Shabbat Ha’azinu: Listen to the Ages

Our New Year of 5779 has begun, although the Torah year is not quite complete – we will read the end and the beginning of our Torah when we gather for our Simkhat Torah observance on Monday evening October 1.
Between that day and this Shabbat we have an entire Festival to celebrate: Sukkot, the season of ingathering of the harvest of the year now past. What has the work of your hands wrought? What will you show to account for your life? These are the eternal, existential questions and Judaism resonates with them at this time of year.
The name of Shabbat Ha’azinu is “listen,” and we are addressed here in the plural: we, the community, capable of more than each one of us individually. It is a wonderful irony that one cannot pronounce the word “I” unless one shares a language with others who know what the word means; inevitably, then, our individuality is in need of our community.
Ha’azinu, “listen,” urges us to one of the most difficult of acts: to listen to the wisdom of the ages. Each of us rejects that which has come before us in our struggle to become ourselves: every parent knows that you cannot help your child to avoid the mistakes you made – each of us has to learn through making many of the same errors. To come to know ourselves as individuals we must separate from others enough to see our own shadow, as it were; and then, even as a child learning to walk reaches out for the support of a caregiver’s hand, we spend the rest of our lives reaching out for the oneness we were born with and had to lose in order to begin to understand how to find.
“The older I got,” one Jewish comic said, “the smarter my parents became.”  One day we are finally able to listen, and what we hear is what we needed to hear all along. Others have struggled as we do; ancestors have faced challenges just like ours; there really is a chain of human tradition to which we belong. We are not alone.
At the right moment, such knowledge provides comfort, consolation, and the support of knowing you can and do belong.
On this coming Sunday evening, as we enter the Sukkot harvest Festival, may we be able to listen to the words of the generations of those like us who came before us and created the awareness of this holiday:
1. the lulav and etrog to wave together to demonstrate how a diversity of life all comes together to speak of Eternal truth;
2. the harvest abundance, to urge us to realize how much we have, and see the best ways of sharing it;
3. and the sukkah to remind us that our homes and the security they convey are fragile, and that everyone needs a roof to keep off the rain.
On Sunday afternoon Jewish communities all over the world will gather to celebrate and consider the harvest we have created as a community. We’ll raise and decorate our Sukkot, many of us at our own homes, others of us sharing a Sukkah, and some visiting the Sukkah of others if we have no place to build our own temporary dwelling . There we will meet each other to share the harvest of our gardens, and of our lives. May it be, as the ancient wish goes, a time akh same’akh, a time in which you are gifted with joy in your life and all you can hear when you listen.
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Shabbat HaAzinu: Listen!

HaAzinu means “listen!” – “pay attention!”  Now, in these few days between Yom Kippur and the start of our Sukkot holy day, now, when we are rushed to prepare not only for that Festival but for all that our New Year brings.

“Listen!” The words of our parashah, Moshe’s final song, ring out over the ages to us. On this Shabbat, following so closely on the heels of Yom Kippur, we are poised to respond with our best selves. Sometimes we have to listen carefully to a still small voice inside of us. Other times, the voice of G*d rings out loudly. It rings right now, right here in downtown Portland.

On Yom Kippur while we were immersed in prayer, while we were considering what it might mean to engage in social justice from a more deeply felt and articulated Jewish grounding to support us, a disaster for our local democracy was unfolding downtown at Portland Oregon City Hall. You can see coverage here:

http://www.opb.org/news/article/portland-police-union-deal-ratify-votes/

http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2016/10/portland_city_council_approves_27.html#incart_gallery

https://t.co/O72VuEtncm

A number of our fellow citizens had gathered at City Hall to voice their concerns with the new contract created by Mayor Hales and the Portland Police. Rather than being heard, they were forcibly ejected from the building with force by armed security. For no clear reason, our fellow citizens were pepper sprayed. The Image of G*d was beaten. It was arrested.

City Hall was built by the taxes paid by citizens. It is our building. It is our right to go there and testify without fear of being forcibly, physically silenced. And it is our right and our obligation – indeed, a mitzvah – to raise our voices now and demand that our elected leaders listen, and respond, and stand accountable for that inexcusable violence.

(I attach the open letter written by a leader of Don’t Shoot Portland. Please read it, that you might listen to him.)

What are we commanded to do in response to a divine call such as in this moment? First, learn about it. Then, write a letter or an email to City Hall. Post on your blog or on Facebook. Join me for our erev Shabbat kirtan this evening to consider, learn, and discuss. And then consider joining me at the planned protest gathering:

Friday Night Lights: Protest Against Brutality of 10/12 at Watershed PDX, 5040 SE Milwaukie Ave 3:00 Friday till 8:00pm Saturday

In our parashah we read Moshe’s hope that “My teaching will drip like rain; my word will flow like dew; like storm winds on vegetation and like raindrops on grass.” (Devarim 32.2) May the approaching storms speak to us not only of the weather on this erev Shabbat. When inappropriate violence is used against our fellow citizens, it is not enough to secure our own house. The storm that grows in strength in our country will one day reach us all if we do not stand up against it. 

I am deeply disappointed in the actions taken by our elected representatives at City Hall. Regardless of the details, crucial as they are, of whether the contract should have been ratified by City Council vote, violence against those who raise their voices peacefully in protest is wrong.

I pray that we each find a way to respond, as concerned and responsible citizens, that increases peace for all.

An Open Letter to Mayor Charlie Hales

My name is Gregory Robert McKelvey. I am a 23-year-old law student, campaign manager and activist. I am also a born and raised Portlander. During the past few years I have been organizing with groups such as Don’t Shoot Portland, which fights for justice in this city. During the past month or so, I have met with you and your staff many times to see if we could work together in achieving a better Portland. It has become clear that we cannot. Yesterday, I personally witnessed your police force close the community out of a public City Hall meeting, beat women and children, and pepper spray and arrest peaceful protesters all while yelling. Officers continued to yell, “under order of the mayor.” What I witnessed yesterday was something I never thought I would see in my hometown. I saw in the media that you said something like, “Some people are just looking for any reason to protest.” This is an incredibly disgusting statement, one that I feel compelled to personally address.

Over the past few years, Don’t Shoot Portland has conducted many peaceful protests throughout the city. Never once have we rioted nor looted. Just this year we organized panels, forums and art shows. We are not strictly a protest group. However, there are many instances in which a peaceful protest is warranted. Our First Amendment right is not something we are supposed to simply point to as a trophy of our past accomplishments, but rather a tool we must use to be heard. Howard Zinn once wrote, “Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.” There is nothing more patriotic than exercising our First Amendment right.

However, it is not fun to protest. I do not enjoy getting daily death threats. We do not enjoy sleeping in tents outside of City Hall in the rain. We do not enjoy being pepper-sprayed. We do not enjoy being hurt by your police department. We are not looking for any reason to protest, we are trying to fix the reasons why we must protest. Police brutality, abuse of power, racial disparity in policing and corrupt politicians.

The Los Angeles Times wrote the other day:, “A 2012 investigation by the U.S. Justice Department found Portland Police were using excessive force against people with mental illness and were too quick to use Tasers.

Portland Police have also long been accused of disproportionately targeting black residents. African American residents make up 6.3% of the population but account for 12.8% of police stops, according to police data released last year.”

We have a problem in our city. Minorities are contacted at a far greater rate than whites; minorities are jailed at a far greater rate than whites; minorities are overwhelmingly overrepresented in our jail system. “As mayor, you can only submit two possible explanations for this reality: Either there is something inherently worse about brown or black people, or police actions have created an unjust racial disparity.” I like to think you do not think black and brown people are worse than others, and therefore agree that there is a problem with policing. This is why we protest. — because you recognize and acknowledge the problem yet refuse to do anything about it. Black people do not have the privilege. We must do something about it because we are being affected. None of us want to turn into the next hashtag.

Yesterday, I showed up to testify. Many others showed up just do that same thing. We wanted to be in Council chambers, but within just a few minutes you moved the meeting and locked out the public. You then had armed cops force everybody into one part of City Hall. That is an occupation. We were not allowed to attend the meeting. We were not allowed to testify and we were not given a voice. The only thing we were allowed to do was be beaten. I handed out waters and snacks to your officers. I felt bad for them. It must feel wrong to be ordered to beat children out of City Hall. I also care about them. I care about you. I care about our entire city. I just want justice.

It became clear that in an effort to thwart democracy, you were closing off City Hall to the community. I grabbed my bullhorn and directed everyone to leave. Next, you directed your police force to violently move in on everybody in the lobby. There was absolutely no violence before this. We were leaving as fast as we could. This did not make a difference to you. The citizens you abused were mostly women, children and the elderly. There were many disabled people as well. All waiting to testify at City Council. You should not view your constituents as the enemy, but rather as partners. We were there to testify, not occupy. It was you that ordered an armed occupation of City Hall while your citizens wanted to have their voices heard in a public meeting. This is intimidation at its finest and it is vile.

The area on the second floor of City Hall is very large but the doorway is not. As your forces continued to push into the crowd, many people were thrown to the ground. Others were trampled. Because of this nobody else could get through the doorway since it was blocked by injured community members. Yet, your police officers behind the line were still pushing people forward. People were attempting to slow the push so that those who had fallen could get up without being severely hurt. You did not care. This led to many more injuries. As people fell, your officers would jump on top of them and begin punching them in the face. After you had removed most of the community from their own building, your brutal officers began shutting the door. However, there were still people crying in agony on the ground inside. We needed to get them out before your officers could hurt them even more. While attempting to hold the door open — so that these injured people could get outside, your forces pepper-sprayed a 72-year-old women and many others.

I was one of the last community members to leave, as I was near the back of the line. Thus, I was able to see the entire ordeal unfold. As I got outside, with the mist of pepper spray still in the air, I was in shock of what you had directed your forces to do to us. Over the past month you have continuously attempted to silence us. However, I never expected you to deploy these tactics on hundreds of people just because they wanted to testify to their City Council.

Since you seem to believe we protest for no reason, let me inform you what the reason actually is. On September 23 we gathered in North Portland for a peaceful rally and march in solidarity with cities that were mourning the killings of unarmed African-Americans. Those cities and families asked us to do so. Soon after we gathered, we were met with dozens of officers with “gang enforcement” across their uniforms. We are not a gang. We are your constituents. Imagine the feeling of the young African-American children who came to rally for justice when their mayor sent gang enforcement to assault them. How do you think that feels? Apparently you think it feels like, “looking for any reason to protest”.

During this peaceful march, your forces pepper-sprayed, beat and shot at us. Since the police force is your responsibility, we came to City Hall to ask why you had directed your officers to assault us. After hours of simply asking to hear from you, you met with myself and two other leaders. In that meeting you agreed to speak to the crowd, continue regular meetings with our group about racism and police accountability, and to apologize for what your forces had done to us. You followed through on all of those requests, and I respect you for doing so. However, you soon proved that they were empty promises. The first of these continued meetings was supposed to be the following Wednesday at City Hall.

Once we arrived at City Hall for the community dialogue you had promised us, we were met with signs that said the meeting had been moved to a church in North Portland — and that City Hall was on lockdown. Many people could not make it to North Portland on such short notice. Others did not feel safe going to a church that is run by an accused sexual assaulter. Others simply did not feel comfortable going to a church. Black people are bigger than black churches. You then repeatedly lied claiming that we had signed off on the location change. You and your staff all know this is not true. This was a clear attempt to avoid your promise.

We stayed at City Hall, demanding that you do what you said you would. After many hours of waiting outside, your staff pulled me aside so we could meet with you. I told you that you needed to do what you promised, even if four hours late. Thus, you went outside and held a forum with the community where you answered many difficult questions, mostly about the new police union contract. You pretended to listen (your usual tactic) however it was clear the only way we could actually be heard would be at city council.

The following Wednesday, you allowed testimony on a flawed and corrupt contract with the PPA. Every single member of the community testified against the contract. You did not care because you do not have the community’s interest in mind. After just a few hours of testimony you amended the contract. This means that our voices can make good changes to the contract and also that the contract was not yet good enough to be ratified. However, this was not nearly enough.

Soon after that meeting, I met with you again. You attempted to lecture myself and two others on the reasons we must accept a bad contract. Your entire argument was based on the false premise that we need more police officers. You claim we are in a crisis. However, crime is down across the board. There is no crisis. Your primary concern with this contract is to retain and recruit officers. But what does it mean to retain and recruit officers who do not want to be held accountable and enjoy assaulting us as they have throughout the last month? Our city had an opportunity to set an example for real police reform and recruit officers of high character. I sincerely fear for what our city will become. It’s hard to imagine this being any worse.

The contract is bad. I agree with JoAnn Hardesty of the NAACP when she wrote, “[The contract] reflects the narrow focus on money rather than vision and does not reflect the will or voice of the community. There are many things wrong with this contract.” I also agree with the City Auditor who wrote, “We are concerned that the veil of secrecy that has enveloped the proposed contract and its creation stands to do long-term harm to the City’s efforts to build a stronger police accountability system.”

At the following City Council meeting, you jailed your political opponents for speaking out against you and blocked off the public from the meeting itself. This is anti-democratic, unconstitutional, illegal and un-American. Once again, I was not allowed to testify. Yesterday, a week after your latest abuse of power, you decided you would get your contract passed by any means necessary. You closed off the public from City Council, sent armed police officers to protect their wage increase, beat women and children, and arrested innocent protestors. None of us were allowed to testify, none of us were even allowed to be in there. We simply listened in horror in the halls of City Hall as your officers laughed at us. This is why we protest. We are not looking for any reason to protest, you just keep giving us reasons why we need to protest. Please watch the footage of the incident and tell me it looks fun to be there. Tell me that it looks enjoyable. Locking up and shutting out your political opponents is not how democracy works. Beating women, children, the disabled and the elderly is not how policing should work. For these reasons, along with the human rights abuses of your homeless sweeps including the Springwater Corridor, and your reluctance to act on corruption, the housing crisis, addressing homelessness or police accountability; I am calling on you to resign. I understand that you are on your way out but we have no time to spare. Lives are on the line. We will protest against you until you resign. This begins October 14.

Shabbat Ha’azinu: Only Uncertainty Leads to New Truth – Jump, Already

During these ten Days of Awe in which we now find ourselves, we are challenged to really try to change from the ingrained habits that define us. It is easy in the first moments after Rosh HaShanah to experience a setback. In that moment, according to Jewish tradition, the yetzer hara’ will appear to you as a sense of despair, or, at least, resignation: you can’t possibly really change in that way. This is, after all, who you are. It’s who and what your life experience has made you.

Watch out for it. The yetzer hara’, the “evil impulse”, works within us with great subtlety; in this Age of Reason, often it masquerades as the reasonable voice within us. Have you heard it already? “Things will never change. Well, maybe a little, but not really.” That’s your yetzer talking.

It’s tempting to go with the reasonable voice, if only because real change creates wilderness, and no one really wants to wander in a wilderness without a clear sense of direction or a visible goal. And that’s what it takes to change: a willingness to lose the illusion of visible goals, not to mention the illusion of control over our direction.

Our parashat hashavua this week is called Ha’azinu, which means “listen!” in the imperative plural. Moshe is imploring us to hear his last song. And what a song it is, full of ancient Hebrew words and soaring poetry – and glimpses of an early stage of Israelite belief as well. Most of all, the Song of Moshe describes an overview of Israelite history as we rehearsed it to ourselves at the time. Interestingly enough, it all comes down to wilderness:

G-d found us in a desert land, in the waste, the howling wilderness   (Devarim 32.10)

During the High Holy Days it is easy to go with the flow of holiday celebration – greeting old friends, making new ones, enjoying the chance to get reconnected to our congregational family. In the rush of holiday organization and busyness, the parashah reminds us to listen for the song humming along, just below the level of distracted errands and mitzvot.

Listen, the song says. It is in the wilderness itself that life is lived most fully. If we are able to leave behind your current certainty, and enter that wilderness of unclear direction and unknown paths, of leaving behind the old certainty in search of a truer one, the song of Moshe holds out this amazing idea: there, where you cannot find yourself, there, G-d will find you.

Close to the end, Moshe is urgent to get the message through to us: this is not a rehearsal. No one has as much time as we think we do. Don’t sacrifice another minute to that false god, your internal yetzer hara’, as reasonable as it sounds.

Go ahead, Moshe urges us from a perspective only he has, staring at the road ahead that he will be unable to take: do the scary thing. Make that change. Say the words you’ve been unable to utter. Do the thing you’ve been afraid of. Get help for that issue. What if, after all, it goes well?

shabbat shalom and חתימה טובה – May you be sealed for good in the coming year