Thursday, June 25, 2020

Prophet or Rebel?

The prophets of old shouted and railed against injustices. Few listened. At best they were surrounded by a small number of loyal, disciples. Most ignored their pleas. They turned a deaf ear to their screams. And yet, centuries later, we turn to their words for inspiration.

The prophet Isaiah declares:

Cry with full throat, without restraint;
Raise your voice like a ram’s horn!
Declare to My people their transgression,
To the House of Jacob their sin….
This is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him
And not to ignore your own kin. (Isaiah 58)

And yet, despite the fact that we read these words every Yom Kippur, Isaiah’s shouts and cries remain muted. He was ignored in his own generation. He is still by and large ignored today.

Perhaps it is because communities, and even countries, too easily become unraveled by such screams. Is this why the prophet Jeremiah was jailed? Prophets, with their calls for change and their demands to undo injustices, are threats to the established order. Where they see injustices aplenty, others see an unraveling of what they have come to love and an undoing of the many comforts they now enjoy.

Is it possible that Korah was a prophet? The tradition answers with an emphatic, “No.” Korah, and his followers, question Moses’ leadership. They say, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them and the Lord is in their midst.” (Numbers 16) The Torah judges these words to be the fomenting of rebellion. God sides with Moses. The earth then swallows up Korah and his followers.

I am thinking that there is a very thin line between prophecy and rebellion.

The Talmud counsels: “The world endures on account of people who are able to restrain themselves during a quarrel.” (Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 89a). The prophets quarrel with everything. They see injustices everywhere. The world might not very well endure if we are led by prophets.

Then again, the world might never change, or be made better, if we fail to heed their words.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel opines:

This is our tragedy: the insecurity of faith, the unbearable burden of our commitment…. Our faith is too often tinged with arrogance, self-righteousness. It is even capable of becoming demonic. Even the creeds we proclaim are in danger of becoming idolatry. Our faith is fragile, never immune to error, distortion, or deception. There are no final proofs for the existence of God, Father and Creator of all. There are only witnesses. Supreme among them are the prophets of Israel. Humanity is an unfinished task, and so is religion. The Law, the creed, the teaching and the wisdom are here, yet without the outburst of prophetic demands coming upon us again and again, religion may become fossilized. (“No Religion is an Island”)

We cannot quarrel with everyone and everything. And yet, we must heed the prophetic voice. Some things must change and must not be allowed to endure.

“Prophet or rebel?” is the question that continues to haunt us.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Why Juneteenth Matters

What follows is my sermon from Shabbat Services on June 19th.  Join us every Friday evening at 7 pm on Facebook Live. 

David Ben Gurion once said:
Three hundred years ago a ship called the Mayflower set sail to the New World. This was a great event in the history of England. Yet I wonder if there is one Englishman who knows at what time the ship set sail? Do the English know how many people embarked on this voyage? Or what quality of bread did they eat? Yet more than three thousand three hundred years ago, before the Mayflower set sail, the Jews left Egypt. Every Jew in the world, even in America or Soviet Russia knows on exactly what date they left—the fifteenth of the month of Nisan; everyone knows what kind of bread the Jews ate. Even today the Jews worldwide eat matza on the 15th of Nisan. They retell the story of the Exodus and all the troubles Jews have endured since being exiled. They conclude this evening with two statements: This year, slaves. Next year, free men. This year here. Next year in Jerusalem, in Zion, in Eretz Yisrael. That is the nature of the Jews.
Ben Gurion offers a remarkable insight. Our Passover celebrations are about remembering our going free from Egypt. Every symbol on our tables is meant to do one of two things: on the one hand, to recall the pain and suffering of slavery, i.e. eating the haroset and maror or on the other hand, to celebrate the joy of being free, namely drinking four cups of wine and reclining. Why do we observe this holiday? Why do we celebrate Passover, over 3000 years after the event it commemorates? So that we might not only remember our own pain but also so that we might be sensitive to the pain of others. We eat matzah so that we might be better attuned to the suffering not just of Jews but of all people. The Torah makes clear what the symbolic gestures of the Seder imply. “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23). You know what it feels like. That’s the Passover message in a nutshell.

The killing of George Floyd has shaken me. It has awakened in a great many people feelings of empathy, indignation, and despair. We have come to realize we are still not doing better. To be sure I should have been shaken years ago, and even decades ago. And I have spent the past weeks not only reading, and trying to learn more, but also examining my own attitudes and views. A verse in this week’s Torah portion sounds much different than it has in other years. Here is this week’s story that led to this newfound revelation. After returning from scouting the land, ten spies deliver a negative report, and fomented discord among the newly freed Israelites. They say, “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey… [But] the country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers.” (Numbers 13). My brethren are being devoured. I watched it on CNN. It unfolded right before my eyes.

Van Jones, a commentator who I find intelligent, insightful and who struggles still to work across party lines, remarked that there has always been a tension between the dreams of our nation’s founders and the reality in which they lived and thrived. Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of our Declaration of Independence, is also the man who owned slaves and fathered children with at least one of these slave women. He is the same person who wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

As I look inward, as I search within my soul, as I peer into the nation that has almost exclusively offered my family and me promise and opportunity, these truths no longer appear as self-evident as they once did. I recall the history lessons of my youth. Growing up in St. Louis I remember studying the Civil War. The teacher opined, “The war was really about secession. It was not about slavery.” And I dutifully regurgitated that opinion on my test so that I might be awarded an A. Yesterday it occurred to me—and I mean literally yesterday, because until these past weeks it never even entered my mind to more closely examine that teaching—that this is like saying, “World War II was really about the invasion of Poland. It was not about the Holocaust.” This makes no sense. This makes no sense, most especially to my Jewish ears.

The Nazi’s murderous and antisemitic ideology drove it to savage Europe and slaughter six million of my people. The ideology that Jews were sub-human animated this regime. Likewise, slavery, and the ideology that Black lives are worth less than White lives, that people of color are less than human, that other human beings, who we believe, and our Jewish teachings loudly declare are created in the image of God, can be bought and sold as property, animated the South. For the soldiers of the Confederacy, the ideology of slavery led them to charge into battle. And the fact that we are still arguing about this, and denying this basic fact, and teaching that the Civil War was not really about slavery, is why we find ourselves in our current situation, a situation in which the lives of our fellow Americans who are people of color, can be killed in broad daylight by the very people who are meant to protect us—and I mean protect all of us, that is protect every single American. The safety, rescue and protection that I feel when the police drive by is not what all law-abiding Americans see. Through his tears, Van Jones, exclaimed this moment in which we now find ourselves might be different. He said, “A black man was killed, and people care.” People care. S’lach li. Forgive me for not paying attention when it was Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown or the countless others. Forgive me for turning away and not doing more to fight racism.

150 years later, after the Emancipation Proclamation, there are still far too many remnants of the racist ideology that almost destroyed our nation and threatens to rip us apart once again. Things must change. And they must change now. No more statues venerating Confederate leaders. No more Confederate flags symbolizing what was supposed to be a defeated ideology. No more military bases named for Confederate generals. Sure, study their tactics in War Colleges and offer praise for their strategies if warranted, but their names do not below in the public squares of a nation that wants to truly live up to its founding dream that all are created equal.

Second, mark today, this day of Juneteenth on your calendars. Mark it as we do Passover. Remember that on this day, on June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the last remaining slaves were delivered the news that they were free. Allow that lesson, a lesson that I was never taught in all my required American history classes, to sink in. People endured more years of slavery because it took that long for the news to reach Galveston, Texas and the far reaches of the Confederacy. Juneteenth represents the very idea we celebrate on Passover and the very best dreams of this country’s founders. This is not a rewriting of history. It is instead a correcting of how we teach history. This day must come to mark an honest accounting of our nation’s struggle to square its sometimes-tortured realities with its loftiest dreams and visions of itself. Only an honest accounting, and forthright reckoning, will do.

And finally, commit to learning more about the pain and suffering of our fellow Americans. When I speak about antisemitism in general, and the Holocaust in particular, and most especially to non-Jewish groups I ask two things of my listeners: 1) that they acknowledge historical truths, namely the countless antisemitic persecutions our people have endured and regarding the Holocaust, the Nazis’ systematic determination to exterminate our people, and 2) that they understand our pain. #1 must come before #2. I never really expect that they will understand what it really feels like to stand in my shoes, that they might feel this history as I feel it and as a Jew feels it. That would be unrealistic, and even illogical.

And so, I have resolved. I am not going to ask one of my few Black friends (and that small number should in itself stand as an embarrassment and indictment) to explain his or her pain to me. I worry that may only do more to assuage my guilt than to rectify our problems. What then are we going to do in this moment? I can tell you what I am going to do first. And you are welcome to join me. I am going to redo my homework from those high school years. I am going to relearn my history. I am going to read more and learn more. Watch the documentary “13th” with me. It is eye opening. Join me for a discussion of this movie. Bring your middle schoolers and high schoolers to the discussion. Email me if you are interested in joining me on this journey.

The healing begins with a renewed call to learning and listening. The repair could very well start by adding one more holiday to our calendar. Think of all that began not only with our going out from Egypt but with our sustained, and stubborn, remembrance of that historical moment at our Passover Seders. Our fellow Americans may be uplifted by such a day just as we continue to be uplifted, every year on the 15th of Nisan. It is long past time that the pain of our fellow Americans becomes our pain. We know all too well the feelings of the stranger. And no one should be made to feel like a stranger ever again.

Friday, June 19, 2020

We Are Only as Small as We Think We Are

There are days when everything appears as giants. And every problem appears insurmountable.

How will we ever overcome this pandemic? Or its consequent economic downturn? Will life ever return to what it was once like? How will we eradicate racism from our country, from American culture and its institutions? What more can we do to uplift the lives, and livelihoods, of our fellow Americans who are Black?

The questions appear enormous. The problems feel like foreboding giants.

When the spies returned from scouting the land of Israel, they offered this report: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are giants… and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13)

Why did they see themselves as small grasshoppers? Perhaps it was because they were beaten down by this new experience of wandering in the wilderness? Then again perhaps it was because they still saw themselves as slaves. After hundreds of years of slavery, they could not imagine they would be able to overcome their enemies and achieve any measure of success.

These words are why the Israelites must now wander for forty years. God determines that only a generation born in freedom can build a nation of its own.

Still I wonder. How did they know how they appeared to others? And this is perhaps the ten spies’ most worrisome, and even insidious, claim. They had such poor self-esteem and self-worth that they imagined everyone saw themselves as small as they saw themselves.

In the end, it’s one thing to see mounting problems as gigantic. It’s an added thing to see ourselves as too small, or too unprepared, or even too unwilling, to tackle these immense challenges. It’s an unforgivable thing entirely to imagine that others, in particular our enemies, whether they be viruses or other nations, see us as tiny grasshoppers who can be smashed underfoot.

We can overcome whatever we believe ourselves able to overcome! Much of our challenges can be overcome by faith, by faith in God and belief in our abilities to surmount any and all difficulties.

When King David was just a boy the Israelites’ enemy were the mighty Philistines. They were led by the giant Goliath. Every soldier was afraid to go into battle against Goliath. Even King Saul was frightened. But David was unafraid. Even though he was just a small boy he ventured out into the open field without any armor. He brought only a slingshot. And the legend was born. David killed Goliath, striking him with a small stone between the eyes.

David had faith. He had confidence. He did not seem himself as a small boy despite the fact that every other soldier was taller, and stronger, than him.

There really is only one question. Are we going to be the like the ten spies? Or are we instead going to be like Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who believed that despite immense odds the Israelites would succeed? Joshua and Caleb recognized the realities and threats, but they still had faith their people could succeed. They did not view themselves as small. Are we likewise going to be as confident as David or as cowering as the rest of the Israelite soldiers? Even the best armor, and greatest military might, cannot overcome challenges if people don’t believe they can be overcome.

Of course, it is not a matter of turning on and off a switch. It is not as stark as the stories suggest.

There will be moments in the coming weeks, months and years when we will feel like the ten spies, when we will see ourselves as small as grasshoppers unable to overcome any challenges. And there will be other moments when we will discover the confidence of Joshua and Caleb and the faith of King David, and n we will see ourselves as mighty and able to overcome even the most gigantic challenges.

My prayer is simple. I pray that these latter moments will be more numerous than the former.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

No More Complaining

This week we read a litany of complaints. There is the complaint about Moses’ leadership: “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us as well?” (Numbers 12) and the complaint about the food in the wilderness. Listen to the Israelites: “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat for free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look at.” (Numbers 11)

But the manna is not meant to be looked at. It is instead meant for eating. It provides ample sustenance. Instead the Israelites just stare at it. The Hebrew implies, “There is nothing but this manna before our eyes.” I wonder. Is it the lack of variety that leads to the Israelites’ complaints? “Really, pasta again tonight!?”

Or is it instead that in Egypt the food was provided for them? Even though they were slaves, the food was free. What a bitter irony these words offer. The Israelites may not have paid for their food, or even worked to prepare it, but they toiled day and night, and lived (and died) according to their taskmasters’ yes or no. It was not really free. They paid for it with their lives. And yet, the newly free Israelites, remain dissatisfied and complaining.

Then again free people do a lot of complaining about food. “I want some of those delicious shitake mushrooms! I want my blackberries. I want, I want, I want…”. How often I have complained during these past few months about the food that was now unavailable at the store? I should not have said, “There is nothing but this…to look at,” and instead offered, “Thank God there is food enough to eat.” Isn’t that the not so hidden message of manna?

Sustenance is not about the food, but instead about the state in which we enjoy it. Think of our Jewish mourning rituals. The first thing a mourner is supposed to do after returning from the cemetery, and after washing their hands, is to eat. The foods prescribed for this meal of consolation (seudat havraah) are hard boiled eggs in Ashkenazi circles and lentils in Sephardic homes. Both foods symbolize life. This is not of course what mourners feel like doing. In fact, the impulse is to do the opposite.

Denial, or fasting, seem more emotionally appropriate. They are more in keeping with the state of a mourner’s feelings. And yet Judaism commands the mourner, “Eat.” It is not a feast of course; it is instead meant as manna. It is intended as sustenance. Even though devastated by grief, the mourner has to go on living. They are sustained not by memories.

Now, they feast on stories. They eat to live.

Their sustenance is found instead in these words of remembrance.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Maybe We Are All Racists

I recall some years ago, when I happened to be in the traffic court of a beautiful Long Island hamlet (we will leave unsaid why I was there) and I remember looking around and noticing something very distinct. The vast majority of those joining me on that day were not White, but Black and Latino. And on that day, and in that moment, I said nothing about this glaring disparity and galling incongruity. In fact, I said to myself, “I guess they are really bad drivers.” This memory has been running through my mind as I begin to take in the protests precipitated by the killing of George Floyd z”l.

Black men and boys are two and a half times more likely to die during a police encounter than their white counterparts. Individuals from minority communities are also far more likely to be stopped by police. In addition, those stops are more apt to result in frisks, searches, and arrests. Ninety percent of those in New York City’s local jails are people of color.

This is not so much an indictment of the police. It is instead an indictment of every one of us. Police, and policing, are a reflection of the communities they serve. Ask yourself these questions....