In a Torah portion familiar to those of us who have begun thinking about the High Holy Days (welcome to the rabbinate!) we read the following words: “Atem nitzavim hayom, kulchem – You stand here this day, all of you, before Adonai your God…”
Last Thursday, I drove to Raleigh for the launch of Nitzavim: Standing Up for Voter Protection and Participation, the overarching title for the voting rights work the URJ’s Religious Action Center is undergoing in partnership with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the PICO National Network and others.
20+ faith leaders, including rabbinic colleagues who had flown in from San Francisco and New York City, along with over 100 congregants from many of their communities, gathered together to pledge to do exactly what the title of the campaign says: stand up for voter protection and voter participation.
In his remarks that night, Reverend Dr. William Barber II spoke to our individual prophetic capacity to stand and to cause others to stand. He recalled the biblical passage in which God commands the prophet Ezekiel to prophesy to a valley of dry bones. Ezekiel does as he is told, and wouldn’t you know it, the bones respond.
Then God explains the metaphor. The dry bones represent the Israelites, who have been so far beaten down that they are like dry bones: “Behold, they say – Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost.” (Ezekiel 37:11) Ezekiel’s task is to offer hope to the Israelites, to tell them they are not alone. God sees their plight. God is with them and God will bring them up and out of their misery and back into the promised land.
Recently during a visit to the nail salon, my pedicurist was talking to one of her coworkers about the current election climate. They both agreed that it was scary.
When I asked if they were registered to vote, they both shook their heads. “I don’t get into politics,” one said in explanation. When I pressed them, the real reason they were not registered became clear. Neither believed there was any point in voting. Neither believed their votes would matter.
There I was, staring at the Israelites: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost.”
I tried to make it clear that everyone’s vote counts and everyone’s vote matters, and that every single citizen in this country has a right to offer their input into who we elect to run the country. I tried, but I don’t know if they believed me. After all, it is hard to overcome a deep-seeded feeling that you do not matter. The more often a person is overlooked, the easier it becomes for him to overlook herself.
“Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost.”
The very next day, I stood in Temple Beth El’s Keshet Committee tent at Pride Festival, celebrating love in all its forms and expression in all its rainbowed glory. I stood with people who almost certainly had experienced the feeling of being told they didn’t matter, that they did not count, that their identity was somehow less than.
And yet there we were, “Nitzavim – standing.”
As Charlotteans filled the streets on Sunday, as we crowded onto corners and craned our necks to watch and cheer for the next float, and the next, we sent a message:
We see you, and you matter. Hope is not lost.
At the entrance to the Promised Land, the Israelites “nitzavim,” stood together in order to enter into covenant with each other and with God. Deep in that covenant today, we are commanded to continue standing together.
It is on each of us, as human beings, to witness and acknowledge the plight of those being overlooked or actively denied their rights. It is on each of us to pay closer attention as we go about our days – to see, acknowledge, and remind each person we interact with that indeed they are important and indeed they do matter.
On this day and all days, maybe we each be Ezekiel; may we each take the time to notice the dry bones in our world and to help them to stand up and become whole again.