Part of the soundtrack of the civil rights era is the plaintive anthem, “Which side are you on?”, a question sung by protesters and civil disobeyers with a definite answer in mind. Only one side, the side of freedom and justice, could be chosen. The other side was a combination of prejudice, self-interest and apathy. The singers knew that a call to conscience would goad the apathetic to action, shame the self-interested, and, if not change the mind of the prejudiced, at least isolate and marginalize them and their benighted views of the world. And the words, adapted from a Kentucky coal miner’s wife’s lament on behalf of brutalized workers of another era, sought to unify those struggling against oppression in the fight against injustice.
I have asked myself often in these days in between the veneration of Martin Luther King’s day and the Inauguration of Donald Trump as our 45th president, is this question the one for me to ask? Certainly some are asking it in powerful ways, in heartfelt appeals to stand for what is great in this country, however they see it. Some renew the chant in protest of the new administration, while others are excited for the dawning of a new era.
The power of this question is reflected in the beginning of the Book of Exodus which is read this week in the Jewish community. A people is enslaved and there is no doubt which side is right and which must be undone. “Which side are you on” means will you have the courage and the faith to join the struggle. No one ever identifies their movement with Pharoah. Everyone knows they are on G*d’s side.
The question that I want to ask myself, however, is not the one most suited to the beginning of Exodus, but instead one that comes from the previous book. The main stories in the Book of Genesis are less about fighting against antagonists than they are about exploring the personalities of individuals and their responsibilities to G*d, themselves and others. Rather than “which side are you on?”, the key question in Genesis is the open ended and searching “Where are you?” that G*d asks to Adam as the first humans hide from taking responsibility for eating from the Tree in the Garden of Eden. “Where are you?” is not a geographic question — “Where will you be during this historic weekend?” or even “Where are you on the issues.” Rather, “Where are you?” calls me to face my own self, encounter my fears and hopes, and respond to the needs of others.
This is why the book of Exodus must come after the book of Genesis. When and if we face the urgent moments that call for certainty and choosing sides, it is easy to lose ourselves in that certainty and forget how to ask, “where are you?” We first must encounter the open-ended responsibility of a world where each person is created in G*d’s image. Only then might we know what it means to stand for what we believe is right.
“Which side are you on?” is a question demanding solidarity with a cause and particular people. “Where are you?” compels us to find our own voice and listen for voices we have not yet heard. “Where are you?” can be the beginning of a conversation, while “Which side are you on?” states that the time for conversation is over and only action will suffice. Whether this moment is ripe to ask, “Which side are you on?” from either direction is something each of us can only judge for ourselves – each of us will be influenced by what we think is true and how we envision our nation. It is always tempting to live in the certainty of “which side are you on?” The question, “Where are you?” invites the harder challenge of facing what we do not know.
Our democracy lends itself to different approaches, priorities, ideologies, and political preferences, for sure. None of these overlap completely with any particular faith or measure of being true to ourselves and others. As we move forward as individuals, as communities, and as a nation may we have the moral courage both to stand for what we believe and to question where we are.
Michael Bernstein, a Rabbi, has served since 2009 as Rabbi of Congregation Gesher L’Torah, a vibrant and dynamic Synagogue community in north Atlanta where each person’s story is embraced and Judaism is personal. He was ordained as a conservative Rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1999. He and his wife Tracie have three children, Ayelet, Yaron and Liana.