tipped the balance and put President Trump in the White House and white supremacists in Charlottesville.

And I’ve heard so many people say “I thought we were past that.”

I’ve heard that mostly from folks of the baby boomer generation — to which I technically belong, though born at the very end. People who created a lot of this change. People whose lives are anchored by activism. People who remember a time before the civil rights movement, before Dr. King and hundreds of thousands of other Civil Rights leaders and activists.  People whose high school and college and young adult years were formed by the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war movement and the women’s movement and what was then called gay liberation, who have gone on to do so much good in the world.  Many of you who are sitting in this congregation today.

It’s understandable that people who really remember what it was like before found it hard to believe that we were returning to an era of racism and xenophobia and hatred, with lies and ignorance emerging from the White House itself.

But as any union activist can tell you, the best organizer is a bad boss.  And we have a United States President who is, by the words of his own mouth, a bigot, a racist, and an abuser of power against women.  There has been, I’m grateful to say, an upsurge of activism and organizing since the 2016 election.  And as activism has risen around this country in the past year, it has risen in the Jewish community too, guided by the example of our forebears.

We Jews have lived as a minority in a majority culture for most of the past 2,000 years.  Though most American Jews are white, our history has given us a perspective that differs a little from that of white Protestants or Catholics.  White Jews can pass, but we often choose not to.   It’s one of the reasons I wear a kippah in public: To face the looks and the questions that come with not passing.

We have settled in many lands and often put down roots there for centuries; but ultimately, we are rooted not in a place, but in a book.  A book that teaches us that every human being, without exception, is created B’tselem Elohim, in the image of God.  A book which tells us (Deut. 6:21)

עֲבָדִ֛ים הָיִ֥ינוּ לְפַרְעֹ֖ה בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם וַיּוֹצִיאֵ֧נוּ יְהוָ֛ה מִמִּצְרַ֖יִם בְּיָ֥ד חֲזָקָֽה׃  ♫

Avadim hayinu l’Far’o b’Mitzrayim;  vayotsi-eynu Adonai mi-sham, b’yad chazakah.

We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Eternal One freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand. 

A book which doesn’t spend a lot of time on emotions or even on faith, but commands us over and over to pay attention to the needs of the poor and less powerful.  A book which reminds us (Exodus 23:9):

 וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ וְאַתֶּ֗ם יְדַעְתֶּם֙ אֶת־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַגֵּ֔ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃ ♫

V’ger lo til-chatz; v’atem y’datem et nefesh ha-ger, ki geyrim heh-yitem b’eretz Mitzrayim.

And you shall not put pressure on an immigrant;

for you know how it feels to be a stranger,

for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

[Most of this following paragraph was omitted during the preaching, as Leah Penniman had lifted up the involvement of American Jews in the Civil Rights movement when she introduced me.]  In 1958, Rev. Dr. King spoke at the synagogue where I grew up (that was before I was born).  In 1963, he addressed the Biennial Convention of North American Reform Jews in Chicago.  When the Mississippi Freedom Summer was organized in 1964, to register Black citizens to vote and to develop a grassroots movement in the most stubbornly segregated state in the South, thousands of Black Mississippians were joined by hundreds of college students, mostly from the North and mostly white.  50% of those students were Jews, though we make up no more than 1 or 2% of the US population.   That June three young men — James Cheney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner — were murdered: Cheney, a black man from Meridian, Mississippi, and Goodman and Schwerner, white Jewish men from New York City. 

In March of 1965, clergy of many denominations walked arm-in-arm with Dr. King and other Civil Rights leaders during the 3rd march from Selma to Montgomery, including Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rabbi Maurice Davis, who can be seen in the famous photograph from that march.  Jews were involved in funding and supporting schools and colleges where Black Americans were educated; we have served on the boards and staff of the NAACP and the Leadership Council on Civil Rights.  Most of you have probably not heard of the Religious Action Center of the Reform Jewish Movement in the Washington DC; but it was on their conference table that both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were first drafted.

And we are guided by our ancient ancestors, too, in stories that the Peoples of the Book share.  Dr. King’s birthday coincides every year with one of 4 weeks when Jews around the world are reading the story of enslavement and liberation at the beginning of the book of Exodus.  This is our “master story,” the one that teaches us who we are and what we are supposed to do in the world, and it teaches us to challenge injustice even when it originates at the highest levels.  Every year we read about Pharaoh, a head of government who was so afraid of immigrants in his country that he forgot how they had saved his nation from ruin, and chose to enslave them rather than taking a chance on what they might do with their power. 

We read about how difficult it was for the people to free itself from the damage inflicted by years of enslavement. 

And we read about how ultimately, it was the younger generation who had to carry on the work of their parents and grandparents to bring it to fruition.

And it is young people who give me hope, members of the generation called Millenials.  This is the most dedicated, idealistic, pluralistic group of people I have ever seen.  They may not be joining synagogues or churches very much (but then again, church and synagogue and mosque have not been high on the priority list of most young adults for a long time); but they are engaging with the world every day to transform it.  And their “portfolio” includes everything from counteracting climate change to dismantling systemic racism, from working for immigrant justice to connecting people of color to the land to protecting the right to vote, from promoting economic justice to criminal justice reform, from preventing gun violence to the full inclusion of differently-abled people, from making the world a safe place for transgender people, to making the streets a safe place for Black men (and everyone else).

I want to grow up to be like them!

Jeremiah says: (31:15-17)

Thus said the Eternal:

A voice is heard in Ramah—

Wailing, bitter weeping—

Rachel is weeping for her children.

She refuses to be comforted about her children

For they are gone.

♫ כֹּ֣ה ׀ אָמַ֣ר יְהוָ֗ה

ק֣וֹל בְּרָמָ֤ה נִשְׁמָע֙

נְהִי֙ בְּכִ֣י תַמְרוּרִ֔ים

רָחֵ֖ל מְבַכָּ֣ה עַל־בָּנֶ֑יהָ

מֵאֲנָ֛ה לְהִנָּחֵ֥ם עַל־בָּנֶ֖יהָ

כִּ֥י אֵינֶֽנּוּ׃ (ס)

Thus said the Eternal:

Hold back your voice from weeping,

Your eyes from tears;

For I declare that there is a reward for your labor;

They shall return from the enemy’s land.

כֹּ֣ה ׀ אָמַ֣ר יְהוָ֗ה

מִנְעִ֤י קוֹלֵךְ֙ מִבֶּ֔כִי

וְעֵינַ֖יִךְ מִדִּמְעָ֑ה

כִּי֩  יֵ֨שׁ שָׂכָ֤ר לִפְעֻלָּתֵךְ֙ נְאֻם־יְהוָ֔ה

וְשָׁ֖בוּ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ אוֹיֵֽב׃

And I declare that there is hope for your future:

Your children shall once again

expand to fill their rightful space.

וְיֵשׁ־תִּקְוָ֥ה לְאַחֲרִיתֵ֖ךְ נְאֻם־יְהוָ֑ה

וְשָׁ֥בוּ בָנִ֖ים


When I look at all the people and organizations who are pushing back against racism, against hatred, against the ills of poverty, against abuses of power and policies rooted in fear — I am hopeful.  Because our children are expanding to fill their rightful space; to claim their place in the world and continue the work with vigor and vision.

And here is why the work needs to continue:

55 years ago in Birmingham, Alabama, members of the Ku Klux Klan detonated at least 15 sticks of dynamite beneath the stairs located on the side of the in the 16th Street Baptist Church.  Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair were murdered.  One man was convicted 22 years later; two more were finally prosecuted less than two decades ago by Doug Jones, who was just elected Democratic Senator from Alabama; but a fourth and possible fifth were never brought to justice.

Less than a month ago, right before Christmas, two children were brutally murdered in Troy along with their mother and her partner, Shanta Myers and Brandi Mells.  Shanise Myers was 5.  Her brother Jeremiah “JJ” was 11.   God rest their souls.  What kind of hatred targeted a family that by all accounts was a strong and stable part of the community?

In the past two years two black men were shot by Troy Police officers.  Dahmeek McDonald survived, Edson Thevenin did not.  Last year 40% of the unarmed people and killed by police in the US were Black men, though Black men are only 6% of the US population.  It is hard to be a police officer, and I cannot imagine the fear that you live with every time you put on your uniform, knowing that an unknowable number of guns are in circulation among the population you are sworn to protect; but there’s something wrong with that statistic, and with the lack of visible accountability in the wake of too many of these shootings. 

And in the last year we have also seen a huge speaking-out about gender inequality and abuse of power against women and children.  It began with the #MeToo movement — a hashtag created ten years ago by a Black woman, Tarana Burke — and has expanded to include sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace, in our schools, in our religious institutions and in our lives.  As Oprah Winfrey told us so powerfully a week ago, Time’s Up.  Time’s up.  No more abuse of power against those who are perceived as powerless to fight back. 

(Notice that I say perceived as powerless.  Very few of us are as powerless as those who would take advantage assume or wish that we are.)

And don’t we already know what we need to do?  The prophet Micah, close to 3,000 years ago told us (6:8):

♫ הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב

וּמָה־יְהֹוָ֞ה דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗

כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד

וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ:

God has told you‪, O human being‪, what Good is

And what the Eternal seeks from you‪:

This is doing justice‪,

Loving kindness‪,

And humble walking with your God‪.

Higid l’cha, adam, mah tov

U-mah Adonai doreysh mim’cha:

Ki im asot mishpat

v’ahavat chesed

V’hats-neya lechet im Elohecha.

“Doing justice” means making judgments.  This does not mean “being judgmental” or jumping to conclusions.  Judgement equals discernment.  And discernment, as I have learned from the Christian tradition, is a prayerful and conscious search for an answer, for the right way to judge a situation, or for the best path forward at this time.  It is the process of making careful distinctions in our search for truth.  Deuteronomy warns us: if a prophet comes to you promising signs and wonders, and they don’t come true, ignore that prophet.

But!  Elsewhere, Deuteronomy also warns us: If a prophet comes to you promising signs and wonders, and they do come true, but the prophet then encourages you to behave contrary to what you know is right — that is, to forsake the way of justice and truth — then that prophet is equally to be ignored! God is testing you. 

In other words, having plausible leaders does not free you from thinking for yourself.  (Deuteronomy 13:1-4)  You yourself must continually work to discern ways forward that will actually accomplish what we long for. 

And again in Deuteronomy, we are told:  צדק‫, צדק תרדף.  Tsedek, tsedek tirdof  [TSEHdeck, TSEHdeck teerDOFE] Justice, justice you shall pursue.

And this tells us many things.  First of all, our job is to pursue justice; don’t just wait for it to come to you.  Or worse, don’t enjoy justice yourself while you just wait around for it to come to other people.  Passivity will not accomplish this goal; we must actively pursue justice.

But why is that word “justice” repeated?  Here is one way Jewish tradition has understood it:  Justice must be accomplished in a way that is seen to be just; that is, there must be transparency and accountability in the justice system.

And another interpretation:  Our pursuit of justice must be done in a just manner. “Justice, justly, shall you pursue.”  If we do not do our work for justice in a manner which embodies justice, then we are not living the change that we wish to create.

And this is also where being passionate about kindness and generosity comes in. The day is short, the work is great, and emotions run high.  The very certainty and passion that fuel us can make us rigid.  But the greater our coalition, the more different perspectives we will bring.  So we need to be kind to each other, and to treat each other with generosity.  We need to be be willing to be wrong; and even harder, willing to be right and allow others who disagree with us to be right as well. 

But there is more to “loving kindness” than this, and I thank Rev. Barber for giving me this understanding, with the words he read earlier from scripture.  He told us that it is not flesh and blood that we are struggling against.  We are struggling against racism, against ignorance, against xenophobia, against fear and hatred and rage.  Yes, those policies and emotions are embodied and carried out by human beings; but those human beings are not our enemies.

From my perspective, Rev. Dr. King’s greatest gift to the movement was the gift of non-violence.  The Civil Rights movement embraced non-violence because it embraced lovingkindness instead of hate.  Loving kindness means remembering that those who oppose us are not our enemies, and that we are not their enemies — even if they think we are.  Embracing non-violence means that people chose to take the hurt on themselves rather than hurt those against whom they struggled.  In doing so, they demonstrated  that we are all human beings created B’tselem Elohim, in God’s image, and each deserving of the dignity of being treated as a person who embodies a spark of the divine — even if those against whom we struggle may apparently not see God’s image in us. 

If we do not approach our work with love, then we are not living the change that we wish to create.  

“Do justice, love kindly, and walk humbly.”  That word הצנע hatsneya [hotsNAYuh] “humble” also means “modest.”  And modesty is about showing the right amount of yourself, about not making yourself out to be more than you are.  Not getting too big for your britches.  Learning to take up the right amount of space.  

In other words, if you are doing those things that you’re supposed to be doing — if you are working hard to discern truth and justice, if you are passionate about treating your fellow human beings with kindness and generosity and giving the benefit of the doubt when you can — well, O human being, that’s what you were created for. 

If you are addressing your own privilege, your own racism, your own internalized oppression; if you are challenging your peers instead of standing idly by while “lockerroom” talk demeans women; if you are challenging the absence of diversity in leadership and representation, or taking action when power is being wielded inappropriately — well, then, you are fulfilling your God-given destiny. 

And you don’t get special marks for doing the right thing, for doing what you should.  You don’t get special recognition for being a decent human being, a mensch.  You don’t get to call attention to yourself because you’ve learned how to do the right thing.  So I say to my fellow people who enjoy white-skin privilege:  Walk humbly.  If you’re doing your best to act in solidarity with people of color, be humble about it.  As my Feminist Philosophy professor Maria Lugones taught — and she was speaking to the white students — if you are working in coalition on issues primarily affecting people of color, let others take the lead.  Show up, make the coffee, clean the toilets.  Listen more and talk less.  Defer.

(And the irony of me saying that to you today is not lost on me!)

The Jewish mystical tradition, kabbalah, tells the story of creation like this:  In the beginning was God.  God was everywhere and everything, and God’s light was endless.  God was haMakom — the only Place that existed — and God was Ein Sof — Endless.

And God conceived of the idea of creating something new, something different from God.  Of making room for time and space, and populating it with stars and planets, with electromagnetism and gravity, with the animals Father Kofi mentioned so lovingly, and ultimately with us. 

The story goes on to say that God prepared special vessels into which to pour the Divine light; and I’ll tell you what happened with them in a moment.  But the kabbalistic tradition teaches that in order for anything to exist in addition to God, God first had to pull back to make space.  God had to, as it were, voluntarily contract.  Don’t take that too literally; it’s not like God left a void that was devoid of God.  The story teaches that God poured the Divine Light into those special vessels; but the Light was so strong that the vessels cracked.  And everything that you see or touch in the universe, every physical thing, is a shard of one of those vessels, and in each shard is a point of Divine Light.  Just waiting for us to use it for a holy purpose, and thereby reconnect the spark of light with its Divine Source.

But it’s the “voluntarily contracting” that I want you to remember.  It’s called tzimtzum [tseem-tsoom].  Pulling back, making one’s self take up less space, to leave room for another.

That’s part of what “humble walking” means.  Taking up the right amount of space, to leave space for others.

You’ve already been told, human beings, what the Good is,

And what is eternally demanded from you‪:

This is doing justice‪,

Loving kindness‪,

And humble walking with your God‪.

We know what we have to accomplish.  Justice, generosity, and making room for everyone.  We know that there will always be pushback, and there will always be people who are afraid or power-hungry or angry who will seek to satisfy their own fears no matter how it hurts another; but we know that it is not our job to complete the task, only to carry our part until we lay down the burden because it has been handed on to the next generation.  כן יהי רצון Keyn y’hi ratson [cane yuHEE rahTSONE] — we know this is God’s will; may God help us to make it our own.