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Agents of the Arc
You may ask why I am here today and not marching with my sisters. Let me share with you what I shared with the Chizuk Amuno Congregation and Schools women and men who are marching today.
My Dear Chizuk Women:
Almost a thousand years ago, the Spanish, Jewish poet Yehuda Ha Levi expressed beautifully the experience of one’s body being in one place and one’s heart in another.
Libi ba mizrach, ve ani be sof ha ma’arav. “My heart is in the East, and I am at the ends of the West.” He lived most of his life in Spain yet felt such an affinity for, a love of, and a connection to Zion and Jerusalem that his heart dwelled in the land of Israel.
I share his words in hopes of conveying to you my feelings of Shabbat January 21st when my heart will be in Washington D.C. and Boston, Massachusetts, and Kodiak, Alaska and 627 places across the globe where women are gathering.
When I look back, I find that I have had powerful experiences of community and casting my voice for issues of social change over the years: the release of Soviet Jewry, abortion access, Israel, and Women’s rights to name a few. These marches have lasting impact on me and my identity as a Jew and a woman and I wish I could bring my daughter AND my son to share the magic of the Women’s March with me.
However, the privilege of speaking from the pulpit in a synagogue as the first female clergy ever engaged by Chizuk Amuno, or any large Conservative congregation in Baltimore is one in which I take tremendous pride. So though I will not be marching formally with others, I will be with you as I speak as a woman and as a rabbi on Shabbat morning.
On the pulpit Saturday I’ll be wearing a tallit, but when out walking I’ll be wearing a pink hat in solidarity and affection for my sisters who march elsewhere.
Raising one’s voice for justice is a religious imperative and it gives me tremendous pride to see how many Chizuk Amuno Congregation and Schools friends have answered the call of that imperative. Every day we pray with our mouths, our feet, our hands, and hearts. This will be true Shabbat morning as well.
In Jewish life when going out to take on an important task we wish someone hazak ve ematz, meaning be strong and of good courage. But of course the standard Hebrew phrase is in the masculine form. I wish each one of you hizki ve emtzi – let us be courageous and strong and speak out in community and individually. I look forward to hearing about and sharing in your experiences.
Rabbi Debi Wechsler
This is a historic Shabbat as we are surrounded by millions of women and some men as well who understand down to the depths of their soul that just sitting by is not an option.
In several classes this week I have been teaching material which I learned from teachers at Pardes, a remarkable institution of Jewish learning based in Jerusalem whose reach extends across the globe. As part of their community work on redifat shalom, constructive conflict, they brought to me and to others rabbis and teachers texts on tochecha, constructive conversations.
Hochayach tocheeach et amitecha. The verse in the midst of the Holiness code in Leviticus cries out, “You shall surely rebuke your people.” It is a positive commandment that knows no bounds of time to speak out and engage in difficult conversations with our brothers, our sisters, members of our am, our nation, and those around us. As expressed by a student in a class on Thursday – it is the rabbinic equivalent of “See something, say something.”
The Torah demands that we live up to and fulfill our obligation to do what we can when we see injustice. And make no mistake about it – a loss of health care, women not having a say about what happens to our own damn bodies, diminishment of the humanity of those who are disabled, casting out refugees and immigrants, glorification of sexual abuse – these are deep injustices. And when we see deep injustices even and especially if they are not injustices to our own person, just sitting by is not an option.
In Jewish life there is no such thing as an innocent bystander. We read this week the story of the Hebrew midwives Shifra and Puah. After being told by the king of Egypt to murder the male babies of the Israelite people, a despicable, hateful, discriminatory, unjust act, they refuse. These women were midwives. They were not princesses, they were not wealthy, they had no assured place in Egyptian society – they were the lowliest of the low. And yet, they spoke out. They prayed with their hands and their feet and refused to be silent in the face of injustice. Va tiraena ha meyaldot et ha Elohim ve lo asu ka asher diber aleihen melekh mitzrayim ve tichayena et ha yeladim. The midwives believed that what was being asked of them was wrong, was unjust, because God has built standards of moral behavior into the universe.
This first recorded incident in human history of civil disobedience was read this morning as one of the largest ever incidents of civil disobedience was taking place on earth. God and human decency demands a certain level of moral behavior and when that level is not reached every one of us is called to stand up and march. No bystanders are innocent when injustice exists.
There has been great tension and anxiety these past few months. Present here in the United States and present in other parts of the world. Oftentimes we run from tension and anxiety. However, in the words of Professor James Hollis, “To live fully in the world is to frequently suffer from bouts of anxiety that are our lot as a sentient species. We should never deride ourselves for such anxiety…Anxiety is the price of a ticket on the journey of life; no ticket – no journey; no journey – no life. We may run from anxiety as much as possible but we thereby run from our only life… Anxiety results from moving forward into the unknown and the path of anxiety is necessary because therein lies the hope. You must make your fears your agenda. When we take on that agenda, for all the anxiety engendered, we feel better because we are living in good faith with ourselves.” [Swampland of the Soul-New Life in Dismal Places” in An Alamanc for the Soul: Anthology of Hope, Edited by Marv and Nancy Hiles, p.63]
That is what we women and men have done today. We have made our fears our agenda. And how lucky we are to have been able to turn that anxiety into a forceful agenda of rooting out threats to justice anywhere. Hochayach tocheeach et amitecha. You shall surely rebuke your people. We do not hate in our hearts. We do not bear ill will in our souls. Rabbi Yosi be Rabbi Hanina said, love without rebuke is not love. Resh Lakish said, peace without rebuke is not peace. Today is about rebuke and injustice, but more than that it is about love and it is about peace.
Hizku ve imtzu. We will be courageous and strong. Let us be agents of the moral arc of the universe that bends towards justice.
Rabbi Wechsler has touched the lives of many members of our community through her intellect, warmth, compassion and commitment to the ideals of Conservative Judaism. As the first woman to serve as rabbi of Chizuk Amuno Congregation, her impact and accomplishments are demonstrated in our successful b’nei mitzvah, adult learning programs, gemilut hasadim efforts, and many learning and life cycle experiences. Her communal work includes service on the Executive Committee of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis, the Grant Review Committee for the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Fund of The Associated, and the Teacher Certification group of the Center for Jewish Education. She has published sermons and opinion articles in The American Rabbi, The Orchard, and the New York Jewish Week. Debi received her rabbinic ordination, as well as an M.A., from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City where she also served on the Board of Overseers of the Rabbinical School.