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That’s How the Light Gets In

Leonard Cohen singing "Anthem."

Leonard Cohen singing “Anthem.”

Whenever I contemplate the uncertainties of human existence, I am amazed by the good fortune I have enjoyed in my sojourn on this earth. Out of all the places I could have been born, by some quirk of fate, I was born in the United States of America – in the middle of New York City, arguably the greatest city in the world. Thanksgiving is a holiday for Americans. It is a celebration of the rich tapestry that Americans make up. It is a celebration of immigrants – people who came from authoritarian governments to breathe the air of freedom. We remember the Pilgrims who came here seeking religious liberty, and the free exercise of their conscience. The diversity of our society represents an extraordinary flowering of everything this nation was meant to be. If our celebration of their arrival on these shores and their survival through that first grueling winter is to mean anything at all, it must be to make that celebration available to all who seek it out, whoever they are, and wherever they are coming from. From the landing of the Pilgrims, we have been a nation of immigrants. That is what has made us great.

The past two weeks have been tough, no question about it. I feel as though I’ve been tossed from pillar to post; and quite honestly, I’m looking forward to dropping down on my cousin’s couch on Thursday, and decompressing with our family for the day and evening. These particular cousins all happen to share our political and social leanings, so we won’t have to be on our guard at all. But then again, there are a few members of my family constellation who do not share our opinions, and with whom, I admit, I have avoided communication over the past several months. But, in the end, they are my family, and in the end, I will put an end to my avoidance. If I am the one who is going to advocate for the diversity of American society, by definition, that means that I have to honor that diversity, even when it means that people I love and respect hold opinions with which I disagree; at times, vehemently. At times it may mean that we just leave politics out of the family equation. We’re not going to convince each other of anything. A cop out, some might say? Maybe. But family connections are still there, despite the rupture in American politics. This particular campaign was perhaps the most divisive, and perhaps the most bizarre as well, in our history as a nation. But it’s over, and we have a new reality to deal with.

This week our Torah records the deaths of Sarah Imeinu and Avraham Avinu, the Matriarch and Patriarch of the Jewish People. As we remember, there was tension and pain between Abraham’s two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. Nevertheless, even after years of bitter separation, the two come to the Cave of Machpelah to bury their father together. We don’t know what words were exchanged between them. But we do know that, even for those few moments, they were finally together again.

Almost two weeks ago, we lost Leonard Cohen – the Canadian poet, composer, and maverick social commentator. One of the songs he wrote was called “Anthem,” the refrain of which might be of some comfort as we set about the business of healing in the months ahead, and undertaking the responsibilities that will be upon our shoulders, particularly in protecting and promoting the values of justice and humanitarianism that we learn from our tradition.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

And with this I will wish all of you, and your families and friends, a Happy Thanksgiving. Let’s remember to take at least a moment out of the day to contemplate its meaning, and devote ourselves to helping to bring it about in the months and years ahead.

In a Time of Loss

L.C. Nøttaasen CC Flickr

Candles by L.C. Nøttaasen CC Flickr

I have to admit that I have been agonizing over what to write this week for the past three days. I even wrote a long epistle to you, pouring out my own feelings. I have decided however, that for just now, it would not be the most helpful thing for me to send it to you. I suspect that most of you can pretty much imagine what they are. But at this moment, it seems more important for all of us together to assert our humanity, and to remember that we are fundamentally strong, as individuals, as a community, and as a democratic nation.

Some among us may be happy with the outcome of this election. I respect all of our congregants, and it is important for all of us to respect each other, even when we disagree. I very much hope that this will be in evidence within our congregation. And of course, we all need to hope that our new president will lead our nation well. All of us have a stake in his success.

Nevertheless, many of us might be feeling disappointment, shock, or utter devastation and despair, and perhaps a combination of all of these, and more. For those of us who are feeling this way, I would suggest that it might be helpful to look to Jewish tradition for a model of how to cope, particularly at this most difficult time.

Though we need to remember that in this case, no one has died, this is, in a sense, very much akin to a death – the death of a dream and a vision, the realization of which was within our grasp. As Jews, when an immediate family member dies, we mourn. We sit shiva. We ponder our loss and allow others to comfort us. In this way, we honor our pain and sadness, and feelings of loss and bereavement. Our tradition is very wise in teaching us to honor these feelings. But it is also very wise in insisting that at a certain point, we must move ourselves out of the deepest depths of mourning. “Shiva,” or more correctly, “shiv’ah,” is Hebrew for “seven.” The traditional time of shiva is seven days. After seven days, we are obligated to get up, put on our shoes, return to work, and, little by little, in a time-structured manner, get ourselves about the business of living. Our lives are changed, of course, and have become exceedingly difficult. Many of us need help in learning how to live without our loved ones; and indeed, we would do well to avail ourselves of such help. But we do so in the knowledge that our loved ones themselves would not have wanted us to mourn forever. We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to figure out how to go on, and live.

It is important to reiterate here that in fact, no one has died. Hillary Clinton is very much alive, and she will go on as well. And, WE are alive, and so is our country and our democracy. As we heard Hillary herself express so eloquently in her concession speech, the LAST thing she would want for any of her supporters would be to become paralyzed by sadness for too long. Yes, we have to honor our sense of loss. And eventually, we will need to get up and move on. We will need to do this for the sake of our country, and the values that we believe to be fundamental to the ideals of our democracy. We will need to do this for the sake of promulgating the values of our Jewish tradition as we understand them: the values of justice, compassion, peace, fairness, and respect for all people, regardless of who or what they are, where they were born, what they look like, whom they love, or what their abilities, disabilities, inclinations and aspirations may be in this life, provided they are based in the pursuit of humanitarianism and human progress.

For us, these values may be summed up in the notion of TIKKUN OLAM, the reparation of the world. This is our mission as Jews. In the weeks, months, and years ahead, we will have to take this mission into our hands and fight for it harder than ever before. Like Avram at the beginning of our Torah portion this Shabbat, we are now headed into a new place, and we don’t know what lies ahead. But we will walk nevertheless – because we are strong, and our faith is strong.

For just now, perhaps the best words, as usual, are to be found in our Torah, as God spoke to Joshua: “Chazak Ve’ematz – Be strong and of good courage. . . and I will be with you.”

Tower of Arrogance

pieter_bruegel_the_elder_-_the_tower_of_babel_vienna_-_google_art_project_-_edited

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.1563

A number of Biblical stories are intended to provide an etiology of how certain things came to be. Within Parashat Noach is such an etiology in the story of the Tower of Babel. We may wonder why it is that there is a profusion of languages within the human family. The story of the Tower of Babel provides a response which, even if fantasy-driven, is nonetheless compelling.

Genesis, Chapter 11

1] All the earth had the same language and the same words. 2] As they wandered from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3] Then people said to one another: “Come, let us make bricks and fire them hard.” So they had bricks to build with, and tar served them as mortar. 4] Then they said, “Come, let us build a city with a tower that reaches the sky, so that we can make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over all the earth!” 5] Then the Eternal came down to look at the city and tower and people had built, 6] and the Eternal One said, “Look – these are all one people with one language, and this is just the beginning of their doings; now no scheme of theirs will be beyond their reach! 7] Let us go down there and confuse their speech, so that no one understands what the other is saying.” 8] So it came about that the Eternal scattered them over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9] That is why it was called Babel, because there the Eternal confused the speech of all the earth; and from there the Eternal scattered them over the face of the earth.

The fundamental implication of the story is that, left to our own devices, we humans all too easily fall prey to our own worst instincts – arrogance, and self-aggrandizement. Perhaps, the narrative suggests, if we humans were prevented from understanding one another, our arrogance and self-aggrandizement would be thwarted.

Thus the story of the Tower of Babel provides an etiology for the profusion of languages. But if we were to stretch that notion a bit, we might also find in it an explanation of ethnic and cultural diversity in general, offering the commentary that this diversity is a good thing. When we are all the same, whether it is through language or anything else, we humans are prone to arrogance. Recognizing the benefits of diversity, however, will help us to acquire humility, as we recognize that other languages, ethnic backgrounds, and cultural surroundings, though different from our own, are equally as interesting, and need to be understood and celebrated.

To state the obvious, this is a time of profound concern and anxiety for us, as we face a national election of monumental consequence. One of the issues that has been discussed often during this campaign is diversity. One side has made significant efforts at celebrating our diversity as Americans, and as members of the human family. The other has portrayed our diversity as a threat to America. But the reality of our country is that it is not the same country as it used to be. The picture of a white Christian majority in America is no longer an accurate reflection of America. But, one might surmise, many of those who latch onto the slogan of making America “great” again are actually very much afraid that they will be left out of the new, more diverse America that already is our reality. This, of course, completely ignores the reality of all those people and groups who were left out before! But the fault in this thinking is the belief that the realization of the American dream has to be a zero-sum game. If we widen our tent to include other people, why does that have to mean that we lose our own place in the tent?

We can delude ourselves by building towers of self-aggrandizement. Or, we can plant our feet firmly on the ground, and work to create a fairer, more compassionate, more inclusive society in our own midst. But, as we all know, whatever our perspective on the direction our country ought to take, we won’t have any part in the decision making if we don’t get out on Tuesday and vote – and encourage everyone we know to vote as well. As Americans, we dare not squander this sacred right.