We recite this aloud at Congregation Beth Shalom every Shabbat morning, right after reading the Torah. In recent years, I have leaned into this prayer with increasing urgency. It is a long-standing tradition for Jewish services to include a prayer for the nation in which we live; right now, in 21st-century America, we need to do so more than ever.
We have witnessed horrible things in the past week: a Confederate flag carried through the halls of Congress; a “Camp Auschwitz Staff” t-shirt; a truck full of Molotov cocktails at the ready; a police officer beaten to death with a fire extinguisher. As more images continue to pour out, my shock only grows.
While trying to wrap my head around what happened at the United States Capitol on January 6, I continue to return to the fundamental importance of truth. One piece of wisdom from our tradition, found in the 2nd-century CE rabbinic collection known as Pirkei Avot (1:18), invokes what you might call the “Jewish holy trinity”: Emet, Din, Shalom – truth, justice, and peace are integrally intertwined. Without truth and justice, there can be no peace.
But to put a finer point on it, we need in particular to remember the mitzvah / holy obligation from the Torah (Shemot / Exodus 23:7):
Keep far from falsehood; do not bring death on those who are innocent and righteous, for I [God] will not acquit the wrongdoer.
While the context suggests not accepting the testimony of deceitful witnesses, so that innocent people will not be put to death, the text can and should also be translated as,
Do not lie, because lying will cause the death of innocent and righteous people, and God will never forgive us for that.
There is a reason why we still recall the national myth of George Washington, who could not tell a lie about chopping down the cherry tree, and we still refer to “Honest Abe” Lincoln. That is because the truth saves lives, and falsehood is murderous.
As we continue to pray for our country, remember that we the Jews in particular know the danger of falsehood. All anti-Semitism is rooted in falsehood: the medieval blood libel accusations, the 19th-century forgery of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, the lies that led to the murder of 6 million Jews in Europe a mere fourscore years ago, the lies that killed 11 Jewish worshippers at a synagogue in our neighborhood two years ago.
We cannot tolerate lying in our own sphere of influence, and we must not tolerate lying on a national or international scale.
Rather, we must stand up for truth. We must distance ourselves from falsehood, because, as we have witnessed this week, falsehood leads to bloodshed.
So I am going to keep leaning into this prayer, until such time as we can put the lies behind us and move forward together.
One of the key principles in Jewish life is that words have power. That is why we recite certain sets of liturgy three times every day. That is why the Torah itself urges us to recite the Shema before going to sleep and when we wake up in the morning. That is why the pre-eminent mitzvah in Jewish life is Talmud Torah, the study of the words of Torah. And that mitzvah does not just mean “study,” as in, read them and/or commit them to memory. Talmud Torah is about elevating the words of the Jewish bookshelf by interpreting, re-interpreting, disagreeing and yes, even arguing about the meaning of our ancient texts, and of course applying them to our lives. Everything is under scrutiny; slight nuances of individual words, or even single letters or vowels, can lead us to different interpretations. And that is really the essential holy act of Judaism.
That is why, as you have definitely heard me say before, we are still here: because we have been using our words – living them and revisiting them again and again – for literally thousands of years.
And it is this essential devotion to words – written, printed, spoken, and so forth – that makes us understand all the more so the essential value of using words with care.
Just a few examples of ways through which we demonstrate on a regular basis the high stakes with respect to the use of words:
Whoever leads services in a Jewish context, a sheliah tzibbur (literally, “emissary of the community”) must be skilled at pronouncing the words of tefillah / prayer correctly. The one who mispronounces words, whether accidentally or deliberately, should be replaced.
Whenever we read from the Torah, there are two people standing on either side of the reader to correct her or him in the event of a mispronunciation that changes the meaning of the word.
We have in our tradition strict halakhah / law about what is acceptable vs. unacceptable speech. Just a few examples:
Lashon hara. “The evil tongue.” We are forbidden, according to Vayikra / Leviticus 19:16, which read in Parashat Qedoshim next week, from being rekhilim, people who tell tales about one another, whether true or false.
Nibbul peh. “Lewdness of the mouth.” The Talmud (Yerushalmi Terumot 1:6) tells us that the use of foul language is prohibited. The words that come out of our mouth should be as pure as the food that we put in.
Motzi shem ra. Slander. Our bar mitzvah mentioned this earlier in his devar Torah. A subset of gossip, this is the spreading of malicious falsehoods.
We have an obligation to speak the truth, for example from Shemot / Exodus 23:7: מדבר שקר תרחק / Midevar sheqer tirhaq. Distance yourself from falsehood.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, a rabbi from Belarus who lived in the 19th and early 20th century, is best known for the name of the book he wrote about lashon hara, called “Hafetz Hayyim.” The title is a reference to a line that we sang earlier this morning in Pesuqei DeZimra, from Psalm 34:13-14:
Who is the person who desires life, who desires years of good fortune? Guard your tongue from evil, your lips from deceitful speech.
If we truly desire life, says Rabbi Kagan, we will guard our tongues, and not spread falsehoods.
According to our tradition, we have a tremendous responsibility to make sure that our words reflect the qedushah, the holiness to which we aspire in all of our relationships. To do so reflects an honest desire to pursue life. Those that lie cause pain, suffering, and death.
And all of this is why the current moment is just so disturbing to me.
Let’s face it. We are all really, really anxious right now. Some of us are going a bit stir crazy, stuck in our homes, with few options for getting out of the house, other than to take a walk or go food shopping, the latter of which, in my experience, only causes more anxiety. (Nothing wrong with taking walks, of course; those of us who have dogs know that the dogs are clearly grateful for our presence around the house to take them for lots of walks.)
And aside from being cooped up in the house, everybody is anxious about the state of the world. As we watch the numbers of people with confirmed infections rise, and with them the number of people hospitalized, and those who die from the disease, we are all wondering: When will we see the peak? Will there be a second wave? What about all the people who have lost their jobs, their source of income? And perhaps most heartbreakingly, When can we resume our lives or reclaim some semblance of normalcy?
I, of course, have no answers to these questions, or even educated guesses. I certainly wish I did, but epidemiology was not included in my rabbinical school curriculum. Perhaps the closest approach I have to any knowledge of the spread of infectious diseases comes from the parashah that we read today, Tazria-Metzora, which of course describes the spread of an infectious disease, and frankly, it’s not so helpful (even though it does speak of regular testing and quarantine).
That disease, called in Hebrew tzara’at, has often historically been translated as “leprosy,” although I am told that anybody who knows anything about leprosy knows that the disease described in this part of Vayiqra / Leviticus cannot be leprosy, based on its description.
Nonetheless, there is an essential message here, related not to epidemiology but about a public health issue of another sort: that of misinformation.
You probably know what I’m talking about. There are many people spreading misinformation. Whether through malicious intent, or because they might be able to profit off people’s gullibility, or because they just do not know any better, repeating outright lies on social media is a transgression of the highest order. A few of the kinds of things that you might find out there are (a more extensive list of these things, courtesy of Ryerson University Ted Rogers School of Management Social Media Lab, is found here):
Promoting fake tests or cures. As of right now, there is no cure. Do not believe anything that presents as such.
Speculation on the origin. The virus was not created in a lab by some country to use as a weapon.
Dismissing the severity of the virus. Clearly a political move that comes from the honest desire that many of us have to see our businesses reopened and our jobs returned as soon as possible.
Racial, religious, or ethnicity-baiting. Perhaps the most tragic, because it demonstrates how easily many of us fall into blaming others for our situation. This type of malicious falsehood appeals to our basest fears.
And there are more. Ladies and gentlemen, this stuff is dangerous. Lies kill, just like some viruses do.
Unfortunately, one piece of news out there related to COVID-19 is that at a few of the anti-government protests intended to end state shutdowns, there were people displaying openly anti-Semtic signs. One, at a protest in Ohio, featured a cartoon of a blue rat with a Jewish star and a kippah on its head, flanked above and below by blue stripes similar to those on the Israeli flag, with the caption, “The Real Plague.”
And this should go without saying, but of course taking disinfectants internally is dangerous and ineffective. (And it’s just a little ridiculous that the company who manufactures Lysol had to issue a public statement to that effect.)
Part of the challenge here is the ease with which we can spread falsehoods today. While it used to be that you needed a printing press to promote misinformation, today anybody with a smartphone can put out lies to the entire world with a few finger taps.
And that, in my mind, simply elevates the reasons that Jews have always been so invested in our words. Words can give life, as we have seen here today. But they can also, in fact, kill.
And social media, when misused by anybody to promote misinformation, can kill as well.
Hevreh, we have a responsibility right now, more than ever, to the truth – to scientific inquiry, to actual medical knowledge, to responsible, sober advice from people that actually know something. Drawing on Jewish tradition, please be discerning regarding what you post/repost. If you read something on Facebook or wherever that sounds like a cure, perhaps you should check it out before spreading it. Because, like the guy with the feather pillows, once it is out there, it cannot be taken back.
We who desire life must commit over and over to highlighting the importance of truth. And right now, anything less than truth can kill.
I have recently received a few comments that my sermons have been “too political.” So I just wanted to clarify something as a kind of prologue: I try to speak to contemporary issues, issues that are in the air all around us. I cannot speak about abstractions, about things that we are not necessarily thinking about. And the clergy-person that does not address what’s on people’s minds is irrelevant. I am trying my best not to be irrelevant. My job is to teach how our texts guide us in our daily interactions with the world, with both the mundane and the existential.
At the same time, my goal is not to inflame. I do not label any public figures with unfair or inaccurate descriptors. I do not use hyperbolic or inflammatory language. I do try to avoid calling out specific people, where possible, or God forbid, mentioning political parties. It is not my goal to get everybody heated up and arguing at kiddush. On the contrary, I hope to elevate the dialogue by emphasizing what Jewish tradition teaches about the issues in play.
As you know, I think it is essential for us to remember that learning the words and concepts of the Jewish bookshelf improves our lives and our society, and I can tell you this: if the principles of compassion, of derekh eretz / respect, of justice, of acknowledging the kedushah / holiness in each of us and in our relationships with each other were kept in front of us at all times, the world would be a much better place, and perhaps far less polarized.
On this day, Shabbat Nahamu, the Shabbat of comfort, my hope is to bring us some comfort in Jewish text. The first Shabbat after Tish’ah BeAv, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, is so titled because it is the opening salvo of the First Haftarah of Consolation which we read this morning, from the prophet Isaiah. As we count off the seven weeks from Tish’ah BeAv until Rosh Hashanah, we should feel ourselves recovering from the desolation of Tish’ah BeAv, moving from mourning the tragedies of our history to seeing ourselves as elevated in the glory of God’s sovereignty.
And the challenge facing us at this time is, how do we find comfort when the nation is still reeling from the needless deaths of 31 people two weekends ago? When we in Pittsburgh are still in mourning for the 11 members of our community who were so brutally taken from us nearly 10 months ago?
How do we find comfort when the issues surrounding who is allowed to come into this country, and who is allowed to stay, continue to roil our national conversation?
How can we find comfort when our government is proposing to favor immigrants who are not poor? I’ll tell you this, folks: if such a principle existed when my family members came here in the late 19th and early 20th century, I wouldn’t be standing before you, and most of you would not be here either.
How do we find comfort when our elected officials, many of whom are themselves descended from poor immigrants, continue to support policies that separate families at our borders?
How do we find comfort when we know that foreign actors are continuing to try to disrupt our democratic processes?
How do we find comfort when virtually every day brings some new revelation regarding our ongoing abuse of God’s Creation? This week it was the plastic content in Arctic ice.
At the program on Saturday evening, as our 25-hour fast began, we heard from speakers who addressed our grief. Our member Danielle Kranjec, Senior Jewish Educator at Hillel-Jewish University Center, spoke about how she and her students experienced the 18th of Heshvan. Richard Carrington, who works in the poor neighborhoods of Pittsburgh trying to free children from the cycle of gang violence, spoke about the 203 funerals that he has attended for the kids he has worked with, children he could not save. Representatives of Casa San Jose spoke of the gratitude they had for the haven this country has offered them from dysfunctional Latin American governments and the violent, failed societies from which they came.
How can we indeed feel comforted?
Some might argue that we, the Jews, have to look out for ourselves. And that is certainly true, to some extent. “Im ein ani li mi li?” said our sage Hillel, 2000 years ago (Pirqei Avot 1:14): “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me.” But then Hillel goes on: “Ukhshe’ani le’atzmi, mah ani?” “And when I am ONLY for myself, what am I?”
“Ve’im lo akhshav, eimatai?” “And if not now, when?”
Many of you know another mishnah from earlier in the same chapter of Pirqei Avot (1:2), one that was a kind of Jewish pop song a few decades back:
Shim’on the Righteous was one of the last of the Great Assembly. He said: The world rests on three things: on the Torah, and on service [to God], and on acts of lovingkindness.
But let’s face it: three is an excellent literary device if you’d like to make a point. So the rabbis did not limit themselves to only one statement of the things upon which the world stands. So at the end of chapter 1 of Pirqei Avot, there is another take:
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel used to say: on three things does the world stand: On justice, on truth and on peace, as it is said: “execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates” (Zechariah 8:16).
Whenever this sort of thing happens in traditional texts, you know some rabbi is going to eventually come along to ask the question: why do we need these two statements? Wouldn’t one have been enough? Does the world stand on three things, or six?
Sure enough, in the Jerusalem Talmud (Ta’anit 4:2), there is a passage that addresses this:
תמן תנינן שמעון הצדיק היה משירי כנסת הגדולה הוא היה אומר על שלשה דברים העולם עומד על התורה ועל העבודה ועל גמילות חסדים ושלשתן בפסוק אחד (ישעיהו נא) ואשים דברי בפיך זו תורה ובצל ידי כסיתיך זו גמילות חסדים ללמדך שכל מי שהוא עוסק בתורה ובגמילות חסדים זכה לישב בצילו של הקב”ה
There they taught: Shimon the Righteous was of the remnants of the Men of the Great Assembly. He used to say ‘the world rests on three things – on the Torah on the Service and on Acts of Loving-kindness.’ The three of them are found in one verse (Isaiah 51:16):
[God said] I have put My words in your mouth and sheltered you with My hand; I, who planted the skies and made firm the earth, have said to Zion: You are My people!
“I have put My words in your mouth…” refers to Torah, “…and sheltered you with My hand…” refers to acts of lovingkindness, to teach you that anyone who is occupied with Torah and acts of lovingkindness merits to sit in the shadow of the Holy One.
So the Gemara here is explaining that the first statement of three comes from Isaiah, an affirmation that we are God’s people. Shim’on the Righteous is interpreting this to say that by living Torah, by learning and teaching it and applying it by performing acts of lovingkindness, deeds that reinforce the qedushah between people, we will merit God’s presence in our lives. We will earn a coveted spot in the shadow of the Qadosh Barukh Hu.
But I must say, I need a little more than that. I can “sit in the shadow of the Qadosh Barukh Hu” all day while the rest of the world crumbles around me. Rather, I need something else. Hence the need for the other statement of three. The Gemara goes on:
תמן תנינן רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר על שלשה דברים העולם עומד על הדין ועל האמת והשלום ושלשתן דבר אחד הן נעשה הדין נעשה אמת נעשה שלום א”ר מנא ושלשתן בפסוק אחד (זכריה ח׳:ט״ז) אמת ומשפט שלום שפטו בשעריכם
There, Rabban Shim’on ben Gamliel said: The world stands on three things: on truth, on justice, and on peace, as is said, “Execute truth, justice, and peace within your gates” (Zech. 8:16). These three are interlinked: when justice is done, truth is achieved, and peace is established (Pirqei Avot 1:18).
So this one, says the Gemara, is an entirely different way of viewing the world. Not about the specificities of Torah or service to God, but rather about essential values. We have to seek justice, says the prophet Zechariah. We have to speak truth. That is when peace will come. And Zechariah is even more explicit in the following verse:
And do not contrive evil against one another, and do not love perjury, because all those are things that I hate—declares the LORD.
We have to dedicate ourselves to justice and truth and avoid purposefully reviling one another. And not just justice for us, for the Jews, but for the whole world. That’s what the world stands on. Only then will peace come.
So it may be easy to say that, but how do we get there?
The essence of politics, ladies and gentlemen, is agreement and disagreement. We all agree that there are problems to be solved, and we have multiple paths forward, different ways to approach these challenges. We can agree with each other or disagree, and not only on the solutions, but on the problems themselves.
But we have to do it truthfully, and we have to agree that justice is the abiding principle. And I would like to suggest something that we can all consider, yet another value expressed in Pirqei Avot, and that is “kaf zekhut” – giving somebody with whom you disagree the benefit of the doubt.
Before you dismiss outright what somebody else firmly believes, consider their position, and see if you can even make their argument for them. There is always another side. The only way we can gain true comfort, justice, truth, and peace, is to be able to listen to and seek to understand the other with a fair, even-handed ear, to seek common ground, and to find the political means to bring people together rather than drive them apart.
Only then will we find comfort; only then will we truly sit together in the shadow of the Qadosh Barukh Hu.
I’m sure that you have all heard that Mr. Dylan, aka Robert Zimmerman, joined the most elite club in the world this year: he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. And it seemed for some time that he was avoiding the honor. The Nobel committee had a hard time finding him. He did not return phone calls. It seemed that he was not interested in claiming the prize. (Perhaps, unlike many Nobel laureates, Dylan doesn’t really need the money or the kavod / honor.)
Although he eventually agreed to accept the prize, Mr. Dylan seemingly snubbed the Nobel institution by skipping the award ceremony, citing “pre-existing commitments.” A New York Times reporter tried to discover what, exactly, Mr. Dylan’s commitments were; he was not performing that night anywhere in the world, and he did not seem to be at any of his various residences (at least the ones that the reporter was able to check).
I suppose this is not too surprising for a performer who has always seemed to alternately loathe and love his audience. He may be best known for angering fans at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 by pulling out an electric guitar, a deliberate affront to the folk scene of the time. His performances have been unfortunately erratic; you never know when you see Dylan which Dylan you’re going to get.
Regardless, looking back over his 50+ years of music, there is no question that (a) he deserved this award, and (b) his lyrics are essentially timeless. They are as incisive today as they were a half-century ago.
So it seems that the Jews have yet another Nobel laureate among our ranks (some count our tribe’s prizes at an impressive 20%, although that requires casting a wide net of the ever-contentious definition of “Who is a Jew?” I’m sure Mrs. Zimmerman is very proud, wherever she is.
But I think I know where Bob Dylan is. He’s in mourning. He’s deeply, deeply embarrassed. He’s nursing his wounds. Actually, our wounds.
Never mind that the CIA believes that Russia hacked our election. Forget that a climate-change skeptic has been nominated to head the EPA, an oil executive with ties to Russia to head the State Department, and to head the Department of Energy a man who once said that if he were president, he would eliminate the Department of Energy. Never mind the chief strategist who used to run the premier website dedicated to peddling racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories.
Leave all that aside for a moment, if you can. The biggest casualty of the current moment is the truth. What has come to the fore in 2016 is that many of us (with, by the way, diverse political views) have been deceived by fake news stories and distracted by social-media’s unquenchable desire for ever more clicks on ever-more-sensational items. When we become committed to false narratives and outright lies that are retweeted by authority figures, when folks in dire straights are so desperate that they are willing to swallow campaign promises that are so obviously far-fetched, I am very concerned for the future of our society. Truth has been compromised, and trust is being eroded.
As a non-political example, try to change the mind of somebody who has accepted the idea that vaccination against measles is dangerous. Although the concerns regarding autism have been debunked, and it is abundantly clear that the benefits of vaccination outweigh any perceived risks, it’s a lie – a fake news story that simply will not go away.
In rabbinic literature, the truth is understandably very important – so important, in fact, that there are multiple passages in our textual tradition about witnesses, people called on to testify to the truth. Witnesses in Jewish law have a whole host of restrictions and expectations. Rabbi Hanina (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 55a) tells us that the Hebrew word for truth, emet, is the personal seal of God. We come to kedushah / holiness through truth.
The founding fathers forged this nation on the basis of a handful of simple truths. How will we know the truth, when there is so much falsehood? How will our rights remain unalienable, if those truths are no longer self-evident?
Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
Bob’s blue-eyed son has traveled the world, observing the depth and breadth of Creation and humanity. His innocence is long gone. His youthful idealism has long since been trampled by the truth. And in the song, the son is a witness to truths that must be told.
I learned from Rabbi Wikipedia that Bob’s Hebrew name is Shabtai Zisl ben Avraham (Wikipedia neglected to mention his mother’s Hebrew name; if he ever shows up here and Milt gives him an aliyah, I guess we’ll find out.)
Bob wrestled with his Judaism for many years. He even toyed with Christianity, but he came back to us.
And meanwhile, this is the week of Yisrael. We who wrestle with God. And the character that assigns this new name to Ya’aqov is the angel with whom he wrestles in Parashat Vayishlah.
The commentators go different ways on who, exactly, the angel is. Rashi cites a midrash (BT Menahot 42a) suggesting that this is his brother Esav’s ministering angel. I have always preferred the beautiful notion, echoed by the Gerrer Rebbe (aka the Sefat Emet, the “lip of truth”), that Ya’aqov is actually struggling with himself.
But rather than focusing on the angel, I’d rather consider the struggle. This is not wrestling, I think. Rather, they are dancing — locked against each other all night long, neither willing to forfeit the lead.
We are all engaged in some kind of holy dance — with ourselves, with our community, with our work, with our leaders, with our family, and so forth.
This delicate dance — the waltz of ages, you might call it — is an attempt to move forward with our lives even as we acknowledge and try to manage some of the brokenness around us. We cling to our mystical partner for dear life, hoping that the ground does not give way, that we don’t trip or stumble. Just like Ya’aqov and the mysterious heavenly visitor. We dance with the truth.
Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
Dylan ends with a hopeful note: those of us who are committed to the truth can help repair the world.
The hard rain has begun. It will be up to us to continue to dance through the rain, to take on the struggles that come, to stand up for the many people whose hands are all empty, to illuminate the face of the hidden executioner, to safeguard our waters, to make sure that souls are not forgotten.
Wherever we are headed as a society, I hope that our people will always be able to stand for the truth, even when it hurts. Truth matters more than partisanship. It matters more than victory. Truth outweighs budgets and process and matters of diplomacy. It is the essential check in the system of checks and balances.
As we approach Hanukkah, the holiday wherein we recall our duty to spread light in an otherwise dark world, the optimistic take-away may be that our tradition continues to mandate the pursuit of light and truth: that we as a people will always be compelled to lift up the downtrodden, clothe the naked, take in the homeless, and feed the hungry.
Shabtai Zisl ben Avraham, if you’re listening, please know that hiding from the truth is not what we Jews have ever done. In fact, we stand up for the truth, for the facts on the ground, for what is right for humanity. And we need you now as much as we did in 1962 when you first told us about that hard rain.
Return to us, all of us here on the dance floor as we continue this waltz of ages.