Jubilee (Beyond 37)

Originally posted during the Omer 2015. References to the exact date of the count have been removed to avoid confusion. Also note that Behar, the Torah portion including Jubilee instructions, is read on its own in leap years (like 2019).

This week’s Torah reading — a double-portion, Behar (Lev 25:1-26:2) and Bechukotai (Lev 26:3-27:34) — includes instructions for conducting the Jubilee, the year of rest for the land, a time to “proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants” (Lev 25:10).

Writing for T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, Rabbi Joel Mosbacher notes another injunction in this week’s reading:

When we were enslaved in Egypt, the Torah says, the Egyptians made us serve them b’farech, with crushing labor (Exodus 1:13). This week’s Torah portion demands that, when we enter the promised land, we not rule over others b’farech (Leviticus 25:43).

As we count the years since the great [Civil Rights] movement [of the 1960s] in our own nation, we also wonder if the planting that was done in the civil rights era will come to fruition, if we will reap the harvest of our predecessors’ hard work. Americans are being crushed once again, with violence and economic and racial inequality. We have not yet achieved the magical, transcendent moment of Sinai.

We should celebrate the legacies of the past—the times when we glimpsed freedom.

But then, we need to get back to work. Our Torah commands it.
— R. Mosbacher, Free At Last?

There may have been moments in the past when we glimpsed freedom. But, as a country, we are stuck with perspectives and behaviors that make freedom for “all inhabitants” an impossibility:

…they will make assumptions about who they think you are based on their limited notion of the world. And my husband and I know how frustrating that experience can be. We’ve both felt the sting of those daily slights throughout our entire lives — the folks who crossed the street in fear of their safety; the clerks who kept a close eye on us in all those department stores; the people at formal events who assumed we were the “help” — and those who have questioned our intelligence, our honesty, even our love of this country.

from JFREJ in NYC May 2

from JFREJ in NYC May 2

And I know that these little indignities are obviously nothing compared to what folks across the country are dealing with every single day — those nagging worries that you’re going to get stopped or pulled over for absolutely no reason; the fear that your job application will be overlooked because of the way your name sounds; the agony of sending your kids to schools that may no longer be separate, but are far from equal; the realization that no matter how far you rise in life, how hard you work to be a good person, a good parent, a good citizen — for some folks, it will never be enough.

And all of that is going to be a heavy burden to carry. It can feel isolating. It can make you feel like your life somehow doesn’t matter — that you’re like the invisible man that Tuskegee grad Ralph Ellison wrote about all those years ago. And as we’ve seen over the past few years, those feelings are real. They’re rooted in decades of structural challenges that have made too many folks feel frustrated and invisible. And those feelings are playing out in communities like Baltimore and Ferguson and so many others across this country.
— Michelle Obama’s recent speech at Tuskegee Commencement

There is much work to do to bring about the Jubilee. It doesn’t involve protests or petitions. It involves a shift of perspective.


Making the Omer Count

from On the Road to Knowing: A Journey Away from Oppression
A key element in the journey from liberation to revelation is understanding the workings of oppression, and our part in them. We cannot work effectively to end what we do not comprehend.

So this year, moving from Passover to Shavuot, I commit to learning more about how oppression works and how liberation is accomplished. I invite others to join me.

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The Most Dangerous of Dualisms (Beyond 30)

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No one knows for certain what the ancient rabbi meant when warned his fellow mystical travelers against saying “Water! Water!”:

When you reach the stones of pure marble, don’t say, “Water! Water!” As it states, “One who speaks falsehood shall not endure before My eyes” [Psalms 101:7]
— Babylonian Talmud, Chagigah 14b

The speaker, Rabbi Akiba, is one of four who “entered Pardes [Paradise],” the only one who “entered in peace and departed in peace.” His instructions are understood as pre-trip warnings to other other three.

Some explanations for Akiba’s words liken pure marble to the place where upper (divine) and lower (mundane) waters meet, arguing against attempting to divide divine and mundane. Many teachings focus on dualisms, warning against dividing God into Light/Dark, Good/Evil, etc.

But Michelle Obama spoke, back in April 2013, to what I consider the most dangerous dualism of all: allowing some of our citizens to grow up “consumed with watching their backs” while others grow up enjoying a city’s riches.

Boundless Promise Lost

I wrote then:

Accepting such a state of affairs implies two sets of rules or, worse, two sets of expectations for human beings. This is tantamount to bowing to two gods.

At the “place of pure marble” — where the Torah tells us all humans are in God’s image — we must acknowledge that “every single child in [Chicago or any city] has boundless promise no matter where they live.” Failing to do so is blasphemy of the deepest kind, it “speaks falsehood” that cannot endure before God’s eyes.
— from Fabrangen Havurah‘s omer-counting blog, 2013

Meanwhile, Chicago, my first hometown, has lost so many to street and police violence, as has DC, my adopted hometown of 27 years. Losses across the country mount at a rate so high as to be numbing.

And this does not even begin to address suffering of, and long-term affects in, communities experiencing grief upon grief. Nor does it approach the dual reality Mrs. Obama described in our mutual hometown:

Today, too many kids in this city are living just a few El stops, sometimes even just a few blocks, from shiny skyscrapers and leafy parks and world-class museums and universities, yet all of that might as well be in a different state, even in a different continent.
— Michelle Obama, April 10, 2013

BlackSpring-HiRes-476x500
As discussed previously, this week’s attribute, Hod, is associated with empathy.

But the literal meaning of the word is “Glory.”

May the energy of this attribute impel us, finally, this week, to see that this dual existence is incompatible with God’s glory and “shall not endure before [God’s] eyes.”

The war on Black people in Baltimore is the same war on Black people across America. Decades of poverty, unemployment, under-funded schools and police terrorism have reached a boiling point in Baltimore and cities around the country.

This past winter our people were presented with hollow reforms. This spring we present to the world our visionary demands. Demands that speak to a world where all Black Lives Matter.

This will be our #BlackSpring.
Ferguson Action

We counted 30 on the evening of May 3. Tonight, we count….

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Stragglers on the Road Away from Bondage

Remarks before Mourners’ Kaddish, Temple Micah (DC)
Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath (March 13-16, 2014)

Hadiya Z. Pendleton lived in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago, my hometown, not far from where I lived for several years and where friends still live. She liked Fig Newtons, my favorite snack when I was a teenager. She and I both visited Washington, DC, while still in high school — I was part of Washington Workshops Congressional Seminars, and she performed in Obama’s Inaugural parade. Both of us participated in local anti-crime initiatives: “Operation Whistle Stop” in my case; and a “Think Smart” anti-gang video in hers.

“Hadiya Pendleton was me, and I was her,” Michelle Obama said last April. “But I got to grow up, and go to Princeton and Harvard Law School, and have a career and a family and the most blessed life I could ever imagine. And Hadiya? Oh, we know that story….”

Hadiya Pendleton was gunned down on January 29, 2013, shot to death in a public park because, from the back, she resembled someone associated with a gang. Hadiya never reached her 16th birthday, which would have been June 2, 2013.

While there are obvious differences between my life and both Hadiya Pendleton’s and Michelle Obama’s, my reaction to Hadiya’s death was similar to Mrs. Obama’s. She rightly points out how just a few urban blocks can mean the difference between a life rich in possibility and one circumscribed by need and loss. I would add that we cannot allow those few blocks – or even a few miles – to insulate us from our neighbors’ grief.

Since last January, the District of Columbia has lost ten teenagers to gunshots, but I do not usually hear their names read from this bima [podium]. I know many who mourn for young people killed on DC streets, but my own children graduated high school without losing an immediate friend to that plague, and neither child remembers the frequent gunshots of their toddler years, so they grew up without that fear. The relative segregation of our lives mean that many of us here today are not directly touched by the violence that robs too many of our neighbors of childhoods. But Judaism forbids us from standing idly by the blood of a sister. And Shabbat Zachor [Remember!], just before Purim, calls us to remember the threat of Amalek, who attacked the hungry, weary stragglers among the Israelites in the desert (Deut. 25:17-19).

In Chicago, DC, and other cities, whole neighborhoods like Hadiya’s have become stragglers on the road out of bondage, filled with youth who are hungry and weary and, all too often, vulnerable to attack. Until all teens like Hadiya can safely hang out in the local parks, we have failed to blot out the name of Amalek.

Hadiya’s life teaches how much can be packed into just a few years. Her death reminds us of the fragility of life at any age, but also of the duty of elders to protect our youth. So, last year, I acknowledged Hadiya Pendleton as my teacher and recited mourners’ kaddish for her. In consultation with Rabbi Lederman, I chose to speak about this Fig-Newton-loving, civic-minded young woman today (March 15), instead of on her yahrzeit which passed a few weeks ago. We thought that it would particularly honor her memory to speak her name on a Shabbat set aside for Gun Violence Prevention.

May the memory of Hadiya Pendleton be for a blessing, and may that blessing include a renewed commitment to make our cities safe places where all young people can thrive.