Into the Heart of Darkness

SERMON DELIVERED AT GREATER CENTENNIAL A.M.E. ZION CHURCH

MOUNT VERNON, NEW YORK

SUNDAY, MAY 19, 2019

Good morning, Greater Centennial.  I am always so happy to worship with you and to bring our congregations together as we did just a few weeks ago when the Pastor spoke at WRT.  To Rev. Pogue, to Iris and their family, to all of the wonderful staff here at Greater Centennial, thank you for making Kelly, me, and our congregants always feel like we are part of your family too.

The Scripture I share with you this morning is taken from the Book of Exodus, Chapter 20, verses 18-21; notably, this passage comes immediately after the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai:

Exodus 20:18-21 (My Translation)

18 When all the people saw the thunder and lightning, the sound of the ram’s horn, and the mountain smoking, they became afraid and trembled and stood at a distance.  19 They said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, for God has come only to test you, and to put the fear of God upon you, so that you will not go astray.”  21 Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.

Moses walked into the darkness, because he knew that was the way to God.

And now I ask you the question that will be the theme of my remarks this morning:

Are you willing to walk into the darkness? 

Picture the scene:  Delivered from slavery—God having broken the chains of bondage only weeks ago—the Children of Israel have miraculously crossed the Red Sea escaped Pharaoh’s armies, their rampaging horses and chariots, arrived at the wilderness, and made their way to the foot of Mount Sinai, which is robed in smoke, quaking with thunder and lightning. 

The shofar, the ram’s horn, blasts louder and louder.  There, God speaks into being the laws that will be carved in tablets of stone:  the Ten Commandments.  There, the people stand, amid the thunder and the spark and the smoke.  The Hebrew Scripture tells us that the people could actually see the thunder, an experience of what scientists call synesthesia—when certain people, under certain circumstances, associate certain sounds with certain colors, or certain shapes or letters with certain smells or tastes. 

Mount Sinai must have been overwhelming!    

And the people are afraid.  They stand at a distance.  They say to Moses, “You go.  We’re fine over here.  We’ll just stay back and listen.”

Moses tries to reassure them—“It’s okay; you won’t die; God is just testing you.”  But the people do not budge.  And Moses steps forward, alone, into the thick darkness, where God is.

And so I ask you again:  Are you willing to walk into the darkness?    

This past New Year’s, Kelly and I visited Charleston, South Carolina which is nicknamed the “Holy City” for the number of church steeples dotting its downtown skyline.  Turns out, our hotel was just a half a block away from Mother Emanuel, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where, four years ago next month, Dylann Roof, a 21-year old white supremacist, murdered nine people during Bible Study, including their pastor, South Carolina State Senator Clem Pinckney. 

We thought we were just in Charleston on a charming little getaway—and there, we found ourselves standing in the heart of darkness.

Since Dylann Roof committed his atrocity in Mother Emanuel Church, the headlines have not stopped: 

Eleven Jews murdered in Shabbat prayers at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh last October.

51 Muslims shot to death and 49 injured at the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand, this past March.

290 murdered in coordinated suicide bombings at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday.

A woman murdered and a rabbi injured three weeks ago in a synagogue shooting outside of San Diego, again by a white supremacist, this one only 19 years old… to say nothing of the countless mass shootings in classrooms, concert halls, theaters and public buildings all over this country. 

And where are we?  Are we standing on the sidelines, trembling at the darkness, terrified by the thunder and the spark and the smoke?  Are we waiting for Moses?

But what if no Moses steps up?  What if there is no way past the thick cloud, the smoke, the fire and the darkness— except through? 

For is it not written:  “Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me…?” (Psalms 23:4, KJV)

There is no way around the Valley of the Shadow.  The only way out is through.  And when we walk, forward, through, into the Valley of the Shadow, how good it is to know that Thou art with me, O God.

Recently I returned from a week traveling in and around Berlin, Germany, with Kelly, my parents, and 40 other members of Westchester Reform Temple.  When we announced this trip, a lot of our congregants asked, “Why Germany?  Why would you ever want to go back there, after what they did to our people?” 

And, indeed, I was a bit hesitant about going back to the “scene of the crime,” to the place where, only about 75 years ago, men with advanced academic degrees, bureaucrats wearing expensive suits, gathered in a serene lakeside villa in a place called Wansee, thirty minutes outside Germany’s capital to devise what came to be known as “The Final Solution”:  the intended mass murder of 11 million Jews and millions of other human beings, including ethnic minorities like the Roma and Sinti (sometimes called “Gypsies”), people of color, the elderly and infirm, people with disabilities, and the gay population.  The Final Solution would allow the Nazi regime to mechanize murder like an assembly line—efficient and with a minimum of psychic strain on the perpetrators, who now could simply flip a switch on a gas chamber, rather than have to confront their victims face-to-face as they died.   

In Berlin, we met Margot Friedländer, age 98.  As a young woman she hid herself from the Nazis for 15 months while every one of her family members was rounded up and murdered.  After surviving, she moved to America and created a life for herself and her husband in New York.  As an 88-year-old widow, she decided to move back to Berlin to educate her home city—from young to old—about her experience during the War.  She refused to stand on the sidelines in a climate of rising antisemitism and hatred around the world.  She moved back to Berlin—to the very heart of darkness—to do God’s work, to teach of the worst of humankind, so as to make a better future for humankind. 

She walked into the darkness.   

There, we met young leaders of new Jewish communities who have returned to Europe—from Russia and the former Soviet Union, from conflict zones like Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia, even from Israel.  They have come to rebuild.  They have decided that if Judaism is to have a role in the future of Germany then they must not wait for others to create it. 

And there in Germany, we reckoned with the wickedness of the past.  Unlike every other place in the world, in Germany, remembrance of the Holocaust takes place in countless moments, in countless places.  Engraved brass plates interrupt the cobblestones of the sidewalk wherever people were evicted from their homes and sent to the camps.  These are called stollpersteine—literally, “stumbling stones”—you cannot miss them.  They acknowledge the crimes of the past without mincing words:  “Here, Dr. Julius Hoffman, age 43, was taken from his home.  He was murdered in Auschwitz by the Nazis.” 

Public memorials educate and force a confrontation with the past.  A monument to the murdered communities of Europe comprises 2,711 massive concrete pillars occupying two city blocks.  Pedestrians enter the maze of stones and quickly find themself encased in an imposing darkness.  Children run through and play hide-and-seek.  This is not a museum where you pay to get an education about the Holocaust.  This is public space where you enter, sometimes totally unaware of its significance, and then it dawns on you where you are.  This is all part of how Germany has made a choice, to confront the darkness and not to stand on the sidelines or run away.  This, I believe, also partially explains why Germany has led Europe in granting safe haven to asylum seekers from some of the the world’s worst conflict zones.  It recognizes that stepping into the darkness of its past also means stepping into some of the most difficult challenges of today’s world.

My friends, I wonder what America would look like if our country undertook the same approach to our past, particularly with regard to the crimes of slavery, our treatment of indigenous populations, and our history of disenfranchisement of people of color, women, immigrants, and the LGBTQ population.  I wonder what effect such a reckoning with our past would have on our actions today—on everything from how we deal with Confederate War monuments in public spaces, to immigration policy, to our accountability to refugees and asylum seekers, to our treatment of our own minority populations, including Muslims and Jews who are targets of rising Islamophobia and antisemitism.

I wonder what America would look like if we undertook a reckoning with our country’s obsession with guns.  Just last week, New York Times opinion columnist Charlie Warzel made the case for a broad effort to collect and preserve the “firsthand accounts of America’s mass shooting epidemic. Otherwise the horror, as witnessed by the victims, may be lost to the digital ether.”  He observes that during the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students live-tweeted, interviewed classmates barricaded in closets, and posted images of the devastation on social media—broadcasts from the heart of darkness that spurred a student movement into action.

Mainstream news has proved reluctant to show the carnage of mass shootings.  But at this point, our country seems so inoculated to the violence, so weary of gridlock in Congress, that whatever we’re doing is failing to disturb us toward real action.  It’s become: another day, another mass shooting – yawn.

Jamelle Bouie, who also writes for the New York Times, recently observed that

The fight to pass a federal anti-lynching law stalled for decades before it was propelled, in part, by gruesome images of Southern lynchings, printed in newspapers and circulated by black activists and sympathetic allies. The horrific violence done to Emmett Till, captured in photos and published for the world to see, helped energize the civil rights movement….  [I]mages of fighting and death [during the Vietnam War] played a real part in pushing some Americans from quiet disagreement to staunch opposition. Images from Abu Ghraib contributed to the wide sense among Americans that U.S. officials were condoning torture in Iraq.  And more recently, graphic videos and images from police shootings of black Americans have galvanized a broad protest movement and led to real change in public opinion.

There is, in other words, an important link between confronting, head-on, the most disturbing, dreadful, and disastrous deeds of which we human beings are capable, and changing the ultimate outcome. 

Those Israelites who escaped slavery knew the worst in us—they knew the slave-master’s whip.  They knew the torment of being treated like a farm animal, or, worse, like vermin.  It is understandable that when they came to a mountain enveloped in smoke, shaking with thunder, illuminated by lightning, they cowered at a distance.  This, after all, was a traumatized people.  I understand them.  I understand why they said to Moses, “You go.  We’re fine over here.”   

But God wanted them to move forward, into the darkness, to meet the storm, head-on.

God wanted the Children of Israel to enter the darkness.  For is it not written:  “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light?” (Is. 9:2, KJV)

Out of the darkness would come the light of law and justice and compassion.  Out of the darkness would come a new vision for human civilization—a new compact between God and the people, a covenant, founded on love of God, love of neighbor, and loving self-respect. 

Out of the darkness would come the dawn of a new day.

And so I ask you again: 

Are you willing to walk into the darkness?

God is waiting for us!

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Love and Critique, Together Forever

YOM HA-ATZMA’UT / KEDOSHIM 5779

MAY 10, 2019 – 7:45 PM

LOVE AND CRITIQUE, TOGETHER FOREVER

One of the most confounding verses in Torah appears in this week’s parasha, Kedoshim.  At the center of Leviticus 19—the celebrated “Holiness Code” that outlines the terms of a life of Jewish sanctity, the same passage that, famously, demands, “V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha,” “Love your neighbor as yourself”—we read:

Lo tisna achicha bilvavecha; hocheach tochiach et amitecha, v’lo tisa alav chet. 

There is no one perfect way to translate the verse, but here’s my attempt:

“You must not keep bad blood toward your brother in your heart; rather, you should admonish your fellow, so that you will not have to bear his guilt” (Lev. 19:17).

In other words, “If you see something, say something.”  If you observe your brother—probably here meaning a fellow Israelite or Jew—going astray, it’s up to you to call him out, lest the transgression be yours to bear for not having done anything about it. 

The verse follows in the vein of much other Biblical law concerning the structure of Jewish society, in which, for lack of a better way of putting it, everybody’s stuff was all up in everybody else’s.  In America, we have “Mind your own business”; in Torah, we have, “your business is my business,” a sharp contrast that may shed light on particular characteristics of Jewish people to this day. 

And so we derive from this verse the premise that it is not only okay, but sometimes required—indeed, a mitzvah or commandment—for us to critique another, when we see someone going astray. 

Once we unpack the complex syntax of the verse, the concept is simple to understand, but difficult to apply. 

The Babylonian Talmud offers an exchange between prominent rabbis, in which one, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, complains that no one of his generation seems able to accept critique.  Rabbi Akiva interjects, “By God, I don’t know of anyone in this generation who knows how to deliver critique” (Arakhin 16b).

Hearing and delivering critical feedback are difficult, but necessary, practices, what we might call “essential life skills.”  No genuine relationship can thrive without them.  In Midrash, Rabbi Yosi notes that “love without reproof is not real love,” and the Sage Resh Lakish replies, “And peace where there has been no reproof is not real peace” (Bereshit Rabbah 54:3).

I share these comments with you as a shaky peace, a welcome but unpredictable cease-fire, holds in Israel, following last week’s unprovoked rocket fire from Gaza on Jewish population centers that resulted in four civilian casualties.  There are more than a million bomb shelters in Israel—that’s one for almost every eight people—and last Shabbat, that’s where you could find a million or more Israelis, seeking refuge. 

WRT joins the Reform Movement in condemning the attacks. 

Our Movement leadership has written:  “We hope and pray that the cease fire holds, and at the same time, the Union for Reform Judaism and Central Conference of American Rabbis deplore the massive rocket attack unleashed upon Israel and its citizens by Islamic Jihad and Hamas, the terrorist clients of the Iranian regime, which controls the Gaza Strip. 

We mourn the innocents who have lost their lives in this new round of violence. We pray for the healing of the injured and for the safety of the Israel Defense Forces as they strive to combat this murderous assault on Israeli sovereignty and security. As we send strength and blessings to our congregations in the south of Israel, we are grateful that peril to life and limb in Israel has been greatly limited by the effectiveness of the Iron Dome, emblematic of longstanding U.S.-Israeli security cooperation.

As this week, together with Jews across the globe, we prepare to celebrate Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut, we stand in solidarity with the State of Israel and all Israelis even as we pray for Israel’s safety and security, for an end to this tragic violence, and for a future of real, lasting, and sustainable peace for Israel and for the Palestinian people.”

As we celebrate Israel’s independence, we recognize that it ought never be taken for granted.  As rockets target Israel civilians; as Jews all over the world feel—and are—more threatened today than in a generation or more by antisemitism; as we confront an ancient hatred perpetrated anew on college campuses, in the pages of the international news, and by disturbed gunmen firing on Jews praying in shul—we stand with Israel and for Israel:  a home, a haven, and a harbinger of hope.     

And yet, in light of the verse we have examined, might we still dare to ask:  Does the Jewish obligation to reprove your fellow ever apply to our relationship with Israel? 

I know plenty who say no.  They say:  What Israel needs most from the Jewish community, especially now, is our unconditional support.  They say critique is damaging, even dangerous.  They say Jewish critique of Israel is the mark of the self-hating Jew.  They suspect any critique of Israel of being a cover for antisemitism. 

I reject this view, even if it means that I am thereby protecting the right of the actual antisemites to broadcast their noxious opinions.  The ability to give and receive critical feedback is a sign of any healthy relationship.  Stifling all criticism is both unwarranted and unhelpful.  As we have learned:  “Love without critique is not love.  Peace without critique is not peace.”  It is intentional that the Torah places the verse about rebuking your neighbor directly next to the words, “Love your neighbor.”  The two are inextricably linked.

And so, as we stand unwaveringly with Israel, especially when besieged—as we celebrate her independence, renew our commitment, pledge to make travel to Israel a priority, and support the special relationship between the United States and Israel that helps to guarantee Israel’s security—we also do not flinch when it comes to holding Israel to the highest moral standards of our Jewish faith. 

Following services tonight, we’ll enjoy the opportunity to reflect on last month’s general election in Israel.  I am always grateful to our congregant, teacher, erstwhile Executive Director and friend, the erudite and insightful Yoel Magid, who will join me in conversation about the meaning of the election and where Israel, and we, might go from here. 

As we do, Yoel and I will endeavor to keep in mind what the Talmud teaches, that it’s hard to hear critique, and even harder to deliver it properly—with sensitivity and love.  We hope not to miss the mark. 

Some may feel uncomfortable with our sponsoring a dialogue that raises concerns about the way in which security and nationalism may be exploited to undermine Israel’s democratic character; or about growing threats to religious pluralism; or about incitement against Israel’s non-Jewish citizens of Israel who comprise one fifth of the population; or about the alarming rise in public acts of anti-Arab racism; or about the empowerment of religious intolerance in the form of Ultra-Orthodox rabbis and politicians who seek to deny the equal place of women, converts, the LGBTQ population, and all non-Orthodox Jews, in the world’s only Jewish State.  All this, before we even touch the seemingly ever-receding prospect of meaningful reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. 

“But rabbi,” I can hear them say—this is no time to speak of such things.  Tonight is Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, a time for celebration, a time for unconditional love. 

To which I say, “Our celebration continues unabated.  And our love for Israel is indeed unconditional, the same word we use to describe the love for our siblings, parents, and children—unconditional, yes, but not uncritical, and there’s a critical difference between the two. 

I for one would not wish to be part of any society, country, group or above all religious tradition where thoughtful dissent is silenced.  Having just returned from a week in and around Berlin, in large measure spent excavating the history of Jews in Germany, having stood in the public squares where the Nazis burned our books, and on the train tracks where the Nazis deported us to our deaths (on Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, no less), I feel obliged to remind us that we Jewish people are all too familiar with the silencing of dissenting voices, with the way in which autocracy thrives on fear and intimidation, and dictators often strike first against a free press precisely because they cannot abide even a modicum of public censure.

So tonight we celebrate and confirm our unique and permanent bond, between our people and our homeland.  And tonight, we also question, challenge, probe, critique, and converse. 

We do this because we are Jews, and that’s how we Jews show our love. 

Shabbat Shalom.