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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Rabbi Adam Raskin on Obama

A Jewish Response to the Election of Barack Obama
Rabbi Adam J. Raskin, Congregation Beth Torah
Shabbat Lech Lecha; November 8, 2008; 10 Cheshvan 5769

Moderator's Note: I believe this is a sermon by Rabbi Adam Raskin where he has honored his teacher for bringing upto him the lessons in humanity. I really liked this one, as my teacher from my Grade school continues to inspire me. Indeed, in my 6th grade class, some where around 1961, he invited an African Man from Kenya, who was attending the Bangalore Agricultural college to share a little bit about his country, I faintly remember his words "my country is my country"and oddly I remember, he very much looked like Obama's father. We were exposed to multi-culturism and multi-faith at that age. I am not sure, they still do that in India. Thanks to Mr. Abdul Hakimm my teacher for opening the world to me.

Dear Mr. Marcelino:

You were my fifth grade teacher some 25 years ago at Brady Middle School. I wouldn’t
be at all surprised if you didn’t remember me—I’m pretty sure I didn’t stand out
academically in those years. I did want you to know that I thought of you recently. As I
was watching the returns come in from this historic presidential election, I had a
flashback of sitting in your classroom listening to phonograph records of Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech. I remembered what a profound impression it
made upon me, as well as your gifted teaching about Black history in America. This all
came flooding into my consciousness as I watched Barack Obama become the first black
president of the United States. As I looked on the Orange City School District’s website,
I was so happy to see that you are still teaching. I hope you are still playing those
recordings to your students—though nowadays I imagine they are amplified from your ipod
rather than a phonograph. I hope your students are still listening that speech, and
that you are still inspiring successive generations of students as much as you inspired me.
Today I am nearly 35 years old, married, the father of 3 children and living in Dallas, TX
where I work and serve as a Rabbi. I hope you are well and as impassioned a teacher
and human being as I remember you over two decades ago.
Warmest regards from your former student, Adam Raskin

My thumbs typed this message on my Blackberry just a few days ago to my
beloved fifth grade teacher. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was truly unusual to have
an African American male teacher in a predominantly Jewish elementary school. But the
Lord truly works in mysterious ways—as a young boy being raised by a single mother, I
was provided a daily male role model in this enthusiastic teacher, Mr. John Marcelino.
Moreover, Mr. Marcelino, who taught every subject with skill and stamina, truly shined
in the month of February. February, for several decades has been designated as Black
History month in our country, and my African American teacher taught this group of
upper middle class Jewish kids about black history from the Civil War to Reconstruction,
from segregation to the Civil Rights movement. We learned about and read the works of
Fredrick Douglas, George Washington Carver; Visages of Booker T. Washington,
Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Henry Louis Gates, Thurgood
Marshall decorated the classroom. I only now realize that the average fifth grader may
not have gotten this kind of an education! But I am so grateful that I did, and I wanted
my former teacher to know it. From those mind-expanding lectures in my fifth grade
class, to when you could hear a pin drop as the phonograph needle crackled along the
surface of the record, and we tried to picture ourselves standing on the National Mall on
that March day in 1963, those memories fed my amazement as I watched the unfolding of
history before my very eyes this past Tuesday night.

When God spoke to Avram, the transcripts of that conversation are recorded in
our parasha this morning, God invited Avram to leave behind not only the physical
domain of his life, but also the intellectual and spiritual confines of his father’s house.
We don’t know much about Avram’s father Terach, but the Midrash is quick to point out
his idolatrous practices. We don’t know much about Ur Kasdim, Avram’s home town,
but the Midrash instructs us that Avram’s awakening to monotheism and the ethical
demands of his new faith was so threatening to the local king that he sought to kill Avram
in order to silence him. So God says to Avram: lech lecha, mei-artzecha, umimoladetcha,
u’mibeit avicha, el ha’aretz asher ar’eka: Go forth from your native land,
from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you…And so begins the journey of
the first Jewish family.

Ramban, Nachmanides, reminds us in his 12th Century commentary that at the end
of last week’s parasha we already learned that Avram had left his father’s house. You
may recall that the end of parashat Noah says that Terach, Avram, Lot, Sarai all set out
together from Ur and traveled toward Canaan, settling temporarily in Haran. Since the
Torah does not use language repetitively, Ramban asks, what is there to learn from the
instruction to leave his father’s house that appears again at the beginning of our parasha?
Ramban says God’s message to Avram here is “hitracheik od mibeit avicha,” which
means, distance yourself from your father’s house.

I take this in the ideological rather than the spatial sense. All the assumptions and limitations on the way people thought back in Ur need to be left behind. Part of Avram’s call to greatness is to learn to think and imagine the world differently from his ancestors. And here’s the kicker, it is by virtue of his willingness to go beyond the boundaries of his ancestral realities, that Avram
will become Avraham—that is the father of a great nation…A nation that will bring
blessing to kol mishpachot ha’adamah to all the families of the earth. I love how Genesis
speaks of humanity as family. Rather than the balkanization of how we view each other
today, Genesis imagines a human family with common ancestry and mutual concern. In
fact, I believe this is part of the narrative between Jews and blacks as well. Julius Lester,
the African American writer and poet who converted to Judaism once said in an
interview: “Blacks assume that Jews are white people. And blacks don’t understand that
most Jews don’t think of themselves as white.” In an essay by New York University
Professor Hasia Diner, she writes that Jews saw themselves as “cultural bridges between
the white and black worlds because they understood them both.”1 As people who
internalized the narrative of our own slavery, and people who perpetually knew the plight
of victimhood, there has been a historic alliance, a historic sense of responsibility that
Jews have felt for the plight of blacks. And when a black president coming to power with
78% of the Jewish vote it says to me that beyond the Jeremiah Wrights and the Louis
Farrakhans of the world that this visceral connection still exists--And I believe that
Barack Obama feels the connection as well. I know many of you have had concerns
about Jewish interests and Israel’s security in this election. I have felt those concerns as
well. We will remain vigilant in our advocacy for these causes, and I believe we will
have a president and an administration sophisticated and thoughtful enough to hear us
and to be our allies.

I found it fascinating to observe how much my daughters were caught up with this
election. On the first day of early voting I took Mia with me to the polls. Although the
computerized touch screen was ultra modern and easy as can be, I kind of wished there
had been a paper ballot and that long lever that you used to have to pull from one side to
another to register your vote. There is something very satisfying and reassuring about
pulling the lever and hearing your ballot get punched. Nevertheless, we stepped up to the
screen together, and Mia actually touched the screen for me…hopefully I didn’t get
disqualified for that. I wanted to nurture her interest in voting and democracy, and she
was so excited to have “voted” on that day. On Wednesday morning Mia was eager to
tell me that she had figured out that she and Sasha Obama are the same age. What I was
struck by in the words of my 21st century child was her interest in what she, a religious
Jew, a rabbi’s daughter, in Dallas, Texas had in common with an African American,
Christian kid from Chicago, not what she observed to be different…though the
differences between them are obvious and numerous. This is the dawning of a new age
indeed. In Thursday’s edition of the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof ended his
column2 by reflecting on Martin Luther King’s speech to the Hawaii State Legislature in
1959, “two years before Mr. Obama was born in Honolulu,” where King “declared that
the civil rights movement aimed not just to free blacks but ‘to free the soul of America.’
Mr. King ended his Hawaii speech by quoting a prayer from a preacher who had once
been a slave, and it’s an apt description of the idea of America today: ‘Lord we ain’t
what we want to be; we ain’t what we ought to be; we ain’t what we gonna be, but, thank
God, we ain’t what we was.’”

In recognition of the fact that today, in November of 2008, ‘we ain’t what we
was,’ I conclude this drasha with the following benediction…Regardless of what we
think about Barack Obama’s specific policies or positions. Regardless of whether we are
Republicans or Democrats…in simple recognition that in America today, ‘we ain’t what
we was,’ I offer this prayer. And as I do I ask you to remember those who were once
slaves, brutally and forcibly kept as property rather than persons against their will; those
who were lynched and hosed right here in America’s cities and towns; those who were
prevented—by law— from voting and participating in the political process; those who
were looked at suspiciously as they shopped in stores or walked along sidewalks in
certain neighborhoods; those who had to sit in the back of the bus, drink from different
water fountains and use separate bathroom facilities...all right here, in the United States
of America. And I ask you to recall the many brave people of all races and creeds—
many of them Jews—who worked and struggled and even died to make right these
fundamental wrongs so that today in American we can say, ‘we ain’t what we was:’
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha’olam she’hechiyanu, ve’kiyemanu, ve’higiyanu
laz’man hazeh…Praised are You O Lord Our God, who has kept us alive, and given us
strength, and enabled us to contemplate our past and look toward our future and say with
conviction at this historic moment in our nation, “we ain’t what we was,” and thank God
for that! And let us all say…Amen.

References: Kristof, Nicholas. “The Obama Dividend.” The New York Times, Thursday, November 6, 2008

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