Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Occupy Hope, by Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater
Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center. He delivered this sermon on October 28, 2011:

There has been a pretty funny cartoon floating around Facebook this week related to parshat Noach.  It shows two animals sitting on the shore, looking out to see the ark sailing away and the speech bubble says, “Oh no, that was today?”  While this is funny, it actually flies in the face of the great divide between humans and animals, for animals don’t really have the capacity to evaluate time, understand their own emotions or communicate in the way that we humans do.  I know that animals have a great many attributes and do express feelings, and as my dog never fails to show, have great capacity to show love and affection.  But tonight, I am not concerned as much about the animals as I am about the humans.  For we do have the capacity to evaluate time, understand our own emotions and communicate.  We have the capacity to think, rationalize, correct mistakes, acknowledge wrong, celebrate success and many other things that make us the unique creatures we are.  And, we also have the capacity to live in denial, to ignore realities that don’t suit our comfort level, either out of fear or inertia, and we can be convinced to believe in things, even if they are not true, if we are told them often enough.  That challenge got a whole lot harder to break through with the advent and mass acceptance of social media, cable television and the internet.  What is true, what is false, what is okay to disagree on, what are red lines that we can’t cross, how do we analyze clearly enough to distill the reality from the illusion?  These are the great questions of humanity, questions that we are faced with in every generation.  

I have not yet spent any time at the Occupy LA protest site, but as a fervent proponent of social and economic justice, I feel that I support the idea of the movement that is seeming to take hold in many, many cities around the country, and in other parts of the world.  I plan to be down there in the coming days.  The protests, which are leaderless and without an organized structure at the moment, seem to have been inspired by the social protests that took place in Israel this past summer.  As with any large movement, there will be lots of different kinds of people that attach themselves or show up at protests, which may include racists, bigots and anti-semites, but it doesn’t appear that any of this ugliness is actually a part of the protest movements as a whole, either in the Occupy Wall Street movement or the Tea Party.  Now, the big questions to ask, in my mind, are these: what are the fundamental elements of our country that are not working which have brought out these protesters?  I am not an economist, but it seems to me that, according to most studies, it is a truth that in the last 30 years the richest members of our country have gotten tremendously richer while the middle and lower classes have gotten poorer.  As a rabbi and spiritual leader, this deeply concerns me as a truth we have been choosing to ignore or deny, and these Occupy Wall Street protests are an explosion, to a certain extent, of that anger and fear, which has been greatly magnified by the current recession, which is deeper and more troubling that anyone knew or understood.  And, on the other side, it seems to me that the Tea Party folks are fed up with government that is not working and they want to do some things differently as well.  As a nation, we have to examine all sides, listen to people and then decide what direction we want to go.  We are a democracy but it seems that the capitalist side of our country is winning over the democratic side.  I am not against capitalism but I am against unfairness and inequity.  If capitalism’s job is to make money, then it needs to be tempered by the values and commitments to all people that live within our democracy.  I don’t think that is socialism or communism, I just think it is not unfettered capitalism.  People have lost their homes, lost their jobs while the big banks got bailed out and didn’t do what they promised us they would do by helping folks in trouble.  I think that both Occupy folks and Tea Party folks would agree that this was a huge moral corruption that we witnessed to the tune of $700 billion.  There may be more than one way to fix the problem, but the first step is to acknowledge that a problem exists.  This is one of the big distinguishing factors of being human and right now we are struggling to understand what this means for us as a nation.  

In our Torah portion this week, Noah, we see that people have sunken into depravity, selfishness, greed and corruption, which leads to violence which leads to destruction.  God apparently had no choice but to save one righteous family and enough animals to start over, promising us, through the rainbow, that divine destruction will not be a viable choice ever again.  Human destruction, however, is never taken off the table and we are still struggling.  Another one of these Facebook wall photos that I have seen lately is a statement that says, “We ask God how can God allow for a world with hunger, pain, suffering and inequality.  If we listen, we find God asking us humans the exact same question.”  The midrash, commentary on the Torah portion this week tells us something interesting and important: the downfall of the generation of the flood rested on their stealing from one another.  But, it was not great theft that did it; rather, it was petty theft, theft in the market place small enough that it couldn’t be prosecuted.  A little here, a little there, people were cheated, stolen from, taken advantage of by the merchants and businessmen.  It was this chipping away of values that led to the violence of the people that was too great for God to stop.  This sounds very familiar, in my mind, to what we are seeing today.  While the bank bailout could be seen as a huge theft, it is the chipping away at the lives of ordinary and working people, at the expense of massively increasing the wealth of the super rich, that I think is finally bringing out people into the streets.  We know that these protests are quite diverse, and that not all of the people are hardworking, honest Americans who are camped out in cities around the country.  But, many of them are and I feel compelled to support the cause for justice and equity.  This movement doesn’t have a Dr. King, a Stephen Wise or a Yitzhak Rabin, and we shall see if a leader will need to emerge to help shape the vision and the demands of this group.  What it does mean, no matter how we look at it, is that our country is in need of a course correction and we shall see how that unfolds in the coming months and years ahead.  What I know is needed is a return to the central values upon which we were founded and a return to having hope in the future.  We need to Occupy Hope and share it with others.

Rabbi David Wolpe said something very interesting this week in one of his columns.  He was commenting on one of the early morning prayers, where we say “what are we, what is our life, what is our strength...” a section I have taught here many times.  At the end of this section, there is a startling statement, which says, “the advantage of humans over animals is nothing because all is futile/nothingness.”  This totally seems to contradict what we started with, namely that humans have a distinct purpose and unique life, even if it is true that we are mortal just like the animals.  Rabbi Wolpe brings two explanations for how to understand this piece of liturgy not as a contradiction.  First, he shares a teaching of Rabbi Simon Greenberg, a lesser known giant of Jewish thinking in the 20th century, who says that the Hebrew word “ki” in the phrase, usually translated as “because,” can be translated as “when,” namely, we are no different than the animals “when” we see that all of life is just futile.  However, his own explanation is even better.  He writes, “Another explanation is that unlike beasts, our nature is not a given — in our "nothing" is our advantage. Beasts are pre-set; they do not change their personalities through efforts at self-improvement. This is why God says at the outset of Genesis "Let us make man." To whom is he speaking? To human beings. We are co-partners with God in shaping human character. We make ourselves together, from the element of nothing — of not-givenness — in our composition.  Treasure your 'nothing' — the not yet shaped part of you. It is a blessing and an opportunity.” (Rabbi David Wolpe)

It is here that I see our greatest potential to overcome the current financial hardship, which is challenging the very fundamental nature of who and what we are, not just as Americans, but as humans.  It is in the “not yet formed” aspects of our humanity, the place where we learn from our mistakes and grow to new heights, that separates us from the animal world.  Like the animals in the opening cartoon, we too are sitting on the shore watching.  My prayer is not that we make it onto the ark, but that this time around, together, rich and poor, haves and have-nots, Americans and the world community, the human family, all of us, heed the call of the storm and work now to avoid needing an ark again.  Shabbat shalom.

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