A Yom Kippur Reflection on the Wisconsin Uprising

Rabbi Renée Bauer, director of the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice, and Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman delivered the following sermon at Congregation Mayim Rabim in Minneapolis, MN for Yom Kippur 5772.

It was only day three of the protests. Only day three and there were over 10,000 people gathered outside the State Capitol. I had the privilege of standing on the podium to give an invocation to the crowd.  I looked around in awe at the mass of people, regular people who had come from across the state of Wisconsin to speak out against Governor Walker’s abuse of power, his assault on labor unions, and his proposed cuts to public services.

The speeches ended, and I decided to venture inside.  I was flanked on all sides by a sea of humanity as I opened the Capitol doors. When I stepped foot into the usually austere and impressive building, I was totally unprepared for what I saw.  The rotunda was packed.  The hallways were packed.  Everywhere people were chanting, “Kill the Bill!” and “This is what democracy looks like!” The usually plain marble walls had been plastered with thousands of homemade signs calling for justice, democracy, and an end to the bill that would strip public sector workers of their right to collective bargaining. “United We Bargain, Divided We Beg” read one sign. “Tax the Rich” read another “Librarians for workers rights” and on and on.

As I made my way to the second floor I was stopped by a parade of firefighters in support of union rights, even though they were exempted from the bill. They were met with cheers and applause.  I looked around and it seemed as if a full-fledged, utopian community had emerged in the Capitol.  There was a designated sleeping area, food stations with free donated food, an area for yoga and meditation and space reserved for children. There were signs explaining the rules of this holy space – reminders that this was a peaceful protest, directions to the protesters’ newly erected information booth. Drums beat in the rotunda and citizens testified in the legislature.  Teachers, police officers, nurses, childcare workers, and students joined together as one, filling and surrounding the building.  It certainly felt as if the people were revealing an insurmountable communal strength at the same moment that the legislature was attempting to undo the collective power of workers.

And we were not alone- revolutions and civil uprisings erupted in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen. From the Middle East to right here in the Midwest, voices of discontent erupted as hundreds of thousands of individuals became a collective force rising up to call for justice. Marching in the streets, occupying public spaces, risking employment and in some places even life, a historic surge of grassroots energy emerged to create change and to take back power. The level of risk and the particular issues involved in each struggle differed by locality, but these uprisings were unified by the belief that change is possible and that individuals have the power, together, to affect that change.

The Arab Spring filled the air with hope and possibility of a new world. But then the spring heated up into summer.  Now the cool autumn air has settled in, and with it the shift from idealism to reality. The efforts planted in the spring are being harvested. What we unearth in the final harvest of the autumn is never what was planned and imagined in the spring. Change is slow, and the much fought for freedoms have still not arrived in the Arab world. So too, the people of Wisconsin are now facing the reality of the governor’s budget cuts and severe restrictions on collective bargaining. The signs in the Capitol have been removed, the crowds are gone, and the media has moved on.

Now we are left asking: What is the fruit of our efforts, the results of the outpouring of our voices? I notice many people in Madison reminiscing about the amazing experience of the winter protests while at the same time wondering whether they made a difference. Hundreds of thousands of people protested outside the Capitol for four weeks.  Our message was clear, our voices were loud, and the bills were voted into law nonetheless. When the legislators ignored the massive number of people voicing their opposition, it was hard not to feel invisible.

You did not need to be in Madison this spring to understand this sense of powerlessness. How many times have we called our senators, written letters to the editor, attended rallies, and worked persistently on campaigns and not seen any change? Are our elected officials even listening?  Does anyone really care?  We begin to wonder if our actions matter, and we even begin to wonder if we matter.

We despair because we feel that the problems are too big to tackle and that we are ineffectual.  We burn out, we become alienated from the people we were working with, we lose sight of our goals.  We tell ourselves that we have done our part and we cannot do anything else.  We numb ourselves to the injustices around us by turning our attention to our Facebook accounts, immersing ourselves in narratives of other people’s lives on television, masking our emotions with food or alcohol, or filling our schedules to the brim.  We distract ourselves because we are overwhelmed by the suffering around us, we are discouraged by our sense of powerlessness, and we know that the real work of social change is so hard.

Working for something we believe in can be risky, because we fill ourselves with a sense of possibility and become hopeful that life can be different.  We come to believe that change is around the corner.  But change is not always around the corner. Sometimes change is a long time coming. The bill passes. Our candidate loses. Or our candidate wins but does not really govern that differently. We try and try and do not succeed.

On Yom Kippur, we read the story of Jonah, a story which mirrors these feelings of invisibility and disempowerment. Jonah is the prophet who resists God’s call to go to the city of Ninevehto tell the people that they need to change their ways.  Jonah runs the other way and instead boards a ship to Tarshish.  He then goes to sleep at the bottom of the ship and remains asleep as a huge storm erupts.  While all the other people on the boat are trying to save the boat from sinking in the storm, Jonah continues to sleep.

Sometimes, it is easier to go to sleep than to speak up for change one more time.

The story of Jonah and the holiday of Yom Kippur remind us both of our powerlessness and of our capacity to act powerfully.  We may feel that our actions do not matter and that we do not matter, but again and again we are reminded that this is not the case.  We spend the entire day examining how we have behaved in the past year and acknowledging our wrongdoings in order to act differently in the coming year.  If what we did was irrelevant, inconsequential, or unimportant, then there would be no reason to set aside a day with great ritual to review our actions. Our liturgy speaks of a God who tracks all of our behavior and judges it. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer reads in part

True it is that you are our judge,
you alone can reprove, you alone can know,
you alone are witness to all deeds…

You alone can remember what we have forgotten;
it is you who shall open the Book of Remembrance,
but its contents shall speak for themselves,
for it bears the imprint of us all,
which our deeds and our lives have inscribed.

And when the great shofar is sounded, a small, quiet voice can be heard. (Unetaneh Tokef Prayer, Kol Haneshamah Machzor)

This may not be an image of God that we ascribe to, but figuratively the message is clear: our actions matter and we matter. We are not invisible. Our small quiet voices can be heard.

The protests that erupted in Madison and throughout the Arab world this spring and the ones that have erupted since in Israel and now on Wall Street do matter.  It is still not clear what will emerge in a tangible sense, but they teach us, those who were in the streets and those who watched from afar, that another world is possible.

Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated for weeks inMadison, and hundreds of protesters occupied the Capitol around the clock.  Not only was there no violence, but there was a sense of solidarity and communal responsibility that we so rarely see in the twenty-first century. People politely apologized if they bumped into each other, graciously helped mothers with strollers, and gave up their place in line if someone else could be more effective at the front of the line. They shared food and trusted the food that others offered. A true sense of togetherness replaced the regular impatience and self-absorption that usually governs our daily interactions. There were outpourings of gratitude and support.  Crowds chanted “thank you” to supportive legislators and private sector workers who stood with their public sector brothers and sisters. There was a momentary leveling of the stratification between people. Students and high level union officials sat with clergy and private sector workers and brainstormed together on strategy.  Everyone’s opinions were listened to and taken seriously.  This was a struggle for a common good, not simply for individual benefit.

The protests were transformative because they changed us. They let us see that solidarity and communal responsibility are not relics of the past but essential for how we are to live as a society. We have the power to organize, to work together, to care for one another, and to speak out for justice.  We have the possibility of being part of something larger than ourselves and overcoming apathy, powerlessness, and cynicism for at least a brief time.

The captain of the ship arouses Jonah from his sleep. “What’s with you that you sleep?! Rise up, and call upon your God!” he commands him. (Jonah, 1:6) Jonah suggests that he be thrown overboard to save the ship and everyone on it.  He is swallowed by a large fish, and after three days of reflection in its belly he is spit up onto the land and finally changes his ways.  He promises to go to Nineveh, acting courageously to do his part to create change.  Yet, change does not come easily to Jonah.  He struggles just as we struggle with our discouragement, indifference, and doubt.  Jonah flees from responsibility, and he is conflicted about his role in creating change.

There is another message of the story, one that is even more important.  It is strange that the people of Nineveh do change, and change so quickly.  We are told that they are wicked. How was it that Jonah came in, prophesied to them, and they changed their ways?  Perhaps because there had been people in Nineveh who had been working for transformation for years, people who had been trying to create social change, who had been trying to create a different society, one that respects all people, protects the most vulnerable, operates from a vision of democracy, solidarity, and communal responsibility.  Perhaps Jonah was the final catalyst for change but the change had come from within the society as a result of hard years of work.  The Book of Jonah teaches us that a society can transform itself, even when it stands on the edge of disaster.

We can gain insight into how such transformation occurs by looking at two principles that the ancient rabbis developed for Jewish prayer.  The first is keva, or fixed prayer.  This is the structured liturgy and the rules necessary to create a regular, ongoing relationship to prayer.  Keva teaches us about limits, about discipline, and about perseverance.  It offers a fixed approach to our prayer and creates expectations of what will happen. The second is kavanah, or intention. Kavanah is the spontaneity and creativity that helps keep prayer meaningful. Kavanah teaches us to approach the fixed prayers with freshness and not to repeat them by rote. The rabbis recognized that all keva with no kavanah would lead to dry, uninspired, meaningless prayer and that all kavanah with no keva would prevent the establishment of a regular, lasting practice that would transcend the daily whims of our lives.

We can apply the principles of kavanah and keva to our work to create a better world.  We need kavanah, the inspiring protests, the moments of connection between strangers, the singing in solidarity. However, lasting social change does not happen in the streets. It happens in the meeting rooms, around kitchen tables, and in legislative offices. Social change work depends on keva – the disciplined, everyday work of creating a sustainable movement, the work of strategizing, phone banking, recruiting volunteers, entering data entry and fundraising.

How many of the hundreds of thousands of people from around the state of Wisconsin who came to Madison to voice their discontent have returned to their normal routines and have drifted away from being involved with the fight for workers rights? Many worked on recall campaigns and others continue to hold a presence at the Capitol but I suspect for most people the protests are a treasured memory, a glimmer of hope in an increasingly difficult economy. How many times have we gone to an event, been inspired by a rally but never moved past this inspiration?

We make commitments over Yom Kippur to begin anew, to be more involved and less distracted in the year to come.  But it is so easy to fall back into our old patterns soon after we leave the building. The real challenge is not how we act today, but how we act tomorrow, the day after Yom Kippur, and the day after that when we are re-immersed in our everyday lives. Yom Kippur is communal protest against stagnation. We are moved by the liturgy, the music, and the community that gathers together. We look beyond our apathy and imagine living committed, passionate, principled lives.  These High Holy Days are the kavanah of our Jewish year. But real sustainable change does not happen a few days a year and with kavanah alone. We need keva, disciplined practice and hard work, to help us live up to our aspirations.

With the people of Ninevehas our example, let us remember that social transformation is possible. May the final blast of the shofar keep us awake to these possibilities as we move into the New Year before us.

Ken yehi ratzon. 

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