Archive | September, 2018

Don’t wait for God’s permission to repair the world

11 Sep

(Delivered at Congregation Gan Eden, 9/10/18)

On a Friday evening in February, my family sat down for our weekly Shabbat dinner. This is an important time for us to decompress from the hustle and bustle of the week and to reconnect to one another. On this Friday night, our teenage sons had an urgent matter to discuss. They asked if they could go to the March for Our Lives Rally in Washington, DC, the following month. They knew they had a busy schedule with a lot of school commitments. They knew that we don’t have an unlimited travel budget. They were expecting us to say no. How surprised they were when we not only said ‘yes,’ but that we would go with them. 

We all shared a sense of urgency to go to Washington. We were outraged by the latest senseless school shooting on February 14 at the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in which a former student shot and killed 17 innocent people, 14 of them students, 3 staff members. We were pained by the bloodshed that took place virtually in our backyard. We were horrified when our boys heard personal accounts from camp and youth group friends who attend Stoneman Douglas. All of these factors contributed to our decision to travel as a family to Washington for the March for Our Lives, but these were not the decisive reasons. What clinched it for us was the passion, poise and persistence of the Stoneman Douglas students who would not let this story fade from the news cycle. Our sons saw in them peers who cared about changing the status quo and stood up to take action themselves. 

Our family drove to Washington. We joined up with United Synagogue Youth, which fused participation in the Saturday march with traditional Shabbat observance.  The feeling of being part of nearly one million people singing together, shouting together, demanding change together was overwhelmingly powerful. My children were transformed by the experience, and it’s because their peers from Stoneman Douglas did not sit and wait to be told to take action. They did not listen to cynics who said nothing can be done. They grabbed the mantle of leadership, and inspired millions across the country. 

Our Torah presents different models of leadership. For one, there’s Noah. He seems to be a nice guy, unlike his violent neighbors. When God commands Noah to build an Ark, Noah silently obeys. When God tells Noah about the flood to destroy all life on earth except those allowed onto the Ark, Noah does not protest. He just saves himself and his family. To his credit, Noah did not commit the crimes of his neighbors. But neither did he step up to bear witness to their crimes and to improve society. 

The rabbis of our tradition criticize Noah for his apathy. Consider this statement in the Midrash about the end of the flood when it was time to leave the Ark: 

The Midrash says: “Noah said to himself, Since I only entered the ark with permission (from God), shall I leave without permission? The Holy One said to him: Are you looking for permission? In that case, I give you permission, as it says, ‘Then God said to Noah, Come out of the ark.’”

The Midrash then adds: “Said Rabbi Judah bar Ilai, If I had been there I would have smashed down [the doors of] the ark and taken myself out of it.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks  sums up this midrash as saying: when it comes to repair of the world, don’t wait for God’s permission. Just get to work. 

The Torah presents leaders such as Abraham and Moses as contrasts to Noah. While Noah waited passively for God’s instructions, Abraham cried out to God to do justice and spare Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of the innocent. Moses protected the Israelites when God threatened to destroy them over the Golden Calf incident. The Parkland students resemble Abraham and Moses much more than Noah. They are not waiting for God’s permission to repair the world, and neither should we. 

The students have courageously called out the complacency of lawmakers. They endure constant harassment from gun lobby sympathizers and continue to make their case in public. When told that nothing could be done about the scourge of guns in our society, they got modest legislation passed in the Florida legislature and Congress. And when elected officials would not do more, they pressured corporations to sever ties with the NRA. Over the summer they went on a nation-wide bus tour that included visits to gun ravaged cities like Chicago where they joined forces with their peers to protest gun violence. And they are just getting started. The Parkland students are continuing to build their movement to reduce gun violence through sensible laws such as universal background checks, closing gun show loopholes and banning the sale of semi-automatic weapons.  

The Parkland kids are the same age as my children, and yet they are my heroes. One of the most prominent Parkland students, Matt Deitsch, happens to be Jewish. He graduated from Stoneman Douglas in the spring and is the Chief Strategist for the March for Our Lives organization. In preparation for these High Holidays he contributed this short piece, titled “What If?” to the Jewels of Elul blog. He writes:

What if you grew up in the small suburb of Parkland, Florida, as a normal kid, Hebrew teacher, lifeguard and youth group president with aspirations of being a filmmaker?

What if one-day, loss and risk turned your life upside down? Mine did.

What if we did not have to bury our heroes? …What if we came together to confront the problems of today? What if our elected officials stood up for the most vulnerable people?

… What if we did not just ask these questions, but also found answers? …

What if we could all have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness regardless of zip code, religion, color or status?

Matt Deitsch and his friends are not waiting for God or anyone else to give them permission to repair the world. Like Abraham, they jumped in and took charge. As we enter the new year of 5779, I pray that we will be inspired by the Parkland students. Let us not wait for God’s permission to bring more hesed, loving kindness, into our world. May we create a world without bloodshed and violence. May we break down the doors of our Arks to stamp out injustice. May we build a world of love. Amen

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#MeToo in the New Year

11 Sep

(Delivered at Congregation Gan Eden 9/11/18)

At a Hollywood awards show a few months ago the host, comedian John Mulaney, made the following observation: “Last year, everyone who is famous died. This year, everyone who is famous wishes they were dead.” The quip drew nervous laughter because of the many powerful and famous men who had recently been publicly confronted with credible allegations of sexual harassment. 

Indeed, our world has changed since the intrepid investigative reporting of The New Yorker and The New York Times nearly a year ago exposed the sexual harassment committed over many years against many women by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Soon, there was an avalanche of revelations of other male abusers. The outrage in society towards these men crescendoed into #MeToo and #Timesup! and our world has forever changed. 

Egregious abuse was happening in public view for years, yet many of us didn’t see it. Or we chose not to see it. Or we saw it and dismissed it as “boys being boys.” In many cases it was an “open secret” that men like Harvey Weinstein used their power inappropriately. Back in 2013 actor Seth MacFarlane announced the 5 Oscar nominees for Best Supporting Actress and quipped: “Congratulations. You five ladies no longer have to pretend to be attracted to Harvey Weinstein.” Those present politely laughed. It took another four years for us to realize it was no laughing matter. More than fifty women have leveled accusations against Weinstein in the published accounts. Many lived in fear that Weinstein would ruin their careers if they said anything. Some did say something and indeed experienced retaliation and crippling of their aspirations in Hollywood.

We have learned a lot in the past year from many women, as well as a number of men, who have lived in fear of sexual predators who held power over them not only because of the action itself, but because society looked the other way. Then, all of a sudden, society’s eyes were opened. The breaking of the Weinstein story opened the floodgates for the exposure of sexual harassment as an epidemic touching virtually every industry. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, commenting on the ravages of the Vietnam War said , “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.” I think this teaching applies to all of us who allowed the pervasiveness of abuse in our society for decades.  

Fortunately, thanks to the brave victims who have come forward to tell their stories, a loud and determined consensus emerged that we could no longer tolerate the status quo. Time’s up for sexual harassment. This consensus has enabled more victims to tell their stories.

Since the #MeToo movement, I’ve been thinking a lot about violence that takes place in plain sight. Therefore, I am struck when I confront today’s Torah reading, the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac, to find a story about violence and abuse of power that takes place out in the open—in plain sight. 

If the story happened today, I can imagine a newspaper headline: “Abraham assaults son in act of ritual violence.” Another headline might scream, “Abraham blames God for ordering sacrifice.” What a scandal this would be! We glean from the story the traumatic effect on the main characters. For instance, Isaac and Abraham are never in each other’s presence again, and God and Abraham never speak to each other again.

Often overlooked, though, are two additional characters in the story. Two nameless servants accompany Abraham and Isaac. They are referred to in Hebrew as n’arav, Abraham’s youths, commonly translated as ‘lads.’  They are told to stay behind as Abraham and Isaac ascend Mt. Moriah. The lads do not see the actual binding, we can presume, but we can ask, ‘What were they thinking at that time?’ When Abraham comes down the mountain alone and returns to the lads, we do not hear them asking, “Where’s Isaac?” They silently go on their way. They knew something was wrong but they seemingly said nothing. On one level, who can blame them? Abraham was their boss. Who were they to say anything? On the other hand, they were the only witnesses. They had an obligation to share. 

Rabbi Sharon Brous wrote at the dawn of the #MeToo movement, “It’s time we tell the stories that weren’t recorded. The stories we were too scared to share, those that weren’t deemed important enough to be remembered. It’s about reading between the lines, and listening.” 

The central mitzvah of Rosh HaShanah is lishmoa kol shofar, to listen to the sound of the shofar. The shofar is our alarm. It is meant to wake us up to be more attentive to the world around us. The sounds of the shofar should goad us to listen, really listen, to those who are in distress and to take action as individuals and as a society to make sure such abuse is not tolerated.  

Until the #MeToo movement, too many of us were like the silent lads who should have known bad stuff had to be going on, but we chose to remain silent or to look the other way. That said, I would like to offer an alternative understanding of the two lads. If we read between the lines in the Binding of Isaac story, we find another hidden story. It’s that the anonymous servants did speak up. Consider how we know the events of the Akeidah. The servants bore witness to it. It was they who wrote it down to make sure future generations would not forget. Perhaps it was precisely for our #MeToo moment of public awakening and reckoning that they told their story. 

In this new year, we must continue to create safe spaces for the vulnerable in our midst who feel great pain. We must listen to their stories. We must bear witness. We must not be indifferent. When we open our hearts to those in pain and work to create a safe society for all, we bring hesed, loving-kindness, into the world. Olam hesed yibaneh. We must build a world of love. 

Amen.