I felt like time slowed down when poet Amanda Gorman spoke the words, “What JUST IS isn’t always JUSTICE,” at President Biden’s inauguration.
Because when Amanda said those words, I was transported to the Pucker Gallery on Newbury Street in Boston. I felt myself standing next to Amanda, as I actually did two years ago, as she recited a poem amidst a show of paintings by prolific artist Samuel Bak, a Holocaust survivor who for years has painted symbols to express his experience. The name of the show? “Just Is.”
Amanda read at that show that day because both she and Sam, despite their outward differences, come to their work with a deep drive to help us, the audience, really consider what justice means. A descendent of slaves and a Holocaust survivor, both masters of expressing challenging truths through their craft, and connected by the search for justice.
As it’s said in the Torah/Old Testament, “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” But as Amanda and Sam agree, justice is not “just is”—it requires thought and care by us all. And through the symbols of their words and images, they push us to pause and consider what justice means to us.
Because being American isn’t just about sitting back and enjoying the liberties that are outlined in the U.S. Constitution. Justice isn’t just about the U.S. Supreme Court or government officials. Justice is something we all need to play a role in. Being American is about the ability to share our own stories proudly. As Amanda said, “This nation isn’t broken, but simply unfinished,” and the great Rabbi Tarphone agreed with her 2,000 years ago when he said, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either” (Pirke Avot 2:21).
So, why do Amanda’s poem and Sam’s paintings touch us so deeply? Because they open our souls to difficult conversations, and in these conversations, we find our way to justice.
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