Talk Delivered by Rabbi Jill Perlman at AME-led Prayer Service at the Charles Street AME Church in Dorchester, MA following the Tragic Murder of Nine in Charleston
Each week, the Jewish community reads a section of Torah, a section of sacred scripture and as usual, we did just that in my own community yesterday morning, reading words from the Book of Numbers. The words this Shabbat, as they are wont to do, resonated deeply with my heart and my soul and the path that I believe that we need to get on as a nation and as the American people.
The text spoke of a plague that was to fall upon the people waiting in the wilderness on their way from slavery to freedom. Moses and Aaron, the leadership of the people, had been forewarned of the coming of this plague and had choices to make with their knowledge.
They could have allowed that plague to come while they looked the other way, while they got themselves out of the way as those in their midst fell. But that is not what Moses and Aaron chose to do.
Instead, Moses called out to his brother, “Aaron, get your firepan and the fire from the altar and the incense” for these were the tools of faith and indeed transformation in those days, and Moses commanded Aaron, “Run, run into the midst of our people.”
And Aaron ran.
He rushed in and he stood among the people with his incense, he literally stood between the dead and the living - Vayamod bein hameitim uvein hahayyim - Aaron stood between the dead and the living in an attempt to stem the flow of blood, to prevent more people from perishing from the advancing plague. Midrash, rabbinic interpretation teaches us that Aaron fought the Angel of Death on behalf of his people that day. He stood his ground, he stood between life and death – and the plague was checked.
When I think of that sanctuary in Charleston much like this sanctuary here, I am reminded that the plague is not only coming… It is here and it is consuming precious lives, too many precious lives.
It is the plague of our refusal to dismantle the racism in our midst, to fiercely proclaim that black lives matter.
It is the plague of our refusal to fight for responsible gun legislation, for gun laws that make sense.
It is the plague of complacency, the plague of those who wish to place the blame anywhere but on themselves.
And I am responsible. We all are.
For we have the foreknowledge of this plague just as Moses and Aaron did. It is obvious. The stench of this disease of ours is strong. And like them, we, too, have a choice: to look the other way, to minimize or to run into the fray with love in our hearts.
While we are shocked at the events in Charleston, we are far from surprised. How can we be surprised when the stories in the news and in our streets and in our communities seem to tell us the falsity that not all lives matter the same or matter at all.
We know that the plague is upon us. And so, what will we do?
I believe in my heart and my soul that the time is NOW to stand in the void between life and death before any more lives are taken by senseless violence and baseless hatred.
The time is NOW.
The day is short and the labor is vast, but the reward is great and the Master of the house is pressing.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “Daily we should take account and ask what have I done today to alleviate the anguish, to mitigate the evil, to prevent humiliation…”
And so let us take account. For it is a matter of our conscience, of our morality. For it is a matter of life and death.
We honor the dead among us by joining hands in the sacred work of re-imagining and re-building our world into one of which we can be proud, into one of which God Almighty can be proud.
And so I call out: To the source of life all around us, grant us strength, grant us courage, grant us transformation… grant us the power to change and be changed…
Mother Emanuel, your name in Hebrew reflects a truth that we all know. Emanuel. Im anu El. God is with us. Mother Emanuel, God is indeed with you.
God, our rock and our redeemer, be with us now as we do your sacred work on this earth, the work of remembering, the work of love and understanding, the work of justice.