U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) is the last surviving member of the “big six” leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. He was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington and was wounded during the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. During his long public life, the 76-year-old has stressed love over hate, and reconciliation over discord.
On Sept. 19, he was in Philadelphia to receive the Liberty Medal at the National Constitution Center. The following day, he appeared at an interfaith brunch for clergy members. Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, offered the following remarks.
Throughout the Jewish year, Jews read in weekly portions from the Torah, the five books of Moses. At the beginning of the year, we start at Genesis, with the creation of the world, and make our way, verse by verse, chapter by chapter, to the last words of Deuteronomy. And when we finish, we start again. Each year, we return to the same lines, the same stories, the same commandments. Some years little has changed for us. And some years, we are different people, because of internal shifts or because the world has acted on us in ways wonderful or challenging.
Right now, in the Jewish year, we are nearing the end of the Torah. We are reading our way through the final chapters of Deuteronomy. The Israelites have been liberated from slavery. They have rushed toward freedom across the Sea of Reeds, miraculously escaping the oppressors chasing after them. They have received a revelation at Sinai instructing them how to live in relationship with each other and with the Source of All Creation. They have wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. And now Moses stands with them at the edge of the Promised Land, giving them instruction for crossing over into the “land of milk and honey,” into a place of abundance and hope.
This week’s portion ends with powerful language:
הַעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת-הָאָרֶץ--הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ, הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה; וּבָחַרְתָּ, בַּחַיִּים--לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה, אַתָּה וְזַרְע
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live. (Deuteronomy 30:19)
This year, when we come to this text, we are different people. We are shaken by violence, in our own streets and around the world. We struggle to face up to institutionalized oppression and to find ways to dismantle it to create a truly just society. We seek the balance of compassion and safety in addressing the waves of refugees around the world. We are living with rhetoric that is hateful, hurtful, divorced from truth and accountability. As the storms rage and the sea waters rise, we try with increasing urgency to find new ways to responsibly steward our earth, our shared home.
This year, the choices we face seem as clear and stark as the words of Scripture. Life and death. Blessing and curse. Choose life, so that you and your descendants will survive.
As faith leaders, may we discern the still small voice that calls us to our vocations. May we be inspired by the prophets—from all of our traditions and from our own day—to demand a better world. With the perfect combination of humility and effectiveness, may we together lead our people so that they all share the abundance here in our own blessed land and so that justice flows through its streets. May we find the companionship of each other along our shared journey, learning from and teaching to and lovingly jostling along together toward redemption. May we buoy up hope in the face of so many fears. Over and over, may we have the strength to choose action over apathy and love over hate. Let us choose life and choose blessing, so that we and all our children shall live and thrive.