We need faith now more than ever.
This past Thursday night we – that is, CBJ – hosted a panel of five African-American speakers who shared with us their personal experiences and wisdom gained from growing up poor and black in Cleveland’s inner city. They came to us through Ken Leventhal, who now lives in California and is a member of CBJ, but who lived most of his life in Cleveland and spent two decades mentoring teens in those tough Cleveland neighborhoods.
The event was part of a growing effort in our community to understand how the history of oppression in our country shapes our reality today. We have a lot to learn, and there will be more events coming up. The next big one is on July 28th, a workshop on implicit bias with Kimberly Papillon. She’ll also be doing a separate workshop just for our teens. She’s a very dynamic, very knowledgeable speaker, who will help us realize the subconscious biases that we are not normally aware of, and by recognizing them we can begin to control. I hope you will be able to join in.
But this morning, I want to put aside a moment the discussion of racism, and bias, and difference. Those were the focus of Thursday’s discussion, and each of the panelists spoke on these topics from their hearts, and their pain touched our hearts. At the same time, they could not help but share another kind of wisdom, one more universal, because it is utterly part of who they are. And that is – their faith in God.
I think all of us participating in the panel noticed it. For me, the first sign came earlier in the week when we met to prepare, and one of the panelists, Maisha Terrell, said near the end of the meeting: “I have just one question. Are we going to pray at all?” Ken, who knows these 5 speakers so well, was prepared for the question. He had already identified who would be saying the opening prayer on Thursday night. And I was just glad they didn’t know that if Ken hadn’t mentioned it, it would not have occurred to me on my own. And it certainly would not have occurred to me to end a planning meeting with a prayer, but as we ended that prep meeting either Maisha or Lu Anne suggested that Devonte, the youngest of the panelists, should close for us with a prayer.
That’s Devonte Cooper. He’s very young, but he’s already published a book of his memoirs, sharing the story of his emergence from the poverty and instability of his childhood. So many of the young men he grew up with succumbed – he said. They are in prison, or living on the streets, or slaves to drug addiction. And he escaped all that.
In the introduction to his book, he relates the experience that shaped the rest of his life. It happened when he was 14 years old. Every Sunday, he and his friends would attend church services at the Salvation Army, because they were required to do so in order to have free access to the gym. They’d joke around with each other throughout the service, totally uninterested in what was going on. But then one Sunday, his friends slipped out of the room and he didn’t notice. Suddenly he was alone, and for the first time, he paid attention to the pastor. Here’s was what Devonte wrote:
I locked into Pastor Emmitt while he was speaking as he passionately shared a piece of his life story.
He stated that as a young married man he battled with street life and addiction. He explained how he neglected his wife and his very young daughter, not realizing that he was he was destroying his family. As I listened, I felt his passion and saw his tears. He was very sincere about his experiences and expressed how he could relate to the members and the pain and the struggles that they may have been experiencing. I glanced around the room and saw how they responded, and they were just as emotional, as he was giving them hope that they could overcome their strongholds and they weren’t alone. He pressed on and explained how God had changed his life to be a better man for him and his family. He mentioned that he decided to listen to God, and then doors began opening for him. Change occurred once he decided to walk through those doors, which led him to gaining employment and restoring his relationships with his loved ones. He encouraged his listeners that God would do the same for them if they would give God a chance. As I witnessed their reactions and felt the energy in the room, and an unfamiliar feeling came over me, I suddenly gained this sense of compassion for everyone. Everything slowed down, and all I could do was breathe and look around at everyone hugging and empathizing with each other. In that moment, I had forgotten about basketball, I was comfortable where I was, and we all joined hands and prayed before being dismissed….
That experience with Pastor Emmitt had captured my mind and increased my awareness forever.
Maisha, too, talked about how oppression within and without nearly devoured her. Sexual abuse, racism, drug addiction. Until her faith in God showed her the way out.
And all of the panelists, at one point or another, expressed that their feelings of love for their fellow human flowed from the love between them and God.
I found myself a little envious of their sincerity.
Ahava rabbah ahavtanu, Adonai Eloheynu – A great love you have loved us, Adonai our God
v’Ahavtah et Ado-nai Eloheycha – And you shall love Adonai your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might.
How many times have we said those words? How many times have we really felt them?
This week, we begin a series of 10 haftorot that are the lead up to the High Holidays. The first three are called tlata d’puranuta – three of destruction. With increasing intensity, each of these three haftorot share the ancient prophets’ warnings of an oncoming decimation of their society. These culminate in Tisha B’av, when we sit on the ground and mourn everything that’s been lost. From there, we begin the shivta d’nechemtah – seven haftorot of consolation, the ancient prophets’ promises that after the destruction will come renewal and hope.
The first of the three haftorot of destruction is the most mild. It is the opening chapter of Jeremiah, in which God appoints Jeremiah to deliver a terrible message to the people. But first, God must fortify him for this enormously difficult task. God tells the young prophet:
“Before I formed you in the belly, I knew you, and before you emerged from the womb, I appointed you to be a prophet . . . ”
Jeremiah says to G‑d: “I don’t know how to speak, for I am a youth.”
“Don’t say, ‘I am a youth,’ “G‑d replies, “for wherever I will send you, you will go, and whatever I will command you, you will speak. Don’t be afraid of them, for I am with you to protect you . . . See I have appointed you today, over nations and over kingdoms, to uproot, to crush . . . to build and to plant.”
I took that translation from a commentary piece on Chabad.org. I’d like to read you a little more from that essay. It’s by Rabbi Yitzi Hurwitz. Rabbi Hurwitz wrote:
G‑d is telling us how to approach times of darkness, and how specifically we, in this darkness, can bring everlasting change and light to the world.
The first thing you have to know is that you are worthy. You may think: “Who am I to make a difference; the whole world looks down at me?” To this, Hashem answers: “You are from Kohanim; you are holy and worthy.”
The next thing is that we were hand-picked by G‑d for this task. “Before I formed you in the belly, I knew you . . . ”
Don’t say. “I am a youth,”without the wherewithal to withstand the world’s negativity. You can do it. “Don’t be afraid . . . , for I am with you.”
Jeremiah, Rabbi Hurwitz, Maisha, Devonte – they all seem to be speaking the same language. And then I scrolled down to the little bio at the end of Rabbi Hurwitz’s commentary, and it reads:
Rabbi Yitzi Hurwitz—father of seven, husband of Dina, and spiritual leader at Chabad Jewish Center in Temecula, Calif.—has been rendered immobile by ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Unable to speak or type, he uses his eyes to write heartfelt thoughts on the weekly Torah portion.
When we are suffering, awareness of God’s faith in us can show us a way out.
But do you have to be living in poverty, subjected to abuse, afflicted with horrible disease, to find sustenance and strength in God? I’m quite sure that you do not. Because earlier in my life, I felt God’s light all the time. I’ve never known any real suffering, knaynah harah. But in those days I was Orthodox, surrounded by people of faith – or at least, people who routinely used the language of faith, and there is no question that it is easier to live it and feel it when those around you do, too. And it’s not that I never feel it now – I do – but it is harder for me, as I think it is for most people in our community. We live so much in our heads. Our default is to analyze, to look at the other side, to resist. It is hard to let go, and let an ill-defined transcendence lift us up.
We are living in dark times now. Even those of us who are healthy, and materially comfortable, have reason to be afraid. Even those of us whose physical needs are met, we all have emotional and spiritual needs that are falling short right now. If ever we needed to feel God’s light, to believe that God is with us, to know that God trusted each of us to carry the divine spark, so that we may trust in ourselves and in each other. Now is when we need that faith.
And I don’t know what to say to our wonderfully intellectual, logical, technological, analytical, practical, action-based community that might help us open more deeply to the sweet joy of faith. Except, maybe, this – if you do ever feel the urge to praise God outside the confines of this hour service, don’t resist it. Open to it, welcome it, proclaim it out loud, proudly.
Because, if you really, truly believe that we are created in God’s image, then you will know that whatever is afflicting us, we shall overcome.