Shabbat Balak: Do You Know Where You Stand? Do You Know Why?

Thousands of years ago, a prophet appearing in our parashat hashavua, Bil’am ben Be’or, stood on a high place overlooking the tents of the people of Israel. He had been tasked with cursing the people, at the order of King Balak, who had hired him. Balak feared the presence of these immigrants at his border and it was Bil’am’s job to drive them away.
I write you this erev Shabbat email from the front line of @OccupyICEPDX, literally from the line of chairs set in front of the yellow police tape separating pro-immigrant, anti-ICE protesters from DHS police.
People on our side of the line are sitting in camp chairs, standing holding signs, reading, handing each other water. The poiice must stand next to the cars blocking the road, in full uniform, taking turns standing in the sun. This is now the second day of this confrontation. While the protesters and their tents were careful never to block the road or any access, even to the bike route, the Federal DHS has blocked the street with cars marked Federatl Protective Service Police. The word is that OHSU lawyers are working to force DHS to allow traffic through. For the meantime, the protesters are aware that those who need to commute to the south waterfront are losing patience with the situation, and they can’t help but blame all sides – as if all sides were equally at fault!
Why are the people depicted in this photo there? What inner sense of certainty does a person need to have in order to live in a protest encampment for over a week now? What kind of ethical clarity moves those of us who seek to support them? For that matter, what is the person in the uniform, wearing riot gear, armed with a gun, need to know with all his or her heart to be true?
Well, we might say, they are Americans – by which we mean citizens of the United States; there are many other Americans in South and North America. Many of us who oppose the acts of ICE would say that we seek to uphold the true values of the U.S., as enshrined in Emma Lazarus’ poem on the Statue of Liberty: “give me your tired, your poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores. Send these, the homeless, tempest-toseed, to me. I lift my light beside the golden door.”
Emma Lazarus was born in 1849 into a large Sefardi Jewish family and well-educated from an early age; one of the early influences upon her life and beliefs was that of the Civil War. Although she wrote much poetry and was a social activist, it took the immigration of Jews from Russia, her people, to inspire her to her greatest work, and lead her to create the poem that sums up the special nature of the United States as a haven for immigrants.  (Read more about her here.)
Although she was very much a patriot and very much a citizen of the United States, it was only when Emma Lazarus deepened her sense of identity as a Jew and a member of her people that she was able to do her greatest work.
We find ourselves in a curiously similar state today. Many of us “just feel that we have to do something” as people who are citizens of the U.S. Like Emma Lazarus, we are lucky enough to also be Jews, and to have a strong and ancient tradition in which to ground ourselves. It is in this older, multi-valent tradition that we will find the certainly and ethical clarity that will root us when the controversy over how to be an “American” is violent and angry.
Jews can quote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with the best of them; thank G*d, we also have justice, justice you shall pursue (Deut. 16.18) and you shall not oppress the stranger (Ex.23.9). With the Jewish value on one hand and the U.S. ethic on the other, we can know more clearly where we stand, and where we should.
Some will march tomorrow morning, on Shabbat; others will study Torah, or daven. May we all know where we stand and why as clearly as possible, lest our attempt to stand for something be as misunderstood as poor Bil’am, who wasn’t even there because he believed in what he was doing, only because someone else invited him.
Advertisements

Shabbat Shelakh L’kha: There Are People Living There

Once again, the scouts of Sh’lakh-L’kha are left holding the bag.

Every year around this time we Jews who engage in weekly Torah study again reach this story, of the moment when our ancestors stood at the verge of the land they had traveled to find, the land of their ancestral home. Scouts sent ahead to reconnoitre come back from their mission and report in. Ten of them say this: the land does indeed flow with milk and honey.

But please know this: there are people living there.

The other two scouts discount the report; in their opinion everything will be fine, if the people will only trust in G*d.

Jewish tradition blames the ten scouts for calumniating the Land, and for causing the people of Israel to doubt, and then to rebel against, the leadership that had brought them to this point. Two thousand years of commentary has piled it on: they brought bias into what should have been a neutral report. They were guilty of cowardice. They aided and abetted idolatry! In short, their honest voices are covered in loud, angry blame. The two scouts that would have us close our eyes and trust are held up as the only appropriate model.

Those of us who have come to oppose Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territory beyond the Green Line might sometimes feel like those ten scouts. Yes, we carry a difficult message, and we do get blamed, sometimes loudly, as a result. Jewish anxiety over Israel is profoundly deep, and we have good reason to fear an onslaught of anger that is out of proportion, and hurtful.

Rabbis have lost jobs, many Jews have suffered social ostracism and more, for speaking the message of the scouts aloud: there are people living there.

For rabbis, I believe that we must remember that we are ordained not rabbi for a town or a community, but “rabbi in Israel”. Of what purpose is our work if we do not honor the primary relationship we share with all the history, the people, and the land of Israel by acting with all the integrity of which we are capable? As Rabbi Israel Salantar, the founder of Musar (an early modern school of Jewish ethics), said, please pardon his gendered language, “A rabbi whose community does not disagree with him is not really a rabbi, and a rabbi who fears his community is not really a man.”

I believe it to be an essential part of my rabbinic duty to respectfully and clearly share my thoughts, concerns and hopes for Israel in ways that teach Torah. I’ve encountered rabbis who share my views but are hesitant to speak out about them to their constituencies, worried about offending anyone or failing to maintain impartiality. Yes, there will be strong and negative feelings from some, but others welcome the chance to hear more than one honest rabbinic opinion about the best way forward for our beloved Israel.

Jews with right wing views tell me that they feel a passionate responsibility to speak out for the sake of Zion. Jews with more moderate views feel that responsibility just as keenly, do they not? Further, as a citizen of the United States, I know that healthy discourse requires more than one thoughtful, caring perspective. We do ourselves and our people a disservice when we allow one viewpoint a monopoly on public opinion. My silence might lead those who hear me to believe that their only options are to be hawkish or stay silent.

We are Jews, and we must seek out Torah. We are not required to be political experts, but we should be learning every ethical Jewish text we can find about Israel, from Jeremiah, to Kamtza and bar Kamtza, to the simple Torah text that commands us to help our enemy raise the mule that has fallen under its load.

The most sensitive issues are where our learning is most needed.  An end to the occupation and a peaceful resolution to the conflict are vital to safeguarding Israel’s future. We dare not allow ourselves to turn away from our people’s homeland, and so we need to re-learn, and insist upon, makhloket l’shem shamayim, the art of talking honestly, openly and respectfully about the challenges Israel faces. We can’t let raised voices deter us from our duty to guide our people in the moments when they most need our support.

For Zion’s sake I will not be silent.  – Isaiah 62.1

(This d’var Torah appeared in the Times Of Israel in 2016 as an op-ed.)

Shabbat BeHa’alot’kha: Lift It Up

Last week the parashah began with the command to lift up every face; this week, the word beha’alot’kha, “in your lifting up” refers to raising up the lights of the menorah, the seven-branched lamp designed by G*d, according to Jewish tradition, to illuminate the holy place.
To lift up the face is to see the eyes, and to take account of each human soul. To lift up light is, literally, to raise a light and to cause it to shine far and wide. The two parshiot together summon us to an act both lovely and heroic: to look each other in the eye, and to lift up the light we find in each eye so that our combined light can illuminate the darkness. What more relevant message could the Torah bring to us in our time…
Nishmat adam ner HaShem – “the human soul is G*d’s light,” says the Psalmist. Each of us has a soul like a firefly, briefly, blinkingly, lighting up our surroundings. Seven of us – the count in a menorah – shed a bit more light. How many menorot might it take to light up the despair some of us might feel on any given day, these days? Jewish tradition says that the critical mass is a minyan of ten. We know there is strength and support in numbers (and indeed, we are in the Book of Numbers).
The wisdom of our ancestors offers us two linked lessons on this Shabbat, derived from the juxtaposition of last week’s and this week’s parashiot. First: every pair of human eyes bears the light of a human soul. To forget this, and to demonize any human being, is to lose hold of the spiritual path that we follow and that supports us. Second: each one of us who so chooses can light up the world, just a little bit, by standing up in a place of darkness to share our light.
That might mean intervening in lashon hara’, when you hear someone speaking in a way that dehumanizes any other person; it might mean a donation in support of causes that shed light; and it might mean joining me, if you are in Portland, this Sunday June 3 downtown (do you remember how we gathered, so many of us, last year on Sunday June 4?) to declare that we will not cede our public spaces to those who preach hate and exclusion.
The great human being and rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, joined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr marching in Selma. Afterward he said that he felt that his legs were doing the praying at that time. This Shabbat, we will pray to remind ourselves of the values we seek to raise up by the way we live. On Sunday, pray with your legs if you can, and join me in raising up the light of those values in the public spaces of our city, that so badly need the light of love that values every human soul.