A teacher of mine in rabbinical school once commented to me disparagingly about the word “spirituality”. “Spirituality is not our word”, he said, “Kedusha, holiness, is our word!” He was a great teacher and a great leader in the Reform movement, and I’m going to disagree with him. Kedusha, holiness, comes from a general sense of separateness and setting apart. “Spirit”, on the other hand, comes from the Latin “spiarare” which means “breathe”. In other words, to be “spiritual” is to breathe, not just involuntarily, but purposefully and mindfully, leading to purposeful and mindful action in the world.
In January, as part of Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, I, accompanied by many Beth Shir Shalom members, traveled to Macedonia Baptist Church in Watts, one of our spiritual partners. I say “traveled to Macedonia” because, let’s face it, despite that it’s 2016 – there is, sadly, more than miles that separate our congregations. We may have some things in common “spiritually” but we live in very different cities.
As I spoke at church that morning I reminisced about the summer before when I marched for a day with the NAACP in Athens, Georgia, one day of many weeks in a march from Selma leading ultimately to Washington, D.C. I remembered that from time to time on that march we would shout out to encourage each other and to tell onlookers what we were doing, “This is what America looks like! This is what equality looks like! This is what freedom looks like! This is what justice looks like!”
If it’s hard to believe that such an America, such a world of equality and freedom and justice is possible, we won’t be the first people to express cynicism and doubt about America.
That Sunday, I was honored, as I always am, to speak from the Macedonia pulpit. I spoke about the Jewish people trapped at the shore of the Sea of Reeds. They, too, expressed cynicism and doubt. They said to Moses, “Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you dealt with us this way…? Didn’t we tell you …, ‘Leave us alone, so that we may serve the Egyptians?’ It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than die in the wilderness.” They just were liberated from Egypt after four-hundred years and they were already k’vetching? They accuse Moses of purposefully taking them out into the desert to die, saying they prefer slavery to freedom!
Moses, apparently complains to God, to which God responds, “Why do you cry to me? Speak to the people of Israel that they go forward; and lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea, and divide it; and the people of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea.” The people, quite rationally but with some hyperbole, express their concerns about their ominous situation, either drowning in the Sea of Reeds or being killed by the Egyptians. In turn, Moses steps aside to ask God for help. God says, “Go help yourself! Stretch out your hands and hold up your walking stick. See what happens.” Now let’s imagine that we are the Jewish people looking at Moses as he stretches out his hands over the water and…nothing happens, not right away anyway. He’s standing there with his arms outstretched over the sea, holding fast to his “miracle” staff which doesn’t seem to be making any miracles at the moment. And we, the Jewish people, what do we do?
There’s a rabbinic notion that all the miracles that would ever occur aren’t really miracles at all because they were woven into the fabric of the Universe just as the Sun set on the sixth day of Creation. Each of them “sits” there frozen in the fabric of time and space waiting for the perfect conditions for them to release themselves and impact history and society. And what are those “perfect conditions” under which these seeming “miracles” take place? It’s when we stop believing in or hoping for miracles. It’s when we do something. The rabbis imagine that in that moment between Moses raising his hands and the sea splitting open, a man named Nachshon with presumably others following, walked into the water to their nostrils. That’s when the sea split!
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “We do not have faith in deeds. We attain faith through deeds – Deeds, not just thoughts or intentions.” So did Nachshon believe in what Moses was doing, standing there holding out his hands? Nachshon and his followers realized that this was a moment to act – not out of faith, but to leap toward faith. Faith in God? Maybe. Faith in Moses? Perhaps. Faith in miracles? Not obviously. But they did have faith in themselves to be active participants in making and changing history.
Moses must have looked crazy standing there with his hands over the water! He was waiting for God’s word to be fulfilled. It wasn’t God but rather Nachshon and a group of others who breathed a breath of courage and hope and, in an act of great spirituality, walked into the water.
One Shabbat in early July, Toby said to me, “We have to go to church tomorrow.” That “tomorrow” was the Sunday after unarmed black men were shot and killed in Minnesota and Louisiana and white police officers were killed in Dallas. Toby, as usual, was right. We had to go to church.
As we took our places in the pews and waited the words of the poet, C. P. Cavafy, in his poem “The Great Yes” spoke to the moment:
For some people the day comes
when they have to declare the great Yes
or the great No. It’s clear at once who has the Yes
ready within him…
On that sad morning, using few words, Pastor Shane Scott, like Nachson stepping into the water, stepped down from the pulpit and split the sea of silence and asked his congregation to do something. Quietly, he asked all the young men in the congregation to stand up so we could see these wonderful human beings who, in some eyes in the larger world, are immediately deemed to be suspicious because of the color of their skin. Pastor Scott asked them to come forward to where he was standing. Then the pastor asked all the older men of the congregation to stand and come forward and surround the younger men. Finally, Pastor Scott asked everyone in the congregation to rise and stretch out our hands over this gathering of the men of their community. We did. I thought of Moses with my arms and hands outstretched. Then the miracle happened. After saying some words of encouragement and prayers for protection for these black men of the Macedonia community, Pastor Scott asked his musicians to begin playing a contemporary Gospel song to which I’d been introduced there some years before. We sang:
“I need you
You need me
We’re all a part of God’s body
Stand with me…
You are important to me
I need you to survive” © Hezekiah Walker
That’s it. THAT is the miracle – the Great Yes, that in order to keep these young men from being vulnerable to the fate that too many African-American men (and women) have met, unarmed, innocent people, they need everyone’s pledge that we are there for them to help them to be safe. Those young men need every one of us to help them survive. This is not “their” problem. It’s our problem. They need us all to survive. Especially Jews, because we’ve known what it’s like to have members of our community killed simply because they are Jews. In France they still know it. Israelis still know it. Because we have that history and the present and that awareness, it is incumbent upon us all the more to be part of the net of protection for young black men and women and to be part of the change that needs to happen. Racism isn’t over and Dr. King’s dream is still just that, a dream. Once each year our congregations look like what the messiah time will look like. That’s not enough. We’re each a tiny part of that messiah time and it can’t be built without the active participation of each one of us.
We can’t stand like Moses waiting for the miracle. We have to be like Nachson; we have to be the miracle. We can’t go back to some imagined great America or a better civilization. It doesn’t exist. We have to build that America and that world. We have to be like Nachson, we have to vote with our feet in the water. We need to address the clear unequal financial and educational opportunities that exist in this city and this country. We need to do something about the unfair judicial system and prison system. We need to get honest about our innate biases. This election day, we need to elect ourselves. Like Macedonia and Beth Shir Shalom coming together once a year, voting day is not enough. There are many more seas to cross and to cross them we must believe that we are the Great Yes. We are the breath of a better tomorrow. We are the miracles. There aren’t any others.