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One Year Later

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

[On this first yahrtzeit of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, we revisit a sermon given by BossGiraffe in the wake of the disaster.]

**guest post by BossGiraffe

My family moved to Pacoima in January of 1955. By September, they had affiliated with the local congregation, Temple Beth Torah, and it became the hub of our lives. Fellow congregants became my parents’ friends. Between Religious School on Sundays, Hebrew classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays (or Mondays and Wednesdays—depending upon the year), youth group events, Friday night services, and junior congregation, I was in shul nearly every day of the week.

Friday night was temple night. My parents and I were there every week. More than anything else, attending services made me comfortable with my Judaism. I find the same to be true with the youngsters in our own Religious School today. Those who come with regularity on Friday nights feel at home here.

I believe that the words of the prayers, so often repeated, not only were a vehicle for connection with God, they helped to shape my life-long values. One of the reasons the words touched me so deeply was the manner in which my rabbi, Samson H. Levey (a”h), read them. He caressed those words, and made them come to life.

In those days, we used the old Union Prayer Book. It had five different Sabbath Eve services—one for each Friday of the month (even when a month contained a fifth Friday…like tonight!) One particular prayer in Service III was always a favorite of mine. The language was inspiring to a young mind, and the ideals it proclaimed had a lasting effect on how I have approached life. Let me read it to you now:

O Lord, through we are prone to seek favors for ourselves alone, yet when we come into Thy presence, we are lifted above petty thoughts of self. We become ashamed of our littleness and are made to feel that we can worship Thee in holiness only as we serve our brothers in love.

How much we owe to the labors of our brothers! Day by day they dig far away from the sun that we may be warm, enlist in outposts of peril that we may be secure and brave the terrors of the unknown for truths that shed light on our way. Numberless gifts and blessing have been laid in our cradles as our birthright.

Let us then, O Lord, be just and great-hearted in our dealings with fellowmen, sharing with them the fruit of our common labor, acknowledging before Thee that we are but stewards of whatever we possess. Help us to be among those who are willing to sacrifice that others may not hunger, who dare be bearers of light in the dark loneliness of stricken lives, who struggle and even bleed for the triumph of righteousness among men. So may we be co-workers with Thee in the building of Thy kingdom which has been our vision and goal through the ages. (Union Prayer Book I, page 45)

By the time I was in rabbinical school, the Union Prayer Book was found lacking by many in our Reform Movement. The language was archaic and the readings did not seem relevant. The passage I just cited that had been so meaningful to me was now derided as “the Coal Miner’s Prayer.” We often supplemented the prayers in that siddur with more contemporary writings. When Gates of Prayer was published in 1975, most people enthusiastically endorsed it, and the Union Prayer Book was happily consigned, figuratively, to the ash-heap of history.

I hadn’t thought of that prayer from the Union Prayer Book for years…until the sad news broke on April 5 of the worst mining disaster in four decades. All of sudden, the words that we thought were outdated came to life: “How much we owe to the labors of our brothers! Day by day they dig far away from the sun that we may be warm,…”

While it is true that most of our houses here in Southern California are heated by gas or electricity, coal does remain a crucial product in our nation’s economy. The history of the coal mining industry is not one of which our country can be proud.

Over the years, I have introduced important religious ideas to the members of our Confirmation Class by having them answer a series of true-or-false questions. Here is one– True-or-false: Religion has no right to tell people how they should run their businesses. If your initial inclination is to say true, it is clear to me that you have never studied the words of the Prophets in our Bible. They often decried the unjust treatment of the poor by those in power.

The loss of 29 lives in the Upper Big Branch coal mine, owned by the Massey Energy Company, was only the most recent in a long line of mining disasters caused by coal operators ignoring government safety regulations, considering them an intrusion on their right to maximize their profits. Widespread safety violations at Massey mines have been reported. In one internal memo, the man who runs Massey warned his mine managers that they were to ignore any directive “to do anything other than run coal….” He went on to state, “This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills.”

Over the past many decades, the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Union for Reform Judaism have passed numerous resolutions on the issues of workers’ rights and worker safety. They are rooted in the principles of our prophetic tradition and the teachings of Jewish Law.

In his eulogy this week for the miners whose lives were taken in the disaster, President Obama declared, “We cannot bring back the 29 men we lost. Our task, here on Earth, is to save lives from being lost in another tragedy. To do what must be done, individually and collectively, to assure safe conditions underground. To treat our miners the way they treat each other—like family.”

On this Shabbat, may we be reminded that we can worship God in holiness only as we serve our brothers and sisters in love. We, indeed, owe so much to the labors of others. Acknowledging this, may we enthusiastically take up the struggle to assure that safety is protected and justice procured for all those who willingly give of themselves for our wellbeing.

KAYN Y’HI RATZON! (May this be God’s Will.)

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