This sermon was given by Rabbi David Stern, an active member of the RAC-TX team, at the Joint Jewish and African American religious service with the Texas Legislative Black Caucus Conference on April 6, 2021.
Thank you to Reverend Miller and Rabbi David Segal of RAC-TX for their kind invitation, for the important work of the US-CLO, RAC-TX, Texas Impact, and all of the brothers and sisters in faith engaged in the vital spiritual work of social justice – and of course to the members of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus for fighting the good fight every day.
Our assignment as preachers today is to help identify the scriptural roots of social justice. To the question: “Where do we find the roots of justice and social change in scripture,” I would have to answer, “Where don’t we?” Most obvious would be to jump to Deuteronomy: “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Or to the Hebrew prophets, to Amos and Micah and Isaiah and their rage for the good, their clarion calls against greed and oppression.
But I say don’t jump so far. I say start in the Garden of Eden itself, where after Adam and Eve have eaten from the fruit of the tree, God asks them the first question in all of scripture. Ayekka – “Where are you?” It’s a strange question because you figure God’s got to know where they are. But the question is not about Adam and Eve’s geographic location – it’s about their moral location. With that first question from the all-knowing Creator, we human beings are put on notice to locate ourselves – not on Google maps, but on God’s map – the map of the human heart, the map of our private and public relationships, the map of power and knowledge used justly or unjustly, for good or for ill.
And on that map of the heart there is a place called Egypt, and the Exodus story that we Jews just finished retelling on Passover last week. A story that in the words of our tradition, moves from degradation to dignity, from slavery to freedom, a story propelled by the God who stands for liberation from oppression, whose earthly emissaries carry God’s message: to repudiate any power that diminishes the spark of dignity in every human being; any power that relegates people to slavery, or to the back of the bus, or to the back of the voting line at the polling place without water; any power that says more bricks, less straw; any power that tries to suffocate the cry of pain rather than letting it pierce our hearts and open our hands to the work that must be done.
But there is one part of that story that has been especially on my mind as I thought about tonight, and that is the ninth plague, the plague of darkness. Now in scripture, that plague is brought by God, the penultimate plague brought before Pharaoh finally lets the people go. In scripture, the Egyptians suffer in darkness, but the Israelites have light in their dwellings – maybe the strong light of faith, maybe the glow of God’s presence, maybe just the faintest, guttering flame of hope that freedom might come.
The darkness of Egypt was so thick you could touch it. It was the kind of darkness, scripture says, that made it impossible for a person to see his brother. I think of that plague tonight because we know it in our own day. Not a darkness brought by God, but a darkness we bring upon ourselves. Not a darkness that moves the powerful to release the oppressed, but a willful blindness by the powerful that renders the oppressed invisible, unheard, unseen.
It is the darkness of the knee on the neck; the darkness that says I do not see you as my human brother or sister; the darkness at high noon on a sunbaked border. It is the blindness that says I do not see your ballot, the deafness that says I do not hear your voice or recognize your vote. It casts the shadow of suspicion on the rights of every citizen in a democratic society – the right to vote, the right to be free of harassment and violence by the very forces that should exist to protect us.
And lest we think the blindness always belongs to someone else, to some cartoon villain dwelling in Pharaoh’s palace, don’t forget the blindness we bring upon ourselves. It’s the blindness of folks who say, “Relax, things are so much better than they used to be.” It’s the blindness of white progressives who say, “My people marched with Dr. King. They supported the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act,” but don’t know about the George Floyd Act; folks who may be justified in their laurels, but never in resting upon them. Because our vision is diminished and distorted when we confuse the starting line for the finish line, the milestone for the final step. That blindness to urgency is perilous because it denies a fundamental truth: the work of justice is hard, and it is unending; it is in this moment and every moment, and it defies all the stereotypes we want to cast on each other, even on our allies.
We are gathered here, in part, to celebrate and reinvigorate the historic alliance between the African American and Jewish communities in the work of justice, an alliance always complicated, but heroic too. As Jews we come to you with our Exodus story, with our own pain and suffering over centuries of oppression, the extermination of six million of our family members in the Holocaust, the past and ugly present of antisemitism.
We come with our participation on the ramparts in the most significant human rights movements in American history - and sometimes confusingly, we come with the outward success and security we have found in this country. We bring a dual history of oppression and achievement, of security and fear, and we ask you to see all of us. We have been the oppressed, and yes, as part of the white power structure in America, we have been the oppressor. We come to you as white Jews and Jews of Color. We come to fight racism within ourselves and beyond ourselves. We invite you to see all of who we are, and we challenge ourselves to look in the mirror and see the same. We seek to be allies. We are all here to share with each other our complicated hearts.
Because we need each other in this darkness. We need each other’s heart and each other’s history; we need each other’s courage and each other’s hope. This world is no Garden of Eden, but it echoes with Eden in every moment. Do you hear it? Ayekka: “Where are you?” Because if we can hear the stunning summons of the living God, there is yet hope. And if we can answer it, with full faith and untiring advocacy, with every organizing action calling for passage of the George Floyd Act, with every signature and every phone call to the legislature opposing voter suppression, with the depth of our stories and the deeds of our lives, then no darkness will be thick enough, no blindness too stubborn.
Because long before the ninth plague, and even before that first question in the Garden, there was a spirit of God hovering over the face of the deep, and a different darkness. From that darkness a world was born, and a light that still shines. May it shine in our day for justice. May we make our way in that light, seeing one another as brothers and sisters once more.