Tai: A Yom Kippur Sermon
By Aurora Levins Morales
[The theme of Kehilla Community Synagogue’s High Holy Days was “spiritual audacity” drawn from these words by Abraham Joshua Heschel, written in 1963: “The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.” The Torah portion preceding this sermon describes the scouts Moses sent into Caanan coming back to report that the people living there were giants, making the them feel as small and insignificant as grasshoppers.]
I am from a land of hurricanes, a place where the wind can rip off your roof and send it hurtling through the air to embed pieces of it in the trunks of distant trees. So, I know that at the very heart of the biggest, most dangerous storm, there is a place of absolute calm, where the air is still. All around it are walls of wind, full of torn leaves and branches, tin cans and bits of paper. The wind nearest the core is the deadliest, but inside that circle at the center, the sky is blue and the sun shines. Once when we were children, huddled around kerosene lamps inside our shuttered house, tuned into the shortwave radio so we could plot its course, our mother took my brother and I outside, hands held tight, into the eye of a hurricane. We saw great arms of cloud stretching out in an arc a hundred miles wide, saw grey walls of storm, miles high, all around us, while stood under clear, sunlit skies. My mother was nothing if not audacious, and in the middle of a raging hurricane, she took us to see the sun.
Tai guay naninchino. In the language of my Caribbean indigenous ancestors, these words could simply mean, good morning, friends. Nanichi means heart and no makes it plural. Guay is the sun, and the Catholic priests who came to Boriken, renamed Puerto Rico, men who accompanied and assisted in the conquest and slaughter of my people, wrote down in their chronicles that tai means good. But these were men fresh from the bonfires of the Inquisition, ready to impose their own ideas of good and evil on everyone they met, at sword point if necessary. From what I know of my ancestral culture, and by the poetic license of my own heart, I have come to believe that tai means that state of knowing ourselves to be connected, in reciprocity and gratitude, through the deepest ties of kinship, to everything that exists.
Tai guay nanichino: we are one with everything under the sun, dear hearts.
Ever since I learned that this year’s High Holy Days theme was spiritual audacity, I’ve been thinking about the source of audacity and how we find it. I believe the answer is tai, the joy that comes from being fully present, here and now, with what is.
To be clear, when I say joy, I don’t mean happiness, or optimism, or contentment. You can turn your back on the world and find all those things. When I say that joy is the source my audacity, I am speaking the midst of heart wrenching grief and anger for my country, in the midst of my own struggles with depression and loneliness, anxiety and overwhelm.
Joy is to mood as stars are to the weather, a constant to steer by, sometimes hidden by storm clouds, but high above them, untouched by wind or rain. This is not to say that the weather of the world isn’t violent, drenching, harsh. We could spin forever from emergency to emergency, shouting no to each new crime—but that would be steering by chasing clouds. If we are to live audaciously, we need to step into the calm eye of the storm, and steer by the stars, to imagine in rich detail, the biggest, most delicious, satisfying, inclusive future that we can, a great flowering of human potential and wellbeing, project our hearts and minds into that future, and then spend our lives walking toward it, and each time the weather buffets us, wait for a glimpse of sky, find that bright point of light, and adjust our course.
But in order for that dream to be accurate, to burn bright enough for navigation, it needs to be rooted in the reality of here and now, all of it. This is how we turn trauma into light. Trauma is not the opposite of joy, it’s the husk around its seed. The more we face into the world, the more we let ourselves know how other people live, the more we learn not only about their pain and rage, but also their love and resilience, their defiance and hope, and it’s from that full spectrum of knowing that we fill in the details and colors of the world we want. There is a joy that rises from being with what’s true, even when that truth includes the terrible.
We live in a society that tries to reduce our biggest dreams to marketable packets of distraction or comfort, as if that were the most we could hope for, but comfort and distraction are not the wellsprings of joy. We live in a society that tries to control us through bribery and threat, hoping we’ll decide to live small lives that won’t upset the way things are. We are not grasshoppers. Grasshoppers are fine. They are here to live grasshopper lives. But we are people, with the gifts of both memory and imagination, able to learn from our many histories, and create what does not yet exist. It makes it possible to face the terrible with joy.
We don’t need to spend every moment of the day shouting no. We can learn to sing a thousand-voiced harmony of yes. In 1993, I visited the National School of Music in Havana, and while our group waited for the bus to pick us up, a group of teenage boys, two of them Black, three of the white, played guitar for us. It took a few minutes to realize what it was that moved me to the edge of sobbing. Then it hit me. It was the first time I had ever seen young Black men whose body language held no trace of the fear of violence. Whenever I go out into the streets to express my rage and grief over yet another Black or brown death at the hands of the police, I carry those boys with me. They are my yes. Yes is what keeps me going.
And I carry MPD150, a hope based, grassroots organizing project in Minneapolis, in which the communities most affected by policing researched and evaluated the performance of the Minneapolis Police Department over the last hundred and fifty years, concluded that they are best served by a future that is police free, and are charting a path to make it so.
It’s true that audacity can arise from crisis, and courage can spring from fear. Emergencies can draw more from us than we ever thought possible, but that kind of boldness runs on adrenaline. It doesn’t have the horsepower for the long haul. When the crisis passes, we settle back, exhausted, into our accustomed lives.
To live a lifetime of audacity, dwelling in the place where joy meets justice, year after year, can only be sustained by being so in love with a vision of what’s possible that we no longer flirt with despair.
The world is full of weather, full of all the urgency and danger of the present moment, but the work of social justice has always been urgent, and if we let that drive us, we’ll never make the time and space to dream together, dream big, and set a real course toward our dreaming.
Imagine this, that each one of us is weighed down by unearned punishments and unearned rewards, that when we are punished, not for what we do, but just for existing, it’s like being wounded, so that we guard our injuries, and they become easily inflamed, making us lash out or turn in; and when we are rewarded, not for what we do, but just for existing, it’s like being drugged, so that it seems natural to have more and better and easier, and we are oblivious to whole provinces of the social terrain where our own privileges settle like fog, to hide the landmarks of other people’s suffering.
Imagine then, that seeking the sources of audacity in our lives, choosing to know whatever we must to find it, we discover that there is nothing to defend. Whatever the harm done to us and the real wounds of it, our scars are not treasures to be hoarded. Whatever our complicity in the deprivation of others, whatever we’ve allowed ourselves, in the name of comfort or fear, to accept instead of freedom, is not worth having, that injustice was already here when we were born, that it’s much bigger and older than our mistakes, that claiming each other is much better than lying low.
Then the work of turning to face truth, of bringing our full selves into the commons, becomes joyful beyond measure. When the fog is burned off, what remains is an illuminated landscape, where the entire geology of our lives is laid bare, and we see how we are woven together, see the ground of solidarity we must walk, to reach the future we love.
Tai guay nanichino: we are one with each other, lit by hope, ablaze with love.
When 49 mostly queer people were murdered at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando last year, part of what broke my heart was that half of them were young Puerto Ricans, economic exiles from my homeland, ravaged by colonialism. They were family. It was a blow that hit so close to home that I reeled. I had to look hard to find my stars. I found them by writing this poem
Say these words when you lie down and when you rise up,
when you go out and when you return. In times of mourning
and in times of joy. Inscribe them on your doorposts,
embroider them on your garments, tattoo them on your shoulders,
teach them to your children, your neighbors, your enemies,
recite them in your sleep, here in the cruel shadow of empire:
Another world is possible.
imagine winning. This is your sacred task.
This is your power. Imagine
every detail of winning, the exact smell of the summer streets
in which no one has been shot, the muscles you have never
unclenched from worry, gone soft as newborn skin,
the sparkling taste of food when we know
that no one on earth is hungry, that the beggars are fed,
that the old man under the bridge and the woman
wrapping herself in thin sheets in the back seat of a car,
and the children who suck on stones,
nest under a flock of roofs that keep multiplying their shelter.
Lean with all your being towards that day
when the poor of the world shake down a rain of good fortune
out of the heavy clouds, and justice rolls down like waters.
Defend the world in which we win as if it were your child.
It is your child.
Defend it as if it were your lover.
It is your lover.
When you inhale and when you exhale
breathe the possibility of another world
into the 37.2 trillion cells of your body
until it shines with hope.
Then imagine more.
Don’t waver. Don’t let despair sink its sharp teeth
Into the throat with which you sing. Escalate your dreams.
Make them burn so fiercely that you can follow them down
any dark alleyway of history and not lose your way.
Make them burn clear as a starry drinking gourd
Over the grim fog of exhaustion, and keep walking.
Hold hands. Share water. Keep imagining.
So that we, and the children of our children’s children
Today, with Puerto Rico torn apart by climate violence disguised as natural disaster, burdened by manufactured debt, when it is we who have been robbed and are owed, I am imagining all that is possible when people stand among the ruins of a colonial misery they can’t bear the thought of rebuilding, and ask, what could we do instead?
When the people of Minneapolis, stop talking about bad apples and police reforms and ask, what could we do instead?
Ninety-eight years ago, today, more than a hundred black sharecroppers in Elaine, Arkansas had the audacity to organize themselves to demand better pay from plantation owners. White mobs responded with a state sanctioned rampage, massacring between 100 and 240 Black people. Returning Black veterans of WWI, no longer willing to tolerate the violation of their most basic rights, also began demanding justice, and faced the same murderous mobs. A wave of lynchings and race riots swept through dozens of cities in what came to be known as the Red Summer of 1919. None of the attackers went to jail.
Right now, as we pray for the spiritual audacity we need in these times in order to do the work of tikkun, tens of thousands are honoring those dead tenant farmers and drawing from their courage, as they pray with their feet in Washington DC, and in sister marches around the country, saying no to the killing and systematic abuse of Black and Indigenous people, saying yes to a world in which their full humanity is celebrated and safe. Here and there, two breaths of a single prayer.
So right now, rise in spirit and intention, and if you can, and choose to, with your body,
and lets turn our faces toward the truth of their vision, and add our yes to theirs: Say after me tai guay nanichino. Or in the words of Argentinian singer Fito Páez:
“Who says that everything is lost. I come to offer you my heart.”
¿Quien dijo que todo está perdido?
Yo vengo a ofrecer mi corazón.
Tanta sangre que se llevó el río.
Yo vengo a ofrecer mi corazón.