By Ben Halbig
JCUA Board Member
JCUA Board Member Ben Halbig gave this drash at Mishkan’s Yom Kippur morning services for the Isaiah Haftarah . As we move into this new year, Ben asks how can we do more? How can we make this year reflect “the fast God really wants?”
“Good morning. I’m Ben. I grew up on the East Coast, but Chicago has been my adopted home for the better part of the past decade – first as an undergrad in Hyde Park, and now as a practicing lawyer living in the Gold Coast. Mishkan has been my spiritual home in Chicago since I moved back after law school. As a Chicagoan and a Mishkanite, I am honored to be sharing a few thoughts on what we are about to read together.
This has been a rough year for Chicago.
Almost a year ago – just before Thanksgiving– a judge ordered the city to release a video showing a CPD officer emptying his 9 millimeter semi-automatic rifle into an unarmed high school student. The video of Laquan McDonald’s murder tore at the heart of the city.
I remember live-streaming the protests on Black Friday 2015 in my parents’ house in Maryland. You know what has stuck with me all these months? Not the thousands of young activists pleading for justice on Michigan Avenue but Channel 5’s interviews with angry shoppers whose plans for holiday bargains had been ruined by the march. “Why today?” “Why here?” “Why can’t they just protest in their own neighborhood?”
I wish I could stand here and tell you how I am not them, how I would have been with the protesters. But the truth is – I know in my heart of hearts, I am a shopper. I am an employed white man living on the North Side of Chicago. When I think and talk about violence in in our city, it’s something that happens to other people. I don’t know anyone who has been shot this year. I don’t fear for my life when stopped by police.
Isaiah’s words in the passage we read today can be disheartening in the middle of the day on Yom Kippur. He’s essentially telling us that, after about 18 hours of fasting, praying, and asking to be inscribed in the Book of Life, we are doing it wrong. This is not the fast God wants.
You’d think after all these years of reading Isaiah’s words, we might get it right. But his message seems to be really hard for us to hear. What makes it so hard to hear?
Well, for me his words are hard to hear because they demand that I grapple with an ugly part of myself – the shopper – the part of me that is caught up in my own affairs, ignoring needs of oppressed people. Isaiah challenges the part of me that skips over reports of a kid getting shot in Woodlawn, Chatham, or Englewood because I don’t live in that neighborhood and I don’t know anyone else who does. He challenges the part of me that doesn’t think about the thirty minute life-or-death ambulance ride that kid has to take to the hospital because my alma matter, the University of Chicago, still doesn’t have a a trauma center. He challenges the part of me that jumps to condemn a position that I don’t agree with on the Black Lives Matter platform before first asking myself: where was I when cops shot Rekia Boyd, Bettie Jones, Paul O’Neal, Pierre Loury, Ronald Johnson, and so many others, right here in Chicago? What am I doing now, when gun violence has claimed the lives of over 500 Chicagoans in 2016 alone? Story after story, statistic after statistic. Life after life extinguished.
It is hard to hear. Isaiah says that the holiness we are striving for today – the fast God really wants – can be achieved when we loosen the bonds created by injustice, untie the cords that enslave, and snap all the yokes of the oppressed. But what does that even mean to me? I come to this Haftarah as a person who is not literally bound, or physically enslaved, or oppressed. I live in the world of corporate America — the world of billable hours, year-end bonuses, conference calls, and Friday happy hours at the office.
Isaiah says — so snap out of it! “Shout loudly and don’t hold back!” Do not turn away from people in need, from your own flesh.
It is not an excuse to step away if people in need have a different skin color, or speak a different language. It is not an excuse to step away because people in need might live in a different part of the city. And it is not an excuse to step away when people in need take positions that conflict with our own politics or values. No matter how deeply held. And No matter how uncomfortable those positions make us feel.
So the question I have is this: When I leave the ritual of today behind, how can I take what Isaiah is saying– this section our rabbis chose to have us read today, in precisely this moment – and make it into something meaningful and real?
Last year, after watching the protesters and the shoppers on Black Friday, I decided I needed to do more than I was doing. So I joined a political campaign centered on making our criminal justice system just a little bit more fair for everyone. I got involved with the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, an organization committed to ending poverty, racism, and anti-Semitism in Chicago. And I raised my hand to help cultivate Mishkan’s Justice team. And in taking a few small steps, I realized that there are organizations throughout the city that work tirelessly throughout the year to do exactly what Isaiah is talking about — to loosen the bonds created by systems of injustice and break all the yokes of the oppressed. Those organizations are constantly in need of help – whether through dollars or volunteer hours.
So this year, instead of focusing on a particular issue, Mishkan’s Justice Team has decided to double down on our partnerships with a few of those organizations doing serious anti-racism and anti-poverty work. We are doubling down on our partnership with JCUA, which is organizing the Jewish community to play a meaningful role in the racial and economic disparities afflicting our city. Last year, with JCUA we joined the coalition of local grassroots groups that organized to secure a trauma center on the South Side of Chicago, and many of you were part of it. We are doubling down on our partnership with ONE Northside, and their mission to achieve economic justice for all Chicagoans. And finally, we are doubling down on our partnership with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and their efforts to make homes in Chicago for refugees from war-torn countries. We will be forming a Refugee Welcome Team who will be helping resettle a family in Chicago, doing everything from welcoming them at the airport to making sure their kids have school supplies. You can be part of all of this.
It’s an exciting time for the Justice team — we are still exploring how we can harness the energy of our spiritual community in the most righteous way possible. I encourage you to contact me or Rabbi Lauren Henderson if you want to be part of that exploration.
5777 may not be the year when we loosen all bonds, untie all cords, and snap free all yokes. People will be shot. They will go homeless and hungry. And we are going to be back here next year reading these verses again. But I think Isaiah knows that and still wants to challenge us to do better – he has a vision. Near the end of today’s portion, he tells us that if we follow the fast he has set out for us — the sacrifice of ourselves — we will rebuild the ruins of the past, and be known as the mender of fences, as the restorer of homes.
Let this year be the year when we do more: do more to set aside our own business, to share our bread, to bring shelter to the homeless, and to provide clothing to the naked. Let this year be the year when we do more to turn toward, not away, from those in need. Maybe then we can leave our city safer and fairer than it was last year. Maybe then, our spiritual heritage will be nourished, and when we call out, God will respond ‘Hineini, here I am.’ “