I am captivated by the image of the mycorrhizal network: a system of microscopic pipes produced by fungi which connect individual trees and plants together through soil. These networks enable trees to share nutrients with each other – water, carbon, nitrogen, and so forth – creating a greater system out of what might seem like separate plants. They effectively allow trees to communicate with each other and support one another.
Today is Tu Bishvat, the 15th day of the month of Shevat, the Jewish New Year of the trees, corresponding this year with the observed birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King. On this day in particular, we might recall that as human beings we are all connected together, something like the system created by mycorrhizal networks. And those who seek to divide us by emphasizing our differences – racial, ethnic, religious, etc. – work against the unity of purpose that our ecosystem suggests.
In the wake of the synagogue hostage situation in Colleyville, Texas, which took place during a Shabbat morning service and for ten hours (!) after, we in the Jewish community are once again on edge. Particularly here in Pittsburgh, where the trauma of 10/27/2018 still ripples through our community, it is very easy for us to bring up the anxiety created on that horrible Shabbat; the pain and grief that we still feel are never far from the surface.
And then I remember that, just as Dr. King envisioned, we have to continue to work toward the day when we all truly see ourselves like trees in the forest – each of us a little different, but deeply connected to one another in ways that are often unseen. We have to lean into that future time, when we shall join hands and sing together, in whatever language or melody we have, somewhat like the interconnected trees.
I am grateful to the Ribbono Shel Olam, the Master of the Universe, for protecting the hostages and enabling them to emerge unscathed. I am anxiously hopeful that no congregation of any kind should ever face this kind of terrorism. And I am beholden to the trees, and to Dr. King, for giving us a glimpse of a humanity that could be.
The 46th president of the United States, just before he was sworn in on Wednesday, did something remarkable: he prayed. As his predecessor boarded Air Force One to head out of town, Joe Biden went to the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, presumably to daven (pray) the Catholic equivalent of shaharit / the morning service.
As you know, I am a big fan of prayer. I do it every day, and I am convinced that tefillah / prayer is good for you. It is the original Jewish form of mindfulness meditation. Tefillah centers me; in the morning it gets me ready to face the day; in the evening it is a gentle, reflective conclusion, an opportunity to check in with myself.
I am convinced that if we all did just a little more prayer, if we all took reflective moments more frequently, our world would be a better, kinder, gentler, more united world. And of course that applies to all of us – not just the Jews, of course, or the Christians, but all of us, and even those who do not belong to a particular faith tradition. Prayer, whatever form it takes or whatever you call it, has the potential to bring us all together, to build bridges.
The television coverage that I saw on Wednesday morning did not actually show the president-elect in prayer, just the exterior of the church. Nonetheless, to see this very public, yet also very private moment of prayer brought tears to my eyes.
There is a power in each and every one of us that lives by turning to every other one of us, a thrust of the spirit to cherish and care and stand by others, and above all those most in need. It is called love, and its path is to give ever more of itself. Today, it is called American patriotism, born not of power and privilege but of care for the common good – “with malice toward none and with charity for all.”
In Father O’Donovan’s words, I hear the yearning to be once again “one nation, under God,” acknowledging the love and faith that should bind us together as a society in pursuit of the common good.
And so we find ourselves this week in perhaps a more prayerful stance as a nation, and it is absolutely serendipitous that we read from Parashat Bo this morning, including arguably the most essential items in the story of yetzi’at Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt.
One of the key features of the Exodus narrative is that the freedom, the redemption from slavery that Moshe and the Israelites seek includes as a fundamental principle the ability to worship the one true God. By definition, slavery (in Hebrew, עבדות avdut, from the shoresh עבד, to serve), precludes service to God. Integral to that freedom for the Israelites is the license to worship God, the autonomy to be a servant of faith rather than a servant of other people.
Almost every time, when Moshe approaches Pharaoh to ask for freedom, he says something similar to what we find up front in Parashat Bo, Shemot / Exodus 10:7: שַׁלַּח֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֲנָשִׁ֔ים וְיַֽעַבְד֖וּ ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיהֶ֑ם Shalah et ha-anashim veya’avdu et Adonai eloheihem. Let the people go to worship the Lord their God!
Freedom, as the Torah sees it, includes that holy relationship with the Qadosh Barukh Hu.
And so too today: building a better future in our very divided country necessitates God’s presence in our lives, however we understand that presence.
Now, do not go reading this as a screed against atheists, or a repudiation of the separation of church and state. On the contrary: we need a greater sense of shared faith in this country, among the diverse people of this nation, because, as Father O’Donovan suggested, that will, through love, enable us to build a better nation, infused with a unified pursuit of the common good. As servants of God who see the Divine spark in each other, who see our shared humanity, we can and should work together to build bridges, to create a stronger, more resilient society and a healthier democracy. Even those who reject theology outright can, I hope, get on board with seeking the common good through shared love of humanity, of our fellow citizens.
And a key piece of this sense of shared love is interfaith cooperation.
You may know that I grew up in an area with relatively few Jews. Until I went to college, virtually all of my friends and neighbors and classmates were Christian, mainline Protestants and Catholics, and my family was among a handful of Jewish families in my home town. We all knew each other, and I think it is fair to say that, to some extent, we the Jews felt like outsiders. Not that our neighbors treated us badly or as enemies, but there was definitely a mutual awareness of our difference. Sometimes this awareness bred resentment, as, for example, when well-meaning Christian friends failed to understand that we did not celebrate Christmas. It was sometimes hard to see past this, given some of the history of Christian/Jewish relations. There was a time in my life when I would not have wanted to listen to the words of a Catholic priest giving an invocation at an official gathering.
My sense is that things are somewhat different today; the religious landscape in America has changed. Many of us now look at each other across religious divisions as allies. Yes, of course there are issues that divide us. But what we who are partners in faith share is much greater, and much more powerful.
Rabbi Jeremy Markiz and I were at a meeting on Thursday of the Priest-Rabbi dialogue, a discussion between local Catholic and Jewish clergy which meets from time to time to discuss interesting theological issues. At this meeting, we read a statement from 2002 produced by a group of influential North American Christian scholars attempting to reframe the historically fraught relationship between Jews and Christians. Among the principles expressed in this document were, “God’s covenant with the Jewish people endures forever,” and, “Ancient rivalries must not define Christian-Jewish relations today.”
Our discussion broke toward the points of disagreement among Christian theologians and within the Jewish world about some subtleties of our beliefs. But the greater message is well-taken: today we are allies in the struggle against disorder, disunity, and distrust. We are united in facing the challenges of poverty and racism, hunger and homelessness, mental health and addiction and isolation.
I heard a podcast this week from the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem about Parashat Bo, taught by Pardes teacher Tovah Leah Nachmani, about emunah / faith. She pointed to a commentary by Ramban, aka Nachmanides, who lived in 13th-century Spain. In surveying Parashat Bo, Ramban points to the symbols of emunah found in this parashah: the annual observance of Pesah/ Passover that we read this morning, and the wearing of tefillin (Ex. 13:16, the last line in the parashah). Ramban suggests that these symbols (the Hebrew term is ot, sign) of faith are meant to remind us of the role that God plays in our lives. There will not be an Exodus in every generation, says Ramban, but every year when we celebrate Pesahwe remember that power. The tefillin that we put on every morning are an ot, a sign of the binding promise that God has made with us to help us live better lives through the framework of mitzvot.
Ms. Nachmani expands on Ramban’s line of thinking to include Shabbat and regular tefillah, such that we have daily, weekly, and annual signs before us: The weekly reminder of Shabbat, also described as an ot (beini uvein benei Yisrael, ot hi le’olam – Ex. 31:17) gives us a taste of the true peace that will someday come if we commit to the common good.
Faith and freedom are intertwined; we must keep those symbols of faith in front of us; we must use them to remind ourselves to reach out to our neighbors in love. We must also remind ourselves that we have partners, who do not celebrate Pesahor wear tefillin, yet who also have faith; these signs of faith can also lead us to dream about what we can accomplish when we are all praying together.
We remembered this past week the strength of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, what he accomplished, inspired by God and the words of the biblical prophets. Consider that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel had the vision to reach out to and march with Dr. King as a partner in faith, at a time when many of us were not thinking far beyond our own community.
Our future depends on building bridges of prayer and bridges of emunah / faith. Our Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist friends and neighbors are all interconnected with us; we may differ on how we approach or understand the Divine and the role that the holy relationship plays in our lives, but we mostly agree on the outcome: that we can build a better world through shared prayer, faith, and love.
Some of you may recall that a few weeks back I spoke about refrigerator-magnet texts – short, pithy statements from our textual tradition that are the most resonant, the most useful in our day-to-day lives, and how we should keep them in front of us at all times. (I’m actually looking into making refrigerator magnets; will keep you posted.)
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a few go-to verses of his own, pieces of Biblical wisdom that he continued to return to in his sermons and speeches and writings. One with which you may be familiar is from the prophet Amos (5:24):
Let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
It’s a verse that appears in our siddur / prayerbook in the Prayer for Peace (Siddur Lev Shalem, p. 178), which we occasionally recite. It also appears in one of the quotes inscribed around the perimeter of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC:
We are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’
Dr. King delivered that verse on Dec. 5, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, on the first day of the Montgomery bus boycott, just a few days after Rosa Parks famously refused to surrender her seat in the front of the bus.
One month after the shooting here in Pittsburgh, my family and I went to Washington, DC for Thanksgiving. It was my first visit there with our kids, and although I have been to our nation’s capitol many times, somehow this trip was so much more emotional. Perhaps it was because it was the first time that I was seeing the monuments to our democracy through the eyes of my children; perhaps it was because the communal wounds of October 27th were still bleeding; perhaps it was because of the divided state of our body politic. In any case, when I got to the Martin Luther King Memorial, I found myself tearing up and indeed even sobbing out loud.
Have you been there? Let me describe it: The three-quarter bust of Dr. King is hewn from a piece of stone which looks as though it has been cut out of and moved forward from a larger stone hill. Inscribed on the bust is the line, “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”
And around the entire plaza are a series of fourteen of the most powerful quotes from Dr. King’s oratorical bounty. With virtually every one of those quotes, I cried even more. Here is just a taste:
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
(Letter from Birmingham, Alabama jail, April 16, 1963.)
We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.
(Montgomery, Alabama, March 25, 1965.)
Dr. King had a special gift that brought people together, that made Jewish kids from New York want to go down South and work on behalf of African-Americans, that made Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel want to walk with him in Selma, that made people want to stand together, to march together, to sing together.
When we face the types of social challenges that we are up against right now as a society: the scourge of hatred in all its forms, the struggle for equality for all people, the breakdown of family and neighborhood ties, the curse of opioid addiction, the seemingly endless cases of unarmed black men and boys shot by policemen, it would do us good to remember that the framework of religion, and the interfaith coalitions that this framework often spawns, have helped us in the past to overcome such challenges. Dr. King’s leadership was successful not only because of his knowledge of pithy texts, but also because of his ecumenical sense of, “We’re all in this together.”
And we do indeed all need to be in this together.
And even while our paths to God may vary, the true strength of what unites us is formidable.
Take for example, the following:
Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a better person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.
(March for Integrated Schools, April 18, 1959.)
To me this suggests two different mishnayot from Pirqei Avot, the 2nd-century collection of rabbinic wisdom:
Pirqei Avot 2:2
Rabban Gamliel, son of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, taught:…
All who serve on behalf of the community should do so for heaven’s sake. Their work will prosper because the inherited merit of our ancestors endures forever…
Pirqei Avot 1:18
Rabban Shim’on ben Gamliel taught: The world rests on three things – on justice, on peace, and on truth, as it is written (Zechariah 8:16): “With truth, justice, and peace shall you judge in your gates.”
These words drove our ancestors in ancient times to keep our faith alive; they drove some of our parents and grandparents to join forces with Dr. King in the fight for civil rights. They will also always drive Jews to work on behalf of the common good, to seek justice and equality for all.
Dr. King spoke and wrote and marched at a time when churches, synagogues and other faith-based organizations worked as focal points of community organizing.
But we have a problem today: fewer and fewer of us are in the sanctuary. Fewer of us are in the pews. Religion holds much less sway as an organizing factor than it did in the 1960s, because so many of us have opted out.
And yet it is here that we sing together. It is here that we learn together. It is here that we take our ancient wisdom and learn to apply it to today, to launch the words of Torah out into the world. We need synagogues, we need churches and mosques and all other houses of worship to gather people together so that we can all be inspired to repair this broken world.
And in all those houses of worship, we need to double down on the words of our various traditions – the texts that speak of justice and peace, of community and equal rights, of our nation and of God. We can make change by coming together, by emphasizing the principles that we share. We still have the power to act on Dr. King’s vision, that vision in which people of all races and religions and socio-economic statuses can in fact cooperate for the common good.
When we sing together, loudly, as people of faith, our voices will be heard.
Back at the Dr. King memorial, from his Christmas sermon in Atlanta in 1967, I also read the following:
If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.
Here is a challenge for us all: How much do we love our nation? How much do we love our city? How much do we love our neighbors? How much do we love the world?
Az yashir Moshe uvnei Yisrael et hashirah hazot ladonai
Thus sang Moses and the Israelites this song to God…
Moses and his sister Miriam lead the Israelites in singing together, and a midrash says not only that all the men, women, and children were dancing and singing, but even the unborn babies – the fetuses in the wombs of some of the women – sang along as well.
Every single voice joined together for that song. And we continue to sing it today, every morning, as a symbol of our ongoing desire for redemption, as a spur to work harder to build the society that Dr. King envisioned, the one in which we truly understand that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and that we become “a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.” A nation where justice will run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
We need to raise our voices together with those of our neighbors, express our love together through song, and bring a little more redemption to this very broken world.
My ancestors were not from Norway, but they were slaves in Egypt.
It is this simple, foundational story in Jewish tradition that reminds us on a daily basis to remember the stranger, to lift up the oppressed, to do good works for the widow and the orphan and the homeless and the hungry.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907 Poland – 1972 US), one of the most important theologians of the 20th century, was perhaps best known for marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma in 1965. At the National Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago in 1963, Rabbi Heschel said the following (as reprinted in his 1967 collection of essays, The Insecurity of Freedom, p. 89):
It is not within the power of God to forgive the sins committed toward men. We must first ask for forgiveness of those whom our society has wronged before asking for the forgiveness of God.
Daily we patronize institutions which are visible manifestations of arrogance toward those whose skin differs from ours. Daily we cooperate with people who are guilty of active discrimination.
How long will I continue to be tolerant of, even a participant in, acts of embarrassing and humiliating human beings, in restaurants, hotels, buses, or parks, employment agencies, public schools and universities? One ought rather be shamed than put others to shame.
Our rabbis taught: “Those who are insulted but do not insult, hear themselves reviled without answering, act through love and rejoice in suffering, of them Scripture says: ‘They who love the Lord are as the sun when rising in full splendor’ (Judges 5:31).”
Let us cease to be apologetic, cautious, timid. Racial tension and strife is both sin and punishment. The Negro’s plight, the blighted areas in the large cities, are they not the fruit of our sins?
By negligence and silence we have all become accessory before the God of mercy to the injustice committed against the Negroes by men of our nation. Our derelictions are many. We have failed to demand, to insist, to challenge, to chastise.
In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”
(Although Rabbi Heschel used the terms “men” and “Negroes,” we should feel free to mentally substitute more inclusive/appropriate language and not be distracted by outmoded terms.)
As Heschel moves smoothly from the Talmud to Thomas Jefferson, I too tremble for our country when I recall that one of our primary imperatives as Jews is to fulfill the Torah’s words: “Tzedeq, tzedeq tirdof” – “Justice: you shall pursue justice” (Deuteronomy 16:20). The vision shared by Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel is still alive, but far from completion; let us keep tzedeq / justice in front of us as we continue to not be silent, to not be complacent, to not let the strife of the moment prevent us from working toward a better society, a better United States of America, and a better world.
Last Monday, Rabbi Jeremy and I were fortunate to be able to attend a local interfaith commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Aug 28 1963 March on Washington. Faith leaders from all over the region gathered at the JCC to learn together and share sermons about the need for justice in our society today, a need that is as great as it was 54 years ago when Dr. King gave his most famous speech. Dr. King’s dream is still alive; it is, of course, unfulfilled. 169 local priests, ministers, rabbis, and imams signed a joint declaration, which we read at the ceremony, re-affirming our obligations as clergy to fight hatred and to stand together for compassion and inclusion.
This section of Devarim / Deuteromony is all about justice. It begins with the statement in last week’s parashah, “Tzedeq, tzedeq tirdof,” “Justice: you shall pursue justice,” (that’s my translation), and the Torah’s requirement to appoint impartial judges and law enforcement officers. The thread of justice continued this week with an assortment of other commandments that maintain the holiness in human relationships. For example, the obligation to pay a day laborer promptly and not take advantage of him (Deut. 24:14), or the commandment not to despise the foreigner among you, because we know what it’s like to be foreigners (23:8). We have to allow needy people to pick up produce that has fallen to the ground, and otherwise glean from our fields (24:19, e.g.), but they are not allowed to take more than their share (23:25).
We have an obligation to make sure that our society is a just one. And, as Maimonides explains at the end of the Moreh Nevukhim, the Guide for the Perplexed, the mitzvot (holy opportunities derived from the Torah) are there not only for us to fulfill, but also for us to extrapolate moral behavior according to the spirit of the law. This principle is known in Hebrew as “lifnim mishurat hadin,” that we should behave within the line of the law. So yes, having a just society means setting up legitimate courts, honest weights and measures, and making sure that some of your produce is set aside for the poor; these are all explicit in the Torah. But extending that line, creating a just society also means that we have an obligation to step forward in the event that your leadership does not. It means that we each have a personal responsibility to make sure that our society is just, and we might fulfill that by supporting organizations that protect the right of everybody to vote, for example, or by making sure that our laws do not discriminate against individuals on the basis of race, gender, religion, and so forth, or by working to ensure that our public schools offer a worthy education to all who enter.
There has been much recent concern over public statues that feature people who stood for abhorrent things, like slavery. This was, of course, part of the back-story for the events that took place in Charlottesville, VA a few weeks back. I think that there are certainly good arguments for taking down statues to Confederate leaders.
But there is also another way. What do we do with the symbols of an unseemly past? We teach. We talk about them. We study.
There are many such examples in our siddur (prayerbook). To cite just one, consider the image of resurrection that is featured in the second berakhah of the Amidah, the standing prayer that we recite each day. Yes, you heard that right: resurrection. When we say, “Barukh Attah Adonai, mehayye hameitim,” we are saying, praised are You, God, who brings the dead back to life. It is a paean to the ancient understanding that when the Anointed One, the mashiah (messiah) comes, faithful Jews will be resurrected and get on El Al flights to return to Israel, which will be united again under the kingship of a descendant of King David. In today’s Jewish world, some groups have elevated classical messianism to the point where it is an essential part of their theology, despite the fact that no such idea exists in the Torah.
But messianism has always been an uncomfortable area for contemporary Jews, including your faithful rabbinic correspondent. We don’t treat each other justly for some eschatological reward (something to which we can look forward at the end of times). Rather we treat each other justly because it is the right thing to do in the here and now, that the reward comes from elevating the qedushah / holiness in our relationships.
And so, while the Reform movement replaced “mehayye hameitim” with “mehayye hakol,” restoring life to all, we in the Conservative movement say the original text, while reinterpreting the berakhah to mean that God is the source of all life. It does not have to be about messianic resurrection; it can be about how God works as a force in nature all around us, providing the spirit that nourishes all of us in life and in death. We take our traditional text and reinterpret the words, thereby conserving the tradition and making it work with our contemporary values.
But of course, that requires explanation, and you will find one if you look in the margin of Siddur Lev Shalem on a page with the Amidah (e.g. p. 186). In the Conservative movement, we have a long and glorious history of re-interpretation. So the message for today is, whether we take down statues or not, let’s make sure that we make our interpretation explicit.
Let’s make sure that every child knows that slavery was deeply wrong, that racism is wrong, that anti-Semitism is wrong, that anti-immigrant-ism is wrong. Let’s make sure that our elected officials and judges and law enforcement officers do not unfairly target people with different skin color. Let’s make sure that we acknowledge the divinity in EVERY human being, the Godly spark that motivates us all to do good for each other in this world.
It is a long-standing Jewish tradition to recite a prayer for the secular authorities of the jurisdiction in which we live. (One of the most interesting features of old siddurim is to find the prayer for the emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or, as referenced in Fiddler on the Roof, a blessing for the czar and/or czarina).
Week after week we pray for our country, that of the United States of America. They are roughly the same words that we have been saying for many years (Lev Shalem, p. 177).
We are living in a time in which many people are in pain. Many in our this great and prosperous nation are suffering from disenfranchisement, from the scourge of readily-available, inexpensive addictive drugs, from the cycles of poverty which afflict us from generation to generation, from the growing gap between rich and poor, from the closing of steel mills and coal mines to the looming threat of unemployment from self-driving cars and trucks and the coming automation of, well, everything. We are frustrated by stagnant wages and the outrageous cost of health care. We are frightened at the prospect of emboldened racists and anti-Semites parading through our streets, and the attendant regression in race relations. We are once again roiled by the fear of immigrants in our midst. We are living in a time of great philosophical divide in our country, and the reluctance to compromise on a range of issues.
As the center of American Judaism, we have what to teach the world about these things. We, particularly as Conservative Jews, understand listening to all sides, left and right. We understand the value of maintaining tradition while reinterpreting and explaining for today to reflect contemporary sensibilities.
In our prayer for the country, we said the following:
Help [the inhabitants of this country] understand the rules of justice You have decreed, so that peace and security, happiness and freedom, will never depart from our land.
If there were ever a time that we needed those words, it would be right now. If there were ever a time in which we needed those ideals, it is the current moment. And so we have to get out there and teach our Torah, our values.
To have peace, happiness, freedom, and security, we need justice. And justice requires thoughtful reflection, to making sure that the choices we make will ultimately support the institutions that we have set in place. We cannot respond out of hatred and fear of the other. We cannot support authority figures who seek only to destroy institutions and prop up the bigotry-mongers. We cannot violate the sacred ideals of democracy and individual protections which immigrants to this great nation have sought for centuries. We have to make sure that our leaders follow not only the rule of law, but also the spirit. Lifnim mishurat hadin.
We have the potential to reignite those values. Because, in the words of Pirqei Avot (the 2nd-century collection of ancient rabbinic wisdom), “Im lo akhshav, eimatai?” If not now, when?
You know the old joke about how I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out? There is a related Jewish story. It’s an old fable about two brothers (Zev Vilnay, Legends of Jerusalem, JPS 1973, pp. 77-78):
One brother had a wife and children, the other did not. They lived together in one house – happy, quiet, and satisfied with the portions which they inherited from their father. Together they worked the fields with the sweat of their brows.
And the harvest came. The brothers bound their sheaves and brought them to the threshing floor. There they divided the crops of the field in two parts equally between them, and left them.
That night, the brother who had no family lay on his bed and thought: I am alone, but my brother has a wife and children. Why should my share be equal to his? And he rose from his bed, went stealthily out into the threshing floor, took from the stalks of his own sheaf, and added them to the sheaf of his brother.
That same night, the other brother turned to his wife and said: “It is not right that we have divided the crop into two equal parts, one for me and one for my brother. He is alone and has no other joy or happiness, only the yield of the field. Therefore, come with me, my wife, and we will secretly take from our share and add to his.” And they did so.
In the morning, the brothers went out into the threshing floor, and they wondered that the sheaves were still equal. Each one decided to himself to investigate. During the night each one rose from his bed to repeat his deed. And they met each other in the threshing floor, each with his sheaves in his arms. Thus the mystery was explained. The brothers embraced, and kissed each other.
And the Lord looked with favor on this threshing floor where the two brothers conceived their good thoughts… and the children of Israel chose it for the site of their Holy Temple.
An Israeli variant is about two other brothers who lived on a nearby hill, and did exactly the opposite: each stole from the other in the middle of the night. And that was where the Israelis chose to build the Knesset. (#Rimshot!)
I have become very concerned about the state of our society. I think that something that we have lost is a tangible sense of togetherness. On the contrary: the level of mistrust seems to me higher than it has been in my lifetime. And a related contemporary challenge about which I am particularly concerned is the lack of civility in our public discourse.
On Monday, as part of Community Day School‘s celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the themes invoked was the principle of being an “upstander.” To be an upstander means, according to the website of the educational and professional development organization Facing History and Ourselves:
“A person who speaks or acts in support of an individual or cause, particularly someone who intervenes on behalf of a person being attacked or bullied.”
This word was just added to the Oxford Dictionaries in 2016.
Given our history and our tradition, we Jews have a special obligation to be upstanders: to speak out against that which we know is wrong, to intervene on behalf of those who are being persecuted, to call out hatred and racism and anti-Semitism when we see it.
Martin Luther King Day is always an opportunity for us to recall that Jews were there when the civil rights movement in this country was forged. It is a reminder that one of the greatest Jewish philosophers of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, walked with Dr. King on the latter’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Afterwards, Rabbi Heschel declared, “I felt as though my legs were praying.”
When Rabbi Heschel marched with Dr. King, the level of mistrust in America was also quite high. Society was changing. The established orders were being upended. People who had been historically oppressed were throwing off their yoke.
And people were angry. The civil rights movement inspired many Americans, including many Jewish volunteers, to do some really wonderful, holy work. But it also caused many others to behave badly in public, to scream and burn and even murder to try to prevent change.
In 1965, there was no Internet. No Facebook. No Twitter. So people actually had to confront each other in person. Not so today.
One can hardly read an article of any sort on the Internet without being assaulted by a blast of name-calling, hyperbolic accusations, and general disregard for others. And whether we are participating in these troll-fests or not, even those of us who read the comments sections on popular news sites are somehow metaphorically guilty of standing idly by the blood of our neighbors (from Parashat Qedoshim, Leviticus 19:16).
The relative anonymity of the online environment makes it far easier for us to cut each other down, to trade insults, to grandstand with impunity. And our online behavior is ultimately reflected in our feelings for one another offline.
We read this morning about how the new pharaoh “did not know Yosef.” (אשר לא ידע את יוסף – Ex. 1:8) Rashi points to a disagreement in the Talmud between Rav and Shemuel about whether this was, in fact, a new king or not. And if it was, in fact, the old king, then suddenly he was pretending not to know Yosef.
It is perfectly normal, perfectly human, and definitely Jewish to disagree with each other. And it is completely appropriate for us to stand up for the principles in which we believe. But a functional society depends on our willingness to be able to disagree with each other and continue to talk to each other and work with each other. We are, as I have mentioned in this space before, faced by many contemporary challenges; we will never solve them by demeaning each other.
And, indeed, we cannot be like the pharaoh who pretended not to know Yosef. We cannot pretend not to know our fellow Americans. We cannot dismiss the people with whom we disagree, as if their feelings and opinions cancel our ability to perceive any and all traces of decency.
On the contrary, says the Torah. Ve’ahavta lereiakha kamokha (Lev. 19:18). Love your neighbor as yourself. Even if they believe things that you find absolutely odious. The Torah clearly does not say, love your neighbor as yourself, but only if she thinks like you do. We, the Jews, must lead by example; we must continue to be or lagoyim, a light unto the nations.
I offer you the following piece from the Talmud for your consideration:
ת”ר: לא יסקל אדם מרשותו לרה”ר. מעשה באדם אחד שהיה מסקל מרשותו לרה”ר, ומצאו חסיד אחד, אמר לו: ריקה, מפני מה אתה מסקל מרשות שאינה שלך לרשות שלך! לגלג עליו. לימים נצרך למכור שדהו, והיה מהלך באותו רה”ר ונכשל באותן אבנים, אמר: יפה אמר לי אותו חסיד מפני מה אתה מסקל מרשות שאינה שלך לרשות שלך.
Our rabbis taught: “A person should not throw stones from his property into public grounds.
It happened that one man was throwing stones from his property into the public domain. A pious man passed by and said to him, “Foolish one, why are you throwing stones from property that does not belong to you onto ground that does belong to you?”
The man laughed at him. As time went by he had to sell his field and when he was walking on those public grounds, stumbled over his own stones.
He then exclaimed, “That pious man was right when he said to me, “Why are you throwing stones from ground that does not belong to you onto ground that does belong to you?” (Bava Qamma 50b)
We have to work hard to protect not only our physical public spaces, but our political, social, spiritual, and emotional public spaces as well. Throwing insults and epithets as a form of discourse into the online cloud is like tossing rocks into the street. We’re all going to eventually trip over them.
If we truly want to be upstanders, we must work hard to rekindle our civility. We cannot allow differences of opinion to fragment our democracy. We have to build a temple to love and compassion in that metaphysical public space. We have to remember and invoke our shared values.
That does not mean we have to agree. That does not mean that we have to tolerate hatred, bigotry, intolerance, or shaming of any kind. But it does mean that we have to speak nicely to each other, and occasionally give our produce up for the benefit of the other, so that we may build that temple.