Our dreams: Sermon for Parashat Ki Tavo

I delivered this sermon today at Beth Israel Congregation Ann Arbor, Michigan

         SERMON FOR PARASHAT KI TAVO August 24, 2013

One of the most familiar High Holy Day melodies is that of the last line of Avinu Malkeynu. The prayer whose repeated words mean: “Our father, Our King” is a litany of petitions made to God which uses two metaphors for God’s relationship with us. Avinu Malkeynu covers both God’s attribute of strict justice (Malkeynu, our king) and attribute of mercy (Avinu, our father). By addressing God with both of these terms, we place ourselves before God both as children and as subjects as the machzor, the prayer book indicates we should.

         However, the last line clearly falls into the category of appealing to God’s mercy. Avinu Malkeynu hanaynu v’anaynu kee ayn banu ma’asim asey eemanu tzedakah vahesed vihosheaynu. Our Father, Our King, have mercy on us and answer us because we do not have the deeds that should justify our salvation, act with us with kindness and mercy and save us.

         The last line of Avinu Malkeynu clearly states that we do not necessarily deserve to be “saved” because we do not have the deeds which would argue for our salvation. In a way this is a perfectly appropriate thought as redemption, salvation, atonement, whatever word one wants to use, is dependent on our actions.

But, it is an interesting line because is at odds with a teaching of the Talmud and a general attitude of Jewish tradition. The Talmud teaches that it is not proper for a person to publicly proclaim his or her unworthiness before God. This is to be done silently and with humility. For that reason, this line of Avinu Malkeynu, traditionally was said silently. Perhaps because people love the tune so much, that tradition is largely neglected in most synagogues today and so we have the rather strange experience of proclaiming in loud and spirited signing our unworthiness before God

         But, to return to the core issue, how can we harmonize our “unworthiness” with our petition for salvation. It occurs to me that we only need add one phrase to this line of avinu malkeynu.

         O God…We may not have the deeds that argue for our salvation. But, we do have the dreams.

         Even if our deeds do not match up to our aspirations, our stated goals and our hopes for the future, we can, I believe, look at that which we aspire to, that which we dream of, that which we are working towards as evidence of our worthiness as individuals and as a people. We are not finished products. We are all seeking improvement and the fact that we are heading in the right direction is most important.

         This is not intended to get us off the hook by merely being able to claim that “we’re trying”. Rahter, it recognizes that the complexity of life sometimes does not enable us to be all we want to be at any one time. Sincerely believing in repentance and making progress is what is critical.

         Dreams are so important and so fundamental to who we are.

         50 years ago this week, Dr. Martin Luther King, zichorono livracha, may his memory be for a blessing, spoke words which continue to echo in the minds of everyone who has ever heard them, whether they heard them for the first time in front of the Lincoln Memorial, sitting in front of a TV screen as I vaguely recall doing, or anytime, anywhere since.

         “I have a dream”, Dr. King said, and urged us all to share that dream and more importantly to work towards it.

         To me, one of the most important parts of his speech came when Dr. King identified clearly the source of his dream.

            “It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

         Dr. King reminded us that he was not proposing a new dream for this nation, even if it had to be interpreted differently so that “all men” meant not just all white men but all people. The basic principle of his dream is the basic foundational principle of this country and it is one which can not be said quietly but must be proclaimed and sung out with emphasis and with sincerity at each and every moment.

         Dr. King’s dream is the American dream.

         And while no one can argue that we haven’t made some significant progress towards achieving that American dream in the 50 years that have passed, that progress being noted in so many positive ways from the ending of segregation laws throughout the country to the election of an African American president, the truth is that we are far from fulfilling his, our American dream.

         This can be seen in many aspects of American life and one place in which that dream is not fulfilled is in our legal and court system.

         This summer, regardless of what one thought of the verdict in the case regarding the killing of Trayvon Martin, we  once again realized how issues such as racial profiling affect law enforcement in this country and how often our legal system is biased against African Americans.

         As part of a community discussion on race in America this past winter, I read a book called The New Jim Crow Laws by Michele Alexander and Cornel West which documented statistically how that bias is reflected in percentages of convictions, length of sentences and other ways. I urge you all to read this book. The statistics were staggering, chilling and sobering.

         As laws such as the Stop and Frisk law in New York or the Stand Your Ground Law in Florida are debated and the justice system is examined, we realize that tragically, there is racial profiling and judicial inequality in this country, 50 years after Dr. King’s words.

         I don’t believe we can say: “ayn banu ma’asim”, there are no deeds that have been done that argue in this country’s favor. Clearly, if you look from the perspective of 50 years, we are in a better place than we were before.

         However, one of the dangers of taking the long view of teshuva in our own lives is the occasions on which we rely on the progress we’ve made to say; “our work is done”.

         Our work as human beings is not done and our work to build a nation of true equality is not done and it will not be done until each of us, regardless of color, of gender or sexual orientation, is truly treated equally under the law.

         It is easy for me to stand up here and say these words. It is easy for all of us to sit and nod when we hear talk of the need for equality. But, I have to ask myself and each of us has to ask ourselves: what are we doing, not just what are we dreaming but what are we doing to bring this nation to fulfill its dream. All of us in this nation are responsible to improve the reality in the years to come.

         We need to do our part and expect of our elected officials that they do their part to continue to address the inequalities in our nation. We must not rest until each individual in this country can live their life knowing that they are respected and valued equally. And, we must reach that point long before the next 50 years have passed.

         May this be a year in which we not only speak of our dreams but make the dream a reality.

         May the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King and all who have given their lives for equality be for a blessing.

         Our Father our King, help us to turn our dreams into reality.

2 thoughts on “Our dreams: Sermon for Parashat Ki Tavo

  1. Laurel F.

    Glad you’re posting this, since I had to leave before your sermon this morning. One of the problems facing black Americans, especially the young, is that a lot of prominent people keep telling them that they’re victims, that there’s no hope because of discrimination and they shouldn’t even try to succeed. Celebrating those blacks who have worked hard, created strong families, and accomplished much is one way to honor Dr. King’s dream.

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