This week America commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the massive event in 1963 that we so often reference when we recite selections of the iconic speech of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. “I Have a Dream” became a trope for Americans who wrapped themselves in the eloquent words of this American hero, touting support for freedom and equality.
Yes, much progress has been made in legal freedoms and cultural consciousness regarding overt prejudice. It is far less socially acceptable (and absolutely spurned in many circles) to speak in racial slurs, and far more expected that we share schools, workplaces, and politics with our fellow black Americans. Yet, white Americans and black Americans have vastly divergent views of the problems of equality that still plague our country. Writing in the opinion pages of the New York Times (“Fifty Years Later,” 8/24/13) Charles Blow cited a Pew Research poll conducted earlier this month documented shocking differences in perception between whites and blacks concerning the most significant issues that concern the African American community. Blacks widely reported perceptions that there are serious challenges of equality in dealing with police, courts, workplace, stores/restaurants, schools, healthcare and voting, while whites largely reported their view that blacks are treated fairly. The disconnect is telling – many whites like to think that we did it – we fulfilled “the dream.” But, despite the obvious advances, the dream is far from realized.
This Wednesday we not only commemorate the March on Washington, we, as Jews, enter the last week of the month of Elul, the final month of the Jewish year. Elul is designated as the month of reflection, introspection, and preparation for the repentance of the Days of Awe, at the Jewish New Year. Our sages taught that in order to make our repentance complete, we must first acknowledge our sins of commission and omission, and seek to make amends with all those whom we have offended or harmed. Only then can we ask God for forgiveness and expect to be written in Book of Life for good.
We have sinned and we ask forgiveness for complacency. The work is not done; equality has not been achieved.
We have sinned and we ask forgiveness for prejudice and hatefulness. Simply not uttering hateful words is not enough – acting out of prejudicial beliefs, with unholy motivations is even worse.
We have sinned and we ask forgiveness for selfishness. As the income gap between “haves” and “have-nots” grows exponentially, the descendants of American slavery continue to struggle to catch up.
We have sinned and we ask forgiveness for failing to live up to our values and ideals. Social justice and equality have been transmitted from our most ancient roots – the Torah commands “Justice, Justice shall you pursue”, and still we avoid the work it takes to make a just and equitable society.
We have sinned and we ask forgiveness for continuing segregation – in our neighborhoods, social circles, work places and schools. Desegregation laws were one thing – integration is another.
We have sinned and we ask forgiveness for believing that we have fulfilled our obligation to righteous action by helping the needy in developing nations. At the same time, our inner cities and poor communities languish in poverty.
This year, we pray not only for forgiveness from these sins, but even more, for the wisdom, courage and generosity to work to advance “the dream” of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. May this Elul and this 50th anniversary signal a new era for our nation and for us, each more complete in righteousness.