Whereas most Mitzvos have gotten easier to perform with time, there is one Mitzvah that has gotten harder and harder. Keeping Kosher in the 21st century has never been easier with Kosher food everywhere, Shabbos observance has become more acceptable with greater religious tolerance, but Kibbud av V’eim, honoring one’s mother and father, has only gotten harder.
I would argue that there are a number of reasons for this:
- We live longer. Beginning of the 19th century, the average life span was 40 years!! Today, in the US, that has roughly doubled to an average life span of 80 years. (For Canadians, you actually get a few more years). Modern medicine and longevity is an incredible blessing, but also a challenge. It’s a blessing in that there are people here who are in their 70, 80, 90, with great-grandchildren, living happily, enjoying the equivalent of two lifetimes. But there also illnesses – terrible illnesses, cancer, Alzheimer’s and more that have to be dealt with.
Whereas earlier generations cared for an elderly parent, elderly being in their 30’s, for a few years. Today, you can spend a lifetime caring for an aging parent.
- There is a sociological factor and that is that parents have gotten dumber. Just kidding. But common perception is that parents have gotten dumber.
About fifteen years ago, author, John Tierny, described the moment, where after watching the Simpsons with his 6 year old (I don’t know why someone would watch the Simpson’s with a six year old…), his son turned to him and asked, “Why are dads on TV so dumb?”
Though dads have gotten the brunt of it, there has been a general shift in our perception of both fathers and mothers in the entertainment industry.
The big shift took place in the 80’s and 90’s, when we moved from shows like Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and the Cosby Show to shows like Roseanne, Married… with Children, and of course, the Simpson’s.
The negative depiction has gone from a trickle to a roar, where now nearly every single parent is depicted as a bumbling, selfish, fool.
I am not one to censor but I literally skip pages from Peppa the Pig (Peppa the Pig is children’s books for three year old’s) because of the way they portray fathers in their books!!!
In light of this negative messaging that is everywhere, the notion of respecting parents or honoring parents? It’s impossible.
A possible 3rd factor is that we, as a society, have become more self-aware. It’s not like parents have gotten worse, studies have shown that we’ve actually gotten better. But because of our growing self-awareness, we are more aware of the damage caused by parents
And so, kibbud av v’eim is so difficult and at the same time it is one of the most important Mitzvos! It made it to the top 10 list – the Ten Commandments! Not only that, it makes its way to the G-d tablet! It’s one of two Mitzvos in the entire Torah that comes along with a guaranteed reward for its fulfillment!
The commentators point out a certain irony about this Mitzvah. The one generation that really didn’t need their parents is the one that received the Mitzvah. This generation had manna falling form heaven, water coming from a rock, clothing, according to the Medrashim, that were cared for, everything was taken care of! Who needs parents in the desert? What did parents give their children?
Parents, it seems, gave them only one little thing – life. Life itself. That’s why they were commanded to honor their parents, even if they gave them nothing else.
And that insight is extremely relevant for us in the 21st century. Because yes, we are far more aware of our parents’ mistakes than ever before, we will typically have to care for our parents for far longer and that will include incredible challenges. But at the end of the day, our parents gave us life.
How do you repay someone for giving you life?
If someone were to save your life, what would you do? You’d call them at least once a week to thank them, you’d send them gifts as often as you could, you’d think about them all the time, and you would lavish them with honor. Endlessly.
So how do we repay the people who gave us life?!
And we all know this. I’m not saying anything profound. It’s just that we get distracted. Things get in the way.
Work gets in the way, emotions get in the way – parents frustrate us more than anyone (probably because they remind us of ourselves more than anyone else), a lot of stuff gets in the way.
We all know intellectually how indebted we are to our parents, but it’s all the static of life that gets in the way of what we’re supposed to do.
There is a beautiful idea found in the Medrashim how the entirety of the world was silent when G-d gave the Torah; the birds stopped chirping, the dogs stopped barking, the water stopped roaring, and the wind stopped howling.
The simple understanding of this Medrash is that the giving of the Torah was so momentous, so epic, that everything and everyone stopped to listen.
R’Shimshon Pincus argues that this is a misunderstanding. He says, no, the world was not silent to hear G-d’s voice. Instead, G-d silenced the world, and when He did so, we were able to hear His voice.
His voice is always there, it’s just that there is so much distortion, so much noise, that gets in the way.
This is true for so many things. There is usually so much distortion that stands between us and the most important things in our life; our children, our parents, and G-d.
That’s what Shabbos is and that’s what prayer is supposed to be. They are there to create a space that allows for the natural connection.
That’s what a date night is with a loved one. There is a natural love that exists between us but we need to clear some space to allow for us to connect.
For those of us blessed with living parents, we to need to create that quiet space of gratitude. We need to override the distortion of terrible messages from the media, override the distortion of our busy lives, override the distortion of the many emotions that get in the way, and create a space for gratitude, for love, for respect and for honor.
This past week, my wife and I ran a session for our Bar and Bat Mitzvah program. As part of the program we had the students write letters to their parents, expressing their gratitude to them. And while this was going on, I was busy preparing the next part of the session. Until it hit me later how sad that was! When was the last time I wrote a letter to my parents? It takes two minutes to write a quick letter, or to write a short email, but instead I allowed the busyness of life get in the way.
It’s important to note that there are times when we are not obligated to override the distortion. When there is too much pain that stands between us; when a parent was abusive, physically, emotionally or otherwise and full-fledged respect would be too taxing.
Those exceptions aside, most of us can override the distortion, and we must. Because too often, the space for love and respect is created against our will.
That space is created by illness, by a calamity, by a crisis, and that silences all those things that have gotten in the way, and all of a sudden the love that we have shines through.
Sometimes the distortion is silenced by death; sometimes it’s only then that a child can love his or her parent. And that’s terribly tragic.
On Friday, I was speaking to a young mother in our community. She has stage four cancer and she is fighting for her life. Recently, she started telling people what was happening to her. And she described to me how people are treating her totally differently. People who otherwise wouldn’t be so kind are now treating her with so much love. And she correctly observed that they aren’t faking or doing so out of sympathy. It’s just that usually, there is so much that gets in the way.
She asked me to remind all of us of how sad this is. It shouldn’t have to come to that. We don’t need the silence to be created against our will. We can and must create it ourselves.
I’d like to conclude by sharing with you a few paragraphs from a very moving reflection by Lisa Solod, titled, When Alzheimer’s Makes Room for Love (New York Times). It’s extreme both in its pain and in its love, and I think it is very relevant to our discussion.
“I am scratching my mother’s head. Her hair is quite thin now and I no longer bother to make an appointment in the nursing home’s “salon” for a cut. It is just another trauma to her, as is taking a shower. When the aides give her a shower I can hear her screaming all the way down the hall, shrieking like a feral cat.”
“I am scratching the head of the woman who more than once told me she would cut off my arm and beat me with the bloody stump when, as a child, I angered her about something. Now she leans back into my hand like the cat she has become, almost purring, after the horror of the shower and the indignity of being dressed and put into her wheelchair for the day.”
“I am stroking the arm of the woman who yelled at me in the streets of Boston that no one should have a daughter as awful as me. Rubbing and scratching the head of the woman who looked at one of my short stories and said, matter-of-factly, “You might have to admit that this is as good as you will ever get.” I was 22.
Every four months I fly a thousand miles to visit my mother in the nursing home. I sit with her for hours each day for nearly a week and then I fly back home. These visits are tortuous but necessary. Because in the past dozen years my love for her has escalated with each visit, as the woman she once was has de-escalated.
A dozen years ago had I been told I would be scratching the head of, tickling the arm of, sitting with, holding and loving my mother like this, I would have laughed. I avoided contact with her then as much as I could. I refused to see her deterioration, assumed it was the alcohol, the bipolar disorder, the sheer self-absorption she threw across her shoulders like a shawl that was responsible for incoherent late night calls, a refrigerator without food, her refusal to leave the house for fear she would get lost. I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to imagine. Even when I knew, I didn’t want to know.
I sat with a woman who nearly destroyed me. Who told her therapist for 30 years that her children were essentially evil and patently ungrateful.
On the last day of my most recent visit, I tell my mother, “I have to leave now, but I will see you soon.” I talk to her as I do my cat, as though she understands. She opens her eyes and there is a sudden look of panic in them and she says: “Please don’t.”
I am so stunned by her words, by words at all, that I tell her I will stay awhile longer and I do, sitting silently beside her. I hold her hand. She grips mine hard. I sit for another half-hour and then I lean in and kiss her forehead and I tell her, as I have countless dozen times before, “I love you, Mom.” And this time, this time, the woman who hasn’t spoken a sentence that makes any sense in almost two years, looks me straight in the eye and says: “I love you, too.””
We must create silent spaces in our busy lives. Spaces free of negative emotions, free of media-driven distortions, and free of everything else that gets in the way. And in that space, we need to develop respect, honor, and expressions of our deep gratitude for those in our life, and especially for those who gave us life.
While Brexit, Kobe Bryant, the Impeachment trial, and the upcoming Superbowl are on the front pages of the news, for the Jewish People, the ‘Deal of the Century’ was front and center.
Will it work, is the first question. Is it pure politics, is the second.
I, like you, am not a geopolitical expert. I, like you, and frankly everyone in the world, recognizes the complexity of the ever-shifting region. But I hope, you and I, despite our politics, whatever they may be, can still appreciate what happened this past week at the White House.
First to explain what the rationale behind this peace plan really was: Obviously Trump’s “Deal of the Century” looked nothing like previous peace plans which involved shuttle diplomacy or long meetings with the Israeli government and the leadership of the Palestinians. This peace plan was presented without the consent of the Palestinians, leading to the obvious question of what chances does this possibly have? It seems at face value to be bizarre.
Clearly, this is a deliberate radical break from previous plans. It’s a squeeze play – the Trump administration with the implicit and explicit support of many Arab countries is basically telling the Palestinians, this may not be a great deal for you, but there is no better alternative. Take it or leave it. But if you leave it, many of your regular Arab supporters aren’t supporting you any longer.
It’s tough and it’s harsh, and that’s exactly why, some argue, it just may work. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/01/28/trump-peace-plan-is-squeeze-play-against-palestinians-it-might-work/)
Though I hesitate to draw direct comparisons between the parsha and modern-day news as the comparisons tend to be sloppy and inaccurate, it’s hard to ignore the similarities.
Like Pharaoh, the Palestinian leadership seems to have a fetish with the word, no. Like Mahmoud Abbas said this past week, “We say 1000 times; No, no, and no to the deal of the century.”
Which is rather precise. They said no to the 1947 UN Partition plan. They said no to Israel’s request not to attack in 1967. They said no to an Israeli offer to return the Golan Heights in 2000 and they said no to a peace plan later that year that offered the Palestinians their own state with East Jerusalem as capital. No, no, no.
And each time, like the ancient Pharaoh, it did not end well for the no-party. By rejecting the partition plan, they were left with a smaller land than had been offered. By ignoring Israel’s entreaties not to attack in ’67, Jordan lost control of the West Bank. By rejecting the incredible offers of 2000, many of the most peace-loving Israelis became completely disillusioned to the prospect of peace. You cannot keep on saying no and expect things to work in your favor. (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/30/opinion/middle-east-peace-plan.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage)
And like ancient Egypt, not everyone agreed with their leadership. In the opening passages of our parsha, we find an open revolt against Pharaoh, his servants beg him to reconsider. But he does not.
And tragically, his servants who were willing to concede, who were willing to make peace with the Jewish People, end up suffering along with everyone else. There’s a reason we spill some wine at our Pesach Seder. Not everyone’s necessarily guilty, but citizens suffer for the stupidity of their leaders. And that’s sad, it’s terribly sad.
There are undoubtedly scores of Arabs living in the West Bank and in Gaza who would gladly strike a deal with Israel but are afraid to open their mouths. There are many who simply don’t know better because of a terrible and toxic education. And that too is terribly sad. Sad that innocent people have to be subject to humiliating checkpoints and sad that people who just want to live normal lives are subject to abject poverty. We too need to spill some wine, acknowledging that Mahmoud Abbas, like Yasser Arafat before him, does not reflect the opinion of all those he represents and that many of them, truly don’t know better, due to no fault of their own.
But the emotions that struck me hardest this past week, were pride and gratitude.
As the Egyptian plagues wrap up, the Torah feels the need to inform us that Moshe was greatly respected by all the Egyptians. It would seem, that the respect Moshe had, in the streets, and even in the Egyptian palace, was an important component of the redemption process.
Which makes a lot of sense – to be free it was not enough for them to not be enslaved, the Jewish People needed to develop a sense of self-respect, a sense of dignity. They needed to transform from being spit upon to becoming a nation of priests. That’s no easy transition. But seeing their leader, seeing Moshe walk through the halls of government and command the utmost respect, I am sure helped them see themselves in a new light.
Sadly, throughout our history, we have not had leaders who could walk through the hallways of government and make demands for the Jewish People. At times this was because our Jewish leaders were not influential enough. But at other times, far more tragically, Jewish leaders were influential, and chose to remain silent.
In the 1940’s, the late, Rabbi Stephen Wise, was president of the World Jewish Congress, president of the American Jewish Congress, a founder and board member of the ACLU and a board member of the NAACP – he was by far the most influential Jew of his time. And yet, in order to maintain his warm relationship with FDR, Rabbi Wise refused to criticize the administration. The Nazi Olympics, the Nuremberg rallies, Kristallnacht, and even after Rabbi Wise got wind of what was really going on in Europe, he not only remained silent but he attacked those who protested, lambasting the group of 500 rabbis who marched on DC in 1943.
Historians suggest that FDR held his personal relationship with Rabbi Wise over his head. Rabbi Wise wanted President Roosevelt to help, but felt that his silence and support would be a more effective way of receiving the help they needed. In a private letter to his son, after sharing that the President sent regards to the rabbi, he wistfully adds, “If only he could help my people.”
But Rabbi Wise did not have the respect of the administration nor the self-respect to speak up when it was so desperately needed. (https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/297806/franklin-roosevelt-holocaust)
Thirty years later, one of the most powerful political advisors in American history, Henry Kissinger, was then the acting Secretary of State. As many historians have pointed out, his influence with President Nixon was outsized. At times, some felt that Kissinger was the President.
In one recently declassified recording, President Nixon describes his nervousness about an upcoming summit between the US and the Soviet Union. Nixon was afraid that Jews would cause problems. If they did, threatened the President, it would be the worst thing that happened to them. Not only that, he said, I would blame the Jews publicly for causing its failure. To which Kissinger replied, “I agree completely. They brought it on themselves.” (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/08/some-new-comments-richard-nixon-subject-jews-and-blacks/311870/)
In another tape, Kissinger is heard saying that helping Soviet Jews emigrate was not an objective of American foreign policy. And then he added, and I quote: “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/17/nyregion/17nyc.html)
I recently heard a story from Larry Weinberg, a past president of AIPAC. In 1944, he was a soldier in the U.S. 100th infantry division. They were in combat in the Vosges Mountains when a fellow soldier came to tell him they had found a Jewish man hiding in the woods who wanted to know if any of the American soldiers were Jewish. He describes running to meet the man, finding him gaunt and unshaven. As he got closer, he was filled with emotion, feeling as if he was somehow part of this man’s liberation. He reached out to the man who asked him in Yiddish if he was a Jew. Larry responded enthusiastically, “Yes, I am a Jew!” The man came closer, spit in his face and said, “You came too late,” and walked away.
And so, with our not so recent history in mind, a history of influential Jews who allowed their own standing with Presidents to blind them to the plight of their brethren, who were not confident enough to stand up for their fellow Jews when they desperately needed them to stand up, Jews who were too late – I find it incredibly heartening to know that so many Jews do have the confidence today to stand up and speak up; to ignore all the accusations of being a Jew first and an American second, and do whatever they can to help the Jewish People. Now.
Like Moshe proudly walking through the halls of the Egyptian palaces, inspiring confidence in all of the Jewish people, regardless of your politics, there is something uplifting about a White House room filled with Jews, many of them wearing their kippas, who are proudly and confidently speaking up for their Jewish brothers and sisters in Israel.
Like the Jews in Egypt, when we pray for redemption, we are not just asking for freedom to practice our faith and be our own people, no.
To be truly free means you are not looking over your shoulder, embarrassed of what you do or say or look like.
To be really free means you are not embarrassed to say that Jews across the globe are my family and I love and care for them and I cannot imagine them living in constant fear and danger.
To be free means that you can proudly say, I am a Jew, I am proud to be a Jew; I am proud of the values the Torah teaches us and I love every Jew, regardless of where they live or what they believe because they are my family.
That’s freedom. And I find myself feeling incredibly privileged to live in a time in which this is so.
So I return to the questions we started with: Will this peace plan be successful? Is this just political maneuvering, going after votes in Florida and trying to stay in office in Israel?
I don’t know.
None of that impacts my feelings this week. Feelings that justice was served; that you cannot say no over and over again and expect a positive outcome. Feelings of sympathy to the many Arabs who don’t deserve this in any way, shape or form. Feelings of pride. Proud that we are able to embrace who we are in the highest halls of government. And finally, feelings of hope; hope that our self-confidence translates into a deepening connection to our faith, and like in Egypt, that our Jewish pride is a step forward in bringing about the ultimate redemption, a time of true and lasting peace. May we see it speedily in our days.
In April 1963, Martin Luther King was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama. He had been leading sit-ins and marches, which were “conveniently” made illegal after he arrived in town. Shortly after he was arrested, a number of white clergymen, pastors, bishops, and yes, a rabbi, wrote an open letter denouncing the protests. In a response written on paper that was smuggled into jail, King wrote what became known as the Letter from Birmingham Jail.
There are many themes in that letter but there is one that I would like to highlight, and that is tension. Martin Luther King was a big proponent of tension. To quote a few lines from that letter: “I must confess,” he writes, “that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not …the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
He continues, “Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
You see, Martin Luther King dreamt of a world filled with tension; filled with people of different faiths and different countries, with convictions that were certainly worth dying for. A world in which ideas are debated and discussed and ultimately, resolved. Not a world where apathy reigns supreme; where we just shrug our indifferent shoulders and scroll on to the next item. No, Martin Luther King’s utopian dream was one of peace, but not of the passive kind. It was peace that was filled to the brim with friction and justice.
Now, Martin Luther King, as you all know, was heavily influenced by the Bible, by the Torah. His prose in many places are paraphrases of the prophets. And of course, of all the Biblical narratives, it is the story of the Exodus – this week’s Parsha, what Zach just read from the Torah, that influenced so much of the soul of the civil rights movement.
One thing that I find a little challenging about the Exodus narrative is the morality Ten Plagues. You know, it’s not like G-d needed the ten plagues to force Pharaoh’s hand to get the Jewish People out of Egypt. He’s G-d after all! He could’ve just taken the Jewish People out of Egypt… We didn’t need Moshe to come back to the palace time and time again only to hear, “No, no, no I will not let them go!” And we didn’t need all the Egyptian people suffering like they did. Yes, there was an educational element for the Jewish People to witness G-d’s power, but we are a peace-loving people. Oseh shalom bimromov, G-d is a G-d of peace. What’s going on here? What is the real purpose for the drawn-out drama of the ten plagues?
Perhaps – who knows for sure, but perhaps G-d wanted tension. Perhaps leaving Egypt without any tension would have been peaceful! But it would be a negative peace, sorely lacking justice. And the truth is this is precisely what G-d tells Abraham a few hundred years prior, when He lays out a vision of the slavery and the subsequent Exodus. “Your children” G-d say, “will be slaves in a foreign country, and I will then take them out. V’gam es hagoy asher ya’avodu, and in regards to the nation that enslaves them, dan anochi, I will judge them!” Justice and confrontation was always an integral part of the plan.
And so – Moshe is sent to Pharaoh, to engage him in debate. And plague after plague, the Egyptian belief system is challenged, from the supremacy of the Nile to the inborn holiness of the firstborn, every one of their ideas is put to the test. And then, and only then, is the Exodus complete.
It is complete because it came about through the clash of two worldviews that were forced to confront one another. The exodus was complete because those who were guilty were punished and those who weren’t were saved. Tension, G-d was teaching us, is not to be avoided, it is to be welcomed. It is important, it is crucial.
And Zach, I think this is a very relevant lesson for you. Because Zach, you have been blessed, you really have. You have awesome parents. They are adored by so many people in this room and beyond, and for good reason. They are kind, they are principled, and they are earnest. Your parents are community-minded; despite their busy professional lives they have both been and are incredibly active in the shul…
… you’ve been blessed with amazing talents – you’re a great actor, you’re a cook, you’re an exceptionally talented writer, I’ve seen up close at our Bar Mitzvah program how you’re a natural leader, you’re articulate, you’re intelligent.
But here’s the deal, Zach – you could close your eyes right now, with all that support and all those talents, and you can just coast to success in life. Because you won the lottery. Great family, great DNA, great talents. It’s all there for you to coast on. You could lead a successful life without having to try all that hard. Really.
But if you do so, while you may succeed, you will also be failing. Because if the Exodus taught us one thing, it is that a life without tension is not worth living, it is not a life. Some people’s role in life is to overcome tension and some people’s role in life is to find that tension. Because the truth is, the tension is always there. Only that some people are given the opportunity to ignore it. But when we do so, when we coast in life, when our objective is just to get by, just to be decent, just to relax, we do so at our own peril.
To quote Dr. King once again: “We… are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
What he says about racism, is true about so much else. The tension is there; we get to choose if we want to bring it to the fore.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Judaism and what it is that excites me about it. I love our traditions, our faith, I really do. Those of you who know me, know that. The typical reasons that I hear from other people who love Judaism are things like, the serenity of Shabbat, the warmth of community, or the comfort of tradition. And I’ll be honest, none of that talks to me. They’re nice, but they’re not compelling. You know what is? You know what I realized really gets me?
The idea that every day I am blessed with waking up I need to justify my existence, that yesterday’s success is not a hook on which to hang my future, that if I’m not growing then I’m not living.
The Jewish idea that we are to never accept the status quo and we are to challenge not only ourselves and all our convictions but also to question the world around us, the way things are run, questioning our leaders, and according to our faith, questioning even G-d Himself.
The fact that there are a lot of commandments in Judaism and yes, that could be overwhelming, but it also ensures that we are never there, that there’s always something to aspire to. It’s the tension of Judaism that excites me.
What the Exodus from Egypt, Yetziat Mitzrayim taught us is that the tension-filled life is the only life worth living. Rav Tzadok Hakohen, one of the great Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, suggests that the Hebrew word for Egypt – Mitzrayim alludes to this very idea. Mitzrayim, he suggests, is made up of two words – MEITZAR which means a narrow place, and YAM, an ocean, the symbol of expansiveness. What our experience in Egypt, in Mitzrayim teaches us is that in order to experience any form of expansiveness, of freedom, of success, we need to first experience the straits, the tension, the friction of a challenged life.
And the beauty is that we are commanded to remember the Exodus every day of our life. That this drama is a never-ending cycle of friction and resolution; of unbelievable growth and then realizing that there’s still so much more to do.
That’s my blessing for you Zach, and really for all of us. That we live a good comfortable life, yes. But also, that we live a life of tension. That when we have a question, we don’t ignore it. We grapple with it, and we don’t move on until we’ve resolved it. That when we feel like we’ve made it, with our family life, with our connection to our faith, with our relationship to G-d, with our personal growth, that we realize that we’ve only just started, and we dig deep and we ask ourselves, what’s next? That we sensitize ourselves to hear that rumble and roar that emanates daily from our soul, thirsting for more and not being content with resting on our laurels.
May you, Zach, and may we all merit to experience our own personal Exodus, our own personal Yetziat Mitzrayim; both the Meitzar and the Yam, the tension and expansiveness, the friction and the freedom, every day of our lives. Mazel Tov!
Today’s topic is Judaism and racism. Let me begin by saying that this will be a very long talk. I hope the guy davening mussaf keeps that in mind.
Racism and Judaism is an important topic and therefore one that I would like to address honestly. Now, of course you should expect all topics that I discuss to be addressed honestly, but to be quite honest, in perusing the world wide web, I think it’s safe to say that much of the Jewish treatment of this topic is either polemics or apologetics. It’s either Orthodox apologetics cherry-picking Torah sources or it’s Jews of other denominations and sometimes Orthodox ones blatantly ignoring Torah sources and making up ideas that are not found in our tradition.
I could just get up here, as I imagine some of you though I would, and say, Judaism does not believe in racism, but some Jews are racist, and be done with. But if we are going to have an honest conversation, then let’s be honest. So I will be sharing sources, some that we are more comfortable with and some, less so.
And with that introduction, let’s begin, is Judaism racist?
I believe the answer is, it depends and it depends.
It depends first and foremost on how you define racism. And it also depends on which school of though you identify with.
Let’s begin with a definition of racism. According to the Oxford dictionary, racism can be defined in two ways: One, “Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”
I do not believe that any Jewish source would endorse that form of racism. As we’ll see, that form of racism would not only be not endorse but is prohibited on a number of counts.
But there’s another definition, one that is closely related, and that is this: “The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.”
So the second definition is a belief that races are different, and maybe even superior to the next; a racial theory. The other, is acting out on those theories, by discriminating or antagonizing other races. And obviously there is a fine line, a dangerously fine line, between those two definitions.
With two working definitions in mind, a theory of race and acting on it, in mind let’s go through the sources. And let me preface, there are a lot of Jewish sources that say a lot of things. Our tradition though has been one where there are accepted authorities and the minority views have been left to academia alone. So I will be sharing with you classical, mainstream views only.
The first is that of Maimonides, the Rambam. In the final section of the laws of Shmittah, he writes the following moving statement: כל איש ואיש מכל באי העולם
Any individual in the world (Earlier in the section he referred to Jews by name. Here, he is clearly speaking about all of humankind.) אשר נדבה רוחו אותו והבינו מדעו להבדל לעמוד לפני יי לשרתו ולעובדו לדעה את יי והלך ישר כמו שעשהו האלהים
Any individual in the world whose spirit awakened them, whose wisdom guided them, to separate themselves, to stand before G-d, to serve G-d, to know G-d, and to grow in an upright fashion, just like G-d created them…
הרי זה נתקדש קדש קדשים ויהיה י”י חלקו ונחלתו לעולם ולעולמי עולמים ויזכה לו בעה”ז
Such a person is sanctified, kodesh kodoshim, holy of holies. G-d will be his portion in the world to come and in this world…”
The Rambam, quite clearly states, that the highest level of spiritual greatness is achievable by any man or women, of any race and of any background. Kol ish v’ish, anyone at all, can become kodesh kodoshim, holy of holies.
This is a view endorsed in the works of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who numerous times, where the Torah seems like it is discriminating against one race, specifically, the children of Cham, the inhabitants of Canaan, Rav Hirsch creatively interprets each section to be in line with the meritocracy that Rambam is promoting. You are not born into greatness. You must achieve it. And anyone and everyone is welcome to try.
This view is not even talking about conversion and its obvious implication that regardless of race one is accepted fully into the Jewish fold. According to the Rambam, a non-Jew can achieve the highest levels of spiritual superiority. This view is certainly not racist at all.
However, there is another view, in its most extreme form, it is expressed by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, the author of a book known as the Kuzari. He writes (section 1) that the Jewish people possess what I will loosely translate as a spiritual gene. Some intangible spiritual capacity that gets passed on from generation to generation. We have it, he writes, and non-Jews do not. And because we have it, it sets apart from all nations. We are, according to this view, spiritually superior.1
This view is racist, at least according to the second definition, that racism is the belief that different races have different qualities, especially a belief that deems one race superior to the next. This is it.
But there are two qualifications. The first is that Rav Yehuda HaLevi is not distinguishing the Jews by race. Race is defined as a group with distinct physical features or a shared set of qualities, history, or language. Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi’s point is that the spiritual gene transcends all of that. Whether you look like this or that, whether you are a practicing Jew or not, whether you know an iota of Jewish history or speak the language, you are a Jew. Judaism, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, is arguing transcends all forms of physical description.
But stating that we have, as Jews, a superior spiritual gene is close enough to racism that we could ignore that last point.
But here’s the second point, if we were to ask the author, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, what is the role of the Jewish People in the world? Why did G-d make us spiritually superior? To answer this question, he shares the following analogy (section 1:43) and says, “The Jewish People are the heart of mankind.”
You see, Rav Yehuda HaLevi, in describing the Jewish People as a heart, means to say that we are connected to the other nations; the hands, the legs, the eyes. And in describing the Jewish People as a heart he means to say that we are here to give to the other nations.
So yes, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi believes that Jews are superior. But in the sense that they are tasked with providing life, in this case, spiritual life, to all the nations of the world. This is one of the most original sources that speak of the Jewish People being a light onto the nations. So while he does promote a theory of race, it is the furthest from a classic example of racism.2
And so is Judaism racist? The answer is yes, with some important qualifications. According to one view, and a view that is promoted by many of the mystically-inclined, and according to one definition of the term, the answer is yes. Judaism, according to this view, does believe that Jews are a superior race. But where this theory differs from every other theory of race is the implication of its superiority. Whereas every racist group who believes they are superior see the other group or groups as undeserving; underserving of land, undeserving of education, or in the extreme, undeserving of life. Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi’s view of superiority demands of the Jewish People to care more, to give more, and to be more, especially as it relates to others! We are the heart of the human race!
Moving on, are there Biblical sources that indicate that certain skin colors are more beautiful than others? Once again, the answer is, it depends. In one of the most famous episodes that invoke one’s skin color, Moshe’s brother and sister describe Moshe’s wife as being a Kushite, which literally means black. What they mean by that though varies widely.
Rashi suggests that ‘black’ is a euphemism for ‘beauty.’ Others, such as Chizkiya ben Monoach, the Chizkuni, understand that they were saying the exact opposite. That the color of her skin made her less than attractive.
Now ,is it appropriate to say that the cultural norms of the commentators’ society influenced their writings? I think so. To say that this commentator, writing in 13th century France, had associated the color of one’s skin with beauty based on the cultural norms of one’s time tells us a lot about him. And even if we were to accept this racist approach as the only approach, it still only informs us of the cultural norms of Moshe’s time and how Miriam perceived black people. It does not tell us in any way how the Torah defines beauty.
As an aside, an important aside, even if the Torah was speaking negatively about black skin, the Torah was certainly not endorsing white beauty! Jewish Caucasians did not exist! If this entire shul would go back in time to the times of the Exodus, those who look like me, pale skin and all, would have a far harder time blending in with the Jewish People than those in this room who are black! Let’s be honest here. We don’t have pictures but I am confident that my blonde-haired, green eyed daughter looked nothing like Sarah, Rebbecca, or Rachel.
Either way, I don’t see how the Torah is defining for us as a universal truth, as to what is beautiful and what is not. At the most, the narrative is to be understood in the context of cultural norms.
And so, does Judaism promote a theory of race? Some say yes, and some say no. The Torah has laws that distinguish between one race and another, is that predicated on a theory of superiority and inferiority? Some say yes, and some say no. And does the Torah imply that the color of the skin is associated with beauty or the lack thereof? Some say yes, and some say no.
But now I want to share with you some things that are agreed upon by all; by every single Jewish authority throughout all of time.
Is one allowed to speak negatively about an individual or a group of people? According to every Torah source, the answer is no. Unequivocally.
Is one allowed to make a person feel bad, inferior, or unwanted? According to every Torah source, the answer is no. Unequivocally.
Is one allowed to judge an individual or a group, based on the color of their skin? And again, according to every Torah source, the answer is no. Unequivocally.
I’m embarrassed that it has to be said, but it has to be said; there is no place for racial comments, for racial slurs (!), and for racial practices in Judaism. And yet, I hear it all the time. Some of the comments are extreme and some of it is “benign” but all of it should be 100% unacceptable. And it’s not. Because let’s be honest, you could make a racist joke among a group of Orthodox Jews and people will either laugh or at the very least, you could get away with it. And that’s unacceptable.
Even according to the most “racist” theory in Jewish thought, the idea is for us to care more, not less!
But let’s get a little more personal and a little more practical.
This Shabbos, we are celebrating Jews of Color. Jews of Color include Jews African-American Jews, Asian Jews, Hispanic Jews and Jews of other non-”white” backgrounds. Some Jews of Color or converts, many, many are not. But it really doesn’t matter3. Because there is nothing in the Torah that defines the look or the culture of a Jew. You could eat kugel or cornbread, you could listen to reggae or k-pop, you could wear a pollera colora or a turban, and still be a Jew. I am about as Ashkenzai as it gets; I have Polish and Hungarian blood running through me. And I like my culture, I really do; I like the food, I like the music, and I like the way I look. But it’s a culture and it’s an ethnicity. That’s all it is. There is nothing distinctly Jewish about our music, our dress, our food preferences, or our complexion. And us Ashkenazic Jews sometimes forget that. In essence, a Shabbos dedicated to Jews of Color is celebrating Judaism; a multi-cultural group of people of shared beliefs and/ or shared ancestry.
But let’s get even more personal. There is a crime issue in our immediate community. And as far as I could tell from what I’ve read from police reports, virtually all of those crimes were perpetrated by black youth. Now let’s keep in mind, while let’s just say 95% of those crimes were perpetrated by black youth, not even close to 5% of black people caused those crimes. But let’s just say, you’re walking down the street, it’s late at night, and you see a black man. Do you cross the street to avoid him or do you keep on walking?
Let me share with you a personal story. This past Tuesday night there was a rash of violent crimes in the immediate area. In Cross Country, a man entered a home illegally and proceeded to tie the homeowner up so he could rob the house. A little while later, three men attacked two men on the street and took their belongings. The alleged perpetrators were all described as black.
I knew this. I read the news. Wednesday morning I was on my way to shul at approximately 6 AM. It was dark outside and the streets are virtually empty at that time. As I was heading to my car, I saw a tall black man walking my way, and I froze.
I froze for almost a milli-second before I realized that it was my neighbor from down the block who was walking his cute little dog. But you know what, and this hurts me to share it, but I know that he saw me freeze. I could tell from the way he said good morning. I could tell. And that hurt. It hurt him and it hurt me.
And so I ask you, as a community, how do we balance our security needs, our legitimate security needs, with the Torah’s demand for kindness, for being welcoming, and for being caring?
It goes without saying that racist slurs or putting down entire communities is not only counterproductive but is completely and patently against Jewish law. It is unequivocally forbidden. As Jews, and really as humans, our concern when walking down the street must be not only about when to take out your pepper spray or how quickly you should run away. Our concern when walking down the street must also be to try to say hello, to say good day, to make sure that you are fulfilling your role as a member of the Jewish faith, and maybe even the Jewish race, the role of looking out and care for others, of being the heart of the world.
As a community, our concern cannot be limited to building walls and investing in better and better security. Those things are extremely important but for every dollar we invest into Shomrim or NWCP, should we not be investing a fraction of that for programs that help rehabilitate the youth that are perpetrating these crimes? Should we not be joining hands with the black community in one way or another to bridge the tremendous divide that stands between us? Is that not a true reflection of genuine Jewish values?
I’ve been talking for a while and I’m going to wrap it up and tell you what I hope you take away from what I said. I hope you walk away from this talk with the following ideas: Yes, there is a strand of thought in normative Judaism that distinguishes between races. But even according to that view, the role of this so called spiritual gene is not a license to be an arrogant or disparaging individual. It is an obligation to be a heart or a light to all people of all walks of life. According to all views speaking negatively, making people uncomfortable, and even judging entire groups of people as one, all of that is blatantly against Jewish Law.
I hope you walk away from this walk recognizing that culture and religion are not the same thing. It is as compatible to be an American Jew as it is to be an Indian Jew. And historically, it is the Caucasian Jew that is novel and not the other way around.
I hope that after this talk, every time you think about protecting yourself, you also think about how caring you are for others; be it with a hello, or with participation or donations to the many organizations that are looking out for those less fortunate; our neighbors. Or in the words of Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, our hands, or feet, or eyes.
But I also hope you walk away with hope. Because despite all the negativity, I am filled with hope. Thank G-d, there have been many who have taken steps in the right direction. To name a few,
Former councilwoman, Riki Spector, was beaten a few years ago by two black teenagers. Today, she is an advocate for those same kids. She helped enroll them in U-Empower, one of many programs that empower underprivileged youth in Baltimore by giving them jobs, mentoring them, while ensuring that they stay drug-free and in school.
A group from Shomrim recently started meeting with a black pastor from downtown to help work together on tackling crime, to share best practices and to create a bond.
And a synagogue in Pikesville decided to dedicate a Shabbos to having open and frank conversations about race, racism, and what it looks like for a Jewish community. (That would be us.)
And so I am hopeful for a better tomorrow. Because it all starts with a conversation. Studies have shown that the most efficient way to break down walls between groups is through dialogue, getting to know one another. That’s what we’re doing today, and that’s what I hope you continue to do tomorrow.
I’ll conclude (for real) with a story (shared with permission).
A little while ago, one of my children was trying to describe someone from shul. My daughter said, “You know, the woman who wears a cool scarf on her hair.” I didn’t know who she was talking about. A number of people wear scarves. “You know, she always smiles.” A lot of people smile. “You know, she has a baby.” Thank G-d, there are a lot of babies here. And finally she said, “You know, her skin is dark.”
That was the fourth attempt she made at describing this person. Twenty years ago, ten years ago, I am confident that a child, and certainly a Jewish child, would have first said, they are black and they would have probably used a different word. Thank G-d, we live in a time that that is no longer the case. Our skin color, our culture, is a feature, one of many that make us who we are.
May we merit a day that “people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” May we merit a day when the Biblical and Jewish belief of Tzelem Elokim, of man, of all of mankind, being created in G-d’s image, in its myriad of shapes and colors, is acknowledged and practiced by all.
1Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi suggests that a convert cannot experience prophecy for this reason as he or she is lacking this spiritual gene. The irony, of course, is that his book was written as a dialogue between a potential convert, the King of Kazar, and a rabbi. It’s worth noting that others who identify with this spiritual ‘gene’ understand that at conversion, the convert adopts a spiritual gene. This is mentioned explicitly by the Ohr HaChaim and by the Maharal.
2Ironically, it is the Rambam, in his introduction to Cheilek, where he explains that the world was created for the intellectually elite and the role of those who are not is to provide for the elite. Not a racist theory but an extremely elitist one.
3 Rav Moshe Feinstein, the leading Halachic authority in America in the last century, in the midst of a complex responsa about the Jewish status of a group from Ethiopia, writes the following: “And I suffered great anguish because I have heard there are those in Israel who are not drawing them close in spiritual matters and are causing, G-d forbid, that they might be lost from Judaism. And it seems to me these people are behaving so only because the color of the Falashas’ skin is black. It is obvious that one must draw them close, not only because they are no worse than the rest of the Jews – because there is no distinction in practical application of the law because they are black …”
I spent this past week in New York. Traffic, terrible. Food, delicious. But that’s standard and this week was unique. You see, I left Baltimore on Sunday under a dark cloud. Shabbos afternoon, my brother dressed in Shabbos clothes with a kippah on his head, was walking down Pimlico Rd. to go to shul and a car drove by. The car stopped and the man in the passenger seat rolled down his window and poured a cup of coke on my brother. My brother joked that being Israeli he’s used to anti-Semitic violence in the form of rockets and he would take a cup of coke any day. But jokes aside, it was jarring to be the recipient of blatant anti-Semitism in our quiet community. Later that night, out with my family, we heard the frightening news of a machete-wielding man who entered a shul in Monsey and stabbed numerous people. Monday morning, I went to shul in Queens, New York, for shacharis and took the first open seat I found. It happened to be near the door. A moment later I started wondering if I had been foolish to sit so close to the door. What if someone walks in with a gun, with a knife? I am right in the line of fire.
So let’s just say anti-Semitism was on my mind.
With anti-Semitism on my mind, I initially appreciated what I read on the news later that week: “90,000 Jews Gather to Pray and Defy a Wave of Hate” blared the Thursday headline of the New York Times. Or, “90,000 Jews gather in celebration of Talmud after anti-Semitic attacks: ‘We will not be intimidated’ – from Fox News. Or this from the Times of Israel, “Under tight security, 88,000 US Jews celebrate 7.5-year Talmud cycle.”
What these major news outlets were describing was the Siyum HaShas, which means the completion of the entire Talmud. The Siyum Hashas is an event that occurs every seven and a half years celebrating the completion of the Daf Yomi, a daily learning cycle of the entire Talmud. If you were to learn one page of Talmud a day, it would take seven and a half years to complete the whole thing.
The idea of learning a page of the Talmud every single day was the brainchild of Rabbi Meir Shapiro, a leading scholar in pre-war Europe. What started off as a small initiative, taken up by a few people, has in recent years, grown in leaps and bounds, especially through the translation of the Talmud by Artscroll. And after every cycle of 7 and a half years, a huge event takes place to celebrate the accomplishment. In the past it had been held at Madison Square Gardens, and this year, on January 1st it was held in MetLife stadium and had over 93,000 participants.
It was this event, the Siyum Hashas, that was covered by these major news outlets, all describing the Siyum in light of the recent uptick of anti-Semitic attacks in New York and across the country. Again, to quote the New York Times: “On a windy and biting cold day, the gathering offered a chance to affirm their faith in the face of those terrible acts. Some believed the event contained echoes of Jews who were held in ghettos or concentration camps during the Holocaust and resisted their persecutors by saying clandestine prayers, teaching their children the Torah or furtively blowing a ram’s horn on Rosh Hashana.” Or as Fox News put it, “the historic completion of the study of the entire Talmud, sending a strong message of resilience days after a stabbing in a New York rabbi’s home left five people wounded.”
But ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you something, I was there, I was at the Siyum Hashas at MetLife stadium, and what I just read to you from Fox News and the New York Times, it is fake news. It really is.
Because you see, there was virtually no mention of anti-Semitism during the entire four-and-a-half-hour program. No mention of bricks thrown in Crown Heights or knife attacks in Monsey. Instead, speaker after speaker, video after video, there was only one theme – Talmud Torah, the study of Torah; how Torah is our lifeblood, how it is our oxygen. That’s all I heard the entire event.
Sure, there was extra security and more guards than usual. But that just provided a greater opportunity to demonstrate what a life guided by our Torah could look like; it was just an opportunity for the 90,000+ crowd to thank each and every one of those guards, which they did, something I saw with my own eyes. And yes, I, like so many walked into that event looking over my shoulder, saddened by the sight of large guns held by the security guards, but within a few moments I was swept up with the tangible joy in the air; joy that I cannot remember experiencing in my life.
As but one example, after they finished the final lines of the Talmud, the orchestra broke into joyous music and all 90,000 Jews started dancing. I had the pleasure of being on the ground level, dancing together with my son, two of my brothers and my father, and as our circle spun, looking up and looking around and watching all 90,000 people sway back and forth as one.
I wish we could have all been there. I wish you could have experienced it, just those twenty minutes of dancing for yourself because I’m not doing justice describing it. My son turned to me while we were dancing. He said, “Abba, why are you crying?” I had tears streaming down my face and I tried to explain to him that they were tears of joy. He’s young, I don’t know if he understood. But I silently prayed that he too would one day have an opportunity to cry from joy. I prayed that the experience of the Siyum would make an impression on him and he would realize that Judaism is not a faith of fear or protest or victimhood. I prayed that he would see that our faith is one of knowledge, one of joy, and one of connection; to each other and to G-d.
That was the Siyum Hashas that I experienced. Instead of Never Again, people said, let’s do this again – in seven and a half years. Instead of focusing on martyrs, the vast majority of the event focused on people, people like you and me, with busy lives, who somehow found the time to study a page of Talmud each and every day. Like my friend, the lawyer, who lives a few blocks away, and manages to find the time to teach the Daf Yomi. Or the picture I saw of a Daf Yomi class in Rabbi Teichman’s shul on Smith Avenue where one of the participants was wearing a Ravens jersey. The class was taking place during a game, and this brave soul took a break from watching the game to study. Or those who studied their daily page on a subway car or listening to it on a Podcast on their commute to work. Or the story I heard of a boy from Baltimore who went to the last Siyum Hashas with his father and he wasn’t that excited about being there. And the father told his son, “Come along with me, meet all the rabbis I want you to meet and if you do, I will give you whatever gift you want.” And after sitting through the Siyum Hashas, this disinterested 13-year-old boy was so inspired that he turned to his father and said, “Dad, you know what I want for my gift? I want you to finish the entire Talmud and do the Daf Yomi.”
Sure enough, his father did finish the Daf Yomi cycle, and this Sunday, that 13 year-old-boy who is now 20, will be starting the next cycle with his father. So do yourselves a favor and ignore the headlines. Because what I just described to you, that was the real Siyum Hashas. And that is the real Judaism; it is joyful, it is intellectually stimulating, it is emotionally-riveting. And it is something Fox News or the New York Times cannot capture or even comprehend.
In this week’s Parsha, after Yaakov hears the unbelievable news that his son is still alive and decides to move the entire family to Egypt, the Torah says that Yaakov sent Yehuda before him to prepare. “V’es Yehuda shalach l’fanav el Yosef, l’horos l’fonov Goshna.” The Torah does not tell us how Yehuda is preparing? What is he doing in Egypt before the family arrives?
The Medrash Tanchuma says something astounding. It says that Yehuda was sent to prepare a beis Talmud, a place for them to study Torah.
There’s a part of me that reads that and says, c’mon, they didn’t have a Torah yet. What kind of study hall was he preparing?
But then I imagine the authors of this Medrash, gathered in some room, about two thousand years ago, reading this passage in the Torah and asking themselves the same question we asked, what would Yehuda be preparing as his family enters this new foreign land? What would be the one thing they would need to survive? Is it security? Is it a beautiful home? Is it good jobs?
And the only thing they could imagine that the family of Yaakov would truly need is a study hall. Historically, I’m not sure. But the message is priceless and powerful.
Yes, the Egyptians would soon turn on the Jews, like the Babylonians and the Persians would do years later. And yes, they would suffer at the hands of too many nations to mention, but the sons of Yaakov and their sons and their sons would survive. Not because they rallied in defiance of their enemies. No. Don’t believe the headlines! They survived because Yehuda had already defined for them what it means to be a Jew. Their Judaism was not a reactive force, ready to fight back when attacked. Their Judaism was proactive – before they even got to Egypt, Yehuda had set up a study hall. To be a Jew means to have a foundation of Torah that cannot be shaken by all the evil winds in the world. When your Jewish identity is defined by its beauty, by a deep and daily connection to the Torah, then all the anti-Semitism in the world just bonces off of you, it makes no impact.
Now I know that Daf Yomi, the study of one page of Talmud each day is not practical for most of us. (Not all of us, but most.) But what is the foundation of our Judaism? Can it be more positive than defiance of our enemies? And can it be more consistent than every Shabbos? Can it be a Mishna a day? A halacha a day? A chapter or even a few verses of the Torah each day? A mitzvah a day? Something! Something beautifully Jewish that we can engage in every day of our lives.
Yes, there is growing anti-Semitism, and not just in the world, but down the turnpike and even down the block. But from the inception of our nation, our most effective tool was not to simply fight back – although that’s important as well. Our most effective tool was to set up a study hall before we even entered a new land. Our most effective tool was to strengthen who we are, not who we are against or who is against us. Arguing over who is more anti-Semitic, white nationalists or Hebrew Israelites did not keep the Jewish People alive throughout the millenia. Arguing over Hillel and Shammai, Abaye and Rava, Rashi and the Rambam, did. Our most effective tool has been by immersing ourselves in our legacy, in our tradition, in what makes us who we are, and that is the Torah. In the words of the great 10th century Babylonian leader of the Jewish People, Rav Saadia Gaon, “We are a nation only because of our Torah.”
I mentioned earlier that Rabbi Meir Shapiro was the one who started the Daf Yomi. The truth is it was his mother who started the Daf Yomi. (h/t Rabbi Efrem Goldberg for this beautiful story -) The story goes that one day as a little boy, Meir Shapiro woke up and found his mother crying. He asked her what’s wrong and she said that the Melamed, his teacher, wasn’t available that day. “Mommy,” he said, “he’ll be back tomorrow. It’s just one day.”
His mother shook her head. “Meir’le, you’re too young, you don’t understand. Each day is precious. If you miss a day of learning, you can never make up that day.” And with those words, and with those tears, the Daf Yomi movement was born.
May we recognize the importance of connecting to our heritage each and every day, and may our tears of yearning for more; more Judaism, more Torah, and more G-dliness in our lives, may they be transformed into tears of true unbridled joy.
On September 29th, President Trump retweeted the following: “If the Democrats are successful in removing the President from office, it will cause a Civil War-like fracture… from which our country will never heal.”
The December edition of the Atlantic was titled, How to Stop a Civil War, and it included articles like, A Nation Coming Apart, and How America Ends.
Last week, the New York Times ran an article titled, In a Polarized Era, Will Impeachment Become a New Normal?
Whatever this new normal is, it’s not looking pretty.
Just about four years ago, right around Purim time, I gave a sermon – which was more of a spoof than sermon – on the presidential candidates. I made fun of Bernie, and Trump, and Hilary, and Chris Christie. And we all laughed, Republicans and Democrats alike. But to do so this year? I wouldn’t dare. The political climate has reached a boiling point. Impeachment is the new normal and invoking the civil war is the go-to historical context. Forget there being no place for humor, more and more it seems like there’s no place for civility.
I don’t care to talk today about politics. I, like so many of you, am just sick and tired of it all. I would like to speak about civility, about community, and what it means to be a kehillah.
As a people, the Jewish People, we have a long history of real and actual civil wars; infighting is nothing new. Whether it was Yosef being thrown in a pit and sold as a slave by his brothers which we read about today, whether it was the tribe of Binyamin being nearly decimated by the eleven tribes in the book of Shoftim, or whether it was the split between the Northern and Southern Kingdoms of Israel, we are no strangers to civil war.
As opposed to the American Civil War, none of these wars ended well. They were disasters without a happy ending. Nobody won.
Interestingly, each one of these Jewish civil wars pitted the children of Leah against the children of Rachel. Because of that, those more mystically inclined see these fights as not only a struggle for dominion, but as a conflict of ideas. The children of Rachel having one perspective on how to live life, how to be a Jew and the children of Leah have another. In this approach, the Jewish People fail to see how these two perspectives, how these two ways of life, though they do not need to be reconciled, the Jewish People do need to learn how to live in harmony – something they fail to do time and time again. And so, Yosef ends up in Egypt, the tribe of Binyamin is left with a handful of survivors, and the Jewish People split in to two weak kingdoms paving the way for their ultimate exile and destruction.
The Messianic vision is one of Mashiach ben Yosef and Mashiach ben Dovid, of a savior from Rachel and a savior from Leah. It’s a vision of a redemption that comes about when we recognize the leadership of both families; a recognition that we can live in harmony even if we do not all agree.
And in that light, I would like to say that this shul, Ner Tamid, is mei’ein olam habbah, it is otherworldly, and Messianic (not in that sense!). It is truly one of the few places in the world where you have such a broad cross-section of people in one room, one minyan, one shul.
Forget Judaism for a second, what other venue do you go to, concert, Broadway, event, lecture, activity, that has a cross-section like this? Aside from the growing political divide, we have spoken in the past about the great age-divide in the world; how people born in different decades cannot see eye to eye with one another anymore.
In this room, we have strong representation of every age group. In this room, we have strong representation of every political view – make that very strong representation! As the Baltimore Jewish community has grown, like any community that grows, what typically happens is minyanim break away to accommodate every nuanced difference. You have the minyan that wants to start early and go quickly. The minyan that wants to start early and go slowly. You have the minyan for people middle-aged people, for young people, for old people. The minyan for those with five children, another minyan for those with three children. You know what I mean? Every few months there’s talk of a new minyan to accommodate a slightly nuanced difference of opinion or lifestyle.
And in this room, in this shul, we have bucked the trend. We had two minyanim on Rosh Hashana/ Yom Kippur, and they merged together. We had two minyanim on Shabbos, and they merged together. It wasn’t a walk in the park, it took concessions, it took hard work, but it happened. And it’s something we should be incredibly proud of. This is a rarity, it’s called community.
I believe a healthy question that every human being should ask themselves from time to time is why do I exist. What am I doing here? How am I contributing to the world in a meaningful way? Because if I’m just taking up space and resources, that’s sad.
It’s a question we need to ask, not only as individuals, but one I hope that every new shul/ school/ organizations ask themselves before they get started and one that every shul/ school/ organization has to ask themselves form time; what is our raison d’etre? What is our justification to be here? Are we contributing or taking?
And to me, the answer for us is – community. Ner Tamid is a breath of fresh air not only in the Jewish community but in the world at large.
At a time when the word ‘civil war’ is thrown around like it’s a football, in a world where impeachment is the new normal, in a world where families cannot talk to one another, we have our shul with all its glorious diversity.
It’s beautiful, it’s refreshing, and it’s truly magnificent. But when you’re swimming upstream it takes work. When you’re bucking the trend of the community around you, the country at-large, and perhaps even the world, it takes a lot of effort. It does not happen on its own. It’s something we need to be conscientious of and invest in.
- It means going out of your way to say hello and Good Shabbos to people you’re not naturally connected to. That small human contact, that gesture of recognition goes an incredibly long way in ensuring that we remain one.
- It means discussing things with civility. We don’t need to agree with one another about politics, about programming, about the direction of our shul. But we do need to have those conversations with the recognition that there is more than one legitimate way to look at things.
- It means giving people the benefit of the doubt. Not demonizing a group of people that are different than us. Trying to remind ourselves that no one is maliciously trying to be rude or exclude. Remembering that we’re all carrying our own peckele, our own hardships and sometimes it spills through in an unflattering time and place.
- And lastly, it means not generalizing, not stereotyping. Not assuming that every Democrat or Republican is the same, not every young person or old person is the same, and seeing one another as individuals, as precious individuals who make up this special community.
We have a good thing going for us, a beautiful thing going for us. Communities likes these are quaint, they are old-fashioned – and they’re also futuristic, they’re Messianic. This is our raison d’etre, the reason we exist. And it takes work to live up to one’s potential.
There’s one more civil war that I’d like to talk about and that is Chanukah. Like the uncle who tells the kids that Santa Claus isn’t real, I’m about to ruin your Chanukah. You see, Chanukah was not a battle between Jews and Greeks. It was – but not entirely. It was really a fight between Jew and Jew.
Judea was under Greek rule of the Seleucid empire. The Jews living in the region had adopted many of the Greek ways of life. It was a mixed marriage of sorts and it was working. There are beautiful elements to Greek culture that the Jews, even the religious Jews in the region, were comfortable assimilating into their way of life. “Yaft Elokim l’Yefes v’yishkon b’ohalei Shem” Noach prophetically envisions a world in which the beauty of Greece finds its place in the tents of the Jewish People.
However, there were some Jews who wanted more Athens and less Jerusalem. These Hellenized Jews wanted more gymnasiums and less sanctuaries. It was these Hellenized Jews who erected Greek gods in the Temple. It was Hellenized Jewish priests who were exercising in the nude instead of performing the sacrificial order, and Jewish prostitutes who were running amok through the streets of Jerusalem. There was a fracture in Jewish society between those who wanted to live the traditional Jewish life and those who didn’t.
And it was at that point that Matisyahu HaMaccabee lifted his voice and said, mi laShem elai! Whomever is with G-d, join me! And fought to defend the Jewish faith.
When the dust settled, when the Hellenized Jews and the Greek army were defeated, when the Bais Hamikdash was reconsecrated and the Menorah was lit, the victors did not eradicate every vestige of Greek culture from Judea, no. They just ensured that there was more Jerusalem than Athens. That in coming together as one, in creating a Jewish community there was more spirituality than aesthetic. More Torah wisdom than Greek philosophy.
A challenge to any group of people that attempt to come together and create a community is which values get compromised and which values are held on to. Someone posed the following question to me the other day: “Ner Tamid’s tagline is something for everyone. So does that mean,” she asked me, “that we search for the lowest common denominator of observance, of values, and stop there to ensure the comfort of everyone here? Or do we strive for something higher?”
It was a good question. I’ll share with you what I shared with her. I firmly believe that we can create a spiritual environment that is welcoming and warm and open to all, and at the same time ask ourselves to leave our comfort zone and climb higher. But that too takes a lot of work.
- It means respecting the fact that this is both a house of prayer and a house of gathering, a beis tefilah and a beis haknesses, but if our conversation conflicts with someone’s prayer, prayer wins.
- It means growing, each in our own way, but creating a culture where everyone is going upward and not content with spiritual mediocrity; a beautiful mosaic of people coming from different places but all striving for more.
Again, we have a special thing going for us, a community truly like no other in a world bereft of communities. Ner Tamid, our community, is truly a light, a small flickering flame in a dark world, and it’s nothing to take for granted. But it takes work. It takes patience, it takes deep understanding, it takes stepping out of our comfort zone, both socially and spiritually. Mi lashem elai. Who’s in?
I hope we’re all in. I hope we’re all in in creating a magnificent breath of fresh air, in creating a merging of Rachel and Leah, of Democrat and Republican, of young and old, in creating an inclusive community filled with men and women, boys and girls, dedicated to their own and their community’s spiritual growth.
Wishing you all a beautiful Shabbos and an uplifting Chanukah.