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Problem with prophets

Temple Beth-El, San Antonio

Social Action Shabbat

November 3, 2017

“Will the Judge of the Earth not do justice?”

When Abraham asks God this question in our Torah portion, he establishes himself as a prophet for justice. God has told Abraham about the plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for their sins, and Abraham famously objects: “What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it?” (Gen 18:24).

God relents, in part, agreeing to forgive the cities for the sake of the hypothetical 50 innocent people. Abraham then negotiates down -- how about 40 people? 30? He gets down to 10 and then the conversation ends.

There’s no further negotiation, and God rains fire on the cities. Were 10 innocent people not to be found? At least God lets Lot and his family get extracted before the destruction.

We chalk this up as a prophetic victory for Abraham -- but was it? Sure, he spoke truth to power, as a voice for justice against an unjust plan. But aside from saving his own extended family, what did he accomplish? Why did he stop short of intervening to save the people of Sodom and Gomorrah? Even Jonah, despite his reluctance, managed to save the city of Nineveh through his prophecy of impending doom. In Jonah’s case, the people heard and repented, and God relented. Abraham’s prophetic voice disappears from this story.

The truth is, Jonah is an exception. Most of the Hebrew prophets were failures, if you measure success by whether they realized their values in the kingdom. Yes, they spoke truth to power and voiced God’s moral vision against the social ills of their day. But they were hated, persecuted, sometimes killed.

And rarely did the power they spoke truth to, accept their truth.

More often, the systems of injustice and corruption outlasted the moral voices in the wilderness. Prophets are good at voicing our values, but less good at teaching us how to realize them.

We need a different model for social justice. Prophets inspire us with their moral vision, but they offer little in terms of effective tools for change. For that, we should look elsewhere, to a different kind of builder, a visionary in his own right, but one with a team and a plan.

I’m talking about Nehemiah. In the Tanakh, his story appears in the Writings/Ketuvim, not in the Prophets/Nevi’im. His story takes place after the Persian conquest of the Babylonian Empire, who had destroyed Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem and exiled the Jews. While serving in the Persian court, Nehemiah hears news from Judea that the Jews are struggling to resettle their ancestral land, and that the walls of Jerusalem are in ruins. He asks for a transfer by the Persian king, and he’s appointed governor of Judea and sent to assist in rebuilding the temple.

Nehemiah starts not by directing, but by learning. He takes a few local leaders with him and spends three solid days surveying the damage to Jerusalem and its walls. After seeing the ruins, he says to the leaders: “You see the bad state we are in: Jerusalem lying in ruins and its gates destroyed by fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem and suffer no more disgrace.” (Neh. 2:17-18)

Now I know building a wall is a loaded idea these days, especially in Texas, but notice why Nehemiah suggests this project. It’s not about security; it’s about dignity. He has identified the need to rebuild not just the city, but first the people’s faith in themselves as builders, with agency, who can make an impact. Our fragmented and disillusioned society could use a dose of that faith.

Nehemiah must have listened well because the leaders like his suggestion, and the building project goes well, and swiftly -- under two months. Many hands make light work, as they say. “We rebuilt the wall until it was continuous all around to half its height,” Nehemiah tells us, “and the people’s heart was in the work” (Neh 3:38). The people set their intention to finish this work because they were doing it for themselves and for a higher purpose. It was a meeting of self-interest and the common good. The best kind of civic renewal always is.

Nehemiah continues to prove himself as a leader by knowing his people. Once the wall is rebuilt, and with it the people’s dignity and confidence, they begin to notice other injustices. And there was a great outcry over, of all things, wealth inequality. Some of the Israelites barely scrape by, go deeply into debt just to survive, and fear selling their children into slavery -- while other Israelites, the elites, amass grain and wealth by exploiting the underclass.

Nehemiah goes to the elites first by himself, to warn them against their predatory lending practices. But then he organizes -- a kehilah gedolah, a great community joins him in a public action against the exploiters!

Nehemiah frames the people’s grievance in terms of their shared story: We’ve just gotten out from under exile and oppression by the Babylonians, and now you oppress your own brothers in our land? It works, not just because he speaks truth to power, but because he doesn’t speak alone. The agitated crowd is with him. They organized and mobilized to hold the nobles accountable through a transparent action rooted in their common narrative.

This is the kind of action we want to get into. A shared vision, with a team and a plan, a target and a winnable goal.

This is the work I’m exploring with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) in Texas, that we are exploring together here at Beth El and with your neighbors across the state. The RAC has launched a new state strategy with a goal of organizing our synagogues, clergy, and leaders to become effective agents of social change at the local and state level.

This is not about parachuting in from Washington with an agenda we want you to work on. This is about partnering to advance a shared vision of justice -- at Beth El, in San Antonio, in Texas, and nationwide. After all, you are the experts on your own community, on the shared stories that define your hopes and challenges.

The work is already underway here. Over the summer, led by your rabbis and lay leaders in partnership, you heard 200 congregants in small group gatherings share stories about where they see brokenness in the world. There were stories, for example, about health care and mental health, poverty, education, and civil discourse (which we will hear more about later tonight during the panel.) Next, a leadership team will emerge who will translate that wealth of powerful stories into an issue you can act on together.

Then action teams can form to do what Nehemiah did: survey the landscape, connect with key leaders, discern the right campaign with a winnable goal, and act. Every victory builds our power for the next campaign, just as it did for Nehemiah: first the city wall, then economic fairness, all toward the ultimate goal of a society rebuilt on justice.

These efforts are taking shape also at the synagogues down the road in Austin, and over in the Dallas and Houston metro areas, and in the border towns and small towns across our state. Imagine what we can accomplish with Texas synagogues organized and ready to act for justice together. Think of the untapped potential we have to bring our cities and our state closer to the RAC’s vision of a place where all people experience justice, wholeness, and peace.

In the interest of intellectual honesty, I should mention a certain inconvenient truth. Nehemiah’s leadership takes a turn that most of us would find offensive, today. His intentions remained good, I suppose -- to shore up the people’s pride in their identity and faith in their power to rebuild their lives. But in the service of that end he instituted a strict ban on intermarriage, forced Jewish men to divorce non-Jewish wives and expel them, and purged the temple and parts of the city of non-Jews.

Let that be a cautionary tale for us in this political moment, about the dangerous appeal of nationalism and xenophobia in times of crisis. Shared stories are powerful, and like any powerful tool, they can be manipulated for ungodly ends. It is our job to be stewards of our common story, as Americans and as Jews, with compassion and mercy, with liberty and justice for all. We seek to include -- to build “power with,” not to have “power over” -- as we improve our communities.

I’m here this Shabbat to invite you in:

  • To join the kehilah gedolah, the great and growing community of people ready to raise an outcry: This is not right, and we want to fix it.

  • To rise above the polarized moment by listening deeply to each other’s stories of brokenness and hope.

  • To have faith that we will find common ground where we can act together to bring the world in its ruins closer to the prophets’ vision of a world rebuilt -- a world redeemed.

Shabbat shalom.

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