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Parashat Mishpatim 5784

Hearts and Minds

February 6, 2024
by Cantor Robin Anne Joseph (’96)

“Na’aseh v’nishma (We will do and we will heed)”~ Shemot 24:7

Just Do It ~ The Nike slogan

In my other life, I am a theater producer.

And director. And actor. And…well, pretty much everything else that goes into the production of a show. At one point in my life, it was my profession, even as I was just beginning to serve my congregation as their cantor. And now, when being a cantor is my profession, I continue to serve that other Mistress—The Theater. I view both professions as a way to tell the stories of “my people”—the Jewish People and the People of the Human Race. And “race,” as it happens, has recently been at the intersection of the stories of my “lives.”

These past couple of weekends, I produced and directed the play Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris. While it was the Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama in 2011 and the Tony Award winner in 2012, you’ll be forgiven if you’ve never heard of it or if you missed it on or off-Broadway (it had limited runs). But be on the lookout: there is a film version being made. And while, I can’t vouch for it, I’m going to assume it will be worth seeing.

And Clybourne Park is a story worth telling. Its opening act takes place in September of 1959 in a fictitious, white exurb of Chicago—the same one (and the same house!) into which the Younger family in A Raisin in the Sun are poised to move. In this white neighborhood, in the home of this white family, unfolds the outrage of a community that has learned that the white homeowners have sold their house (unknowingly) to a black family. And so ensues an intense look at the inner workings of “white flight.”

Fifty years later, in Act II, the Clybourne Park neighborhood is predominantly black. Although, the neighborhood has been in decline, its proximity to downtown Chicago has started attracting the current generation of white, young professionals, many of whose parents fled in the 50’s and 60’s. Thus, setting the scene for the issue of white gentrification.

A few years ago, at the height of the pandemic and in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, I personally took a deep dive into the issue of Race in America, explored my own implicit biases, read everything I could get my hands on, and began to formulate my own dialogs within my synagogue and other Jewish communities. One comment that I would hear every so often from white Jews was, “I’m Jewish; I know what it’s like to be oppressed; I can’t possibly be racist.” Not quite understanding the comment, but understanding that for many of us there is some intersectionality (of oppressed identities), I embarked on creating a presentation, designed to spark dialog in my Jewish communities, entitled Racism: What’s Judaism Got To Do With It?

During one such dialog, I was challenged by a participant to explain how any of what I was presenting—about racism or intersectionality or even Jewish prooftexts on how we are supposed to treat each other—was actually going to change hearts and minds. I told that person that I didn’t think that it was. Rather, I thought that the Torah had the answer to that question—na’aseh v’nishma [Shemot 24:7]—our people’s response to the Law given at Mt Sinai: we will do and we will heed.

This curious phrase, na’aseh v’nishma, heard in this week’s parashah, has always seemed to me to be sort of an exclamation point to the Israelites’ previous statements as they prepare to receive the Torah, “All that יהוה has spoken we will faithfully do!” [Shemot 19:6 and 24:3], as if to say, “All right, already! We’ll do it! We get it!” And it has always struck me as odd as to just what the significance is of listing the “doing” before the “heeding.” Are we not supposed to understand what we’re about to do before we do it?

Apparently not. Following the laws of the Torah seems to track the Nike slogan: Just Do It. This goes for how we harvest our fields, how we build our homes, how we worship G*d, and how we treat each other. I would argue that it takes a whole lot of doing—of being commanded to do, of repeatedly following the law of the land, of getting it into our muscle memory—in order for its citizens to internalize, normalize, and really grok what it is that they are doing.

Remember when women (white women) couldn’t vote? No? See? It sounds a little crazy now, but about one hundred years ago my guess is that there were plenty of men (white men), pulling their hair out that the 19th Amendment became Constitutional Law. After more than 100 years of our collective adherence to that law, we now (hopefully) understand the wisdom of it. Or, at least, we don’t give it much thought.

Or the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting? I hope that by the time these laws reach the 100-year mark, we’ll have flexed those muscles enough so that following them is just habit.

In 1963, Abraham Joshua Heschel, in a telegram to then President John F. Kennedy wrote in part, “I look forward to privilege of being present at meeting tomorrow. Likelihood exists that Negro problem will be like the weather. Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement not just solemn declaration. We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes…I propose that you Mr. President declare state of moral emergency…The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”

Moral grandeur and spiritual audacity. A state of moral emergency. Although, Heschel wrote this more than 60 years ago, I think his words resonate today: 1) In many ways, we are all talk and no action. 2) Religious leaders must personally get involved. We can’t preach out if we don’t reach out.

Change follows policy. Laws need to be enacted.

Author of A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry wrote her play based on her lived experiences of being one of the first black families to move into a white exurb of Chicago. And in 1940 it was her father who, in response to his white neighbors trying to force the family out of the neighborhood, legally challenged the neighborhood’s restrictive covenant and took his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. While the Supreme Court ruled in Hansberry’s favor, it would not be until eight years later that the Supreme Court would rule restrictive covenants unconstitutional. So, that’s one we can all get behind, right? (Those covenants often did not allow Jews, either.) And yet, a congregant of mine informed me that the deed to his property—in the town next to mine—had a restrictive covenant written into it. It’s on the deed forever, he told me, it cannot be taken off; it’s just that it’s no longer enforceable.

Somehow, the Israelites seem to have instinctively known that in the doing of the laws, the heeding and the understanding would follow. Even G*d was impressed. We’re told in the Talmud Bavli “Rabbi Elazar said: When the Jewish people accorded precedence to the declaration “We will do” over “We will hear,” a Divine Voice emerged and said to them: Who revealed to my children this secret that the ministering angels use? As it is written: “Bless the Lord, you angels of His, you mighty in strength, that fulfill His word, hearkening unto the voice of His word” (Psalms 103:20) [Shabbat 88a]

When do hearts and minds start to change? When we first “fulfill G*d’s word.” Only then can we truly “hear G*d’s word.”
Cantor Robin Anne Joseph (’96) teaches cantillation as part of the faculty at AJR. A musician and composer, Robin’s liturgical and folk-rock compositions can be found through Transcontinental Music Publications and OySongs and sung at a synagogues world-wide. Past-president of ARC (the Association of Rabbis and Cantors), past-president of the Women Cantors’ Network, and the current president of Kol Hazzanim—the Westchester Community of Cantors, Robin has served the congregation of Temple Beth Shalom in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY for the last 42 years.