Filling the Cracks: Systemic Change (Rosh HaShanah AM 5781)

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

Rosh HaShanah Morning 5781

The cracks were showing before but we could ignore them more easily.

We knew that when people said “that is a good neighborhood” it meant that people of color didn’t live there. We knew that people of color didn’t get adequate health care not only due to lack of affordable insurance but because studies show that physicians don’t believe their complaints. We knew that social media can be antisocial. We knew.

We knew that zip codes determined people’s health more than genetics or other factors. We knew that people of color are disproportionately not included in medical studies. We knew that global warming is causing changed weather patterns, killing species and affecting our water and air. We knew.

We knew that there are barriers keeping many American citizens from voting. We knew that black lives were being taken by our justice system in far greater proportions than white lives – from the streets to the cells. We knew that gentrification disproportionately leaves people of color without affordable places to live. We knew.

We knew that hatred is mobile and even during lockdown can find us via the internet. We knew that education systems were unequal. We knew that there were food deserts in highly populated places. We knew.

We knew that Neo-Nazis and the KKK were marching in the streets. We knew there are anti-Israel folks on both the far right and the far left. We knew that our broken immigration system was tearing children out of the arms of their parents. We knew.

And on the High Holy Days, to say we didn’t know or to close our eyes is a sin.

The cracks were showing before –

Before Covid-19

Before Black Lives Matter marches

Before campuses at which students were afraid to stand up for Israel closed

Before immigrant families were torn apart

Before we saw empty shelves and limits to purchasing which exist to this day

Before we said out loud that front line workers – in grocery stores and emergency rooms – are our heroes

Before we saw forest fires in California stoked by drought and storms like Hurricane Laura fueled by warmer waters

We are good at filling cracks: We donate food to Cross Roads Food Pantry. We donate clothing and household items to the Braddock Free Store. We advocate for all students at Gateway

and all religions before the Council. We compost. We save energy. We donate to Hillel and the NAACP and the League of Women’s Voters and Make a Wish.

We have a litany – a beautiful litany – of filling the cracks of society. But we have to do more.

Filling cracks is not only temporary, it is limited, a short term solution, as anyone who sees potholes reappear in the spring knows. We have to make systemic change.

We know the story. There is a lovely town by a river. Some townsfolk are standing by the river when they see some human bodies being dragged under by the current – people are drowning! – so they rush over and pull the bodies out. But while they’re in the middle, more bodies come along that need to be pulled out the river. So they have a town meeting. They decide to post life guards to save people. But still the bodies come. So they have another meeting, realizing that they need to stop pulling bodies out and get to the root of the problem. They send a contingent upstream to find out why people are falling into the river in the first place. If you can stop so many people falling in upstream, you won’t have to do so much work pulling bodies out downstream.

America cannot afford to look at cracks and respond with temporary solutions.

A hungry family?  Stock the food pantry.  But why are they hungry? Another beloved animal on the endangered species list?  Send a donation.  But why are they endangered? More kids of color with asthma?  Lower the drug costs.  But why can’t they breathe? Black teens learning to drive fearful of encounters with the police?  Teach them to put both hands on the wheel if stopped and not to wear a hoodie.  But why are they stopped? People equating Israel with apartheid or Nazi Germany? Stand up to them and explain why the comparison is not only wrong, it is unconscionable. But why don’t they know the facts?

We have to make systemic change. And it is in our blood… Well, at least in our history.

I recently picked up the book, so aptly titled Genius and Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947 By Norman Lebrecht.

This is how it starts: “Between the middle of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a handful of men and women changed the way we see the world.  Some of their names are on our lips for all time: Marx, Freud, Proust, Einstein, Kafka.  Others have vanished from our collective memory, but their important endures in our daily lives. Without Karl Landsteiner, for instance, there would be no blood transfusions or major surgery, without Paul Ehrlich, no chemotherapy; without Siegfried Marcus, no motorcar; without Rosalind Franklin, no model of DNA; without Fritz Haber, not enough food to sustain life on Earth; without Genevieve Halevy, no grand opera; without Emanuel Deutsch, no State of Israel.” (p. vii-viii)

Why do these Jewish names stand out as shapers of history? The author describes it this way: “A Jew, steeped in concerns for collective survival, is free to go where angels fear to tread, thinking, Well, what’s the worst thing they can do to me? (p. x)

He writes, “If Jews happen to excel in any particular area, it is generally a consequence of culture and experience rather than DNA.   Jews learned from adversity to think differently from others, and, maybe, harder.  The composer Gustav Mahler was fond of saying, “A Jew is like a man with a short arm.  He has to swim harder to reach the shore.”  Anxiety acts on them like an Egyptian taskmaster in the book of Exodus.  It goads them to acts of genius. (p. xii)

We are anxious. Anxious about Covid-19 and political vitriol and racism and anti-Semitism and family concerns. But we are not anxious as were the people described in this book: We are largely safe and at ease even if less than comfortable at the moment.

Here is the challenge: We want to be insiders. We don’t want to be different from our neighbors or at least not very different. Yet the more comfortable we are, the more complacent. The more complacent, the less Jewish.

To be a Jew is to respond. It is to find our voice and find partners and stick with it for the long haul until the system is fixed. To be a Jew is to think big and bold and beyond and use our resources to do nothing less than repair the world.

Today: choose a crack in society. Sadly, there are so many to choose from. Make a plan to fill the crack and keep filling it – as you will need to do – as you work on a long term solution.On this birthday of the world, may we do nothing less commit to repairing the world.

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