My sermon from tonight, Parshat Va’etchanan, Shabbat Nachamu
Don’t Become Paralyzed by Fear, in memory of Rep. John Lewis
There is a tremendous amount of disappointment in our lives today. We’ve cancelled vacations, missed eating with friends at restaurants, there will be no peanuts and cracker jacks at a baseball stadium this summer, and so many other things.
It is fitting in some way to name some of these things aloud this Shabbat, as this week in our tradition is called Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of comfort following the lowest point of our liturgical year, Tisha b’Av. Shabbat Nachamu gets its name from the opening words of the Haftara from Isaiah, “nachamu nachamu ami, comfort oh comfort My people,”[i] begins this reading beginning the cycle of prophesies of comfort and consolation from the prophet Isaiah that culminate 7 weeks from tonight when we gather together to observe Rosh Hashanah.
And so tonight I fear I must present to you another small disappointment. We all know the now famous statement from Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od v’ha’ikar lo lefached klal, the whole world is a very narrow bridge and the most important part is not to be afraid. We know this quote, maybe even better we know melodies that use these words, and we each can picture our own version of that narrow bridge. So, here’s the bad news. This is not exactly what Rebbe Nachman said.
The first part of the Rebbe Nachman’s quote is just what he said, Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od – the whole world is a narrow bridge and the ikar, the most important principle, sh’lo yitpached klal – one should not paralyze themself with fear. If you are a grammarian, particularly a Hebrew grammar lover, you notice that the verb root stayed the same pachad, fear, but the verb tense is different. Technically we went from the piel to the hitpa’el verb form, from an intensive action verb to a reflexive verb. The whole world is a narrow bridge, the most important thing is don’t freak yourself out, don’t become paralyzed with fear.
I have been thinking a lot about bridges this week, in particular, one bridge in Selma, Alabama, the Edmund Pettus bridge that crosses the Alabama River. This bridge, not terribly long has a unique construction that makes it feel like a hill with a rise in the middle of the river. One day, God willing, we may be able to make a pilgrimage like I did a few years ago and we will be able to see for ourselves that when you stand at one end, you cannot see the other side. This bridge became famous in the 1960s at the height of the Civil Rights movement. On March 7, 1965, a peaceful protest was initiated from that bridge from Selma from Montgomery, however, when the peaceful marchers reached the crest of the bridge they were met by State troopers, local possemen who advanced on the marchers and beat many of them on a day that came to be known as Bloody Sunday. One of the 600 peaceful protesters badly beaten was a man named John Lewis, who suffered a fractured skull. Lewis was born in Troy, Alabama. At the age of 15 he heard Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. for the first time and closely followed the subsequent Montgomery bus boycott. Mr. Lewis was an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement, as a student in Nashville he organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, he became a student of non-violence from teachers like Rev. James Lawson and Rev. Kelly Miller Smith, and a leader of SNCC, the student nonviolent coordinating committee. He served as chairman and was one of the “Big Six” who organized the 1963 March on Washington where he was the youngest speaker and took the microphone just before Dr. King who would go on to deliver his famous “I have a dream speech.” Mr. Lewis was also active during Freedom Summer and a regular Freedom Rider. He was repeatedly the victim of violence and was arrested but he never strayed from his beliefs in nonviolence. When the the organizers of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, gave up the rides because of violence, it was Lewis and fellow student, Diane Nash from Nashville that continued riding, bringing the rides to their successful conclusion.
John Lewis was never paralyzed by fear. In fact he said, “you cannot be afraid to speak up and speak out for what you believe. You have to have courage, raw courage.”
Mr. Lewis’s life of public service really was just getting started in the 1960s. He believed fundamentally in the importance of the vote. He said, “the vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have.” In the 1970s he led the Voter Education Project, during his tenure 4 million minority voters were added to the rolls, making their voices heard. He first ran for the United States Congress in 1977 and lost, but his calling towards the political arena was strong. He became a member of the Atlanta City Council in 1981 and served there until winning the election to become the representative of Georgia’s 5th district in the House of Representatives. He was reelected successfully 16 times.
The principles of nonviolence remained core tenets of Representative Lewis’s life and legacy.
On July 17, Representative John Lewis died. This past Sunday, his coffin went over that bridge one final time as the funeral services in Selma were followed by his coffin lying in state in the capital building in Montgomery, and subsequently the capitol rotunda in Washington, DC., and the Georgia State Capital before his funeral in Atlanta.
On the day of his funeral Mr. Lewis sealed his legacy as a hero of our nation with final remarks that he arranged to appear on the day of his funeral. He wrote:
Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.
You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, through decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.
Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.[ii]
May we now continue the work of Representative John Lewis to make freedom ring. May we do the work knowing that, Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od – the whole world is a narrow bridge and the ikar, the most important principle, sh’lo yitpached klal – one should not paralyze themself with fear, because John Lewis picked up Rebbe Nachman’s lesson and taught us by his profound example not to become paralyzed with fear.
[i] Isa. 40:1