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Rabbi Schwartz's Sermon for Kol Nidre 5781

October 06, 2020 4:24 PM | Lance Strate (Administrator)


Kol Nidre, 5781

Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz

Soon after the death of George Floyd and the nation-wide protests that ensued, my colleague Rabbi Lance Sussman of Philadelphia, wrote this poem, entitled “I Can’t Breathe”:

I Can’t Breathe

by Rabbi Lance J. Sussman

I can’t breathe,

The knee of oppression

Is on my neck.

I can’t breathe,

The air of my city

Is filled with tear gas.

I can’t breathe,

I am filled with rage

And the smoke of burning buildings.

I can’t breathe

Because the air is filled with contempt for people of different colors.

I can’t breathe

Because my country is suffocating

And the air of democracy is getting thinner and thinner.

I can’t breathe

Because I am grieving for America

And praying its dreams aren’t dying

In the streets of our nation tonight.

I found this poem altogether powerful, but it was the end that struck me mostthe line that “the air of democracy is getting thinner and thinner” and “I am grieving for America”.

I realized then that I was suffering from a malady that has recently been named, Democracy Grief.

The term is an outgrowth of another illness of recent coinage: Climate Griefthe despair felt by environmentalists watching helplessly as our planet suffocates. As columnist Michelle Goldberg explains, “Those who pay close attention to the ecological calamity that civilization is inflicting upon itself frequently describe feelings of rage, anxiety, and bottomless loss.” Greta Thunberg, Time magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year, has described falling into a deep depression after grasping the ramifications of climate change and the utter refusal of people in power to rise to the occasion. “If burning fossil fuels is so bad that it threatens our very existence, how can we just continue like before?” she asks.

I ask: 

If prejudice and hate and racism are so bad that it threatens our very democratic existence how can we continue like before? 

If the original sin of this nation still has us in shackles, how can we be free? 

If the political discourse has so degraded that it keeps us at each other’s throats, how can we manage?

This summer I began my Independence Day Zoom Shabbat discussion by asking how people were feeling about our country. I asked our members to pick one word. The most common was fearful. Others were anxious, depressed. Only one member of our Zoom Shabbat congregation chose a positive word, optimistic.

In a recent Pew opinion poll on the same subject the most commonly chosen word was angry and the second scared.  Only 17% chose proud

Feelings like this are unsettling and they are unhealthy. They indicate, to my mind, more than malaise. They are a sign of deep anxiety about our nation. Democracy grief.

I spoke on that July 4th weekend about being a nation on edge because our feelings of disunion were overwhelming our feelings of union.

We feel disunion when our leaders fail to protect our nation during a pandemic.

We feel disunion when our leaders fail to seek common cause in a time of protest.

We feel disunion when our leaders fail the common test of decency in a crisis.

We feel disunion when other fellow Americans acquiesce in this recklessness.

We feel disunion when truth-telling falls victim to deceit and deception.

We feel disunion when courage bows to expediency and vision is lost to triumphalism.

In short, we feel disunion when our country is not pulling together but pulling apart.

We fear for our democracy.

And who among us does not tremble at least a touch at what may happen the day after the election in November?

Yes, the air of democracy is getting thinner and thinner.

But if there is one bright spot it is the American spirit that refuses to die.

The American spirit that dreams and marches for a more perfect union.

Maybe what we saw this late spring and summer and even now is that we are finally starting to move past denial.

Maybe what we have witnessed is the beginning of a reckoning like never before.

Henry Louis Gates, the esteemed Harvard professor, acidly observes that, “Racism has been part of America’s cultural DNA since before the ink dried on the Constitution. Dominant in some and recessive in others, it’s a gene that has mutated over time yet remains part of the inheritance weighing us down, one generation to the next.”

Dominant in some and recessive in others….

Not all of us are perpetrators, we know that. But all of us are bystanders. In one way or another by turning a blind eye we are enablers.

Is it not true that we abided by slavery for 250 years, from the earliest settlement of this continent until the Civil War?

Is it not true that we abided by Jim Crow segregation for another 100 years, from the Civil War to the Civil Rights era?

Is it not true that we have abided by de-facto if not de-jure discrimination for another 50 years since then?

We do the math and that adds up to four centuries; four hundred years. That has a painful resonance for us Jews. The Torah tells us that is how long the children of Israel were slaves in Egypt.

The same Torah that reminds us again and again, “Do not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The same Torah that warns: “you shall not stand idly by”.

The same Torah that commands, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”

On this troubled Yom Kippur we ask:

Are we calling out prejudice in our schools?  In our workplaces?  In our very families?

Are we demanding reform of our police?  Of our prisons? Of our courts?

Are we narrowing the inequality gap or widening it?

Are we advancing affirmative action or stymying it?

What are we, as ordinary citizens, doing to strengthen the democratic foundations of our country? Our little part? In our little corner?

Here’s the thing about democracy grief vs. mourner’s grief. When we lose a loved-one, we grieve for a life that is lost forever. Our deceased have departed and will not return. What is lost is lost. Gone forever.

“Democracy grief isn’t like regular grief,” writes Goldberg. “Acceptance isn’t how you move on from it. Acceptance is itself a kind of death.”

Our democracy may be damaged but it is not dead.

The air may be getting thinner, but it can be replenished.

More Americans joined in protests after the horrifying death of George Floyd than in any other time in American history. More than the height of the civil rights era. More than the height of the Vietnam War era.

If this is an awakening of the American spirit, then our democracy will revive.

If our protests lead to an unrelenting call for reform, then we are breathing new air into our suffocating lungs.

If we understand, in the words of Dr. King that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and refuse to be satisfied with the mediocrity, hypocrisy and duplicity of our political establishment, then the arc of the moral universe, long as it is, will indeed bend toward justice.

The promise of that day has never been forgotten by our faith and by our country. It is captured in another remarkable poem, by Judy Chicago. With it, I conclude, knowing that though our grief is real, so too is our hope. We have come a long way. We have a long way to go. But a better day is waiting to dawn:

      And Then

     And then all that has divided us will merge.

     And then compassion will be wedded to power.

     And the softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind.

     And then both men and women will be gentle.

     And then both women and men will be strong.

     And then no person will be subject to another’s will.

     And then all will be rich and free and varied.

     And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many.

     And then all will share equally in the Earth’s abundance.

     And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old.

     And then all will nourish the young.

     And then all will cherish life’s creatures.

     And then all will live in harmony with each other and the Earth.

     And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.

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