This afternoon, our confirmation class, plus members of our youth group, hopped on a bus with other Jewish teens from the Philadelphia area to head down to Washington DC. There, they will get to encounter other Jewish teens from around the country, mostly from Reform congregations. They’ll celebrate Shabbat with youth-group styled services. They’ll tour DC: they’ll explore the Smithsonian and the Holocaust Museum, make Havdallah at the Jefferson Memorial, and of course get to go hang out in Georgetown. But they’ll also learn about different issues facing us as a people and a country: issues of homelessness and poverty, LGBT+ issues and gun violence and mental health women’s health, immigration rights and antisemitism and Israel. They’ll pick what they want to learn about, pick issues they’re passionate about, and Sunday night, they’ll write speeches. And Monday morning, dressed in suit and tie and skirts and pantsuits, they’ll go up on Capitol Hill, introduce themselves to the legislative aides of our congressional delegation, and talk about why their issue is important to them as Delawareans, as teens and as Jews, and urge our senators and congresswoman to vote this way or that.
This program, called L’Taken, “To Repair”, is run by our movement’s Religious Action Center, and it is nothing less than transformational. For our teens, who are just discovering their voices, they learn that their voice carries, that they can walk into the halls of congress and advocate in a profound and meaningful way, and that the advocacy that they do can be tied to their Judaism, all while connecting with other Jewish teens.
Now, perhaps for us as Delawareans, we’re used to the idea that we can grab our elected officials by the elbow at the checkout line, or while they’re walking the dog, and talk to them as human beings while still expressing to them our concern about this, that, or the other issue. That’s part of the Delaware Way, and I think most of us understand how rare and special that relationship is. But there’s another side to it as well. That, because we know they’re our neighbors, the parents at our childrens’ schools, and often our friends, we may be reluctant to speak truth to power. Or, because we know how they feel as individuals, we may take their voting records for granted. And not just elected officials but other community leaders as well, in our schools, in our institutions and non-profits and business. We can be loath to challenge or push back or insist, even when we think our position is right and theirs is wrong, because we are afraid of jeopardizing the relationship, or being a lone voice in the wilderness. And yet, as we just read, that is precisely what we’re called to do:
לֹֽא־תִהְיֶ֥ה אַחֲרֵֽי־רַבִּ֖ים לְרָעֹ֑ת וְלֹא־תַעֲנֶ֣ה עַל־רִ֗ב לִנְטֹ֛ת אַחֲרֵ֥י רַבִּ֖ים לְהַטֹּֽת׃
You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong—nor shall you speak in a way to make the majority pervert justice, literally to go askew. While the context here is judgements before a judge, everyone’s favorite Medieval French Rabbi, Rashi, helps us understand that this mitzvah is more broad than narrow court situations. He writes: “if you see the wicked perverting justice, do not say, ‘since they are the majority, anyway, I will follow them.” As Jews, we are simply not allowed to follow the popular position, especially if it’s wrong. The commentator Ibn Ezra argues that to do so makes us an accomplice to the evil being done, and Sforno (don’t these guys have great names?) nearly begs us in his commentary not to be influenced by the fact that they are the majority. Is it uncomfortable, to call someone out and say, “I think this position is wrong, and I think you need to do differently, to do better”? You bet. It’s profoundly uncomfortable, especially if we’re the lone voice, the disruptor, the iconoclast. But we know that discomfort is not a reason to avoid doing what is right, to speaking out. We know that’s what we’re called to do, even if being that lone voice, that whistle-blower, is an uncomfortable and unpleasant position right now. Our kids are lucky that they will lobby legislators who will mostly be supportive. That’s not always the case, even when we think that person—based on what they say or do—will do the right thing. And they’ll hear from their new friends how their meetings went, which all won’t go well. That’s another lesson for them, and hopefully a lesson that they need to keep the effort up. As do we.
In the Talmud we learn, Rabbi Simali said, Moses was given 613 commandments, 365 negative ones…and 248 positive ones…The prophet Micah reduces them to three, words we should know because they’re right behind me on the outside of our wall: do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God. But the prophet Isaiah gets it down to two: “Observe what is right and do what is just.” Our teens are learning just that this weekend. May we re-learn, and re-affirm, our willingness to speak out for justice and right, even and especially when the majority go astray. May this be God’s will. Amen.