Monthly Archives: January 2018

Songs of Resistance

There’s a great story told about Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech. His words may have echoed off the marble pillars of the Lincoln Memorial when he preached his “I Have a Dream” speech fifty-four years ago. But according to Kingʼs speechwriter, Clarence B. Jones, those were not the words he had planned to share. Kingʼs speech was all set the night before. Sitting in his hotel room with seven advisors, his words were put on paper and the press was given advanced copies. And his speech that day on the March on Washington began the same with Reverend King carefully sticking to the script. However, after a brief moment of silence, Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who sang at the event earlier in the day, shouted to Dr. King, “tell ʻem about the dream, Martin.” Dr. King was startled and flustered, but stuck to the script. Again, Mahalia Jackson called out, “Martin, tell ‘em about the dream!”  Next thing you know, King pushed aside the text and shifted gears. The speechwriter leaned over to the person next to him and said: “the people donʼt know it yet, but they’re about to go to church.”

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of learning with Rev. William Barber, when he taught Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox rabbis and rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He retold this story and referred to Mahalia Jackson not a Gospel singer, but as a theomusicologist. He said that Dr. King would sometimes call her up in the middle of the night, wake her when he couldn’t sleep, and say, “I need to hear the Lord’s voice.” She would sing, and that ease his anxiety, knowing that God was with him. A theomusicologist. This term suggests that there is something holy, something divine, about singing. This suggests that singing is an act of praying, but also, like prayer, singing is meant to lead to action.

On Shabbat Shira, we read of two such theomusicologists: Miriam in the Torah reading and Deborah in the Haftarah reading. Miriam and Devorah are both called prophetesses; in fact they are two of only five women in the entire Bible referred to as female prophets. Clearly, their song and action is divinely inspired. Deborah is even mentioned as a judge, the only female judge in the entire Hebrew bible, further supporting the case that through her songs, she fights for justice. And these women leaders acted through music to lead the resistance. While it was Moses who sang the Song of the Sea as the Israelites crossed the split Sea of Reeds – Az Yashir Moshe, and Moses sang, the Torah says – the text also says that it was Miriam, who sang with timbrel in hand, that led the Israelites onward in celebrating throughout the wilderness after they crossed the split sea.

Shirat Devorah, Deborah’s Song, makes up most of the Haftarah reading, taken from chapters four and five of the book of Judges. In this song, Deborah declares that we rise up! Song is our declaration to Rise up!

Uri Uri Dabri Shir. Rise Up. Rise Up. And Sing a Song.

There is an inherit connection between song and protest, between songs and marching. This is true for the songs that Moses, Miriam, and Deborah sang. This is equally true for the songs that we sing, for the protests that we participate in, for the marches that we march in. Last weekend, so many in our community participated in the second annual Women’s March, locally in Morristown and Westfield, in Trenton and Manhattan, in Washington DC, and all across the nation. And they marched – we marched – and we prayed, and we sang.

The song I immediately think of as a song of the resistance, a song of protest, is “We Shall Overcome.” This song was an early twentieth century gospel hymn. It was a song of faith. But in 1945 it was sung for the first time by tobacco workers on strike in Charleston as a song of protest. In the 1960s, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger made it an unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

We Shall Overcome, We Shall Overcome, We Shall Overcome, someday…

A song of protest that remains a song of prayer.

HistoryHasItsEyesOnYouAnd we sang. And we sing. For Miriam and Deborah led us through song, and song got us through the darkest of moments. And song continues to do so. Song inspires us for what we will be, for what we can be, for the future that we will create. I encouraged members of our community to share pictures and experiences of those women’s marches with me that inspired them. And those pictures inspired me. Specifically, pictures of the youngest members of our congregation holding signs, including those that read: “History has its eyes on you,” “Girl Power,” “Fight like a girl,” “The Future is Female,” and “Girls will save the world.”

We have a long way to go, but what was inspiring about these marches were not the speakers standing at podiums, or those holding the banner who led the way. What was inspiring about these marches, were these children, the future leaders – and in many ways current leaders – of our community. Like the songs of Deborah and Miriam, we need song to move us and inspire us. A powerful song is not just a catchy pop-tune about a crush or a broken heart. A song of protest is a song whose message is as powerful as Torah, whose message is the essence of Torah. These songs remind us to march in the rain and in the cold, when our legs are tired and when we approach the banks of the sea without a clear path in front of us. We need these songs of protest, these songs of resistance, to teach us to rise up and act.

The beauty of the Haftarah is that the song serves as a backdrop; it is the inspiration that leads to action. The narrative of the Haftarah speaks of Sisera, the commander of the Canaanite King Yavin’s army. Deborah declares that she will deliver Sisera and the army into the hands of Barak and his soldiers. But when Sisera flees on foot to Yael’s tent, she greets him, invites him in, seduces him, gives him a strong glass of milk, and waits for him to go to sleep. Although she promised to stand guard, she takes a tent pin and a mallet and drives the pin through his temple, killing him.

Of course I’m not advocating such action. But I think it’s important to remember that is wasn’t Deborah’s song that defeated Sisera. It was Yael. Song leads to action. Song leads to purpose. Song inspires us to rise up. It’s not the leaders, the preachers, the theomusicologists, or the activists whom we know by their first names, that will ultimately make change in our society. It’s not those marching in front leading the way. It’s all of us, in the crowd, marching arm in arm, hand in hand, declaring in acts of civil disobedience that we shall not be moved, that will ultimately bring about the change that we seek.

In the middle of Deborah’s song, she declares:

 Tidrechi Nafshi Oz, March on, my soul, with courage and strength!

She sings so that we have the courage and strength to keep going, to know that our values are right, to keep going in spite of daily headlines that make us want to cry and scream, to keep going when it seems like we are marching against headwinds, to keep marching until we have crossed the split sea and can finally, like Miriam, take timbrel in hand, and have our songs of resistance become songs of freedom. Until then, we continue to sing. And we continue to march. We continue to act. May the words of our lips and the songs of our hearts inspire us to do so.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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We cannot be Free, until we are all Free

Every year, at our Passover Seders, a ritual meal when we celebrate the Israelite journey from slavery to freedom and our own freedom today, we begin the Maggid portion of our Seders by declaring that “this year we are still slaves. Next year, may we be free.” As a child, I thought this declaration made the Seder an absurd experience. We are either free or not. We cannot celebrate freedom from oppression and still declare that we are not yet free. It was only as an adult that I came to truly understand the power of this text, for this declaration defines the Passover experience. We cannot be free until all celebrate freedom from injustice and oppression. We celebrate the Israelite journey to freedom not as a historical event, but rather as a call to action, a reminder that freedom must not stop with us. 

As Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: 

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” 

All of humanity, all of God’s creations are connected. We do not – and cannot – only care about that which impacts us. We must stand up against all discrimination and injustice. Most importantly, we cannot let our success cause the suffering of another. And we must demand that justice for all.

Dr. King also wrote:

 “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.” 

That means knocking at Pharaoh’s door again and again, just as Moses did. That means continuing to declare “let my people go,” in spite of hardened hearts. And that means that each and every time we bang on Pharaoh’s door, it gets louder and louder, for at first just Moses approached Pharaoh, but with each showdown, the number of individuals that accompanied Moses increased and increased. For the power of the people is ultimately always greater than the people in power. Still, Moses understood that the Israelites’ fight for freedom couldn’t come at the expense of others. Rashi explains That the first plague of dam, blood, represented the life force of Egypt. The land was watered by the flooding of the Nile, so it was worshiped by Egyptians. Turning it to blood was not just a blow to their water resources, but to that which they considered to be divine. But Moses was uncomfortable with this reality as well. 

There is a midrash in Shemot Rabbah that teaches us that Moses was uncomfortable with God’s command to smite the river because the act represented pain and suffering. And Moses reminded God that the Nile saved him, as a baby in the basket, the basket did not submerge under the water. Instead the waters protected him. He couldn’t imagine striking that very water. I believe this midrash has an even deeper meaning. Moses is finding the possibility of harming Egyptians for the sake of Israelites’ freedom difficult to accept. Moses is asking: must we bring harm to the innocent bystander? Must we hurt those who were also scared of Pharaoh’s wrath? These are not Pharaoh’s taskmasters or courtiers. These are citizens who were scared silent. Why must they suffer? In fact, by Moses asking this, he is representing God’s own struggle. 

After all, the Torah reminds us:

“See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh” (Ex. 7:1).

God tells Moses to see yourself as a representative of God to Pharaoh. As Moses struggles with harming those who are innocent bystanders, he acknowledges that this isn’t something that God wants either. In fact, Mesechet Megillah tells of when the Israelites crossed the split sea into freedom and says that God’s angels were celebrating. God chastises the angels as the Egyptians are drowning in the sea:

“God, said to them: ‘My creations are drowning and you are singing before me?'”

It is clear that God is equally uncomfortable with the suffering of others. As God and Moses teach us through midrash, we cannot celebrate when others are harmed. We cannot celebrate when our freedom is caused by another’s pain and suffering. The freedom of one cannot be caused by the suffering of another. This is our struggle. The Torah also tells us that when the Israelites left Egypt, they did not leave alone:

“And a mixed multitude went up with them” (Ex. 12:38). 

The Torah reveals that the reason so many left Egypt was because an erev rav, a mixed multitude of individuals, joined with the Israelites. Egyptians who dealt with their own hardships and pain and suffering also set out to leave Egypt and were also freed from Pharaoh’s rule. In the end, it was not just the Israelites who were freed. It was all who suffered from injustice. 

Moses and God agonized over the pain and suffering that others felt because they understood that one cannot be free unless we are all free. One cannot suffer while the other succeeds. That is not true freedom. That is not true justice. May we learn from God’s and Moses’ hesitation. Let Martin Luther King’s legacy snap us out of complacency. As Rev. William Barber reminds us: 

“In recent years, NGOs and government officials have sanitized Dr. King’s legacy, turning his birthday into a call for service. Meanwhile, politicians of all stripes stand up at podiums to honor Dr. King, but then pass vulgar policies that threaten the very soul of our nation.”

We cannot claim to fight for justice and encourage — or at the very least ignore — racist policies. We cannot only fight for the freedom of some. For as long as injustice continues, we are still slaves. Next year, may we be free. Next year, may Dr. King’s dream finally be realized. And may we stand up to the Pharaoh’s among us until it is. 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Mister Joe’s Neighborhood

One of the most powerful experiences of our recent congregational was spending time talking to our bus driver. Mister Joe drove us from Tel Aviv to Caeserea, to Zichron Yaakov, to Haifa, to Rosh Hanikra, to Kfar Blum, to the Golan Heights, to Tiberias, to Jerusalem, to Masada and the Dead Sea, and back to Tel Aviv. Mister Joe’s story resonated with me. It began by asking him his name, knowing that it wasn’t Mister Joe. He explained that he called himself that because it made the American tourists that he always drove around more comfortable. 

His name was Joulwan and he resided in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. Mister Joe is an Israeli Arab. He explained to me that his passport was Jordanian, as he lived in East Jerusalem prior to 1967 when it was still under Jordan’s control. As a result, his grandchildren don’t have any passport. He shared with me that he has a home in the West Bank, but it has become an Israeli settlement, thus making it illegal for him to live in that house. 

Mister Joe told me he was not angry with Israel, but with its leaders. He was not supportive of the PA’s leadership because he didn’t think Abbas really wanted peace. He was frustrated with politicians that were only interested in themselves and no one else. He said if Abbas and Netanyahu were not involved, then he and his Israeli Jewish neighbors, who he gets along with well, would be able to solve everything and be fine. But it is the leaders who get involve. It is the leaders who claim they are leading, but actually are just interested in what’s in it for them. 

The book of Exodus begins with a new Pharaoh intimidated and scared by the growing Israelite population and demands that the Hebrew midwives throw Hebrew baby boys into the river, drowning them in the process. The two midwives mentioned, Shifra and Puah, refused. This wasn’t just an act of resistance or civil disobedience. What they were really doing was seeing the humanity in another human being. They weren’t listening to the commands of authoritarians or tyrants. They were listening to God. Through Yirat Shamayim, awe of God and seeing God’s Image in the face of another, they were concerned with the wellbeing of the other. Most rabbinic commentators conclude that these Hebrew midwives were Hebrews themselves; many suggest that they were Moses’ mother and sister, Yocheved and Miriam, even if there is no textual basis for such a suggestion. Abarbanel concludes that they must be Egyptians serving as midwives for the Hebrews, seeing God in each baby that was born, regardless of ethnicity or faith.

Mister Joe taught me – at a time when so many government officials make generalizations about those that are different than us – that it is those government officials, those so called leaders, that are the problem. Like the king that rises up and chooses not to know Joseph, they choose to ignore the kinship of their neighbor. But we cannot live in generalizations. It is the narrative of the individual, the Shifras and Puahs and Mister Joes among us, that helps us see the humanity in each other. 

Much of what Mister Joe has experienced is not fair. He should be mad. He should be angry. But he is content. He is happy. And he works to build peace through his relationships with his neighbors. So we must ignore the commands of the new kings that rise up around us and work to find God’s image in each other, Jew and Muslim, Israeli and Palestinian, Hebrew Midwife and Israelite. Then, and only then, will we know peace. May it happen Speedily in our time. 

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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