My Dear Friends,
Tomorrow, at our Rosh HaShanah morning service, we will once again hear the stirring and disturbing story of the Binding of Isaac –the Akeydat Yitzchak. Each year that we read this text, I try to find a new perspective to share with you. This year, I want to approach it from the viewpoint of the unsung hero – or maybe a better title might be the victim – of our story: The Ram that was sacrificed in place of Isaac.
Our text reads as follows: (Genesis 22:13)
Abraham lifted up his eyes and behold! his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So, Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.
Jewish tradition has a lot to say about this particular animal. One of the reasons that we blow the shofar on Rosh HaShanah is because the Ram took Isaac’s place on the sacrificial altar[i]. My question is: “How often do Rams get caught in thickets?” Think about it: Rams are majestic animals. They can leap from the tops of the highest mountains and tread on the narrowest of alpine paths. They are nimble, strong and agile. What could cause a Ram to get stuck?
The Mishnah teaches that the fact that it just “happened” to appear at the right time to replace Isaac was one of the miracles created by God in the last moments of creation.[ii] That is one plausible answer, but it really isn’t all that satisfying. There must be another reason that the ram was there.
I posed this question recently to colleagues at a Rocky Mountain Rabbinical Council retreat and the answer I was looking for came from our own Rabbi Hyatt. She posited:
“Maybe the Ram’s horns were too big and unwieldy….it couldn’t see them, and, as a result, it got stuck!”
Thank you Rabbi Hyatt. What a perfect answer!
The Ram got stuck because it was in the way of itself!
I’m sure we all know people who fit into this category, don’t we? Men and women – perhaps even members of our own family who consistently make stupid mistakes, and are oblivious to what everybody else sees so very clearly……
I want to share a story with you about a Wise Man of Chelm. If you aren’t familiar with the legendary people of Chelm, the best way to describe them is that they are a mythical community of fools. There are hundreds of stories about their endearing naivete and buffoonery. And yet, since they all possessed the same characteristics, they lived happy lives – oblivious to their own foolishness. Now this particular Chelmite was on a visit to Minsk and he joined a circle of kibitzers at a local inn. Seeing a stranger, the innkeeper tried to entertain him. He put the following riddle to the Chelmite:
"Who is it that is my father's son, yet he is not my brother?"
The Chelmite racked his brain for the answer, but in vain.
"I Give up!" he said finally. "Now tell me, who is it?"
"Why it’s me!" cried out the innkeeper triumphantly!
The Sage of Chelm was amazed by the cleverness of the riddle, and when he returned home, he lost no time in assembling all of the other Wise Men.
"My masters," he began gravely, stroking his long beard. I am going to ask you a riddle and see if you can answer it: Who is it that is my father's son, yet he's not my brother?"
The Sages of Chelm were greatly perplexed. They thought and thought and finally said:
"We Give up. Tell us, who is it?"
"It’s the innkeeper of Minsk!" cried the sage, triumphantly!
We laugh, but the truth is, there is a little bit of Chelm in all of us. Sometimes we are so unaware of our own blind spots that we get stuck – literally and figuratively.
Many years ago, when our now 28-year-old daughter Elana was in Kindergarten, my wife, Sue made her a costume for the Purim carnival. She was a Hamentashen.
As you can see – she was very cute and delicious. She won first prize in the costume contest. The only problem was that, as wonderful as her getup was – it was completely impractical and unwieldy. She couldn’t sit down, fit through doorways or play any of the carnival games. Like the ram caught in the thicket because of its horns, she couldn’t maneuver her way around obstacles and kept getting stuck. Eventually, we had to change her out of the costume so that she could enjoy the festivities.
At other times, our blind spots are less obvious – and sometimes they have more serious consequences. We are now all painfully aware of the inappropriate comments of Representative Ilhan Omar – who serves the district where Sue and I used to live in St. Louis Park, MN – who used anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish dual-loyalty and money in reference to the activities of AIPAC. Even though she eventually apologized, the fallout from her insensitivity is still quite damaging. Similarly, at a recent executive session of the Trenton, NJ City Council, Kathy McBride, the Democratic council president, used the phrase “Jew them down” - referring to the outcome of a lawsuit negotiated by a City Attorney – whose last name happened to be Cohen. Mcbride – and three other council members – when asked about the comment, at first dismissed it – saying that the term, “Jew Down” was not anti-Semitic. It was merely a colloquialism that was common parlance – especially in the African American community – with which all of these particular council members were affiliated. After news of the comment spread via the internet and national outrage ensued, her defenders changed their tone and apologized. McBride, after another day had passed, finally apologized as well[iii].
But prejudice, ignorance and blindness are not limited to words. 11 months ago, on October 27, 2018, a lone gunman walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh and murdered 11 worshippers in cold blood. The gunman screamed out anti-Semitic slogans – among other things, shouting that Jews were responsible for illegal immigrants coming to our country. Exactly 6 months later – to the day, on the last day of Passover, in a Synagogue in Poway, CA, another racist and anti-Semitic gunman opened fire, killing one person and wounding 3 others – including the Rabbi.
There is no question that anti-Semitism is on the rise. We see it on both extremes of the political spectrum. While some of the troubling comments and actions we have witnessed in recent months have been said out of ignorance, others are very deliberate in their choice of words and the timing of their actions.
Those on the extreme Far Left tend to link anti-Semitism with Jewish oppression – usually in the form of anti-Zionism. They promote Boycott Divestment and Sanctions - or BDS – and want to see the State of Israel destroyed. They work to paint Jews and Zionists as colonialists who ignore and abuse the civil rights of minorities in order to achieve their nefarious goals. Those on the Far Right utilize ancient stereotypes and conspiracy theories to justify their actions. Their hatred has little to do with Jewish practice or belief – they focus on our very existence. Those who marched in Charlottesville two years ago shouting, “Jews will not replace us!” believe that we are a source of evil that must be exposed, contained and, in the most extreme cases, destroyed. While the rhetoric from the Left has not yet manifested itself in violence against the Jewish Community, it is no less disturbing.
With the rise of Anti-Semitism that has been so clearly documented by the Anti-Defamation League, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies[iv], we also are facing a quandary within our own Jewish community. The need to upgrade security in every Jewish institution is a sad, but unfortunate necessity given the rise in violent rhetoric and all too often, acts of domestic terror that we have experienced over the last several years. While prudent use of security is an essential aspect of protecting ourselves from both the perceived and real threats that face us, it also can be isolating and expensive. Fear of the “other” all too often becomes a force that limits our ability to fully actualize the potentials of our institutions. We tend to “hunker down” and focus only on the threats that are becoming increasingly common in a society that grows more violent every day.
Obsessing about our own pain and fear can cause us to lose perspective. Like the Ram caught in the thicket, when we focus only on our security and safety, we are unable to see the rest of the world around us. We also lose opportunities for building essential alliances that can strengthen everyone.
A powerful truth that we need to recognize is that from suffering – redemption can and often does follow. We need to acknowledge that these moments of tragedy have also created moments of clarity. Who can forget the massive outpouring of support, love and solidarity that we experienced in our overflowing Sanctuary in the immediate aftermath of that tragic Shabbat morning in Pittsburgh? Representatives of law enforcement, Government officials, and leaders of the Christian, Muslim, Sikh, African American and so many other communities filled our pews, spilled into the aisles and overflowed into our foyer and social hall in a spontaneous and heartfelt demonstration of love and support for the Jewish community in our time of trauma.
When a tragic shooting occurred just a few weeks later in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, members of the Jewish community again joined with interfaith, law enforcement, government and religious community leaders. We attended Friday prayers at the Denver Islamic Society and showed our love, solidarity and support. These events were powerful – but they were not enough.
My friends, as we enter into a New Year, I believe that it is vital that we commit ourselves to not only combat anti-Semitism, but that we also make a sincere and vigorous effort to acknowledge and strive to understanding our own prejudices and biases.
As Jews we have known the pain of prejudice and persecution. As a result of our own suffering, we also understand the importance of standing up for others who are oppressed.
In particular, I speak of our relationship with the African American community.
Historically, our Reform movement was in the forefront of the struggle for Civil Rights. In the 1950’s and 60’s Reform Rabbis, community leaders and congregants – including our own Rabbi Foster - marched hand in hand with people of color throughout the South. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted in the conference room of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, DC – named after Kivie Kaplan – an active and committed Reform Jew who was a founder or the NAACP.
And yet, despite our history of activism and our ability to say the right things and be at the right places at the right times, despite our recent powerful expressions of support in the wake of tragedy, I believe that, in many ways, when it comes to understanding issues of race today, many of us are like the Ram caught in the thicket – unable to extricate ourselves from the gordian knot of fear and mistrust that plagues our society. What further complicates issues is that fact that, although we, as Jews, have been the recipients of hatred and racism, most of the members of our Jewish community are not people of color. Our White Privilege is very real – whether we choose to see it or not.
In addition, recently, there have been many unfortunate incidents of miscommunication and discomfort between communities of color and the Jewish Community. From the anti-Zionist statements in the Black Lives Matter platform, to the incidents I referred to earlier in the Trenton State Legislature and the comments of Representative Omar, the potential for conflict and tension is very real.
This past August marked the 400th anniversary of the arrival in Virginia of the first captive African slaves who were brought to the New World in chains and misery. The painful and ugly truth about American success is that much of it was earned through the suffering and torture of innocents: human beings who were callously bought and sold as commodities. While the horror of sanctioned slavery officially ended on April 9, 1865 at Appomattox, the legacy of prejudice that it spawned is still felt today – although it is easy to deny its impact. The ugly and uncomfortable reality of White privilege is that, while we may be intellectually aware of our history of racial injustice, we do not have to live with it on a daily basis.
In a recent article in HaAretz, my friend and colleague, Rabbi David Stern - past President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and Sr. Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El of Dallas, TX writes:
“…Here are the truths which defy simple answers: that a white teenager and a black teenager see the symbol of a police cruiser through radically different lenses related to dramatically different experiences, and that you dress those same two kids in the same hooded sweatshirt, and they will receive radically different reactions.”
“…The involvement of Jews in the civil rights movement fifty years ago does not grant us a free pass today. As Jews, we will need to expand our circle of prophets — because the voices of Jeremiah and Amos are carried forward in our day by writer/activists like Ta-Nehisi (Ta-Ne-HAH-see) Coates and Bryan Stevenson.
Instead, the God who heard the cry of the oppressed requires us to listen — to narratives of racism, to exposures of white privilege and educational inequities and mythic meritocracies. We do not need to agree with everything we hear, but we need to hear it. And when that hearing produces pain, then we need to feel it. And if that pain motivates us to create a more just and safe society instead of silencing the truths that disturb us, we will know that we have broken through the silence towards hope. The books of the Hebrew prophets are fundamental to our identity as Jews, but they do not make good bedtime reading. This healing will sting before it salves[v].”
My Dear Friends previous attempts at Temple Emanuel to understand and confront our own fears and prejudices have been underwhelming. This must change.
We live in a time and a place where the separations in our society are becoming increasingly paralyzing. The political, religious, racial and ideological chasms we have created are amplified through technology and Social Media. The more removed we are from one another, the more those who profit from fear and mistrust are successful. We owe it to ourselves and our souls to unpack and uncover the root causes of our divisions and, in the process of doing so, find pathways to healing and partnership that can only serve to strengthen one another.
It is for this reason that we, at Temple Emanuel, are starting an important initiative entitled:
Racial Equity from the Inside Out
The main objective of this initiative is to identify, explore and understand the culture of racism that has existed in our country for the past 400 years. Some of the concrete goals of this process are:
- To increase racial literacy among and within our congregation.
- To create a congregational culture of commitment to ongoing learning about race and racism – personally, inter personally, institutionally and structurally
- To support Jewish communal health and integrity through engagement in anti-racist work
- To address the complexity around Jewish identity and oppression, racism and anti-Semitism
There will be several components of this initiative. The first will take place at a workshop tomorrow morning at 11:15 – which is concurrent with our 2nd Rosh Hashanah morning service – (plan accordingly). We have engaged the services of two facilitators - Debbie Zucker and the Reverend Dr. Amy Rowland - both of whom have extensive experience working with congregations around the city in exploring the role that Racism and White Privilege play in our lives.
The second component will be a 6-week intensive series of conversations with a pre-selected, small group of congregants who will explore the history, impact and consequences of how racial identity and prejudice have impacted our nation, our institutions and our community. We are currently compiling a list of interested members. This will be an invitation-only group – but if you are interested in learning more about this, please contact me at Temple and I will add your name to the list. I can’t guarantee that you will be chosen for this particular set of conversations, but I want to know those who wish to participate. We will be creating other opportunities to get involved in both the open, congregational workshops and the next round of small group experiences once these pilot programs have taken place.
The path to understanding is long, winding and sometimes difficult. There will be times when we, like that Ram on Mount Moriah, might get stuck in the thicket of our fears. This does not mean that we should refrain from our holy work, however. We are deeply committed to seeing it through.
The Brazillian Author, Paulo Coelho (Kwell-jew) de Souza wrote the following:
A Rabbi gathered all of her students together and asked:
How do we know the exact moment when night ends and day begins?
A student raised his hand and began:
“It is when, standing some way away, you can tell a goat from a lamb, then the night is over and the day has begun.”
The rabbi was unmoved, she waited for another student to join in the discussion.
Another brave soul jumped in: “No, it is when you can tell an olive tree from a fig tree.”
“No,” said the rabbi. ‘The night is over and the day begins when a stranger approaches and we recognize him as our brother. That is the exact moment when night ends and the day begins.” [vi]
My friends, as we enter into this New Year, let us do so with a will to make change – to see the holiness and humanity implanted within all of God’s Creation. May we strive to get “unstuck” from the many pitfalls and snares that lie in our path.
May 5780 be a year of growth, of hope, of healing and promise.
AMEN L’Shanah Tovah Tikateyvu!
[i] Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 16a. Rabbi Abbahu said: Why does one sound a blast with a shofar made from a ram’s horn on Rosh HaShana? The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: Sound a blast before Me with a shofar made from a ram’s horn, so that I will remember for you the binding of Isaac, son of Abraham, in whose stead a ram was sacrificed, and I will ascribe it to you as if you had bound yourselves before Me.
[ii] Mishnah Avot, 5:8