The Torah relates that when Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, were killed, that Aaron was silent. Speechless. Sometimes there are no words. Sometimes there are too many words, perhaps too many unhelpful words. Rage words. Too few understanding words.
Tonight, we lift our prayers and give strength to those in Charleston, South Carolina, to the members of the AME Church across our nation, to the African American community that has once again suffered a grievous wound, to all those of faith…knowing it could easily have been us, too often for we Jews it has been us,… we offer support. It is a great honor for me to be able to host this service, to have heard Pastor Black share her thoughts tonight, to be joined by so many faith leaders and so many caring hearts here to offer prayers and strength.
My friends, a confession.
I am a prejudiced man.
I am a man who discriminates.
I am a man who bears hatred.
I am prejudiced against intolerance.
I discriminate against those who proclaim it.
I hate those who act upon it.
Such people have caused endless suffering. The history of my people is replete with haters who have acted in ways not unlike what happened in Charleston, South Carolina. I do not have to struggle to imagine something similar happening in a Jewish context, in a synagogue, in a community center, in a kosher supermarket. It happens all too often. We know that suffering.
But to apply Rabbi Hillel’s famous statement,
“If I am not willing to take on the challenge of changing the world, can I expect anyone else to do so?
What will I become if I do try?” and finally,
“If I am not willing to stand up here and now and say ‘NO MORE?’ When will I?” Too late? When Maurice Ogden’s Hangman knocks upon my door to take me to the gallows?
Here we are on June 19, 2015 mourning the killing of nine members of an AME Church in South Carolina, including four pastors.
June 19 is an important date in Black History. On June 19, 1865, a date that came to be known as Juneteenth and has been celebrated annually since, Union Solders landed on the shores of Galveston, Texas with the news that slaves were truly free. 150 years ago, today.
150 years after the end of slavery in this nation, a young man joined a prayer service at a historic black church, sitting with those attending for an hour, before opening fire on peaceful prayerful men and women simply because of the color of their skin.
I was asked by a man in despair over the martyrdom of the innocents in Charleston, how we may overcome the hatred in our world. I immediately thought of Rabbi Tarfon, “It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither may you desist from it.”
Tomorrow will not be the day that hatred vanishes from our world. It won’t be the next day either. It won’t be because you and I spoke out and said, “Hatred be gone!” or because God finally acquiesced and decided to make peace on earth because we sang a rousing chorus of Oseh Shalom as we will later on tonight.
When the time comes, when that day of peace finally arrives, when hatred and war are banished, it will be because each of us individually made a little bit of difference; little drops of water in the stream of justice will allow righteousness to flow like a mighty river.
We are in this together, my friends: as Americans and as people of faith.
In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous speech:
With this faith, we will indeed be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.
With this faith, we will indeed be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
With this faith, we will indeed be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to stand up for freedom together.
Tonight, I am reminded of another line, often forgotten, in that same speech, the one introducing the dream. Dr. King said, “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.”
Do we still have a dream? Do we still have a dream? …I think we do.
We still have a dream.
We still have a dream that our children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
We still have a dream.
We still have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
We still have a dream today. Juneteenth, 150 years to the day.
We still have a dream of freedom from slavery, freedom from the shackles of hatred and the bonds of prejudice; freedom from those who see only skin deep and see otherness as inhumanity.
We still have a dream!
And we have faith! Look around you tonight. But don’t just look. Truly see! Perceive!
These people here tonight and all those around our nation gathering together in vigil after vigil are people who care. These are people who like you have had enough! These are people…We the People…who hold this truth to be self-evident, that we all are created equal. We all matter.
You are not alone.
We are not alone.
No one is alone.
We stand together.
That is our dream. Let us make it real.