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Justice and Compassion: The Fierce Urgency of Now
Erev Rosh Hashanah • Rosh Hashanah Eve
September 25, 2022 • 1 Tishrei 5783
Rabbi Bridget Wynne
How amazing it is to be together again, three long years since we last gathered here. It is moving and replenishing. And, what a difficult time these years have been.
Floods, fires, hurricanes, wreaking the greatest destruction and suffering on the most vulnerable. Dystopian laws forbidding abortion. Voter suppression, candidates committed to subverting the will of the majority. Police are still murdering Black people, antisemitism is rising... and so much more. The science-denying, profit-driven, power-craving madness that has taken hold of our culture, the rise of ethno-nationalism in our country and others, literally endangers our lives, our planet, our future.
Given all this, I would like to lift our spirits this evening, to greet you, ask how you really are. I want to share words that will help you sleep better, maybe mend a small part of your broken hearts. Maybe make you laugh. Definitely give you permission to grieve. And I want to encourage us to do this with one another, for we are here to seek what we can find only in community.
But first, I want to fortify you, to help us develop the strength we need now and in the days ahead.
In Martin Luther King’s 1967 sermon about the Vietnam war, he spoke about “the fierce urgency of now.” An image from that sermon seems especially relevant this evening: “Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations,” he said, “are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late.’"
I do not believe that it is too late. But I also know that what we do now matters.
We are faced with an urgent question: who are we called to be, when we hover so dangerously close to the edge of the abyss?
Jewish tradition argues strongly against despair. Instead, it calls upon us to recognize the power we do have. In times of crisis, we do not hide. We don’t stand on the sidelines and kvetch, and we don’t turn to religion as a drug that helps blunt our conscience rather than awaken it.
We do not yield to the false belief that outcomes are predetermined. We act—with all our strength, with all our resources, even when we’re not sure it will make a difference.
How do we do this?
Let’s look to our tradition’s core story of fighting injustice and cruelty. The Passover story, like all stories of important change, begins earlier than we might think.
Before Moses even has a name, several lesser-known women stand up against the Pharaoh’s brutal regime. Their only weapons are their courage, and their refusal to let a powerful dictator redefine what is good.
Pharaoh believes that the enslaved Israelites—a minority, people who are different—threaten his power. He orders all midwives to murder every Israelite newborn boy, but two of them, named Shifra and Puah, carry out dangerous acts of civil disobedience. They defy his orders and let the Israelite baby boys live (Exodus 1:17).
Thwarted by these brave midwives, Pharaoh charges “all the Egyptian people, saying, ‘Every [Israelite] boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile’” (Exodus 1:22). He calls his entire nation to rise up in an abhorrent act of violence: infanticide.
In this climate of terror and bloodshed, Moses’s mother, Yocheved, makes the desperate choice to place her baby in the reeds at the edge of the Nile. His sister Miriam stays there to watch over him. Pharaoh’s daughter happens upon a basket while bathing and finds the baby inside. She must have known that he was a refugee from her father’s harsh decree. She could have said, “Why should I save an Israelite?" Or, "what difference would it make to save one baby boy when there are hundreds in danger?” But she uses her privilege to save one life. She does what she can. And the boy grows up to lead the Israelites to freedom.
Before Pharaoh’s daughter, whose name was Batya, brings the baby to the palace, Miriam takes a chance and asks, “Shall I go and get a Hebrew nurse for the child?” (Exodus 2:7) Batya agrees, and Yocheved was able to care for her son as he grew.
In the days ahead, remember these women, who are often forgotten. Each acted as she could, with the resources she had, despite great risk, not knowing where it would lead. Our Torah is imploring us to pay attention: there would be no Moses, no freedom from slavery in Egypt, without each person who acts against injustice where we can, despite our fears, despite the unknown.
When you live under a system that is callous to human suffering, you do whatever is in your power to thwart decrees, to save lives. Just as Shifra, Puah, Yocheved, Miriam, and Batya’s combined actions helped changed the course of history, so can ours.
I return now to my desire I spoke about earlier, to lift our spirits, to help us offer—and receive—understanding and compassion for whatever pain and fear, sorrow and brokenness, we bring with us this evening. It may be pain about the crises our nation, our world, are facing, fear that we will not know how to pull back from the abyss. It may be the sorrow and brokenness of loss, of those we love, of health, of abilities, of relationships, of dreams we had hoped to fulfill.
Let’s move forward now in our people’s story, thousands of years after Shifrah and Puah, Moses and Miriam, yet still 2,000 years before today, to the time when Judaism was a pilgrimage religion, like Islam still is, when Jews did their best to travel to the Temple in Jerusalem on important holidays.
There’s a teaching from that time that speaks of love, human suffering, and the power of community. Thousands of people would stream into the Temple courtyard, circling to the right around the perimeter. But someone suffering, the broken hearted, the lonely, the grieving, the sick, the hopeless, “someone to whom something awful had happened” (Mishnah Middot 2:2)—that person would enter through the same doorway, but circle in the opposite direction. Imagine. When we’re suffering, when every instinct we have is to isolate—because who would understand anyway?—we are called to show up, to let others know that we are in pain, so they can offer consolation.
Now imagine this: you’re on pilgrimage. You’ve saved and planned for this moment. Then here is this broken person walking toward you. As much as you want to, you’re not allowed to avert your eyes. Every person you pass, as they walk in the opposite direction, you must stop and ask, “What’s going on with you? Where is your pain? Tell me of your heartache?” And this person, in their suffering, would answer: “I am afraid. I am bereft. I am shattered.”
Words of comfort are offered. Compassion, presence, love. You are not alone. We are not alone.
In this time of so much suffering and such hard edges, we need to fight for justice. We also need to share our compassion, which means both offering and accepting.
May we learn, this year, when we see the brokenness in our country, in our world, not to turn away, or become despondent, but instead, to ask ourselves this question. “Where, in my life, can I take action, like the little-known women who made the Exodus story possible?” May we also learn to see the broken hearts, the people around us to whom something awful has happened, and rather than averting our eyes, to ask, “How are you, really?” and then to listen, really.
Bringing greater justice, and compassion, into our world. That is what each of us is called to do, what each of us has the power to do, in “the fierce urgency of now.”