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Praying for a Dream – 5/3/2015

Many stories are told of the Baal Shem Tov, the great mystical Rabbi who lived three centuries ago in Poland and Ukraine. One of these is actually a story about Reb Yaakov, one of the wise teacher’s followers, whose duty it was, after his master’s death, to travel the countryside retelling the stories of the great rabbi. Truthfully, it was not a labor he would have wished for: the work kept him perpetually poor, and lonely. But it was what the teacher had asked of him before he died, and so he honored his wishes. For many years Reb Yaakov wandered, fulfilling his storytelling mission, until he heard of a very wealthy man who had sworn he would pay a gold coin to anyone who could tell him a tale of the Baal Shem Tov.[i]

Reb Yaakov sought and found the home of this man, and was welcomed in as an honored guest. The host insisted on giving a banquet in his honor, and when those in attendance had had their fill for the evening, he invited Reb Yaakov to tell them a story. He rose to do so…but said nothing. He suddenly found that he could not remember even a single story, or the beginning of a story. He had spent many years of his life travelling and studying and sharing adventures with the Baal Shem Tov, but now it all seemed to have gone out of his head. Embarrassed and confused, he made his apologies and the festivities continued on. After the meal he offered to leave the rich man’s home, but the man insisted that he stay. The next day, another fine meal was served to a full table of guests, and the same strange disappointment occurred. All that night and into the next day, he could find no peace or ease in his predicament: living like a rich man, in the company of fascinating people, and yet failing, night after night, in the purpose that had brought him to that place.

Finally, Reb Yaakov could stand it no longer – he fled from the house of the rich man without any further excuse or explanation. He felt himself a fraud: unable to carry out the mission entrusted to him by his teacher. But then, once he was out of sight of the rich man’s home, it came to him: a story. Not, a whole story – for some reason he couldn’t say how it ended – but most of one. It would have to be enough. He repeated it over and over to himself as he raced back to the rich man’s home. Bursting through the front-door he exclaimed: “I have a story to tell you!” The owner of the house looked even happier to hear this than Reb Yaakov was to say it.

***

I promised, for this morning, a sermon about hope, which sounds like a simple-enough thing. The topic lends itself quite readily to a certain paint-by-numbers approach. Hope is a popular commodity, generally a crowd-pleasing offering, and for understandable reasons. Andre Gide, the French author and Nobel Laureate, said, “Man can live about forty days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air, but only for one second without hope.” But given the two weeks since I last stood before you, with a deadly earthquake in Nepal, the hundredth anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, and the murder of Freddie Gray and the protests that have followed, a florid paen to the power of hope seems ill-fitting. I suppose that the same would be true after any two weeks in human history.

Let’s talk about Baltimore, then, for it’s on my mind, as I know it’s on many of yours. It’s a pattern that feels corrosively familiar at this point. A black man – or boy – killed in the course of police action. Outrage and grief pours out into the street in the local community and in sympathetic ones all over the country. For the shortest moment, there is the pretense of a national conversation about race and policing, and then immediately it is derailed by an unwinnable argument about the character of the deceased. The story shrinks down to the fine details about the person whose family is burying him and the officer or officers involved in his death. Any every excuse is used to avoid a real interrogation of the system of justice, the structure of power, the pattern of behavior across too many cities and towns and far, far too many years that led to the loss of this particular life and so many others that just didn’t manage to make the cable news. Again and again, our nation’s media and political class do their best not to listen to the deep anger and the real grievances that move people out into the street in a moment like this. No wonder that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King called a riot “the language of the unheard.”

This week saw what some have called the worst riots in Baltimore since Dr. King’s assassination. The common televised images between them are of National Guard troops locking down city streets, young protesters throwing rocks at police with billy clubs, and public figures urging peace and labeling anyone not sitting at home a thug. To underline the theme of history repeating itself – or rather, of human beings repeating history – the cover of Time Magazine this week has an image from one of the protests with the year 1968 crossed out and 2015 written in.

***

This is the unfinished story of the Baal Shem Tov that Reb Yaakov told to the rich man. “I journeyed with my master to a distant land, and met a few of the Jews who lived there as a hated and oppressed minority. Each year, there was a great festival of the national religion, at which it was the custom to find and kill a Jew. The Baal Shem Tov sent me to speak to their high priest, and to bring him to a meeting. The first time that I approached the high priest, a man who thought nothing of having people like me killed, by some miracle he spoke my language and did not harm me. But he said he would not come to speak with my master. So I returned, and was sent back, and received the same answer, and was sent back, and on my third attempt, the high priest agreed to the audience. He and my master spoke in private for many hours. What they said, I do not know, and so I cannot finish the story.”

“Ah, but I can finish it for you, Reb Yaakov,” the rich man said with another smile. “For I was that high priest.”

Just as Reb Yaakov’s story was incomplete, the narrative of aimless and opportunistic violence that grew up around Baltimore this week is also sadly lacking in key details. It wasn’t the whole story, not even half of it. For a glimpse of the rest of the story, I want to share some words from my colleague, David Carl Olson, minister of the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore. Some of you may already have heard them from his posting on Facebook. From his witness on the streets of his city, he writes:

To see the 300 Men March walking in their organized fashion and shaking hands, calling for peace, encouraging boys and young men–this was Baltimore. Watching Baptist Churches hold services on the street corners, seeing Methodists chatting one to one with every person they could find, walking with robed Catholics who know the poor of their parish–this was Baltimore. Witnessing the gangs, in their colors, claiming their territory and encouraging youngsters to obey the curfew, because they care for each other, and don’t want the police to have any excuse to make additional frivolous arrests–this was Baltimore.

Seeing the Drum and PomPom Squad marching perhaps 60-70 strong, with a core of drummers and dozens of teenagers–mostly Black, all fabulous, including many young men who identify as gay and can strut in their teal spangled body suits and shake their pom poms with the rest of them–and have the crowd cheer, show their love, shout their pride–this was Baltimore.

***

So, the rich man explained to Reb Yaakov, “Once, I was a Jew. But when I travelled to that distant country I found the people hated Jews there, and so I changed my religion, and became one of them. By speaking ill of my own people, I grew in popularity, until they made me a priest. One day, I had the idea for a new festival at which one Jew each year would be sacrificed. For my hateful ingenuity, they made me high priest.

“Many years later, I had a dream. I lay on a table, as still as a corpse, parched and dry almost unto death, and my ancestors stood all around me. Together they pronounced their judgement: “Is it not clear that the evil has completely overcome the good in this soul?” But there was one figure there who was no ancestor of mine. He touched a finger to me, and where he touched me, I became less brittle and dry.

“Is it not clear,” he said, “that there is still hope left for this soul?”

“When you came to find me, I sensed that I should follow you, but I held back. When you led me to your master, I knew that it was true: the figure from my dream had been the Baal Shem Tov. I asked him, “What must I do to be forgiven?”

“Your sin is very great,” he said. “There is no guarantee that you can ever be made whole again. But if it is to happen, you must devote your life to lending aid and showing kindness to others. Take all that you have and go far from here, and build yourself a house where you will offer food and shelter and clothing to any who need it. Perhaps then, your prayers will be heard.”

“But how will I know if they are, Rabbi?”

“You will know that your prayers have been heard,” the rich man repeated the words like a blessing, “on the day that someone tells you your own story.”

***

The high priest had no guarantee that he would ever be forgiven. It may be that he reformed himself and devoted the remainder of his life to others in a purely calculating way, just on the chance that he might achieve redemption by this means. But if that were the case, I submit that he could never have earned such mercy by such hollow virtue. Instead, I believe the hope for his soul that the Baal Shem Tov spoke of was not the dim hope of his cosmic forgiveness, but the fact that the impulse to do good and not evil – though weak and atrophied and beaten-down – still remained within him.

Right now, and for a long, long time, the structure of power in our society and the systems by which it sustains itself, have slept a fitful but complacent sleep. This past week, in Baltimore, could serve the same sort of purpose as the high priest’s dream: an indictment, but also an opening to profound and necessary transformation. Tear gas and hurled stones are the condemnation of the ancestors, but a community standing together to call out with creativity and compassion for justice, can serve as touch of the holy teacher.

Let me say this plain: there is no guarantee that this is the turning point we so terribly need as a nation. There is no guarantee that this is the last repetition of the cycle of death, and protest, and clucking of tongues and shaking of heads. The lesson of history is not that things always get better, and even if it were: life is lived in the present, never the future or the past. Hope, if we are to have it, has to be made here and now, where we live.

The Czech playwright and politician Vaclav Havel said that,

“Hope…is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed…Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. It is this hope, above all, that gives us strength to live and to continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.”[ii]

The sense that everything will eventually turn out alright is sometimes held up as the key message of both Christianity and Judaism. This seems a strange way of looking at things when you consider some of the most important stories of these same faiths. The story of the resurrection is celebrated each Easter, but at least as integral to the story of the Gospels is the hard truth that when a prophet appears with a message of love, and peace, and renewal, sometimes an empire will kill him for it. Every year in every synagogue the Torah is read with its central story of the Exodus, the liberation from Egypt. And even though the Hebrew slaves go free every time that story is told, it is always only after terrible suffering and crisis and the death of blameless children. We cannot forget that hings as bad or worse than anything in any story, still happen upon this earth.

In her famous poem written for the Presidential inauguration in 1993, Maya Angelou looked back to history to point out honestly just how wrong, just how legitimately hopeless conditions can be. Speaking as the continent, she says,

You, who gave me my first name, you

Pawnee, Apache and Seneca, you

Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then

Forced on bloody feet, left me to the employment of

Other seekers–desperate for gain,

Starving for gold.

 

You, the Turk, the Swede, the German, the Scot …

You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought

Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare

Praying for a dream. (…)

 

History, despite its wrenching pain,

Cannot be unlived, and if faced

With courage, need not be lived again.[iii]

We are all of us shaped by the history which preceded us. The history of our species, of our nation, of our cities and families, the history of ourselves. There is a voice of guilt and resignation and despair which wends its way through the human heart and whispers, “All of this has happened before. Who are you to think that it will turn out any different?” The only escape from the hamster wheel of precedent – and it is not a guarantee, but it is a possibility – is confronting the past, rather than passively and quietly allowing it to continue into the future.

Benjamin Franklin, under his pseudonym, Poor Richard, wrote that, “he that lives upon hope will die fasting.”[iv] But just before that he also wrote, “We may make these times better if we bestir ourselves.” These are the two ways to think of hope: as a paralytic, or as a catalyst. As the sense that everything will work out, somehow, so we can free ourselves from the work or the worry of everything that is wrong. Or, as the bone-deep belief that what we do, here and now, matters. That, the love we share, that the risks we take that, that the work we do, that the justice we make; that all of these things have value. That they’re worth doing, no matter the outcome. Whether or not our prayers are answered. Whether or not we win. Across the country and here in our community, there are a great many things to be done. You’re going to hear more in the coming months about action for racial justice here on the North Shore and opportunities to get involved through the Essex County Community Organization. I put it to us each as individuals and as a congregation, to get to work; not out of guilt or resignation, but out of a fiery sense of the meaning and value of the work itself. That is, out of hope.

 

 

[i] This version of the tale is adapted from storyteller Doug Lipman’s own adaptation, found here.

[ii] Vaclav Havel in “The Politics of Hope,” printed in Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvizdala

[iii] Maya Angelou, On the Pulse of Morning

[iv] Benjamin Franklin, The Way to Wealth

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