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.