Taking a cue from President Obama, who famously says during his campaigns and during the one just past, “Don’t boo – vote!”, I’ve been signing my emails with the addendum, “Don’t Mourn, Work – Don’t Grieve – Organize.” Here’s why:
The evening after the election I received an unexpected gift (the best kind). Along with other clergy from the area, and as part of an organization called CLUE, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, whose commitment is to lend support in situations in which workers are being treated unfairly and unjustly, I found myself at the Le Merigot Hotel in Santa Monica, where the workers were struggling against a mean-spirited ownership and managerial staff. I’ve been involved with CLUE since its inception and, unfortunately, we don’t have to look far to find conditions in which we are needed. So it was with the workers at this hotel, who were suffering economic, emotional and even physical (in the form of an overload of heavy physical labor and unrealistic time constraints) oppression. Clergy and others joined the workers on the sidewalk in front of the hotel, a couple with their children in tow, some at the beginning of a shift, some at the end of one. We chanted. We sang. Encouraging words were spoken. Prayers and blessings were offered. I felt humbled just to be standing with these amazing people. And…I felt as though I was receiving a great gift.
Gift #1: Were it not for my work with CLUE, I would never meet and get to know these people. They are mostly anonymous to the “customers” because they wear a uniform (so they become more “the company” than they are themselves). They are not only hard-working; the take great pride in what they do. It is an honor to know them.
Gift #2: These are some of the most courageous people I’ve ever met. I’ve watched them confront supervisors and managers and tell them that demand to be treated as people – with respect. I know that I speak to those same supervisors and walk away without any potential harassment. They, on the other hand, are wide open to retribution and even being fired.
Gift #3: They helped me realize what my response to my disappointment over the outcome of the presidential election needs to be. After election night, I felt (and still feel) as though this election amounts to a polemic against my most cherished values, my American values, my human values, my Jewish values. Like many others, I was in mourning for those values. I felt immobilized. Then, I went to be with the hotel workers at the Le Merigot and I was “schooled”. Immediately I realized what my response to the attempt to usurp these values should be, must be: Don’t mourn – work. Don’t grieve – organize. I also realized that the “work”, the “organizing”, needs to be done at all times and in all circumstances because it’s never about the president. It’s about the absence of justice and feeling mandated to create justice in that space. It’s about the absence of decency and feeling mandated to make certain that people are respected because we are each and every one of us is b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of All-There-Is, All-There-Was, and All-There-Every-Will-Be. If that urgency feels overwhelming, we should remind ourselves of what Rabbi Tarfon says in Pirke Avot: “ You are not obligated to complete the task, nor are you free to abandon it”(2:21). In other words as, Rabbi Rami Shapiro explains, “While the task is long and the time is short, you are not obligated to complete it. Effort alone is what matters.”*
Now is the time for such effort. It always has been. It always will be.
*Ethics of the Sages: Pirke Avot—Annotated & Explained (SkyLight Illuminations) (Kindle Location 1608). Turner Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.