The Mitzvot of Post-Charlottesville America

Rosh Hashanah Morning, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

Someday, some year, I’m going to get to deliver a High Holy Day sermon I begin writing over the summer. It’s a modest dream. Not quite as lofty as that of another preacher who dreamt that one day his “four little children … [would] not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But it’s my iteration. For I dream of a time when gunshots will no longer be fired in the hallowed sanctuaries of churches or schools; when ever-intensifying hurricanes will not bring loss and destruction; when hate will find no avenue to march openly through the streets, and past the synagogues, of America. I dream of a time when the world will not change in a day, and a preacher of any faith can sit and study sacred text; compose words in quiet reflection; and three months, two months, even one month later they’ll still feel relevant, important, and true.

But this is not such a time. For we now live in a post-Charlottesville America.

As we gather on this sacred day, we welcome the New Year with previously unthinkable images seared into our conscience. The flames of torches marching through what should have otherwise been a sleepy night in northeastern Virginia. The stern faces of clean-shaven young, white men chanting, among other things: “Jews will not replace us!” Yells of “Sieg Heil!” as they pass the local synagogue; arms raised in the Nazi salute. Groups of worshippers – it was Shabbat, after all – leaving, as inconspicuously as possible, out the back of the synagogue, as armed Nazis loitered undisturbed in front. Frantic scrambling to remove the Torah scrolls for safe-keeping. And then Heather Heyer killed, many others injured, in picturesque downtown. I have beautiful photos of that pedestrian mall on my phone. Aaron, Eli and I were there this summer. But that was in pre-Charlottesville America.

As Rabbi David Saperstein notes, this is believed to be the first time armed Nazis marched outside a synagogue in the United States of America. The sight left us shocked, deeply unsettled, frightened. And all of it was quickly compounded by disappointment in our leaders. Our President’s initial response was slow to come and failed to provide the unequivocal condemnation we expected; that such bald-faced hatred and violence on display in American streets deserved. Perhaps the only thing more disappointing was that Israel’s Prime Minister took even one day longer to respond, and then only with a terse text. And when, four days after his initial response, President Trump astonishingly doubled down on blaming “both sides;” insisting on the presence of “good people” on “all sides” – about this, Prime Minister Netanyahu remained silent.

We now live in a post-Charlottesville America, in a post-Charlottesville world. We can’t get over what we’ve seen, what we’ve heard, and what we haven’t heard – and we can’t be expected to. All we can do is learn from it.

Nearly two thousand years before the events of Charlottesville, sages all too familiar with their underlying hatred and antisemitism, taught in Pirkei Avot (2:3): “Be wary of the authorities, as they approach a person only when they’re needed. They seem like good friends in good times, but they don’t stand up for a person in their time of trouble.” We can’t count on others, Rabbi Richard Levy explains and our ancient rabbis have always taught. Even heads of a community cannot be trusted to ward off prejudice, to root out injustice. WE must do it. We must be vigilant all the time.[1] Of course, we should never cease to hold our leaders accountable. But we can do two things at once; we’re accustomed to it. “Pray as if everything depends upon God,” we’re instructed; “act as if everything depends upon you.” So even as we continue to call upon our leaders to denounce injustice and prejudice in no uncertain terms, we can’t stop there. WE need to do this work; we need to heed the teaching of Rabbi Hillel: Im ein ani li, mi li? If I am not for myself, who will be for me? Uch-sh’ani l’atzmi, mah ani? And if I am only for myself, what am I? V’im lo achshav, emaitai? And if not now, when?”[2]

Hillel’s first question, Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi explains, is an ancient call to affirm our identities. How can we expect others to stand up and assert our right to be, to risk their lives at times to do so, if we are not willing to do it ourselves? Hillel’s second question highlights the ethics of being for the other, of having a responsibility to assert and defend and protect the dignity and value of every human life. But the last question, “the question of enormous urgency,” calls to us particularly loudly in these times. If not now, when? If we are not ready to stand up and [advocate] both for ourselves and for others now, then … when will we ever be?”[3]

The challenge we face these High Holy Days in post-Charlottesville America is what are WE going to do to declare unequivocally, as proud Jews and proud Americans: Every Jew, every Muslim, every gay, transgender, disabled, black, brown, white, man, woman, and child is inherently beloved and precious in the sight of the Holy One?

Let’s begin with what we might do as individuals, recognizing that our responses are going to differ.

This past summer, my family and I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. – a remarkable experience; the highlight of which was, for me, a lunch counter, like those that featured so prominently during the sit-ins of the civil rights movement. But when you take your seat at this long counter, there’s a touchscreen in front of you, designed to look like a big diner menu. A “Menu of Movements,” it’s called, and the options from which you can “order” include: Sit-Ins, Freedom Rides, Bus Boycotts, School Desegregation, Marches, Black Power, and Grassroots Leadership. So you click to make your choice and the screen tells you how many visitors made the same selection you did.

My first selection was “Freedom Rides,” which prompted a screen that described the potential dangers we would face should I choose to continue. There could be beatings, arrests – it was entirely possible some could be killed. Once again, the percentage of people (now smaller) who nonetheless elected to participate was revealed, and the exercise continued. Another message came up on the screen: “Police have boarded the bus; everyone has been arrested. White protestors will be given the option to post bail this evening; black protestors will remain in jail for at least the next three days and nights. What will you do?” What would I have done then? I still wonder. What am I willing to do – and, in doing, to inherently risk – now? These are questions with which each of us must wrestle. They’re far from straightforward, even when our values are clear.

But, as Rabbi David Stern writes, now that white supremacy has demonstrably linked itself to antisemitism, there is at least one response to intimidation and hate within reach for all of us: Choosing to lead a proud and vibrant Jewish life.

On February 27 of this year, a Monday morning, the Posnack Jewish Day School in Broward County had received a bomb threat. It came while the upper students were in their Monday morning prayer service. So they did what they were supposed to do – they evacuated to the parking lot. But on the way out, one kid grabbed the Torah scroll and took it outside with him. And once in the parking lot, another kid took his tallis and spread it on the hood of a car. And then the kid with the Torah unrolled the scroll on the tallis, and the students of the Posnack Jewish Day School continued with their service – with a Torah, on a tallis, on the hood of a car, in a parking lot, to which they had been evacuated because of an antisemitic bomb threat.

If you consider that the goal of the antisemites might not be an explosion, but the erosion of Jewish self-confidence and continuity, then that is the answer to antisemitism: Proud and vibrant Jewish life. No matter how else we might choose to step away from the sidelines and enter the fray, this we can all do. Living loudly and proudly and identifiably as Jews is a positive and essential mitzvah in post-Charlottesville America.

Even as we all do our part, the synagogue has a vital role to play, as well. Listen to this email, a true story, that came addressed to the KKBE community earlier this month:

“I live in Tacoma, Washington,” it said, “and I visited KKBE on September 1, 2016. I knew nothing about Judaism, but was visiting Charleston and heard that a visit to KKBE was a great tourist activity. The docent who conducted the tour was a very warm, kind woman who shared a wealth of information about the history of the congregation, and in the course of the tour I learned a lot about Reform Judaism. I flipped through the siddur in the sanctuary and was struck by the themes of hope and praise. I felt an unfamiliar sense of home and belonging at KKBE, a feeling that I had never really experienced at Christian churches.

“I left that tour eager to learn more about Judaism. There happened to be an Introduction class starting at my local temple a week after I returned home from the trip, so I registered right away. I read several books about Judaism, listened to podcasts, and started attending Shabbat services at temple. I realized very quickly that being part of a Jewish community and studying the Torah was enriching my life though I hadn’t realized that I was seeking spiritual fulfillment. I completed my classes and was blessed to have the support of my Rabbi for conversion.

“I converted to Judaism on August 31st, almost a year to the day after my tour at KKBE. When I emerged from the mikveh, I couldn’t help but think of the tour I took that day and how it changed my life. Thank you to the clergy, staff, docents, and congregation of KKBE for creating a welcoming environment for visitors like me.”

Incredible, right? Of course, not every tour will result in conversion (just imagine!). But, even as it might go against every genetic and historical instinct we have – when neo-Nazis march in Charlottesville, when the KKK threatens rallies here in Charleston, when protestors offered sanctuary in a Reform temple in St. Louis prompt a call to #gasthesynagogue – now especially it is incumbent upon us to remain as open, as inclusive, as engaged in the community as ever. Yes, we employ security. We take precautions and strive to be vigilant and smart. But we will not contract nor retreat; far from it. Thanks to the efforts of our incredibly dedicated docents, thousands of visitors each year are not only educated in the history of KKBE and Reform Judaism, but embraced by the value of inclusivity for which we stand. With two rabbis – and the time generously volunteered by my husband, Rabbi Aaron Sherman, as well – we strive to say yes to nearly every request to teach about Judaism in churches, at the college, and in schools throughout the area. And KKBE continues to be a visible presence in the community – in Charleston Pride events; interfaith and interracial dialogue, study, and action; and numerous other efforts to increase freedom, equality, and justice in the Lowcountry.

But there is still more we can do, and this year we must. KKBE is the first Reform congregation in America, and a proud member of the Reform Movement. Today our Reform Movement comprises nearly 900 Reform congregations. More than 1 million members are affiliated with these congregations, making Reform Judaism the largest Jewish denomination in North America. As we tell our Confirmation students each year when we take them to the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., Judaism bestows upon them the responsibility to speak up and use their voice to fight for change; their involvement in the Reform Movement amplifies their voice and extends its influence.

So, just as individuals and synagogues must harness our power to fight bigotry and hate, the Reform Movement continues to leverage its power, as well. Our central organizations have partnered with those of other faiths and denominations to call for, and march for, the protection of civil rights. We continue to coordinate lobbying of our public officials and issue statements that clearly enumerate the values we hold most dear – not only as Jews, but as Americans. And this Rosh Hashanah, at the very start of a New Year in post-Charlottesville America, a number of Reform rabbis are using the power of our movement in a way we don’t believe has ever been done before – sharing from the bimah a singular message; speaking collectively with One Voice.

Together we proclaim:[4]

Rosh Hashanah is Yom T’ruah, the Day of the Sounding of the Shofar. The piercing tones, as they have since ancient days, sound an alarm, give voice to our fears, compel us to respond with a resounding call for justice.

T’kiah

T’kiah – the sound of certainty. We stand upon the shoulders of those in every generation who fought for freedom. We invoke the memory of all who tragically and senselessly lost their lives at the hands of evil oppressors. And we call on every elected leader to declare: Acts of hatred, intimidation, and divisiveness will not be tolerated in these United States of America. In the words of Leviticus (25:10), let us “proclaim liberty throughout the land.”

Sh’varim

Sh’varim – the sound of brokenness. Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, experienced unfathomable brokenness. But he would not succumb to numbness, and his memorable words strengthen our resolve not to become indifferent to brokenness today. “We must take sides,” he said. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. [In the face of threats or discrimination of any kind] we must interfere.”

T’ruah

T’ruah – the sound of urgency. The events of these simmering weeks are a wake-up call to our Jewish community. Racism is wrong – when it seeps into explicit antisemitism, and when it does not. We must fight hatred in all its forms. The fiery torches of Charlottesville illuminated the fundamental truth that if one minority group’s rights are threatened, we are all threatened. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.”

And so, in this New Year, we make a pledge – and I’d like to ask you all to PLEASE RISE

T’kiah G’dolah

T’kiah G’dolah – the endless, relentless pursuit of justice. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, the Torah commands – “Justice, justice you shall pursue, so that you may live and inherit the land which I, God, give to you.” For a nation to truly inherit its place in the world, thoughtful leaders at every level must be dedicated to equality and justice. But we cannot rely upon our leaders alone. Every community depends upon passionate, engaged citizens; it relies on you and me to be relentless advocates for tolerance and freedom, equality and enduring kindness between all the diverse peoples of our nation. To pursue justice is to create a society that protects and enriches the life of every citizen.

In this time and this place – at the start of this New Year, 5778, in a post-Charlottesville America many of us never thought we’d live to see – may the Shofar waken us from numbness, strengthen us to move past anger and fear. May our Reform movement, may our cherished synagogue, may each and every one of us be relentless, tireless builders of the just and free society envisioned in both the Jewish and American Dream. And let us say: Amen.

[1] https://collegecommons.hud.edu/bully_pulpit/charlottesville_huc/

[2] Pirkei Avot 1:14.

[3] https://collegecommons.hud.edu/bully_pulpit/charlottesville_huc/

[4] Adapted from the work of Rabbis Elka Abramson, Judy Shanks, David Stern, and so many others.

Advertisements

Condemnation.

Identify white supremacists as terrorists and the Confederate flag as a banner of hate.

Work tirelessly and legislatively to remove the forces that suppress, marginalize and victimize individuals of color.

Call out racism wherever you see it, in statutes and statues.

Actively strive to integrate every aspect of your life.

Put your money where your ideology is.

Do not give legislators any free passes.

“Your actions speak so loudly, I cannot hear what you are saying.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

We need not, and should never, condemn with violence; but still we can do more than speak with mere words.

Let our unequivocal deeds condemn hatred in a voice (the only voice) that’s sufficiently insistent and persistent, loud and clear.

Not walls, fences.

Parashat Shmini

This week’s Torah portion contains one of the largest collections of dietary laws and regulations for keeping kosher in all of Torah. Read through the 47 verses of chapter 11 in Leviticus and you’ll learn that we aren’t supposed to eat bacon, ham or pork. The only sea creatures we are supposed to eat are those with fins and scales – rendering catfish, shark, and all shellfish treif. Bugs of all varieties are off limits – not a hardship, to say the least.

But the laws of kashrut don’t stop with what we find in the Torah. The commandment not to eat pork leads to a prohibition against anything baked with, or in, lard. The regulation of fish leads some authorities to say sturgeon and swordfish shouldn’t be eaten either. The instruction regarding insects is expanded to require a careful washing of all fruits and vegetables, especially leafy lettuce greens and intricately bristled broccoli, to make sure no creatures are surreptitiously hiding in our food – the very idea of which is guaranteed to keep me up tonight.

And none of these rules and regulations even begin to touch upon the elaborate system of protecting another commandment of kashrut found elsewhere in the Torah: “Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” This obscure instruction leads to the separation of milk and meat, then the separation of milk and meat dishes, then a temporal separation of how long must pass after one has eaten meat before one can eat milk, and so on.

We often shake our heads or roll our eyes at the expansive series of “fences” rabbis throughout the centuries have created to protect the core practices of kashrut. I would venture that many, if not most, of us in the Reform community don’t keep kosher – and many, if not most, of us make that choice because we find the elaborate system to be burdensome and overly zealous.

And yet there’s something to be said for fences.

Like many of us, while I don’t keep kosher, I do follow the dietary practices of Passover – or at least the practices as they have evolved and become ritual in my family’s observance. And last Passover, like this Passover, I had faithfully refrained from eating chametz for six and a half days. We hadn’t removed all of the chametz from our home (much less burned it), but we had relocated much of it to designated not-kosher-for-Passover shelves in our pantries, and what wouldn’t fit there had been secured away either in the freezer or garage. In its place were enough boxes of matzah and macaroons to last our family through, not just that Passover, but perhaps all Passovers until the end of time. We ate matzah brie and matzah kugel, matzah pizza and matzah brittle… and we anxiously, eagerly awaited the end of what felt like an interminable seven days.

On the seventh day – when we could all but taste that first bite of bread with which we would end the holiday at dinner that night – our son had a special party at his school, a party at which cookies and cupcakes would assuredly be served. Stoically, he went off for his day with a few extra macaroons in his lunch bag – hardly the special treat his classmates would enjoy that afternoon, but he was committed to enduring the burden that occasionally is Jewish observance nonetheless. And, I’ll be honest, I was proud of him (as I often am).

Partly to recognize his commitment, partly to make the first post-Passover meal the celebratory occasion it felt it would be, I decided to go pick up a special dessert for the evening – a bundt cake, with that amazing icing, available in Mt. Pleasant. Having never been in the store before, I was a little overwhelmed about what to pick… Can’t go wrong with chocolate; lemon sounded sweet and amazing. But then there was white chocolate raspberry. I couldn’t imagine what that flavor would taste like as a cake, but how bad could it be, right? Then I saw there were samples, so I took a one… and took a bite… and then stood in the middle of the bakery realizing what I had done.

I had eaten cake.

On Passover.

While my son, at that very moment, resisted the temptations of cupcakes and cookies all around him.

I. Felt. Awful.

Was it an innocent mistake? Of course. Was I concerned about excommunication or eternal damnation? Not for a moment. I don’t even think I listed it among the sins for which I asked forgiveness on Yom Kippur the next fall. Did I worry about the wrath of my son? Yes – but he was incredibly, though not surprisingly, forgiving.

The thing is – yes, it was an innocent mistake, but it mattered to me. I broke a rule that I had determined was important to keep. And it was avoidable. A common sense “fence” to protect my Passover observance – not going into a bakery until the holiday is over – and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to make the mistake.

As Reform Jews, it is often the elaborate system of fences that leads us to dismiss certain Jewish practices – whether it’s kashrut or Shabbat or some other highly regulated ritual. We dismiss it out of hand. But perhaps the most important take away as Reform Jews is precisely that elaborate structure – we just need to build it around that which we determine it is essential to protect. Reform Judaism grants each of us individual autonomy to decide which practices and purposes are at the heart of a meaningful life. Those may be different than the core principles of halakhic observance protected by Orthodox practice. But once we’ve determined what is important to us, we would do well to protect our choices with a similar structure of “fences” and safety mechanisms, as well. Just because we know it is important to do something, or avoid doing it – essential even – doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy to follow through.

Consider the desire to power down from the ever-present devices that increasingly consume our waking attention and energy. Yes, they help us, perhaps, to connect with loved ones and issues around the globe; but they also inhibit us – and ever more so – from engaging with the people and community right in front of us. All of our phones come with power buttons, but how often do we use them? We let the screen go black, put them away in our pockets, but the first buzz, the first lull in conversation, and we bring them right back to life. I’m as guilty as anyone. Enter the Sabbath Manifesto organization and its National Day of Unplugging – and that day doesn’t even have to be Shabbat. Precisely because the temptation to turn to our technology is so great, or the unconscious reflex so strong, there’s something to be said for building a “fence” and removing the opportunity to do so, for however long and in whatever capacity you determine. Their “fence” comes in the form of a “Cell Phone Sleeping Bag,” but of course it could take many forms – turning our devices to the “off” instead of “sleep” positions; leaving them in a different room entirely; letting the power run all the way down, so we couldn’t turn them on again if we wanted to. We can be creative, but the important thing is if we determine a practice is important, sometimes we have to take an extra step or two to make sure we abide by it.

One of the clearest examples of this principle is in the giving of tzedakah. Jewish custom sets a range for charitable giving – generally from 3 to 20 percent of one’s income. It’s a pretty wide range, and we each have to determine what’s right for us… but how often do we do that? How often do we sit down and calculate, at the beginning of the year, how much of our resources we want to give to worthy causes? How many of us instead sit down, at the end of the year, and after a year of necessary and discretionary spending, then determine how much of the remainder we think we can comfortably give? Many of us set up automatic withdrawals from our paychecks so that money we know we want to set aside for retirement automatically goes to that purpose without ever entering our checking accounts. That’s a “fence” we put in place to protect what we know is an important principle and practice. Yet how important is it to support the needy? How essential to share our resources with those less fortunate than ourselves? Might we use the same approach for tzedakah – setting aside a portion of our wages before we even see them? It’s human nature to want and desire more – to look at our bank account and dream about one more thing, one more trip, one more experience we might have. It’s a difficult thing to make those decisions. Sometimes “fences” can actually simplify our lives.

But “fences” aren’t just important for protecting personal practices; they’re absolutely essential for societies as a whole. I wrote the following reflection a few months ago as I accompanied our Confirmation students on our annual pilgrimage to Washington D.C. and visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:

One enters the exhibits … on the fourth floor. A brief film viewed in the elevator sets the stage for the utter destruction to come – the unfathomable devastation that necessitates the presence of this museum to record, document, and tell the story of the Holocaust so we can fathom it. So that we never forget. So that it never happens again.

One enters the fourth floor full of questions, but the biggest of all is this: How on earth did this ever happen?

The fourth floor offers the first hints, the first suggestions. The conditions: A polarized society… economic advancement that left many behind… cultural progress that left many disenfranchised. A charismatic leader: Angry… scapegoating… reliant on propaganda. A sharp turn in government: Banishment of the opposition… curtailment of the press… institutionalization of discrimination and hate.

Is this where we are today? No. Is the “alt-right” (in BIG quotation marks) the Nazi Party? Is Steve Bannon Josef Goebbels? Is Donald Trump a fascist? No.

But they’re way too close for comfort.

There’s been much talk of building walls – both during the campaign and after the election. We would do well to remember the Jewish tradition of building fences.

When it’s important to uphold a prohibition – to make sure we don’t get close to accidentally transgressing a command of the Torah – we’ve built halakhic (legal) fences. It’s how the biblical dietary commandment “don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk” leads to not mixing milk and meat, separate dishes, a waiting period between eating the two – even refraining from eating chicken, which doesn’t produce milk, with cheese. Because when something is important, we must make sure to protect it.

What can be more important than safeguarding our civil liberties? What can be more essential than ensuring “Never Again”?

Why am I so concerned, so outspoken, willing to risk erring on the side of alarm? Because we’re not on the fourth floor – not yet. And thank God. Because once you begin on the museum’s fourth floor, the only way to exit is to continue through to the devastating end.

The annual day of Holocaust Remembrance, Yom Hashoah, falls this coming Monday, and Charleston will hold its community commemoration on Sunday afternoon (details are in your announcement sheets). As two Jewish calendars intersect – those of Torah and history – this Shabbat provides a poignant moment to pause and reflect: Can we state what is most important for us to protect and uphold in our personal lives and in our society as a whole? Have we put enough safeguards into place to protect against transgressing those values and practices, not only intentionally but unintentionally, as well? Knowing how important those safeguards are, might we commit to stretching our “fences” even further?

That which is worth having, is worth protecting; and that which we commit to sustain, will sustain us, as well. May God who has taught us, “Guard yourselves well,” ever be with us, giving us strength and fortitude for the journey. Amen.

What’s love got to do with it?

Parashat Mishpatim.

We’re often taught: It’s what’s on the inside that counts. And, sure, beauty is only skin deep, and we should never judge a book by its cover. But what about when there’s a disconnect between what we’re told is on the inside and what we see on the outside – when one’s actions leave something to be desired, though supposedly one’s heart is in the right place? Is it still what’s on the inside that counts? This week’s Torah portion suggests otherwise.

“These are the rules (the mishpatim) that you shall set before [the Israelites],” the portion begins, and what follows is just that – an extensive list of specific rules governing everything from worship and dietary practice, to holiday observances, to ethics in business practice and the treatment of animals. There’s the call to release slaves in the seventh year, and the designation of murder and kidnapping as capital offenses – the same punishment incurred for insulting one’s father or mother, by the way. This Torah portion famously judges “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” and calls us to take care of the widow and orphan.

All in all, there are 53 separate mishpatim, 53 rules to be followed, in this week’s Torah Portion – comprising a little bit of everything.

But there is one that stands out, one that’s repeated twice in this particular Torah portion and – according to the Talmud (Baba Metzia 59b) – 36 times in the Torah overall. It’s the most often mentioned commandment in all of Torah: “Do not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Often when we cite this all-important commandment, we quote the text as it appears later in the Torah in Leviticus (19:34), where it’s written slightly differently. There we’re told: “You shall love [the stranger] as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Yet, of the 36 times this commandment appears, love is only mentioned this once. And it’s notably absent this week in Parashat Mishpatim from the book of Exodus where the rule is first introduced and repeated. “Love the stranger as yourself” is beautiful, it’s poetic, it’s a compelling ideal. But it’s subjective, it cannot be measured or proven, and ultimately it’s less important. Would it be wonderful if we all loved the stranger? Absolutely. But, as we know all too well, one can profess love and act contrary to it. And ultimately it’s not what’s on the inside that matters; it’s what we do, regardless of how we feel, that counts.

This inside/outside issue has figured prominently this past week in the wake of the President’s response to questions about heightened concerns in the Jewish community with an uptick in antisemitic incidents following his election. That there has been an uptick in such incidents is beyond dispute. We’ve heard about the bomb threats being called into JCCs. We see reports of swastikas and other antisemitic graffiti scrawled on property around the country. Antisemitic trolling and rhetoric online is at an all-time high. And just yesterday, 100 grave stones were overturned in a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis.

When first asked the question about what reassurances the President could give to the Jewish community, his answer eventually meandered to this: “I think a lot of good things are happening, and you’re going to see a lot of love. You’re going to see a lot of love. Okay?” But it wasn’t OK – his response neither acknowledged the very real anxiety and concern of the Jewish community, nor offered any tangible ways in which that love might be demonstrated, or its absence might be prosecuted.

The second time the President was asked the question, he cut the reporter off, declaring the question itself “very insulting” and proclaiming himself “the least antisemitic person you’ve ever seen in your entire life.” And perhaps this is true, perhaps – as many have been saying, as the reporter himself tried to say – the fact that he has Jewish family members, that he is a Zayde to his grandchildren, tells us that in his heart he loves Jews and is indeed positively disposed to Judaism.

But this week’s Torah portion shows us that this isn’t sufficient. The Torah doesn’t tell us, or even suggest, that love will conquer all. What does the Torah give us? Specific and extensive rules outlining how we are supposed to interact with others and look out for their wellbeing; an absence of any mention of, or concern for, love and emotion, which simply cannot be regulated; a willingness to underscore the importance of its commandments and the expectation they will be upheld by enumerating the punishments incurred when they are not followed – these are the ways the Torah conveys its concern and commitment to creating a just, equitable and safe society.

We’re going to see a lot of love, the President said. Well, as Cornell West teaches, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” And, as this week’s Torah portion reminds us, we don’t get to justice by professing what we feel inside; we build a just society by legislating and enforcing the behaviors that make love tangible on the outside.

Finally, today, the President said: “The antisemitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.”

It’s a start. Now let’s hope that that work is spelled out in mishpatim – in concrete rules and steps and actions that can truly create a just society. Amen.

Verdict.

img_5524

Though Emanuel AME Church is only a few blocks from temple, I can go days, weeks, without passing it. Tonight, after hearing that a jury found Dylan Roof guilty of all 33 charges he faced, I felt called to its historic building like there was an oscillating beacon of light emanating from its stately steeple.

And maybe, on some level, there is.

So many have been drawn to the doors of Mother Emanuel in the past 18 months. Though far less frequently now, people still place flowers, leave cards, take photos. Visiting groups from all over the country specifically come to offer their support, participate in study sessions and worship, offer their love and hands on the road to healing.

But perhaps we’re not meant to follow the beacon to its source; perhaps we’re meant to follow the path it illuminates and journey out.

The beacon from the steeple of Emanuel is a light that shines on all of our communities, all of our institutions, all of the systems upon which this nation is built. It’s a light that shines to the North and West, not only in the South. It’s a light that illuminates policing and housing and education and voting. It’s a light meant to reach into the small nooks and crannies so easily, so often, hidden in shadow.

Today’s verdict in the trial of Dylan Roof consoles us that the most extreme act of hatred – an abhorrent and devastating massacre – can be called out for the racism that it is. But the absence of a verdict in the trial of Michael Slager a week and a half ago confirms our fears that anything less than a massacre, a confession, a supremacist manifesto can still masquerade as something else.

Today’s verdict is significant. None of us will ever forget what happened at Mother Emanuel on June 17, 2015, and justice has been served. But what about the more insidious acts and examples of racism that abound each and every day?

There, my friends, the jury is still out.

Fences.

One enters the exhibits of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on the  fourth floor. A brief film viewed in the elevator sets the stage for the utter destruction to come – the unfathomable devastation that necessitates the presence of this museum to record, document, and tell the story of the Holocaust so we can fathom it. So that we never forget. So that it never happens again.

One enters the fourth floor full of questions, but the biggest of all is this: How on earth did this ever happen?

The fourth floor offers the first hints, the first suggestions. The conditions: A polarized society… economic advancement that left many behind… cultural progress that left many disenfranchised. A charismatic leader: Angry… scapegoating… reliant on propaganda. A sharp turn in government: Banishment of the opposition… curtailment of the press… institutionalization of discrimination and hate.

Is this where we are today? No. Is the “alt-right” (in BIG quotation marks) the Nazi Party? Is Steve Bannon Josef Goebbels? Is Donald Trump a fascist? No.

But they’re way too close for comfort.

There’s been much talk of building walls – both during the campaign and after the election. We would do well to remember the Jewish tradition of building fences.

When it’s important to uphold a prohibition – to make sure we don’t get close to accidentally transgressing a command of the Torah – we’ve built halakhic (legal) fences. It’s how the biblical dietary commandment “don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk” leads to not mixing milk and meat, separate dishes, a waiting period between eating the two – even refraining from eating chicken, which doesn’t produce milk, with cheese. Because when something is important, we must make sure to protect it.

What can be more important than safeguarding our civil liberties? What can be more essential than ensuring “Never Again”?

Why am I so concerned, so outspoken, willing to risk erring on the side of alarm? Because we’re not on the fourth floor – not yet. And thank God. Because once you begin on the museum’s fourth floor, the only way to exit is to continue through to the devastating end.

Put to the test.

A word of Torah.

This week’s Torah portion is called Chayei Sarah – “the life of Sarah” – but the phrase comes from the first few words of the portion where we learn of Sarah’s death.

Sarah’s lifetime – the span of Sarah’s life – came to one hundred and twenty-seven years. Sarah died in Kiriath-arba – now Hebron – in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. (Gen. 23:1-2)

It’s an abrupt announcement. No mention of “ripe old age” or being “gathered to one’s kin.” In fact, the lengthy negotiation to purchase a burial plot that follows seems to suggest that Abraham hadn’t made any plans or preparations for this moment; that he hadn’t seen it coming. The text, in its cryptic way, gives the sense that something sudden, perhaps tragic, happened to cause Sarah’s death. But what? There’s no indication in the verses that follow, so commentators have suggested we look to the verses before this brief summation of Sarah’s life. And what happened there, in the last chapter of last week’s Torah portion, the chapter immediately preceding this one?

God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.” And He said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” (Gen. 22:1-2)

And Abraham did as God had instructed.

Perhaps the shock of God’s instruction was enough to do Sarah in. Or the mere thought of life without Isaac was enough to put her under. Or she hadn’t gotten word that No, no – God didn’t actually make him go through with it.

Or, perhaps, Sarah understood, even better than we do, the true nature of God’s test – and she didn’t like the result.

Generally, when we read the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, we read it as a test of faith – one which Abraham would either pass or fail. Did he have enough courage to follow God’s instruction; enough confidence to see it through; enough trust to know that, whatever God had in mind, it would be for the best?

But what if it wasn’t a pass/fail exam? What if there were no right and wrong answers? What if the Akeidah was more like a Myers Briggs test, if you will – something designed to learn about Abraham’s personality and character? After all, to this point there has been conflicting data.

The first time God called to Abraham (then Abram) – saying, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you” – Abraham didn’t say a word. He just packed up and went. A man of incredible faith.

But a later time, when God told Abraham of his plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham did speak up. “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” he asked. “What if there should be 50 innocents within the city… 45… 40… 30… 20… 10? Will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent who are in it?” Then Abraham seemed to be an advocate, a man of principled, courageous action.

So God devises a test – again, not pass or fail. He simply creates a scenario, using the most dire of circumstances, to see how Abraham will respond and reveal the truth of his character. Is he a rule follower, an abiding believer, a devout optimist? Or is he a man of action, a principled protector, a moral resister? And, when push comes to shove, at Abraham’s core, we learn – as God does – that he more strongly personifies the former, a man of strong and unwavering faith.

The majority of the rabbis of our tradition – in ancient, medieval and even modern times – celebrated Abraham for his response; put him on a pedestal for it. Sarah, some might say, despaired because of it, and it sent her to her grave.

We do best to remember that both are legitimate responses – God would have upheld the covenant with Abraham either way. God would have loved him no matter what.

Like Abraham, we face dire and alarming circumstances today. White supremacism has been given space and a platform in a federal building. Incidents of antisemitism are more numerous than they’ve been at any time since the 1930s. Individuals who have championed discrimination against the LGBT community are moving into positions of increasing power. The science that tells us we have a closing window to tend to our planet is being undermined and dismissed. There is actual talk of registries, lock ups and deportations.

No matter your ideology, no matter your party, no matter your vote in this or any election – these are the facts on the ground. And let’s be clear: This is a test – not the handiwork of God, the result of our own democracy. Don’t we feel like we’re being tested? If we lived in Abraham’s time, we might be hearing: “Americans, take your country, the one for whom you’ve fought and labored, the land that you love, and let its ideals of freedom and equality commingle with discrimination and intolerance.”

How do we respond?

There are those who are proving themselves, like Abraham, to be individuals of faith – in this case in the institutions and checks and balances of democracy. Though they may be as alarmed as Abraham must have been, their attitude is a similar “wait and see,” putting one foot in front of the other, all the while holding abiding trust that their worst fears can’t possibly be realized. Some of these individuals are leading voices of our times – leaders of government, the faith community, the media. They are trying to calm our fears, while also reminding us that participation in democracy is not a once-every-four-years proposition. They are endeavoring, where possible, to work with new leadership “from the inside;” to influence platform and policy in quiet, traditional ways. Theirs is a legitimate response.

Others feel called to action. Perhaps they see Sarah as their spiritual ancestor – or Abraham, in his Sodom and Gomorrah days. They hear the Talmud’s instruction (in Shabbat 54b):

If one can protest the misdeeds of his or her household, yet does not, the person becomes guilty with them. If a person can protest the misdeeds of one’s townspeople and does not, the person is guilty with them. If one can protest the misdeeds of the entire world and does not, that person is guilty with them.

These individuals follow the banner of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center, whose director, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, declared:

In the face of polarization, we will build bridges. We will be a religious movement of resistance – not against a party or administration, but for the enduring values that guide us: inclusivity, justice and compassion. We will resist the hatred against women, minorities, Muslims and Jews that this election has exposed. And we will resist the politics of division, bigotry and hate.

This too is a valid response and those who are proving themselves to be individuals of principled action and resistance must feel empowered to pursue their core strengths, as well.

Because here’s what can’t happen: We can’t, like Sarah, allow ourselves to despair over the different responses of others. We must remember that there is no right or wrong answer to the test. For the truth is, in order to ensure that America lives up to its highest ideals – that the voices of bigotry don’t drown out the voices of brotherhood, that the hatred that has lived on the fringes of our country doesn’t find a home in its mainstream – in order to do that we will need all of our strengths and all of our approaches mobilized as one.

I don’t think it’s any great secret that I count myself in Sarah’s activist camp. As we heard in the statement by Rabbi Pesner, this is generally where the Reform Movement as a whole tends to be. I am a product of this movement and our congregation is an historic and leading member. So I want to take a few minutes to share some basic ways in which those of you who may feel similarly inclined can take active steps to engage in resistance to that which threatens the enduring values we believe are at the core of both faith and our country.

First, find organizational voices you can trust. For me, these have been the Religious Action Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Human Rights Campaign, and the Anti-Defamation League, among others. Listen to their voices; pay attention when they sound an alarm; follow their instructions when an email or phone call or participation in a rally can make a difference. With the Religious Action Center (the RAC), for instance, you can sign up for weekly summaries or legislative alerts around specific issues about which you care the most, from the Environment to Civil Rights & Liberties to Economic Justice. The ADL and SPLC provide excellent guidelines for responding to specific incidents and concerns as they arise.

Organizations like these help to give us confidence and strength, knowing that, by joining a national effort, our voice for inclusivity and justice is being amplified and directed toward where it can have the most impact. So consider financially supporting the organizations whose work represents the kind of effort and progress you want to see in our country, as well. I’m not usually in the habit of making gift suggestions, but I can tell you that in our family this year, we’ve decided to forgo traditional Hanukkah gifts for the adults in favor of donations to the organizations to whom we’re turning for guidance and empowerment. It’s a small act, but a meaningful one.

Second, be judicious about the amount of time you spend on social media, but I would encourage you not to turn away from it completely. Yes, there are enough news articles, videos and updates to sink your spirit each and every day. But this is also where stories of hope and encouragement await, as well. For instance, last week, a Georgia lawmaker withdrew a pre-filed bill in that state’s House of Representatives that would have restricted certain types of religious headwear to be worn when driving or posing for a driver’s license photo. Why the withdrawal? Because of letters and phone calls and organized public outcry. Yes, social media reminds us – each and every time we consult it these days – of the tremendous amount of work to be done. But it also strengthens and encourages us – like with the stories exchanged on Pantsuit Nation and elsewhere – of the incredible commitment and resolve that exists in our country to roll up our sleeves and get to it.

So listen to your spirit. Are you losing your focus as to what values are being threatened, what policies need to be resisted? Then read those voices you’ve come to trust that can explain the dangers and point you toward action. Are you despairing of ways to make a difference, searching for rays of hope? Then seek out the stories that shine a light on success. Learn from their example and set yourself to following in their footsteps.

So non-profit organizations and social media can provide some guidance in these difficult times. But so can your gut. My third piece of advice? Listen to it. Remember the lessons of this week’s Torah portion and last week’s – there is no right or wrong response to this test; we’re learning about ourselves as we go.

If you hear of a petition or letter writing campaign that speaks to you, that affirmatively makes a statement you want to make, sign it. If you learn of a rally or protest whose message resonates with you, participate in it. Don’t worry about those who say it won’t make a difference or there are better ways of getting your point across. We aren’t dealing with either/or tactics. Unlike the election, you’ll have more than one chance to use your voice.

For my part, as one of the rabbis of this congregation, I am committed to following the recommendations and guidance of the Reform movement – namely the lay and professional leadership of the Union for Reform Judaism, Commission on Social Action, and the Religious Action Center. When they issue statements and encourage us to reach out to our elected officials, I will share their communications on Facebook. When they vouch for the messaging of marches and protests – as they did with America’s Journey for Justice two summers ago – I will work with our congregation’s leadership to coordinate our participation. The majority of our congregation may decline to participate; it may be only a handful of members who do take an active role. But, increasingly, members of our congregation – and the community at large – are looking to KKBE for ways in which they can engage in moral resistance and activism. I am committed to helping those individuals connect their civic engagement with their religious engagement, and, in doing so, strengthen their relationships with fellow members of their community, as well.

The Torah teaches: “God put Abraham to the test.” Many generations – and perhaps Abraham himself – thought the test was a pass/fail. Sarah understood there could be multiple responses, but felt one was morally superior to another. We understand that there are multiple responses, and that all are legitimate and needed. And though we may differ in our actions, we are united in our values and wishes.

In the words of our siddur:

O Guardian of life and liberty,

may our nation always merit Your protection.

Teach us to give thanks for what we have

by sharing it with those who are in need.

Keep our eyes open to the wonders of creation,

and alert to the care of the earth.

May we never be lazy in the work of peace;

may we honor those who have died in defense of our ideals.

Grant our leaders wisdom and forbearance;

may they govern with justice and compassion.

Help us all to appreciate one another,

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

May our homes be safe from affliction and strife,

and our country be sound in body and spirit.

And let us say: Amen.