Friday, December 18, 2015

Parashat Vayigash: In Protest (or Why Dreams Must Be Legal)

I was heartened to see that Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Albert Mills were named as the new poets laureate for the state of Delaware. As governor Markell noted in his announcement, this is an unusual but powerful appointment for two reasons. First, because they are the first identical twin brothers named as co-poets laureate, which gives them a unique voice and style, a kind of poetic duet; but more importantly, because their message is a very different one than one expects from official poets. Their expertise is not in bucolic landscapes, and while they do write slice-of-life pieces they aren’t exactly what you’d expect. They are born and raised in Wilmington, and as such, write about some of the deepest, most unnerving problems we have in our city. A beautiful example is their performance at Def Poetry Jam called “Dreams Are Illegal In The Ghetto” which is an absolute must-see. It does what poetry is supposed to do, as Samuel Johnson reminds us: it describes what is but with an eye toward what ought to be. It lifts up the reality of now, not to accept, but to teach, to educate, to challenge the status quo.

Isn’t that what we do as Jews as well? To quote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “Judaism begins not in wonder that the world is, but in protest that the world is not as it ought to be” (The Letter In The Scroll p. 57). And we see that clearly on display in this week’s Torah portion. Joseph, hiding his identity, threatens to take Benjamin away from his brothers, the same ones who banished him so many years before, but Judah, not recognizing Joseph in the Egyptian Vizier before him, challenges the injustice, protests Benjamin’s apparent imprisonment, and offers up himself instead. In reality we see two protests: Joseph against what his brothers were (heartless, cruel, jealous) and Judah against this Egyptian kangaroo court. This is who we are. It is baked into our conscience: we are those who strive with beings Human and Divine and prevail.

This is what Nnamdi and Albert are doing, and what we need to do as well. We know our city has terrible problems, including problems of gun violence. And the legislature has offered help, money to put more police on the streets in high crime areas. It is not a panacea, and it is not enough; at best it is a salve, at worst a band-aid, and a temporary one at that. But it is a start, it is something. And so far Mayor Williams, for whatever reason, has not acted to accept the help, to accept the money. I have heard from Attorney-General Matt Denn, who has been advocating for community policing and doing what he can to put it into place, and right now his efforts are frustrated. Yes, there is political grandstanding. Yes, it feels like stepping on toes and it’s clumsy. BUT IT IS STILL HELP.

I don’t care who the mayor is, and I will not tell you who to vote for; I care that our citizens don’t die. I care that our police is given the tools to do the job that they need to do. I have sent a letter to our mayor urging him to accept the help, to not just accept the status quo of what is but see what we could be. I would ask you, humbly, to do the same. 

We have a voice and because of that we have an obligation to use it, to challenge what is as Judah challenges, as Joseph challenges, as Jews have always challenged. Because if we don’t, if we accept, then it is as if we sentence Benjamin to imprisonment; it means we accept that dreams are illegal in the ghetto. And I will not accept that.  

If you would like to respond to the Mayor, please write him at 
Office of the MayorLouis L. Redding City/County Building800 N. French StreetWilmington, Delaware 19801
Here's a sample letter: 
Dear Mayor Williams:
Jewish tradition teaches us that we must not “stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed” (Leviticus 19:16). In keeping with the insight of this teaching, and as a concerned citizen, I ask that you and the chief of police provide the information required for the state to begin releasing $1.5 million in funds that are available to expand foot patrol and vehicle policing in the city of Wilmington. I urge you to work with the state legislature, attorney-general and governor in making our beautiful city a place that is safe for all.
Name and address