Standing for Voting Rights

Min hameitzar karati yah; anani bamerchav yah.
I cried out to God because everything was so cramped; God answered: “Make the circle bigger!”

Atem Nitzavim Hayom Kulchem Lifney Adonai Eloheychem, our Torah reading begins. Before we read, we’ll break down a few key verses and see what they have to teach us about turning away from narrow-minded ideas and the narrowly-drawn lines that enforce them, and embracing a much broader view of who we are as a nation.

“You are standing this day, all of you, in the presence of Adonai your God” (Deut 29:9). The classic Jewish commentators whose observations have guided our understanding of Torah for hundreds of years had much to say about this verse, and the ones that follow. A small sampling:

  • From 13th-century France, here’s the Hizkuni. “Everyone was standing there, the “important” people and the ones who weren’t as “important.”
  • From 12th-century Spain, Abraham ibn Ezra. “‘In the presence of Adonai’means that they were gathered about the Ark of the Covenant.”
  • And from 16th-century Italy, Obadiah S’forno on the words a few verses in which imply that the gathered represented not only themselves, but “‘each one who is not here among us this day,’ (v. 14),which means “the generations yet to come.”

I love the way the Classical Commentators help to color in the picture being drawn for us by the Torah. With their help, we see that moment of covenanting in greater detail, in a number of ways:

  • Hizkuni helps us see that the long list of groups of people gathered not just a roll call, but a value statement. Everyone matters. The leaders, sure, but also the folks at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Wood-choppers, water-drawers, new arrivals who still carry the label ger, “stranger.” The covenanting wouldn’t have been complete without their presence and participation.
  • Ibn Ezra reminds us that “before the Eternal One” isn’t just some abstract notion, but carries with it concrete duties. In this case, showing up at that spot in the center of the community that most directly represents God’s Presence.
  • S’forno reminds us just how high the stakes are. This covenanting ceremony, conducted on the plains of Moab just before the people entered the promised land, would reverberate for generations to come, implicating those not yet born.

This portion, as illuminated by our Tradition, has so much to say to the moment at hand, a moment unprecedented in the American experience. We are less than a month away from arguably the most consequential election in any of our lifetimes, perhaps in the life of the nation. And in making the decision, everyone matters. Every voice needs to be heard. Kulchem, all must be present. And not just present in some abstract way, but present in the most concrete way possible. We need to join the rest of our fellow citizens, streaming to that place which most directly represents the covenant we’ve made with one another: the polling place, the ballot box, which is a democracy’s aron kodesh, our Holy Ark. The stakes couldn’t be higher. The decisions we will make, all of us, on November 8 (and in the days leading up to it, beginning on October 20) will reverberate for generations to come. Here’s Betsy Polk Joseph, blogging just yesterday: “How strange…to be in this place of history in the making. To know that 5 years, 10 years, 100 years we all will look at this time and say where were you, what did you do? Did you stand up? Did you speak your truth?”

Atem Nitzavim. We all need to stand up.

We all need to stand up, but some of us are unable. Some of us are being kept away from that holy convocation. And it’s a sin.

*

In 1957, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed that “[t]he denial of this sacred right [to vote] is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition.” He saw clearly that it was the ballot that would ultimately right the wrongs of Jim Crow. The speech, known as the “Give Us the Ballot” speech is worth quoting at some length:

Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights. Give us the ballot, and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law; we will by the power of our vote write the law on the statute books of the South and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence. Give us the ballot, and we will transform the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens. Give us the ballot, and we will fill our legislative halls with men of goodwill and send to the sacred halls of Congress men who will not sign a “Southern Manifesto” because of their devotion to the manifesto of justice. Give us the ballot, and we will place judges on the benches of the South who will do justly and love mercy, and we will place at the head of the southern states governors who will, who have felt not only the tang of the human, but the glow of the Divine. Give us the ballot, and we will quietly and nonviolently, without rancor or bitterness, implement the Supreme Court’s decision of May seventeenth, 1954.

Nobody gave them the ballot. Nobody gave the Movement anything. The ballot was earned by blood, and sweat, and tears, over the subsequent eight years, culminating in the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was earned during Freedom Summers, it was earned on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, it was earned in meetings from humble church basements to the Oval Office. It was earned, as President Johnson said before Congress in March of 1965, “in the courts, and in the Congress, and in the hearts of men.”

And it was earned with love. Listen to John Lewis, who was beaten to within an inch of his life on Bloody Sunday, in conversation with Krista Tippett last year (Jan 15, 2015). They are talking about love as a way of being, more than a feeling:

It’s a way of being, yes. It’s a way of action. It’s not necessarily passive. It has the capacity, it has the ability to bring peace out of conflict. It has the capacity to stir up things in order to make things right. When we were sitting in, it was love in action.

“Love in action.” That’s the kind of love of which our portion speaks when it commands us to love, obey, and stay close to Adonai our God” (Deut 30:20). Love lived out through devotion to our values, and concomitant action. That’s how you inherit a land, and that’s how form a more perfect union.

A half-century later, and where are we? The most egregious and flagrant practices that kept people of color from voting are history, but newer and more subtle practices have taken their place. The promise of the Voting Rights Act was never fully realized, and on June 25, 2013 it was essentially undone by the Supreme Court in Shelby v. Holder. Reverend William Barber, who has led North Carolinians in the fight for justice in which Judea Reform congregants have been active participants, often points out that Attorney General Lynch has less power to ensure that people of color can cast their votes today – in 2016! – than her predecessor Nicholas Katzenbach did on August 6, 1965, when LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act into law.

North Carolina has been the proving ground for those who sought to undo the gains made in minority participation in the electoral process over that half-century of halting progress. A day after the Shelby decision freed our state and others from federal pre-clearance oversight with respect to election laws, our legislature began to craft a bill that targeted “with surgical precision” (as the Federal Court put it) the votes of African American citizens. Much of the law has since been invalidated by federal judiciary, but not before untold damage was done by way of elections conducted under the bad law, with bad maps and bad practices.

“You are standing here this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God.” God wants us all to be present, the privileged and the powerless, the rich and the poor, white collar and blue collar, of every color, of every party and viewpoint. God’s answer is merchav, a wide-open space.

Not so Pharaoh. Pharaoh, as Reverend Barber taught me, “wanted the Hebrews’ productivity but not their participation in Egypt’s affairs.” And “those who suppress the vote today have a very similar philosophy: they want the productivity of African Americans, Latinos, the poor, the young, the old…but they fear their full participation in our democracy.” They cannot abide kulchem, all of you, and would have our democracy conducted in a much narrower place, a meitzar of privilege, and power, and the status quo.

In the face of that effort, our Reform Movement has entered a historic partnership with the NAACP to work on voter registration, turnout, and protection. The campaign is called Nitzavim after this morning’s reading. As Rabbi Rick Jacobs, our movement’s President, said at the campaign launch in Raleigh on August 18th: “We’re not going to sit this one out. We are nitzavim, taking a stand, today.”

In the two days following that launch event, nearly a hundred Reform Jews from all around the country walked neighborhoods with local NAACP activists, from High Point to Rocky Mount, registering hundreds of voters. In the weeks since, the work has continued, here in North Carolina, in Ohio, and all across the country. Thousands of new voters are on the rolls thanks to our efforts.

Why do we do this work as a synagogue, as a movement? Because to register a voter isn’t just a political act; it’s a religious act. On Sunday, I had the privilege to hear our neighbor Bishop Clarence Laney preach at Monument of Faith Church. His congregation (which that morning included fifteen Jewish tenth-graders from the Midrasha program) heard him say this: “When you register someone to vote, you are telling them that they matter. You are affirming their status as a child of God, made in God’s image.”

God’s image. Imago Dei. B’tzelem Elohim. Rabbi Irving Greenberg has taught throughout a long career dedicated to merchav-style Jewish life, that the Bible’s assertion that human beings are created in God’s image carries with it three distinct theological claims. It means that every person is of infinite worth. We are all equal. And we are each unique.

When you register voters, or remind them to vote by writing cards or making calls, or bring them to the polls on Election Day, you are telling them all of that. They are of infinite value, imbued with a spirit without measure. They are no less than anyone else by virtue of their age, or their bank account, or the color of their skin. And their particular voice matters. We can’t do it without them. Infinitely worthy. Equal. Unique. If you’ve been registering voters this season, you know just what I mean.

*

Before we turn to the reading, a word about partisanship: as it so happens, the efforts to restrict voting rights, in North Carolina and elsewhere, are identified with a particular political party. Having said that, I want to be absolutely clear: as an institution, we are not working for or against any party or candidate by doing the sacred work of voter registration. We act because we believe that our country is at its best when everyone who’s entitled to vote shows up to vote. An electorate that is as close to a perfect reflection of the populace as possible is the electorate that is best equipped to express the will of the people, whatever that will might be. Whatever our personal thoughts about parties or candidates, the Nitzavim campaign is about registering Americans to vote, getting them to the polls, and ensuring that their votes are counted. Nothing more, and nothing less.

*

In a little while, we’ll hear the words of Isaiah challenging us to look beyond our stomachs on this day, remembering that a fast from food is only a means to an end. No, the fast God really wants is the one that demands that we forego our comfort in the service of a greater good. That we “break the bonds of injustice, remove the heavy yoke, let the oppressed go free, and release all those enslaved” (Is 58:6). How do we do that? For starters, by making sure that everyone can come together on Election Day to affirm our covenant, for ourselves and for the generations that follow.

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