"WORKING TOWARDS REAL CHANGE"
SERMON FOR YOM KIPPUR 5871
RABBI JACQUELINE MATES-MUCHIN
You may already be familiar with the story of the New York field hospital that was set up in the Billie Jean King National Tennis center at the start of the pandemic. It cost fifty two million dollars, it was staffed with medical professionals from all over the country and had hundreds of beds set up to ease the strain on the permanent hospitals that are overwhelmed. It was remarkable, really, how quickly resources were made available to help treat and support the thousands of people getting sick. However, in its entire month of existence, only 79 patients were treated there. 79. That wasn’t because other hospitals were suddenly flush with staff and space, but rather, layers of bureaucracy kept the field hospital from being utilized. One of the many issues dealt with ambulance contracts. People had to go to other hospitals first and then be transferred to the field hospital, and the transfers had to be done by ambulances. Now the field hospital had access to ambulances, but the permanent hospitals were contracted with different ambulance companies, and so transfers were hard to come by. Rather than working around the contracts or even suspending them during this emergency situation, the field hospital essentially sat empty. Millions of dollars were wasted, the permanent hospitals continued to be overwhelmed, and patients suffered, because societal systems and practices stood in the way of success. The idea of the field hospital was a good one, an obvious one, but it wound up being too hard, too complex, to actually put it to adequate use.
Now, in the case of the pandemic, the situation continued to evolve, the permanent hospitals increased their capacity and there was no longer a need for the field hospital. But, it is a kind of a pattern that we see, whether we look through history or even in our own individual lives. Emergencies arise, problems and issues are brought to our attention and we act, we work to make changes, we plot a new course. We often start out strong and clear, and we figure out how to tackle that first obstacle, that first problem. Not enough hospital beds? We need to build a temporary hospital. However, when a second arises, we realize that our initial efforts may not be effective, and we see how deep the problems run, how layered the issues are, and how much we may have to sacrifice to really make a change, we sometimes give up rather than working through the difficulties.
It reminds me of the story of the daughters of Zelophehad, who we meet in the book of Numbers. At this point in the Israelites' journey, the land is being divided and assigned. It is split amongst the tribes, and within each of the tribal lands, the land is allotted to specific clans and families. In chapter 27, we hear the voices of five women, all sisters, the daughters of Zelophehad, who take issue with the process. Their father died and they have no brothers, thus his land was to be absorbed into another’s share. But the sisters argued that their father’s name should not be lost just because he didn’t have sons. Rather, they should inherit their father’s land allotment. Moses confers with God and God agrees. A new law is made. If a man dies and he has no sons, his daughters inherit his land.
This is a great moment in the cause of justice. It isn’t perfect; we’d argue that the land should be divided amongst all children, regardless of gender, all the time, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. And, a great lesson in demonstrating what can happen when you speak against an injustice. Things can change, and we like to believe that things can change. It is a hopeful and powerful text. And to add to the positive nature of it, we learn the women’s names: Machlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. That’s a significant detail, because many women in the Torah remain unnamed even when integral to the story. This is a text we love champion.
But the story does not end there. Toward the very end of the Book of Numbers, we hear again about Machlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah’s situation. Their male relatives, while not directly objecting to the ruling, suggest that there is a problem with carrying it out. If the women marry outside the tribe, then their land will pass into the hands of that other tribe, because her lands will be combined with her husband’s and their offspring will be members of his tribe, officially, not hers. So when their children inherit the land, it will now be controlled by a different tribe.
As a solution, the original law was amended to include the stipulation that if a daughter inherits from her father because she has no brothers, she must marry someone within the same clan so that the tribal land designations will not change. In this case, the sisters marry the sons of their uncles, their first cousins, who, by the way, are the exact people who would have eventually inherited Zelophohed’s land anyway.
Now, it is hard to know for sure why these men asked Moses to put qualifiers on the change in the law. If we take the text at face value, it is because they could not figure out how to implement the change in the context of other aspects of their life and society. They saw the systems of marriage, inheritance and landownership as things that couldn’t be changed, so any new law would have to adhere to those given restrictions. Or, it might be that they objected because as soon as it took something from them and their tribe, as soon as their holdings seem to be jeopardized, they made their own complaint. We don’t know if they agreed with the original ruling or not, but certainly, when the change asked something of them, they were unwilling to make any kind of sacrifice.
The original law, then, did not make the progress it promised. While owning the land would offer them some security before marriage, in the end, because they were made to marry within their clan, the people in line to inherit before the original law was past, it is now almost as if they became a part of the land inheritance. They did not achieve the status or the rights of landowners in the ways that we had hoped.
How often does it happen- that good intentions are abandoned when we realize that solving a problem is too hard, or we come to understand that it asks too much of us? The first step we often take; we find energy, passion even, when we realize something needs to be changed, we gear up and can be inspired to create a more just society. But the passion sometimes wanes when it becomes more complicated. What happens when we realize what change means? What systems are we really willing to revamp? What sacrifices will we actually make?
Now, even more shameful, is how readers of Torah often relate to the story of the sisters. Most of the time, we only talk about the first part of their narrative, the part where Machlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah stand up for themselves to fight the injustice. The part where the system recognizes its flaws and tries to make a bold move to change. We tend not to circle back to the very end of the Book of Numbers to see how the attempt at progress fell apart; how it did not do what we hoped it would do. We leave off the second part of the story so we can call it a win. We don’t wait to find out if justice was carried through. We don’t pay enough attention to realize that real change didn’t happen because things got too hard and people felt that they were asked to sacrifice too much.
The story of the struggle for racial justice bears some similarity to this episode in the Torah. The Civil Rights Movement made all kinds of discrimination illegal, a huge victory in so many ways, but, as we well know, it was one step in overcoming racial hierarchy, it did not solve the problem. Too often the struggle for racial justice has been discussed as a historical victory, not an ongoing challenge. Like the story of the five sisters, too much of our society stopped paying attention after the Civil Rights Movement part of the story to understand what happened next. But we can’t be content to feel good about the changes that were made, when we ignore the changes that we have since refused to make, the attitudes and social structures, that then render laws far less effective than they could be. It’s an example of a well established pattern of giving up and refusing to continue when the process of real change is more complicated than we had anticipated.
It is a pattern, but it isn’t inevitable. The relentlessness of the early days of the pandemic meant that hospitals had to figure out a way to work together to save people’s lives The urgency of the situation made them press on, even as they faced early misstarts and impediments that seemed insurmountable. It demonstrates that it is possible to keep moving toward the goal, if you remain determined and if you remain committed.
Today, as we look around us, there is no shortage of injustices and issues and major challenges that we need to address. I imagine that many of us have made vows, commitments and promises to do something to positively affect these difficult situations: to fight against poverty, hate, racism, sexism, homophobia and so many other forms of inequity. To work to empower and enable all voices and concerns, not only to be heard, but also to be answered. We need to make these commitments for change; that is the first step. But, we also have to commit to the second one, that second step, that next obstacle, even as we may not yet know it will be. We have to commit to keep going when we discover how hard it is going to be. We need to vow to work toward justice, especially, when it asks us to sacrifice more than we imagined it would. We have to recognize that none of our systems, no aspect of our way of life is absolute; if we feel stuck, it is because we have decided to be stuck. We are not responsible to uphold our systems,
our systems were created to help us care for each other. This year, let’s vow to take that second step, the harder step, the uncertain, the unclear, the scarier step which moves change from an idea to a reality. Let’s vow to make that step even before we know what it will be. Because committing to the second step, the next step is the only way to see justice through.
We have a long, difficult road ahead of us in the struggle to make a better world. Let us vow today, as individuals and as a community, to support each other, encourage each other, and push each other as we work to make change real.
May we have the wisdom and the strength.
Kein yihi ratzon, may this be God’s will.