The Right Not To Remain Silent: Shabbat Vayikra 5777

 

RABBI JONATHAN E. BLAKE

MARCH 31, 2017

Over the last week and a half I have participated in two conferences that have become welcome annual traditions:  the convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, CCAR for short (a fancy way of saying the Reform Rabbinate), this year held in Atlanta, and the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC—the gathering of the America’s foremost pro-Israel lobby.

Let me list the key differences.

The CCAR gathering is small, about 550 of us, all in one compact hotel.  AIPAC is huge:  18,000 delegates spread out over the entire city, assembling for major events in the Washington Convention Center and the Verizon Center, where the Washington Capitals and Wizards play.

The CCAR is for Reform rabbis only.  AIPAC is for everyone—Jewish people of every denomination, young and old, clergy and lay leaders, and thousands of non-Jewish delegates too, all part of the multiracial, bipartisan network of pro-Israel activists.  WRT brought an enthusiastic delegation of about 20 participants including high schoolers, graduate students, lawyers, doctors, financial professionals, full time volunteers, and one musician/teacher/b’nei mitzvah tutor.

The CCAR is our annual reunion with colleagues from across the US, Canada, and Israel.  Over prayer, study, meals, group activities and plenaries where the business of the conference is conducted, old friendships are strengthened, new ones kindled.  I met with the leaders of the Reform Movement in Israel, and pledged WRT’s support to continue to build a pluralistic and progressive Jewish society in the Jewish State even as they were heartened to hear that WRT has doubled down on Israel education, travel, celebration and advocacy here at home.

Rabbi Levy and I also came away enriched by our visits to the Center for Civil and Human Rights and The Temple, the landmark synagogue in Atlanta that was bombed during the Civil Rights struggle, an attack immortalized in the movie Driving Miss Daisy.

We took special pride in Rabbi David Stern’s inauguration as President of the CCAR—its first 3rd-generation president in 128 years.  Rabbi Stern hobbled up to the podium, both of his feet immobilized in boots following recent surgery, and said, “I… stand here in the presence of the generations that preceded me, aleyhem hashalom—my father Jack Stern and grandfather Jacob Philip Rudin, both revered presidents of this conference; my mother Priscilla Rudin Stern, who was the daughter of a rabbi, the spouse of a rabbi, the mother of a rabbi, and the mother-in-law of a rabbi, and was quite clear that the last was best.  Their legacy blesses and inspires me every day.  They are collectively either in the yeshiva shel ma’alah [the academy on high], or having a martini somewhere nearby.  (And I confess that when I prayed to the Holy One of Blessing to make me a rabbi more like Jack Stern, I wasn’t counting on the white hair and the limp.)”

We loved seeing a native son join WRT luminaries Rick Jacobs and Aaron Panken in the leadership of our Reform Movement.  Ashreinu—how greatly we are blessed!

AIPAC is also reunion of sorts—plenty of colleagues and congregants to catch up with.  It’s a learning opportunity, too—plenty of breakout sessions covering everything from Israeli advances in biotech to the complexities of the Syrian War, including the two sessions in which I participated, one a moderated conversation between Rabbi Donniel Hartman, President of the Hartman Institute, and the author and intellectual Leon Wieseltier, and the other a panel discussion with activist and politician Einat Wilf and Knesset member Nachman Shai.

I was honored to add my voice to these conversations about how progressive values can inform our advocacy and how the Jewish character of the Jewish State can and must remain compatible with Democracy, and vice-versa.

And AIPAC offers an extraordinary array of opportunities for our leaders—elected and appointed, American and Israeli—to share their policy positions directed toward Israel’s security and peace.  At this year’s conference, we heard from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Labor Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog, Vice President Mike Pence, Tony Blair, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Kirsten Gillibrand, and many more.

Still, the main point of the AIPAC Policy Conference is not learning or listening; it’s lobbying.

The important voices at AIPAC are the voices of the American people—the Jewish community, to be sure, but also the many non-Jewish American constituencies who understand that to support Israel is to support the strategic interests of America and of Western Democracy in the Middle East, one of the world’s least hospitable environments for the democratic freedoms that we Westerners take for granted.

On Tuesday the thousands of AIPAC delegates met with Representatives and Senators and their staffers from all fifty states, Democrats and Republicans, thanking them for their bipartisan support of Israel, and urging them to adopt policies that will:  counter Iran’s regional aggression and sponsorship of terrorism; urge generous financial assistance for Israel’s security; support direct negotiations toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians; and oppose boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (the BDS Movement) against Israel.

In this regard, my time at AIPAC and my time at the CCAR Convention coalesced around a common theme:  raising our voices.  Not for nothing is the CCAR’s theme for 2017, “Harnessing Your Rabbinic Voice in Troubled Times.”  Not for nothing did Rabbi Stern’s sermon at the Conference send a message of hope and courage to a group of rabbis made anxious by a climate in which cherished Jewish principles have been challenged as “political”— I would argue, principles made political by the current fractious political climate.

Breakout sessions in Atlanta addressed this unique American moment’s unique challenges:  “An Ethics of Social Justice and Repair: Values and Strategies.”  “Prayer and Spiritual Resistance.”  “Living Out a Racial Justice Campaign in Your Community.”

This week’s Torah portion, Vaykira, the first in the Book of Leviticus, is often mischaracterized as a litany of sacrifices and offerings, gothic in its portrayal of slaughter, blood and entrails, mind-numbing in its catalogue of sheep and oxen, bulls and turtle-doves, unleavened cakes of flour and oil.  But at its heart Vayikra is a handbook for getting right with God.  The sacrifices draw the offerer’s attention to his or her own behavior—ritual or ethical—and seek to recalibrate the distance between the Jew and God when we stray too far.  Forgot to fast on Yom Kippur?  Make an offering.  Improperly immersed yourself in the mikveh?  Make an offering.  Got a simcha in your family for which you want to express gratitude?  Make an offering.  Just want God to know that you’re there?  Make an offering.

In its discussion of “getting right with God,” of establishing spiritual balance after the disruption of sin, Vayikra notes:

נפש כי-תחטא ושמעה קול אלה והוא עד או ראה או ידע אם-לוא יגיד ונשא עונו

[Concerning] a person who sins by hearing a public threat, or witnessing, or seeing, or knowing [about it], and still not speaking up—that person shall bear the responsibility.

One cannot easily or definitively say what exactly the Torah’s writers had in mind here; what kind of “public threat,” exactly, is meant?  Still, where the cause reads ambiguously, the consequence does not.  This is the Torah’s version of the now ubiquitous sign:  “If you see something, say something.”  We are Jews.  We do not keep silence, least of all in the face of a public threat—a blight on society, a moral failing, a risk to the innocent or vulnerable—we do not hold our tongues.

Midrash tells this story:  “A man is passing from one place to another and sees a palace going up in flames, [apparently abandoned.]  He says to himself, ‘Can it be that this burning palace lacks an owner?”  At that moment the owner of the palace looks out [from a turret] and says, “This palace belongs to me.”

And then the man—Avraham, Abraham by name—concludes, “So too the world cannot lack a master,” even though it is burning.  For this reason, the midrash teaches, God selected Abraham to become a father of nations, a leader of peoples.

Because even though the world is burning—strike that—because the world is burning—God needs us to take notice, to speak up, to demand justice, to get involved.  A person who sins by hearing, witnessing, seeing, even merely knowing about a public threat, but who fails to speak up—that person bears the responsibility.

Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, explains, “Judaism begins not in wonder that the world is, but in protest that the world is not as it ought to be.  It is in that sacred discontent that Abraham’s journey begins.”

In these turbulent times, too many people of conscience and commitment in our communities—rabbis and cantors, to be sure, but also laypeople of every age and stage and point of view—are choosing not to speak their conscience, not to voice their views, out of fear of triggering an argument among family, or losing friends or congregants.  How many of you are worried about Passover Seder this year for just this reason?  As we gather on our festival of liberation, should we, for instance, keep silent about the plight of the refugee now that a longstanding matter of religious principle has, of late, been thrust under the klieg lights of partisan politics?

Judaism would not have us hold our peace when the world is on fire.

In part that’s why CCAR and AIPAC were so refreshing.  As you can imagine, put 500 rabbis in a hotel, or 15,000 Jews and a few thousand pro-Israel activists in a hockey rink and you will have no shortage of outspokenness.

In any other year the two experiences back-to-back might have proved fatiguing; I return to WRT energized and engaged, supported and strengthened.

I return to WRT excited to find commonality of purpose in last week’s temple mission to the deep South, where Rabbi Levy, Cantor Kleinman, and Eliana retraced the steps of the Civil Rights movement with 100 WRT eighth grade students and parents; thrilled to hear the stories of our Confirmation students who traveled earlier this month with Rabbi Reiser and Cantor Kleinman to Washington, DC, to lobby in the halls of Congress on Reform Movement positions.

These experiences teach our children and our congregants that the Jewish responsibility to speak out in the face of public threats belongs not only to clergy, but to all of us.

I return to WRT remembering why our own Rabbi Jack Stern’s printed anthology of sermons is called The Right Not To Remain Silent.

And I return to WRT carrying the visceral imprint of one experience that, ironically enough, required of me no speech; indeed, it demanded perfect silence.

In the Atlanta Center for Civil and Human Rights you will find an interactive exhibit.  It is a lunch counter.  There are four seats in a row and each guest at the counter is asked to put palms face down on the counter and wear headphones.  A 3-dimensional audio soundscape immediately transformed me, the listener, into one of the Greensboro Four, the students who sat down at a lunch counter inside the Woolworth store at 132 South Elm Street in Greensboro and asked for a cup of coffee.  Following store policy, staff refused to serve the black men at the “whites only” counter and manager Clarence Harris asked them to leave.

The shouting, jeering, threats and curses grew louder in my ears.  After two minutes the chair began to jostle.  I got up, shaken, having lasted longer than most museum patrons.

The four freshmen in Greensboro stayed until the store closed at night.  Witnesses to a moral—and mortal—threat, armed with nothing more than the power of their own nonviolent resistance to do the talking for them, they showed a burning world that things could change.

Shabbat Shalom.

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The True Measure of a Society: Shemot 5777

RABBI JONATHAN E. BLAKE

January 20, 2017 – WRT

January 22, 2017 – GREATER CENTENNIAL A.M.E. ZION CHURCH, MT. VERNON

 

“There arose over Egypt a new king, who knew not Joseph.”

Exodus, Chapter One, Verse Eight – from this week’s Torah portion, Shemot, the beginning of the Book of Exodus.

“There arose over Egypt a new king, who knew not Joseph.”

The Sages asked:  How can this be?  How could a king, even a new king, not know Joseph, the famed Israelite who had come up from the dungeon of despair to the pinnacle of power, the boy dreamer who had risen to become Pharaoh’s right-hand man, the visionary leader who saved Egypt from certain disaster by planning for seven years of famine, nationalizing Egypt’s farmland?

How could this new king not know Joseph?

The Sages argued:  Is this really a new king?  In the Talmud—that great collection of Jewish wisdom—one commentator named Rav said yes, this is a different person, literally, a new king.  His sparring partner, Shmuel, said, no, it’s the same Pharaoh as before—for nowhere does the Bible state that the former Pharaoh had died and a new Pharaoh taken his place.  Rather, only his decrees are new.  In other words, with Joseph out of the picture, the Pharaoh had a change of heart toward the Hebrews.  The Talmud interprets the words “who did not know Joseph” in verse eight to mean that the Pharaoh issued decrees against the Israelites as if he did not know Joseph (Bavli, Sotah 11a, also Shemot Rabbah 1:8).

At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter—the end result is the same.  What matters is that this king—new or not—disregards the honorable legacy of Joseph and “otherizes” the Israelites, assigning them a permanent status as foreigners, no matter how long they had lived in the land nor how much they had contributed to the welfare of their adoptive country.

Matthew Henry was a nonconformist minister who lived in Wales and England in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.  He published extensive commentaries on the Old and New Testaments.  Examining the question of the “king who knew not Joseph,” Henry concluded:

“The land of Egypt became to Israel a house of bondage.  The place where we have been happy, may soon become the place of our affliction…. All that knew Joseph, loved him, and were kind to his brethren for his sake; but the best and most useful services a man does to others, are soon forgotten after his death.  Our great care should be, to serve God….”

Rulers come and rulers go, but we, children of God, need to stay true to ourselves and to our God.  

We do that by remembering our own history of vulnerability and by remembering that the true measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable.

We know all too well that “the place where we have been happy, may soon become the place of our affliction.”  For Jews, Henry’s warning has become a twice-told tale, whether we refer to the flesh-pots of Egypt in Biblical times, the Roman diaspora from our native land in the century after Jesus walked the earth, the mistreatment of Jews in nearly every European country of the Middle Ages, the Expulsion from Spain in 1492, the pogroms in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, the devastation of the Holocaust, and the violent repression and deportation of Jewry in places as vast and far-flung as the Soviet Union and numerous Arab states in the Middle East. Through all these difficulties, the Jewish people have demonstrated miraculous resiliency.  Just when we thought we were safe—even, at times, powerful, prosperous, and well-integrated into a society into which generations of our people had been born, so as to think of ourselves as native sons and daughters—along came some Destroyer to puncture our sense of safety with acts of hostility and hatred:  at times Pharaohs and kings, at times Popes and bishops, at times armies and police, at times peasants with pitchforks and torches.

For people of color, the story follows a different recipe but the basic ingredients, when you boil it down, are the same:  institutionalized discrimination, forced deprivation, and violence, often supported by the state.  As Ta-Nehisi Coates concludes:  “The plunder of black communities is not a bump along the road, but it is, in fact, the road itself that you can’t have in America without enslavement, without Jim Crow, terrorism, everything that came after that.”

I do not recall these sad and sordid histories in order for any of us to wallow in despair.  In fact, I can imagine nothing more self-destructive than to build our identities exclusively around having been history’s suffering scapegoats.

The Jewish story combines industriousness, wisdom, luck and resourcefulness, leavened with a healthy dose of adversity and not the other way around.  Indeed, any contest over who is history’s biggest victim is one none of us should ever hope to win.

Still, whether you are Jewish or Black (or both!), or if you are a Muslim living in America today, or if you are part of the LGBTQ community, or if you are an immigrant—or the son or daughter or descendant of an immigrant—remembering our common histories of vulnerability—remembering without fetishizing—serves an important purpose:  It keeps us humble.  It is a hedge against haughtiness.  It protects us from the perils of pride—of treating any measure of power or privilege into which we may have been born, or any advantage that may have come to us from those who came before us—as a birthright or an entitlement.

Remembering our historic vulnerability teaches us never to take our success for granted.  Consider the words of Joshua, who charged the Hebrews upon entering the promised land to remember their roots and remember their God:  “I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.”

In one of his most misunderstood and misquoted speeches, former President Barack Obama sounded a similar theme:  “…[L]ook,” he said, “if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.… I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.”

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen….”

“The point is,” he concluded, “that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”

We succeed because we do things together.  Because we work and give and do for the sake of those who have less.  Because we lift up the disadvantaged, the deprived, the disabled.  Rulers come and rulers go, but the true measure of a society is in how it treats its most vulnerable.  The Bible itself instructs us to take care of the stranger, the orphan, and the widow—not once, but 36 times—more than any other commandment.

The minorities, the foreigners, the refugees, the immigrants, the poor, the women, the children, the homeless, the unemployed, the uninsured—today’s stranger, orphan and widow—no matter the society or the circumstances, all of these have always borne the brunt of suffering at the hands of the powerful.  Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th Century Rabbi and the founder of Modern Orthodox Judaism, explains that the alleged “new king who did not no Joseph” first exploited the Hebrews’ status as foreigners, aliens in order to carry out his diabolical schemes against them.

“The root and beginning of this indescribable maltreatment,” he says, “was the supposed lack of rights of a foreigner… In Egypt, the cleverly calculated lowering of the rights of the Jews on the score of their being aliens came first; the harshness and the cruelty followed by itself, as it always does and will, when the basic idea of right has first been given wrong conception.”

Hirsch is saying that singling out people who come from different places, speak different languages, have skin that looks more brown or black or yellow or red than it does white or pink or even orange—impugning their patriotism, raising suspicions about their loyalty, “otherizing” them, denying them the same rights and freedoms due every other citizen, inevitably leads to maltreatment, harshness, cruelty, violence.

The true measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable!

That’s why WRT works with the Open Arms Shelter to open our doors to the homeless and hungry, dedicates our temple kitchen to “Cooking 4 a Cause,” and sends congregants of all ages to the Hebrew Union College Soup Kitchen in Manhattan.

That’s why WRT has for almost fifteen years partnered with Westchester Jewish Community Services and the Amazing Afternoons program of the Edward Williams School in Mount Vernon, to provide after-school help for students.

That’s why WRT is proud to have our own Cantor Abramson participate in a Global Justice Fellowship to the Dominican Republic, from which she just returned, where she worked with a cohort of rabbis and activists to learn about systematic discrimination and institutionalized statelessness for Haitian laborers, among many other pressing social concerns.

That’s why WRT advocates for public policy that protects the most vulnerable.  Because policy is how we make change.  And we need to start paying a lot less attention to what our elected officials say or Tweet and a lot more attention to what they sign into legislation!  This weekend our congregants will participate with our own Yoel Magid in the Raise the Age campaign through the Westchester Children’s Association which advocates for changing the age of juvenile offenders in New York State from 16 to 18—meaning that 16-year-old offenders could no longer be tried and sentenced as adults.

That’s why WRT is sending two buses with Cantor Kleinman and our Rabbinic Intern, Eliana Fischel, Saturday at (the admittedly ungodly hour of) 4:30 AM to join the Women’s March on Washington, declaring through united, nonviolent demonstration that women’s rights are human rights, regardless of a woman’s race, ethnicity, religion, immigration status, sexual identity, gender expression, economic status, age or disability.

And that’s why WRT has applied to be first in line in Westchester County when the State Department approves the resettlement of fifty Syrian refugees.  Working with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society—an organization that, over the course of 125 years, has assisted over four and a  half million people fleeing hardship and violent conflict, WRT intends to devote substantial volunteer hours toward this effort in 2017.  Already almost 150 congregants have stepped up to signal their readiness and willingness to help, and our Refugee Resettlement Task Force is prepared and ready to go for when we receive a green light from the State Department and HIAS.

Because the true measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable.  And our God, the God of Scripture, the Living God of History, the God of our ancestors and our descendants, is a mighty God—but not a God of the mighty, but rather a God of the vulnerable.

Our God is mighty because above human power God places human dignity.  Above ambition God places altruism.  Above personal achievement God places the shared portion.

Our God is mighty because, as the Prophet declares, God has no need for sacrifice and prayer, ritual piety and even organized religion when one’s heart is saturated with greed and one’s hands are stained with blood.  Only when we take care of the stranger, the orphan, and the widow does God find favor in our offerings.

Our God is mighty because, as a wise rabbi once taught upon a Galilean hilltop some 2,000 years ago, God has reserved blessing for the lowly in station but pure of heart:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be sated.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” 

Abraham’s Better Angels: Shabbat Lech-Lecha 5777

 

RABBI JONATHAN BLAKE

November 11, 2016 – Veterans Day

Standing before a divided country, Abraham Lincoln concluded his first inaugural address by appealing to “the better angels of our nature.”

The same Abraham Lincoln, haggard and weary, would, four years later, conclude his second inaugural, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”  Leave it to Abraham Lincoln to sound the chord that must ever be sounded in times of national discord.

From this Abraham we would turn to the first Abraham.   Even as Abraham the President sought our better angels, so too Abraham the Patriarch.

Tonight I want to isolate three incidents from Abraham’s story that may help us call forth the better angels of our nature.

The title of the parasha, Lech Lecha, comes from God’s instruction to Abraham in its opening verse.  Lech Lecha m’artzecha, u’mi-molad’tcha, u’mi-beit avicha, el ha-aretz asher areka.  “Go forth from your country, from the place of your birth, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”

Whatever you think about the outcome of this election no one will deny that we are entering uncharted territory.  What does Lech Lecha teach us about how to set out on such journey?  The ancient Rabbis would have us read the instruction literally:  not Lech Lecha, “go forth,” but Lech, “go,” Lecha, “unto yourself.”  They tell us that what God really wanted Abraham to do was not go out and discover a new land, not discover a new religion, but to go out and discover… Abraham.  After self-discovery, everything else would follow.

So this is the first lesson of Lech Lecha:  Every journey into the unknown requires a journey within. 

If nothing else I hope and pray that this bruising and indecent election season will open up a period of introspection and critical reflection in America—a journey L’cha, unto and into ourselves.

We cannot journey forth until we commit to examine the deep divide in America, a rift that has left so many people feeling unrepresented by their government.  We need to understand the shifting forces of policy, culture, economics, technology and demography that have undermined their American dream and vaporized their hopes of prosperity.  We need to understand those who feel deflated by slow economic recovery, stagnant wage growth, skyrocketing health insurance costs.  We need to listen to people dismayed by the growing rift between Israel and the US, frightened by volatility and violence in Europe and the Middle East.  And we need to hear the voices desperate for change because they believe our politicians have failed us.

We also need to reflect honestly on how our national divide has widened during a campaign season that fueled division.  We need to probe the misgivings of so many Americans who recoil at speech that demeans immigrants, minorities, women, and people with disabilities, that traffics in insults.  We need to take seriously the anxieties of those who see bullies, xenophobes and anti-Semites emboldened in the new political landscape.  We need to be attentive to citizens who dread the curtailment of women’s reproductive choices; who are losing sleep over the threat of deportation; who are concerned about growing distrust between law enforcement and communities of color; and who believe that to deny climate change, to glorify torture, to allow unfettered access to guns, and to build walls—whether we fashion them of bricks and mortar or biases and mindsets—all represent backward steps for our country.

Lech Lecha tells us:  be introspective.  Be soul-searchers.  Do not let this moment for national self-reflection pass us by.  It may hurt—but it won’t kill us to learn more about our ingrained preferences and prejudices.  I pray that our elected officials and those who advise them will also take this journey of L’cha, of introspection, the wellspring of wisdom.

Lech Lecha:  Every journey into the unknown requires a journey within.

Later in the parasha, we read about Abraham’s evolving relationship with his nephew Lot.  Both have amassed much silver, gold, cattle, herds, flocks and tents.  So much material wealth, in fact, that one territory cannot accommodate both of them.  Their herdsmen begin to quarrel.  Abraham proposes that he and Lot go their separate ways.  He invites his nephew to have first pick:  “If you go to the north, I’ll go south; if you go south, I’ll go north.”  Lot sees the fertile Jordan plain and his eyes grow wide with tantalizing visions of prosperity and productivity.  Abraham stays in the land of Canaan with its rocky outposts and limited resources.

Lot, it turns out, has elected to live a life of luxury among the wicked denizens of Sodom and Gomorrah while Abraham has staked his claim on a piece of property that may represent a good spiritual investment, but which is definitely a dubious real estate investment.  Soon after, Abraham will tangle with Sodomites and even risk his life to rescue his nephew who, shortly after moving to Sodom, gets kidnapped by invaders.  From all of this we learn that Abraham cares about progeny more than property, about his nephew Lot more than his material lot.

Thus the second lesson of Lech Lecha:  put the greater good above what’s good only for you. 

Time and again Abraham demonstrates commitment to something bigger than himself.  He puts his own comfort and convenience, his fate and fortune at risk for the sake of family, community, tribe and people.  In Jewish tradition, Abraham serves as the exemplar for three of our most important mitzvot:  caring for the sick, redeeming the captive, and welcoming the stranger.

In the spirit of Abraham, the time has come to renew America’s great tradition of self-sacrifice and public service.  How poetically appropriate that we meet here on Veterans Day.  My grandfather, Harry “Acky” Garb, served in the First Marine Corps as a medic in the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.  Only in my adulthood, decades after his untimely death at the age of 74 in a motor vehicle accident in 1989, have I come to appreciate the meaning of his service to his country.  He, on the other hand, would have rejected these accolades.  My Pop-Pop would have told you that the only real heroes were the corpsmen—his brothers-in-arms—who never came back from overseas, the ones who gave to their country, again to quote Abraham Lincoln, “the last full measure of devotion.”

Service in our armed forces is of course only one way to put country before self.  We need our Jewish traditions of tzedakah—righteous giving—gemilut chasadim—compassionate deeds—and tikkun olam—social justice—now more than ever.  We need to apply our Jewish values to advance policies that will do the greatest good for the greatest number above those that benefit chiefly the few and the privileged.

American democracy at its best has always aspired to such aims.  Our own Reform Jewish leaders wrote in a post-election statement this week:  “President-elect Trump has the opportunity to use his office to bring Americans together, and to move us toward a brighter future.  If he does so, we will be ready to work with him for the common good. If he does not, we also stand ready to be fierce advocates for the values that guide us:  inclusivity, justice and compassion.”  Those are Abraham’s values.

Lech Lecha:  Put the greater good above what’s good only for you.

By the time we get to the last part of this week’s reading, Abraham has become a real macher, a person of influence.  But even he defers to the higher officials.  Several times in our portion Abraham encounters a ruling executive authority—including the Pharaoh of Egypt, the king of Sodom, and King Melchizedek of Salem (probably Jerusalem).  In every case Abraham treats the sovereign with respect and charity.

Still, Abraham’s highest allegiance is always to God, with whom he shares an inviolable covenant.

So this is the third and final lesson from Lech Lecha:  Know before whom you stand.

It is important for us to remember that Jews have always subordinated ourselves to the office of the ruling power.  The famous axiom דִּינָא דְּמַלְכוּתָא דִּינָא, an Aramaic phrase meaning, “The law of the land is the law,” is repeated four times in the Babylonian Talmud and twenty-five times in the Shulchan Aruch, that great Medieval legal code.  We have been among history’s most loyal and patriotic citizens of countless foreign realms, none of which afforded us the kind of freedoms and opportunities that America has for nearly four hundred years.  Who among us has not had occasion to affirm the first line of The Godfather:  “I believe in America?”

We Jews have taken pride and comfort in the vision of our Founders, that leadership comes not by blood or birthright but by the will of the people.

And we Jews have always prayed for the welfare of the government under which we live.  We did so in the days of our Babylonian Exile in the 6th Century BCE, throughout our long history in the Diaspora, and we do so today.  Our prayer book includes these words:

O Guardian of life and liberty,

may our nation always merit Your protection…

Grant our leaders wisdom and forbearance.

May they govern with justice and compassion.

Help us all to appreciate one another,

and to respect the many ways that we may serve You.

May our homes be safe from affliction and strife,

and our country be sound in body and spirit.

Still, like Abraham, we Jews also recognize that above all human authority resides an authority we name Divine.  Like Abraham, we honor our leaders but bow down only before God.  Like Abraham, we know that potentates and presidents do not decide ultimate right and wrong.  Even the Biblical king was required to keep a copy of the Torah by his side and study it all the days of his life.

Here in America, We The People hold our leaders accountable to the law of the land.

We The People exercise our freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly to demand godly behavior from our elected officials.

We The People take to the press, the pulpit, and the public square to make our voices heard.  We live with loyalty to government and love of country and fellow citizen.  But we also live in sacred covenant with the Most High, the spiritual power that summons us to the better angels of our nature.

Lech Lecha:  Know before whom you stand.

One last thought.  When we stand before God during the Tefillah—the central prayers of our service—it is customary to conclude, according to the Talmud (Yoma 53) by taking three steps back, then turning to the right, and finally turning to the left, as we offer a prayer for peace.

An Orthodox rabbi from Chicago, the late Menachem Ben-Zion Zaks, explains that we cannot pray for peace if we are not willing to step back a little and make room for others.  Achieving peace, he says, means acknowledging those on the right and those on the left—not just looking straight ahead.

Take a step back.  Look to the right.  Look to the left.  And pray for shalom. 

Rosh Ha-Shanah Morning 5777

THE NEW LONELINESS

In 1978, Rabbi Jack Stern delivered a sermon from our bimah called “Loneliness.”  He said:  “The way we usually approach the subject of loneliness is the way we used to approach death and dying before it was almost forced into the public arena:  mostly by avoiding it, because we have all seen lonely people sitting next to other lonely people on lonely park benches, and they are the people that we would least like to be.  So we shy away from the subject altogether, because in our idealized, packaged version of healthy adjustment, there is no room for loneliness, not even a little bit” (Stern, Jack.  “Loneliness,” The Right Not to Remain Silent:  Living Morally in a Complex World.  New York:  iUniverse, 2006.  p. 79).

Rabbi Stern went on to quote Thomas Wolfe, who, a generation earlier, wrote in an essay also entitled “Loneliness,” “that far from being a rare and curious phenomenon,” loneliness “is the central and inevitable fact of human existence” (Ibid, citing Wolfe, Thomas.  “God’s Lonely Man,” The Thomas Wolfe Reader, ed. Holman.  New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1962.  p. 676.  Essay originally appears in Wolfe, Thomas. The Hills Beyond.  New York:  Harper & Brothers, 1941).

So it was.  So it is.  So, perhaps, it ever shall be.

Still, the subject of loneliness seems more timely than ever.

How ironic that the the more crowded the world gets, the lonelier we feel.  How ironic that the more technologically advanced we become—the more sophisticated, fast, and far-reaching our tools of communication, transportation, and transaction—the more we experience disconnection, alienation, separation.  How ironic that here, with every seat filled, many of us feel isolated:  the sea of unfamiliar faces; the empty chair once occupied by a loved one; the longing for what once was and no more will be.

This is not solitude.  Solitude is coffee and a newspaper, a bath and a glass of wine.  Solitude is a walk in the morning breeze, a beach chair at sunset.  Solitude is alone with a meandering thought, a silent prayer, a daydream, a remembered melody.  Solitude is a stolen hour writing in a diary, practicing guitar, listening to Miles Davis.  Solitude is contentedly sitting on a couch, watching football, or so I’m told.

Solitude is alone by choice.  Lonely is alone not by choice.

Or is it?  Many of our choices now seem to favor loneliness.  We hide behind digital screens:  standing in line at the store, in the doctor’s waiting room, at intermission, the minute the plane lands, sitting across from each other in a dim restaurant, our faces illuminated by the light of an iPhone.

“How is this a life?” asks Jamie Varon, a thirty-something blogger.  “It’s not a life, actually.  We cannot spend our days hunched over a screen forging a sense of human interaction.  This is not what we were made for.  I can guarantee all your best memories live within the moments with others.”

“When you look back on your life,” she asks, “will you be happy by how much Netflix you’ve watched?  Will you be happy about the graveyard of plans you let fall by the wayside?  Will you be happy when you’re surrounded by no one because we’ve all pushed each other away?” (Varon, Jamie.  “This is the New Loneliness,” published on www.thoughtcatalog.com, April 8, 2015.  http://thoughtcatalog.com/jamie-varon/2015/04/this-is-the-new-loneliness/)

That’s an excerpt from her essay entitled “This is the New Loneliness.”  A New Loneliness has seized a new generation.  And maybe, when we go offline for a moment, when we stop the solitary scrolling and clicking, the ceaseless surfing and searching, the posting and the liking, we might wonder:  for what?  Does anyone get up from a laptop feeling more energized, valued, loved, or understood?  What’s this all about?

Even online dating—a seemingly endless array of eligible people all craving human connection—has, for some, only exacerbated the loneliness.

In a recent New York Times “Modern Love” column, Sarah Moses recounts a run of hapless first dates after which she reports, “While dating does make me feel crazy at times… I keep at it in hopes that one day the outcome will be different.

“At the same time, I also try hard to accept that it may never happen for me.  I tell myself that I don’t need a partner to lead a happy and fulfilling life.  Then one morning, I’m on the Q train, across from a cute couple.…

“He says something funny to her, and she laughs, then puts her head on his shoulder.  When they get up to leave, he holds her hand and they just look so stinking happy.

“I want to cry, feeling creepy for staring at these strangers and also envious that they seem to have what I want” (Moses, Sarah.  “Single Woman Seeking Manwich,” published on www.nytimes.com on May 13, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/15/fashion/modern-love-dating-single-okcupid.html).

In truth, the New Loneliness has been a long time in the making and has as much to do with the collapse of American civic engagement among Baby Boomers and Gen-X’ers as it does with round-the-clock internet use among Millennials.  In his landmark 2000 book Bowling Alone, sociologist Robert Putnam analogizes the decline in bowling leagues to the increasing alienation of Americans from their families and communities.  One crucial factor leading to social isolation is television.  Says Putnam, “People watch Friends on TV — they don’t have them” (Putnam, Robert.  Bowling Alone:  The Collapse and Revival of American Community.  New York:  Simon & Schuster, 2000.  p. 108).

But perhaps I have already lost some of you.  Those of you who remember Jack Stern’s “Loneliness” sermon belong to a generation less beguiled by the internet, more likely to have joined a bridge club or rotary club.  And some of you are probably thinking:  “But wait, Rabbi, I’m 85 and I’m lonely too!”

Okay.  So you can be 85 and lonely too.  There’s nothing new about that.  What’s new is that, increasingly, loneliness is being viewed as a public health issue “deserving of public funds and national attention,” as reported last month in the New York Times, noting that “[r]esearchers have found mounting evidence linking loneliness to physical illness and to functional and cognitive decline.  As a predictor of early death, loneliness eclipses obesity” (Hafner, Katie.  “Researchers Confront an Epidemic of Loneliness,” The New York Times, September 5th, 2016, as published at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/06/health/lonliness-aging-health-effects.html).

It’s universal, timeless.

Twice, and only twice, the Torah reports that something is Lo Tov, “not good,” and both have to do with loneliness.  The first refers to Adam in the Garden of Eden, of whom the Torah says, “Lo tov lihyot adam l’vado, It is not good for a human being to be alone” (Genesis 2:18), and so God creates Eve.  The second time, Moses’s father-in-law Jethro counsels him not to take on the burden of leadership alone.  Seeing Moses toil from dawn ’til dusk, ministering to every Israelite’s needs, he admonishes him:  “Lo tov ha-davar asher ata oseh:  The thing you are doing is not good” (Exodus 18:17).  It is not good to live alone and it is not good to lead alone.  Our ancient tradition really gets loneliness.

Robert Frost got it too.  He wrote:

I have been one acquainted with the night.

I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.

I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.  

(Frost, Robert.  “Acquainted with the Night,” West-Running Brook.  New York:  Henry Holt, 1928.  Poem cited in the e-book version at http://www.gutenberg.ca/ebooks/frostr-westrunningbrook/frostr-westrunningbrook-00-h-dir/frostr-westrunningbrook-00-h.html#night).

At one time or another, we all become acquainted with the night.

Every human story goes like this:  From the moment we emerge from the womb, we are learning to breathe alone.  By the time we breathe our last, we realize that we must also leave this world alone, unable to take anything—much less anyone—with us.

And yet, in our lifetime, we never stop craving human connection.  Is there any desire more primal, more persistent, than to feel loved, to feel protected, to feel understood by another?

I think that the Binding of Isaac may be the loneliest story of all, don’t you?  Twice today’s Scripture mentions that father and son walk together:  first, when Abraham and Isaac set out on their three days’ trek, and again, once they have outwalked the furthest city light and reached the mountain.  “Vayelchu shneihem yachdav,” it says.  The two of them walked on together” (Genesis 22:6, 22:8).

But then comes a trauma, when the father, standing over his helpless boy, takes a knife to his throat.  It matters little that God intervenes and stops him from actually killing his son.  The damage is done.  When Abraham leaves the mountain, he walks alone.  At the end of the story, Isaac slips away without mention.  It is almost as if he has vanished from the scene.  But in the following chapters we discover that while alive and well, Isaac will never speak to his father again.

I was talking with Kelly about this story, about how sad I find it, about the abject loneliness I see in Abraham and Isaac—and Kelly said, “Of course they’re both lonely.  Both of them feel abandoned by their father.  Isaac by Abraham, and Abraham by God.  And not only that,” she added, “their experience lays bare the most profound kind of loneliness of all:  to feel that no one else could possibly understand what you’ve been through.”

It’s an ancient story about an ancient loneliness, but it could have been written yesterday about so many of us suffering a family estrangement, a rupture between parent and child or sibling and sibling, an old trauma whose pain does not heal but rather hardens with the passage of time.  An abandonment when we needed someone most.  A trust betrayed.  A promise broken.  A friendship sundered.

There is so much loneliness in our present-day Abrahams and Isaacs, to say nothing of the unmentioned Sarah, the Jewish mother biting her nails back in the tent as she frets over what has become of her son, not to mention her husband.

Which brings us to another kind of ancient loneliness:  “in some marriages a far-reaching loneliness of two people who once reached out to each other in love but no more,” as Rabbi Stern described it.  “Or there can be, as there is in most marriages, a little bit of loneliness with two people still in love, still reaching out to each other, but not always at exactly the same time” (Stern, 81).  Look no further than Abraham and Sarah, who together withstood famine, migration, kidnapping, war, infertility, and the heartbreaking episode of their foreign maidservant Hagar whom they use as a surrogate to give birth to a son, Ishmael, only to have Sarah turn on them in a fit of jealousy, consigning them to the desert, while Abraham watches, stone-faced.

Yes, Abraham and Sarah’s marriage had its long, lonely stretches.

By the time we finish the binding of Isaac, when Abraham and Isaac walk off, each one alone, we can understand why the next verse of the Torah reports that Sarah has died.

Oh, the singular loneliness of grief.  In the past year alone we have laid to rest 25 congregants and 87 members of our extended WRT family, including 5 members of WRT’s founding generation.  There’s a special loneliness known only to those who have buried relative and friend in steady succession for years on end.  I tend to bump into many of these same congregants at funeral after funeral, and our conversation has become a kind of shorthand for the unspoken language of mourners, exchanging little more than a hug and a knowing look and maybe one sentence like, “We have to stop meeting like this.”

What to do when what we want most in the world is to pick up the phone and talk about the kids’ soccer game or report card, the trip to Nantucket, the amazing dinner we just had—but now there’s no one on the other end?  The loneliness of grief is the loneliest of all.

Aren’t we all lonely, to one degree or another?

And yet if we leave this place and this moment resigned to remain this way forever—too afraid, too stubborn, or too disheartened to change—then the beautiful promise of Rosh Ha-Shanah will have passed us by.

For loneliness is not some sad city lane leading endlessly into the darkness.  It is, rather, for most of us, a temporary, if recurring, part of life, a street we pass along from time to time.

For those walking the lonely road of an injured relationship, Rosh Ha-Shanah and these ten Days of Awe have much to teach us about the power of teshuvah, the word that we translate “repentance” but which really means “return,” to return to the relationships that have been stressed and strained and even severed.

Teshuvah also asks us to examine ourselves honestly.  It asks:  how much loneliness have I brought upon myself?  To what extent is my loneliness a result of my obstinateness, my narcissism, my lack of self-awareness?  Was I abandoned, or did I withdraw?  Did I contribute to others’ loneliness?  Have I shunned others in my need to be right, to be recognized, to be strong or independent?  Our tradition teaches us to care for the widow, the stranger, the orphan.  Have I failed to show up for those in my family, my community, who bear the burden of a loneliness they never chose?

What healing power resides in simply showing up, in putting your arms around someone else, in setting aside your own loneliness for an hour by performing a mitzvah for someone else!  Anyone who spends an hour making a shiva call, serving guests at a homeless shelter, tutoring disadvantaged kids, volunteering at a hospital, reading for the blind, knows this.  When we reach out for another, the hand of God reaches out and takes away a little of our loneliness—at least for an hour.

A Hasidic parable related by the Israeli author S.Y. Agnon:

A man had been wandering about in a forest for several days, not knowing the way out.  Suddenly he saw a man approaching him in the distance. His heart was filled with joy.  “Now I shall certainly find out which is the right way,” he thought to himself.  When they neared each other, he asked the man, “Brother, I have been wandering about in this forest for days. Can you tell me which is the right way out?”

Said the other to him, “Brother, I do not know the way out either.  For I, too, have been wandering about in here for many days.  But… come, let us look for the way out together” (Agnon, S.Y.  Days of Awe.  New York:  Schocken Books, 1995.  p. 22.  Parable attributed to Rabbi Hayyim [Halberstam] of Zans (1793-1876)).

It’s easier to find our way if we’re willing to stop and ask for directions.  And whenever we take the hand of another, we find part of ourselves.

But first we need to see the person next to us.

On a sunny day this past June in New York City with an hour to kill, I parked myself on a bench at the Shakespeare Book Shop on the Upper East Side and started to write a sermon.  A lovely woman in her late 60s sat down next to me and asked for the WiFi password.  (It happens to be “Shakespeare.”)

We passed the hour in silence, absorbed in our work.  As I was getting up to leave my eye spotted a newsflash on my laptop about the presidential race and I must have either grunted or moaned or signaled indigestion, and the nice lady to my left said, “everything okay?”  I said, “Oh sure, just politics.”  She said, “Nu, what country are you moving to?”  And I said, “Oh, I couldn’t leave, but I guess if I had to, it’d have to be Israel.”  My impromptu companion replied, “Yes, I guess it’s good to go with our people,” and I said, “L’chayim to that.”

Then she asked, “So how come you couldn’t leave?”  and I said, “Well, I’m the rabbi of a big synagogue in Scarsdale.”

Long pause.

She pierced me with her gaze. “Is your father a doctor?” she asked.  I said, “Yes, he is.”  Then she said, “Is your mother Margie?”  I said, “Yes, and who, by the way, are you?”  The stranger replied, “I’m your cousin Flora.  Your great grandmother Chanah was my great-aunt.”

And for the next long while, this woman, whom I had never met, and to whom my mom had last spoken 35 years ago, when I was 7, proceeded to tell me how she and my mom grew up in New Jersey, spending every weekend together; how she had followed my life and career; how she knew from our cousin Bruce that I had a congregation in Scarsdale.

I inadvertently reached out for a stranger and found my family.  You can call that whatever you like.  I’m comfortable talking about the hand of God.

So.  There you go.

I wonder what would happen if we tried this here at WRT.  Most of us wouldn’t need to look farther than one aisle away to find a stranger who could use an outstretched hand.  We might even discover our family.

Will you try this, this new year?

Will you try it today, before you leave?

 

From time to time we are all Abraham and Isaac, walking together, falling apart.

From time to time we are all acquainted with the night.

From time to time we are all lost and lonely.

But, come—come, let us look for the way out together.

Episode IV: A New Trope

Well, it seems I’ve done it again.  I’ve shut down my blog on Svbtle and opened up a new blog here on WordPress.  Just click on over to http://www.rabbiblake.org to read musings, sermons, and whatever other random thoughts fly through the asteroid belt of my consciousness.

I am writing about inherited trauma for Yom Kippur this year.  If you believe that your story, or your family’s story, attests to the ability of a trauma to affect subsequent generations, I’d love to be in touch, or to have you comment here and share (anonymously is fine).

In two weeks it will be a Jewish new year.  Wishing everyone a peaceful and reflective remainder of Elul.

Bivrakha – with blessing,

(Rabbi) Jonathan (Blake)