The Mess in Texas

Sermon given on Yom Kippur Day 5761, October 9, 2000, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

When Toni and I were engaged to be married, and we bought our home, we noticed a flag pole in the back yard. I was thrilled. I told Toni I was going to go out and get a Texas flag to fly there. That’s when I learned that marriage requires both compromise and sacrifice. We live in Texas. On the flagpole? A Kansas flag. I got the better deal.

I love Texas. I am a native; both of my parents are natives; and my grandfather was a native. When I was a first year rabbinic student in Jerusalem, struggling to become fluent in Hebrew, each member of my class was required to give an oral presentation on a personal topic. In broken Hebrew, I described Texas as eretz hakodesh ha-ma-aravi, “the Western Holy Land.” Though I lived in exile from 1981 to 1992, obtaining my education, one of the happiest moments in my life was receiving the call from Rabbi Stahl, inviting me to return to my native land.

Like many of you, then, I have been pained to hear Texas repeatedly reviled in recent months. With our governor as one of the presidential candidates, and with little doubt that he will carry our state’s electoral votes, Texas-bashing has become a popular tactic of his opponents. Hearing all those nasty things about our state, people around the country may reasonably ask how we can bear to live here. We know why, of course: Texas is heaven on Earth. Friendly people, a magnificent variety of environments, mild winters and Mexican food are just a few of our state’s unsurpassed attractions.

Some months ago, a group of loyal Texans, who say they are not supporting our governor in the presidential race, lodged a loud protest against the bad press our state has received. While I was sympathetic with their cause, I wondered whether Texas might not benefit from an honest discussion of our state’s shortcomings. How sad that an acknowledgment of Texas’ reprehensible health care record would be viewed as an attack on our governor. Any honest conversation about Texas’ pathetic pollution problem is seen as a partisan polemic. Any mention of our state’s inequities in education is called presidential politics.

Well, my friends, Texas is not a dictatorship, and our governor is not a king. While the governor bears his share of responsibility for the failings of our state, he alone is not to blame. After all, the Legislature continues to be led by the other party. Moreover, while there has been slippage in the last six years, our state’s record was far from enviable before our current governor entered his office. If we dismiss criticisms of Texas as mere partisan rhetoric, we will forfeit our responsibility to confront our own shortcomings. We, the people of Texas, have neglected to provide adequate health care to the children of our state. We, the people of Texas, have put the desires of business above protection of God’s creation. We, the people of Texas, have been derelict in our duties to the children, to the elderly, and to the poorest among us. We, the people, are to blame for the mess in Texas.

As a loyal Texan, then, I will speak out today, and declare the appalling inadequacies of the state I love. In so doing, may I begin to do my part to make our state truly great. As a rabbi, I will strive to voice the tradition of our ancient Israelite prophets, who never shied away from the issues of the day, but articulated God’s demand that those in power respond to the needs of the disadvantaged among them. Whether George W. Bush be President or Governor, whether Republicans or Democrats control the State House and Senate, the Legislature will meet during 5761. May the members of Temple Beth-El be among who will proclaim: Texas must do better; Texas must be better. We must all clean up the mess in Texas.

This morning, we heard the words of the prophet Isaiah, read for us by our Temple President and sung for us so magnificently by our choir. The prophet was a devoted Israelite, just as we are loyal Texans. Isaiah pointed out the appalling inattention to the poor in ancient Israel, not in an effort to defame his land, but in order to make it better. Isaiah spoke to all the people. Even in the Israelite monarchy, the prophet indicted the entire population for the nation’s ills. How much the more so, here in the democracy of Texas, are all of us responsible for the imperfections of our state.

God called Isaiah, saying: “Cry aloud, do not hold back, let your voice resound like a Shofar: declare to my people their transgression, and to the house of Jacob their sin.” Just as God commanded Isaiah, so does God require us to speak out for the disadvantaged in our midst. Feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and protecting God’s Earth are mitzvot, religious obligations, demanded of us by God. On this Yom Kippur, we must confess: We are guilty. As the people of Texas, we have sinned. The mess in Texas is on our hands.

Almost a quarter of children in Texas have no health insurance. Texas consistently ranks last or next to last among states with uninsured children, and is no better with regard to health insurance for adults.

Over twenty percent of Texas mothers receive no prenatal care, a statistic that puts us among the lowest five states in the nation.

Texas is tied for 47th in its child immunization rate, with over a quarter of kids lacking disease-preventing immunizations.

Leading the nation in drunk driving deaths, Texas continues to permit open containers of alcohol in moving vehicles and ranks 45th among states in the percentage of the population receiving drug or alcohol treatment.

Texas ranks number four in the percentage of adult women who have never had a breast exam, and in the top ten in its rate of failure to test for every other major women’s health issue, including mammograms and cervical cancer tests.

The Lone Star State tied for 44th in total dollars spent per person on public health and was in the bottom ten in its per capita spending on mental health.

Almost one in five Texans, ages 18 to 24, lacks a high school diploma and is no longer in school, a percentage exceeded by only five states in the union.

Our state has one of the seven highest teenage birth rates in the land.

And Texas has the nation’s third highest percentage of population suffering from malnutrition, and is second in the percentage of its population that goes hungry.

Today, we gather as a holy congregation of the Jewish people in the State of Texas. We come before our God, and we confess our sins:

Al het shehatanu lefanecha, for the sin we have committed against You by permitting poverty to grow in our state;

Al het shehatanu lefanecha, for the sin we have committed against You by neglecting the health care needs of disadvantaged women and children in our midst;

V’al het shehatanu lefanecha, and for the sin we have committed against You by failing to provide excellent public education for all Texas children;

Al het shehatanu lefanecha, for the sin we have committed against You by ignoring hunger in our midst;

Al het shehatanu lefanecha, for the sin we have committed against You by declining to take the steps necessary to reduce teenage pregnancy;

V’al het shehatanu lefanecha, for the sin we have committed against You by turning aside from the problems of people very different from ourselves.

For all these sins, O God of mercy, we would wish to request that You forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement. But we can not merely ask. We must act. We have begun by bringing our canned goods to the Temple for the Food Bank this morning. We will take important steps on November 12, when we volunteer on Mitzvah Day. Many of us do our part through our community service efforts beyond the walls of our congregation. And others seek to help through activity in the political process. But whatever we have been doing, we have not done enough. Today, on this Yom Kippur, people are suffering. God hears their call, and commands us to do better. We may only be forgiven if we respond, if we will do more than we have done in the past.

We must say to the leaders of our state: Whatever it takes, let hunger no longer flourish in our name. We refuse to perpetuate our guilt. Let the people of Texas cease withholding medical care from those most in need. Let the State of Texas provide fine public education in every corner of this state. Let each and every one of us redouble our efforts to deliver family planning education and services to every young Texan who wants them and needs them, to reduce the devastation of teenage pregnancy. Let us all act. Let us end the mess in Texas.

In the name of God, Isaiah promises: “If you make sacrifices for the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted; then shall your light shine in the darkness, and your night become bright as noon; the Lord will guide you always. God will slake your thirst in drought, and renew your body’s strength . . . Your people shall rebuild the ancient ruins, and lay the foundations for ages to come. You shall be called ‘Repairer of the breach, Restorer of streets to dwell in.’”

In 5761, may the members of Temple Beth-El be among those who will rebuild the ruins of our state and lay the foundations for ages to come.

May our Jewish people forever be called, “repairers of the breach.”

May the men, women and children of the State of Texas hear our praises sung, throughout the nation and around the world, as “restorer of streets to dwell in.”