In the sacred work of repairing the world, we cannot afford take our progress for granted or rest on our laurels. Strides toward justice and compassion are all-too-easily turned back. The good achieved over the course of many years can, alas, be very quickly undone with a short lapse of benign neglect.
Our Torah portion, Toldot, offers a powerful metaphor for this truth. Genesis 26:18 tells us: “Isaac dug anew the wells of water that had been dug in the days of Abraham his father, which the Philistines had blocked up after Abraham’s death, and he gave them the same names that his father had given them.” Many of our tradition’s classic commentators read this as a sort of allegory for spiritual and social justice work, which must be renewed in each generation. Every time and place is blessed with a few revolutionaries and pioneers who, like Abraham and Sarah, break new ground. The rest of us have plenty of work to do just to sustain the gains made by our predecessors—and that work, too, is holy.
Last week, we lost a mighty presence and dear friend. Pam Baldwin was the director of the Interfaith Alliance and a tireless leader in Boise’s progressive faith community. She was a voice for the voiceless, a defender of the defenseless, and an exemplar of the kind of prophetic faith that speaks truth to power. When our education center was tagged with anti-Semitic graffiti a little over a decade ago, I called Pam—and within a few hours, she had volunteers from every walk of life, of all faiths, and of none, gathered at our home to scrub it away. That’s just how it was with Pam—like Martin Luther King, she knew and lived the creed that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
Boise’s homeless shelter, Interfaith Sanctuary, which our synagogue has supported since its inception, exists because Pam saw people freezing in the streets and called our community’s faith leaders together to do something about it. She did the same thing after 9/11: when reactionaries responded with ugly threats against our local Islamic center, Pam organized Jews and Christians and Buddhists and atheists and everyone else in her enormous email list (which was earned by the sweat of her brow) to come together to support that beleaguered community.
And just two weeks before she died, she convened a conference on implementing the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) so that fewer Idahoans would be denied the basic human right of decent healthcare. Economic justice, equal rights for the LGBT community, fair housing, separation of church and state, immigration, concern for migrant workers, openness in politics—on all of these issues and many, many more, Pam led the way.
In other words—in Torah’s words—Pam dug a lot of wells. She was brave and strong. And she wasn’t naïve. Although she died before her time, she knew that there will always be those who would prefer to block up those wells of justice and compassion.
Now she is gone, but her legacy and her example endure and inspire. May we, like our father, Isaac, keep those wells running strong.
Shavtem mayim b’sasson, mi-ma’aynei ha-yeshua. With joy shall we draw water from the wells of liberation.
May the memory of our community’s righteous friend, Pamela Day Baldwin, be for an enduring blessing.