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Yom Kippur Sermon

09/28/2020 10:40:12 AM


Rabbi Samuel Gordon

This past January, I was honored to be asked to deliver the keynote address at the Rainbow Push Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Breakfast at the Hyatt Regency downtown. I was truly grateful for the invitation and more than a little surprised. I shared my remarks with you at the time.

In my address, I asked everyone to imagine for a moment that Dr. King was at that breakfast. It was not so impossible a thought. He would have been 91. I drew a picture of Dr. King going upstairs out the front door of the Hyatt Regency and walking onto Wacker Drive. If he looked to the north, he would have seen the Apple Store and the Gleacher Center and all of Michigan Avenue sparkling behind them. To the west, he would have seen the new Riverwalk leading out to Wolf Point with the shimmering skyscrapers of offices and residences full of life. If he were to have walked down Wacker to the corner of Michigan, he could have looked south and seen Millennium Park and all the vibrancy of Michigan Avenue leading as far as McCormick Place.

I suggested on that day that Dr. King would not have recognized this city and the last fifty years of changes and revitalization that have transformed parts of the Chicago he once knew. I said back on January 20th that Chicago is today a very different city, one that has prospered, been transformed, and renewed. I posited that these changes would have been unimaginable to Dr. King!

BUT, here is the flip side, the dark side: I pointed out that if he were to return to his old neighborhoods where he did his greatest work, the south side and the west side of this city, he would immediately have recognized that Chicago. That Chicago has not been transformed. If anything, it is worse today than it was fifty-five years ago. But I don’t think he would be surprised. He recognized the great entrenched disparities of American society.

I drew that picture of urban contrast on January 20th. Neither I nor anyone else could have predicted the COVID-19 Pandemic that resulted in the shutting down of the commercial heart of the city. None of us anticipated the death of George Floyd and the spontaneous eruption of frustration and rage that resulted in arson and looting and the boarding up of the windows of the Magnificent Mile and the Loop. I confess to having been naive and overly simplistic.

But the point I was trying to make on Martin Luther King Day was that, even if hidden from view, our city still suffers from an economic and social inequality that infects America with the virus of poverty and injustice. I fear that I have been proven right concerning the reality of the great disparity that exists throughout this country, not just in Chicago. It should have been no surprise to any of us that our city was sitting on a powder keg of rage waiting to be ignited by a cell phone video of a 9-minute death by police brutality. George Floyd’s death exposed a reality of Black life in America that was too easily ignored and pushed to the side for far too long.

This country has been roiled by the death of George Floyd, as well as the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha,  Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many more victims of violence directed at African Americans, seemingly singled out due to the color of their skin. The ubiquitous nature of the cell phone has exposed to the rest of America the reality of living black in this country.

And Chicago has suffered. It is far beyond my expertise or wisdom to address the terrible epidemic of gun-related homicide in this city.  I must leave that analysis to others. But I, instead, want to look at the issue of the great divides in America.

This is hardly a new crisis. In 1968, Illinois Governor Otto Kerner led a commission looking into the root causes of urban rioting in Watts, in LA, Chicago, Newark, and elsewhere.  that had taken place in 1967. This report was issued at the end of February 1968, prior to the riots that followed the assassination of Dr. King only two months later.

The Kerner Commission reported that the riots resulted from black frustration at the lack of economic opportunity. Martin Luther King Jr. pronounced the report a "physician's warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life." The report berated federal and state governments for failed housing, education, and social-service policies. The report's best-known passage warned: "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal."

The Kerner Commission and the subsequent riots of 1968 should have been a wake-up call, but it wasn’t. For many people of color, the inequalities of housing, education, and the justice system have remained constant over these more than fifty years. During these same fifty years, a different segment of American society has prospered and thrived.

Certainly, it is not just a Black and White problem. Indeed, the economic disparity is very real for the urban and rural poor. The COVID-19 pandemic has added to the devastation of the working class and poor, regardless of race. And yet, the issue of police violence directed at Blacks is a crisis on its own, with the violent reaction seen in Ferguson, Missouri, Minneapolis, Chicago, Kenosha, and elsewhere.

I want to be absolutely clear that I offer no justification for arson and looting, but one cannot really be surprised or shocked. The Black Lives Matter protests throughout our country have been largely peaceful and nonviolent. They have galvanized activists of all races, ages, and sexual identities. Many members of our own congregation have participated in peaceful, non-violent marches and demonstrations.

Many of the incidents of violence, looting, and arson have been completely unconnected from the protests, as was the case in downtown Chicago in August. That was an organized criminal rampage separate from any BLM demonstration or protest. Yes, there are examples of justified protests descending into violent destruction that must be clearly condemned. Yet, if all we focus on are the TV news videos of looting and destruction and ignore the justified rage in response to George Floyd or Jacob Blake, or Breonna Taylor, then our priorities are wrong. There are those who are fomenting and exploiting the violence as an excuse to deny the legitimacy of the protests.

The Talmud teaches us that: “The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed and justice denied.”

I was wrong back on January 20th when I looked out from The Hyatt Regency on Wacker and saw a sparkling vibrant city in contrast to the other Chicago often hidden from those of us who are able to travel from the North Shore to the City, staying within about 20 blocks from the Lake. Since the George Floyd murder in late May, much of the downtown area is boarded up. The fragile social contract cannot be ignored. It is right in front of us.

We need to look deeply into the heart of our society. Systemic racism must be acknowledged and confronted. The police deserve our support, but too many times we are left in disbelief when we see the treatment of unarmed Black men, often resulting in death. No parent should need to have “the talk” with a teenage son about to get into his car with the fear that a simple traffic stop could result in a police shooting.

And we must do the uncomfortable work of looking at our own privilege and good fortune. The great disparity that exists in our nation should be apparent to all of us. We need to recognize that privilege built on a shaky foundation of quicksand will be legitimately threatened by basic strivings for justice and equality for all of society. Yom Kippur is a time to engage in a serious chesbon hanefesh—an accounting of the soul, an audit of our moral behavior. This is supposed to be serious work. Yes, we must look at our society’s failures, but we cannot abdicate our personal responsibilities either. When have we kept silent in the face of discrimination and prejudice? How have we used our influence and power to push our society to recognize its failures? What have we done in our own lives to help the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice?

I know this has been a difficult half year since March. We rightly have been concerned with our own personal health and well-being and that of our families. But both the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests have exposed the illness of America’s deep inequalities and disparities in health care, education, housing, and jobs. Those realities cannot be pushed aside. This must be a time of a societal chesbon hanefesh — accounting of the moral and ethical soul of our nation. Only then can we have a true atonement for our historical failures.

The prophet, Jeremiah wrote:

            “Seek the peace of your city...for in its well-being, you shall thrive.

There is much work to be done to fight systemic racism, ensure equal opportunities for education, housing, health care, and employment. But we cannot simply react to this current crisis and offer quick and shallow solutions based on the immediacy of the moment. It has been more than fifty years since the Kerner Commission presented its report. What has really changed in that half-century?

This has been a challenging summer. We need to decide that we will make the difficult choices and ensure the vision of equality and justice spoken by Dr. King and John Lewis. We cannot stand still. We must go forward. We need to make real the promise of a nation where all are seen as created equal and all of us share in equal rights, opportunities, and hope.

Let us keep our eye on a better future, our eye on the prize.

Click HERE for a PDF version of the sermon.

Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784