Torah for the Day

Please note:  this was the sermon that I delivered this past Shabbat.

Yesterday was Juneteenth, commemorating 155 years since the last American slaves were freed.  155 years.  And if I am totally honest with you – I am just waking up to what yesterday means.  In fact, I am only now discovering that July 4 doesn’t resonate to everyone who lives in this country. Maybe I am an ogre – but I don’t think so.  I have learned.  I am learning.  Sometimes I get really upset with myself for not considering these multiple perspectives.  But honestly, the answer to the question of why I did not know about Juneteenth tells much about my experience as a white American.  And there are many versions of this story.

  1. I remember the time my dear friend, a southern Baptist pastor, a smart, well-educated man with two degrees in history, told me that he had no idea that Jews were killed during the Crusades.  I had casually mentioned the Crusades in something I had written.  And Paul was stunned.  
  2. I also remember the time I was at an interfaith council meeting – and thoughtful, smart colleagues had NO idea that for a Jew there is any connection between the Holocaust and Israel.  I casually called Israel an insurance policy – really smart, thoughtful men looked at me like with disbelief.  They did not understand what I meant.
  3. Or when I realized that Yom Ha’atzmaut is not a day of celebration for many Arabs and Palestinians.  
  4. Or when I realized that Arab-Israelis likely don’t cry during Hatkivah – and if they do, it is for a very different reason than I or my Israeli friends do.
  5. I remember when a Black colleague taught me that Thanksgiving can be a difficult day in the black community, and if anything it is a bitter day as it reminds people how they wound up in this country, as opposed to the white people who came here.

These are all examples of perspectives, narratives – different stories, different moments of pain and different moments of celebration.

So, my first point is that there are multiple perspectives.  And it is important to understand that assumptions you and I make may not be shared by all.  And we have to be open to learning, to growing, to understanding how others see the world.  

For many Black Americans, June 19 is the true day of liberation – as opposed to July 4th that celebrates an America not yet realized and impossible to realize for so many in the black community.

We live in multiple Americas, and June 19th is the day to celebrate the freedom that came for those who were enslaved, and it is a day to pause, pray and plan for the freedom yet to come.

When the spies entered the land, ten of them walked out and said “Woooaaaa… we can’t do this.  Those people.  They are GIANTS.  They will look at us and see tiny grasshoppers.”  If the 10 spies were alive today, they would be overwhelmed.  They would say there are too many problems – and they are all so profound, so deeply embedded in American society – and in how our world operates they are insolvable.  

– The 10 spies would be overwhelmed by the challenges of protecting the environment.  They would be overwhelmed and feel impotent.  

– The 10 spies would assume that racial injustice is here to stay.  It is in the foundations of this country and we cannot change history.

– The 10 spies would believe that Palestinians and Israelis will be eternal enemies.  There is not enough land for both peoples.  Neither will ever compromise.

– The 10 spies would assume that women will always be harassed or objectified by men.  Men will be men.

– The 10 spies would believe that society can not be truly accepting of gay men or women, or of people who are transgender.  

But you know what – the 10 spies were wrong!  Caleb and Joshua saw something different.  Yes, they saw challenge.  But they also saw beautiful fruits.  They saw potential – not just in the land, but also in themselves.

We are taught that the biggest sin of the ten spies was not that they were scared.  Many of us – most of us – are scared.  Their weakness was their inability to have any confidence in themselves.  They thought of themselves as tiny grasshoppers, and therefore assumed others would see them as grasshoppers, too.

As our country moves through a time of turbulence, our biggest sin would be to give up.  We just can’t.  We must have the faith in ourselves to push forward.  I forgive myself for not knowing about Juneteenth, for not recognizing that July 4th means something different to others.  Just as I forgave my friend for not knowing what the Crusades meant to me.  Just as I forgave my colleagues for not connecting the Holocaust to the establishment of the state of Israel.  I am learning.  You are learning.  We are all learning and growing.  And that gives me confidence.

Even when we believe we may be facing giants, let us not see ourselves as grasshoppers.  Instead, let us understand the power that comes with speaking up for ethics, with speaking up for the truth, with making the words of the Torah live.  Let us maintain confidence and hope.  This is the gift of Joshua and Caleb.  And this is the message of this Shabbat – the day after Juneteenth.