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The Opposite of Indifference

On Monday, along with more than 3,000 other faith leaders, including more than 300 Reform rabbis and cantors, I marched for justice in Washington D.C. The air was thick with passion and excitement: with the power of our traditions and our holiest texts propelling us. We marched knowing that justice, compassion, and love are as much a part of our identities as Jews as they are a part of who we are as Americans.  We prayed together with words and with music, and then, just as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us from his own justice work, we ‘prayed with our feet’, marching from the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, all the way to the steps of the Department of Justice.

It sounds pretty good, right? I mean- “good” in the sense of it sounding like just the right thing for a reform rabbi to be doing on a sunny August day, in our nation’s capital: holding our government accountable to the ideals of equality and brotherhood that our founding father’s professed to espouse.

But here’s my dirty little secret: from the moment I decided to go, and then “un-decided” to go, and then registered and booked a plane ticket, and even when I stepped on the plane itself: I was kind of ambivalent. I wasn’t 100% sure why I was going, or what I thought I would accomplish by being there, or what I thought would happen or change for me by being there.

The March itself was officially called “The 1000 Ministers March for Justice”— planned months ago by Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, to coicnide with the 54th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s  march on Washington and “I have a dream speech”.

In their organizational website about the march, organizers described their vision and reason for marching:

The Department of Justice and the current Administration are undermining Dr. King’s Dream. We are marching to reaffirm that religious leaders will recommit to being at the forefront of social justice and civil rights.

As Dr. King marched for 54 years ago, we are still marching for:

  1. Voting Rights

  2. Healthcare

  3. Criminal Justice Reform

  4. Economic Justice

On Monday August 28th, 2017, we are calling on all religious leaders to join us in Washington, DC for the Ministers’ March for Justice. We are asking for clergy to commit to amplifying up messages centered on the Social Justice agenda, and participate in the grassroots efforts to hold Attorney General Sessions accountable for all peoples’ Civil Rights.

It wasn’t that I was ambivalent about the cause: but, I wasn’t sure what my getting on a plane on a Sunday night, and walking a couple of miles in Washington D.C. was really going to do to bend the arc of justice toward equal voting rights, or criminal justice reform.

But, I went- despite my inability to articulate exactly why.

I went, with some amorphous sense that I should: because it was Elul. Because my inertia felt suffocating over the events of this past summer, coming to a stifling peak as I watched in horror as actual Nazi’s marched in Charlottesville. Because I could. Because I couldn’t not.

Ultimately, those inarticulate, amorphous feelings of “should” crystallized into something more powerful: surrounded by more than 300 reform leaders, including rabbis, cantors and local lay leaders, our delegation represented roughly 10% of the total body of faith leaders marching for justice this week. In my conversations with friends and colleagues that day, many others shared similar feelings of ambivalence leading up to the moment they put on their sneakers that morning, and headed for the MLK monument.  Why were we marching with Al Sharpton, some wondered? What did we think marching would do, others asked?

Here’s what I came home with: a growing sense of urgency, grounded in a piece of Torah that I will carry with me through this month of Elul:

Rabbi David Stern, President of the CCAR, who offered a powerful interpretation on a great piece of Torah that we find in this week’s portion, Ki Teitzei: “Lo tuchal l’hitchalem”— you may not remain in indifferent. Literally- the Torah implores us to remember that we aren’t permitted to hide our faces. In other words, you have to show up.

In its Deuteronomy context, lo tuchal l’hitalem refers to your neighbor’s ox. When it goes astray, you are required to return it; you can’t pretend you didn’t see it. That’s pretty clear and reasonable. You know it belongs to him, and who wants someone else’soxintheirbackyard?Butit’smessybecauseyoumightnot know whose ox it is and because a parallel commandment in Exodus says that you have to return it even if it belongs to your enemy. Even if the guy is a jerk and the last time your ox got free, he didn’t bring it back to you!

Obviously the narrow meaning here isn’t very helpful in our mostly ox-free world. But the broader implications are what caught my attention this week: when you see your neighbor, you can’t pretend you didn’t see them. If they are suffering, you can’t pretend you didn’t notice. If they are in need of your presence, your solidarity- you can’t pretend you didn’t see them.

Our tradition has interpreted “You shall not remain indifferent” to mean that when we see injustice, when we see suffering, we must not turn away. Holocaust theologian and author, Elie Weisel wrote, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, its indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, its indifference.”

And so, I finally understood why I was there. Because “lo tuchal l’hitchalem” isn’t just about oxen. Because I had to walk with my neighbors. Because I’m not indifferent and I needed to show up.

This, I think might be what it means to move through the days and weeks ahead with an “elul consciousness”— an awareness of what this time of year demands from us, and invites us to do. As we continue the run up to Rosh Hashanah, we are invited into the process of Heshbon ha Nefesh – accounting of our soul. Will we show up, or will we hide from what demands our attention?  

It strikes me that losing our indifference might be the best thing we do all year.

I started with honesty and want to end with honesty: I still don’t know what, if anything, the march accomplished on a communal level.  But, I know that when I returned to Reagan airport that evening, I had lost that ambivalence. The experience stripped that away. If that is true for even a fraction of the more than 3000 people who marched, then I have hope: knowing that as we move into this season of reflection, accountability, and atonement- that around the country, there are people of faith, propelled by a commitment to justice and equality, preaching, teaching, and loving those who are hurting, and those in search of inspiration.

At the closing rally for the march, my friend and colleague Rabbi Hannah Goldstein, an associate rabbi at Temple Sinai in DC, who standing on the steps of the Dept of Justice, reminded all of us that this is the time of the year that we shout and plead the words “Pitchu li sha’arey tzedek”— Open for me the gates of righteousness! Open the gates!”

May we continue to do the inner work that allows us to show up, to stand up, and to speak out.

May we throw open the gates of justice and righteousness for all and may we merit to see a time of greater peace and equality

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