Guilt and Responsibility

It’s been very hot here today in Northern California. Normally we have a cool breeze from the ocean, but today there was only a hot wind from the east. Such weather makes everyone nervous: it’s fire season.

There’s a kind of foreboding that goes with hot windy days in fire season, especially in a drought year. Any tiny ember can start a huge fire, whether it’s from some fool tossing a cigarette butt or something more innocent, like a piece of equipment that happens to throw a spark. So those of us who have lived here for long pay attention and call the fire department if we even think we smell smoke.

Days like today I am reminded that Torah teaches us about communal values. In a few weeks, we’ll be saying Vidui, a prayer of confession. That prayer will include some sins that I know I have never committed. I have never personally committed murder, for instance, but I will confess it as if I had.

The first time I said that prayer with the congregation, it felt ridiculous. I didn’t murder anyone! I haven’t robbed anyone, or given bad counsel! I felt angry that I was supposed to say those things, even though I hadn’t personally done them. I felt misunderstood.

But now I understand the Vidui prayer differently. Even though I haven’t done those particular things, I am part of a community in which people may very well have done them. Even though I have not personally committed arson, I am part of a community in which some people are criminally careless with fire. (Witness all the illegal fireworks on July 4.) Even though I have not and would not make money from the exploitation of children, I live in a community notorious for its child sex trafficking.

What the Vidui teaches is that even if we don’t participate, if it happens in our community, we are responsible. As Abraham Joshua Heschel z”l said:

Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. – The Prophets, p. 19

I have never thrown a cigarette butt anywhere (I’ve never smoked.) But as part of my responsibility for fire safety in my area, I pay taxes for the fire department, and on days like today, I pay attention to any sign that there might be a fire. Anything less could cost lives. I am not guilty, but I am responsible.

I also live in a society that is racist to its core. People with dark skins suffer all manners of indignities I with my white skin do not suffer. I have never had any reason to be afraid of cops. I have never been trailed in a store. Nor is the suffering merely to dignity: my forebears benefitted from the accumulation of real estate wealth in the mid 20th century, and thanks to red-lining, African Americans did not. I have tried for most of my life to be a good, non-racist white person; I am not guilty of personal misbehavior since I learned better, but I am still responsible.

I am responsible to see to it that no one says racist things in my hearing without being challenged. I am responsible to see to it that my elected representatives vote for remedies to racist policies. I am responsible to keep my civil servants honest about their policies and the implementation of those policies. I am responsible to make sure that some of my tzedakah funds and volunteer time goes to address the wrong that still exists in my society. I am responsible not to interrupt, but to listen, when a black person shares their truth with me.

And as for all those other things, I’m responsible there, too. For instance, since there is that horrible child sex trafficking down on E 14th Ave. in Oakland, I support organizations that work to relieve the suffering, and I vote for elected officials who will work to end it. Since we live in fire danger country, I garden appropriately and do everything else the fire department suggests.

We don’t live on this planet alone. We can’t do whatever we want. And we cannot absolve ourselves with “it’s not my problem” when something is expensive or inconvenient or embarrassing. We are responsible to do what we can.

Rabbi Heschel’s Prayer

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(Photo credit: Egan Snow)

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “In Selma, Alabama, I learned to pray with my feet.”

In English, we have a tendency to use the words “religion” and “faith” as interchangeable, and it is possible that it works for some religions, but for Judaism, it most emphatically does not work. Jews believe many different things: at the extremes, I know good Jews who are thoroughgoing atheists, and equally good Jews who have regular conversations with a God for whom the pronouns are male. The only real deal breaker for normative Judaism is monotheism: if a person believes in multiple gods or subdivisions of God or persons-within-God they are over the line.

Deeds, including speech, are another matter. I am still a Jew, but I cannot claim to be a “good Jew” if I stand by while my neighbor bleeds, if I do nothing while the vulnerable go hungry, if I do not pursue justice. That, with monotheism, was the great message of the Jewish prophets:  see chapter five of the prophecy of Amos if you doubt me.

So it is appropriate today, more than 50 years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, to remember that we  pray with our feet, our hands, our keyboards, our wheels, our habits of consumption, and our speech to and about others.

Let us pray.