Krista Harper on her 50th birthday:

I’d like to thank the Rabbi for giving me the chance to say a few words about today’s parsha. In a few moments I will turn 50 years old, and so this parsha marks that milestone for me, and I’m grateful to my family and friends who are here on Zoom.

Today’s parsha is not only the start of a new chapter, it is also the start of a new book, Devarim, which like all books of the Torah gets its name from its first phrase. In this case: “these are the words.” The book of Devarim is Moses’ swan song as the Israelites reach the edge of the Promised Land. After decades of having his brother Aaron speak for him, Moses overcomes his awkwardness and speaks his words in his own voice. These are the words!

And then the first thing that Moses says is a long winding sentence with all the place names of the places on the road: the Arabah near Suph, and also Paran, Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and many more. You might think it would take a long time to pass through all these places, but Moses flatly reminds the group that the route would normally take eleven days. Instead, the Israelites have somehow taken forty years to find their way to this point.

Forty years of going in circles.
Forty years of not seeing the signs.
Forty years of not getting to the point. 

How did that happen?
Where did the time go?
And why did they find their way when they did?

In the words of that great Jewish sage of the mid-twentieth century, Bugs Bunny: “I musta taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque!”

In life and in the Torah, we keep circling around these three questions:
How did this happen?
Where did the time go?
Why are things different now?

The past weeks have given all of us many moments to ask these questions. I’d like to share just a few of them from my past week. 

  • Because of the COVID19 pandemic, I’m working from home for the foreseeable future. I cleaned my desk and found the address of some old friends I have not seen or heard from in almost 30 years. I wrote a letter and sent it off in the mail. 
  • Our family went to a climate justice rally organized by young teenagers in Northampton. We’ve known about climate change for decades, but as a society we have not taken enough action.
  • We heard the news that civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis has died, at a moment when the movement for Black Lives is spurring new generations of people to march against racism. 

All of these recent moments remind me of a photo I saw in the news last month that I’d like to share. It is a picture of a disability activist named Ryan D. “Wheelz” at a rally in a small town in Ohio, holding a sign: “I’m sorry I’m late, I had a lot to learn.” (https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/im-sorry-im-late-blm-sign/)

After the photo went viral on social media, Wheelz wrote from his perspective as a white disability activist: 

The black civil rights movements were the biggest supporters of the disability rights movements that happened from the late 70s through the early 90s, there’s no way I could just sit idly by and watch these folks continuously get destroyed through systemic racism. Unfortunately in our country, particularly small towns, many believe if it doesn’t impact them directly, they shouldn’t do anything about it.

What took so long?
And why are things different now?

What took me so long to write the letter?
Because I had to overcome the fear of being judged harshly for procrastinating.

What took us so long to demand a fair, green, fossil-free environment?
Because we have to overcome the fear of living our lives differently.

Why do we keep taking the long road to racial justice?
Because many of us have to overcome the fear of changing institutions and “structures of feeling” that support white people’s dominance in society. 

Are we there yet?
“I’m sorry I’m late, I had a lot to learn.”

We’re sorry we’re late, we had a lot to learn.

After forty years of circling the wilderness around Arabah near Suph, these are the words Moses has to say: “Go forth.”

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