Friday, February 6, 2015

Something that I would die for, something that I could live for too

As you might know, I’ve just returned from the international component of my Global Justice Fellowship with American Jewish World service. I say “just”, even though now it’s been a few weeks, which is more time than I actually spent in Nicaragua and El Salvador with my cohort, because although that is more than enough time to readjust to normal life, it has not been quite enough time to explain to others all that I learned there. There were so many key moments of understanding, learning, remembering, and recentering of my values. For the last three years, I’ve been very focused on my studies and on youth programming. To many around me, my bleeding liberal heart and my desire to incorporate Tikkun Olam teachings into my youth programming was still a strong identifier of my burgeoning rabbinate, but to me, my politics and love for social activism took the backseat. For a variety of reasons, I have committed myself this year to putting the important Jewish values of human rights and social justice back in the front seat, and this fellowship has been a very important part of that goal. As such, one of the key moments of my time in El Salvador was visiting the home and church of Oscar Romero, El Salvador’s hero priest, and soon to be saint.
Father Romero was the archbishop of San Salvador from 1977 to 1980. He was outspoken against poverty, class disparity, torture, and a number of other human rights abuses he saw happening in his country. He wasn’t afraid to write to President Jimmy Carter and tell the U.S. to stop funding the corrupt military junta that had recently taken over El Salvador. He knew his politics were unpopular with the government, and that he was making himself a target for assassination, but he knew what was right and he spoke out for his people. In 1980, in the early years of El Salvador’s civil war, Father Romero was shot and killed during evening Mass. At his home, now a museum, we were able to hear a recording of his last sermon, in which he acknowledged he was likely to be killed in the near future. He seemed comfortable with the idea of being martyred, while at the same time, urging El Salvadorians, particularly those fighting in the organized military, to rethink their actions and choose peace and holiness instead killing and oppressing. Right up to the very end, he was not afraid to call out those perpetuating human rights violations, and was willing to die if it meant giving voice to the voiceless.
Now, Jews generally don’t believe in martyrdom. Judaism teaches that pekuach nefesh, protecting the sanctity of life, is more important that almost anything else. There are a few notable exceptions, though, and allowing yourself to be slain to save others is one of them. Although in Romero’s case, he didn’t exactly give himself up to directly save another soul, he did knowingly get himself killed for the sake of trying to stop the killings of others, and I think his martyrdom is something we as Jews can appreciate. Learning about Father Romero and being in his house reminded me of one of my earliest role models as I began to think about a future in the rabbinate: Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a preacher, he was able to be the charismatic leader for a movement that changed America. Right now there is a lot of discussion, both in response to the current Black Lives Matter movement and in response to the movie “Selma”, about all the other people instrumental in the civil rights movement, people that history has washed out of the picture, people whose names are completely unknown to most of modern America (or at least white America). All of those nameless others who marched and fought and were arrested and beaten and hosed, they are all invaluably important, too. But one of the things that made Rev. King so iconic, so memorable, was that he was already a community leader. He had a pulpit to speak from, and he spoke honestly and unafraid about what was holy and right and good for his people. That’s the kind of rabbi and community leader I would like to be.
However, it is not the leader alone that makes a movement. When Father Romero was killed, the fight against human rights abuses in El Salvador did not cease, and in fact the civil war continued for over a decade as the disenfranchised poor continued to vie for control. When Dr. King was killed, the civil rights movement did not cease, and in fact continues to this day, without the need for another charismatic preacher to lead. In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Yitro, Moses’s father-in-law warns Moses of the dangers of carrying the burden of the community by himself. He reminds Moses that God is truly with us when we work together and delegate. And as the Ten Commandments are given, we see that Mitzvot bein adam lamakom (commandments between man and God) and Mitzvot bein adam l’chaveiro (commandments between man and his fellow), are not evenly split, but that there are more for the latter. That is, while the Mitzvot bein adam lamakom are given first and given with more explanation, showing they are for sure important, there are more commandments for how people should interact with each other, showing they are more important. It is important for a spiritual leader to lead you in prayer and help you connect with God, but it is more important for a community leader to lead by asking for your help in making the world better and allowing you to connect with your fellow.
As I continue to unpack emotionally from my trip, it is important for me to figure out how to use the information I learned there and impart it to all of you. You may not burgeoning rabbis or social activists. You may not believe in martyrdom or have any desire to put yourself at risk for any particular cause. But I believe everyone has values and a genuine desire to connect with a community that shares those values. If you’re not a Father Romero, a Dr. King, or a Moses, you can still be a Yitro, an Israelite receiving the Ten Commandments, a nameless fighter just trying to make his or her own community a little healthier, happier and safer. You can always help share the burden of your fellow, just by lending a helping hand or a listening ear. May you each find your own route toward making your community, your country, or the world a better place.

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