“The past is not dead; it is not even past.”
– William Faulkner

It was an unbelievably hot June day in Memphis, and so I was anxious to leave anything I could behind on the bus. No backpack, no purse. I just folded up a couple of dollar bills, put them in my sunglass case, and joined the group as we walked across the steaming parking lot to enter the National Civil Rights Museum.

My son was trying to track license plates from all 50 states, and this place was a goldmine. A minivan from California, a pickup truck from Montana, a sedan from New Hampshire. Absentmindedly, I took our admission tickets and slipped them into the case in my hand. Indiana, Texas, Wyoming. Then we were inside the museum, where time stops: The Lorraine Motel. Memphis, Tennessee. 1968.

Except it didn’t. It sped up.

Twenty-four hours later, I was back in Charleston. In a whirlwind, my assistant had picked me up from the airport and arranged for a locksmith to open our house. Utterly dazed and operating on an hour of sleep, if that, I had left my keys (and my family) in Tennessee (or had we made it to Mississippi or Alabama? – it was all a blur). Now, quickly showered and changed, we were heading to the first of the many prayer vigils that would fill the next few days, and my mind was spinning as I went to change my glasses. Was this really happening?

The sight of the ticket stubs brought the first tears. June 17th was imprinted in dark ink as though time had stood still, but here was tangible proof of how far I had physically traveled in the last twenty-four hours. Yet it was more than that. At the bottom of the ticket was a quote:


Like the heavy strike of a gavel, those five words passed judgement on how little distance we’d actually covered at all.

It has now been a year, and I haven’t been able to remove the tickets from the case. Every day, when I get in my car and change my glasses, that quote stares up at me, challenges me. Before I even get in the car, the same lesson proclaims itself in the morning paper, often on the front page. There is an awfully, awfully long way to go.

But it’s been a year, and this too we know is true. We are changed. We’ve been touched – by the depth of our losses, to be sure. But also by the legacies of the lives we’ve now come to know, and the love and strength of the survivors; by the power and compassion of community, and the sublime beauty of grace; by the companion spirits and travelers we’ve met along the way, and the stories – still incomplete – but the history and narratives that are finally being told.

And here’s how history is different: We are a part of it. And as profound and deep as our pain can be, so too is our potential to have an impact for good.

Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei rabbah…

With the Kaddish prayer we praise God’s name, and on this day of remembrance for the lives of the Emanuel Nine, we praise their names, as well. Praise and honor and glorify and exalt – mere words have never been enough, but the words of Kaddish are special. They pledge our commitment – to action, to change, to honest encounter, to lasting deed. Zichronam livracha – in this way we indeed ensure that the memories of the righteous are an abiding blessing.

I cannot pray to God.

Remarks for our community vigil this evening.

I am wrapped in my tallit, my prayer shawl. I wear my kippah, a reminder that my words are directed to an audience beyond my self.

But I cannot pray to God today. The God I believe in doesn’t need my prayers, and doesn’t want them – not today.

The God I believe in has Her hands full; He’s working overtime, and has been for quite a while. The heart of the God I believe in is devastated by each senseless death and destruction of life, weakened with each squeeze of a trigger. The God I believe in surely surrounds the victims, the survivors, the families of loved ones with infinite Strength, Courage, Healing and Love.

“Be with the victims and their families,” the God I believe in hears, and must wonder, “Where else do you imagine I am?”

“Are you so deeply grieved?” the God I believe in asks us as He did Jonah. I care for all of My creations – do all I can to love them, nurture them, protect them. You grieve; My heart is broken.

I cannot pray to God today, because the God I believe in still admonishes us through the prophet Isaiah: “Is this the fast I look for? A day of self-affliction? Bowing your head like a reed, and covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then shall your light blaze forth like the dawn, and your wounds shall quickly heal; your Righteous One will walk before you, the Presence of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then, when you call, the Lord will answer; when you cry, God will say: ‘Here I am.'”

No, I cannot pray to God today – I cannot petition, make entreaty or supplication; I cannot hope to move God, for there is nowhere else for God to go, except into the hearts and minds and souls of our leaders here on Earth, into the men and women we have appointed for their wisdom, their compassion, their guidance and good counsel. Today I pray to them, that if their hearts turn to God, and I hope they do, that they pray for courage, for strength, for imagination, for resolve for themselves – that they may yet DO something – something beyond rhetoric, something beyond prayer.

I pledge on behalf of my colleagues in the clergy, we will keep preaching the message of love and equality and acceptance and embrace. But so long as those who hate can walk into a store and obtain a weapon to give destructive power to their hatred with but the most minimal obstructions, if any — this pain won’t stop.

We will keep teaching peace and dialogue and understanding and respect. But so long as there continues to be access to weapons whose sole purpose, whose sole reason for creation is massive and prolific destruction — this pain won’t stop.

We will continue to demonstrate, with our talk and our walk, that the lives of men, women, and children; the lives of those in the LGBTQ community, the African American community, the Hispanic community; the Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, atheist… every community matters, has value, deserves to be protected. But so long as innocent lives suddenly and violently cease to be, and not one – not ONE – meaningful, enduring, impactful piece of gun legislation can be lifted to passage, can be attempted – just attempted – as a tangible offering of our sorrow and remorse — this pain won’t stop.

To those who say we must wait; how dare we “politicize” a moment of grief – were that we could. My own Jewish tradition has strict proscriptions for the first week of mourning, the first month, the first year that might likewise suggest patience. But here we are, mere blocks from Mother Emanuel, still only on the threshold of one year. We’ve waited too long. Within the past month, 34 mass shootings have occurred on American soil; 82 people have been killed, 167 more have been wounded. We’ve waited too long. Already a church, a community center, a school, a club – what would the next target be if we waited even a week? We’ve waited too long.

I cannot pray to God today, but the God I believe in is fervently praying to and for us:

“Remove the chains of oppression,” God prays, “make sacrifices for … the afflicted; then shall your light shine in the darkness, and your night become bright as noon. … This is the promise of the Lord.”

This is the prayer of the God I believe in. And if you believe we can answer it – we must answer it – then let us say: Amen.