It only takes a little bit
Yom Kippur morning 2016
Rabbi Larry Freedman
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
We have a problem with water in the city of Newburgh. Like most things of this nature, it’s complicated but not impossible to understand. As best we understand, there was a chemical used for firefighting at Stewart ANGB, perflourooctanic acid or PFOA. To the best of everyone’s understanding, it was a very effective chemical and safe enough. Upon further review, the chemical was found not to be safe enough and its use was stopped. Production of PFOA ended in 2002. However before that happened some of the chemical was used at the air national guard base. Most of it was caught in industrial waste retention basins but the belief is that a very small amount of concentrate spilled into the ground water. My source is from Public Affairs at the base and they gathered the info from their own records and various environmental agencies. I hasten to add that this is the state of current study and is subject to change.
There is a question as to why the ANGB was using this chemical. The answer is: it was legal and the base complied with all rules and regulations that were in place at that time for its use. When the rules changed, the base’s actions changed.
Why didn’t Newburgh test for this chemical in the water? Turns out they did as required by various rules and regulations and they did report finding it. It was when the EPA changed the regulations and determined that water quality inspectors should be checking not for 400 parts per trillion but 70 parts per trillion, that the new standard set off alarm bells. Since then they have been working to fix the problem including switching the water source for the City of Newburgh. The city no longer is drinking from Washington Lake.
Why am I telling you this? The water in Washington Lake is very much a metaphor for what’s going on in our country. There are scary things going on that we don’t even know about. There are scary things that we know about but don’t feel we should be worried about. And there are scary things that are happening right in front of us that we just don’t want to pay attention to because, perhaps, we just don’t. Or maybe we don’t want to think about scary things because we don’t believe them. We convince ourselves not to believe them. And we don’t pay attention because we reject the knowledge of others and just make up our own mind. 70 parts per trillion. How can such a small amount have such massive consequences? Is it even possible that 70 parts per trillion can affect us? How can that possibly be? Won’t it be diluted? Doesn’t that just make sense? And yet, the answer seems to be no. Just a teeny, tiny bit can have a massive effect. It doesn’t take much and we are the fools who refuse to believe that. We are the fools who won’t open our hearts and our minds to the idea that just a small bit of something can have massive implications.
I feel like one of themes I talk about all the time is trying to maintain civil discourse. I try to tamp down gossip. I try to hold judgment until I hear the other side of the story. My boys are very used to me saying, when hearing some outrageous claim, “Just wait; there’s more to that story.” And there always is. And I try to listen and consider the other. Before I get on my high horse, I try to consider the other. I try to put myself in that person’s shoes, to see the world from that person’s perspective and I ask: what is going on that they would say that? What is happening that they would arrive at a conclusion I would not? And while I initially might think they are wrong, I’m willing to remain open enough to accept that they might be right. They still could be wrong but then again, they might be right. This is a pastoral approach. Listen carefully. Keep an open mind. As we make our way through Yom Kippur, we ought to work hard, to struggle even, at getting out of our own way and opening ourselves up to hear the other. We need to open ourselves up to considering the other because understanding the other leads to civil discourse. When we understand the other judgment fades away. That is not the same as having our opinions change. Sometimes they will. Sometimes they won’t. But anger, resentment, hatred will fade. And that is a noble goal.
A long time ago, 1990, Public Enemy had a hip hop song called, “911’s a Joke in this Town.” You probably can figure out Public Enemy’s complaint that 911 sent emergency crews to white neighborhoods faster than to black neighborhoods. Now, you can fact check every line of the song if you want but I had to wonder, what are they talking about? 911’s a joke? Like everyone else in the country I saw 911 as one of the great public services this country ever created. Hard working dispatchers responding to everyone sending help to everyone. I’ve always seen them as heroic. How dare Public Enemy spin such a libel. And that song has stayed with me all these years because back then I asked, what is going on in their neighborhood that would prompt such anger? What is going on that could inspire such frustration? Turns out Public Enemy was right. There were issues of delayed response and the black community had cause to be frustrated. But most people at the time had the “how dare they” response and very few had the “tell me more” response that could have determined the accuracy of the complaint.
Today we have the Black Lives Matter movement. Now, before you shut down because a lot of you are inclined to do so when you hear that phrase, try to remember it’s Yom Kippur and join me in a pastoral approach and keep an open mind. Black Lives Matter started out as a hashtag, a catchy and quick expression of grief and frustration. It is becoming a movement of some sort and one of those groups recently decided they would attach a blistering, non-factual attack on Israel as part and parcel of the Black Lives Matter movement. This makes it difficult for an awful lot of Jews and Jewish organizations to be supportive of their plea. Not because this section of BLM cares about Palestinians. That’s not the problem. The problem is that they label Israel as genocidal, alone among all the other countries of the world. That’s a real problem and a coalition breaker. But, for a moment, just for a moment, let’s set that aside and listen to what Black Lives Matter supporters are saying. I mean, why do they even need to say that Black Lives Matter? Shouldn’t that be obvious? Who says they don’t? But can you begin to imagine that someone feels so put upon, so downtrodden that they have to affirm that their very life matters? Who needs to even say that? Who needs to claim that? Someone who feels that others don’t believe their lives matter.
If this were just a bunch of grumpy folks, the hashtag would have come and gone. But when thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of black people start using #Black Lives Matter, one ought to pause for a moment and ask some serious questions to understand where this is coming from.
Of course, white people become very pious and try to outdo the Black Lives Matter by saying that All Lives Matter. Let’s talk about that. If you say, “Save the Whales,” it does not mean you couldn’t give a fig about baby seals. It means, we can talk about those poor, sad baby seals being clubbed to death, sure, but right now, for just this moment, could we talk about the whales? Yes, the lives of all marine mammals matter but just for a moment, could we focus on the whales? Yes, white lives matter, too, but for just this moment could we focus on black lives? Just for a minute? That is all that means.
So when black people say Black Lives Matter they are saying that they feel that somebody out there, they point to police officers in particular, don’t feel they matter. Here’s the pastoral approach I offer you. You don’t have to agree with Black Lives Matter protestors but you should try to understand their pain. Agreement is more complicated and requires real data and policy discussions. Hearing their pain costs nothing. What is going on that people can even make the assumption that their lives don’t matter? How have things devolved that a significant chunk of our fellow citizens feel their very lives, and hear this, their very lives, their existence as citizens and human beings just don’t matter?
Do all police officers feel that way? I highly doubt it. But let’s remember 70 parts per trillion. How many unnecessary deaths of black men is a permissible number before it gets toxic and we should question what is going on with the police? The National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund estimates that there are 900,000 sworn law enforcement officers. Of those 900,000 officers, how many are allowed to engage in a bad shooting before we get upset? There will always be a bad egg among any large group. But we are well beyond one bad egg. How many bad shootings are too many? How many bad shootings does it take to ruin the reputation of all cops? We have reached our 70 parts per trillion. It is tragic that we have reached that number. Compounding the sadness, we know that of those 900,000 officers, there are, I don’t even know, hundreds of thousands of police-citizen interactions every day and they all go fine. The police act in a professional manner and folks are let go or arrested and nothing goes wrong. In the last few months in New York there are have been police shootings that were legitimate and necessary and no one gets upset by that because that is just another example of police officers doing their very difficult jobs as professionals according to their training. Most of the water is just fine. But those 70 parts per trillion, that very small part must be attended to. It cannot be ignored. The 70 parts per trillion that doesn’t act professionally does tremendous damage to black lives, to their departments, to trust in a city and to their own careers and future. The number of police shootings cannot be diluted into something we need not worry about. We should worry. And we should listen to the frustration of those who feel compelled to say black lives matter.
And let’s remember, the complaints about the police from black communities have indeed been proven to be true multiple times. Just this past year Chicago and Baltimore received scathing critiques and they are not the only ones. There is something going on but if you are offended by the hashtag, how will you ever learn what is behind it? And we must learn what is behind it for the sake of civil discourse and care for our fellow citizens. We very much need to pay attention to 70 parts per trillion.
What else is in the news that has a moral component? Ordinarily, I wouldn’t use Yom Kippur sermon time to talk about candidates but when I wrote my first draft quite some time ago, we were living with the fantasy that Donald Trump didn’t mean anything he said and besides, the argument went, he should get a pass since he’s not a politician. As the weeks went by, I’ve had to cut and cut. What is there for me to say that so many others haven’t already said? All I’m left with is the reminder of the early days of his campaign when he was playing coy with white supremacists. Now, obviously, plenty of people who support Donald Trump aren’t members of hate groups. Obviously. However, those who are, your white supremacists and the American Nazi Party members, love him. They feel he is speaking to them and their concerns and they are becoming emboldened. Now, as always, I stand ready to try to understand what is behind the hatred of these folks. It’s hard to read their websites or listen to their interviews but I’m trying. Some fear the loss of Euro-centric culture in America. Others just believe white people are superior. I can’t say I’m very sympathetic but I’m trying to understand. On the heels of the vandalism of the Temple Beth Shalom cemetery in Florida, NY with Heil Hitler and SS and swastikas, it’s worthy to remember that these people are still out there.
I’m worried about the tone his campaign has set. I’m worried the racists and bigots feel free to take their hatred above ground. That will not be good for the Jews, I can tell you. You’re not worried because there are so few of them? It doesn’t take much to spread havoc. 70 parts per trillion.
This Jews have seen before and we know how it goes. When the mob feels emboldened to hate others, it takes a very long time to make it unacceptable once again.
Of course, some of you are awaiting the criticism of Hillary Clinton. If there is one thing we all agree on, it is that these two candidates are barely comparable. It is less like comparing apples and oranges then comparing apples and pandas. They just aren’t the same sort of thing. Hillary Clinton has not courted white supremacists. She is not beloved by the American Nazi party so whatever fears we have over the tone of her presidency, this just isn’t one of them. Criticism of her is a policy criticism and that’s not what I’m talking about.
A few years ago, a rabbi in Atlanta made a big splash announcing that radical Islam was coming and that it was here. Do you remember that? Even reading it at the time, I found that his passion was notable but his message was routine for those of us reading the headlines. I’m offering something a little different. Instead of screaming about what’s already here like the Atlanta rabbi did, I’m saying, we need to prepare for what may come. We will need to be organized to protest and to lobby and to write letters and to insist that our country regardless of who is president will not be turned over to the 70 parts per trillion who can do so much damage. The military has taught me that it’s better to be ready and not have to fight then need to fight and not be ready. Jews know that you don’t want to fight bigots from a position of weakness. You want to be out ahead in that fight right away.
It’s good to know that liberals and conservatives will find common ground in opposing that after the election. We will have to join together to fight this 70 parts per trillion of hate regardless of who wins the election.
Today is a day of introspection, a day to look closely at our selves. Few of us are true sinners. We don’t murder, we don’t rob banks. Most of us in this room have committed the sins that are small and ordinary. We have our own version of 70 parts per trillion; just enough to ruin a perfect record, just enough to make us feel bad, that we could do better. Today is a day of reflection. It is not a day to justify. It is a day of honesty. Why are black people feeling their lives don’t matter? How shall we respond to a rise in brazen hate? To these questions we must seek answers without, “yeah but…” without switching the conversation, without hiding behind something else. Today is a day of honesty even when we don’t want to hear the honesty, even when it conflicts with what we want to hear. Today is a day of honesty with ourselves and with the nation. 70 parts per trillion is all it takes to destroy something. Let’s remain vigilant against even that small part. Let’s be open to hearing what is going on. Let us on this day be willing to hear something we don’t want to hear and grow from it.