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Guard Your Tongue From Evil, And Your Lips From Deceitful Speech

In the past few days, we have been subjected to celebrities behaving badly. I will address the two most recent incidents, but they come at a time when public discourse in general is deteriorating by the day, taking on an increasingly coarse and destructive cast. Nevertheless, I will begin with the davar that I had started earlier this week.

This week our Torah portion records the death of Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, and leader and protector of our people. Miriam played a central role in watching over Moses when he was a baby, as he floated down the Nile in a wicker basket to escape the murderous Egyptian soldiers. Along with Moses, she led our people on dry land through the parted waters of the Sea of Reeds, and led the women in song. And, according to the midrash, a miraculous well followed the Children of Israel in the desert, until the moment of Miriam’s death here in our parashah. Then, the well dried up.

But Miriam’s life was also colored by a terrible incident out there in the desert. For some reason that we don’t entirely understand, at one point, Miriam opened up and complained about Tzippora, Moses’ wife, identifying her as “the Cushite woman.” This is taken to be a racist remark, since in all likelihood, Tzippora’s skin was dark, as the daughter of a Midianite priest. For this intemperate and hurtful speech, God punished Miriam with a leprous skin affliction, until her brothers pleaded for her recovery.

So, while Miriam overall is embraced in our tradition as a prophetess and savior of our people, she was certainly not without her blind spots, and gave in to the temptation of lashon hara—evil speech—one of the most disagreeable of human traits.

When I began writing this davar, it was directly in the aftermath of the loathsome tweet from Roseanne Barr, regarding Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s Director of the Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs, all through his administration. I will not repeat Barr’s repulsive remark, I am sure it is well known to everyone by now. What I will say is that it is completely consistent with the vulgarity and racism that all of us have come to expect from the filth that has blown out of Barr’s mouth virtually throughout her career. But this one upped the ante—because it not only singled out an exemplary public servant, it also embodied the unbridled racism that has characterized the tenor of public discourse in our country from the first moment of the Trump administration. And often, the president himself has been the offender-in-chief. Absent from our public discourse is any sense of respect for other people, and any level of sophistication of thought, speech, and behavior.

Roseanne Barr was appropriately punished, and was summarily dismissed by ABC, and rightly so.

But then, one of the darlings of the liberal community, Samantha Bee, added her own vulgarity to the mix, and in so doing, damaged her own case, and our case as well. I will not repeat the word that she used on the air, albeit on a Cable show. That particular word is one that I never use, even in my most unguarded moments, because I find it particularly revolting and violent against women. But that is a personal preference. My larger concern is that by using it, Bee damaged her own message, which was an extremely important one. If you’re trying to highlight the abomination of this administration’s immigration policy that has children being separated from their parents, don’t trample over your own message with obscenities that are sure to muddy the waters and mute the very message you’re trying to communicate!

Should Samantha Bee lose her job too? Does she get a pass just because she’s on my side of the political spectrum, as opposed to the likes of Roseanne Barr? I pose this question as I record my own personal monthly contribution to the ACLU for the protection of the First Amendment and freedom of speech. And if we’re going to expect a certain level of respect from public figures, then we need to do that with some level of consistency. I leave this for you to continue to ponder.

My concern is for all of us—as human beings, as Jews. Our tradition teaches us that lashon hara—evil speech—allowing destructive comments about others, and repulsive, obscene speech to come out of our own mouths—is an impulse that we need to guard ourselves against in every one of our interactions with people; whether one-to-one, in group settings, or on more public platforms.

The Psalmist admonishes:
Who is the one who is eager for life, who desires years of good fortune?
Guard your tongue from evil, and your lips from deceitful speech.
Shun evil and do good, seek integrity, and pursue it.
(Psalms 34.14-15)

The Commandment to Love the Stranger

We have a double Torah portion this week, Acharei Mot–Kedoshim. We in the Reform Movement know Kedoshim particularly well, because in addition to this appearance in the calendrical cycle, it is our Torah reading for the afternoon of Yom Kippur. Kedoshim tihyu, ki kadosh ani Adonai EloheichemYou shall be holy, for I your Eternal God am holy. So it begins, and thus it is known as “The Holiness Code.” The Reform Movement chose it for the most sacred day of our year because it contains some of the most fundamental ethical precepts of the Torah, which have been enshrined in all of Jewish tradition.

On this Shabbat, I will restate one of the commandments of the Holiness Code, because it is one of 36 statements and re-statements of the same precept throughout our Torah. When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Eternal am your God.(Leviticus 19.33-34)

And since the Torah has stated and restated this principle so many times, please allow me as well to restate the obvious, as  I have stated it to you on numerous occasions in the past. Virtually all of us here in America are either descendants of immigrants, or immigrants ourselves.  My own ancestors came to America from Germany and Russia to escape oppressive regimes in which Jews had no opportunity to breathe the air of freedom and pursue their aspirations. I am grateful that America took them in. Both of them became loyal, productive American citizens, raising families and finding some enjoyment in life.

Throughout our history as Jews, we have known the perils and uncertainties of having to leave the lands of our birth and journeying to distant lands, into the unknown. Our Torah teaches us to remember the Exodus from Egypt so that we will make it our business to help the strangers in our midst, now that we are settled. It is one of the most fundamental precepts of our existence as Jews. And here in the Holiness Code, we are not only commanded not to wrong the stranger, but to love the stranger—for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

On this Shabbat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, during which this commandment to love the stranger is within our Torah reading, we will address the pressing problems of this very difficult time in America, in which the safety and security of the “strangers” in our midst are being threatened as never before. This Shabbat will be our Fourth Friday Shabbat. Kabbalat Shabbat at 6:30 as usual, and then a Shabbat dinner to follow ($10 please). And then after dinner, at 8:30, we will gather for an important discussion on this crisis. The topic is: What is Really Happening with Immigration? Our social action immigration subcommittee will welcome Ahsanullah (Bobby) Khan, founder of the Coney Island Project, a program working to combat racism and promote empowerment for working-class South Asians. He will talk with us on how we can help. I hope you will join us for this urgent discussion.

Truth and Lies

The centerpiece of our Torah portion this week is the Ten Commandments, or as the code is commonly identified in Hebrew, Aseret HaDibrot -“The Ten Words.” There are two in particular that deal with honesty. The third commandment: You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God; for the Lord will not clear one who swears falsely by His name (Exodus 20.7). The ninth commandment: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor (Exodus 20.13).

Rooted within one of the most fundamental ethical codes of Biblical teaching is the obligation to tell the truth; to be honest. The consequences for violating these commandments is very grave. Later in the Torah, for example, we see the result of deliberately bringing false witness against another person, particularly in a situation that might cause that person to incur capital punishment: If the one who testified is a false witness, if he has testified falsely against his fellow, you shall do to him as he schemed to do to his fellow. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst… (Deuteronomy 19.18-19). 

So lying in general, and in the more specific case, bringing false testimony, are very serious offenses. They are offenses we would commit against each other, and against God.

Within the past year, virtually with every new morning, we have been waking up to news of lies and falsehoods, half-truths and deceptions, obfuscation and false testimony. And these violations of the most fundamental teachings of our Biblical tradition have been committed by none other than the leaders of our own government—no less than the President of the United States, and the advisors with whom he has surrounded himself. Our vocabulary has expanded in this new, almost surreal environment, to include such phrases as “alternative facts” and “fake news.” Excuse me? “Alternative facts?” “Fake news?” But in fact, these newly-invented phrases by the president and his advisors are nothing more than cold, bare, bold-faced lies. Lies. They are liars. With virtually every word, they violate one of the most basic ethical precepts of the code that has helped to inform our entire system of laws and government.

We know the phrase “the court of public opinion.” While as private citizens we do not carry the same legal power as the courts, “we the people” do indeed possess a great deal of power. Ultimately, we are the ones who are responsible for demanding that the liars in our government be called into account, and be called upon to answer for their lies.

Just before the Revelation of Torah, as represented by this iteration of the Ten Commandments, the Torah describes the scene at Mount Sinai: Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder. (Exodus 19.18-19). The emergence of this ethical framework, while not the first of its type in the Ancient Near East, was nevertheless revolutionary in the place it would occupy as an entire people adopted an ethical framework as its guide for living. In reading this description of the smoke, and the trumpets, and the thunder, we might say that it was an earth-shattering moment. We are going to be a people that lives by the law, founded upon basic ethical mandates. Perhaps God was trying to “get our attention.”

What will it take to get our attention, as it were, as Americans, and as citizens of the modern world? How long can our society withstand the flagrant violation of basic principles of honesty and decency? The answer is in our hands.

To See Through the Darkness

As our Torah portion begins, there have been eight plagues upon Egypt. And now we read: Then the LORD said to Moses: “Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.” Moses held out his arm toward the sky and a thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, and for three days, no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings (Exodus 10.21-23).

Sages of previous generations have pondered the question of why the Egyptians did not simply light a candle to banish the darkness. In response, the medieval commentators Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides explained that the darkness was a dense fog-like condition that extinguished all flames.

In April of 1981, when I was in Israel, I witnessed a khamsin—a southern wind that blows across Egypt from the Sahara Desert, and travels throughout the Middle East. It is infused with dust and sand. It often blows in around the time of the spring equinox, just the time at which I witnessed it. It brings on an eerie sort of darkness that accompanies the discomfort that hangs in the air.

Was the darkness that enveloped Egypt merely a desert khamsin? Perhaps. Since it immediately preceded the death of the first-born of Egypt—the final, most devastating of the ten plagues—the spring equinox, just before Pesach, would fit the time frame perfectly. But other commentators explain that the darkness wasspiritual darkness. No one felt any responsibility or compassion toward anyone else. Midrash Exodus Rabba posits that this internal darkness paralyzed the Egyptians so thoroughly that they would not dare leave their homes in fear that their own fellow Egyptian neighbors would attack them. Miraculously, “for all the children of Israel there was light in their dwellings.” The midrash explains that the innate fellowship between one Israelite and another was not destroyed by the plagues or by the Egyptians’ attempt to dehumanize them.

It would seem at this moment in our history that America is enveloped in spiritual darkness. Our leadership is unable to see the humanity in other people. The “dreamers” of DACA—for all practical purposes, our fellow Americans—are being used as pawns in a political chess game that, at its core, is vicious and heartless. Earlier this week, on the day honoring the memory of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., z”l, a Michigan man, Jorge Garcia, was mercilessly deported to Mexico, as he was torn away from his wife and his teenage children. Jorge Garcia was brought to this country 30 years ago by his parents, when he was 10. He has worked as a landscaper and paid taxes. He has spent more than $125,000 trying to gain citizenship, as his wife and children have. He has never even incurred so much as a traffic ticket. We watched the agonizing video taken at the Detroit Metro Airport on Monday, as his wife and children cried bitter tears, carefully watched by an Immigration and Customs Enforcement guard. Jorge Garcia was not being sent home. He was being exiled to a foreign country and ripped from the loving embrace of his family and friends. Can any of us even imagine being forcibly separated from the ones we love the most in this world, and sent to live without them in a country we do not know?

Is this the America that all our ancestors worked so hard to build for us, and for future generations? Is this the country they saw as they first gazed upon the Statue of Liberty’s torch of freedom? No, my fellow Americans, it is not. It is a country that has been plunged into darkness by the closed-mindedness and hard-heartedness of our president and his followers.

The founder of a Hasidic dynasty, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Ger (1799-1866), offered the following interpretation of the plague of darkness. He understood the verse (Exodus 10:23) that states that during the darkness, “no man could see his brother,” to be a metaphoric description of blindness induced by a lack of empathy and compassion. “When one cannot sense his brother’s pain,” said the Gerrer Rebbe, “that is true darkness.”

There is a midrashic observation that I have quoted to you before. Former Israeli President Shimon Peres, z”l, referenced it often as he opined about the imperatives of sincere negotiation and the pursuit of peace. As so many midrashim do, it pictures a rabbi in the academy with his students. The midrash talks about darkness and light.

The question was presented: “How do we know when the night ends and the day begins?”

One student said, “When you can distinguish from afar between a goat and a lamb, the night is over, and the day has begun.” Another student said, “When you can distinguish between an olive tree and a fig tree, the night is over, and the day begun.” The rabbi kept silent, and the students turned to him and asked, “Rabbi, what is your indication?” He looked at them and answered, “When you meet a woman, whether black or white, and you say, `You are my sister;’ when you meet a man, whether rich or poor, and you say, `You are my brother,’ then, the night is over, and the day has begun.'”

Voices in the Wilderness: The Courage of the Clergy in Georgia

This weekend is devoted to commemorating the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, z”l. The inspiring, poetic style of his soaring oratory became the voice for so many African Americans whose voices were never heard before, after centuries of the brutality and racism that marked racial segregation and discrimination in virtually every area of American life. We remember Dr. King on this weekend, and on Monday when his birthday is celebrated, we will join Americans all over our country in our Day of Service.

In this spirit, I would like to bring you the voice of another member of the clergy, this one closer to home for our family. In 2016 a book was published Rabbi P. Allen Krause, who unfortunately died soon after the publication. The book is entitled To Stand Aside or Stand Alone: Southern Reform Rabbis and The Civil Rights Movement.* It brings to light the stories of twelve courageous Reform rabbis throughout the Deep South, who stood up and raised their voices in the Prophetic tradition of Reform Judaism against the evils of racism and segregation in their communities. The stories are based on interviews that Rabbi Krause conducted with these rabbis in 1966, as the basis of his rabbinic thesis at Hebrew Union College. One of the interviewees was Rabbi Alfred L. Goodman, z”lmy husband Stephen’s fatherwho served as Rabbi of Temple Israel of Columbus, GA from 1950-1983. These are but a few brief excerpts of a much more extensive interview. I commend Rabbi Krause’s book to all of you. Lest any of us forget, it reminds us of our long and deep commitment to social justice, and our profound historical and social connection with our African American sisters and brothers. (An additional note, brought to my attention by our congregant Ralph Julius, who grew up in Columbus. Rabbi Beth Schwartz, who currently serves as Rabbi of Temple Israel, will be reading some excerpts of the chapter with the congregation on this Shabbat.)

In his introduction to the interview, Rabbi Krause, along with co-author Mark K. Bauman, provides a bit of background about Columbus:

In the early 1900s it had the reputation as the lynching mecca of the South. Indeed, like many Deep South cities, the mayor and police chief endorsed the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), and the community took violence for granted… The celebrated author Carson McCullers, who grew up in Columbus during the 1930s and ’40s, later called the city “an intolerable place to live,” a comment reflective of the prevalent racism.

Ezra Johnston, who called himself “Parson Jack,” acted as a key force of bigotry in Georgia. He founded the Baptist Tabernacle in Columbus in 1931, broadcasted a weekly radio show, and published two statewide newspapers, one of which had more subscribers than either Columbus daily. Johnston used these media and pulpit to relentlessly attack unions and “race mixing,” and was very influential in the local Klan Klavern. Johnston and the KKK often marched in full regalia down the streets of the main business district.

The US Army base at Fort Benning is located in Columbus, and Steve’s dad served as unofficial chaplain there for much of the time that he was at Temple Israel. About this base, Krause and Bauman write:

Even the black soldiers based at Fort Benning were routinely subjected to embarrassment and acts of intimidation. Colin Powell, who later served as head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State, recounts in his autobiography how, just prior to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he went into a local hamburger joint and was admonished by the waitress: “You’re a Negro. You’ll have to go to the back door.” Four other soldiers, two white and two black, were on a shopping trip in civilian clothes when police accosted and handcuffed them, then drove them in a paddy wagon to court. The presiding judge used a form of logic then common to the South when he proclaimed: “You’re two white guys and two black guys walking together. That’s disturbing the peace. Guilty.” In 1941, a black soldier was found hanged in a wooded area at the fort.

One section of this background stands out for me particularly because it concerns a Presbyterian minister named Robert McNeill, with whom my father-in-law worked closely. Just this past December, when we were down in Columbus visiting Steve’s mom Rayna, we passed by the church where Pastor McNeill had served, and which unceremoniously dismissed him in 1959 because of his activities to dismantle segregation in Columbus, and to combat racism. Rayna told us about that night, and the days that followed the firing. In the trauma of these events, Pastor McNeill, who was relatively young at the time, suffered a heart attack, and his young children came over to sleep at the Goodmans’ home so that they could comfort them, and so that his wife could be at the hospital with him.

P. Allen Krause (PAK): Did the non-Jewish community react violently in any way to the changes that were taking place, and… what was their reaction?

Alfred Louis Goodman (ALG): There was no real violence. There were some tempers that flared, and when our human relations council became active, and when I and this Presbyterian minister became active in the human relations council, for instance, a telephone threat was made to a member of the board of trustees of my congregation saying that if I continued my activity in the human relations council that what had happened to the Presbyterian minister, who by that time was already gone from the community, would be peanuts. However, this matter was taken up with our board of trustees, because they were concerned for me, not because they objected to my activities, but because they were concerned, and I had made it quite clear to them at that time that what I did in this area I did as a matter of conscience, and that it was not a board concern.

PAK: Did you make such arrangements in advance of taking a position with this congregation?

ALG: Oh no, no this had nothing to do with the temple board of trustees. This was, I was acting in my role as a rabbi.

PAK: Did you come to an understanding with these people before you took the job that you would be able to have some sort of freedom of the pulpit or something like this …?

ALG: With which people? With my own congregation? There has never been any question of the freedom of the pulpit—never.

While I can’t reprint the entire interview within the limitations of this short Davar, I would offer the summation to you as representative, not only of Rabbi Goodman’s approach to this endeavor, but of his eleven colleagues throughout the South whom then Student Rabbi Krause interviewed for his thesis:

PAK: What would you say—in more or less summation—would be the role that the rabbis played in your state, or, if that is too broad, in specific areas in your state, and then overall in the South in general, in the area of civil rights activity?

ALG: Well I think I can speak for the state of Georgia, and pretty well for the whole South, because we have a Southeastern Association of Rabbis, so I am acquainted with what is going on in at least five states of the southeast region. I think the first responsibility, of course, of a rabbi in the civil rights area is in his immediate community. He has to sensitize people to the moral imperatives of Judaism, and this means beginning, of course, with his own congregation. They have to be made aware of what Judaism demands of them as human beings in their relations to other human beings. If he fails in this, of course, then his congregation is going to respond obviously with the same kind of prejudice that has been inbred in the southern community for a number of generations. Then he has to extend his activities beyond his immediate community to the larger local community in which he resides; he has to participate in as many kinds of civil rights activities as he feels can legitimately and purposefully accomplish the goals which he has set for himself.

When Steve and I were first engaged in January of 1980, I went down to Columbus with him to meet his family. He took me to see the newly-built convention center in the historic downtown area. There was a Confederate flag flying outside. But that is not the case anymore. Far from it. As a result of the work of Rabbi Goodman, Pastor McNeill, and a number of their colleagues in the ministerial alliance that Rabbi Goodman was instrumental in putting together, once the order to desegregate the schools, the lunch counters, and the city in general came down, Columbus was desegregated in peace. While it took several years, the process did indeed take place. Today, Columbus has a flourishing downtown historic area, a vibrant cultural life, and an active civic association. Because of these brave men, the city once characterized as “the lynching mecca of the South” is a very different place now.

Our Torah portion this Shabbat opens with the cries of the Children of Israel:

God spoke to Moses and said to him…“I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant” (Exodus 6.2,5). The Children of Israel had been enslaved for some 400 years. But they were so beaten down that they did not feel enough strength to raise their voices in anguish or in protest. And so, they remained enslaved. But the text of the Passover Haggadah infers from these verses of our sidra, that when the Israelites finally began to raise their voices, God took notice, and set in motion the miraculous Redemption that was at the heart of God’s prophecy to Abraham, and the Covenant that was sealed between the two of them on that day. Once the Children of Israel raised their own voices, they began their emergence from bondage to freedom, from degradation to glory.

As Reform Jews, time and again we have raised our voices for justice in the wilderness of racism and intolerance. While there are those, like Dr. King, Rabbi Goodman, and Pastor McNeill, whose voices have been particularly resonant, it isall our voices that must continue to rise in the Prophetic tradition that has sustained us from the beginning.

*To Stand Aside or Stand Alone: Southern Reform Rabbis and the Civil Rights Movement
by P. Allen Krause, edited by Mark K. Bauman and Stephen Krause
introduction by P. Allen Krause and Mark K. Bauman

University of Alabama Press, 2016

To Stick Our Necks Out

Joseph wants to see if his brothers have grown beyond their jealously and callousness during the 20 years since he last saw them. As Viceroy of Egypt, he arranges a ruse. He orders his steward to hide his own silver goblet in the backpack of Benjamin, his younger brother. When the goblet is then “found,” Joseph threatens to keep the lad in Egypt as a slave. The older brother Judah knows that if they return to their father Jacob in Canaan without Benjamin, Jacob will die in grief. Thus, in a moment of selfless bravery, Judah steps up and pleads with Joseph: “If I come home and the youngest lad is not with us, and the soul of the one is bound up with the soul of the other, then it shall come to pass that he shall die in sorrow. Please take me as your slave instead of Benjamin.” (Genesis 44.33)

In contemporary parlance, we might say that Judah “stuck his neck out” for his brother Benjamin. Even though he knew that he was incurring risk to himself by offering to remain in Egypt in place of his younger brother, Judah was willing to take that risk to protect Benjamin, and to spare their father the grief that almost surely would have killed him.

On his MSNBC show “The Last Word,” Lawrence O’Donnell pointed out on Wednesday evening that the three richest United States senators are Democrats: Senator Dianne Feinstein of CA, Senator Richard Blumenthal of CT, and the richest of all, Senator Mark Warner of VA. Because of their great personal wealth, they are among those who stand to gain the most from the tax bill passed by the Congress this week. Because, upwards of 80% of the benefits of this bill will go to corporate America, and the top 1% of people in this country. Nevertheless, of the three Senators who stand to gain the most, all three voted against this tax bill, and ultimately against their own personal interest. Why? Because they understand their jobs as United States senators to be protectors of the weakest among us, not brokers of the richest and most powerful. We might say, they “stuck their necks out” to protect the poor and the middle class. Not so the Republicans. This “tax reform” is designed to give big tax cuts to corporate America.

Okay, there are some minimal cuts for the middle class and the poor. But, whereas the cuts for the corporations are permanent, the cuts for the middle class and poor will reverse themselves within ten years. In addition, this bill will blow an additional $1.5 trillion hole in the national debt—a hole that my son, and all our children, and their children, will have to figure out how plug in the decades to come. But one result of this increasing debt will be automatic cuts in social programs: Meals on Wheels, farm aid like the Crop Insurance Fund, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program, the National Flood Insurance Program, the Department of Justice’s Crime Victims Fund, and more, too numerous to mention. And of course, it won’t be long before Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, find themselves directly in the cross-hairs of the architects of this unconscionable plan.

The Republicans have stuck their necks out, alright. They have stuck them out for the benefit of the wealthiest 1% of the people in this country, and they have turned their backs on the rest of us.

This is not the American dream. Nor is it what we learn from Jewish tradition. We learn to aid the poor; care for the sick; protect the elderly, the weak, and the powerless among us.

Because of his heroism and personal integrity, Judah became the progenitor of King David, and then, according to tradition, of the Messiah himself. But our society has a long way to go before we even come close to realizing the messianic vision of our tradition. This bill has driven even further off course.

As we anticipate the end of this calendar year, we absolutely must return to the humanitarian teachings of our faith, and renew our energy to work to realize them. There is way too much at stake now.

When Judah offered himself instead of Benjamin, Joseph “could no longer control himself,” and he sobbed out loud. “Joseph said to his brother, ‘I am Joseph, your brother. . . Do not be distressed. . . I will provide for you.” (from Genesis, Chapter 45)

We are part of the same human family, and part of the family of America. We cannot turn our backs on each other. “I am Joseph, your brother….”

Jerusalem, the City of Peace

Jacob now settled in the land of his father’s sojourning, in the land of Canaan.  (Genesis 37:1)

So begins our Torah portion for this week, Vayeishev. There is no doubt that our people have lived in what ultimately became known as the Land of Israel for well over 3,000 years. Historically, we always have identified Jerusalem as our people’s capital city. Nevertheless, I must voice my agreement with the leaders of the Reform Movement this week, as I denounce President Trump’s decision to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and begin plans to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. While we maintain our attachment to, and identification of Jerusalem as our spiritual center, in the practicality of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, this was a poke in the eye of the Palestinians, and in my view, creates an even greater obstacle to achieving the hope of some sort of equitable agreement between our two peoples. There is no greater dream than for Jerusalem to realize its own self-definition as “the city of peace.”

I would offer for your consideration statements by two of my rabbinic colleagues. The first was issued earlier this week by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, and endorsed by the entire Reform Movement, represented in the list of organizations at the end. The second is from Rabbi Jill Jacobs (no relation), Director of T’ruah: A Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, Boston, MA; December 5, 2017:

“President Trump’s ill-timed, but expected, announcement affirms what the      Reform Jewish Movement has long held: that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Yet while we share the President’s belief that the U.S. Embassy should, at the right time, be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, we cannot support his decision to begin preparing that move now, absent a comprehensive plan for a peace process. Additionally, any relocation of the American Embassy to West Jerusalem should be conceived and executed in the broader context reflecting Jerusalem’s status as a city holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

The President has said that achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians is “the ultimate deal.” Just this weekend, his advisor Jared Kushner noted the importance of such an agreement to regional stability overall. While the President took the right step in announcing that he would sign the waiver, as have his Republican and Democratic predecessors, the White House should not undermine these efforts by making unilateral decisions that are all but certain to exacerbate the conflict.

We urge the President to do everything in his power to move forward with efforts to bring true peace to the region and take no unilateral steps that will make that dream more distant. We welcome the opportunity to work with the White House to realize the day when Jerusalem truly becomes a beacon of peace.”

American Conference of Cantors
Association of Reform Jewish Educators
Association of Reform Zionists of America
Central Conference of American Rabbis
Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism
Early Childhood Educators of Reform Judaism
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
Men of Reform Judaism
National Association for Temple Administration
North American Federation of Temple Youth
Program and Engagement Professionals of Reform Judaism
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
Union for Reform Judaism
Women of Reform Judaism
Women’s Rabbinic Network
World Union for Progressive Judaism

Rabbi Jill Jacobs:

“Jerusalem has been the spiritual and political center for the Jewish people since King David established his throne there thousands of years ago. Even after the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion from the city, Jews have continued to pray three times a day for a return to Jerusalem. In our prayers, Jerusalem embodies the peace and wholeness suggested by its name. As Jews, we do not need a political declaration by any head of state to affirm our connection to this sacred place. And we also affirm its sanctity for Christians and Muslims.

Despite the rhetoric about the ‘eternal, undivided capital of Israel,’ Jerusalem remains a deeply divided city. Although Israel annexed East Jerusalem following the Six Day War, the international community has not recognized this annexation. Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, most of whom are not citizens of Israel, do not have the same access to building permits or municipal services as residents of West Jerusalem do. Palestinian East Jerusalem residents are subject to curfews and raids similar to those that take place in the West Bank. The separation barrier cuts off part of East Jerusalem from the rest. The current parameters of Jerusalem, as understood by the Israeli government, include a far greater swath of land than that which David declared as his capital.

T’ruah supports the establishment of a Palestinian state side by side with Israel. In order to be acceptable to both parties, this resolution will necessarily include a capital for each state in Jerusalem. But today, we find ourselves very far from this resolution.

President Trump’s decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel constitutes a symbolic gesture that serves no useful purpose, moves us no closer to a peace agreement, indicates his lack of understanding of the complexities of the region, and will likely lead to unrest and even violence.

This unilateral move sends a strong signal to the world that the United States is relinquishing its position as a peacekeeper and choosing instead to appease those on the far Right who have no interest in finding a path toward peace.

Jerusalem is among the most complicated of cities. An ancient midrash declares,“There are ten measures of beauty in the world—nine in Jerusalem and one in the rest of the world. There are ten measures of suffering in the world—nine in Jerusalem and one in the rest of the world. … There are ten measures of wisdom in the world—nine in Jerusalem and one in the rest of the world. … There are ten measures of flattery in the world—nine in Jerusalem and one in the rest of the world.” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 48). Rather than exacerbate the suffering of Jerusalem, the United States should support both Israelis and Palestinians in bringing their collective wisdom to bear on creating a lasting peace.”

Laughter and Tears

This is a sermon I wrote a number of years ago, and delivered at our temple on Sisterhood Shabbat, back in November of 2004. During that Shabbat, the Sisterhood made a point of honoring our mothers and grandmothers, as is mentioned at the beginning of the sermon. The sermon is based on this week’s Torah portion, “Chayei Sarah.”   I entitled it “Laughter and Tears.”  In these very strange and disturbing times, I found that it has once again struck a chord of poignancy for me, and if you have a few minutes to read it, I hope it will for you as well.

 

Laughter and Tears

This is a sad day in the story of our ancestors. Sarah Imeinu, Sarah our mother, has died, and now her husband Avraham Avinu, Abraham our father, must accord her the final respect of burial. We read that Abraham comes to mourn and bewail his wife: Vayavo Avraham lispod l’Sarah v’livkotahLispodto eulogize–an opportunity to speak well of the dead. So on this day, as we gather to honor each other, and especially our mothers and grandmothers, we offer our own hesped–a eulogy for Sarah Imeinu.

As you know, a eulogy involves looking back on the life of a person, and pulling together elements of that life that will portray who and what that person really was. But how can we find adequate words to describe a woman who herself spoke so very few? After all, from what we can glean from the text, Sarah did not speak much at all; not with her family, nor with anyone else, for that matter. But perhaps it is in this very silence that we might gain a clue as to who Sarah was, and what she felt in her heart.

Think back to our earliest memories of Sarah. The first time we meet her we are told 3 things: (1) Her name was originally Sarai; (2) She was the wife of Avram, the original name of Avraham; (3) She had no children. Is this the kind of introduction that a woman of such stature deserves? “This is Sarai, she has no children.” Is that the sum total of a human being’s significance? Later on in the Book of Numbers, when Moses was taking a census in the wilderness, God specifically instructed him not to ask how many children each person had, but instead to remember that his or her worth as an individual was paramount. Yet here in Genesis, in our first meeting of Sarah we hear, “This is Sarai, she has no children.” How did this kind of presentation affect the heart and soul of Sarah Imeinu? Let’s ponder this, as we turn momentarily to other chapters of her life.

Immediately after Sarai is introduced to us, God tells Avram to leave Haran: Lech lecha mei’artz’chahGo forth from your native land, from your father’s house, and go to the land which I will show you. And, in an instant, Avram takes his belongings, his nephew Lot, and Sarai his wife, and picks up to leave Haran–without so much as a word to Sarai! How could this happen?  Can any of us imagine being treated that way? Was this not also her land–the place of her birth? –her father’s house as well? But this does not phase Avram. So together they leave, lock, stock, and barrel, without a single word passing between them.

Not long after this move, as we recall, the two find themselves in Egypt. But Avram is frightened. Sarai is a beautiful woman; her name, after all, means “princess.” He fears that when the king of Egypt sees her and lusts after her, he, Avram, will be killed. Thus the very first words we hear him speak to his faithful wife were: “Look, you are very attractive. Please–say you are my sister–so that it may go well with me.” And, perfectly in character, Sarai does as her husband asks, sacrificing her virtue; giving herself to another man; without so much as a word.

But now, back to the issue of her childlessness. Regardless of what it says in Numbers, this issue is indeed a serious one; both within the context of the Ancient Near East, and within the relationship between Avram and Sarai. If we think about it, the fact that her childlessness is the first thing we learn about her really is not so surprising. This issue often exists first and foremost in the mind of a woman such as Sarai, and in the soul of the relationship between husband and wife, between spouses, not without its measure of anguish. And sure enough, the problem eventually does play itself out in the triangle that forms around Avram, Sarai, and the Egyptian handmaiden Hagar. Sarai, still true to the role of the self-sacrificing helpmate, offers Hagar to Avraham so that he might not be deprived of an heir, and the experience of fatherhood. Kind of like a modern-day “surrogate mother,” if you will. But once the deed is done, and Hagar becomes pregnant, the scene very quickly deteriorates. Hagar becomes haughty, and Sarai’s pain is exacerbated as she is reminded of her feelings of inadequacy. The confluence of emotions is more than she can bear: guilt, hatred, self-recrimination, anger at the whole predicament. And then, after all she has done for Avraham, when finallyshe cries out to him for help, how does he respond? “She’s your handmaiden, do with her as you please.” Imagine Sarai’s frustration and feelings of helplessness. Imagine her fear that Avraham would lose all interest in her in favor of Hagar. Not much encouragement for her to express herself in the future. And Avram, we might say, with 21st-century hindsight of course, was not very helpful to her when she needed him. Not very understanding. Not a very comforting husband.

Just by way of comparison, we can find another model in the Bible of the exchange between husband and wife experiencing the same kind of problem–Hannah and Elkanah, parents of the prophet Samuel. Elkanah had 2 wives, Hannah and Pnina. Pnina had children, Hannah did not. Pnina, like Hagar, used this to taunt Hannah–a convenient, but vicious way of demoralizing one’s rival. But Elkanah responds in a different way. When Hannah comes crying he implores her: “Why do you cry so? Is not my love for you enough to take the place of 10 children?” True, Hannah certainly was happier once she had Samuel. But her real happiness might well have come from the comfort and security offered her by her beloved husband Elkanah–comfort and security denied to Sarah. Is this to say that Abraham was a horrible and unfeeling person? Not necessarily. It is just an observation–of how much better the relationship functioned for Hannah and Elkanah.

The happiest moment in Sarah’s life came when she learned that she wasdestined to give birth, even at the age of 90. Remember that some time earlier, God had told Avram that he would be the father of many nations–av hamon goyim–and thus his name would be changed to Avraham. “And God then said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah. I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she shall give rise to nations; rulers of peoples shall issue from her…” And Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed–vayitzhak–as he said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at 90?…” And God said, “Nevertheless, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Yitzhak, Isaac.” So it was Abraham who laughed out loud at God. But God does not respond to his laughter, except to name his son because of it. But what happens when Sarah hears the news? First of all, she is not told about directly! She happens to overhear it when the 3 “visitors” are talking with Abraham at the tent. “Your wife, Sarah, shall have a son.” And she laughed within herself saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment with my husband so old?” “And Sarah laughed beqirbah–within herself.”

Sarah did not laugh out loud, as Abraham had before her. But what was God’s response to Abraham? “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’ Is anything too wondrous for God?”

Why was Sarah blamed for laughing? And even if she had laughed, what would have been so terrible? What’s so bad about laughing? God seems to be worried that she doubts divine power. But how was she supposed to know that these 3 “visitors” were divine messengers? They never talked to her! The 16th-century commentator Sforno says that Sarah made a category error. She couldn’t be expected to know what was going on here. We would expect her to laugh. The text itself says that she merely laughed within herself. Remember that it was Abraham who laughed out loud. But he was not reprimanded at all! And why did he withhold it from Sarah to begin with? Where is the communication between these two?!

But despite the questions over who laughed and why, there’s a deeper issue here. What is the laughter all about? Remember, that the condition of her childlessness had been a source of great anxiety and deep sadness for Sarah. She had suffered humiliation and anger, and she was probably quite depressed. And now, the extraordinary news that she will be given the gift of parenthood!….   Have you ever had the experience of laughing until you cry? The laughter seems to unlock the emotions, and if given half a chance, they will flow naturally to tap those more deeply hidden. Could this not have been true for Sarah Imeinu? She only laughed within herself. But it could well be that if she had really laughed, and then been allowed to continue laughing, she probably would have started to cry–for all the pain she had endured in the past; for all that was missing in her marriage to Abraham; for the dreams that she thought she had lost; and of course, for the relief that some of them, at least, finally would be realized.  Laughter and tears… perhaps for Sarah, they were one and the same.

But even after that triumphal moment of joy, Sarah’s trials continued. The crowning blow soon followed, as her husband took her son Isaac, and went riding off into the early morning sun, without a single word about it to her. And she never saw either of them again. For the rest of her days on this earth, Sarah our mother lived, bereft of her son, and apart from her husband–perhaps the final blow to a marriage that was never all that close to begin with.

So here we are, “after these things,” still faced with the challenge of finding words for our mother Sarah. But we might take our lead from the Torah itself, as it begins on this very day: “Sarah’s lifetime–the span of Sarah’s life–came to 127 years.” 127 years–when the blessing for which we all pray is a mere 120! Sarah not only lived a complete life, she merited completeness and then some. Even more interesting is the way in which this total is expressed in the Hebrew: “And the span of Sarah’s life was 100 years, and 20 years, and 7 years.” This, we learn from the commentators, is because of the righteousness of Sarah Imeinu. Rashi says that she was such a virtuous woman that when she was 100, she seemed like 20. Add to this the sacred number of 7, and Sarah becomes the most honored woman of the Bible. Age did not diminish her beauty, and all her years were goodness. Remember, her very name means “princess.” But perhaps her age is expressed as it is to recall a note of sadness as well. Perhaps in Sarah’s own mind, it was as though she already had lived 3 lifetimes. Perhaps the words of the spiritual “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen” are words that Sarah could have sung herself. But despite the trials, and the sadness, Sarah Imeinu never relinquished her grace, her courage, her determination, and her loyalty.

Sarah was indeed the mother of us all. Her laughter and tears are our laughter and tears. Her family is our family, and the heritage she initiated is ours. She was a righteous woman and a beautiful soul. May her memory live through us, her children, and may it be a blessing forever.

A Postscript: 

This week began with the tears that we all have shed as Americans, in the wake of the unspeakable tragedy that befell the people of Sutherland Springs, TX, who had gathered in church for Sunday morning prayer. As people of faith, our hearts are heavy with grief as we think about the innocent victims, mercilessly and brutally gunned down in their house of worship. Our sadness is deep as we contemplate the sorrow of those they leave behind. We pray that their loved ones may eventually find some way to go on with life, comforted in their own understanding of God’s loving embrace.

But, my friends, we are forced once again to confront the reality that our tears, our prayers, and our sorrow are simply not enough. Nor are they enough from all the members of Congress who expressed them this week. No. It is time for them to act. It is time for them to act with courage. It is time for them to overcome the hold that the NRA has on them. How many lives will it take? How many children? How many tears? How many prayers? It is time for them to find some integrity, even at the possible cost of the seats they hold. Enough…enough…enough….

Welcome the Stranger

And so, we are here again. A horrifying week. Senseless loss of innocent life. Pain, fear, trauma. Such a sad week for us as Americans, and particularly as New Yorkers. In the very shadow of Freedom Tower—our tribute to the World Trade Center, and our will to go on in the face of terrorism—we endured yet another act of terrorism, and depraved, wanton murder. But, as a city and as a people, though we were shocked and traumatized, we did not, and will not, allow terrorism to shut us down. Our mayor, our governor, the police commissioner, and representatives of the incredible police force and anti-terrorism units that we have built up in this city, spoke strongly and informatively to all of us, and also with profound sympathy to those who lost loved ones. They did this because they are leaders; and that is what we need from them at such a time, and have every right to expect.

While I am not particularly fond of Mr. Trump (just in case any of you might have been in doubt), I actually do wish that, at the very least, he had some ability to understand and fulfill this role of leadership as President of the United States. That is my wish for sake of the well-being of our people, and the safety of our country. Unfortunately, our president is utterly incapable; both of understanding, and fulfilling. On the contrary. Mr. Trump immediately used this tragedy to jump onto his Twitter feed and accuse our own Senator Chuck Schumer of having caused this horrific act, because of a particular immigration policy that in fact was a bi-partisan effort, enacted during the first Bush administration in 1990, and which Schumer then participated in reversing in 2013, again in a bi-partisan effort. But on Trump’s part, this was just one more chapter in the fear mongering that he has fomented since he invented the “birther” nonsense, all of which has been directed against immigrants, and home-born Americans whom he deems to be “different,” and thus “not one of us.” Trump is obsessed; consumed by xenophobia; driven by his own hatred of anyone he considers to be “the other.” And the circle seems to be widening by the day.

Our Torah portion opens as Abraham sits by his tent in the heat of the day. Three men approach, and he welcomes them with open arms. Immediately, he invites them to sit down and share a meal with him. This episode becomes our paradigm for the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim—welcoming the stranger. Beginning with Abraham’s journey that we read about last week, continuing on through the Book of Genesis, on through our entire Torah narrative, and indeed, throughout our history as a people, we have become all too well acquainted with the plight of the stranger, because it has been our plight. We have been strangers in strange lands throughout the millennia of our existence as a people. And here in our sidra, we also learn to welcome and care for others who are in that same position.

Our government officials and counter-terrorism intelligence experts will have to work overtime, in these dangerous times, to ferret out the type of “home-grown radicalization,” as it has been characterized, that drove this terrorist to act this past Tuesday. But the knee-jerk impulse on the part of the president to shut down immigration is wrong-headed and mean-spirited. That is not what we have been about as a nation, or as a people. Losing our cherished freedom is a dangerously high price that looms before us. Losing our heart is an even higher one. We cannot let that happen.

In the Wake of Hurricane Harvey

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Eternal your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deuteronomy 25.17-19)

So concludes Parashat Ki Teitzei for this Shabbat. We know this passage not only as the end of this week’s Torah portion, but also as the extra reading for Shabbat Zachor—the Sabbath of Remembrance—immediately preceding the Festival of Purim. The evil Haman, whose name we “blot out” on Purim, is said to be a descendant of Amalek, whose army’s most heinous act as they attacked our ancestors in the Wilderness was to attack from behind, cutting down those in the rear. Of course, who is it that generally ends up at the rear of a large group of people? The stragglers; the weak; the children; the elderly; those with disabilities; those who are most vulnerable. This was the real crime of the Amalakites.
Please allow me a midrashic stretch, if you will. This week we have witnessed an attack upon some of the weakest and most vulnerable of our fellow Americans; not by an army, but by Nature herself. Twelve years ago, just this week, we had to confront the same reality. When a hurricane is barreling toward a city, the residents are warned to evacuate. But the reality we confronted in Katrina is the same one we are dealing with now, as the unprecedented horror of Harvey has devastated Houston, Beaumont, and many of the surrounding areas in Texas, and on into Louisiana, Alabama, and now Tennessee. Yes, obviously evacuation is essential, to save life and limb first and foremost. But there are those among us who simply have nowhere to go, and no means to get there. This does not apply to everyone caught in this storm, many of whom were indeed caught by surprise as the flood waters invaded their homes and rose several feet high. But for many, evacuation was just not possible. We have heard and seen the reports of children and elderly people, those in wheelchairs and hospitals, being hoisted into helicopters and pulled onto boats. Many now have run out of medication. Hot food is at a premium. The standing water will soon become a health hazard. While Nature knows no bounds and is unaware of class distinctions, disasters like these remind us that those who are often affected the most seriously are those who are the most vulnerable in the first place.
As it has done time and time again, the Union for Reform Judaism has stepped up to the plate as a clearing house for contributions. We need not remain powerless in the face of destruction. Please access the link to the URJ site and contribute to the efforts of our movement: Donate to the victims of Hurricane Harvey. Or, if you prefer, the American Red Cross is also working round the clock to help, and they could use your help as well.
After this week of destruction and turbulence, it is my hope that our fellow Americans in the South will begin to experience some relief. And for us, I wish you a Shabbat Shalom, and a pleasant and peaceful Labor Day Weekend.