Remarks at KKBE’s Shabbat Evening Service

Those who sow, who sow in tears, will reap in joy, will reap in joy. Those who sow, who sow in tears, will reap, will reap in joy.

Psalm 126:5

Shabbat Shalom. That melody that lifts up the words of Psalm 126, verse 5 was composed by Debbie Friedman, and it’s come to mind repeatedly as I’ve tried to process the unprecedented events of this past week. This was one of those Shabbatot where I had to crumple up everything I had written earlier in the week and throw it in the recycling bin. Frankly, there have been too many of those Shabbatot over recent years. After Mother Emanuel. After Charlottesville. After Tree of Life. And each Shabbat of the long weeks and months of this pandemic, now almost one full year since the first cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed in the United States.

But what can I offer to help us process what has happened? You don’t need punditry from your rabbi or your synagogue this Shabbat — you have countless other sources to choose from for that. There are important words that need to be publicly stated to condemn the acts we’ve witnessed this week in no uncertain terms — but you don’t need those from us either. The Union for Reform Judaism, Religious Action Center, and Central Conference of American Rabbis, speaking on behalf of more than 900 Reform congregations, including us, have issued statements:

  • “Condemning [the] insurrectionists’ breaching of the capitol,” calling it “an unprecedented assault not just on the U.S. Capitol building and members of Congress, but on American democracy itself.”
  • Their statements have recognized that the “events were encouraged by the President of the United States who has refused to accept his electoral loss.” They note that “we read in the Talmud … a ruler is not to be appointed until the community is consulted,” and “the effort by some members of Congress,” led by the efforts of the President, “to functionally overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election are nothing less than an assault on the peaceful transition of power and American democracy.”
  • And our leadership has denounced “a false moral equivalence with the Black Lives Matters protests over the last year,” stating quite clearly: “The white nationalists [we saw on Wednesday] were attempting to undermine our government while Black Lives Matter protestors were demanding to be included in our democracy.”

Strong words have been spoken by the strong leadership of our movement, and we stand behind them. 

So what’s left? What do we still need? What we seek from our tradition is solace. We want so very much to be comforted. Wednesday’s images are seared in our memories: The American flag replaced with Trump flags, treason flags, the Confederate flag. Clothing with disgusting profanity like “Camp Auschwitz” and “6MWE,” which apparently stands for “Six million wasn’t enough.” The President failing to say a meaningful word, or take necessary action, to quell the violence at best — inciting the events we watched unfold at worst. Our concerns about the vulnerability of our democracy, and our individual wellbeing as citizens within its fold, consume us. We seek something that can make us feel better about what’s happened; some way to find even a small bright spot, an encouraging angle; some way to segue from despair to hope.

To be sure, our tradition does offer encouragement:

Deuteronomy 31:6 — “Be strong and have courage.”

Exodus 3, this week’s Torah portion: “I have marked well the plight of My people … and have heeded their outcry … I am mindful of their sufferings … [and] have come down to rescue them.”

Genesis 1:5 — “There was evening, and there was morning.” And Psalm 30:5 — “One may lie down weeping at nightfall; but at dawn there are shouts of joy.” Or, in other words: “Joy will come in the morning.”

Yes, there are words in our tradition that can certainly offer comfort and encouragement at this difficult time. But I’m not sure that’s the best of what we can take from our tradition this evening. 

As I told you earlier, I keep coming back to Psalm 126: “Those who sow in tears, will reap in joy.” I just don’t think we can hope to glimpse joy, much less grasp it, unless we allow ourselves to stay with the pain and tears of this moment — and the many moments that have led to this one. If we desire more than what our prayerbook describes as “the quietude that arises from a shunning got the horror, the defeat, the bitterness and the poverty, physical and spiritual, of humans,” then I think we need to hold the pain we feel so deeply tonight and sit for a time with our tears.

“Happiness,” said Henry Emerson Fosdick, “at its deepest and best is not the portion of a cushioned life which never struggled, overpassed obstacles, bore hardships, or adventured in sacrifice for costly aims. A heart of joy is never found in luxuriously coddled lives, but in men and women who achieve and dare, who have tried their powers against antagonisms, who have met even sickness and bereavement and have tempered their souls in fire. … If we were set upon making a happy world, then we would not leave struggle out or made adversity impossible. The unhappiest world conceivable … would be a world with nothing hard to do, no conflicts to wage for ends worthwhile; a world where courage was not needed and sacrifice was a superfluity.”

Well — I guess we’re in luck. Because in the world which you and I inhabit, courage is desperately needed and there is much hard work to be done. Failures of leadership and the brokenness of our institutions lay before us like gaping wounds. The disease of white supremacy and the disparity of privilege in this nation have been brought to light in nothing less than the midday sun. And if we can take it all in — cry over it, rather than gloss over it — then perhaps we’ll be ready to sow, to plant and tend the seeds that will one day yield a joyful harvest.

There was a most poignant example of that truth this week, as well. I don’t care if you’re Democrat or Republican, it truly doesn’t matter if you vote red or blue or green — what Stacey Abrams, and a generation of Black female leaders before and alongside her, accomplished in Georgia this week should serve as an inspiration to us all. Collectively, they, and the organizations they founded, “registered over a million new voters in just over 3 years;” got “communities of color, rural populations and other marginalized groups counted in the 2020 Census;” and “made over 2.2 million phone calls … knocked on over 370,000 doors to motivate voters to register to vote and get to the polls.” They visited every one of the 159 counties in the state of Georgia and listened to those who had never been listened to, much less sought out, before. They demonstrated not just that every vote matters, but more than that — that every person matters, above and beyond their vote. [1]

And what did they reap after all their hard work sowing? 

Two new senators for the state of Georgia, and not just any two — as Stacey Abrams pointed out: “a Jewish son of an immigrant,” in the state where Leo Frank was lynched; and a successor at The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, pulpit in historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, “the first Black senator from Georgia.”

But most importantly of all, what they reaped is two senatorial races decided not by special interest groups, not by corporate money, not by lobbyists or cronyism or cynicism that kept voters from engaging in the democratic process. This past Tuesday, two elections of enormous consequence were decided by overwhelming turnout, on both sides of the aisle, of the citizens of Georgia who cast their individual votes. As much as the events that transpired on Wednesday afternoon were an attack and stain on our cherished democracy, Georgia’s elections were a most resounding affirmation and win for democracy itself. 

Our visions of what this country should look like will differ; we will disagree about the best way forward, sometimes vehemently. But all of us should have a different vision, a better vision, than that which we saw on Wednesday afternoon. So let our tears motivate us, for there is a lot of sowing to be done.

Before the dust had settled on Wednesday evening, members of the House and Senate returned to chambers in the Capitol building — and they got back to work. As Members of Congress rose in turn to address their colleagues and the nation, the same phrases were repeated by many. They called the Capitol building our “temple of democracy” and a “sacred space.” As they stood among shattered windows and overturned furniture, rifled papers on desks and trash on the floor, the scene and their words evoked the imagery of Hanukkah: A desecrated temple that needed to be rededicated.

Not until centuries after the events of Hanukkah would rabbis introduce the story of a single cruse of oil lasting for eight miraculous nights. Until then, you know how the rededication was accomplished? A lot of broom sweeping and stone moving, and then offering the appropriate sacrifices. In other words: Business as usual. The space had most certainly been desecrated, as was our Capitol on January 6th, but it wasn’t once again made holy because they hung a plaque or God made it so. They made it holy because they rolled up their sleeves, took inventory of what needed to be done, and got to work. 

And to this day: Hanukkah is one of the most joyous, uplifting, inspiring holidays on the entire Jewish calendar. Because those who sow in tears, will reap in joy. Shabbat Shalom.

———

[1]  “Meet the Black Women Who Turned Georgia Blue,” Erin Feher, representcollaborative.com, 1/7/21.

2 thoughts on “Remarks at KKBE’s Shabbat Evening Service”

  1. Although we, your congregants, do sow in tears because of the events of January 6 and all that that has happened over the last 4 years that culminated in the Desecration of our Capitol. We also reap in joy because you are our rabbi, who inspires us, who comforts us and who motivates us to work relentlessly for justice for all.

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  2. Thank you for your words Rabbi. These days are hard as a Jewish American. You mentioned the 6MNE which is beyond awful – but did you see the men walking with tsitsit sticking out of their clothes? How can they, supposedly ultra-religious Jews, be part of a group that wants, among other things, to annihilate the Jewish community? Watching them being part of the thug crowd was so beyond disturbing.

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