Hayom harat olam. Today the world is pregnant, as we will recite six times on Saturday and Sunday. Not the traditional translation, I know, but a more accurate one. The world is pregnant with a new year, one upon which we will place our hopes and our dreams.
As I scramble with last-minute Rosh Hashanah preparation, I am placing a whole lot of pressure on 5781 to be a better year. And as all parents know, you cannot force your children to be better; you can only love them and nurture them and provide the environment in which you hope they will thrive.
That environment is the one that we create. If we want an environment of health, we have to create that. If we want happiness, we must work to make others happy. If we want truth and justice and fair treatment for all people, we need to foster that atmosphere in the neighborhoods and cities and nations in which we live.
So yes, on Rosh Hashanah we celebrate God’s coronation with the sounding of a horn and music and liturgy of depth and grandeur. But we must also focus on working harder, even in the diminished capacity in which we find ourselves, to nurture 5781 and greet her in a way that reflects our highest values. Hayom harat olam.
You are walking through the world half asleep. It isn’t just that you don’t know who you are and that you don’t know how or why you got here. It’s worse than that; these questions never even arise. It is as if you are in a dream.
Then the walls of the great house that surrounds you crumble and fall. You tumble out onto a strange street, suddenly conscious of your estrangement and your homelessness.
A great horn sounds, calling you to remembrance, but all you can remember is how much you have forgotten. Every day for a month, you sit and try to remember who you are and where you are going. By the last week of this month, your need to know these things weighs upon you. Your prayers become urgent.
So begins my go-to book at this time of year, Rabbi Alan Lew’s This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared. The book is filled with stories that help illustrate the journey of this part of the Jewish year, the arc that begins with destruction, Tish’ah Be’Av, and spirals upward through rebuilding, coronation, repentance, and celebration.
Rabbi Lew’s essential message is this: if you pay attention, if you are in fact prepared, the holiday odyssey is so much more powerful. We have the opportunity before us to change our behavior for the better, and in doing so change the world for the better.
The key to this betterment is preparation. Being ready. God tells Moshe to be ready before he ascends Mt. Sinai to get the tablets. (Ex. 34:2):
Vehyeh nakhon laboqer, ve’alita vaboqer el har sinai. Be ready by morning, and in the morning you shall ascend Mt. Sinai.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are something like Mt. Sinai. That is the gravity with which we should approach these days. And we have to be prepared, just like Moshe.
I know that the young woman whose bat mitzvah we celebrated today prepared extensively for this day; she read the entirety of today’s Torah reading. (Kol hakavod!)
What does it take to make a Jewish adult?
No bat mitzvah or bar mitzvah happens without extensive preparation. Learning to read from the Torah, learning to chant parts of the service, preparing a devar Torah to deliver to the congregation.
However, that is really only the icing on the cake, the finished product, as it were. In order to reach that point, a child must spend years learning Hebrew, learning about Jewish practices and customs and law and holidays and values and texts. A Jewish child learns from her or his parents, watching them engage with Jewish life, participating in preparing Shabbat and holiday meals, helping to put up a sukkah, searching for hametz, coming to synagogue with them, observing them acting on Jewish values of gratitude and humility and compassion. A Jewish child learns to question: Why do we do this? What does this mean? Why is this night different from all other nights? Didn’t we say, “Next year in Jerusalem” last year?
In all, 13 years of preparation, of investment of time and money and will, go into making a Jewish adult. And then she is not even really an adult yet. There are still more years of learning and growing to do. A lifetime, in fact; I’m still not sure if I have made it to adulthood.
It can be very easy, too easy to merely roll up to the High Holidays, to the Ten Days of Teshuvah, without preparing. Sure, you figure, we have a family meal, my suit is dry-cleaned, we have our High Holiday tickets, and so forth.
But those things are not so important. What is really important for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? Three simple things – items that you know because they are identified in what you might call the centerfold of RH and YK services: the Untaneh Toqef prayer, right after we ask the grave question of “Who will live and who will die in the coming year?”
Utshuvah, utfillah, utzdaqah ma’avirin et ro’a hagezerah But repentance, prayer, and charity remove the severity of the decree
And I think that this year, knowing that we will not all be gathered together with our collective energy in the same physical space, we need this preparation more than ever. More than any High Holiday cycle in your lifetime. We need it to ensure that this High Holiday season will have meaning. We need it because the world seems so off-kilter right now, and we are going to be really grateful for the spiritual framework of this time. So I give you these three things to think about in the two weeks you have left before Rosh Hashanah:
Teshuvah / Return or Repentance
Rambam, arguably (everything in Judaism is “arguably”) the greatest single interpreter of Jewish life. He writes the tractate Hilkhot Teshuvah (the laws of repentance) as a part of his halakhic compendium Mishneh Torah while serving as a court physician in Cairo in the 12th century. Among the ideas about teshuvah that he emphasizes is the idea that our lives are in the balance in this season. We must look back on our deeds of the past year, and consider that we have equal amounts of merits and transgressions; they balance each other out. And it is our task at this time to ensure that we are working a little harder than usual to make sure that we lean into the “merits,” to make sure that the balance tips the right way.
That is why, Rambam says, we begin sounding the shofar in the month of Elul. We do it every weekday morning at the end of our Shaharit service (if you need a little more shofar in your life right now, you can tune in on this Zoom link every weekday morning at about 8:10 to hear it). I’m also blowing it on the roof of Beth Shalom during ELC pickup.
The shofar’s call, says Rambam, cries, עוּרוּ יְשֵׁנִים מִשְּׁנַתְכֶם! Uru yeshenim mishenatkhem! Wake up from your slumber, you who sleep! The shofar reminds us that we have to be prepared; to stretch ourselves, to do better in this season.
Now is the time to reflect on your actions in the last year. To ask for forgiveness where necessary. To attempt to mend broken relationships. To work a little harder at living Jewishly, at pursuing Jewish values, at fulfilling mitzvot, the holy opportunities of Jewish life.
And that, of course, leads us to…
Tefillah / Prayer
Folks, I have to remind you all of something extraordinarily important about this season: even though we are meeting virtually, even though this may not feel like being in synagogue, it absolutely is. This is real prayer. I know, it’s not ideal, but it is what we have right now.
So make it real prayer. Daven. Shuckle. Meditate. Sing. Do it all in earnest this year. Even if you feel like you have never successfully prayed before. Now is the time. I am proud, and you should be too, that Beth Shalom’s services have remained uninterrupted since March. You can join us every day, so that you can be a little bit more prepared.
A government survey in late July revealed that nearly 30 million Americans claimed that they did not have enough to eat. Those households include one in three of those with children. A food bank in Memphis reported that they had served 18,000 families between March and August, ten times more than in the same period last year.
There is a need right now, more so than in recent memory. The virus has caused a tidal wave of unemployment, and people are hungry. Fortunately, there is a temporary halt on evictions, but with family budgets stretched thin, there are many who may not be able to buy food.
Give to charities now, particularly food banks. It’s good for those who need to eat, and it’s good for your soul as well.
This is really a simple formula: teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah. But investing in those three things will help you be ready.
Bat mitzvah is not just about showing everybody that you can read Torah or lead services or give a credible devar Torah. It is about being ready, about paying attention, about acting on the holy imperatives of Jewish life. We celebrate with our bat mitzvah family today, but we also acknowledge that the task before us, in this season in which we really need some teshuvah / return, in which we crave normality, for a return to something resembling life as we used to know it, that task is harder than ever.
But you can make it happen. You just have to pay attention, listen to the sounding of the shofar waking us up from our slumber, seek forgiveness, pray, and commit some of your economic resources to the benefit of others if you can.
And then you’ll be ready. And God knows that we need to be prepared this year as we enter 5781.
As I stand here today, filled with pride as my daughter was called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah, I cannot help but think about how, just a few weeks after you were born, we were at a Shabbat dinner at Temple Israel of Great Neck, and I was leading the song based on the words of Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, “Kol ha’olam kulo, gesher tzar me-od, veha’iqqar lo lefahed kelal.” The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the most essential thing is not to fear at all. She was so tiny; I was actually holding her in one hand.
Our lives are, in fact, moving forward along that narrow bridge. And nothing has reminded me of the precarious nature of human life more than the coronavirus pandemic, which has brought a new level of fear back into our day-to-day existence like no other experience in recent memory.
But you, Hannah, you hold the future in your hands, along with all your peers. And we will depend on you lo lefahed – not to be afraid.
When Hannah and I sat down back in the winter to start working on her devar Torah, we reviewed the entirety of Parashat Ki Tetze, which she chanted this morning, we encountered the mitzvah, the holy opportunity, that is referred to in rabbinic literature as “shilluah haqen.” If you find a mother bird in a nest with her chicks, and you want to take the chicks as food, the Torah requires us to shoo away the mother bird, so she will not see you taking her chicks. If you perform this mitzvah, the Torah says, you will be rewarded with long life.
I reminded Hannah that this is my favorite mitzvah. “I know, Abba,” she said.
So why is this my favorite mitzvah? Many of you know that I am a vegetarian, and I certainly do not go about looking for nests and chicks to eat. Rather, it is because the mitzvah of shilluah haqen speaks to so much of what we value as Jews.
First, it relates to a principle that Hannah spoke about earlier: that of tza’ar ba’alei hayyim, the prevention of cruelty to animals. We value the life of all of God’s creatures: maintain life, says the Torah, and you are rewarded with life. Compassion even for God’s smallest creatures is a reflection of the qedushah, holiness in the human spirit.
Closely tied to that is the sense of wise use and respect for the resources that have been given to us. We do need to eat, and many people like to eat animals. So we can do that, provided that (a) we ensure that the mother bird lives to create more life, and (b) that she does not suffer the emotional stress of watching her children taken from her.
And the third item is related to a story that the Talmud tells about this mitzvah. A character named Elishah ben Avuyah, who receives the finest rabbinic education from the best teachers of the ancient world, including Rabbi Akiva, loses his faith. He witnesses a young boy climbing up into a tree to get some chicks from a nest. The boy shoos away the mother bird, fulfilling the mitzvah of shilluah haqen, and then falls from the tree and dies. He does not receive the Torah’s promised reward of long life. Elishah’s entire theological framework falls apart. He becomes the most famous apostate in Jewish tradition, referred to often only as Aher, “the other,” because he othered himself.
What value comes from this story? Why did the rabbis include this and other tales of a famous apostate?
The value is that Elishah ben Avuyah is the outlier. That we can, in fact, maintain faith even in the face of evidence that shakes our understanding of the world. Despite what it says all over the Torah, we know that sometimes bad things happen to good people. And vice versa. Jewish theology (and I am saying this in full acknowledgment that Rosh Hashanah is three weeks from today) is not so simplistic.
Our tradition still holds a great appeal for many of us. Why? Because even though we often understand that literal readings of our text do not always hold up, nonetheless, this ancient framework, which we have upheld for a couple thousand years, is still quite valuable in nurturing and sustaining us.
Hevreh, we are facing challenges unlike any seen before in my lifetime. The pandemic, of course. The resurgence of anti-Semitism, which yielded the bloodiest attack on a synagogue in American history, just a few blocks from where I stand. The ongoing scourge of racism, coded and overt.
And, thrown into the mix is the ability that bad actors possess today to spread falsehood so easily.
Many of you may have heard of QAnon for the first time in recent weeks. I am actually ashamed and embarrassed that this deliberate attempt to manipulate people with the most outrageous types of conspiratorial falsehoods has made it to this level of visibility.
In a related vein, I am concerned that when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available (bimherah beyameinu / speedily in our days), many people will not receive it due to misinformation. A recent poll indicated that 40% of Americans say they will not get the vaccine; some will refuse it because of their concerns around vaccine safety, which have been thoroughly debunked, and some are convinced that the coronavirus is just a hoax.
And, lest you think that online falsehoods are limited to a gullible American audience, you might be surprised to know that in the United Kingdom, people are attacking telecom workers who are putting up infrastructure for the new 5G data network, because manipulators online have convinced many that 5G technology actually causes COVID-19 sickness.
We the Jews know the dangers of the widespread dissemination of such falsehoods. The infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Russian forgery originally published in 1903 that supposedly documented the Jewish conspiracy for world domination, was a pretext for state-sponsored Russian pogroms. (It was later published by Henry Ford in the US, by the way.)
It was the falsehoods that Adolf Hitler published in Mein Kampf, and later screamed into a microphone, that enabled the Sho’ah, the Nazi Holocaust that murdered nearly a third of our people during World War II.
It’s easy to lose hope, like Elishah ben Avuyah. This is not the way the world is supposed to work. This is not what God promised us.
But I am going to remind us all that Elishah is an outlier. He succumbed to the fear that God is not with us. We must remember that the forces of lies and chaos have always been there, and it is up to us, to the righteous ones, not to lose faith, not to succumb.
The real value of our tradition is not the literal reward of “long life.” Rather, the real value of our tradition, as well as that of Christianity and Islam and really every other major religious tradition, is the essential behavioral values that are held up by our traditional texts for us to pursue:
The value of compassion, as exemplified by shilluah haqen.
The value of truth (Exodus 23:7): מִדְּבַר־שֶׁ֖קֶר תִּרְחָ֑ק / Middevar sheqer tirhaq. Distance yourself from falsehood.
The value of humility (Isaiah 57:15, which appears in the haftarah on Yom Kippur morning) : מָר֥וֹם וְקָד֖וֹשׁ אֶשְׁכּ֑וֹן וְאֶת־דַּכָּא֙ וּשְׁפַל־ר֔וּחַ לְהַחֲיוֹת֙ ר֣וּחַ שְׁפָלִ֔ים וּֽלְהַחֲי֖וֹת לֵ֥ב נִדְכָּאִֽים׃
… I dwell on high, in holiness; Yet with the contrite and the humble — Reviving the spirits of the humble, Reviving the hearts of the contrite.
The value of community: Kol Yisra’el arevim zeh bazeh (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 27b). All of us are guarantors for each other. We are interdependent, and we must behave as such. And that goes not only for our Jewish neighbors, but for all of them.
The value of freedom, and we have a whole 8-day holiday dedicated to that (Pesah): the responsibility not only to protect our own safety and freedom, but to guarantee those things for others.
The value of tzedakah / charitable giving, for which the Talmud tells us that there is no limit.
And so forth. You know, some people might criticize religious practice as arcane at best, and irrelevant or potentially dangerous at worst. You might have heard people say that all wars have been caused by religion, etc.
But I’ll tell you this: if we follow it, if we commit ourselves to performing the mitzvot, our tradition drives us to be better people. Religious practice, and Jewish practice in particular, living Jewish values, will help create a better world, one marked by the “long life” of which the Torah speaks. And if we lose our faith to the forces of lies and chaos, the world will descend into an unholy pit, from which humanity may never emerge.
So I turn to my daughter Hannah on this day, and implore you thus:
The world that we need you and your peers to create is the one that is hopeful, not hopeless. That is filled with compassion; in which we act with humility; in which we strive for truth and justice in all our dealings; in which we always remember that our essential task in life is to remember the qedushah, the holiness of the other, and act on the Divine imperative to raise the total amount of holiness in this world.
והעיקר לא לפחד כלל
Veha’iqqar lo lefahed kelal. And the most essential thing is not to fear at all. Now build that world.
One of the most challenging things for me right now, in this pandemic time, is the deep dissatisfaction I am feeling; I am living with a gnawing sense that whatever I do, it is not enough. Yes, to some extent I have that feeling in “normal” times as well – it’s a rabbinic affliction. But something about the isolation and limitations on human interaction in this time has vaulted that feeling of “It’s not enough” to the top of my list of regular anxieties.
My work, which, you may know, is mostly NOT leading services and giving sermons, but rather talking with people and teaching, is not particularly satisfying right now, because I know that no matter how much I do, no matter how well we at the synagogue plan for High Holidays or JJEP or benei mitzvah celebrations, no matter how many people I call, it will not be enough. And so too at home. No matter how much time I spend with my family, it is not enough. No matter how awesome it was to go tent camping out in the woods this summer, it is not enough.
And I am continually asking myself, “When this is all over, will I be able to look back and say, did I use this time as best as I could? Could I have done better? Could we have done better?”
As you know, we have been learning some great midrashim / rabbinic stories between minhah and ma’ariv on Shabbat afternoon, in a series I have titled, “My Favorite Midrash.” One that we covered recently, certainly a favorite midrash of mine, is about one of the more curious characters of rabbinic literature, a fellow who is known as “Honi haMe’aggel,” Honi the Circle-Maker. He is so called because of his unique talent of drawing circles in which rain falls. Seemingly unrelated to this remarkable gift, the following midrash is also told (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 23a):
יומא חד הוה אזל באורחא חזייה לההוא גברא דהוה נטע חרובא אמר ליה האי עד כמה שנין טעין אמר ליה עד שבעין שנין אמר ליה פשיטא לך דחיית שבעין שנין אמר ליה האי [גברא] עלמא בחרובא אשכחתיה כי היכי דשתלי לי אבהתי שתלי נמי לבראי
One day, Honi was walking along the road when he saw a certain man planting a carob tree. Honi said to him: This tree, after how many years will it bear fruit? The man said to him: It will not produce fruit until seventy years have passed. Honi said to the tree-planter: Is it obvious to you that you will live seventy years, that you expect to benefit from this tree? He replied to Honi: I myself found a world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants.
The midrash does not tell us about how many carob trees the man found, nor how many he planted. He was probably not too concerned about whether or not he had planted enough trees; the larger point is that he made an effort to ensure that there would be some for his grandchildren.
While my first inclination is to read this story as referring to our responsibility to take care of God’s Creation, such that we can bequeath it in good condition to those who come after us, I think it is also possible to read this as a metaphor not only for our physical environment, but for our spiritual milieu as well.
The beginning of Parashat Re’eh is very concerned about the idea of the Land of Israel as the yerushah, the inheritance of the Israelites. Various forms of the Hebrew word “lareshet” / to inherit appear five times in the first two aliyot we read this morning. It is clear that the Torah wants us to see Israel as the reward; it is the gift for being party to the covenant, for fulfilling the mitzvot. It is what the Torah’s original audience needed to hear; that they would inherit this land as a sign of God’s love to them.
And so, as I am thinking about the emotional state of the world, the divisive nature of American politics right now, and the numbers of people we have lost unnecessarily to the pandemic, and the grief and pain that this loss as well as the economic devastation it has caused, I am left with the following question:
What do we want our children to inherit? What will their spiritual inheritance be?
Do we want them to inherit a polarized world, one in which people not only cannot see the other side of an argument, but openly denigrate those who hold opposing views? Do we want them to inherit a world in which coarse language is the norm, that prevarication goes unpunished, that advocacy for your team always wins out over thoughtful, considered positions? In which news is not fact, but merely spin? In which people on different sides of any particular issue cannot even speak to each other or break bread together, because they view the other as stupid or heartless?
I come back to the line at the end of today’s reading (Devarim / Deuteronomy 12:28):
Be careful to heed all these commandments that I enjoin upon you; thus it will go well with you and with your descendants after you forever, for you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the LORD your God.
How do we plant the carob trees for our grandchildren? How do I use this pandemic time to create a foundation for a better world, so that my children’s spiritual inheritance will be tov veyashar, good and right?
Hevreh, the framework of mitzvot that God has given us is the formula by which we can live better. It was given to us a long time ago, and if more of us were to follow it, the world we will leave to our children will be a much better one. Here is, if you will, a simplified formula for success:
Keep Shabbat. Doing so encourages respect for yourself and those close to you. Keep your conversations and your activities local and low-key. Be with your nearby family and friends. Don’t spend money; avoid technology. Connect with the here and now, and leave behind the elsewhere and the later.
Keep kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws). It encourages respect for God’s Creation. The lines in what we can or cannot consume are there to remind us that there are limits to what is Divinely-acceptable behavior. Maintain the holiness in the natural world.
Pray daily. Connect with yourself; hold your mind and your heart in self-judgment, and leave room for doubt. You may not be right about every single thing. Introspection leads to intentionality, which leads to patience, planning, and presence of mind in all the spheres of life.
Observe Jewish holidays, and make sure you know why. Yom Kippur teaches us humility. Pesah teaches freedom for all. Hanukkah teaches enlightenment. Sukkot teaches simplicity. Simhat Torah celebrates learning. Purim celebrates standing up for what is right.
Learn Torah. The wisdom of the ancient Jewish bookshelf teaches us how to be human beings, not cogs in a machine. It sensitizes us to the needs of others, and forces us to consider how our behavior impacts this world.
It is a simple formula. But of course you are thinking, “Rabbi, I’ve been Jewish all my life and while I may do some of those things, it’s just too much for me to take on something that I’m just not used to doing.”
Let me tell you why you need to reach higher: because the world depends on your mitzvot. Because our heritage – the world our children inherit – depends on your willingness to think and behave for the benefit of the common good. And that is what every single one of those things is about.
What kind of world do you want our children to inherit? One in which everybody is looking out for themselves, seeking personal gratification at any cost? Or one in which we cooperate to solve the big problems, in which we acknowledge the humanity in each other and the Divinity of Creation, in which we seek the holiness that is waiting for us under the surface of every relationship?
The choice is yours. Reach higher. Think of those carob trees, bearing fruit 70 years hence.
And I know this is hard, but try not to worry too much about whether you have done enough. If you take on this formula of five things, I am certain that you will be able to look back and say, “Yes. That was good and right.”
Two days ago we observed the low point of the Jewish year, the fast of Tish’ah BeAv., the ninth day of the month of Av. It is, of course, a day on which we remember all of the greatest tragedies of Jewish history: the destructions of the First and Second Temples, Jerusalem laid waste, exile, dispersion, expulsion, and genocide. It is the only full, 25-hour fast aside from Yom Kippur, and still holds a great resonance for many of us, even though most of the events we recall on this day happened hundreds and thousands of years ago.
It was difficult on this particularly challenging Tish’ah BeAv to think only of the past. Our present moment is filled with so many things to mourn: more than 154,000 dead in America, and approaching 700,000 dead around the world; the social isolation and economic fallout and joblessness caused by the pandemic; ongoing street protests against police brutality; federal troops on the ground in some cities, lobbing tear gas and arresting American citizens; the undeniable rise of anti-Semitism.
Where are the words of comfort for this time?
On Thursday morning, as we chanted the Shaharit / morning service in mournful tones, we recited the haftarah / prophetic reading unique to Tish’ah BeAv, words from the prophet Jeremiah (8:23), who is arguably the best prophet when it comes to grief and loss:
Oh, that my head were water, My eyes a fount of tears! Then would I weep day and night for the slain of my poor people.
Water, of course, is not only associated with tears; it is also the source of life. Jeremiah is requesting not only the ability to cry with abandon, but also to live and give life. Water also suggests, in a more spiritual sense, the sustaining salvation, the life-force that is Divine in nature (cf. Isaiah 12:3, which we say at havdalah every Saturday night, as Shabbat draws to a close: Ush’avtem mayim besasson mimmay’anei hayeshua / Draw water in joy from the wells of salvation.) Who will give me the spiritual sustenance to face the great challenges of this broken world? Where will I find, in my parched soul, the nourishment to rise again tomorrow morning and confront yet another day of devastation? How can I care for those around me, when I am not sure I can even care for myself?
On this Shabbat Nahamu, this Shabbat of comfort, I ask, where is that comfort?
I think that it is only natural at this time to look heavenward, hands outstretched, and ask God directly for some kind of help. In the enduring words of Psalm 121:1, Esa einai el heharim, me-ayin yavo ezri / I lift up my eyes to the mountains; from where will my help come?
In the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70 CE, our ancestors must have been devastated. Everything that they knew about the order of the world had changed effectively overnight. There would be no more sacrifices; there would be no more priesthood. The central pillar of their connection to God was gone.
Now, it may have taken nearly two millennia for us to be able to say this, but maybe the Romans did the Jews a sort of favor. Yes, you have heard me say this before: we now offer the words of our hearts and minds in place of animal sacrifices, surely a less-barbaric approach to worship, and definitely a form more palatable to vegetarians. Our tradition also became portable, decentralized, no longer tied to a particular place and building, and somewhat more democratic, not held in the hands of a few Kohanim / priests, but rather distributed amongst the scholars called rabbis, wherever they lived.
But there is something more. In particular, the destruction of the Temple and the end of the sacrifice system gave us another path to forgiveness. Consider the following passage, which appears on the bottom of p. 14 if you have the classic Siddur Sim Shalom:
Avot deRabbi Natan 4:5
פעם אחת היה רבן יוחנן בן זכאי יוצא מירושלים והיה רבי יהושע הולך אחריו וראה בית המקדש חרב אר״י אוי לנו על זה שהוא חרב מקום שמכפרים בו עונותיהם של ישראל. א״ל בני אל ירע לך יש לנו כפרה אחרת שהיא כמותה ואיזה זה גמ״ח שנאמר כי חסד חפצתי ולא זבח
Once, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai left Jerusalem, and Rabbi Yehoshua followed after him. Rabbi Yehoshua saw the Holy Temple destroyed, and he lamented: ‘Woe to us, for this is destroyed—the place where all of Israel’s sins are forgiven!’ Rabban Yohanan replied, “My child, do not be distressed, for we have a form of atonement just like it. And what is it? Gemilut hasadim, performing acts of lovingkindness, as it says, ‘For I desire hesed / lovingkindness, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6).
This charming story from the midrashic interpretation of Pirqei Avot called Avot deRabbi Natan is a classic rabbinic re-framing of Jewish life. Yes, the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple is destroyed, and Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Yehoshua were there to witness the destruction and to continue to see the ruins for some time after. Rabban YbZ, despite having been there for the cataclysm (and, as the midrash tells us, smuggled out by his students in a coffin), is not fazed by the loss of the center of the Jewish world. Instead, he reminds R. Yehoshua that, despite the fact that we can no longer offer sacrifices, we have another means of bringing about teshuvah, of repairing ourselves in the wake of transgression: gemilut hasadim, acts of lovingkindness.
And to put a fine point on it, YbZ quotes the book of Hosea, written eight centuries before any of these events take place. The Qadosh Barukh Hu (Holy Blessed One) does not desire our animal sacrifices. Do you think God needs us to burn animals on an altar? What God really needs from us is for humans to go out of their way to treat others respectfully; to go the extra mile to take care of those in need; to commit to tzedaqah, charitable acts of righteousness; to literally clothe the naked and feed the hungry and house the homeless and comfort the bereaved and free the oppressed.
Rabban YbZ did not quote my favorite “refrigerator-magnet” verse from the prophet Micah (6:8), but he could have:
“[God] has told you, O man, what is good, And what the LORD requires of you: Only to do justice And to love goodness, And to walk modestly with your God.”
Hevreh, I must say that I have been thinking a lot lately about what the world will be like, in a couple months (let’s hope it’s not too much more than that) when a vaccine for this virus is available, and enough people get the vaccine so that our lives can return to something resembling normalcy.
Will we continue to cautiously tiptoe around one another, maintaining our social distance? Will we avoid gathering in public places: theaters, restaurants, libraries, synagogues, like we used to, for fear of aerosolized viruses? Will I be able to shake anybody’s hands ever again?
Or will we all run outdoors and give hugs to passing strangers? Will we commit ourselves anew to offering our hands in assistance to neighbors in need? Will we reach out with both arms to others as we do justice, love goodness, and walk modestly with God?
The way out of our current state is not by reading kinnot, poems of lament, like the ones recited on Tish’ah BeAv. On the contrary: the kinnot, and indeed the Book of Eikhah / Lamentations that we read on Wednesday evening, the fasting, the self-denial, the eschewing of leather shoes, signs of luxury are there to remind us that there is an end to suffering; that suffering, in fact, precedes redemption. That we can actually bring about the comfort we seek by recommitting to gemilut hasadim.
We will be redeemed. But we do not have to wait for a vaccine to do hesed right now! Yes, gemilut hasadim includes some activities that must be performed in person, and maybe some of those things should not be done right now. But if you have money, if you still have a job, you can give tzedaqah. Find the organizations that are doing good work for people, and donate. Seek out the institutions that you want to ensure will still be here when all is said and done (synagogues, for example, which rely on charitable donations to survive), and make a donation. We have a means to bring about redemption. Let us recommit to hesed to ensure that our world grows in justice and goodness, so that we may continue to walk modestly with God. That will surely bring us some comfort, even as we remain apart from one another.
You may find this hard to believe, but I once saw the hip-hop group Public Enemy live in concert. It was 1991, and I happened to be visiting a friend at Yale when they played in New Haven. I knew very little about what we called “rap” in the 1980s, and although I had the sense that Public Enemy was somewhat controversial, I figured it might be a way to expand my musical horizons.
I enjoyed the show, and I was blissfully unaware that some of the controversy surrounding the group was about somebody who was by then a former member, Professor Griff, whose real name is Richard Griffin. Griffin had been kicked out of the group in 1989 for making anti-Semitic statements in an interview with the Washington Times. Among the things he said were, ”The Jews are wicked. And we can prove this,” and that the Jews are responsible for ”the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe.”
So when an interview of Richard Griffin surfaced two weeks ago, by celebrity Nick Cannon (who, I must admit, I had never heard of – perhaps you get a sense that pop culture is not really my bag?), in which Cannon indulged in some classic anti-Semitic accusations (e.g. that “Zionists” and “Rothschilds” hold lots of power), I was surprised to learn that apparently Griffin had not made amends for past transgressions. Cannon, who as a result of the interview lost his position as host of comedy improv show Wild ‘N Out, offered a pareve non-apology for his remarks.
Meanwhile, Philadelphia Eagles’ wide receiver DeSean Jackson recently posted an inflammatory statement on Instagram, incorrectly attributed to Adolf Hitler, about how the Jews “blackmail” and “extort” America, and their intent for “world domination.” Mr Jackson later apologized, and has been in dialogue with a 94-year-old Holocaust survivor in an attempt to learn. (I must say that I am indeed puzzled that a Black person could deliberately quote Hitler, whether the quote was real or not.)
But the upshot of these incidents is that my favorite Pittsburgh Steeler, offensive tackle Zach Banner (OK, so I had also not heard of Mr. Banner before last week) posted a moving video in response to Mr. Jackson, in which he drew on his experience as a Pittsburgh resident in the context of the Tree of Life shooting. In it, he stated:
…We need to understand Jewish people deal with the same amount of hate and similar hardships and hard times. I’m not trying to get emotional right now, but I want to preach to the black and brown community that we need to uplift them and put our arms around them. Just as much when we talk about Black Lives Matter and elevating ourselves, we can’t do that while stepping on the back of other people to elevate ourselves, and that’s very, very important to me, and it should be important to everyone. . . .
We can’t preach equality but in result flip the script and change the hierarchy, if that makes sense. Change your heart, put your arm around people, and let’s all uplift each other.
Mr. Banner’s words speak for themselves; we must all be united in the struggle against hate.
In a similar vein, basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, now a columnist for the Hollywood Reporter, wrote a column asking, “Where is the outrage over anti-Semitism in sports and in Hollywood?” Mr. Abdul-Jabbar, noting the disturbing recent rise in anti-Jewish hate crimes in recent years, called out rapper Ice Cube, basketball player Stephen Jackson, and Chelsea Handler (who is, in fact, Jewish) for promoting anti-Semitic material, and drew a direct link from the spreading of such material via social media to the Tree of Life massacre.
With all of the concern right now in the world for how Black people have been treated by white America, something which I have spoken aboutrepeatedlyover the last several weeks, we cannot lose sight of the fact that anti-Semitism has a much longer history than European exploitation of African peoples. We cannot forget that anti-Semitism is pernicious and ever-present; it is, you might say, the “Ur-racism.” We cannot forget that anti-Jewish conspiracy theories still infuse much of the world. We cannot forget that these theories motivate actual killers, and we will not forget that one of those killers was driven by this nonsense to murder people that many of us actually knew personally, a half a mile away from where I stand.
So thank God for Black allies like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Zach Banner. Thank God that there are people who understand the power of language, the danger of ideas. Thank God that there are some who get that hatred of any group is all cut from the same cloth, that, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it in 1963 in his essay, “Religion and Race,” “What begins as inequality of some inevitably ends as inequality of all.”
Five days from now is Tish’ah BeAv, the saddest day of the Jewish year, the only full 25-hour fast aside from Yom Kippur. It is a day on which we recall all of the greatest tragedies of Jewish history: the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the Expulsion from Spain, the crushing of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and so forth. It is a day for literally sitting on the floor and weeping, for not bathing or doing anything that brings enjoyment. It is the day of the Jewish calendar on which we recall our oppression and dispersion and persecution throughout our lengthy history.
But Tish’ah BeAv is not merely a day on which to be hungry, thirsty, and miserable. It is also a day on which doing so should make us reflect on our behavior, on our words, and our relationships, stirring our souls in the direction of action. We read Eikhah, the Book of Lamentations, to remind us of the destruction of Jerusalem; indeed, the very first verse, which portrays Jerusalem as a bereft widow, always fills me with woe:
Alas! Lonely sits the city once great with people! She that was great among nations is become like a widow; The princess among states has become a slave.
The Talmud teaches us (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma 9b) that the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE due to the most serious transgressions according to Jewish law: murder, idolatry, and inappropriate sexual liaisons. But the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE due to sin’at hinnam, causeless hatred among the Jews.
And, ladies and gentlemen, the world is still filled with causeless hatred. And one of the messages of Tish’ah BeAv is that we are responsible for eliminating it. We remember what and who we have lost; we acknowledge our suffering; and we rebuild as we head toward the coronation days of Rosh HaShanah.
And so I call on all of us to consider this Tish’ah BeAv not just a national day of mourning for the Jews, but a national day of mourning for all of us: for the 150,000 Americans who have succumbed to Covid-19, yes, but also for all of the forms of destruction wrought by sin’at hinnam, causeless hatred – from the destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa to the internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II to the Shoah to the Tree of Life murders to the killing of George Floyd by a police officer. This Thursday is a day on which all of us should reach deep down inside ourselves to find and acknowledge the sin’at hinnam within each of us as individuals and as a society, and to pledge to stamp it out.
And that of course applies to the Jews as well as to everybody else; just as Messrs. Abdul-Jabbar and Banner have called out anti-Semitism promoted by Black people, so too must we the Jews call out racism and other forms of hatred in our own community when we see it.
At this particular moment in history, we have a lot for which to mourn, on this most mournful day of the Jewish calendar. But let us turn this mourning into a call to action, to improve ourselves and work harder to fix this broken world, to reach out to others in partnership and in the spirit of teaching and learning from one another, so that detestable ideas of any sort about other groups of people may be expunged from the collective human heart.
Two weeks ago my family and I were on vacation, tent camping in the Allegheny National Forest, and it was simply wonderful. It’s easy to socially distance when you’re out in the woods, and the hiking and biking were joyful and restorative. Despite the inconvenience of regularly checking for ticks, I actually really love being out of doors, and for me there is nothing quite like it. More importantly, we had no wi-fi or even a mobile phone signal for most of the time, so it was fairly easy to forget, at least for a few days, about the public health catastrophe that is going on all around us.
But we cannot ignore this, folks. It is not going away. I think the State of Pennsylvania made a critical tactical error in labeling this phase of re-opening “Green,” because it seems to me that this suggests, “Go for it.” People poured into bars and restaurants, flew off to the beaches in South Carolina and Florida, and in Allegheny County we went from almost no new cases to a couple of hundred a day. And I cannot even muster the energy to try to comprehend how the governor of Georgia decided to outlaw local mask-wearing orders. I am beside myself.
Let’s be clear here, folks: we did this to ourselves. Our politicians have ignored the directives of actual scientists and experts and have lacked the intestinal fortitude to clamp down, and we the people have refused to comply with simple, sensible health measures. As a result, this journey of grief and unemployment and depression will last much longer, and many more Americans will die.
Speaking of journeys, the end of the book of Bemidbar / Numbers documents the various places that the Israelites traveled to and set up camp on their 40-year journey from slavery in Egypt to redemption in Israel. It is one of a handful of passages in the Torah that list stops along the way. The question is asked by some commentators, why bother to list these locations? They are in the desert, unremarkable places that hold no other significance.
One theory, promoted in a midrash, is that God wanted the Israelites to have a record of where they had been, so they could recall the travails of the journey. “Here is where you were tired and needed to rest; here is where you felt ill; here is where you were thirsty and needed water.” Perhaps.
But the Jewish journey that began in the Torah and effectively continues up until today includes stops in many places that we will never recall. How many of us can name the towns where our great-grandparents were born? Or their great-grandparents? And yet, we know how they suffered. They suffered at the hands of Cossacks and Spaniards and Arabs and Persians and Romans and Babylonians. They suffered through famines and plagues, and were often blamed for these things by their gentile neighbors. They suffered through blood libels and anti-Semitic laws and accusations and suspicions. They were forcibly conscripted into the Czar’s army, forcibly converted to Christianity and Islam, forcibly taken from their homes and put on trains and sent to death camps.
In the context of today’s pandemic, I must say, I am certain that we will survive. We will still be here when this is over.
We will still be here because we have survived worse than this. Much worse, in fact.
A few of you may know that I host a bi-weekly meeting for what I refer to as the Hanhalah Team of the synagogue, the senior staff. It includes Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, director of Derekh and Youth Tefillah, our Etxecutive Director Ken Turkewitz, Youth Director Marissa Tait, ELC Director Hilary Yeckel, and JJEP Director Rabbi Larry Freedman. And we had a meeting on Thursday that was tremendously frustrating. The ELC is open and functioning safely for about 60 kids in small, non-intermixing pods; that’s the good news. But for the rest of us, planning for the coming year – the High Holidays, JJEP’s classes, youth activities, Derekh activities, youth tefillah – all of them are effectively up in the air. We feel as though people are Zoomed out. We are working in an environment in which we cannot make decisions about the future, because we simply have no idea what the future looks like.
It’s not just frustrating. It’s downright painful. We all care about living and teaching our tradition, and since being Jewish so heavily depends upon being around others, it has made our lives so difficult.
But let’s face it: things could be much, much worse. Has veshalom / God forbid.
We always open these meetings with a devar Torah, and Rabbi Freedman regaled us this week with a wee bit of optimism: the Promised Land is coming. It’s actually not that far away. Yes, we are still in the desert, and we will be for a while. But next week we start reading the book of Devarim / Deuteronomy, and we know what happens next.
But maybe that’s why all those stops along the way from Egypt to Israel are there: to remind us that 40 years was a VERY long time. To remind us that the journey can be easily forgotten when recalling its endpoints. To remind us that there were headaches and hunger and thirst and loss along the way.
The silver lining is this: we are gathered here this morning, a testament to the fact that the Jews have survived 2,000 years of dispersion and destruction and suffering and loss. And how did we do this? By recounting the journey. And by leaning into the words of our tradition: the Torah, and of course the words of prayer, the words of our siddur. And let me just bring this to a close by pointing us all to one particular line in our siddur, one that is so often overlooked because it is mumbled through quickly in a transitional moment in the service.
It’s found in Yequm Purqan, p. 412 in Sim Shalom and 176 in Lev Shalem. We only say this on Shabbat morning; it is a request for health and welfare for the congregation, and also includes a wish for our children. Open up and take a look for a moment:
Zar’a haya veqayama, zar’a di la yifsuq vedi la yivtul mipitgamei oraita.
May [our] children thrive, never ceasing to speak words of Torah.
It’s in Aramaic. Why? Because that was the language that our ancestors spoke for many centuries, and therefore understood it better than Hebrew. We do not know exactly how old it is, but it first appears in the 13th-century French Mahzor Vitry.
Prayer, you may recall, is a blueprint for a better world, a vision of a society that could be. The point of this wish is to remind us that, just as we have carried our Torah with us for millennia, we want our children to do so as well.
It is a beautiful plea; a statement of yearning that, whatever challenges we face right now, in whatever spiritually-barren place in which we find ourselves, that our children receive and carry with them the words that have kept us alive and nourished us up until this very day.
Ladies and gentlemen, as we continue to face this pandemic, the dysfunction of our governing structures and the lamentably growing death count, remember that the silver lining is that our children will know Torah; that its wisdom and values and guidance will never depart from their lips. And now go out and make that happen. That is how we will get through this. The Promised Land is not far away.
Well, I must admit that it’s a bit sad for me to be all alone in our sanctuary once again. For a moment there, we thought we might be able to keep meeting in person. Now, it seems, we are back to square 1. I am grateful to Beth Shalom’s Coronavirus Task Force for considering this issue thoughtfully and putting our safety ahead of other concerns.
But I suppose it is, unfortunately, not too surprising, based on the behaviors that I have seen in the last few weeks. Some people are diligent about wearing masks and keeping away from others. Others are not at all. And of course there is a range in-between: uncovered noses, pulling a mask down to speak, believing that a mask exempts you from social distancing, which it does not.
Now, clearly, even with a mask-wearing order in place, law enforcement cannot ensure that everybody is wearing masks and distancing themselves. To a great extent, we have to rely on the willingness of people to follow these instructions to benefit public health. Or, on a smaller scale, we can ask those we interact with in public to please put on their masks.
But Americans love to break conventions and customs as an expression of freedom. From its very outset, the American nation was based on an idea that was mostly foreign to the monarchies of Europe: that, as the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence puts it, “all men are created equal.” Yes, I know that at the time, they did not really believe that in a complete sense, and that that particular phrase excluded a majority of people living here when it was written. But the spirit of democracy that infused the creation of this country was an affront to virtually everything that had come before it.
And that independent streak still runs strong through American veins. Some of us still carry the banner of, “Don’t tread on me,” but today, of course, it is primarily a vulgar gesture directed at our own government.
So now we have discovered a problem with the American inclination to flout convention for the sake of “freedom”: in order to beat the virus, we have to work together. We have to understand that this is an “all-in” sort of operation. Nobody is beyond the reach of this bug, and to beat it, we are all going to have to change our behavior for the common good. And before we even get to that point, we have to agree what “the common good” is. And, thankfully, our tradition can guide us in this.
Many of you know that I am an optimist, and although these times seem to leave little room for optimism, I have to remind us all that we will eventually get past this as a society. I am very sorry to say that we have not been able to muster our courage as a nation to prevent more disease and more unnecessary deaths. Perhaps this new wave of infections, and the rising body count that will inevitably follow, will lead more people to be more inclined toward the common good.
I heard this week Rabbi David Wolpe interviewed by Jonathan Silver on the Tikvah Podcast. Rabbi Wolpe is one of the most prominent Conservative rabbis in America, the spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. They were speaking about the future of the non-Orthodox movements, and the interviewer asked the following: “Do you think the pandemic will change the way [non-Orthodox] Jews think about America?” Rabbi Wolpe responded with the following:
My greatest sorrow through this — obviously apart from the loss of life — has been the extent to which even the question of wearing masks becomes politicized. And I think that as long as we are in the grip of this inability to believe anything good of people who are on the opposite side of the political spectrum from oneself, and to believe that the opposite side is venal and evil, and as long as I receive nothing but articles attacking the other side from members of my congregation who are on one side or another, I’m not sure that we will learn anything about America that is useful to be learned. It is only the extent to which we are able to vault over our own preconceptions and to understand that whatever the faults of the people who oppose you, that they also have something to say, and their experience also deserves to be taken into account, only then will we be able to learn.
You cannot learn by lobbing grenades over a wall. So, I hope the pandemic will teach us something, but so far I’m not seeing it.
The Jews, of course, are just like everyone else, only moreso. So all of the challenges that we have with division in this country exist in our community as well. Rabbi Wolpe was speaking about the Jewish community, but you could very easily extrapolate what he said to the rest of America. We cannot work toward the common good until we as individuals are willing to think beyond ourselves.
I am grateful that this nation was a haven for my great-grandparents when they arrived here more than a century ago. I am grateful that the founders of this country dedicated themselves to the proposition that all are created equal, and that President George Washington, upon visiting the synagogue in Newport, RI in 1790, affirmed that this nation should “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” I am grateful to have grown up in this American experiment, in which we the Jews have, mostly, thrived.
But I am also terrified. I behold the mess in front of us right now, a nation that is coming apart at the seams. Our leaders do not debate serious policy proposals; they exchange barbs. Our people are told to make particular behavioral choices to protect public health, and they do the exact opposite. Winning at any cost is valued over the common good. The simmering cauldron of the American culture wars is laced with racism and anti-Semitism, seasoned with misinformation and outright lies, and about to boil over.
Some of you know that my favorite hymn (ok, so my second favorite after Hatikvah, which always makes me cry), is America the Beautiful, the poem originally penned by Kathryn Lee Bates in 1893. One of the verses that is almost never heard is the following (it’s not in the back of our siddur):
O beautiful for heroes proved In liberating strife, Who more than self their country loved And mercy more than life! America! America! May God thy gold refine, Till all success be nobleness, And every gain divine!
This is, by the way, the verse that Ray Charles starts with in his phenomenal recording of the song. If you have never heard this version, you definitely should do so right now:
Let me just break down a brief piece of that, Rashi-style:
Who more than self their country loved, The heroes of which this verse speaks include of course those who fought and died for this nation, but also those who, behind the front lines and not in military uniforms, dedicated themselves to building a society based on the common good, and not merely on self-interest.
And mercy more than life. The sign of a truly just society is the one that cares about all its people no matter their station. When I am willing to sacrifice what I have, my possessions, my reputation, my life, so that somebody else is treated mercifully, then we will have achieved the nobleness that the verse references.
National hymns like this, very much like prayer, are aspirational; they reflect our aims as a society, where we see ourselves headed. God willing, some day Americans will put mercy for others above their own lives. Some day, they will hew to the instructions of the prophet Micah, which we read in today’s haftarah:
He has told you, O man, what is good, And what the LORD requires of you: Only to do justice And to love goodness, And to walk modestly with your God.
Would that we could all follow this simple formula: justice, goodness, and walking modestly. It’s that last one that is especially captivating for its unusual form. It’s an imperative, but the verb is not lalekhet, to walk, but rather, lehatzni’a, to make modest. Hatzne’a lekhet, perhaps more literally translated is “Make your walking modest” as you saunter through life. And I think that this image of approaching life modestly includes the following values taught by our tradition:
Honesty – מדבר שקר תרחק (Midevar sheqer tirhaq / Distance yourself from falsehood. Shemot / Exodus 23:7)
Learning – תלמוד תורה (Talmud Torah, the highest holy opportunity of Jewish life.)
Respect – דרך ארץ (Derekh eretz. See e.g. Pirqei Avot 2:2)
Ladies and gentlemen, all I can say on this July 4th is the following:
Make good choices. Make the choices that benefit the common good. Implement these Jewish values in your everyday actions. Protect others. Have mercy. Seek justice and goodness. Make your walking through life modest.
And if we can get everybody on that program together, we will not only vanquish the virus, but we will continue to build America the Beautiful, and get this American experiment back on track.
Shabbat shalom, and a happy and reflective Independence Day.
Purity and purification were of utmost importance to our ancient Israelite ancestors, and for good reason. Theirs was a world of many dangers: marauding wildlife, uncontrollable diseases, bloodthirsty enemies, lawless bandits, the merciless forces of nature, and so forth. Purity was an ideal that they held out before themselves, that through various rituals they could achieve a pure state, in which God would favor them and lessen the danger.
Not much has changed. With COVID-19 potentially lurking in every corner, police brutality on display for all to see, racial injustice revealed in all its ugliness, anti-Semitism gathering steam, and governmental dysfunction of cataclysmic proportions, it is easy to feel like we are floundering in chaotic currents of human failure.
I could use a good cleanse right now.
And so it almost makes sense to read the passage in Parashat Huqqat about the parah adumah, the notoriously elusive “red heifer” used in preparing a magic potion that would cleanse anybody of tum’at met, ritual impurity that came from exposure to a corpse. Almost, because to contemporary ears this passage is inscrutable. And not only contemporary: a midrash (Bemidbar Rabbah 19:3) has the wise King Solomon declaring, “I have labored to understand the word of God and have understood it all, except for the ritual of the parah adumah.”
Nonetheless, one does see the appeal in achieving purity through curious rituals. I want all of this to be over. I want resolution. I want purity. And I want to be able to sit on my porch on a summer evening, survey the world, and think, All is right once again.
I want catharsis.
One of the greatest challenges that we see right now is that none of these things have a simple, sweet resolution. The virus is not going to magically disappear. The problematic political actors are not simply going to pick up their toys and go home. The system that reinforces racial injustice at many levels in American society is not going to fix itself. The Jew-haters are not going to crawl back into their holes. The Internet will not suddenly only speak the polite truth. The Earth’s atmosphere is not going to stop its steady warming. There is no magic potion. There is no parah adumah.
There is only us. And we are going to have to work together to solve these problems. But the good news is that we have solved many such challenges before, and we have the ability to do so again. But it will require that we listen to one another and to the words of professionals, that we act from a place of respect for each other rather than “winning.”
Perhaps what this passage teaches us is that the details and complexity of the parah adumah ritual, and indeed the impossibility of finding the right cow for the job, suggest that the easy way out does not exist; that although absolute purity is unattainable, we should nonetheless push ourselves to find it.
Lo alekha hamelakhah ligmor, velo attah ben horin lehibbatel mimmena, says Pirqei Avot. It is not up to you to finish the task, but neither can you let it go. We may not find either a red heifer nor that much-needed catharsis, but if we do not even seek to unite to solve big problems, then nothing will be solved. It is through cooperation and commitment that we will ultimately achieve purity.
In the classic Israeli pop tune from 1974, Natati La Hayyai, the first Israeli supergroup, Kavveret, opined about giving one’s life to one’s country, only to be insulted in return.
נתתי לה חיי, ירדתי על ברכי יאמינו לי כולם, למדתי מה זה סתם ונעלבתי
Natati la hayyai, yaradti al birkai Ya’aminu li kulam, lamadti mah zeh stam vene’elavti
I gave her my life, I got down on my knees Believe me, everybody, I learned what’s meaningless, and I was insulted
It was Israel’s entry into the Eurovision Song Contest of 1974, their second year of participation in the annual competition. They didn’t win; it was not until 1978 and 1979 that they had two monumental hits that won Eurovision two years in a row (Abanibi and Halleluyah).
But the song was also a critique of Israel’s government, a plea for a two-state solution long before that idea was taken seriously by anybody in the mainstream:
אחד אומר שנגמרים לו השמיים כשיש מספיק אוויר למדינה או שתיים
Ehad omer shenigmarim lo hashamayim, ksheyesh maspik avir lemedinah o shtayim.
One says that the sky is ending for him, When there is enough air for one or two countries.
It’s a statement of disaffection — the feeling that after what the song’s composer, Danny Sanderson, had given to Israel – his army service, his taxes, his ideological commitment to building the State of Israel, which was only about a quarter-century old when he wrote the song – that the State had left him behind, had smacked him down.
It’s been floating around in my head for a couple days, not for Zionist reasons, but for patriotic American reasons. Because I have been thinking, as many of us have, about the range of challenges facing Black Americans.
Yes, the police brutality, the chokeholds, the default suspicion, the profiling. Yes, the unequal distribution of resources. The ineffective schools. The double standards of justice. The higher rates of infant mortality. Yes, the redlining. The income statistics: As NY Times columnist David Brooks (no liberal snowflake, that one) points out, Black families earn 57 cents for every dollar white families earn. Black college graduates earn only about 80 cents for every dollar earned by white college graduates. “Between 1992 and 2013,” Brooks writes, “college-educated whites saw the value of their assets soar by 86 percent, while their black counterparts saw theirs fall by 55 percent.”
That is truly staggering. The feeling that I have been left with after surveying the depths of these challenges, is that Black Americans were not only mistreated from the moment that they arrived in chains on this continent, but that the very foundations of the American economy depended on the free or very cheap labor that Black Americans provided. And it seems that even after Emancipation, every attempt was made, whether deliberate or through the invisible hand that moves markets, to keep them from moving beyond the lowest rung on the economic ladder. Perhaps you heard last week about the destruction of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa in 1921?
It is easy to understand why many Black Americans feel that they have given their lives to America, for the building of this nation. And yet many also feel that not only have they NOT received credit, but feel as if this country continues to try to smack them down. And when a police officer kneels on a Black man’s neck patiently until he dies, we do not have to wonder why people are angry and disaffected. Natati lah hayyai. I gave her my life.
I have been trying to find the right way into this issue for a while. Three weeks ago, I quoted an assortment of texts from the Jewish bookshelf on the various ways of respecting one’s neighbor. Two weeks ago I suggested that the way that we can help is by being engaged with society, with all the people around us. But there is something else that we need to acknowledge, hevreh, and that is this:
Black lives matter.
Yes, yes, I know. Jewish lives matter too. And some of you are surely thinking, “Rabbi, shouldn’t you be talking about the Jews?”
Well, I am talking about the Jews. I’m talking about the Jews of Boston – my great-grandparents, who owned a house in Dorchester, which at some point in the early 1960s they sold because they were scared – the neighborhood was changing. I’m talking about the Jews of the Hill District here in Pittsburgh, and of cities all over America, who were busy fleeing to the suburbs, and who did not look back over their shoulders, like Lot and his daughters, to see the faces of those who moved into their old neighborhoods.
And I am also talking about the Jews who signed up for the civil rights movement; who stood with Dr. Martin Luther King, who worked alongside Black activists in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964, who died along with them.
And I am also talking about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote in his essay, “Religion and Race” in 1963:
There are people in our country whose moral sensitivity suffers a blackout when confronted with the black man’s predicament. How many disasters do we have to go through in order to realize that all of humanity has a stake in the liberty of one person?… What begins as inequality of some inevitably ends as inequality of all.
Bias and fear of the other are, of course, a part of being human, and these things are very hard to overcome. And while I am certain that the vast majority of us do not sympathize with white supremacy, which would of course be ludicrous for Jews, there is no person without biases.
But we are all part of this system, whether we like it or not. And that is why it is essential right now to affirm something that we might all have missed as we were busy becoming fully accepted in American society: that black lives matter too.
Now, I know that some of you have heard that that slogan is anti-Semitic and/or anti-Israel. It is true that the Movement for Black Lives, which is one group within the sphere of those who have participated in the wider Black Lives Matter movement, has featured language on their website since 2016 that is anti-Israel, using odious terms like “apartheid” and “genocide” in ways that are completely inappropriate. The attempt to link the Palestinian cause to the struggles of Black Americans indicates a woeful misunderstanding of the history of the Middle East and muddles the message of the latter.
However, the Movement for Black Lives does not speak for all who carry the banner of Black Lives Matter. This is not the message that most people hear when they repeat that slogan. What they hear is, We care about our neighbors; we care about equity in our society; we care about the disenfranchised, and we want to make sure that all are given a fair opportunity to make it in this world.
And those are clearly things which are drawn from Jewish tradition, some of which I have previously identified.
Turning back to the Torah for a moment, the first two words of Parashat Qorah, which we read this morning, are, “Vayiqqah Qorah.” Literally, Qorah took. But there is a problem with this verse, in that the verb “laqahat” (to take) is transitive – in Hebrew as in English, it requires a direct object. You cannot merely take; you must take something. Rashi tells us something useful: that
לקח את עצמו לצד אחר להיות נחלק מתוך העדה
He took himself to one side, splitting off from the community.
That is, Qorah’s attempt to effect change was to selfishly and violently lead others astray, to divide the Israelites so as to upset the balance of power. Moshe, by the way, does not fare much better; he is angered by Qorah’s accusations, by dividing people and leading malcontents astray, and fires back with similarly accusatory language at Qorah and his posse.
And folks, this is not leadership. True leadership requires working together for the common good. It does not encourage division, or accusation, or aggressive, one-sided actions.
Good leadership requires talking to everybody, listening to all the voices around you and forging a path forward together. It does not mean that everybody agrees on everything, but that disagreement is respectful and does not impact the common welfare.
How can we in the Jewish community show true leadership at this time? By being part of the discourse, by listening to our Black friends and neighbors, by understanding that the message of “Black lives matter” is one that we can and should sign onto. We need to be at that table. We need to make sure that Jewish voices are heard in that context. We need to give of our lives as well, to make sure that, as Rabbi Heschel put it, the inequality of some does not inevitably become the inequality of all.