Posted on May 3, 2019
A few weeks ago, we read the story of the death of two sons of Moses’s brother Aaron, who die in the Israelites’ sanctuary in the Wilderness.
Immediately after their deaths, Aaron is initially entirely silent. Our commentators ask why:
Is he too stunned to speak?
Is he praying inwardly?
Is he blaming himself?
Our text doesn’t say.
Our Torah portion this week is called Acharei Mot. After the death. It describes what forms of worship and action Aaron, as High Priest, is supposed to engage in after these deaths in order for the Israelite people to move on. It is a catalogue of rituals that are taking one step after another: what can be done from here on out, moving forward.
This week we stand here Acharei Mot. After the death.
After the unbelievable death of Lori Kaye at Chabad in Poway.
And after, too, the deaths we are still reeling from over the last 6 months in other places of worship: in Pittsburgh, Christchurch, and Sri Lanka. Theirs, along with the many other deaths we are experiencing in our time through the violence of white nationalism. May their memories be for a blessing.
And, we are faced with what feels like a choice: are we supposed to send thoughts and prayers, or are we supposed to do something?
This week of Acharei Mot I felt compelled to join with others in a moment of thoughts and prayers turned into action by Bend The Arc, a Jewish social justice organization I personally support.
Bend the Arc takes its name from the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, which paraphrase a sermon given by local Boston abolitionist minister Theodore Parker in 1853: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
But it won’t bend of its own accord. And thoughts and prayers alone won’t bend it. Yet, thoughts and prayers are elevated to holiness when they are married to action.
So Bend the Arc put out a call to action that IS a prayer, literally called “Many Voices, One Prayer.” As many voices as possible were invited to record and post a single prayer in solidarity with its message. Rabbis, cantors, lay leaders, Imams, nuns, priests and pastors were amongst those who posted their videos.
We will share this prayer with you in a few moments, but first it is worth mentioning that it was not a coincidence that “Many Voices, One Prayer” went live last Wednesday, Erev Yom HaShoah, the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
That evening TST had the privilege of welcoming Lisa Gossels, an Emmy award-winning filmmaker, to screen her documentary “The Children of Chabonnes.” Her film illuminates the story behind the rescue from Nazi Germany of her father, our own beloved member Peter Gossels, with whom Lisa shared the bima in speaking about the film and their family history. Peter, along with his brother Werner and dozens of other children, was sheltered and protected by the good people of a small rural village in France during the Nazi Occupation.
Lisa described these heroes as “Extraordinary people who saw themselves as ordinary.” They saw themselves as ordinary, but they were presented with the opportunity to do something extraordinary by taking upon themselves many small, everyday actions, in addition to the “larger” acts that we think of as bravery, all of which added up to the preservation of the lives of all but four of the children entrusted to their care. Those four lost were a tragic four too many, yet so many more were saved.
Their actions were a form of prayer. And in taking action they did their part to bend the arc towards justice.
On Yom HaShoah, and every day, when we say “never again,” which of our actions show we mean it?
A very loaded question. But one answer is to remember that while this week’s Torah portion is Acharei Mot, “After the death,” next week’s Torah portion is K’doshim, “Holiness.” In K’doshim we are commanded to observe the mitzvah:
וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֽה׃
Love your neighbor as yourself, which our sage Hillel called the very essence of the entire Torah.
And to observe this mitzvah, love can not only be a feeling. Love must be an action. It may start as empathy, taking the form of thoughts and prayers, but it must be transformed into action by way of the other commandments found in parashat K’doshim:
The mitzvot of feeding the hungry, honoring the elderly, protecting the vulnerable, welcoming the stranger, and creating a society of justice and compassion.
When we say “never again” we can say it as a feeling, or we can say it as a call to action, as a mantra of self-empowerment. We each have the potential to be an extraordinary person, even if we see ourselves as ordinary, by actively seeking out every opportunity to perform these mitzvot, as the times we live in and our Jewish faith commands us.
In our time, when some choose to send thoughts and prayers instead of acting to change our current culture of white nationalism and violence, thoughts and prayers can have a bad rap.
And, indeed, we cannot get a free pass by saying, “I sent thoughts and prayers; now I’m done.”
But, for many of us, we do need prayer as well as action. We need a way to reflect, to voice our hopes and dreams of what could be–of what should be. We need to sing out our intention: quiet and strong, or loud and clear. In the name of all that is most holy, here are the words and actions that I commit myself to, be they small or large. Actions of kindness and actions of societal change.
When you leave here tonight, a conversation to have with those you hold dear: What am I already doing that shapes the world around me for the better? What is the prayer that I have that this is putting into action? How can I be singing it stronger, enacting it with more power?
Here is our prayer that is action, and action that is prayer.
Out of many voices, we rise as one.
We mourn with one voice those lost.
We grieve the white nationalism that threatens us all.
We the people of many faiths shall join together;
With prayer anchored to action
and linked to the hope of a country rising out of the many to become
We have been created so that we may know one another.
Let us be healers of the wound that history has formed,
truth tellers of our nation’s sins.
Let us be healers of the wound our present is forming,
truth tellers of the unholy alliance of hate and power married to pain and alienation.
Let us be healers of the wound our future cannot afford,
truth tellers of tragedy, but never prophets of despair.
And, By God we rise as One.