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Speaking Truth to Power

Rabbi Max Chaiken

I’ve always had a soft spot for Jonah the prophet. It probably started the day my parents gave me my Hebrew name—mosheh yonah, or Moses Jonah, and it grew throughout my life for good reason: It’s a fantastical story—fleeing God’s word, tossed to the sea, swallowed by a whale, and still he survives to complain about his success! The chutzpah!
I particularly appreciate that we return to this story every year on Yom Kippur, because every year I find new ways to think about the tale, and apply its wisdom to my life.
This year, I am thinking of Jonah’s role as a prophet; as one who speaks truth to power.
In many ways, that’s what all of our Hebrew prophets did: they spoke God’s word, and used the call of the Divine to call out the political and economic powers in their society for their lack of ethical and moral behavior; for their lack of attention and compassion for the least well off in their society. By definition, prophets are truth-tellers, somebody who hears the voice of God and amplifies it into the world.
And like Jonah, many of our prophets are reluctant at first. Even Moses, who our Torah calls the greatest prophet in our history (Deut. 34:10) pleads with God at the burning bush, “who am I to go to Pharaoh” (Ex. 3:11) he asks, and he even begs, “send somebody else!” (Ex. 4:13)
But Jonah takes reluctance to a whole new level: upon hearing God’s commandment, he gets up immediately and goes the opposite direction! He’s afraid to speak truth to the people of Nineveh—even though he thinks he’ll be successful, and he knows God is forgiving.
I take comfort in knowing that even a prophet who knew he’d be successful was afraid. Because sometimes I’d like to run too. It seems easier to flee from the urgent and dire challenges our society faces; to escape into the depths of a ship and fall asleep as Jonah did, amidst the storm raging outside.
Yet this day of atonement calls us to return—lashuv—to do the work of turning ourselves into the best selves we can be. And as Jonah’s story ultimately reminds us, that means speaking truth to power even when it’s terrifying, and even when, unlike Jonah, we don’t know if we’ll be successful.
On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke to you about seeking out the truth, and defending its very existence. But we also have to learn how to speak our truth in the public, and speak to power in ways that will effect change.
So today I’m going to share a few examples of modern day truth-tellers, perhaps even prophets—people who have spoken truth to power and who have inspired me by doing so. Their stories remind me the importance of raising my voice.
On Monday, September 23, just a few short weeks ago, the world heard the voice of one such truth-teller. Her name is Greta Thunberg. For those who haven’t heard Greta’s story, she’s a 16-year old climate activist whose protest inspired millions of students around the world to take action in protests as well. In September she made headlines for her bold words attacking the failure of international leaders to take adequate action against climate change. She said the following:
You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money, and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you! For more than 30 years the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away, and come here saying that you're doing enough when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.[1]
Now there may be a range of ways to understand her activism, her policy prescriptions, and the impact that her truth-telling will have. But Greta has modeled for the entire world the type of boldness we need when we speak truth to power. In the words of Rabbi Jill Hammer, this might even be a type of prophecy, as she speaks with (quote) “inspiration that comes from somewhere larger than ourselves… that is not intimidated by violence or power or wealth or societal disapproval.”[2]
We don’t yet know how Greta’s words and actions will impact policy. But I am inspired by her commitment to speaking truth to power, and by the boldness with which she has called world leaders to account.
Another truth-teller who inspires me, particularly amidst the recent surge in anti-semitism in the US and around the world, is Deborah Lipstadt. She’s a history professor who fought holocaust deniers in the British court system and won. Her story was told in the 2016 film Denial, where she was played by Rachel Weisz, and she too models for us the tenacity and persistence needed to speak truth to power.
In 2005, Professor Lipstadt published a book internationally called “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” and was promptly sued by a prominent holocaust denier in the UK for libel. And while she might be able to ignore such a lawsuit here in the U.S., the laws in Britain put the onus on the defendant in such cases. So she went to court to prove, with ample evidence and keen legal reasoning, that the revisionists and holocaust deniers were, in fact, liars.
Professor Lipstadt reminds me that sometimes speaking truth to power will require teams of people, working together, and being vigilant over the course of years. She won her case not only because the facts, and the history, were on her side, but because she had the courage to meticulously defend her convictions. Hers is a reminder to us to call out anti-semitism when we see it, on either side of the political aisle, and for us, too, to be vigilant so that we will not allow “anti-Semitism, racism, [and] prejudice [to parade] as rational discourse.”[3]
Now I know you have seen many truth-tellers around the world, and I expect that you have your own contemporary examples to whom we can look towards to learn more about the qualities needed truth to power, but I’ll share just one more this afternoon.
It has been just over 18 months since students at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High school in Parkland Florida had to bury 16 students and a teacher, whose lives were taken by an episode of gun violence, and sadly there have been hundreds of mass shootings since.[4]
It would have been easy for the surviving students and families to flee like Jonah; to try to return to life as normal after their mourning and grief had ebbed, but instead many of them found ways to turn their mourning into action. David Hogg, Emma Gonzalez and so many others turned their pain into a protest, and co-founded the March for Our Lives. Some of you may even remember joining me in the march with members of our Kol Ami community, marching alongside thousands just weeks after the tragedy.
And their work continues to this day. The protest they organized became the largest single-day protest against gun violence in U.S. History. They went on tour, registered hundreds of thousands of voters, met with hundreds of mayors, put together a peace plan, and helped to spur a 47% increase in youth voter turnout for the 2018 midterm election over the 2014 midterms.[5] The students who founded the March for Our Lives continue to work to end gun violence, and to bring about common-sense gun reform, despite continued risk to themselves: becoming the target of conspiracy theories to speak truth the powerful forces of the gun lobby in this country. Their actions remind us yet another important aspect of speaking truth to power: we are stronger together, and we must never give up.
Speaking truth to power has never been easy. Jonah ran from his destiny. The stories of Greta Thunberg, Deborah Lipstadt, and of David Hogg and his co-founders of the March for Our Lives are but three examples from our own times of truth-tellers whose words and actions offer us reminders for how to speak up without running: be bold and direct with our words, like Greta. Be vigilant and persistent like Deborah. Work together, dream big, and never give up hope like the students from Parkland. Have hope and faith that speaking our truth to power matters more today than it has ever mattered before.
As we near the end of this day of communal confession, I pray that we will not be guilty of the sin of silence. I pray that each one of us here will find ways to live up to our name—Kol Ami—to be a voice of our people, and to use our voice boldly, vigilantly, and with hope. We are justified in dreaming for a better world, and we are justified in speaking out to make that happen. May we move forward together in this new year, remembering the message of our prophets, and our truth-tellers, ancient and contemporary. G’mar chatimah tovah.

Tue, July 23 2024 17 Tammuz 5784