Isaiah, Trayvon Martin, and Yom Kippur (A sermon for Yom Kippur morning)

Several weeks ago, on the Shabbat morning immediately before Tisha b’Av, I sat down at the table in our social hall to study Torah with those who had joined us for services. We studied the haftarah reading assigned to that particular Shabbat, which comes from the prophet Isaiah, just like our assigned reading for today.

Here is a taste of the haftarah we read together that morning:

Why do you make sacrifices to Me? says your God.
I am overfull with burnt offerings; I take no delight in bloodshed.
Bring no more vain offerings. They are hateful to Me.
New moon and Shabbat when you gather —
I can’t bear the iniquity of this community.
I hate your new moons and your appointed festivals.
They are a burden to Me. They weary Me.
When you spread out your hands in longing, I will hide My eyes.
When you call out in prayer, I will not hear.
Your hands are bloody with wrongdoing.
Wash yourself, make yourself clean: put away your evil acts before My eyes.
Turn from evil and do good.
Seek justice, relieve the oppressed, tend to the fatherless, plead for the widow.
Come now and let us reason together, says God.
Though your sins be scarlet, they will become white as snow.
Though they are red as blood, they will become white as clean wool.

“I hate your new moons and your appointed festivals.” I tremble every time I read that passage. Because I love our new moons and our appointed festivals! I love how our tradition teaches us to mark time, to pursue spiritual transformation and teshuvah. Of course, today we offer prayers, not animals. But what I hear Isaiah saying is: because our hands are bloody with wrongdoing, God is sickened by our worship. As one of the people sitting around the Torah study table put it, on that Shabbat morning before Tisha b’Av: if we aren’t also pursuing justice, our rituals are meaningless. Worse than meaningless, because they delude us into thinking that spiritual life is “enough” even if our world is unjust.

I love our rituals. I have made it my life’s work to try to connect people, through those rituals and texts and practices, with God. But I hear Isaiah’s words, and I know that he is right.

There’s a visible tension here between priest and prophet. In antiquity it was the job of the priests to keep Temple sacrifices going, to make atonement for the people through appropriate slaughter and prayer, to maintain and lubricate the flow of blessing into the world through their service in the Temple. And it was the job of the prophets to speak truth to power. To say, what y’all are doing isn’t enough; God demands more of us. God demands justice and right behavior. If you don’t act justly, then it doesn’t matter one bit whether you’re doing the sacrifices the way you were taught. The sacrificial system isn’t enough.

In our Jewish lives today there exist neither priests nor prophets. The priestly system came to its end when the second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 C.E. The end of prophecy is slightly harder to pin down, though the mainstream Jewish answer is that the era of prophecy came to an end even earlier.

We have neither priests nor prophets in today’s world. But I don’t think that means that the work they used to do is no longer necessary. On the contrary: I think it’s our job, all of us, to be both priest and prophet for ourselves and for those around us. It’s incumbent on all of us to sustain the rituals which keep our community life flowing smoothly — and also to hear God’s call for justice.

Three days before Tisha b’Av I sat with a group of y’all here and we talked about Isaiah’s furious words. Two days before Tisha b’Av, we learned that George Zimmerman had been acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin.

Trayvon Martin was seventeen, an African American high school student from Miami who went to the town of Sanford, Florida, to visit his father. One evening, he walked to a nearby 7-Eleven to get some Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea. On his return trip, he drew the attention of a neighborhood watch captain named George Zimmerman, who was patrolling the neighborhood in a sport utility vehicle and called 911 to report “a real suspicious guy,” muttering “they always get away.”

The police told Zimmerman to stay in his car. Instead, Zimmerman got out of the car, confronted Martin, and fought with him. Then Zimmerman shot him, and killed him. Trayvon Martin was unarmed.

And just before Tisha b’Av, Zimmerman was acquitted. Because Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws, as I understand them, allow him to argue that he fired in self-defense. The law there gives him the benefit of the doubt.

I was surprised by that verdict. I shouldn’t have been. Because I know that we live in a nation marred by systemic racism and injustice.

Let me be clear: I don’t know of a place on this earth where perfect justice prevails, or where racism and prejudice are unknown. And there’s much that I love about this nation of ours. My anger comes from that love. Because I love our country, and I want it to be better than this. And I know that it won’t get better than this unless we stand up and make it so.

I am the mother of a boy. Someday he will be a teenager. Someday he will walk the streets of an unfamiliar neighborhood in the dark. He might even be wearing a hoodie, or whatever item of clothing teenaged boys think is cool in another twelve or fifteen years. And the odds of someone deciding that he is a threat, and (God forbid) shooting him, are vanishingly slim. Because my son is white.

Because my son is white, if he’s pulled over while driving his car, he’s not likely to be searched, or to be mistreated by the police. His African American and Latino friends will be three times more likely to be searched and frisked — at least if things stay the way they are now. Right now, African Americans are almost four times as likely as white Americans to experience the use of force from police. [Source]

And the injustice doesn’t stop there. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, in the federal system black offenders receive sentences that are 10 percent longer than white offenders — for the same crimes. The Sentencing Project also reports that African Americans are 20 percent more likely than white defendants to be sentenced to prison, and 21 percent more likely to receive mandatory-minimum sentences.

The Supreme Court has granted the police license to “stop and frisk,” which means it’s legal for police to stop someone on the street and search them if an officer has “a reasonable suspicion that the person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime[.]” [Source]

In New York state one recent year, 84 percent of those stopped were Black and Latino — although they comprise only about a quarter of New York’s population. Contraband was only found in in 2% of the stops. [Source] But because most of those who are stopped-and-frisked are African American and Hispanic, the overwhelming majority of those arrested for drug possession are kids of color — even though we all know that white people do drugs too. [Source]

All of this adds up to a reailty where Latino Americans are incarcerated at double the rate of white Americans, and African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of white Americans. In recent decades, incarceration rates—especially black incarceration rates—have soared regardless of whether crime was going up or down. In this country today, one in every 87 working-aged white men is in prison or jail, compared with 1 in 36 Hispanic men, and 1 in 12 African-American men. One in every nine African American men between the ages of 25 and 29 is currently incarcerated. [Source] Today the US imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did during the hight of apartheid. And these statistics impact not only the young men themselves, but also their families: their parents and grandparents, their siblings, and their children.

“Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans,” notes Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow. She continues:

Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow.

Once you’re labeled a felon, you’re a member of what Alexander calls an undercaste, permanently locked out of mainstream society. And the system which leads to that labeling is dangerously prejudiced against people of color.    

If my son were a teenager now, he wouldn’t be likely to be stopped-and-frisked, or to be mistreated by police, or to be incarcerated for posession of a few joints… because he is white. Through no merit of his own, my son is likely to be treated better than his non-white friends. No one will glare at him or follow him in expensive department stores, assuming automatically that he’s there to shoplift.

My son is less likely to be arrested, and less likely to be mistreated by police. No one will ever pull him over for “driving while white,” or suspect his motives and his ethics simply because he is a white boy. No one will ask or expect him to speak for all white people. If he needs legal or medical help, he’ll be able to seek it without fear of bias against his white skin.

He’ll experience privilege in other ways, too. When he’s old enough to apply for a mortgage, it’s likely that no one will deny him the mortgage because he’s moving into an area considered to be a “poor financial risk” because it’s inhabited mostly by people who look like him. If he gets home from a business trip and finds his front door stuck, as did Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, and has to jimmy his own lock to get in, he’s not likely to be arrested for breaking into his own house.

I am grateful that my son will enjoy the blessings of liberty and autonomy. But I am angry and appalled that other people’s children don’t have them, simply by virtue of the color of their skin. Every child deserves the privileges I want for my son.

In 1955, a fourteen-year-old African-American boy named Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi after reportedly flirting with a white woman. He was visiting relatives, far from his home of Chicago. He spoke with a white woman who ran a small grocery store. Several nights later, her husband and his half-brother abducted Till, beat him, gouged out one of his eyes, shot him in the head, and threw him in the river. They were subsequently acquitted of his murder.

Today it’s widely-understood that the murder of Emmett Till, and the acquittal of his killers, was a travesty of justice. It’s easy to look at what happened there and then and to say, that was awful and it was wrong, full stop. But do we turn that same eye on the systemic racism endemic to our own moment in time?

I’m not talking about individual acts of racism or prejudice. I’m talking about a systemic reality in which people of color are persistently suspected, mistreated, disenfranchised, incarcerated, and even killed.

Most of us in this room listening to this sermon today are white. We experience privilege merely by virtue of having been born with skin this color instead of that color. And because we experience this privilege, we have a moral obligation to act to change the system. As long as our children are safe while someone else’s children are at risk, we have an obligation to act. As long as we can assume we will be well-treated, while others will be ill-treated, we have an obligation to act.

Isaiah calls us to turn from evil and do good. To seek justice, relieve the oppressed, tend to the fatherless, plead for the widow.

To seek justice: not only for people who look like us or sound like us, but for all people; for every human being, created b’tzelem Elokim, in the divine image.

To relieve the oppressed: not only “our own” who experience oppression, but all who experience oppression. Regardless of their skin color. Regardless of their race, creed, religion, sexual orientation, ability or disability.

To tend to the fatherless: those who are orphaned by disease or war or violence — and also those who are orphaned in other ways, like the 64% of African American who are fatherless, many because their fathers are in prison. [Source] (And their fathers are likelier to be incarcerated than white dads because of the arrest and sentencing injustices I touched on earlier.) Studies have shown that kids who grow up without two parents are five times more likely to commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of school; and 20 times more likely to end up in prison. [Source]

To plead for the widow: the person whose spouse, whose source of support, whose source of social capital and belonging, has died and left them bereft. In antiquity the widow and orphan were disenfranchised, alone, and at-risk. They were likely to be mistreated, simply because they had no status in that society. Who are the people today in America whose lives are circumscribed in those ways? People who are poor; people who are gender-non-conforming; people who are non-white.

Isaiah demands that we create justice for those in need. Full stop. If we don’t, then what does it matter how meaningful our Yom Kippur fast may have been?

I’m giving this sermon because I need to hear it. I love our rituals, our prayers, our mystical teachings; our poems and psalms, our tools for imbuing everyday life with gratitude and with spirit. But if I don’t also live by Judaism’s powerful ethical and moral teachings, then I deserve Isaiah’s disgust.

If I don’t work to change the systemic racism endemic to my nation, then I’m no better than those who punctiliously made sacrifices but didn’t worry about honest weights and measures, or about people in power accepting bribes, or about murder and thievery in a city which was supposed to be righteous and just.

If we only work for justice when it directly impacts us, we’re doing it wrong. And we’re making a mockery of every value we claim to hold dear.

We’ve all been born into a system which gives us privilege by virtue of the color of our skin. It’s our job to recognize that and to educate ourselves about it. It’s our job to recognize our own prejudices — not so we can beat ourselves up about them, but so we can unlearn them. And it’s our job to work toward a future in which racism and prejudice are eradicated: not only on an individual level, but on a societal and systemic level.

Maybe this means becoming involved with Multicultural BRIDGE, a nonprofit organzation which aims to “serve as catalysts for change through collaboration, education, training, dialogue, fellowship and advocacy.”

Maybe it means supporting the Greylock branch of A Better Chance, or hosting a Fresh Air Fund kid from a low-income New York City community.

Maybe it means reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and getting involved with a nonprofit organization that works to dismantle the racism in our prison system.

For instance, The Sentencing Project, which “works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration.”

Or The Prison Birth Project, a reproductive justice organization in the Pioneer Valley which supports, educates, and advocates for women at the intersection of the criminal justice system and motherhood.

Maybe it means writing to our senators and congressmen in support of the policies we believe are ethical and just, and condemning the policies we believe are wrong.

As our sages remind us in Pirkei Avot, “it is not incumbent upon us to finish the task…but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it.”It’s our obligation to begin to build a better world, a more just and righteous world for us and for our children.

Because we are all equal in the eyes of God.

Because no one deserves to be maligned, or automatically suspected of wrongdoing, or treated as a second-class citizen, or God forbid killed, for who they are or how they look.

Because our teshuvah is meaningless unless it impels us to take action.

In his essay “On Prayer,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehood. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, and the vision.

Our prayer here today should inspire us to examine our hearts and our deeds…and to overthrow and ruin our nation’s racism and prejudice — and our own.

Kein yehi ratzon: may it be so.


Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.

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