“I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.”
This week, as part of the CCAR rabbinical convention in Atlanta, I had the opportunity to explore the Civil Rights movement, through a tour of the Center for Civil and Human Rights, lectures from leaders of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the NAACP, and a visit to the Temple, Atlanta’s historic Reform synagogue, which was bombed by White Supremacists in 1958.
Among other exhibits, the Civil Rights Center has a wonderful movie about the Freedom Riders, those black and white young people who spent the summer of 1961 riding integrated buses across the South, challenging segregation laws. Who endured beatings and arrests to make their point about the injustice of segregation. The film ended with a song from the Civil Rights movement: “I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.”
I know that song. I know every word of it! I sang it as a kid at Henry S. Jacobs Camp, the Reform Jewish camp in Utica, Mississippi, along with folk songs and Hebrew songs that expressed our Jewish values. In fact, it probably wasn’t until adulthood that I realized “Woke Up This Morning” wasn’t actually a Jewish song. I suspect that this Civil Rights songs had become one of “our” songs because the earliest counselors and campers of that Deep South camp, which was founded in the early 70s, had been immersed in the struggle for Civil Rights during the previous decade.
I grew up in the South, but since today I live far away in Canada, it’s easy to forget how real the Civil Rights Movement is – how recent, and how nearby. I was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 16 years after Governor George Wallace stood on the auditorium steps in that city to block the integration of the university. The events described in the Civil Rights exhibit take place largely in the states where I was born and where I grew up, and largely within my parents’ lifetime. In fact, this past Tuesday as I heard Joseph Levin, Jr, tell – in his strong Alabama drawl – the story of how he came to co-found the Southern Poverty Law Center, I felt strangely at home. I grew up surrounded by those accents and those ways of thinking – by men and women who attended those universities and were members of those fraternities, who dress conservative but think liberal, who talk in old-fashioned Southern accents but act in courageous new ways in the fight for social justice. That is, in many ways, the Southern Jewish experience. It is something to be proud of.
Yes, I know the Civil Rights Movement isn’t about me, and it isn’t even about the Jews. It’s about the brave African Americans who stood up and demanded rights and equality. But it’s also about the white, black, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim allies who stood with them in the demand for a more just society. And it is about those of every place and time who know that our world is not yet as it should be.
I rarely encountered overt racism or anti-Semitism growing up in the South in the 80s and 90s. My Temple was not bombed. My schools were at least nominally integrated. My Jewish youth group and camp experiences were positive, happy, and healthy. And yet the old issues were not far beneath the surface. There were the occasional worrisome comments. The racial integration of our schools existed only on the surface – I remember distinctly that in one of the high schools I attended in Baton Rouge, the white and black kids essentially kept to themselves. When former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke ran for governor of Louisiana, I was floored by how many of my 7th grade classmates in New Orleans supported him. It is clear to me in hindsight that these were indications that the South is still struggling with issues of Civil Rights and racial equality. There is still work to be done.
Today I live far from the South. In fact, as a resident of Toronto, I live in a city that prides itself on being diverse, progressive, and welcoming. There is a level of diversity and coexistence evident on the streets, on the subways, and in my kids’ schools, that still astounds me every day. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t hate. We have had our JCC bomb threats, our racially motivated killings, and our mosque attacks as well. We may not be Alabama in the 1960s, but neither can we fool ourselves that we are we living in a society free of bigotry. That is why we must continue to build relationships, why we must create bridges of understanding, knowledge, and acceptance between different faith and ethnic communities. And it is why we must speak out loudly – no matter who we are or where we live – against hate and injustice in all its forms.
Last month, when 6 worshippers tragically lost their lives in a hate-motivated attack on a mosque in Quebec City, synagogues throughout Toronto organized “Circles of Peace” around the local mosques, singing and praying in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters. The members of my congregation wanted instead to attend Friday prayers at a local mosque with whom we have a relationship. And when we did, and when we were warmly welcomed by our friends at the mosque, we discovered that 2 churches were also in attendance. On that Friday, Muslims, Christians, and Jews sat together, raising their voices in prayer that someday our world will be a place of tolerance and freedom for people of all races, religions, and backgrounds.
“I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.”
There are moments in history that call for clarity of purpose. May we look to the examples of the past, to the brave men and women who have fought for justice and equality, and may we be inspired to stand together with those who are different from us, and to stand up for what is right.
Here’s a joke:
It was the middle of Shabbat morning services, and the rabbi noticed that old Irv Cohen was asleep in the third row. So he elbowed the Temple President and said, “Cohen is asleep again. Go wake him up!”
The President answered: “That’s not fair.”
So the rabbi replied, “What do you mean? Go wake him up!”
To which the president answered again, “That’s not fair.”
Now the rabbi was frustrated: “This is a synagogue, not a bedroom. Cohen can’t sleep through my sermon. Go wake him up!”
And the president answered simply: “That’s not fair. YOU put him to sleep. YOU wake him up.”
The joke about rabbis seems to be that they talk a little too much. This week’s Torah portion proves that Moses was truly the first rabbi, in that he was capable of talking for extended periods of time.
Here’s what I mean: After 40 years of wandering, our people are now standing, ready to cross over the Jordan river into the Promised Land. But Moses knows something very important. He knows that he is not going with them. As you may remember, Moses was punished by God that he cannot enter the Promised Land. He has the opportunity to stand up on a mountaintop and see the land. But he’s not going to accompany the people there, and he’s not going to be there to help them set up their new society.
So Moses takes it upon himself to give them some advice. Lots of advice. A whole book’s worth of advice, in fact, that we call the book of Deuteronomy. This last book of the Torah will consist of several speeches given by Moses – in which he’ll recount past events, go back over the places they’ve been, and give laws and advice for the people as they set up their new society in the land of Israel.
In Hebrew, we call this book D’varim, which means “Words.” Because it starts by saying, “Eleh had’varim – these are the words that Moses spoke.”
The irony of Moses giving 3 long speeches is that he is not really a public speaker. Back in Exodus, when God first came to Moses to lead the Jewish people, Moses said– Lo ish d’varim anochi – “I am not a man of words.”
But now, our man of few words has become a man of many words.
But there’s another layer here. And for that, we need to know that the word d’varim doesn’t only mean “words.” It also means “deeds” or “actions.”
And while Moses may not have been a man of words, he was most definitely a man of deeds. Here is a leader who devoted his entire life and every bit of his energy to his people. He went to Pharaoh. He parted the red sea. He climbed Sinai and brought back the Torah. He led the people through the Wilderness. And now they all lend him their ears because they know after 40 years that he is the real deal.
Moses is an example for us as Jews because he values D’varim – he values both words and deeds.
As Jews, we are people of words. The the name that was given to us in the medieval Islamic world was Am HaSefer – people of the book. We are people of the book because we find meaning by delving into ancient texts – by reading what our ancestors had to say hundreds and thousands of years ago, and challenging ourselves to find relevance in those texts for our own lives.
But we’re not only people of words. We are also people of actions. The basic unit of Jewish life is not words, and it’s not really beliefs either. It is mitzvot – commandments. The Jewish things that we do define the Jewish lives that we live.
There is a passage in the mishnah, that has made its way into the daily morning service, that begins:
Elu d’varim she’ein lahem shiur – These are the d’varim (the actions or deeds) whose worth cannot be measured. And it goes on to list them:
- Honouring your father and mother
- Engaging in acts of compassion
- Study Torah
- Welcoming the stranger
- Visiting the sick
- Celebrating with the wedding couple
- Burying the dead
- And making peace
These are, in many ways, the most basic acts of Jewish communal life – celebration, mourning, study and prayer, and building relationships. When we live our lives in these ways, then we are building strong community, we are there for each other, and we can work deepen our own sense of self worth, and our own connection with God. Those are tasks that never end, which is why the passage refers to them as d’varim she’ein lahem shiur – actions with unlimited worth.
So maybe that’s what Moses means to say to us as he stands on the shore of the Jordan river. That the words we speak, and the ways that we relate to one another and to God really matter. That we have the power to effect goodness in each other’s lives and in the world, by being concerted and thoughtful about how we live our lives.
That’s an extraordinary power and an extraordinary responsibility that Judaism places on us. But it’s also an extraordinary privilege – to be a source of goodness and blessing to those around us.
On this Shabbat, may we recognize that responsibility and may we embrace that privilege.
May we recognize that our d’varim – our words and our actions – really do matter in the world.
NOTE: This essay was cross posted on the rabbinical blog of Temple Kol Ami.
Sitting in traffic on Highway 400, I decide that my six-year-old son has stared long enough at his iPod screen, so I try to make conversation:
“So, Yair, what are you looking forward to the most at camp?”
We are on our way, for the fourth summer in a row, to URJ Camp George, the regional Reform Jewish camp. I will serve as rabbinical faculty for the week, and he will be what is lovingly referred to as a “faculty brat” – shadowing the campers because he’s too young to be in a cabin.
Yair loves camp. He looks forward to it every summer. So I figure there are any number of possible answers to my question of what he is looking forward to most: sports; arts & crafts; swimming. His actual answer blows me away, and makes me laugh out loud.
“Well….” (He pauses to think.) “I think my favourite is…making challah.”
Making challah? Making CHALLAH?? Of all the things to do at camp, he chose braiding bread! This kid loves to run around; loves to swim and play… and his favourite thing is Jewish cooking! I love it!
And then it hits me. At age 6, he doesn’t differentiate between which activities are Jewish and which are not. He just knows that he loves all of the things he does at camp.
THAT is what Jewish camping is all about.
I am a product of Jewish camp also. I can trace my earliest and most formative Jewish experiences back to sweltering hot summers at Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi, where we prayed in Hebrew with a southern drawl, dressed in all white on Shabbat, and sweated our way through Shabbat song session. I have seen first hand, from having spent many summers in in many different camp roles, just how influential camping is on Jewish identity. Kids who grow up attending Jewish camp feel like Judaism belongs to them. They use Hebrew words naturally; they feel comfortable with services and ritual; and they integrate Jewish thinking and values into the everyday – moving seamlessly from swimming to challah baking, from eating meals to chanting blessings.
The camps are often referred the as the “crown jewel” of Jewish education in North America. They are a veritable Jewish identity factory, a hothouse of creative ideas and new approaches. Much of what liberal Judaism looks like today was born in its camps. I have no doubt that the liberal Judaism of tomorrow is being incubated there right now. Maybe even in the mind of my 6 year old son.
So I press further: “Challah baking? That sounds like fun. Why is that your favourite?”
He answers: ” I don’t know. I just like it.”
That’s OK. He doesn’t have to know yet. We can leave the philosophizing for later. For now, let’s just get to camp.