Saturday, June 21, 2014

Our 3 Boys of Freedom Summer 1964

Our 3 Boys of Freedom Summer
Parashat Korach and the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Summer
Rabbi Jen Gubitz
June 20, 2014 ~ 23 Sivan 5774

You can imagine the heat.
The sun beating on backs, the sweat beading on brows, the sense of justice boiling up in hearts.

Equality! they fought! Integrity! was their demand. Brotherhood! was their expectation.

A rebellion, really.  A rebellious hotbed of anger, violence, disenfranchisement.  A rebellious hotbed of faith, truth and hope.

You can imagine the heat. Freedom Summer 1964.
The sun beating on backs, sweat beading on brows of an African-American Christian
and two white Jews. The sense of justice boiling up in their hearts under the politically hot sun of Mississippi as they worked to register African-Americans to vote.

Freedom Summer 1964.
You can imagine or maybe you remember it.
A rebellion, really, of thousands of civil rights activists, many of them white college students from the North, many of them Jews, who rose up against the powers that be to descend on Mississippi and other Southern states, fighting to end long-time political disenfranchisement of African Americans in the South. Although black men won the right to vote in 1870, for the next 100 years, as we all know, many were systematically prevented from exercising that right and many others.

So you can imagine, or maybe you remember, the heat and the sense of justice boiling up in hearts, the rebellion of faith, truth, and hope.

*
You can imagine, then, a different scene some years earlier.
The sun beating on backs, the sweat beading on brows. The sense of justice boiling up in hearts.

Equality! they fought! Integrity! was their demand. Brotherhood! was their expectation.

A rebellion, really. A rebellious hotbed of anger, violence, disenfranchisement, a rebellious hotheaded Korach and his followers rising up against and challenging the authority and leadership of Moses and Aaron and God.

Our sages teach that Korach embodied characteristics of jealousy, madness, ego, and anger.  Still, it is difficult for anyone with a passion for democracy not to be stirred for a moment by Korah's powerful message. So some debate that Korach was a champion - that when he challenged Moses and Aaron saying to them: "All heard at Sinai the commandment,  "I am the Adonai your God"! If you alone had heard it while they had not, you could have claimed superiority. But now that they have all heard it, “why do you raise yourselves above the congregation of God?” His challenge was justified, some believe, a rebel with a cause. (Rashi, Midrash Tanchuma Korach)

Midrash Rabbah on the book of Numbers argues otherwise. “Korach, like all who rebel with no cause, contradicts himself. First he maintains that Israel needs no leaders, since all Israel is holy and Adonai is among them. Then we discover that Korach and his Levite followers wish to replace Aaron and the Kohanim in the worship at the mishkan. They wish no leaders but themselves.”

And for all that, Korach and his followers, the Freedom Slummers, rose up only to be swallowed down into the ground.

*
Not so for our 3 Boys of Freedom Summer, among the many leaders, activists, followers, participants, champions of the Civil Rights movement.  Of course, as there often are, there were hierarchies in the leadership of Freedom Summer, but that reality paled in comparison to the greater vision of their efforts. For the inability to vote, they understand, was only one of many problems blacks encountered amid the racist society around them.  

But the Civil-rights officials who decided to zero in on voter registration understood its particularly crucial significance just as well as the white supremacists did. An African American voting bloc would be able to effect social and political change in tremendous ways. So as our 3 Boys of Freedom Summer went down south to raise up their voices and power for justice and equality for others, they, too, were swallowed up into the ground, by those who wished to silence their message.

But Pirkei Avot (5:17) promises that their message will endure. It teaches that “Every controversy that is pursued l’shem shamayim for the sake of heaven, is destined to be perpetuated; and that which is not pursued for the sake of heaven is not destined to be perpetuated.  What is considered a controversy that is not pursued for the sake of heaven?” The text asks. “This is the controversy of Korach and his congregation. And what IS considered a controversy pursued l’shem shamayim for the sake of heaven?”

I would answer - such is the Civil Rights ‘controversy’ pursued by our 3 Boys of Freedom Summer.  For the sake of heaven it is surely destined to be perpetuated.   

*
It is easy in the freedom that is summer to forget, to become so relaxed that we become lax- that we celebrate independence in a few weeks, but forget those who got us there. That we can speak freely our opinions in public domain, but forget those who fought so we could.

It is easy in the freedom that is summer or fall or winter or spring to become apathetic such that when we have opportunities to vote in elections big or small, we may not consider the election significant enough to vote at all, forgetting those in our own community who fought so that all people could have that basic right. We forget those who, Simon and Garfunkle remind, “died so their brothers could be free” and were swallowed up into the ground. It is easy in the Freedom of Summer to forget that voter equality, or human equality, is still a dream unrealized.

We mark this week the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer and the yartzeit of our 3 Boys of Freedom Summer
Mickey Schwerner
Andrew Goodman
James Chaney

In the freedom that is summer, as we enjoy the heat of the sun beating on our backs, with the sweat beading on our brows as we sit poolside with a cup of relaxation and calm filling our hearts -

In the freedom that is summer, even though it is much easier to completely vacate our dreaming, fighting, our pushing towards shleimut, the pursuit of wholeness for all -

In the freedom that is summer, don’t be a Freedom Summer-er. Don’t get swallowed whole by things that pale in comparison to your most deeply held values.

Instead, echoing Pete Seeger, “with those 3 on our mind,” even in the freedom that is summer, may we perpetuate dreams unrealized, lives unfulfilled, controversies for the sake of heaven.

And may we continue to champion an inner and outer rebellion of faith, truth, wholeness, and hope.

Amen.