When the world is sick,
Can’t no one be well.
But I dreamt we was all beautiful and strong
(Silver Mount Zion Orchestra and Tra-La-La band)
Shabbat shalom. I am honored to speak to you this evening as we mark the 70th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights.
I can’t recall a particular moment that I realized the multitude of human rights crises facing our world or when I knew this was a cause I needed to work for. Everywhere I’ve lived, I’ve witnessed the pain caused by the violations of human rights, and my Judaism has continuously called me into action. My first real project was in high school; I put up a box in the front lobby with a giant sign made with colorful markers: PLEASE DONATE WINTER COATS. In college I saw the discrimination against students with mental illness and used Tazria Metzora, that icky parsha about leprosy, to talk about stigma on campus. When I lived in Madison I showed up for the Black Lives Matter marches, and brought in educators on LGBTQ issues to help shape a more inclusive culture at the Hillel where I worked.
During my semester in Jerusalem I visited Palestinian olive farmers who are not allowed to use machinery to harvest their crops, and have limited hours to access their own trees, resulting in poverty. At the Kotel, (the Western Wall), Judaism’s holiest site, an angry group of haredim (ultra-orthodox Jews) tried to pry a Torah scroll from my arms, resulting in multiple bruises on myself and my fellow Torah holders. I listened to the stories of Ethiopian and Eritrean asylum seekers, many of whom had survived imprisonment and torture, as they described the conditions of the Israeli detention facility where they’d be held until they voluntarily deported themselves back to countries that guaranteed their deaths. And most powerfully, I heard Israeli grandchildren of Holocaust survivors speak of their dedication to human rights for undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers because their families knew the pain of locked borders.
Most painfully, I returned to my own country in January 2017 just in time for the Women’s March, where we gathered together to protest hate in all its forms. And then the Refugees are Welcome march, the Anti Trans-ban march, the March for Our Lives.
In a world so prescribed by the narrative of media, whether liberal or conservative, we have to keep reminding ourselves that hate and prejudice were not born in November of 2016, and no one individual should be credited with the resurgence of racism, anti-semitism, misogyny, transphobia, islamophobia. Let us not hand over our own power so easily. The struggle for human rights did not begin in November 2016 and sadly will not end in November 2020.
70 years ago the nations of world, including the USA, recognized the horrific things human beings can do to one another. Our security in the belief that “enlightened western cultures” could not engage in genocide was gone. And America was not blameless either. We rounded up Japanese Americans even as we liberated the camps in Germany; we sent black soldiers to fight and die in Europe while denying them equal rights in their own homes; we used the skills of the Navajo Code Talkers while systematically stealing their land and limiting their access to education, municipal services, and food.
In response to the atrocities of the war, the world responded, led by Eleanor Roosevelt, whose queerness has been erased by history, with the Declaration of Human Rights.
Our sages teach in Pirkei Avot, “In a place where there are no human beings, strive to be a human being.” (Pirkei Avot 2:5)
Our rabbis understood that in our darkest moments we may be tempted to give up, we may be tempted to look around and say, No one else is doing this work so I am free to ignore it, we may even be tempted to use the same tactics of our oppressors in order to even the scale. But we must not dehumanize anyone, regardless of their actions. We can fight against injustice without ourselves becoming unjust.
Our rabbis ask, why does the Torah begin with the story of Creation? Why not begin with the story of Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews? Why not begin at the Exodus, our story of liberation? Why not begin at Sinai, our moment of covenant with the Divine?
The Torah begins with Adam and not Abraham “so that no one would say my ancestors are greater than yours.”
And our rabbis also teach, “God formed Adam out of dust from all over the world: yellow clay, white sand, black loam, and red soil. Therefore, no one can declare to any people that they do not belong here since this soil is not their home.” (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer). We are all made of the same soil, gathered from the four corners of the earth.
On the one hand, teaching about human rights from a Jewish perspective is an incredibly easy task — our Torah’s laws of social responsibility and justice read much like the Declaration of Human Rights. On the other hand, we’re at a moment in time where every marginalized group is experiencing heightened levels of oppression, both locally and globally. Our very planet is actively dying around us.
It would be easy in this moment to lose hope. Or feel lost trying to determine which issues are most pressing. How do we find our place?
A group of friends is picnicking by a river. Suddenly they hear a shout, they look and see a person drowning. One friend jumps in and drags the person back to shore, and as they do they see more people caught in the current. Now it’s all hands on deck, everyone jumping in the river to save the drowning people. Finally one of the friends climbs onto the bank and hikes upstream, trying to figure out why people keep falling in the river. They discover a bridge has collapsed, yet some people are still trying to cross. So now the friends split into groups — a few remain downstream, pulling people out of the river, a few start mending the bridge, and finally a third group start finding alternative means to cross the river, putting up signs to show people a safer path.
Activating for human rights covers a vast number of roles, each just as important.
Soup kitchens, shelters, emergency clinics are all necessary. People need to eat. They need to receive medical care. But these organizations are a band-aid on a larger problem. We need to create fair food systems where these services are no longer needed, where communities can have food sovereignty, where workers’ rights are ensured. Some of us need to jump in the river and feed people; some of us will feel called to advocate for better systems; and we should all be asking the question, WHY are people hungry? How can we liberate them from the cycle of poverty?
We have to look at and understand how each of these issues is connected, otherwise we run the risk of overlooking the causes and systems that lead to oppression:
The challenges facing us today are all connected to human rights: Racial justice is connected to poverty, which is connected to water rights and food justice. Food is connected to employment equality, which is connected to LGBTQ rights, which is connected to reproductive rights. Climate change is connected to the lasting impacts of colonization, which is connected to protecting asylums seekers, refugees and immigrants. Protecting them is connected to decriminalizing sex work, which is connected to ending mass incarceration and discrimination in our justice system. Which is directly connected to racial justice, which is where we started.
To undo these oppressive systems we can start in the most Jewish way possible: by asking questions.
- WHY is the most polluted tap-water in each city found in areas where people of color or working class people live?
- WHY are developing nations experiencing more drought or flooding than previous years?
- WHY does the USA, a country with only 5% of the world’s population, have 25% of the world’s incarcerated people?
- WHAT’s the impact on the health of people living in food deserts in urban cities?
Asking questions helps us begin to understand that everything is connected: we cannot truly stop climate change until we accept that people of color, developing nations, and working class communities are disproportionately affected by the pollution. We cannot have a society where all people are equal until we teach ourselves and children that this country was built on stolen land by slave labor. We cannot truly advance our societies until healthcare is a right and not a privilege, where people suffering chronic illness have access to medication and care, until black mothers giving birth no longer die at three times the rate as their white sisters, until people have access to reproductive healthcare and parental leave. We cannot claim gender equality when women make 0.53-77 on the dollar; where it’s legal in 30 states to fire someone for being transgender, and in 28 states for being gay/lesbian/bisexual.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches: “There is immense silent agony in the world, and the task of each person is to be a voice for the plundered poor, to prevent the desecration of the soul. […] there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
I think this is why our Torah begins by teaching “humanity was created in the image of God.” We are each sacred creations, carrying holy sparks of Divine love and compassion within us. And we each have the right to live freely and equally.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav taught: One must repeat from time to time: The world was created for my sake. Never say: What do I care about this or that? Do your part to add something new, to bring forth something that is needed, and to leave the world a little better because you were here briefly.
- The Declaration for Human Rights has 30 statements, including:
- All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
- Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.
- Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
- Governments must hold genuine elections where all citizens have the right to vote.
- Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of their family
- Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance.
- Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free.
The Declaration reads like portions of our Torah, laying out a roadmap for us. And like the Torah it’s only a map, it’s our job to let it guide us, to let it direct us to becoming the best possible versions of ourselves, the best possible versions of our communities, our countries, and eventually the world.
I’ll close with the words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks:
We are here to make a difference, to mend the fractures of the world, a day at a time, an act at a time, for as long as it takes to make it a place of justice and compassion where the lonely are not alone, the poor not without help; where the cry of the vulnerable is heeded and those who are wronged are heard.
When the world is sick,
Can’t no one be well.
But I dreamt we was all beautiful and strong.
Student Rabbi Lily Solochek
December 14, 2018 / 7 Tevet 5779