December 5, 2023 /
Last year I was invited to attend the National Action Network’s annual awards ceremony for religious institutions. The Union for Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center was receiving an honor that afternoon in recognition of our participation in the Minister’s March in Washington, DC. I was invited along with a small contingency of rabbis to receive the award on the RAC’s behalf because we had gone to that rally.
The event was at the Sheraton in Times Square, and it was…well… it was something else. This particular event was just for faith-based organizations so start off by picturing a room four times the size of Reitman Hall filled with hundreds of ministers, preachers, and only a few of their congregants and then fourteen rabbis. There was a dais up front that had people like Senators Gillibrand, Booker, and Sanders. The Religious Action Center had two tables right up front. It was like we were sitting in the center ring surrounded by about 150 other circular tables filled with priest and ministers of every other walk of Christian life. We felt like strangers in a strange land, and we felt like there was a spotlight right on us because no matter where you sat, to see the dais, you had to look at the table with the kippas. Before the event began people kept coming up to take selfies with the Senators and every time they passed our table they did a double take as if they just realized who we were. At one point someone had asked me if we got a little lost. The event finally began. You might think that the preachers speaking would have let down their hair a little seeing that they were among same company, but you’d be wrong. Each speaker was trying to out “preach” the next. And it was quite amusing for us table of rabbis. For the life of me, I have forgotten almost all of the speeches from both the politicians and preachers. But there is one that will stay with me for a while, although I must confess, I forgot the preacher’s name. However, there is something he said in his remarks that I will never forget.
He started off by thanking everyone for their diligence when it came to social justice. He thanked everyone for calling out prejudice and bigotry. Then he started to become slightly more sarcastic. He then thanked everyone for being judgmental, and then he thanked everyone for believing that they were right and that everyone else was wrong. And then he said, “Some of you believe that you are so heavenly bound, that you end up doing no earthly good,” and people were upset. You could audibly here those gasps. He repeated himself again. “You heard me, some of you are so heavenly bound, you do no earthly good! Stop preaching and start doing!”
As you can imagine, we were having a field day with this one, and I will never forget that quote, “some of you are so heavenly bound, you do no earthly good.” I know he was speaking to a room mostly filled with Christians, but to me, it was a very Jewish quote. It was said as a way of disrupting the status quo, to disturb those who were complacent. That’s what the rabbis have been trying to do to us Jews for millennia for we know that when we are complacent or when we embrace the status quo often times, bad things begin to happen to us. This age we find ourselves in now is not one for complacency even if it’s the easier path to take.
Friends we live in perilous times. I believe this because everybody seems to be saying it. Every time I turn on the news, no matter what channel or what the political bias is, I guarantee I will hear that phrase at least once within the first 15 minutes and multiple times within the hour. It’s usually said by someone immediately following a clip of something happening in the streets or an image of someone’s tweet, and you probably can guess whose. The talking head usually has a bewildered look on their face which turns into another look that makes me worried about their mental health before they pontificate, “Folks, we live in unprecedented and perilous times.”
Unfortunately, they are doing this with a frequency that makes it an easy answer for a game of Pundit Bingo, it takes the weight away from whatever they are responding to, but just leaves us with this unnatural feeling of anxiety and fear and this sense of powerlessness to stop the onslaught of the world around us. This onslaught of facts and opinion mixed as one is not good for us. It pierces us to our very core and harms our very souls.
Yes, we are living in perilous times, but as Jews, haven’t we always lived in perilous times? Not too long ago we commemorated Tisha B’av. We have an entire day to remember everything tragic that has ever happened in the life of our people, and after serval millennia, that list has gotten rather long. Yes, what we are living in now is new, but it also is quite old. As Mark Twain is often reputed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
So, what is making this moment in history feel so terrible for so many of us? Is it because there is a new form of tribalism that’s far more ferocious than ever before – a tribalism so strong that compromise is now a new four-letter word? Is it that our leaders are acting in unprecedented ways? Is it that many of us have less faith in our government and less trust in the establishment then we used too? Perhaps it’s because we have less faith in one another. And we feel like everyone is out to scam us and take advantage of us. Not a day goes by that I don’t get an email or a call from a fake IRS agent or claims borough hoping to get my Social Security Number. It’s been about a year since I looked in my email’s spam folder, at this point I’m afraid of what I’ll find. All of this constant bombardment leads us to believe that everyone is out to get us and only we are in the right. That we can only trust our own “tribe.” And who we define as being in our tribe is constantly shrinking.
About a month ago, Lord knows what was happening in the news, but I came home feeling despondent about what was happening around us. That night I poured myself a scotch and went to my study. I had recently brought over my father’s old records over from Brooklyn, and I was rummaging through them wanting to find something to listen to in my chair and try and get my mind off of things. I was sifting through the box, and the smell came up. You know the smell of old books and things that hadn’t been touched in about twenty years. The smell of history, and perhaps also allergies and I saw this one record that was begging to be looked at. It was a Gil Scott-Heron LP called Pieces of a Man. On the cover, Mr. Scott-Heron was peering out into the distance as if he was scanning society with a look that made me believe that he wasn’t too happy with what he was seeing. It was a mood that seemed to fit, so I put it on and sat back to listen. On came the song, The Revolution Will Not be Televised. When it was composed, this song was not written for me, but at this moment, it spoke to my soul.
If you know the song and are wondering, yes, I did get most of the references. If you haven’t heard it, it is a spoken word poem to what I would characterize as mellow instrumentation and free jazz arrangements. The song’s title was originally a famous slogan among the 1960s Black Power movements. Its lyrics either mention or allude to several television series, advertising slogans and icons of entertainment and news coverage that serve as examples of what “the revolution will not” be or do. The song is a response to the spoken word piece When the Revolution Comes by The Last Poets, which opens with the line “When the revolution comes some of us will probably catch it on TV.”
The Revolution will not be Televised concludes with these verses:
The revolution will not be right back after a message
About a white tornado, white lightning, or white people
You will not have to worry about a germ on your Bedroom
a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl
The revolution will not go better with Coke
The revolution will not fight the germs that cause bad breath
The revolution WILL put you in the driver’s seat
The revolution will not be televised
WILL not be televised, WILL NOT BE televised
WILL NOT BE TELEVISED
The revolution will be no re-run brothers
The revolution will be live
This last part echoed in my head. “The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat. The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised. The revolution will be live.” I was lost in thought and hadn’t noticed that the record finished playing. The still room was filled with the turntable’s sound of static and scratch. “Will not be televised, will not be televised, the revolution will be live” echoed in my head
At that moment I had rolling in my head images of people too busy recording a revolution on their phones and commenting about it on Facebook. A revolution flooded with likes and emojis that amount to no change whatsoever. It’s just a bunch of people so heavenly bound that they do no earthly good. I saw images of people being too disaffected by what is going on around them to want to do anything. If there were a revolution, most people would catch it on TV or maybe, we’ll watch it on Facebook Live. I was siding with The Last Poets prophecy of the future. At that moment, sitting there, I was feeling like I was at a great loss. No one is answering the calls of change, we are too focused on what tears us apart to be able to come together to help one another. With the sounds of static in the background, the words of our sages echoed up through history to me.
A verse from Pirkei Avot reads, “The world is sustained by three things: by truth, by justice, and by peace.” Now we know what happens to the world when we don’t have any of the three. Truth, justice, and peace. These are the elements that sustain the world. Why truth? Because the truth is universal. The rabbis believed that we are all entitled to our opinions, but not to our own truth. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was probably not up to date with his rabbinic codes and responsa work, but the concept had been around for quite some time before he coined the phrase.
There are many crises before us and many political opinions on how to solve them. I have my views on which path I prefer, and while I’m sure many of you probably share these thoughts, I’m also sure some of you would disagree with me, and you have every right to do so. Our tradition tells us that having a difference of opinions and being able to debate them respectfully, is a good thing. The voice of the dissenter is just as important as the voice of the majority. We also believe that even if the majority of people believe something, it doesn’t make it true or just. Truth is what is important because while there are many paths forward the ones that begin with truth lead to justice and the ones fostered in lies and deceit lead to moral decay. Only paths rooted in truth will lead us to justice.
Pirkei Avot also reminds us that we should talk little and do much. We need to work for justice. Justice doesn’t just flow like a river from the mountain tops. We need to make that great river of righteousness flow. We do it by coming together. This isn’t about justice only for Democrats or just for Republicans. For the rich or for the poor, for the native or for the immigrant. This is about justice for all people. All people deserve justice no matter race, ethnicity, creed, gender, sexual orientation or land of origin. We are a people who believe that if we want peace in our gates, then we need to act justly towards one another. We do this by coming together and making shalom, peace. Shalom doesn’t mean that everyone is the same or has the same thoughts and beliefs. No shalom implies that we live in harmony with one another. That we have empathy for one another. That we can live justly with one another.
Truth Justice and peace. We cannot just lament their passing; we need to resuscitate them in our world. We need to come together, but so frequently we keep our heads down and just keep staring at our phones, either enraged at what we read on them, or playing a game to try and keep ourselves pacified, but very rarely do we look up and see what is around us.
To quote our prayer book:
Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles. God, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.
Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed. And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder: How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it.
I read this prayer silently to myself every Friday night during services. When I do, I often wonder if Moses would have turned and noticed the Burning Bush if he had an iPhone? The last time I read it, I realized, that’s why the revolution will not be televised. The answer lies in Moses.
There’s Moses wandering in the spiritual wilderness when he has a moment of great turning. Our rabbis teach us that the Burning Bush has been and ever will be burning. If so, why wasn’t it until that fateful moment that Moses notices this miracle that he had been sightless to? This manifest presence of God around him? Because he had yet to have his moment of revolution inside of him. His moment of shuvah – his moment of turning towards God. His moment of spiritual revolution is what led to G’ulah, Redemption, our liberation from slavery.
That’s why the Revolution will not be televised because it can’t be. The only revolution that matters is the one that happens inside of you. It’s the one that causes you to look up and find miracles around you. It’s the one that causes you to look up and see the burning bush. It’s the one that causes you to cast off the false notion that you can’t change the world. The revolution begins by reconnecting with your faith, hearing what your faith calls you towards, and then acting. Because what was important about the Burning Bush wasn’t the conversation that Moses had with God, it was the action that came next. Yes, Moses was afraid and trepidation, he refused time and again to act, but God said, “No, you must!” and yes, Moses repeatedly failed before G’ulah, Redemption came to us. But once called to divine action, there was no turning back. The Revolution will not be televised.
As the preacher said, some of us are so focused on them being wrong and us being right that we aren’t doing anything actually to help solve the real problems of society. This is not what God calls us to. God calls us to a sacred debate. God calls us to rise above partisan politics, God calls us to talk to one another. To help make lives better. Don’t let politics get in the way of helping someone else find sanctity in their lives.
I could spend the next 40 minutes talking about policy decisions, I can do it just as well as the next guy, but I won’t. Both political sides believe they have the answers, the truth is, they are right, both sides do have a set of solutions, but all we are getting are wrong outcomes because we can’t rise above the partisan bickering. Don’t wait for them to come together, they aren’t going to.
Instead, be Moses, be not only a mouthpiece for God, be God’s rod as well.
In the words of Ruth Messinger:
“Just as the shadow of a person does whatever that person does, so, too, does the divine do what we do. Divinity is the shadow of human action. If we save a life, so too does God; if we decide to end a human life, God does also. At some level, the utterly transcendent divinity is right at hand, for the divinity we hope to worship is a shadow of ourselves, our best parts and our worst. If you want to see God save the innocent, you need to get up off the couch and save the innocent. If you want to see God stand by while the innocent suffer, all you need to do is stand by and do nothing yourself.”
Listen, it starts off as a dim, hushed voice, but when you hear it, it will call you to action. Come with me. What will you turn towards? What will God and the burning bush of faith call you to do?
We all walk sightless among miracles. We walk sightless because we are angry. We walk sightless because we are resentful. We walk sightless because we are too scared to look up. We walk sightless because we are too scared to glimpse the burning bush. We walk sightless because acknowledging we need to change our behavior scares us to our very core. Look up and feel the calling in your heart and turn towards the bush. Have your spiritual revolution.
We are a people called to action, how will you act so that this little corner of earth and history will be made better because you were in it? Our High Holy Day liturgy reminds us that life is uncertain. There are too many of us this year that have been made suddenly aware that life is incredibly fragile. Yes, life is terribly complicated, but it is also extraordinarily beautiful, too beautiful and too precious for us to live it missing the miracles around us.
This year, be the embodiment of God’s power and work. Work hard and with the passion of that burning bush calling you to show others those miracles around us. Life is too precious not too. On Yom Kippur, we will utter the words, “Open the Gates of Righteousness, Open the Doors so that we may enter.” We say it as if these gates are closed to us the rest of the year, but they aren’t. They are open all year long; God is the open door to us. Don’t go down the rabbit hole of despair, but go through the open doors towards life and hope.
To borrow the words of Debbie Perlman,
You are the Open Door
That beckons me in;
Peeking around the door frame,
I begin to enter into Your glory.
You move me forward, O Eternal,
To step beyond self-made boundaries:
Lift my foot over the threshold
That I might abide with You.
In the house of the Eternal,
I found my questions:
Waiting to be posed,
They filled me with wonder.
Sit with me, Eternal Teacher,
Encourage my seeking:
As I fill my hours with Your mitzvot,
So shall I be filled.
Send me through Your door
Stretching up to honor Your Name,
Sharing out this wonder,
Enriching myself in the giving.
This is the beginning of a new year, may each of us find the courage to walk through God’s door together and find purpose and meaning, and a life worth living, one that is filled with sanctity and helps others find sanctity as well.
 Pirkei Avot 1:18
 Pirkei Avot 1:15
 Written by Rabbi Chaim Stern