Statement about the President’s Islamophobic Tweets

Tuesday morning, President Trump retweeted several outrageous (and, reports indicate, phony) Islamophobic videos from a fringe British ultranationalist group. The outburst represents a continuation of a disturbing pattern. President Trump routinely targets and vilifies Muslims. The pattern seems to intensify when the president finds himself in political danger or when he wants to fire up his base and/or change the subject.Why the president shared these abhorrent videos is anybody’s guess. Perhaps the president is nervous that the Special Counsel investigation seems to be closing in on him and his inner circle. Perhaps he sees it as an avenue to buoy his abysmal approval rating. The tweets came on the heels of his endorsement of alleged sex criminal and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, and in the midst of a larger cultural reckoning over sexual abuse by prominent, powerful men. Maybe he’s trying to direct scrutiny away from the fact that he too stands accused of a similar pattern of behavior. Or maybe it was a ploy to divert the media’s attention away from the Republican tax reform plan, a measure that will redistribute the nation’s wealth from the poor to the rich. The plan is extremely unpopular, and for good moral, as well as practical, reasons. Congressional Republicans are in a hurry to pass the bill, because they know the more Americans learn about the bill, the less popular it will become. The president and his Republican majorities in Congress know they need to demonstrate a legislative win. Perhaps the president surmised that he could send inflammatory tweets to divert the media’s attention from tax reform, giving congressional Republicans cover to pass an unpopular bill with less than full scrutiny. Or, maybe the timing is entirely coincidental, and the president, animated by his demonstrated bias against Muslims, happened yesterday to see some tweets that confirmed his prejudices and, as many of us sometimes regretfully do on social media, impulsively shared them.But Twitter is a public forum, especially when the person using it is the President of the United States. And when the president makes a public statement, whether on Twitter or any other medium, and however petty or cynical the motive, the consequences are grave. To imply, as the president has through these tweets and other previous statements, that practitioners of Islam are bloodthirsty savages, untethered from the laws and norms of civilized society, poised to overturn all that Western civilization holds good and sacred, is to spread bigotry, to foment hatred, and to incite violence.A central tenet of the Jewish tradition is that words have consequences. Indeed, words create worlds (at least according to the Book of Genesis, in which God speaks the world into existence). And, to borrow a metaphor from the Midrash, like an arrow loosed from a bow, a harsh word cannot be retracted once spoken, and bears the power to do great harm. Passionate about my tradition’s call to pursue justice, affirming my tradition’s foundational principle of the equal and infinite dignity of every human being, and cognizant of the extraordinary power of words, I want to state clearly: I reject the president’s Islamophobic rhetoric and actions in the strongest possible terms, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our friends and partners in the Muslim community here and abroad against prejudice, bigotry, and hate, especially when it emanates from the most powerful office in the world. I am dedicated to building a country where the divinely-ordained dignity and equality of every person is affirmed, and we therefore resist calls to vilify each other. I urge the president and his supporters to end their assaults on the Muslim community and to take steps to ensure Muslims at home and abroad are treated with fairness and respect.I further call on my fellow Americans from all walks of life, and especially those who purport to be guided by religious values, not to be distracted by the president’s naked attempts to deflect attention from matters like tax reform. Rather, we should renew our commitments to be vigilant and informed citizens, active participants in the democratic process, working together to ensure a more perfect, and a more just and righteous, union.

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Pray for Healing, Fight for Justice: A Response to the Sutherland Springs Mass-Shooting

I am heartbroken over the news of yesterday’s mass shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. 26 people, ranging from toddlers to retirees, including eight members of a single family, were murdered in cold blood.

I extend my heartfelt condolences to the victims and their families, the First Baptist congregation, the community of Sutherland Springs, and the State of Texas. I pray for comfort, healing, and peace.

At the same time, even as someone who believes in the power and importance of prayer, I know that prayer alone will not solve the American gun violence epidemic that claims 30,000 lives each year. We need legislation that keeps guns from dangerous people. So long as the slaughter of innocents is tolerated and enabled by popular lethargy, political cowardice, and corporate greed, the next tragedy is not a matter of “if,” but of “when?” and “where?”

True, there are factors that contribute to gun violence besides guns: the expense, inaccessibility, and stigmas of mental health treatment; the fact that kids in our broken education system become more likely to live lives of poverty, violence, and crime; the link between rising poverty and deepening economic inequality and violent crime.

There is also the fact that most perpetrators of mass shootings are men, and many have prior histories of violence against women. It is critical that we address the cultural norm that equates masculinity with violence, and the misogyny, sexual assault, and domestic violence that remains rampant in our society. We cannot solve the problem of gun violence without seriously addressing these and other issues, too.

However, let these factors not distract us from the central issue: the guns. From Sutherland Springs to Sandy Hook, from Las Vegas to Aurora, from Virginia Tech to Columbine, the one thing all these mass shooting events have in common is guns. To end them, we have to deal with the guns.

Indeed, tragedies like these are a uniquely American horror. In no other industrialized nation besides ours do mass shooting events occur with the frequency and intensity they do here. The distinguishing factor is that those other countries have common-sense regulations on gun ownership, and we repeatedly fail to enact even the most basic of reforms.

Some will point to the fact that the “bad guy with a gun” in Sutherland Springs was ultimately stopped by a “good guy with a gun.” That individual is indeed a hero and undoubtedly saved many lives. But if the “bad guy” didn’t have a gun in the first place, there would have been no need for an armed good samaritan. Moreover, even when “good guys” have guns, bad things happen. A gun in the home is more likely to harm the people inside than it is to protect them. There is also a strong link between access to guns and gun deaths. Additionally, armed defense is not a guarantee of security, and dangerous people with access to weapons are, well, markedly more dangerous.

But we are not resigned to this fate. The Torah commands us to choose life (Deut. 30:19), insisting that it is in our power to create a society where everyone can go to school, attend church or synagogue, and enjoy their lives without having to fear random eruptions of violence, carried out with easily accessible weapons of war. It is time for us to end this scourge.

The biblical prophet Amos said that God will reject our prayers until we make “justice well up like water and righteousness like a mighty stream” (5:24). Let us then not only pray for the people of Sutherland Springs, Las Vegas, Orlando, Sandy Hook, and so many others whose lives have been shattered by gun violence. Let us demand justice and righteous change, for them, and for all the people of our land.

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Welcome Akiva Betzalel Knopf

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We are proud to announce that we have named our son Akiva Betzalel. With your indulgence, we’d be honored to share a little about the names we’ve chosen, and about Akiva’s namesakes.

The poet Carl Sandburg once said,  “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.” Akiva Betzalel, we believe you are God’s stake in the future of our people and our world. We have given you your names to inspire, guide, and prepare you for that sacred purpose.

First and foremost, it’s impossible to name a child Akiva Betzalel without evoking the most famous figures who have borne those names. And, indeed, we chose Akiva Betzalel because we deliberately wanted to link our son with those spiritual ancestors.

Akiva ben Yosef was among the greatest, and best known, of the ancient rabbis. The Talmud is quite literally filled with his teachings, maxims, and legal opinions. He reared many students, a number of whom subsequently became extraordinary sages themselves. No wonder the Talmud refers to Akiva as “Chief of the Sages.”

Of the qualities Rabbi Akiva embodied, we were most inspired by his passion for Torah and his resistance to tyranny: his determination to do what he saw as right, regardless of the consequences; his refusal to abandon his convictions, even in the face of great persecution.

The Talmud relates that, after the Bar Kokhba rebellion (a brave revolt against the evil empire of Rome that Akiva himself is reported to have supported), the Roman authorities forbade Jews from teaching, learning, and practicing Torah (B. B’rakhot 61b). Rabbi Akiva, however, continued to convene assemblies in public for Torah study. A colleague said to him, “Akiva, are you not afraid of the empire?” Akiva bravely answered, “More than I fear the Romans, I fear abandoning Torah.” I like to think he used these acts of civil disobedience to expound upon the verse he saw as the Torah’s greatest principle: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Ultimately, Akiva was arrested and executed by the Romans for his “crime” of teaching Torah. It is said that he was reciting the Shema during his execution, and that his soul left his body as he uttered the word “ehad,” one; fitting for a man who devoted his life to the notion that, above all, we are called to love each other.

Akiva, like your namesake, you have similarly been born into a world where evil is rampant, ascendant, powerful. These are dark times. They call for fulness of faith and courage of conviction; the determination to know right from wrong, good from evil, and to be steadfast in doing the right and good. Even if it is unpopular, even if there are negative consequences, we pray that you remain unafraid and undeterred.

As I taught just two days ago on Yom Kippur, our tradition, honoring your namesake’s legacy, demands we be “unyielding, uncompromising extremists for human dignity.” While we of course want you to be smart and safe about the ways you fight for what is right, we nevertheless pray that you live up to the sacred call of our tradition, as did your namesake.

We’ve also named you for the biblical Betzalel, the architect of the mishkan. Betzalel is the person charged by God to ensure the fulfilment of the divine command, “Make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among you.” This verse is frequently understood outside of its normal context to mean that God’s presence – the manifestation of universal justice, kindness, and peace – will only come to dwell in our world if we make of our world a vessel to hold it. In other words, we have the ability to make this world into a place fit for the indwelling of the Divine Presence. Our destiny is in our hands. Betzalel is thus the person primarily responsible for creating that structure.

Similarly, Akiva Betzalel, we pray that you see yourself as the person primarily responsible for making this world a place that can hold God’s presence. Because, if not you, then who?


We have also named you Akiva for Adira’s Tante Kathy, Kathy Green, who died just a few short weeks ago, well before her time, after a heroic struggle with Parkinson’s disease.

Kathy was gracious, kind, humble, and fiercely intelligent.  A serious spiritual seeker and a gifted educator, she had a gift for making people feel at ease, and was genuinely interested in what others thought and felt. She was also disarmingly funny, and could catch you off-guard with her dry-as-gin wit. Most inspiring to us was how Tante Kathy faced the illness that plagued her later years and ultimately took her life. She did not become embittered or hopeless. She quietly forged ahead, facing each challenge with strength and gratitude. As my brother-in-law Rabbi Or put it, “Kathy possessed an unusual combination of resilience and acceptance, and she held that tension with uncommon grace.”

Akiva, we pray that you, too, like your Tante Kathy of Blessed Memory, will face life’s trials with resilience and grace; kindness, generosity, humor, and dogged determination to magnify and sanctify each moment that you have on this earth.

Finally, since Adira tells me that you will be our last child — jury’s still out, in my opinion — we also wanted to squeeze in a few more honorable mentions. These aren’t “namesakes,” per se – a namesake is, after all, believed to be a reincarnated soul, and we don’t want TK’s soul to get crowded in there – but beloved ancestors who inspired our choice of your name, and whose memories we hope inspire you.

Rabbi Akiva was understood in Jewish tradition as having been the spiritual heir of Moses (B. Menahot 29b). Moshe was the Hebrew name of your great-grandfather, my Zaide, Moe Farrow, of Blessed Memory. My Zaide, like your namesake Akiva, risked his life to fight tyranny. My Zaide was a simple man, a butcher and a grocer, dedicated to yiddishkeit and his family, who owned a small store in an impoverished part of Miami. But his simplicity belied the greatness of his heart and the expanse of his moral vision. An immigrant himself, he epitomized the Torah’s injunction, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 23:9). He gave away food to anyone in need, even if it hurt his bottom line. He refused to abide by Jim Crow laws, and taught his children about the evils of racism and segregation. I pray his memory and example instructs you as it does me.

Akiva is a variant of Ya’akov, the name of the Jewish patriarch who was later renamed Yisrael. Yisrael was the Hebrew name of your great-grandfather, my grandfather, Jay Knopf, of Blessed Memory. Your great-grandfather was thoughtful, intelligent, and funny. He, like your namesake Akiva, and like my Zaide Moe, risked his life to fight tyranny. But I remember him most like this: he was always singing, and he was passionate about Jewish life and Jewish community. He taught me the importance of holding beliefs passionately while being open to the views of others, of learning for its own sake, of contributing to the wider conversation through the written word, of encountering life with a balance of seriousness and silliness. I miss him every day, and pray his memory and example inspires you as it does me.


Akiva Betzalel, you are the heir of a great spiritual legacy. We pledge to do everything we can to raise you to be worthy of the names you bear.

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Extremists for Love – Yom Kippur 2017

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In June 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke before a large crowd in Detroit. In his speech, King argued that, despite the dangers of nonviolent resistance, “there are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they are worth dying for. And I submit to you that if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”

What, if anything, do we hold so dear and so precious that we are willing to die for? That’s the question Yom Kippur forces us to ask ourselves. There’s even a whole section of Yom Kippur services devoted to the topic. It’s called “Eleh ezkereh,” these I recall. Some refer to it as “the martyrology.”

In the martyrology, we recount those who have died “al kiddush Hashem,” for the sanctification of God’s name. We tell the stories of sages like Rabbi Akiva, holy men who were executed for the “crime” of teaching Torah. We recall the men, women, and children who have been murdered throughout the centuries, solely because they were Jewish and refused to abandon their faith. We venerate those Jews who refused to succumb to crusades and pogroms, suicide bombers and genocide, violence, torture, and death, who held fast to the God, Torah, and people of Israel in the face of unspeakable dangers.

Why do we recall our martyrs on Yom Kippur? Wouldn’t another occasion, Tisha B’Av perhaps, be more fitting? The answer is because on this day, a day in which we recommit to being the Jews and the human beings we have always been called to be, we remind ourselves that truly caring about our faith, truly affirming the values our tradition seeks to advance, means being willing to give of ourselves, even to risk suffering, for them. How much we care about something is evidenced by how much we are willing to sacrifice for it.

And yet, many of us moderns struggle with the martyrology. I get it. It’s a downer. And the traditional liturgy, with its vivid descriptions of gruesome executions, can be stomach-churning. It doesn’t have any of the good music, and it’s not especially soul-stirring.

But I think our ambivalence about the martyrology may be deeper than mere aesthetics. Perhaps we struggle with it because we are uncomfortable with the very concept of martyrdom.

Martyrdom, after all, requires believing in something so strongly that we would be willing to give our lives for it. It is in this sense an inherently radical position to take, which no doubt makes most of us uneasy.

The discomfort comes from an honest place. Modern history has done little to commend the virtues of martyrdom. Usually, those who espouse these values are not good guys. The 9/11 hijackers and Dylann Roof don’t have much in common, except for the fact that they all considered themselves martyrs.

In our age of violent extremism, we know full well the dangers inherent in being too convinced of our own rightness, in believing in things so strongly that we would be willing to die – or kill – for them.

We also recognize what we gain as individuals and as a society when we reject extremism and respect cultures and perspectives that are different from our own. Diversity makes us stronger. Encountering other points of view, appreciating and learning from the beauty and wisdom of other cultures, provides us with perspectives we may have never before considered, pushes us to examine the foundations of our own beliefs, and helps us refine our own understandings. In fact, I would argue that our country’s tradition of pluralism is one of the factors that has contributed to America’s historically unique ingenuity and progress.

Moreover, a society that honors diversity is best positioned to enable all of its citizens to flourish. Nowhere have we Jews, and minority groups of all stripes, thrived more than in this open, diverse, tolerant, and free country.

At the same time, in our current “post-truth,” era, our new normal of social media echo chambers, “fake news,” and “alternative facts,” we are right at this very moment reckoning with the opposite challenge. If we are too open-minded, too tolerant of a multiplicity of perspectives and ways of being, we can ultimately lose our ability to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and falsehood, right and wrong, good and evil. It increasingly feels as though we’re all driving together on the same highway, but no one agrees on the rules of the road. Someone’s bound to get hurt. Some already have.

Where, then, does that leave us? How do we embrace pluralism while simultaneously remaining firm in our convictions, knowing and doing what we believe to be right? That’s a complex question. I’m proud to announce that we will be spending the year at Temple Beth-El exploring this question under the rubric of our educational theme “The Dignity of Difference.” We will have classes, lectures, and programs all year long dedicated to exploring Jewish approaches to diversity, considering its possibilities and its challenges. Please see the Fall Program Guide in your seat pocket for information about some of these opportunities.

But for now, I want to share a talmudic story (B. Eruvin 13b) that offers one meaningful answer:

In ancient Israel, there were two great rabbinic academies, the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai. According to the Talmud, these two schools used to engage each other in passionate and heated debates about Jewish law. Hillel’s School would say, “Our views are right!” And Shammai’s School would reply, “No, our views are right!”

Once, when the two schools were debating a point of law for three long years, a voice boomed forth from the heavens: ‘These and these are the words of the living God, though the law is in agreement with Hillel’s School’.

As Hillel’s School celebrated victory, Shammai’s School was incredulous. “Wait a minute!” one outspoken student exclaimed. “If both of our views are God’s words, then why does the law follow Hillel’s School?!”

A reply came back from the heavens, “Because they are kindly and modest, they study both their own rulings and yours, and even mention your opinions before theirs.”

This story is instructive on a number of levels. First, both schools believed fervently in the rightness of their own positions. Jewish tradition by no means advocates for “wishy-washiness in what one believes” (Dorff, 58). It affirms that each of us is entitled to, indeed required to, take firm stands on issues that matter, even to fight and die for our values if necessary.

However, it is important to note that the two schools engaged in conversation and debate about their positions. Debate requires two or more parties committed to engaging with each other. We can hold strong positions, but we must also respect others enough to entertain and discuss their beliefs. The validity of our views is diminished – indeed, irrelevant – if they force us to deny another person his or her dignity.

Debate also requires the common language of logic and reason. One cannot debate, at least not very well, if one cannot devise a rational argument in defense of his or her position and in opposition to the views of his or her fellow. That means, insofar as we have fervently held beliefs, we must be expected, and we must expect each other, to support them with facts, ground them in reason, and root them in shared understandings of reality. Our beliefs must be able to withstand challenge and counterargument. If your beliefs collapse under the weight of rational argument, then they cannot be held as valid. Our views are credible only if they can stand up to the light of reason.

The requirement of debate is also a mandate for intellectual humility and ideological pluralism. We must be able to believe passionately in our own views while recognizing that we might be wrong. All human beings are imperfect. Only God is perfect. God alone knows ultimate truth, absolute right and wrong. When the Divine Voice says “These and these are the words of the living God,” it is underscoring the reality that neither school has a greater claim on God’s truth than the other.

Similarly, none of us has a greater claim on knowing the universal, indisputable truth than our fellow. Since none of us is God, we must always bear in mind our own intellectual fallibility, the possibility that our understanding is wrong and that others also may be right.

The School of Hillel understood this imperative better than the School of Shammai, which is why they studied the teachings of Shammai’s School alongside their own, and prioritized teaching the opinions of Shammai’s School.

And yet, the text does not teach that “anything goes.” In the dispute between the Schools of Hillel and Shammai, there is ultimately a decision. The voice from heaven calls out that we are to follow the opinion of Hillel’s School. In the Jewish hierarchy of values, normativity – having an established and agreed upon standard of behavior – is more important than ideological pluralism.

If a community is unable to determine how its members should behave, what people can expect of each other, and how people can anticipate each other’s actions, then it risks chaos, conflict, and even violence. The biblical Book of Judges paints a gruesome picture of what society looks like when there is no social order, when every person “does what is right in his or her own eyes” (Judges 17:6). The rabbis of the Talmud echo the wisdom, urging, for example, that we “pray for the welfare of the government, for if people did not fear it, they would swallow each other alive” (M. Avot 3:2).

Pluralism at its core is the affirmation that each individual has the right to live in whatever way they feel will maximize their ability to flourish. But such flourishing is only possible if there is social order. Each of us as individuals requires a cooperative community in order to thrive. While pluralism is an important value, social order is a higher one (Haidt, 314-316).

However, while maintaining social order may hold a higher place on our hierarchy of values than pluralism, there is a higher value still.

Consider for a moment that there are many different ways to achieve social order. Fascist societies are very orderly. The biblical kings also created social order (Cf. I Samuel 8:19-20, et. al.), but the Bible nevertheless condemns them in no small part for routinely trampling upon their subjects in the process (Cf. II Samuel 11-12, et. al).

Herein lies the deep wisdom of this talmudic passage: the debate between the Schools of Hillel and Shammai is settled because, at the end of the day, people need the rules to be clear and binding upon everyone equally. But the law follows Hillel’s school, not because they were more right, but because they were more kind.

Since Jewish tradition values both pluralism and social harmony, it strives to ensure that the laws which create harmony are those promulgated by individuals who best embody the values that make pluralistic societies possible, namely kindness and modesty (Haidt, 317).

In other words, our tradition affirms that social order, crucial though it is for a functional society, is ultimately a means to an end. The ultimate goal is not harmony for its own sake, but rather for the sake of securing each individual’s ability to flourish.

The infinite worth of each individual, then, is the highest ideal. The law is decided by those voices who affirm and embody that ideal. We recognize those voices by their intellectual humility – they honor the views of others – and by their interpersonal kindness – they act in such a way that shows they believe every person is worthy of love, respect, and concern.

True, a Divine Voice settles the debate between Hillel and Shammai’s schools. But in so doing, the text bequeaths to us God’s methodology, how God decides which opinion gets enshrined as law. Of primary concern to God is human dignity.

Thus, the text implies that the equal and infinite value of each and every human being ought to be our primary concern, too. It ought to be the thing that guides our interactions with each other. It ought to be the thing that guides our social policy and that directs the words and actions of our leaders. And it ought to be the thing that, to borrow King’s phrase, we are to hold dear and precious; the thing that, if push came to shove, we would be willing to die for.

In general, we are to abhor extremism. With one exception. This exception. We must be unyielding, uncompromising extremists for human dignity.

Last spring, our congregation was privileged to host world-renowned Jewish artist Mordecai Rosenstein. During a weekend filled with learning, community, and creative exploration, Mordecai began work on an original piece of art for our congregation. We received the completed piece this summer. I’m proud to unveil it today. It features a quotation from the biblical prophet Micah (Micah 3:6-8):

הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָֽה־יְהוָ֞ה דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃

God has told you, O human, what is good, And what the LORD requires of you: Only this — do justice, and cherish kindness, and walk humbly with your God.

I love this text. It attempts to boil down 613 commandments to just three. All God really wants from us, according to Micah, is to do justice, cherish kindness, and walk humbly with God. In the end, God doesn’t care whether or not you are right, or whether or not you know ultimate truths. While God may care whether or not you read real news or fake, or whether you have fact-facts or alternative facts, all of that is ultimately secondary.

First and foremost is whether you’ve made your society more fair and equal, whether you’ve improved the situation of those in need, whether you’ve lifted up the downtrodden, And, because God encompasses and is reflected by all humanity, whether you’ve had the intellectual and cultural humility to engage with diverse people and perspectives. In answering these questions, there can be no subjectivity, no hedging, no dodging.

Micah’s message calls to mind something else King once said. From a jail cell in Birmingham, just two months before he gave the speech in Detroit with which I opened this sermon, King took the opportunity to respond to colleagues who had criticized his Civil Rights activism as “extreme.”

King replied, “The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”

Similarly, Micah calls us, in effect, to be extremists. Extremists for justice, extremists for love, extremists for pluralism, extremists for human dignity. In pursuing and upholding these core sacred values, we are called this day to pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor. They are ideals, we are reminded in our worship today, that many of our ancestors have died for. They are ideals, our tradition affirms, that are worth dying for.

And if we commit ourselves to them, then we will be truly fit to be inscribed for life in the year to come.

 

References:

Elliot N. Dorff, To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics

Jonathan Haidt, ​The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Kurt Anderson, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire – A 500-Year History

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Three Essentials to Pack for Your Journey – Kol Nidrei 2017

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“Birth is a beginning/ and death a destination./ And life is a journey.” The notion that our lives are a journey, and that we, in our fallibility, might have gone off course, haunts us each Yom Kippur.

On eight separate occasions this Yom Kippur we will recite the vidu’i, the confessional prayer, a prayer replete with journey imagery. We confess sarnu, we have gone astray. We implore God v’ten b’libeinu la’azov derekh rasha, inspire our hearts to abandon the evil path, and hakhna arpeinu lashuv eilekha, bend our stiffness so that we turn back to You.

This Holy Day repeatedly reminds us: we are each of us on a journey. We have each of us gotten off course. The challenge of this day, then, is to rediscover the way and to turn back to the right path.

But what is the way? How do we get there? And how do we stay on course?

I cannot claim to have all the answers. But I do know that any answer must include three things, three essentials each of us must pack for our journeys. They are: cultivating imagination, paying attention, and seeking wisdom. That’s what I discovered this summer, in a place I wasn’t expecting.

Back in June, Adira and I took the kids to visit family in St. Louis. While there, we made the obligatory visit to the “Gateway Arch.” If you’ve never been to the Arch, you are missing out on a true marvel, a stunning structure whose simple design belies the magnitude of the creativity, ingenuity, determination, and bravery it took to erect it.

In this way, it is the perfect physical expression of the achievement it seeks to memorialize: the Lewis and Clark expedition, which began near where the Arch stands today, on the banks of the Mississippi River.

Like the Gateway Arch, the expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the first American passage across our continent, was a deceptively straightforward idea: Find an all-water route from the Mississippi to the Pacific, learn about the nature of western North America, and identify how to extend American sovereignty across the continent.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple. The terrain itself was treacherous. There were threats from wildlife that Americans had never encountered. The British, Spanish, and French all vied to claim pieces of the territory and saw the American expedition as a threat. And the land’s original inhabitants, the Native Americans, saw those lands as their sovereign possession and were not inclined to give Americans a free pass at expansion.

Adding to these challenges, in the early 19th century there was literally no way of moving people or objects or information from one place to another apart from the exertion of human or animal muscle, the harnessing of wind by sail, the force of gravity, or the power of a river’s current.

Apart from what they had taken with them from St. Louis, the men of the expedition had to hunt or trade for all their food, clothing, and other provisions. There was no medicine in the modern sense, which made diseases like malaria and dysentery, illnesses almost guaranteed to befall men on the frontier, much more likely to be lethal.

Thomas Jefferson and his young captains didn’t anticipate all of these challenges before the expedition set off, but they certainly knew the limitations of their age.

Given these realities, it is astonishing that Jefferson, a man revered then as now for his intellect, would have deemed it wise or practical to explore the western portion of the continent, much less to expand American sovereignty over a territory that couldn’t possibly be governed from Washington, D.C.

But Jefferson had a unique gift: an extraordinary imagination. Jefferson was able to see beyond the limitations of his present. His ability to read what was not yet on the page empowered him to shape new realities. That he could imagine a nation spanning a continent, despite no such nation ever having existed, and despite there being no suitable transportation or communication mechanisms to sustain such a nation, fueled his drive to build it.

Without Jefferson’s imagination, there might have been no Louisiana Purchase, no Louis and Clark Expedition. The United States as we know it might never have come to be.

Jefferson’s example reminds me of something Albert Einstein once said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”

Knowledge, by definition, is restricted only to what is and what was. It might be possible to guess what will be, but it is impossible to know. Progress, therefore, can only happen when one is able to look past what was and what is – the way things are and the way things have always been – and to think about what might be. Progress requires looking past reality and seeing possibility.

Virtually all the great leaders revered by our tradition possessed this quality. Abraham, Moses, and King David readily come to mind. But personally, I’m taken with the example of a scholar named Yohanan ben Zakkai.

For many centuries, all the Jewish people had known of religion was a sacrificial cult, overseen by a hereditary caste of priests and Levites in the Jerusalem Temple. When the Roman legions sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and disbanded the priesthood, most Jews assumed that this signified the extinction of their faith.

But Yohanan ben Zakkai imagined something different: a religion of text and tradition, led by a meritocracy of the learned, able to be practiced anywhere and everywhere. As the people of Judea were panicking and mourning, Yohanan ben Zakkai was preparing for a different future. He arranged a daring escape from the besieged city of Jerusalem and appeared before the Roman general Vespasian. Yohanan implored Vespasian to spare the city of Yavneh as a haven for Torah scholars. Impressed by the rabbi’s courage, Vespasian agreed.

Yohanan ben Zakkai’s imagination not only saved Judaism but also reshaped it into the religion we recognize and practice today, a democratic and portable faith focused on prayer, study, and action.

The core practice of the High Holy Day season, teshuvah, is rooted in the same quality. Teshuvah, which is usually translated as repentance but really means turning, as in turning from the path you are currently on and following another way, is only possible if our lives as they are are not our lives as they must always be. Teshuvah only makes sense if we truly have the capacity to change ourselves, our relationships, our lives, our world; if we are not bound by any course of action. Teshuvah invites us to imagine a different reality for ourselves, to see beyond our lives as they are and our world as it is, to what might be. If we relied only on our knowledge, we would never change. Only by envisioning something totally new can we set ourselves on a course for a better future.

Of course, just because we imagine novel possibilities and act to realize them doesn’t mean we will always be successful. But it matters less whether we fully achieve our dreams than whether we allow ourselves to have them and pursue them in the first place. Imagination alone doesn’t guarantee the envisioned possibility will come to fruition. But a lack of imagination guarantees the persistence of the status quo.

Equally important is how we approach the journey itself. We must be careful not to be too fixated on the destination, too focused on the future. The journey itself has much to offer, if only we remain mindful as we travel.

True, Lewis and Clark were focused on their ultimate objectives. That dogged sense of purpose enabled them to endure the unthinkable hardships and obstacles along their route.

But Lewis and Clark were not single-minded about reaching their destination. They paid attention along the way, taking time to witness, appreciate, explore, study, and most importantly, record, the details of virtually everything they experienced along the route.

For that reason, even as the mission failed to find an all-water route to the Pacific, it was an unparalleled success. Lewis and Clark discovered and described hundreds of species of plants and animals previously unknown to science, and made other invaluable contributions to “the fields of zoology, botany, ethnology, and geography.”,

We tend to celebrate Lewis and Clark’s expedition because they made it to the Pacific and back. But in truth, what ultimately made the expedition successful was the fact that the captains paid attention, observing, and recording in vivid detail everything they saw and did.,

How many of us, if we are honest with ourselves, journey through our lives oblivious to the wonder that is all about us – yes, even right here, right now, in this very place? How many of us fixate on yesterday or tomorrow and ignore today? How many of us obsess about our destination and disregard our location? How many of us dwell upon what we don’t yet have, spurning the gifts we already possess?

Our tradition emphasizes that our journeys are at least as important as our destinations. Each and every day in the amidah – even on Yom Kippur – we acknowledge

 נסיך שבכל יום עמנו…נפלאותיך וטובותיך שבכל עת, ערב ובקר וצהרים,

God’s miracles accompany us each day; God’s wonders and gifts are with us each moment, evening, morning, and noon.

If each moment is pregnant with the miraculous, if each place pulsates with blessing, then our lives are diminished when we dwell on our future, concentrate on where we’re headed, or focus on what we lack. To combat these tendencies of ours, the Jewish tradition offers us tools to help us lift up our eyes and see, to help us pay attention to the present, to appreciate where we are, and to be grateful for what we have.

Consider the practice of reciting b’rakhot, blessings. Our tradition has blessings for just about everything: when we take a bite of food, when we see a wonder of nature, even when we hear bad news. Reciting a blessing is an opportunity to acknowledge the miraculous nature of what we normally experience as the mundane, to cultivate awareness, wonder, and gratitude. In fact, we’re supposed to recite 100 blessings every day. 100 moments to pause. 100 moments to become aware. 100 moments to appreciate, to be present and mindful.

And make no mistake: mindfulness matters. On average, each of us only has about 600,000 hours on this earth. That may sound like a lot. But the clock is relentlessly ticking. If, for the sake of argument, you’re right at the halfway mark of the average lifespan, and you sleep the recommended 8 hours a night, you really only have about 200,000 waking hours left. Tick, tick, tick.

At the end of our days, our lives will equal how we’ve filled those hours. How many of those hours will you spend at the office? How many with your children? How many with your partner? How many in front of a screen? How many outdoors? How many engaged in acts of justice and lovingkindness? Do you know? Are you paying attention?

Our days are limited, they pass speedily, and most of us walk through them in darkness; asleep, like the prophet Jonah, despite the excitement surrounding us; oblivious to the preciousness of each moment.

If we are not aware, if we are not observant, if we are not deliberate about what we pay attention to, about what deserves our attention, about where we put our focus and our energies and why, we risk giving away our singular, priceless life. We’d better start paying attention.

And yet, imagination and attention, while important, are not themselves sufficient. Ask any seven-year-old boy who has broken his arm trying to fly. Imagination without wisdom can be dangerous.

Similarly, attention alone is not enough. We must discern what deserves our attention and what does not.

That’s why wisdom – the insights, borne of experience, of those who have journeyed before us – is at least as crucial for our life’s journeys as imagination and attention.

While the men of the Corps of Discovery were the first Americans to explore the West, Native Americans had dwelled for millennia in those lands. Time and again, Lewis and Clark relied on guidance from Native Americans on how to best navigate their route. Most of us know about Sacagawea, the incredible Shoshone woman who accompanied the expedition, translating for and guiding the Americans. And the expedition would never have been able to pass through the Rockies without the guidance of Shoshone chief Cameahwait and warrior Swooping Eagle. They would never have made it to the Pacific without a Nez Perce chief named Twisted Hair.

Lewis and Clark were confident and proud. But fortunately, their confidence and pride did not blind them to their need to heed the wisdom of those who had already been where they were going.

Our tradition repeatedly advises us to seek guidance from those who have come before: “Remember the days of old,” instructs the book of Deuteronomy, “Consider the years of ages past; Ask your parent, and he will inform you, Your elders, and they will tell you.” Similarly, Rabbi Akiva once taught that “The Jewish people is compared to a bird: Just as a bird can only fly with its wings, so the Jewish people can only survive with the help of its elders.”

Throughout our history, the wisdom of our ancestors has been the wind beneath our wings. How can the Jew fly without Moses’ laws, David’s Psalms, or Solomon’s proverbs? How would we know the way without looking to Rabbi Ishmael’s legends or Rav Ashi’s Talmud? We rely on our ancestors not because they were better, smarter, or holier than us. Rather, we revere their wisdom because we know that they have already walked the same paths, and therefore must have insights about the way forward.

In many ways, Judaism’s insistence on heeding the wisdom of our ancestors, on conserving tradition over embracing innovation, is profoundly countercultural. Our society exalts youth. But a society that values novelty over heritage, creativity over experience, and ingenuity over expertise, can easily become dislodged from reality. And a society possessed by fantasy is dangerous. Einstein may have been right that imagination is more important than knowledge, but imagination untethered from knowledge is madness. To thrive, we need both.

So seek out your parents’ advice. Ask your grandparents to share what they’ve learned. Get to know the elders of our community, and absorb what they know. Immerse yourself in the study of the texts and teachings of our Jewish ancestors. They know the way. They’ve travelled it before.

Imagination and knowledge. Wisdom and awareness. Attention and vision. Learning from where we’ve been, paying attention to where we are, dreaming of where we want to go. Holding at once past, present, and future. Like the perfect balance of the Gateway Arch, as wide as it is tall, these elements, held in harmony, are what made Lewis and Clark’s journey a success. And if we are mindful of them, we too can make successes of our own life’s journeys.

On the long car ride home from St. Louis, the kids nestled quietly in the backseat, clutching their souvenirs. Lilah came home with a stuffed fox she named Louie, while Shemaya scored a bear he named Clark. They watched the recent Disney film, Moana, on loop. I couldn’t help but listen in. [I now know this movie by heart. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll be happy to act it out for you during the break this afternoon.] The movie follows a young Polynesian princess on a quest to save her native island.

At first, Moana is hesitant to undertake the mission. As far as she knows, no one has ever travelled more than a few hundred feet from the island’s shore. But then, she has a vision of her ancestors. She learns that they were actually explorers who would sail across the vast ocean to discover new islands.

As I listened, I recalled the awe I felt gazing westward while standing atop that exalted Arch, and I reflected on the story of Lewis and Clark that inspired it. In that moment, it struck me: we, like Moana, are also the heirs of great explorers, though we may not have known it.

As we today consider our journeys, let us hold them in the light of that heritage. Let us recommit to imagining the brand new, remaining aware of where we are, and heeding the wisdom of our elders. If we do, then in the year to come, and all years hence, we will always know the way.

 

References:

Rabbi Alvin Fine, “Life is a Journey,” p. 241 in Mahzor Lev Shale

Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West

B. Gittin 56b

Tal Ben Shahar, Happier

Psalm 90:10-12

Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads

Mary Oliver, “The Summer’s Day”

Deuteronomy 32:7

Sh’mot Rabbah 5:12

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After Charlottesville, Be a Light – Rosh Hashanah 2017

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JJ Grey, a contemporary rock and blues singer, once recalled a lesson his grandmother taught him: “you can’t fight darkness, so be a light.”

Last month, darkness came to Virginia: An unholy alliance of white supremacists marched on Charlottesville. Just 70 miles from where we sit. They came brandishing swastikas, gesturing “sieg heil,” and chanting “Jews will not replace us.” They were armed and ready for a fight. Dozens were injured. Three were killed. All of this they did in broad daylight, without hoods or masks. This time, America’s neo-Nazis didn’t feel they had anything to hide.

The resurgence of a newly emboldened white supremacy is the challenge of our time.  Charlottesville was but the most tragic of recent battlefronts. It was by no means the first and, as we experienced just last week here in Richmond, it will not be the last. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that the number of active white supremacist groups in the U.S. has more than doubled in the last decade. According to the ADL, anti-Semitic episodes rose 34% in 2016. The surge continued this year, with incidents up 86% by March.

The magnitude of the threat has grown because, for the first time in recent memory, major public officials are giving new power to this “bloody heirloom” of America’s original sin. Through word and deed, promise and policy, silence and sympathy, previously marginal forces have been emboldened to feel that this is their moment, their opportunity to “take their country back.”

Theirs is a chilling vision of white power, espousing the dominance of white, Christian men, and the subjugation – or worse – of everyone else. More than merely anti-Semitic, white supremacy targets people of color, immigrants, women, and LGBT people; anyone who reflects our country’s shift toward diversity, pluralism, and egalitarianism. From our perspective, the danger may manifest as vandalisms at Jewish cemeteries and bomb scares at Jewish community centers.

But Charlottesville and its aftermath revealed that the same menace encompases glorifying the Confederacy, lionizing Jim Crow, and torching mosques. It is the same force that animates policies like mass deportation and mass incarceration; building border walls and banning Muslims; tolerating sexual assault and curtailing voting rights; it fuels international know-nothingism, climate denial, and, God help us, the threat of nuclear war. By denigrating the worth of anyone but white, Christian, men, white supremacy imperils us all.

Those advancing this ideology aim to reclaim the country by any means necessary and welcome the possibility of armed struggle. One senior government official recently offered this call to arms: “If you think they are giving you your country back without a fight, you are sadly mistaken.” The men who descended upon Charlottesville gleefully answered that call, promising “a lot more are going to die before we’re done here.”

These are indeed troubled times. The enemy we face is formidable, resilient, and persistent. It has powerful allies. It cannot be wished away or ignored. It may, in the end, never be fully eradicated.

Rosh Hashanah is the day our tradition gives us to confront present troubles and navigate the journey forward. We probe our past and look ahead. We consider our brokenness and pledge repair.

What guidance might emerge if we answered the invitation offered by this day, holding our current struggles up to the light of our history and our tradition?

I think we would find that the challenge of our moment calls for reaching out to and providing support for others, across cultural and ethnic boundaries. It calls for befriending those who are different from us and defending anyone who is targeted for their difference. We may not defeat the darkness. But we can increase the light.

The lesson is affirmed by our history. In her masterful study of resistance against the Nazi regime, historian Nechama Tec tells of brave efforts to limit and subvert Nazi brutality (Tec, Resistance. 10). True, those efforts didn’t topple Hitler or save every Jewish life. But through courageous action, oppression was periodically thwarted and many lives were saved.

What was the key to resistance against the Nazis? First and foremost, resistance required cooperation (Tec, 4). It’s true that Jews bravely helped each other during the Holocaust. But that’s only a small part of the story. Hundreds of thousands of European Jews owe their lives to what we call the “righteous among the nations,” non-Jews who defied Nazi cruelty.

We know some of these stories: There’s Oskar Schindler, of course, and Raoul Wallenberg.

But there are also stories of lesser-known heroes. These, to me, are more powerful because they were otherwise such average individuals. Take, for example, Antoni Zieleniewski. In 1943, he was the secretary to the mayor of a small village in Eastern Poland. One hot summer’s day, a delegation of local peasants came to the mayor’s office to report that they had discovered a group of Jews hiding in a bunker in a nearby village. “As law-abiding citizens,” Antoni later recalled, “they came to report a legal transgression. The law required that such a report should be telephoned to the local police. All those who listened knew that this story would end with the execution of the hidden Jews.” Antoni assured the group that he would notify the police.

After they left, he called a friend named Wojcik [“voy-jik”], who helped him devise a plan. They sent someone they trusted to the Jews to warn them to get out and to direct them to a new hiding place. The Jews fled and relocated, as instructed. That evening, Antoni shared the villagers’ report with the police who, when they went to the original hiding place, found no one there. The police declared the report false and dropped the matter.

But Antoni wasn’t content simply saving the lives of this group of Jews. Instead, he and Wojcik “became the protectors and ultimately the rescuers of the ‘missing Jews,’” anonymously supplying them with food and keeping them hidden from the authorities.

And lest we think that the only Righteous Gentiles were Christians, consider the story of Mustafa Hardaga. When the Germans invaded Yugoslavia, they destroyed the home of the Jewish Kavilio family. Homeless and scared, they fled. Mustafa rescued them, taking them into his family’s home and providing them safe refuge until the war’s end.

What motivated otherwise average people like Antoni and Mustafa to save Jewish lives? Why did thousands, maybe millions, of ordinary, everyday non-Jews risk their lives to save Jews?

The answer is surprisingly simple, yet its lesson for our moment is critical. Non-Jews who knew Jews helped Jews (Tec, 189-190). By and large, those who would become the Righteous Among the Nations started out simply as non-Jews who happened to have Jewish friends.

Yosef Kavilio was Mustafa’s friend. And lots of Antoni’s boyhood schoolmates were Jewish (Tec, 16).

When we reach out to others beyond the boundaries of our own community, we create ever-expanding spheres of concern and support.

In his testimony decades after the war, Antoni put this idea beautifully. Reflecting about a close friendship he had as a boy with a Jewish neighbor, Antoni said, “Somehow our friendship made us insensitive to the mounting prejudices around us’” (Tec, 22).

Friendship made them impervious to bigotry. When we befriend those who are different from us, we begin to see that the diverse array of “others” out there are actually not others at all. And those “others,” who might also typically see us as strangers, can also begin to see that we have been a part of their family all along.

Over and again we affirm this truth on Rosh Hashanah: we all belong to each other. When harm befalls any one of us, the rest of us are injured, too.

The Rosh Hashanah liturgy, like the holiday itself, is universal in scope. Befitting a day on which, according to tradition, all of creation passes before God in judgment, the mahzor repeatedly recognizes God as the Source of all life and the Sovereign of all the earth.

The world would be perfected, our worship today insists, if all humanity recognized its common Creator, affirming and embodying its brotherhood and sisterhood. Over and again, this day reminds us that we are called to bind ourselves to one another, uniting in our common origins and our common destiny, upholding God’s “standards of justice,” perfecting the world through a shared allegiance to God’s sovereignty.

The non-Jews who resisted Nazi terror didn’t defeat the darkness. But by protecting and saving the lives of the vulnerable and oppressed, they increased the light, helping bring us closer to this Holy Day’s vision of a perfected world.

Rabbinic tradition has long understood and taught this wisdom. Our ancient Sages held as axiomatic that good relations between disparate people helps to bring about ultimate redemption.

The Talmud teaches (B. Gittin 61a):

מפרנסים עניי נכרים עם עניי ישראל ומבקרין חולי נכרים עם חולי ישראל וקוברין מתי נכרים עם מתי ישראל…

We must give tzedakah to poor non-Jews the same as we would for Jews. So too, we are forbidden from distinguishing between Jews and non-Jews in feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, and burying the dead.

Most interesting is the Talmud’s rationale for these injunctions: We are commanded to care for the welfare of non-Jews as we care for Jews מפני דרכי שלום, for the sake of the ways of peace.

Now, it is of course possible to understand מפני דרכי שלום as mere pragmatism. After all, Jews benefit from having good relations with their non-Jewish neighbors. If we discriminate against them, they might hate us. But if we scratch their backs, maybe they’ll scratch ours.

But I actually think the rabbis are making a much more sweeping statement. While we usually think of the word “peace” as an antonym for violence, our tradition sees the concept differently. The root of the Hebrew word שלום is שלם, meaning complete or full. שלום is thus the state of being whole, settled, perfected. In Judaism, שלום is not merely the absence of conflict. If it were, then how could teachings like “students of Torah increase peace in the world” (B. B’rakhot 64a) make sense? How can one increase an absence of something?

Instead, שלום is the presence of something, the presence of well-being and fulfillment, wholeness, equity, and harmony. Indeed, in the rabbinic consciousness, שלום embodies the redeemed state of things that signifies the messianic era. שלום is nothing less than the very perfection of our world.

The arc of today’s liturgy bends toward שלום, toward that vision of perfection, envisioning a time when all humanity will recognize its common Divine parent, when we will relate to each other with a sibling-like sense of love and shared responsibility, fostering a world of justice and harmony between all of God’s creations.

But despite the impression one might get from a basic study of the Rosh Hashanah prayer book, the establishment of שלום is not merely God’s purview. The rabbinic tradition insists that we can increase שלום. We can make our world a little more whole, a little closer to perfect. When the rabbis mandate certain behaviors מפני דרכי שלום “for the sake of the ways of peace,” they are saying that we can and must engage in acts that make ours a more perfect world.

Through fostering good relations with those who are different from us, we take a step toward peace. When we care for the welfare of those who we see as “others,” we take a step toward peace. We may not ultimately be successful in building a more peaceful world. But every action that we take מפני דרכי שלום, for the sake of the ways of peace, gets us a little closer.

Reaching out beyond our own communal boundaries and fostering relationships with those who are different is not always easy. Sometimes, those boundaries exist for good reasons. Are we really supposed to befriend those who espouse beliefs or engage in behaviors we detest? Are we expected to put our lives or our livelihoods on the line for everyone?

It’s important to remember that, in the talmudic period, our ancestors did not have great relationships with their non-Jewish neighbors. Non-Jews were generally hostile to Jews. Direct engagement could be risky. And non-Jewish beliefs and practices were typically antithetical to Jewish values. Nevertheless, the rabbis demanded that we care for their welfare for the sake of the ways of peace.

Seen from this perspective, it seems that there is virtually no limit to the lengths we are expected to go to build a more peaceful world, including even befriending and helping our enemies. After all, the Torah itself commands (Exodus 23:4-5): “When you encounter your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering, you must take it back to him. When you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.” We have responsibilities to help everyone in need, even the people we despise.

However, many of us understandably may not feel that magnanimous toward our enemies, however much they may need our help. I’m not itching to have a beer with Richard Spencer, and I doubt I would succeed in befriending him.

That’s why it’s important to remember that the talmudic principle of מפני דרכי שלום emphasizes caring for the needy: the poor, the hungry, the sick, the bereaved. In urging us to build peace by reaching out beyond our own communal boundaries, the rabbis have a simple suggestion: start with the most vulnerable, most at risk, most in jeopardy, most in need. Start with those who have the least and who have suffered the most. Reach out to them first. Befriend them first. Support them first.

If you are willing and able to go beyond that, you are praiseworthy. If you are willing to expand your sphere of concern all the way to your sworn enemy, you are saintly. Falling anywhere on this spectrum makes you part of the project of building shalom. You don’t need to be an activist or an angel. You just need to reach out to whomever you can, as much as you can, whenever you can. Whether you do little or much, you will be increasing the light, advancing a perfected world.

The average men and women who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust advanced a perfected world.

And right now, so many people are adding to the light. Like John Aguilar, a 30-year Navy veteran, who, along with several other Christian citizens of Charlottesville, took it upon themselves to stand watch over Congregation Beth Israel while armed throngs of neo-Nazis marched through the city’s streets.

And earlier this year, following a spike of vandalisms at Jewish cemeteries, Muslim activists launched a campaign to raise money for repairs. They raised $20,000 in the first three hours alone, and to date have raised over $160,000.

Here in Richmond, dozens of faith leaders from a variety of backgrounds, myself among them, responded to the surge in Islamophobia and anti-refugee vitriol that followed the Paris and San Bernardino terrorist attacks by pledging to “Stand Together.” We’ve repeatedly renewed that pledge, standing shoulder to shoulder with each other and with vulnerable communities against recent waves of xenophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism.

And when the worst refugee crisis in history was exacerbated by xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric and action in Washington, a few dozen of our fellow Temple Beth-El congregants took it upon themselves to help a family of Iraqi refugees begin new lives in Richmond. They have cared for the Safar family as though they were their own, assisting them with housing, furnishings, transportation, cultural immersion, job training and, most importantly, friendship.

As if this all weren’t amazing enough, it’s worth bearing in mind that, before they met the members of our Refugee Task Force, the Safars had never been to a synagogue, spoken to a rabbi, or even met a Jew. Helping the Safars has reminded us that Iraqi Muslims are part of our extended human family. And it has taught the Safars that Jews are part of their family, too. Expanding spheres of concern. Increasing light. Building peace.

Indeed, the work of our fellow congregants, along with the righteous acts of people across the religious spectrum, proves our rabbis knew what they were talking about, demonstrating how caring for those who are different from us increases peace. Whenever one person transcends their usual boundaries to perform an act of lovingkindness, it instructs and inspires others to do the same.

One after another, new lights begin to shine. Each subsequent spark magnifies the total luminescence, until a billion little points of light become, as our prophets envisioned, a world utterly bathed in the radiance of the Divine (Cf. Isaiah 60).

Remember Mustafa Hardaga, the Muslim man from Yugoslavia who risked his life to rescue the Kavilio family during World War II?

In 1992, Serbian paramilitary forces destroyed the home of Zejneba Hardaga, Mustafa’s widow, during their brutal siege of Sarajevo. She and her family went into hiding in an underground bunker.

One night, a Jewish family in Jerusalem was watching the news and saw footage of the devastation in Sarajevo. “Sarajevo.” The city sounded familiar. Of course! That’s where grandfather was from! The family had grown up on stories of how Sabba Yosef had survived the war thanks to the heroic efforts of a family of Muslims by the name of Hardaga. “With all this violence,” the Kavilio family mused, “I wonder if the Hardagas are all right.”

With the help of Yad Vashem and members of Sarajevo’s small remaining Jewish community, the Kavilio family found Zejneba and her family, and successfully lobbied the Israeli government to help facilitate a rescue. They were ultimately resettled in Israel, reunited with the family they had saved 50 years earlier, the family who, half a century later, was able to return the favor.

When we reach out to others, we invite their care for us. When others support us, they elicit our support for them. When we see ourselves and our fellow human beings, in the words of the mahzor, as an אדוגה אחת, as one people, bound together by common humanity, shared responsibility, and a united destiny, when we support each other, we can advance a perfected world.

In this perilous moment, in which the world feels as far from perfect as many of us have experienced in our lifetimes, it is tempting to stay silent and hope that the threat dissipates, or to retreat inward, circle the wagons, batten down the hatches, and care exclusively for our own. But relationships, friendships, love and concern for others – across boundaries, beyond borders – are the pathway to a better world. We perfect the world by opening up and by reaching out. In the year to come, let us recommit ourselves to building those relationships.

We may not defeat the darkness, but we can increase the light.

Shanah tovah.

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Here’s the Advice I Would Give to New Rabbis…

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…and, for that matter, all young leaders.

Along with a diverse group of rabbis, I recently completed a two-year fellowship in a program called the Clergy Leadership Incubator.  The Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI) trains early-career rabbis in organizational leadership, change management and institutional transformation.

For our final retreat (which concluded on June 22, 2017), each fellow was tasked to write the graduation speech we might give if we were invited to speak at our seminary’s ordination exercises. What follows is my “ordination address”:

My fellow rabbis:

At the threshold of Canaan, Moses sends twelve tribal chieftans on a mission to survey the land.

The scouts come back with a unified report: the land is good, its cities are large and well-fortified, and its inhabitants are formidable (Num. 27-29).

Then, one of the scouts, Caleb, interjects a buoyant, if surprising, analysis:

.ויהס כלב את העם אל משה ויאמר עלה נעלה וירשנו אתה כי יכול נוכל לה

Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.”

Caleb’s colleagues are quick to disagree: “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we.” Because the majority opinion follows more naturally from the facts, it sets off a panic among the Israelites. They weep, rebel, and, ultimately, lose everything.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his collection Lessons in Leadership, argues that the actions of the majority group of scouts amounted to “perhaps the single greatest collective failure of leadership in the Torah…Only Joshua and Caleb among the twelve showed leadership” (pp. 199-200). This view is, of course, typical of the classical commentators. It’s also wrong.

I get why we rabbis identify with and celebrate Caleb. We venerate him for his optimism that, with faith, the odds could be defied. We admire his dynamic vision.  We, too, want to stand firmly in the right, even (or maybe, if we’re honest, especially) if we are standing alone. It’s also tempting to condemn the majority group’s pessimism and to judge, with the help of hindsight, their doubt.

But leadership is about more than having insight, vision, confidence, and passion. Leadership is about more than being right. Leadership is about being effective. It’s about mobilizing people to face their challenges. Caleb may have had conviction, but he was no leader.

What would have happened if, instead of rushing to his soapbox, Caleb had taken the time to “step on the balcony” and “take the temperature” of the congregation after the scouts’ report? What would have happened if, instead of leaping unprompted to Moses’ defense, Caleb had paused to identify, enlist, and marshal influential allies, persuade skeptics, and neutralize potential opposition?

Unfortunately, fatefully, we don’t know, because that’s not what Caleb did. The impact was catastrophic.

Emulating Caleb is seductive for us rabbis. As servants of God, lovers of Torah, and pursuers of righteousness, we strive to discern the truth and to stand firm in our convictions. As educated Jewish leaders who are trained to understand communal challenges and to be attentive and faithful to the direction God calls us to take, we try to guide our communities on the right path. These rabbinic roles are crucial. They are often the sources of our authority and the yard sticks by which we measure our own rabbinic worth.

But in my rabbinate I’ve come to learn that the discernment, conviction, and passion we tend to prize as rabbis is meaningless, perhaps even harmful, unless we also know how to be effective.

More than jumping in, effective leadership requires stepping back. More than speaking, effective leadership requires listening and learning. More than taking a stand, effective leadership requires consensus-building and collaboration.

It doesn’t mean compromising our vision, or moderating our passion, or ceding our truth. It doesn’t mean selling out or giving up. Quite the contrary, it is how we affirm our truths, harness our passion, and make our visions reality. It is how we will liberate the enslaved and help our communities serve our Maker.

Indeed, when God charges Moses to redeem Israel, God tells him to first enlist the support of the Israelite elders. Without their partnership, the people could not have been redeemed and set upon their sacred mission.

God offers the same call to us. It is now your turn to lead the congregation of Israel. Whether you make it to the Promised Land is up to you. May you discern where we’re going. And may you grow to be the leader who takes us there.

Mazal tov

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