Rabbi Karen Citrin
December 12, 2014

This Shabbat begins a new cycle of familial relationships, conflicts, and intrigue. Tonight, we start the story of Joseph, which will cycle through the next few weeks of Torah.

The story reveals the quintessential message of rising out of the depths of despair to new heights of comfort and well-being. Most of us are familiar with the tale. Jacob signals Joseph out by giving him and none of his other sons a beautiful coat of colors. In our home that would have been met with a, “That’s not fair!” Then, following not one but two vivid dreams in which Joseph’s brothers bow before him and serve him, they understandably grow jealous. They encounter Joseph alone while tending his flock and proclaim, “Here comes that master of dreams! Now then, let us kill him and throw him into one of these pits…. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped Joseph of his coat, the coat of many colors that he had on; then they took him and threw him into a pit.” (Genesis 37:19-24)

When I hear this story, I can’t help but think about the pits in our country and communities right now. There are pits all over our country. There are pits at schools where there are senseless shootings. There is a pit in Ferguson, MO. There is a pit in Staten Island, NY. And there are pits in every city were people are questioning police relations and force, and ongoing racial inequality.

Micah and I had the pleasure of sharing lunch this week with Reverend Ray Owens of Metropolitan Baptist Church and Reverend Chris Moore of Fellowship Congregational Church. The context was to vision and plan together for our upcoming Brotherhood and Sisterhood Interfaith dinner on January 25th. We look forward to welcoming both of these church communities here at temple.

Over salads deliciously prepared by The Daily Grill, we listened intently as Ray especially described the deep pain the members of his community in north Tulsa are feeling right now. Around the country, communities are anguished by the circumstances surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island. In the light of the two recent grand jury decisions, many of us are left asking tough questions – why? Why is there so much default to violence? Why can’t we find a way to get along and trust one another? What are the multiple truths about racism in our country? What can we do to address complex structural and systemic change?

Reverend Owens shared how members of his church have been expressing sadness, anger, fear, anxiety, disappointment, and frustration. He told us how the men in his church have been sharing stories about times when they have been discriminated against in Tulsa. He told us about how members of his community fear that Tulsa could be Ferguson. He told us how at their church they have been offering a special prayer during services for the safety and well-being of African American men. And he told us about the pervasive unsettling question in his community about what we can all possibly do. The four of us concurred that this is the essential question.

Suzanne Feinspan, the executive director of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, offers some Jewish perspectives on this issue. She writes, “I sat down last week to write about what happened in Ferguson. As I began to write, there was no doubt in my mind that there would be a ‘next time’ as soon as we hit the next news cycle, if not sooner. Then I heard the news that the New York City police officer responsible for the death of Eric Garner would not be charged. I was struck by the fact that I could write this article every day and just leave a blank spot to fill in a new name. This is not just about Michael Brown or Eric Garner. These cases are not anomalies but symptoms of something much deeper.” (“Are Ferguson and Eric Garner’s Death Symptoms of a Deeper Problem?”, Religious Action Center.org)

There are systems in our country that let some get ahead while keeping others behind. Feinspan reflects how as Jews, we have in our recent history suffered from systems which have held us back and also benefited greatly from systems, such as the G.I. Bill. and other programs that have helped Jews move into the middle and upper middle class.

As Jewish-Americans, she reminds us, we are responsible for understanding how these systems have helped us advance and also prevented so many others from doing the same. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “There is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible.”

Inevitably, there will be another “next time” until we as a society fix the larger system that allows injustices to occur. What is our role in this repair? I would like to suggest a start:

1) Remember your Jewish roots. While others are suffering we cannot be indifferent. Support work to address systemic issues. Volunteer your time and resources toward organizations you support. For more information about Reform Jewish social justice efforts, take a look at urj.org or the Religious Action Center in D.C.’s website (rac.org).

2) Have hard conversations with the people near us who we care about. I am hopeful that this will begin here at Temple Israel at our interfaith dinner. The theme is, “Marching Together: Past, Present, and Future.” It will be an opportunity for our three faith communities to engage in meaningful learning and dialogue, hopefully a model of partnership here in Tulsa. We will not complete the task but we will start marching together.

3) Lastly, I would like to return to a word of Torah. Joseph’s brothers threw into a pit. The Torah says, “They took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.” (Genesis 37:24) This verse contains a reduncancy. If the pit was empty, why also say, there was no water in it? Our commentators knew there is nothing redundant in the Torah. Every word has meaning.
The commentator Rashi offers, “The pit was empty, there was no water in it” to mean, that water is really Torah. Like water, Torah sustains us and gives us life. In a place where brothers do not treat one another with dignity and respect, there is no Torah. There was no Torah in Joseph’s pit. Yet, we know the ending of the story. Rather than leave him to die, his brother Judah speaks up and they sell him into slavery. The Torah says, “They pulled Joseph out of the pit.” (Genesis 37:28) Although the road ahead was still a long one for Joseph, he elevated himself to second in command in Egypt and ultimately recognized, embraced and reunited with his brothers and father.

A pit without Torah is like the Jewish saying, “In a place where there are no human beings, Hillel said strive to be a human.” “Bamakom se’ein anashim, Hillel omer hishtadel l’hiyot ish.” (Pirkei Avot 2:5) The pits in our communities need more Torah, more human beings acting with compassion, dignity, and respect. I pray that in the weeks and months ahead we will continue to work together to elevate the spirits and well-being of all our neighbors.