Monthly Archives: June 2015

A Call to Justice, in memory of the victims in Charleston

God gave Aaron and his sons an important task: they were to protect the holy Tabernacle, and the sacred utensils within. They would be responsible to ensure that the temple remained holy, and the people who worshiped were safe and were inspired.

Ata uvanecha uveit avicha itach tisu et avon hamikdash. “You and your sons [the priests] shall bear any iniquity, any guilt connected with the sanctuary.”

You are responsible, God said, to make sure that immorality stays outside of its doors, and that this holy place remains holy.

Well, today, there is no Aaron. The priests of the Temple are long gone. So how do we keep our holy places holy?

In the past week, there was not one, but two acts of hatred and violence within holy places of the world. These are the places where people study and worship and console and comfort and celebrate one another. These are the places where people devote themselves to making this world a little better, and a little more inspired. This week they were violated.

Who is responsible when a band of Jewish extremists damages a church on the Sea of Galilee because they believe the church is engaging in idol worship?

Who is responsible when a 21 year old white man, with hatred in his heart walks into a historic black church, spends an hour studying the bible, and then opens fire, brutally murdering nine people inside, because he believes that “blacks were taking over the world,” and that “someone needed to do something about it for the white race.”[1]

Who is responsible? Surely the perpetrators are responsible; it was their actions. But the responsibility does not and cannot end there. It must also be ours.

The Israeli extremists were not just crazy people doing crazy things. Suspect Dylann Roof was not just “one of these whacked-out kids…[not] anything broader than that.”[2] It was something broader than that. Of course it was! Yes, Roof is a disturbed individual, but he is not one of a kind. In a community that proudly lifts up the confederate flag, and names its streets after confederate generals, Roof’s racist beliefs are condoned on a daily basis. This is not the first time a black church has been targeted. It has happened many times before. Roof didn’t enter the church at random. He admits that he walked in to a historic black church, wearing a sweatshirt with a Rhodesia on it, not just because he wanted to kill black people, but because he wanted to start a civil war within Charleston.

Tomorrow we’ll read about Korach, a priest who perceived Aaron and Moses as threats with too much power. He responds by trying to spark a civil war of his own, filling the minds and hearts of Israelites with feelings of anger and resentment. Korach’s followers bring their fire-pans and incense to a showdown, insisting God will accept their offerings over the ones from Moses and Aaron. God, who had given Aaron his role as a high priest, and who had made Korach a kind of priest as well, was none too pleased. Even after Korach and his followers lost their civil war, and even after people lost their lives, the Torah teaches something very interesting: The fire pans the rebels used against Aaron and Moses were declared holy, by God. They were not discarded. They were not hidden beneath fire and ash. They were saved, and were treated as holy vessels which the priests would be forced to see and use every single day. They would be constant reminders of the pain of the rebellion of the lives that were lost and of the insidious nature of hatred.

Now I know this may be uncomfortable. We don’t want to think about hatred, or the shame and guilt that goes along with the privilege of having lighter colored skin. We don’t want to think any more than we have to about the consequences of racism. We don’t want to want to think about these events too much because they make the world feel scary and painful. They can make peace feel unattainable.

But God declared the instruments holy. God declared that we may not forget. We may not put these events from our minds because racism does not stop simply because we stop seeing it. It isn’t enough to say “We’re sorry.” It isn’t enough to say “I’m not racist,” even if we aren’t. We are Jews, or we love Jews enough that we are here today. We know oppression. We know hatred. And we know what it feels like to be deafened by the silence of good people who chose to not raise their voices when they see injustice. We know too well.

We cannot discard this story of disgust and put it from our minds. Because if we do, it will happen again. And again. And again. And I don’t want to give this sermon again.

Let us instead have conversations about the racism that is such a pervasive force in our country. Let us instead think about what we can do to combat racism.

When we hear a racist slur, do we always explain how hateful those words can be?

When we fight for the education of our children, are we also fighting for the fair education for all people of all backgrounds throughout our great nation?

When we wish to hire someone for a job are we making sure that we are posting the job in places that all qualified people may have access to? Do we notice when we walk into store after store and find that every person in management is white?

Are we speaking to our senators and representatives about more racial equality within our justice system, knowing that people of color are far more likely to be put in prison than white people for the very same crimes? Knowing that people who have darker colored skin have a very different kind of relationship with police than those of us who are privileged to look white?

We must not be bystanders. We must take action, have a voice wherever we can, because we are responsible. Your voice matters far more than you may  even realize.

There was nothing holy about Korach’s actions to start a civil war. There was nothing holy about his hatred. But the instruments he used to demonstrate were transformed into instruments of holiness, so that the priests could have reminders of how important it is combat hatred.

There was nothing holy about Roof’s racist beliefs, or his violent actions. There was nothing holy about killing The honorable Rev. Pickney, Rev. Singleton, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lee Lance, Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Simmons Sr., Rev. Middleton-Doctor, and Susie Jackson. There was nothing holy about that.

But perhaps if we remember them, if we do not turn away our eyes, and instead recognize and respond to the racism that exists so rampantly in the US—and yes, right here, in Utica—then maybe just maybe we can transform Roof’s hate into passion for justice, and for racial equality. Perhaps we can transform the memory of Roof’s nine victims, who did not choose to die for cause, into fuel to help us create a more holy and just community, both within these temple walls and outside of them.

Kein Yehi Ratzon. May this be God’s will.


[2] As presidential hopeful Senator Lindsey Graham said

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