A story is told about a town that was built along a river. The townspeople prided themselves on always doing the right thing. One day, as one of the townspeople was walking along the riverbank, he noticed that floating by was a man struggling to swim. Realizing that a few hundred yards past his town there was a giant waterfall and that man was likely to tumble off of it, he jumped in and pulled him to safety.
A few days later, another person who was walking by the riverbank noticed another person struggling to swim and heading for the falls. He too jumped in and saved him. As the days and weeks passed, more and more people started floating past the town. So as one would expect, the town set up a watch. As someone would float by they would send someone in after them.
As the months passed more people floated by. The town devised all sorts of systems to keep them safe. They made hooks to grab them quicker. Then when the volume got too much they created systems of nets to catch them. Soon that was getting overwhelming.
The townspeople called a town meeting. Everyone offered their suggestions. There were new technologies. They were ready to spend whatever they needed to make sure that not a single person would ever topple over that waterfall.
Then, one person stood up and began to yell. “Enough!” he shouted. “I’m going to head up the river to find out why people are falling in in the first place.”
We live in a world where too many people around us are floating toward the falls. We see poverty, homeless, bigotry and persecution. We face xenophobia, environmental degradation, and rampant violence. And too many of us look on with a feeling of helpfulness, wondering what we can do to stop those heading toward the abyss. But all too often, the magnitude of the problem makes us numb and cynical and we wonder if we can ever make a difference.
The Jewish tradition tell us unequivocally that we can but our approach cannot be monolithic.
This summer, I had the opportunity to learn about the amazing work of our Tikkun Olam committee. I am proud of their efforts. They collect food at Shop-Rite for those who are hungry, staff a respite shelter through the Interfaith Hospitality Network for those in need. Our TNT ramblers play music at Tony’s Kitchen, adding joy and light to those who are coming in for a rare hot meal. We host a blood drive every year, the next which will be held on October 3rd.
These efforts matter. They keep those tottering on the edge from plunging over the falls. They save that person. They impact that soul. And they live out the dictum in our tradition that “if one saves a single life it is as if they have saved the whole world.” We are blessed to be in a congregation that has these initiatives.
And still, if we do not go up the river, if we do not seek to make a systematic change, we will forever be pulling people out of the water.
After college I was blessed to work for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the Washington office of our movement. As part of the fellowship I was given a portfolio of issues one of which was advocating for the rights for those struggling with mental health.
While at the RAC, I met a Rabbi named Lynn Landsberg. Lynn was an amazing activist. She was the Associate Director of the Religious Action Center until she was in a major car accident and suffered a traumatic brain injury. After a lot of work and still feeling the effects of the accident, Lynn became the foremost advocate in the Reform Movement for the rights of those with disabilities.
I remember sitting with Lynn one day, en-route to a meeting we were attending together at the Health and Human Services building. The topic of the day was understanding mental health through the lens of disability rights. While driving Lynn told me about her work on the forefront of passing the Americans with Disabilities act, the ADA, the single biggest step forward for the disability community by prohibiting discrimination on the bases of differently abled individuals. Before the law was passed, for example, a person could be fired simply because they were in a wheelchair.
But in 2007 those protections were not afforded to those with mental health issues. You could be fired if you suffered depression or bi-polar disorder, even if you were on medication that worked. That day were were meeting with a broad coalition of faith communities and non-profit organizations to try to get a similar law passed for the mental health community.
That day I began to understand the power of law. Yes, people struggling with mental illness need groups, hotlines, advocates and watchdogs to assure they get the care they need. These tools are integral to assuring they can thrive. But with the right policy in place and with a stroke of a pen, the 40 million people who were struggling nation-wide with mental illness would find part of their lives improved. No longer would they need to hide their lunchtime medication or their periodic doctor’s visits. They could be themselves, free of the fear of losing their jobs.
We weren’t successful that year. But these things take time and thanks to the work of people like Lynn and these partners, The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 was signed into law by George W Bush when I living in Jerusalem for Rabbinical school. And though the law is not perfect, in one fell swoop we had kept millions of Americans from falling deeper into the river.
The Jewish approach to justice is ingrained into the fabric of our faith. We are, after all, inheritors of the legacy of the prophets, the first great advocates who spoke truth to power. We know their names: Amos and Micah, Deborah and Isaiah, Jeremiah and Elijah, among others. Often found in the halls of power they were our first great lobbyists. For they understand that true change comes with moving systems and that in their day, standing at the foot of the king mattered.
The prophet Nathan for example, who preached at the time of King David, famously heard that the King had schemed to have a man name Uriah killed in order to marry his wife. Appearing before the king, Nathan delivered a parable:
There were two men in one city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had many flocks and herds. But the poor man had nothing, except one little lamb which he had bought and nourished; and it grew up together with him and with his children. It ate of his own food and drank from his own cup and lay in his bosom; and it was like a daughter to him. One day a traveler arrived in town and asked the rich man for help. The rich man refused to help but instead stole the one lamb from the poor man, prepared it and gave it to the traveler.
Nathan then then turned to King David. “So,” he said, “what do you think?” David became angry. “How could this rich man do this to his neighbor?”
“You are that man!” said Nathan, and in that moment, David knew he had sinned. Because Nathan was not afraid to tell him the truth, because he helped him see the path toward justice, David could move toward Teshuvah, repentance, and begin to make amends. Because of Nathan’s openness and honesty, David became a little more good, a little more open, and a little less selfish than he was before.
Sadly, it’s not always so easy to do what Nathan did. We begin to speak words of justice and truth to only find that the halls of power are closed to our pleas. We seek change and are met with shut eyes and stuffed up ears. But if the path to change is best undertaken when we seek to move systems then we can’t be afraid to use the tools at our disposal. That’s why we find countless prophet’s punished for their bold proclamations: Jeremiah was put in the stocks, Miciah was thrown into prison, Daniel was placed in the lion's den.
Yet, as hard as it may be, the costs of inaction far outweighs the risks of speaking out. There is a beautiful teaching that says that when God created Adam, the first human, God took him around the garden of Eden. “See this,” says God, “all of this is yours. But remember I am only giving you one world and if you destroy it, there will be no one after you to fix it.”
Indeed, we are given one precious life, one amazing world. And we each have the opportunity to leave our mark. I’ve spent a lot of time staring into my son’s face these past two weeks and I promised myself that I want to leave him a world less violent, more generous, with greater love and with more opportunities than I found it. And I refuse to feel powerless to do so.
So what can we do? It’s one thing to discover what problem lies up the river. It’s another to develop a plan to address it. However, we have more power than we think.
Benjamin Todd Jealous, the former president of the NAACP famously quipped, “In a democracy there are only two types of power: there's organized people and organized money, and organized money only wins when people aren't organized.”
What can people do when they come together? They can move mountains.
This afternoon we will read, from our Haftarah, the story of Jonah. Many of us know the book well. The city of Nineveh is set to be destroyed and the reluctant prophet, Jonah, after running away from God conveys the message to the people. Quickly, upon receiving the message, the king of Nineveh hears him, proclaiming a fast, putting on sackcloth and ashes, and ordering everyone else engage in acts of repentance.
However, a close reading the story shows that’s actually not what happens.
When Jonah travels to the city, walking three days across its diameter for an audience with the king, he doesn’t head straight to the palace. Instead, he stops first in the city square saying, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
Quickly, his message spreads around the kingdom. Though one might argue that his reluctance to travel to the king was a result of laziness, I’ve always thought something different. Of all the prophets, Jonah was one of the best. He knew what he was doing. And thus, when he stopped short of the king, he was actually gathering support.
There are few commentators on the book of Jonah, but one of the best was Rabbi David Kimchi (the RADAK) from 12th century Provence. He explains that Jonah knew the people from past encounters. Many were merchants, some of whom had seen the miracle of him being swallowed by a fish and surviving. They got that he was special and that he meant business. So when he told them to repent from their wicked ways, they listened. And they started a movement.
By the time the news of Jonah’s prophecy reached the king he could not ignore it. In the verse, right before king makes his proclamation we read, “The people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast, and great and small alike put on sackcloth.” The power of the people had swelled. Though the king mattered a great deal in their lives, he could not compete with their fervor. He saw they were ready for change and he followed them there.
We, as a community, have power. If we combine our energies, like the people on Nineveh, we can heal this broken world. I’ve seen it happen countless times, in countless communities.
I once heard Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center tell me about his time serving as a rabbi at Temple Israel in Boston. Using the model of community organizing his community began meeting one-on-one and in group gatherings to hear about the passions and fears of their congregants. Probing what “kept one-another up at night” they soon found that many of them had parents in nearby nursing homes and many were upset with the care they were getting. Visiting and arguing with the staff was not enough. They could not police their care 24/7.
Little did they know that down the street was a Haitian church who was doing the same organizing work. Many members of this church worked in these nursing homes and bore the brunt of the complaints of these Jewish patrons. Often blamed for not doing enough, they felt powerless to help the patients in their care. They were victims of policies and a system that did not give them the tools to do the work they needed.
Then something magical happened. These two, seemingly powerless communities began to talk. They brought in other partners and suddenly, united, they had influence. This newly formed coalition stopped viewing the problem as between patient and caregiver. Instead they understood that as citizen, as voters, and as communities, they could seek out lawmakers and change the guidelines for how nursing homes worked. With their respective faiths as guiding lights they got busy, researching solutions, making calls, visiting influencers, and hosting action rallies. And they were successful. Overnight, they tapped into their collective power and changed the destinies of countless individuals.
This year, I want us to embrace our collective power. On October 23rd we will be gathering together to launch our community’s advocacy work. We will build upon the already amazing direct service that our Tikkun Committee has been involved in and we will work toward systematic change. While we will continue to feed the poor, we will also work to make sure that people have access to affordable and nutritious food. While we will continue collect funds for immigrants and separated families, we also will work to change policies that separate them in the first place.
Whether you do this work at TNT or in your own life, you should know that you matter and can make a difference. We live in a world where the majority of people are unengaged, so shifting the barometer is easier than we think. A friend who works in Washington once told me that he remembered talking to a colleague who told him that on the day that a controversial bill was being voted on “his phone was ringing off the hook.” My friend was curious what that meant so he asked him how many calls he got. “I must have gotten 15-20 calls today alone about the issue.”
That’s it. Your letter, your call, your visit can make the difference. This summer I visited Congressman Pascrell with our synagogue president Ken Cohen and one of our Tikkun Committee chairs Fred Pressman. We were asking that he sign onto a letter about balancing security for Israel with aid for the suffering Palestinian people. He didn’t sign the letter. Instead he did one better. He wrote his own, because as we spoke to him we moved him. We listened to him and he heard us.
I don’t want TNT to become simply another place for liberal values. Advocacy transcends political lines and there is a home here for everyone, liberal and conservative. In fact, I want TNT to be a home for complex discourse. After all our tradition states that our learning should be like two flints that strike one another. In the process, both become sharpened.
But the key is not to remain silent, to take every opportunity to speak out. People are falling in the river around us. We can be that fence the keeps them from toppling over the edge.
Make your voice heard. You matter. Know and believe that. Don’t try to do everything, but do something. The stakes are too high not to.