Shabbat Hayei Sarah: Kindness Trumps Rights

Throughout many generations of wandering in Exile, our ancestors would begin to develop our community institutions whenever we came to a new place, and it seemed like we would be able to stay for a while. The first such institution was neither the beit midrash (learning center) nor a beit knesset (center for gathering and prayer) – it was, rather, a beit avot v’imahot (a place for our parents/ancestors) – a cemetery.

In this week’s parashat hashavua (weekly parsha) Abraham yet again models for us for the first time this ancient Jewish cultural norm. Sarah dies at the age of 127 years and Abraham, after the shock of the loss, realizes that he has done no preplanning. Sarah must be appropriately and respectfully buried, but he has no beit avot v’imahot – no place where he and his descendants might bury those who go before them into death.

Such is the life of an immigrant. All of his family of origin, and hers, were buried back in Ur in Haldea, the city in which they were born and raised. Abraham must now approach the people of the land – our text calls them “the Hittites”, not necessarily naming their ethnicity – and he speaks the ancient words which still speak of the immigrant’s condition, of loneliness and vulnerability:

I am a stranger living among you (Bereshit 23.4)

Abraham goes about the business of purchasing a cave in which he buries Sarah, and in which he will, in his turn, be buried. That cave, called Makhpelah, is today often invoked as the first “proof” that today’s Jews, descendants as we are of Abraham and Sarah, belong in the Land of Israel – we have holdings there, some say, that go all the way back. For that reason, some Jews insist on residing in the ancient city of Hebron which is next door – to assert that ancient “right”.

I put “quotes” around the words “proof” and “right” because both words are problematic. In our Torah tradition, much of what is written is not necessarily proof; and in Jewish law, there is no category of “rights” – rather, to be a Jew is to consider what our obligation is in any given situation that may confront us.

Consider the situation of Abraham the Ivri, that stranger who immigrated from another place. What “proof” might it offer for us?

In our own day, in these uncertain times, let it prove a reminder: that Abraham offered generous hospitality when the moment called for it, and when he needed it in return, the Hittites among whom he lived offered it to the stranger who lived among them. He was allowed to buy the land with the cave in it, and he was allowed to bury his dead in peace. He was safe with those people among whom he appeared as an immigrant – no documents, no papers, no “proof” of any “right” to what he needed. 

Abraham is for us a role model – not only for our own behavior, but also for considering our treatment of the immigrant who appears among us. The Torah tells us that HaShem commanded Abraham to “walk with G*d”, and our ancestors tell us what that means:

Rabbi Hama beRabi Hanina said, what does it mean to walk after the attributes of the Holy blessed One? It means to clothe the naked, for it is written:  HaShem made for Adam and for Eve coats of skin, and clothed them, so should you also clothe the naked. The Holy blessed One visited the sick, for it is written: HaShem appeared unto Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, so should you also visit the sick. The Holy blessed One comforted mourners, for it is written: It came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son, so should you also comfort mourners. The Holy blessed One buried the dead, for it is written: G*d buried Moshe in the valley, so shall you also bury the dead. 

We can learn from Abraham the further instance of parashat VaYera – as G*d sustains the living, so shall we, by offering hospitality (shelter, food and rest), and from the Hittites’ treatment of Abraham in this parashah – as Abraham sought to live in peace with his neighbors, and as the Hittites dealt kindly with the immigrant in their midst, so shall we, by acting to fulfill the mitzvah v’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha, “treat others with the loyalty to our common humanity as you desire it for yourself.”

The passage finishes this way:

Rabbi Simlai concluded: Torah begins with an act of gemilut hasadim (altruistic loving kindness) and ends with an act of gemilut hasadim. It begins with it, for it is written: HaShem made for Adam and for Eve coats of skin, and clothed them; and it ends with it, for it is written: G*d buried him in the valley. (BT Sotah 14a)

Rashi said of Sarah that she was as ethically pure at twenty years as at seven, and as beautiful at one hundred years as she was at twenty. May it be said of us that even when we became older and more skeptical, more tired and more given to cynicism, we continued to see the stranger in our midst and hear in our hearts the command to walk with G*d, that we – whether we find ourselves to be the vulnerable stranger or the safely settled, might always respond in g’milut hasadim.

Mitzvot come at you from every direction these days. Here is one in which I hope you will join me should the occasion truly arise: 

Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other

Shabbat VaYera: Sodom and Gomorrah

Our parashah this week is VaYera, “he saw”, referring to Abraham, and his ability to see the Image of G*d in a stranger.  

Our reading, from the second year of the Triennial Cycle, brings us to one of the most infamous passages in the entire Torah, perhaps the entire Bible: the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, or S’dom v’Amora as they are called in Hebrew. It’s an example of how a text that had one meaning was interpreted into a different meaning by a different culture and possibly a third entirely different meaning by yet another, vastly influential culture – perhaps an ancient example of the “fake news” we are hearing about in our day, right now.

Here’s the story: two men, messengers of G*d in disguise as simple travelers, arrive in Sodom toward evening. Abraham’s nephew Lot is sitting in the gate and, seeing two strangers, invites them home with him – a normal act of hospitality in the ancient (and modern) Middle East. It is also precisely the same act that his uncle had just performed with these same travelers the previous day.

But Sodom is not a normal place, and that night a gang of thugs shows up, beating on Lot’s door, demanding that he bring out the strangers. Their intent was not friendly, and Lot refuses to transgress the vital mitzvah of guaranteeing the safety of one’s guests. The messengers of G*d, angels as it turns out, strike everyone blind and rescue Lot and his family from the mob. It doesn’t turn out well for Sodom.

What was the sin of Sodom?

In ancient Jewish writings, the Rabbis only ask a question to settle the answer, so we can glean from this that they already were not so sure what caused G*d to doom the entire city. Working from the evidence of the text, they teach that the sin of Sodom (and Gomorrah, the sister city down the street) was lack of hospitality – the failure to welcome and guarantee the safety of strangers.

“Behold this was the sin of Sodom…She and her daughters had pride, excess bread, and peaceful serenity, but she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy” (Ezekiel 16:49)

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow explains that “the people of Sodom insisted on preserving their high quality of living to such an extent that they established a principle not to let the poor and homeless reside in their city. Consequently when a destitute person would come seeking help, they would revoke his right to any welfare–public or private! By doing this they figured they would preserve an elite upper class community who would monopolize the profits that the bountiful land offers without having to distribute any revenues to a “lower class” of people.” 

You may have heard that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was homosexuality, because that’s what another (very influential) culture interpreted down the historical line. But the sin depicted in the Torah is one of violence against the stranger, including but not limited to the sexual violence of rape. By the time we get to the false idea that it’s a text that tells us that gay love is a sin, it’s already part of a deadly game of telephone which has distorted the original meaning in a frightening way: this interpretation moves it out of the moral realm of daily action and into a much narrower definition that implicates a minority, rather than all of us.

Understanding the deeper truth does not erase millennia of falsely caused hatred, horrific in its effects. But perhaps in this way also, learning can help us see the light of a deeper truth more clearly. Let that light flood your own dark places with its promise that, some day, the darkness of every intolerance will be lifted. 

There is a teaching in the Jewish collection of ancient wisdom called Tanhuma in which it is pointed out that the eye has both a dark part, the pupil, and a white part – and it is out of the dark part that we see light.

I invite you to consider how you might increase the light when you kindle your Shabbat candles this evening: perhaps you will join me in adding one extra candle, for the duration. You can begin now, in the wake of the election, to encourage yourself to fight against the darkness of your own fear; you can begin at the inauguration as a sign to yourself and everyone else that you are committed to bringing light to bear against whatever darkness may come. Whatever you do, never doubt your ability to lift up light.

And help us lift a light this Sunday, November 20, on National Transgender Remembrance Day; it memorializes trans individuals who have died because of anti-transgender discrimination and victimization. To learn more go HERE.

Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other!

What Good Does This Safety Pin Do?

It started last week, immediately on the heels of the election, or maybe even a bit before: people starting to wear safety pins, as a sign to others that the wearers are those who will guard your safety with them. I hear that it’s an idea adopted from a reaction to Brexit.

In the best Jewish tradition, we can immediately see a special Jewish resonance in this gesture. My first thought was “something we can finally do with those six million safety pins we gathered a few years ago”.

Do you remember that project? Grade school age children set about collecting six million safety pins as a way of trying to envision the enormity of Jewish death in the Holocaust. It’s an unthinkably vast number of deaths, and it’s an incredible number of safety pins. What do we do with them once they’re collected, viewed, and considered?

Now we know.

It has already been suggested that Jews have an opportunity now to “pay it forward” for the kindnesses done for us during World War II. I suggest that the safety pin you might choose to wear is a potent reminder to you that as you reach out in acts that insist upon the safety of those targeted by the incoming U.S. administration, you are lifting up the life of the person – one of the six million – whose soul is carried in that safety pin.

No life is ever wasted, even when it is cut short. Those who died of inhuman cruelty in the Shoah never could know that a day would come when their lives would be carried on in an action as simple and as profound as when you and I choose to wear, and act in the spirit of, a safety pin.

All life is precious for its potential; and life fulfills its potential in supporting and celebrating all life. No life should be cut short of its potential; no life should be lived in fear; all life must be nurtured to rise toward the sun, out of the darkness. If wearing a safety pin will help you remember to reach out and live this truth despite your fear, then it is not at all an empty gesture. It is a yizkor, a way of demanding that we, and G*d, remember those whose lives were cut short in that earlier wave of darkness, and it is an assertion that we will not stand by now, fearing for our own safety, while anything like it ever happens again.

Never Again starts now.

Be aware of what you are saying if you put that safety pin on. Realize that it has a meaning that you cannot edit. Know that it declares that no one is safe unless we are all safe, and that you put yourself at risk. Learn how to effectively intervene in a way that does not make it all worse. You could get killed or injured. This is for real: life and death.

During the time of great racist hatred and fear that led to the Holocaust, the great Martin Niemoller wrote of his own awakening.

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

It is our time to speak up. Let the safety pin remind you of the life you lift up through your own words and your acts, that such words and acts are necessary and they are sacred mitzvot. Be kind, be active, be awake.

Why Jews Should and Are Standing Up for Standing Rock

by Leora Troper

Jews and Jewish communities around the country are standing up to support the Native American Water Protectors and to say no to the Dakota Access Pipeline. It is vital work, and fitting that we do it. There is, of course, what seem like the most obvious reason and most often quoted text – tzeddek, tzeddek, tirdof – “justice, justice, shalt thou pursue.” (Deut. 16.20) In a just country, our government would honor its treaties and respect the sacredness of this land for First Peoples.

But there are more reasons for Jews to stand up against the NDAP. We, too, are a people who are intimately entwined with the natural world. Besides our historical connection to a specific parcel of land in the Middle East, our teachings and commandments repeatedly connect us to the ebb and flow of the natural world in general. We look to the sun, the moon, and the stars to tell us when our holy days begin and end. Annually, we celebrate a new year for trees. Every month, we celebrate the new moon as the marker of a new month. Each week we watch the sun to tell us when the day of rest begins, and count the stars so that we know when to perform the ceremony that marks the end of the day of rest and separates the unique from the everyday.  Our Tanakh, our Bible, repeatedly tells us to care for our land and the animals and plants that exist there. We say the Sh’ma, the oldest fixed daily prayer in Judaism, twice a day, and every time, we remind ourselves that if we “bow down before false gods”, which can be seen as serving the gods of greed and hubris (among other things), our planet will cease to provide us with the sustenance we need to live.

The North Dakota Access Pipeline is one of many constructions and actions that are at odds with a philosophy that respects and cares for the planet. Jews across this country have a duty to stand up and be counted among those who oppose it. The rabbis taught us that the more something is repeated in the Tanakh, the greater its imperative. Thus we should honor and act upon the multitudinous passages that teach us about caring for the land, respecting animals, not wasting resources, ensuring that resources endure for future generations, and giving a “Shabbat”, a day (or year) of rest to the land that supplies us with our sustenance. To ignore them, to ignore the need for action against this unconscionable construction, is to ignore a core value of Judaism.

The Election: Of Hate, Grief, and a New Story

by Charles Eisenstein

Normal is coming unhinged. For the last eight years it has been possible for most people (at least in the relatively privileged classes) to believe that society is sound, that the system, though creaky, basically works, and that the progressive deterioration of everything from ecology to economy is a temporary deviation from the evolutionary imperative of progress.

A Clinton Presidency would have offered four more years of that pretense. A woman President following a black President would have meant to many that things are getting better. It would have obscured the reality of continued neoliberal economics, imperial wars, and resource extraction behind a veil of faux-progressive feminism. Now that we have, in the words of my friend Kelly Brogan, rejected a wolf in sheep’s clothing in favor of a wolf in wolf’s clothing, that illusion will be impossible to maintain.

The wolf, Donald Trump (and I’m not sure he’d be offended by that moniker) will not provide the usual sugarcoating on the poison pills the policy elites have foisted on us for the last forty years. The prison-industrial complex, the endless wars, the surveillance state, the pipelines, the nuclear weapons expansion were easier for liberals to swallow when they came with a dose, albeit grudging, of LGBTQ rights under an African-American President.

I am willing to suspend my judgement of Trump and (very skeptically) hold the possibility that he will disrupt the elite policy consensus of free trade and military confrontation – major themes of his campaign. One might always hope for miracles. However, because he apparently lacks any robust political ideology of his own, it is more likely that he will fill his cabinet with neocon war hawks, Wall Street insiders, and corporate reavers, trampling the wellbeing of the working class whites who elected him while providing them their own sugar-coating of social conservatism.

The social and environmental horrors likely to be committed under President Trump are likely to incite massive civil disobedience and possibly disorder. For Clinton supporters, many of whom were halfhearted to begin with, the Trump administration could mark the end of their loyalty to our present institutions of government. For Trump supporters, the initial celebration will collide with gritty reality when Trump proves as unable or unwilling as his predecessors to challenge the entrenched systems that continually degrade their lives: global finance capital, the deep state, and their programming ideologies. Add to this the likelihood of a major economic crisis, and the public’s frayed loyalty to the existing system could snap.

We are entering a time of great uncertainty. Institutions so enduring as to seem identical to reality itself may lose their legitimacy and dissolve. It may seem that the world is falling apart. For many, that process started on election night, when Trump’s victory provoked incredulity, shock, even vertigo. “I can’t believe this is happening!”

At such moments, it is a normal response to find someone to blame, as if identifying fault could restore the lost normality, and to lash out in anger. Hate and blame are convenient ways of making meaning out of a bewildering situation. Anyone who disputes the blame narrative may receive more hostility than the opponents themselves, as in wartime when pacifists are more reviled than the enemy.

Racism and misogyny are devastatingly real in this country, but to blame bigotry and sexism for voters’ repudiation of the Establishment is to deny the validity of their deep sense of betrayal and alienation. The vast majority of Trump voters were expressing extreme dissatisfaction with the system in the way most readily available to them. (See here, here, here, here) Millions of Obama voters voted for Trump (six states who went for Obama twice switched to Trump). Did they suddenly become racists in the last four years? The blame-the-racists (the fools, the yokels…) narrative generates a clear demarcation between good (us) and evil (them), but it does violence to the truth. It also obscures an important root of racism – anger displaced away from an oppressive system and its elites and onto other victims of that system. Finally, it employs the same dehumanization of the other that is the essence of racism and the precondition for war. Such is the cost of preserving a dying story. That is one reason why paroxysms of violence so often accompany a culture-defining story’s demise.

The dissolution of the old order that is now officially in progress is going to intensify. That presents a tremendous opportunity and danger, because when normal falls apart the ensuing vacuum draws in formerly unthinkable ideas from the margins. Unthinkable ideas range from rounding up the Muslims in concentration camps, to dismantling the military-industrial complex and closing down overseas military bases. They range from nationwide stop-and-frisk to replacing criminal punishment with restorative justice. Anything becomes possible with the collapse of dominant institutions. When the animating force behind these new ideas is hate or fear, all manner of fascistic and totalitarian nightmares can ensue, whether enacted by existing powers or those that arise in revolution against them.

That is why, as we enter a period of intensifying disorder, it is important to introduce a different kind of force to animate the structures that might appear after the old ones crumble. I would call it love if it weren’t for the risk of triggering your New Age bullshit detector, and besides, how does one practically bring love into the world in the realm of politics? So let’s start with empathy. Politically, empathy is akin to solidarity, born of the understanding that we are all in this together. In what together? For starters, we are in the uncertainty together.

We are exiting an old story that explained to us the way of the world and our place in it. Some may cling to it all the more desperately as it dissolves, looking perhaps to Donald Trump to restore it, but their savior has not the power to bring back the dead. Neither would Clinton have been able to preserve America as we’d known it for too much longer. We as a society are entering a space between stories, in which everything that had seemed so real, true, right, and permanent comes into doubt. For a while, segments of society have remained insulated from this breakdown (whether by fortune, talent, or privilege), living in a bubble as the containing economic and ecological systems deteriorate. But not for much longer. Not even the elites are immune to this doubt. They grasp at straws of past glories and obsolete strategies; they create perfunctory and unconvincing shibboleths (Putin!), wandering aimlessly from “doctrine” to “doctrine” – and they have no idea what to do. Their haplessness and half-heartedness was plain to see in this election, their disbelief in their own propaganda, their cynicism. When even the custodians of the story no longer believe the story, you know its days are numbered. It is a shell with no engine, running on habit and momentum.

We are entering a space between stories. After various retrograde versions of a new story rise and fall and we enter a period of true unknowing, an authentic next story will emerge. What would it take for it to embody love, compassion, and interbeing? I see its lineaments in those marginal structures and practices that we call holistic, alternative, regenerative, and restorative. All of them source from empathy, the result of the compassionate inquiry: What is it like to be you?

It is time now to bring this question and the empathy it arouses into our political discourse as a new animating force. If you are appalled at the election outcome and feel the call of hate, perhaps try asking yourself, “What is it like to be a Trump supporter?” Ask it not with a patronizing condescension, but for real, looking underneath the caricature of misogynist and bigot to find the real person.

Even if the person you face IS a misogynist or bigot, ask, “Is this who they are, really?” Ask what confluence of circumstances, social, economic, and biographical, may have brought them there. You may still not know how to engage them, but at least you will not be on the warpath automatically. We hate what we fear, and we fear what we do not know. So let’s stop making our opponents invisible behind a caricature of evil.

We’ve got to stop acting out hate. I see no less of it in the liberal media than I do in the right-wing. It is just better disguised, hiding beneath pseudo-psychological epithets and dehumanizing ideological labels. Exercising it, we create more of it. What is beneath the hate? My acupuncturist Sarah Fields wrote to me, “Hate is just a bodyguard for grief. When people lose the hate, they are forced to deal with the pain beneath.”

I think the pain beneath is fundamentally the same pain that animates misogyny and racism – hate in a different form. Please stop thinking you are better than these people! We are all victims of the same world-dominating machine, suffering different mutations of the same wound of separation. Something hurts in there. We live in a civilization that has robbed nearly all of us of deep community, intimate connection with nature, unconditional love, freedom to explore the kingdom of childhood, and so much more. The acute trauma endured by the incarcerated, the abused, the raped, the trafficked, the starved, the murdered, and the dispossessed does not exempt the perpetrators. They feel it in mirror image, adding damage to their souls atop the damage that compels them to violence. Thus it is that suicide is the leading cause of death in the U.S. military. Thus it is that addiction is rampant among the police. Thus it is that depression is epidemic in the upper middle class. We are all in this together.

Something hurts in there. Can you feel it? We are all in this together. One earth, one tribe, one people.

We have entertained teachings like these long enough in our spiritual retreats, meditations, and prayers. Can we take them now into the political world and create an eye of compassion inside the political hate vortex? It is time to do it, time to up our game. It is time to stop feeding hate. Next time you post on line, check your words to see if they smuggle in some form of hate: dehumanization, snark, belittling, derision.., some invitation to us versus them. Notice how it feels kind of good to do that, like getting a fix. And notice what hurts underneath, and how it doesn’t feel good, not really. Maybe it is time to stop.

This does not mean to withdraw from political conversation, but to rewrite its vocabulary. It is to speak hard truths with love. It is to offer acute political analysis that doesn’t carry the implicit message of “Aren’t those people horrible?” Such analysis is rare. Usually, those evangelizing compassion do not write about politics, and sometimes they veer into passivity. We need to confront an unjust, ecocidal system. Each time we do we will receive an invitation to give in to the dark side and hate “the deplorables.” We must not shy away from those confrontations. Instead, we can engage them empowered by the inner mantra that my friend Pancho Ramos-Stierle uses in confrontations with his jailers: “Brother, your soul is too beautiful to be doing this work.” If we can stare hate in the face and never waver from that knowledge, we will access inexhaustible tools of creative engagement, and hold a compelling invitation to the haters to fulfill their beauty.

Shabbat Lekh L’kha: Go Forth, in Jewish

This week we cannot assert that the Jewish lifelines of Torah study and prayer are irrelevant for our day. This week it is almost unnerving how much the Torah and our Jewish tradition have to say to us to guide our thoughts and decisions.

The haftarah for this Shabbat asserts:

The coastlands look on in fear,

the ends of the earth tremble. (Isaiah 41.5)

There have been those who have told me, in the past and more recently, that they prefer my messages when they do not overtly refer to politics. In that, those who have shared such a thought with me are in good company with our ancestors and with our Jewish community today; we all would like to simply go home and rest at the end of a difficult week, with no thoughts of more that we are called upon to do.

But the Jewish answer is this: you can go tell it to Jeremiah and Isaiah, to Micah and Elijah and Huldah. Our great prophets declared, for then and for always, that to be Jewish is to engage with G*d’s creation in all its forms. G*d is expressed in the world in every human breath and every planetary utterance, and it is hutzpah to assert that we will curate our response to the mitzvah to exclude that which troubles our rest.

We can feel an urgency echoing over the millennia since our ancestors first told the story of Lekh L’kha, pulling at us – and this is the sound of G*d’s voice calling, although you may prefer to call it by some other name. It does not matter what you call it, it only matters that you hear it. 

We have gathered in larger communities and with each other, feeling a new feeling of needing to answer the call of this week’s parashah: Lekh l’kha, “go out from what you know, from the “homeland” of past certainties, the “parents’ house” of assuming safety and security, the “kindred” of spending time only with those who agree.

Our earliest ancestors – from whom we are all descended, not by bloodlines but by intentional and loyal acts – were known as Ivri, “the one who crosses over”. We are called upon this week as they were with the mitzvah, the obligation, of lekh l’kha, “get going”.

And our tradition does not abandon us there but is with us, with wisdom from our past to help us figure out where we are going. The text itself does not say: it simply commands “Get up and go from your homeland, your family home and your kin, and go to a land that I will show you.” (Bereshit 12.1) 

We’ve been here before, and we know what to do and how to do it. We understand that this command speaks to us personally: Lekh l’kha, “go to yourself, for yourself” – what do you need to change in your life to be a more whole person?

We understand that this command speaks to us communally: Lekh “go to yourself” outward, into the world, in order to find what is l’kha, “for you” inside you.

And we understand that this command speaks to us holistically: Lekh l’kha, one cannot go forth without going inside. None of us is alone, and we must not allow anyone to forget that.

This Shabbat let the ancient words of the Prophet Isaiah inspire you and remind you: we have been here before. As Jews, our history and our tradition support and guide us and we do know what to do, even if we do not know where we are going: we must link hands and go forward together. Without demonizing the other, without ceding the high ethical ground, without losing hope.

They draw near and come,

each one helps the other, 

saying to each other, “take courage!” 

Not only for ourselves in our Jewish community, but beyond “kindred” to communities and individuals across all lines of division, we must reach out: 

The woodworker encourages the smith,

The one who flattens with the hammer 

encourages the one who pounds the anvil.

They say to each other, “it is good!”

and they support each other’s work

that it may not fall. (Isaiah 41.5-7)

May it be for you a Shabbat of spiritual and emotional strength gained from Torah, prayer, and g’milut hasadim, acting with loving kindness, that we may not fall.