In the Face of Injustice, Even a Soft Voice is Better Than Silence
Planning our congregation’s erev Rosh HaShanah service, my rabbi shared with me thoughts about the sermon he was preparing. His ideas for it grew from the summer’s tragedies in Charlottesville, in whose wake a group of rabbis had discussed what they wanted to talk about that night.
As it turned out, they all had the same notion in mind: breaking the silence about such things as the downturn in healthcare policy; civil rights that didn’t reach a point of civility; welcoming the stranger; and the like. The rabbis decided to build a collective d’var Torah (word of Torah) in a “sermon bee” of sorts, then preach it á la minhag (according to the custom) in their respective congregations.
“Way cool,” I told him. Not only would he be teaching Torah, but also giving the people what they want to hear. He then asked if I wished to follow-up on his sermon with an anthem. I said, “Sure. I think I know what I will do.”
Two musical possibilities came to mind immediately. Both selections are in English and have Jewish composers and lyricists. One song would last under a minute; the other would almost certainly have worshippers readily singing along.
On erev Rosh HaShanah, the rabbi brilliantly, gutsily, concisely told us exactly what we needed to hear: there always has been and always would be room to welcome new people into our country; bullying is never okay; and denying healthcare to some so that others can become or remain billionaires is just plain wrong.
Listening to his words, I strongly considered “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” as the follow-up song. Irving Berlin, the son of a cantor, wrote the music; Emma Lazarus, a 19th-century member of Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York, wrote the lyrics, which appear on the base of the Statue of Liberty.
As the rabbi continued, he noted that the worst sin of all is failing to speak up or write in protest. Silence in the face of injustice of any kind harms the victims because it enables the perpetrators. When we say nothing, we are saying everything wrong. Worse yet, when we say nothing, we are saying that everything wrong is right.
As he concluded his remarks, I thought of Marilyn Horne, one of my favorite mezzo-sopranos, and not just because her nickname is Jackie. I was reminded of advice her father had given her: If you want people to listen, sing softly.
So that’s what I did.
After the sermon, I stepped up and softly began to sing “The Sound of Silence.” Before I had finished the first line, the entire congregation had joined in, including my teenage daughter, who knows the words thanks to Anna Kendrick’s performance in “Trolls.”
Together, in sweet voices dozens strong, we tenderly challenged the tacit monsters that grow beyond our control when we see injustice and say nothing. We took Paul Simon’s timeless classic and gave it a new purpose for our times.
Listen. Study the lyrics, especially the last verse:
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said, the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence
The signs are right in front of us, and they still are warning us. In 5778, may we speak up, sing out, and make it right. Even a soft voice is better than silence.