Yellow Jackets, Yom Kippur, the Book of Life and a Sweet New Year

Stephen Lerner

*This is the text of Stephen Lerner's remarks at his and Marilyn Sneiderman's 20th annual Yom Kippur Break Fast. Marilyn is Executive Director of AVODAH and Stephen is a long time labor and community organizer and architect of the Justice For Janitors campaign.

This year they had almost 200 people at their break fast, which was full of music, poetry and prayer. Their annual tradition is multi-racial, multi-faith, multi-generational and focused on social justice.

Every year, for 20 years now, on Yom Kippur, I give a few remarks at our breakfast. And this has taught me to have a lot more respect for Rabbis and other clergy because if I find it hard to think of something new to say once every year, I can only imagine how hard it is to say something new each week.

In looking back over the years, I realize that I am always doing some version of “are we winning or losing?” I look for, a hint, for examples, or signs that the world is moving towards justice and away from the abyss of hate, racism, growing inequality and injustice. And some years I am upbeat and in other years I feel like we are all drowning, feeling we are losing and there is little hope that we are moving closer to the Promised Land.

And I now realize that the question isn’t how this year went, or even how next year will go. The question is where is the arc of history going? Is the world in a period where it is heading towards Justice and Equality or to Reaction and Hate? So this year, I will try a metaphor to capture why we are winning when it feels like we are losing, and why the arc of history is bending towards justice.

I am allergic to Bees. If a bee stings me I can go into shock and die in a couple of minutes. I have been stung and I know that terrifying feeling of your throat swelling, of feeling the air being cut off, and literally being afraid that you may die. Being allergic to bees means, you can either hide in your house out of fear of being stung or you can study and learn about bees to limit the possibility of being stung and dying. And when you understand bee’s you can carry on with your life, despite your allergy and not live in fear that a sting will kill you. (You also carry an Epipen just in case you miss step and you do get stung and need a shot of epinephrine to overcome the venom.)

So, being afraid of bees, I have made it my business to deeply understand bees, bee psychology, bee brains and bee behavior. And specifically I have studied the only bee that has every stung me, the horrible nasty bee called the Yellow Jacket.

And what I have realized about Yellow Jackets is that for most of the year, if you stay out of their way, they pretty much leave you alone. They are annoying but not dangerous. But in the fall when it starts to get cold they go a little crazy. Somewhere in their bee brains, deep in their bee DNA they understand that their season is up, and that soon they will die. They know that their name isn’t going to be written in the book of life for another year--and they have nothing to lose by stinging you.

And it is at the time when they feel most threatened, when they know their days are numbered that they are the most vicious and dangerous. They strike out and sting you for no apparent reason. It requires special caution to avoid being stung…but if you survive their crazy vicious season, they die out, and the fear a group of buzzing yellow jackets used to inspire quickly becomes a memory.

I know a lot of us feel like we are being overwhelmed, strangled and suffocated by unrelenting attacks- on hard won rights and victories we thought we had secured years ago. It feels like every day an assault comes from another direction.

It is hard to believe we are refighting the issue of the poll tax and voter suppression.

It seems insane that a women’s right to choose is threatened and that corporations try to argue that climate change doesn’t exist.

The very existence of unions is being called into question at the same time inequality explodes and too big to fail corporations are more and more dominant.

The list goes on and on…..the point isn’t to list all the attacks but more importantly to understand why we are under attack.

The reason we are under attack, the reason the right wing, racists, misogynists and giant corporations (they all have different interests but are driven by similar fears) have launched vicious unrelenting attacks, is because they know far better than we do how weak they are and how fragile their hold on power is. They are striking out, because like the Yellow Jacket, they know deep in their DNA that their days are numbered.

The reason they seem a little crazy, is because they are terrified. They know the demographics of the country are changing. Whites won’t remain in the majority. They know from everyday experience that their wives, daughters and granddaughters won’t go backwards. And they know better than any of us how the current economic system is teetering and survives through bailouts, theft, fraud and massive financial manipulations. They know their season is up, and that their dominant role in this country, the world and history is coming to an end.

So, if we are smart, if we are strategic, if we organize, if we are prepared, inspired and moved by knowing our season is coming- we can survive this period.

There will be ups and downs, ebbs and flows, days we feel like we our losing…..but the arc of history is on our side, and the days where we need to fear their hate filled venom are receding. Together we are moving closer to the Promised Land. So let us lift our glasses and toast to a sweet New Year.

To a Sweet New Year..L’shana Tova.

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