“To President John F. Kennedy, The White House, June 16th, 1963. I look forward to privilege of being present at meeting tomorrow four pm. Likelihood exists that negro problem will be like the weather. Everybody talks about it 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. Church synagogues have failed. They must repent. Ask of religious leaders to call for national repentance and personal sacrifice. Let religious leaders donate one month’s salary toward fund for negro housing and education. I propose that you Mr. President declare state of moral emergency. A Marshall Plan for aid to negroes is becoming a necessity. The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel
This 52-year-old telegram could almost have been written today. So many people of color and their houses of worship have been destroyed this year because we haven’t rooted out systemic racism and oppression; because, like the weather, we talk about it, but most of us don’t do enough.
This week’s Torah portion teaches us, “Don’t harden your heart, and close your hand from your needy brother” (Deut. 15:6). Rabbi Yeshua Lalum, an Algerian community leader, explained:
“If your heart hardens, your hand will close and your fingers will all appear to be of equal length. In that case you would say to the poor person, go out and make a living like I do. However, when you open your hand up, you can see that your fingers are not of equal lengths. Some are short and others are long. This is how God created them and they are interdependent.” (Likutei Aharon, derashah 17)
Today the color of one’s skin can be the difference between a peaceful or deadly encounter with the police, and for much of our country, poverty is inescapable. Rabbi Lalum teaches us that when we open our hands, we can recognize that inequity sits at the root of our system. Those who are represented by the longer fingers have an inherent systemic advantage; those that are shorter are limited from the outset.
When we act as if these advantages and disadvantages don’t exist, we are in fact hardening our hearts and closing our hands. While none of us can end systemic oppression alone, together and interdependently we have the capacity to change the system. Even now, we can open our hearts and our hands, acting generously toward each other and contending with the inequity that exists. Only by seeing inequity can we begin to address it.