Letter from Portland

First published in JewThink

On the day I write this, we have witnessed 60 days of daily demonstrations in the streets of downtown Portland Oregon. After the murder of George Floyd by police, it was awe-inspiring to see myriads of thousands rise up across the US. Horrified by the blatant injustice, peaceful crowds in Portland Oregon, masked, observing safe physical distancing, marched to demand mercy and human decency under the message Black Lives Matter. Walking with those who marched across bridges and filled parks, I  knew I was in the presence of something holy.

Something drew many of us to the Justice Center; perhaps its name. There I have seen young people, and some not so young, create meaningful community around a shared consciousness of urgency. Houseless people came together to create “RiotRibs”, feeding thousands of protesters, grilling all night. Pizza and hand sanitizer are shared, musical instruments accompanying the chants (and my shofar) are played, and signs naming too many dead at the hands of U.S. police, over 1000 in 2019, are raised. After two months, the sense of community is real and comforting, and the outrage is incandescent, and growing. The current numbers estimated to join the nightly gatherings downtown are now more than ten thousand.

The spreading sense of “enough is, finally, enough” has to do with the fact that long before the current administration of the U.S. government sent troops to assault Portlanders with tear gas, flash bang devices, LRAD sound weapons, and “less lethal” munitions in order to “to assist with the protection of Federal monuments, memorials, statues, or property,” the very same type of military weapons were already being used by the Portland police.

The police violence regularly wreaked upon our fellow Portland residents is shocking, unjustifiable under any circumstances. And it is an ongoing problem. In December of 2012, the US Department of Justice filed a lawsuit under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 against the City of Portland based on the conduct of the Portland Police Bureau, because the police were the ones committing the violent crimes.

We in Portland Oregon are not unique in this, but Portland is well suited to serve as both a microcosm and a flash point because of Oregon’s uniquely racist, overwhelmingly white history. The state was created as a “racist utopia” which enacted a series of exclusionary laws in its founding. And as we might expect, the racism that discriminated against our Black neighbors blocked Jews from full belonging as well; when a new road system destroyed Black neighborhoods, the old Jewish quarter downtown was also eradicated. It’s no surprise to us, if we’ve been paying attention, that the Portland police are a case study in the upholding of white supremacy “values.” That this extends to impunity to murder is a sickening but logical outcome.

Confronted with this evil, how can a Jew do anything other than protest? Yet we see the Jewish response split between what we might call the “court Jew” response and the Torah response. The “court Jew” response arises from the generationally traumatized, fearful stance of those whose safety was very recently gained, and is none too secure. This is understandable, but has never been a basis for ethical action. As our ancestors, who lived  through that trauma, insisted, our response, whatever the consequences to ourselves, must be the Torah response. Otherwise, as Yeshayahu Leibowitz put it so well, we are worshipping nothing but ourselves.

The Torah response is, as the Prophet Isaiah has been reminding us in clarion tones for the past Three Weeks, is to pursue justice for the vulnerable, and not to stop until, like a flash flood, righteous judgment destroys every evil institution in its path. 

As a Jew, I know how to act: justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live (Deut.16.20). I’ve been schooled by brilliant, dedicated Black activists. Teressa Raiford of Don’t Shoot Portland and Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, the first Black woman to serve in Portland’s City Council, are only two of the powerful Black voices that I seek to center and amplify. As a white person, I am not even aware of the ways in which I float in a sea of white privilege at all times; as a Jew, I’m fully aware that I may drown.

Yet this is no time for measured action. State violence is clear and our answer must be as clear and strong as the alarm call of the shofar. For those Jews who hesitate, pointing out Black anti-Semitism, I challenge you to see that this is a response of selfish fear, not of logic nor empathy. Even if you do regard an anti-Semitic Black person as your enemy, you must nevertheless aid them in raising their life. 

When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it. (Ex. 23.5)

The blood of our Black siblings cries out to us from the ground. With my Portland Interfaith Clergy Resistance I’ve been witnessing at protests with Lenny Duncan, a Black activist pastor: 

The long struggle of Black liberation for 400 years has been the canary in the coal mine in the U.S.’s often fickle relationship with its own soul. Our blood has washed the streets of America from Crispus Atticus, Sandra Bland, now George Floyd. Our blood, our pain, our cries, often ignored by the global community as the petulant cries of a privileged minority in the world’s greatest superpower, are the very screams of liberation that echo across a humanity capable of a torn down Berlin Wall and where freedom has found home in Soweto. (Rev Lenny Duncan)

The streets echo with prophecy from Portland Oregon. The Black voices warn that unless their lives matter, no lives matter: the canary sings its warning in housing, in finance, in coronavirus testing. Despite state violence determined to silence us, we will not be silent until justice is done.

Rabbi Ariel Stone of Congregation Shir Tikvah in Portland Oregon leads the Portland Interfaith Clergy Resistance.

Amidst Tragedy, a Vision of the Possible

It begins on the 9th of Av, if we are willing and able to answer the summons
A time of national self-assessment for the Jewish people
We are counting our way through the Three Weeks – and now the Nine Days – leading to Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av, which translates to “the 9th day of [the month of] Av” is a day in Jewish history of absolute national mourning.  

For generations, the phrase Tisha B’Av has been a watchword, just as “Nine Eleven” has become. Everyone knows what you mean when you say that phrase: horrifying, human-caused death and destruction. But for us, so many years removed from that time, the words have lost a great deal of relevance. 

On this day 1948 years ago* Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman Imperial Army, and although there would be more resistance, the cohesiveness of Jewish life as we knew it, as a self-determining society, was over, and the long awful years of Exile had begun. 

Why should we continue to observe the day? Many have asked. After all, there is a re-established homeland for the Jewish people. Exile is over, or at least now merely self-imposed. What is the purpose of remembering that we were massacred, our home destroyed, our future blighted?

Two thousand years later the Dalaï Lama asked the Jewish people for our insight into survival that might give his Tibetan people hope as they faced their own long exile. It is this: in all our dark nights of the soul, we never concluded that we were powerless. 

This is an incredible source of strength for those who suffer oppression and persecution. But there is a deeper insight beyond it: no matter what happens to us, we have the power to choose our response. The Jewish people’s response was to ask what we might have done differently.  

Even as Yom Kippur is a national day of personal soul-searching, Tisha B’Av has developed into a personal day of national soul-searching. On both days, we set ourselves the difficult task of honestly regarding ourselves.  On Yom Kippur we ask ourselves: in what ways have I failed to strengthen and fulfill my potential as an agent for redemption, of myself and others? On Tisha B’Av we ought to be asking ourselves: in what ways has the Jewish people of which I am a part failed to strengthen and fulfill our potential to bring about redemption in the world? 

The consolation of being a Jew in these days of U.S. moral collapse has been that we are a cohesive community, and we each benefit from our belonging to something larger than ourselves, following a path on which we share strength, meaning, and ways to mark time. This is one of those ways, and we should seize it. 

On this Shabbat, only a few last days remain before the entire Jewish people observes Tisha B’Av next Wednesday night and Thursday (Shir Tikvah details in the Week’s Worth). Tisha B’Av begins a seven week journey toward the High Holy Days and our Yom Kippur opportunity. How might we fulfill the mitzvah, the obligation, of observing Tisha B’Av this year? 

The sacred book recited on Tisha B’Av is Eikha, in English called “lamentations.” Its heartbreaking prose and poetry are attributed to the prophet Jeremiah. In it he urges us to understand that all life is intertwined, and that my actions affect you in ways that the butterfly teaches us when its tiny wings stir up a hurricane. Ignoring the suffering of the vulnerable in our society, he declared, sets that society up for internal rot, and the corruption will then make the society itself as vulnerable as those it refused to care for. 

Anyone unable to see the relevance to our society today has not been paying attention.

Social and even global destruction is not beyond our horrified imagination in these days. It is all we can do not to turn away from our own part in it, looking for someone else to demonize and to blame. But the true courageous genius of the Jewish response to evil, as we have known it as well as anyone, is to refuse to demonize it as beyond human.
All is one, and as we are part of that all that also includes evil, we can touch it, and that means not only that we are at fault, but that we can overcome it. 

The special name of this Shabbat is Hazon, “vision,” for the opening words of the haftarah. The vision is terrifying, because it shows us what happens when we ignore the fundamental ethics that a healthy society requires. The haftarah comes from the words of Isaiah, who’s got our number more than any other prophet: 

וּבְפָרִשְׂכֶ֣ם כַּפֵּיכֶ֗ם אַעְלִ֤ים עֵינַי֙ מִכֶּ֔ם גַּ֛ם כִּֽי־תַרְבּ֥וּ תְפִלָּ֖ה אֵינֶ֣נִּי שֹׁמֵ֑עַ יְדֵיכֶ֖ם דָּמִ֥ים מָלֵֽאוּ׃
And when you lift up your hands,  I will turn My eyes away from you;  Though you pray at length,  I will not listen.  Your hands are stained with crime—
רַחֲצוּ֙ הִזַּכּ֔וּ הָסִ֛ירוּ רֹ֥עַ מַעַלְלֵיכֶ֖ם מִנֶּ֣גֶד עֵינָ֑י חִדְל֖וּ הָרֵֽעַ׃
Wash yourselves clean;  Put your evil doings  Away from My sight.  Cease to do evil;
לִמְד֥וּ הֵיטֵ֛ב דִּרְשׁ֥וּ מִשְׁפָּ֖ט אַשְּׁר֣וּ חָמ֑וֹץ שִׁפְט֣וּ יָת֔וֹם רִ֖יבוּ אַלְמָנָֽה׃ 
Learn to do good.  Devote yourselves to justice;   Aid the wronged.  Uphold the rights and defend the cause of the vulnerable. 

The lesson here is not that any one of us has hands literally “stained with crime.” Like the white supremacy in which the U.S. is bathed every day, the lessons is that we are part of a human organism so vast and so intricately interconnected that we do are not aware of either the good or the ill that our daily acts channel, all without our awareness – but that have consequences nevertheless. 

On this Tisha B’Av, this time of remembering with horror the Holocaust of the ancient Jewish world, may we set ourselves to begin to search out the ways in which we are unaware of the suffering and social destruction of our own day that we cannot see, but nevertheless are part of causing. We don’t mean it, but as Isaiah and Jeremiah would point out from their experience, that’s not an excuse, and certainly will not stave off the impending catastrophe. We are not powerless, most certainly not over our own acts.

I invite you to join me, beginning now in the sorrowful depths of Tisha B’Av. Join me in the hard but necessary work, especially for those of us who live in racist Portland Oregon, of learning about white supremacy. It will be part of our journey to consider how the Jewish community can move from a feeling of being wronged and personally hurt by Black anti-Semitism and Black Power movements, to truly understanding in our hearts and souls the Torah’s command: you shall love the stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger; you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

We are not to love when it is easy and when we are welcomed. We are to find a way to respect, as much as we do our own, the stranger’s struggle for peace, for dignity and for life. May we find consolation in the knowledge that although we have been part of the problem, we are also strong enough to bring about the healing, and that through helping others to heal, we ourselves will find wholeness as well. 

Shabbat shalom

  ___________________
*attention gematria junkies: 1948 is of course the year of the establishment of the modern state of Israel, which ended the exile which began on the 9th of Av 1948 (in Hebrew -!! – ה’תשמ״ח) years ago.

The Torah of Protest: Til The World Be Perfected

“You have been told what is good, and what HaShem requires of you: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with the holy.” Micah 6.8

On the day I write this, we have witnessed 50 days of daily protests in the streets of downtown Portland Oregon. After the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police, it was awe-inspiring to see myriads of thousands rise up across the US. Horrified by the blatant injustice, peaceful crowds observing safe physical distancing demand mercy and human decency under the slogan Black Lives Matter. Walking with those who marched across bridges and filled parks, I knew I was in the presence of something holy.

Something drew many of us to the Justice Center; perhaps its name. There I have seen young people, and some not so young, create meaningful community around a shared consciousness of urgency. Pizza and hand sanitizer are shared, musical instruments accompany are played, signs naming too many dead at the hands of police (over 1000 in 2019) are raised.

The police violence wreaked upon our fellow residents is shocking, unjustifiable under any circumstances. And it is an ongoing problem. In December of 2012, the US Department of Justice filed a lawsuit under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 against the City of Portland based on the conduct of the Portland Police Bureau, because the police were the ones committing the violent crimes.

The blood of our Black sisters and brothers cries out to us from the ground. The world is broken in terribly difficult ways and the work of tikkun olam is a profound, and inconvenient – and sometimes incoherent – struggle of good against evil. Our ongoing obligation (mitzvah) is to learn, to participate, and to care. The words of Portland’s NAACP President summon us to our Jewish dream of a world perfected in the Image of G*d:

“A belief in our perfectibility is written right into our constitution, and defines what it means to be a hopeful nation. We the people, in order to establish a more perfect union…establish justice.” (Pastor E.D. Mondaine)

It is unjust to blame protestors for the violence perpetrated upon them, the press, and the medics with them. It is absurd to decry protestor graffiti when we give no thought to the much more violent graffiti inflicted upon the bodies of protesters with rubber bullets, mace, tear gas, sound weapons, and batons and fists. 

We are not free, in any case, to only support those whose behavior we like.

When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it. (Ex. 23.5)

If an enemy, how much more so a fellow human being with whom you agree and only have an issue with tactics? 

Jewish tradition charts a clear path for us to follow:

If a person of learning participates in public affairs and acts, one strengthens the world. If a person sits at home and says, “Why should I bother with social problems? What do I care about their laws? Why should I trouble myself with the people’s voices of protest? I want peace!,” if one does this, one destroys the world. (Midrash Tanhuma, Mishpatim 2)

The protestor who yells an obscenity at a police officer is not the problem, and certainly not deserving of being shot with a rubber bullet or tear gassed. That protestor is a symptom of social agony; we must learn, and participate, and care, if we would understand the real challenges of our day, and heal them.

The rising up of bodies and spirits in Portland’s streets is a holy moment; the prophetic voice of G*d is heard everywhere downtown. May we hear it. May we obey it. May we rise to this moment.

Shabbat Naso: Lift Every Face

We have passed thirteen weeks of social isolation now; a most disconsolate tally, longer than our Sefirat haOmer count and much more uncertain. We try to remain patient, and struggle to contain our fears of contagion into vessels of reasonable size. Shabbat comes again, once more without the chance of seeing our Torah in our sacred space. Yet many of us have realized that it’s actually seeing each other that we miss the most. Zoom is a blessing, but only a window into each other’s spaces of isolation. We can’t really see each other’s faces; not the way we used to take for granted.

We have passed more than one week of social upheaval now; all over the United States and beyond, the movement to mourn Black lives lost to police violence in the United States draws more people in one place than we have seen since early March. In the days since we have seen the faces of our neighbors suffused with fear and with righteous anger. These faces, too, we do not see well enough if we only see them through a television screen.

Our parashat hashavua for this week is called Naso. It begins with a directive from on high:

נָשֹׂ֗א אֶת־רֹ֛אש  naso et rosh, “take a census” (BaMidbar 4.22). The idiom in Hebrew is “count heads,” or, literally, “lift up the head.” 

Rabbinic commentary understands this to mean that when we take note of people, it’s not enough to count the bodies in the room; we are to take account of each human being, each unique face – it is to look each person in the eye.

There is a longstanding superstition which states that Jews don’t count each other, that it invites bad luck. One might say in this case that all bets are off when it’s G*d telling us to count, yet perhaps there’s something deeper we can learn: perhaps the backlash only comes when we sofer u’moneh people, counting them the way that HaShem is said to count us on Yom Kippur. We are not G*d, after all. If we look from a distance, without locking our eyes on those of the other, perhaps we are, indeed, bringing something evil upon ourselves and those we count.

When we naso “lift up the head” and look into the face, we have a sense of common humanity, of shared spirit, of real connection, that we are learning we can never have on Zoom nor through any kind of medium that stands between us and another. It is an evil thing, our tradition tell us, when we forget that.

On this Shabbat I urge you to take a deep breath, turn off the news and social media, and spend some time looking at the people in your life, those whose lives are presented to you, who move you, whom you love, and whom you don’t.

First, take a moment to really see someone with whom you share your isolation. Either in your imagination or in reality, look them in the eye. Refresh your vision; turn your gaze to appreciation. Name something that you see now that you couldn’t see at first glance.

Second, consider the faces of those whom you would condemn, fear, or otherwise feel distanced from in your life. Remember that they also have eyes, if we learn how to lift up our own faces to meet theirs. 

Finally, look in your mirror. See your self. Look with compassion for the simple, flawed, lovable human being you see there. Take a deep breath. 

Every life is a unique, precious, irreplaceable spark of the holy in the world.

Upon receiving the Emily Georges Gottfried 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Human Rights Commission of the City of Portland. 

A parable from Hasidic Judaism:

Once upon a time, the king’s star gazer saw that the grain harvested that year was tainted. Anyone who would eat from it would go mad. “What can we do?” said the king. “It is not possible to destroy the crop, for we do not have enough grain stored to feed the entire population.”

“Perhaps,” said the star gazer, “we should set aside enough grain for ourselves. At least that way we could maintain our sanity.” The king replied, “If we do that, we’ll be considered crazy. If everyone behaves one way and we behave differently, we’ll be the abnormal ones.

“Rather,” said the king, “we must eat from the crop, like everyone else. But we will make a mark on our foreheads. In this way, whenever we look at each other, we at least will remember that we are mad!”[1]

I am grateful to the Human Rights Commission of the City of Portland for the honor of this award, because their choice to honor me is a decision on their part to lift up the work I do, the work to which I have dedicated whatever strength and support I have to give. In these extraordinary days, as we endure the violence of a dysfunctional society, I am among those who find the meaning of my days in Resistance. There are human beings kept in cages. There are human beings sleeping in the cold. There are human beings who are being murdered by those who are sworn to protect and serve them. And there are people in power who want only to keep their power, who seek to silence or discredit those who cry out in their pain.

This world of ours is full of pain and loss for too many of us. The grain has been tainted, and we are surrounded by madness. To know this is to Resist.

I am a Rabbi, and as such I see my Resistance work in a historic context which reaches directly back to the Prophet Isaiah, who called for justice to roll down as waters, sweeping evil before it as a flash flood obliterates all in its path. I am inspired by the Prophet Jeremiah, who declared to the government that if a society does not care for the vulnerable, it will be without cohesive civic strength, and will decay and collapse under pressures of outside aggression and inner disaffection.

I am a Jew, and I find my strength to Resist as I am grounded in my tradition. There is an ancient Jewish perspective depicting our world as an island of order floating in an endless abyss of chaos. We are taught that the stability of our world depends on three things: study, prayer, and what is called hesed. This last term is difficult to translate, but in a moment I will attempt it.

I believe that the ancient wisdom of these three pillars can help all of us make some kind of ordered sense out of the chaos in which we live.

The first pillar that can help you hold your world steady is that of learning. I cannot act for the greater good simply based upon my own sense of what is good, something that is likely to be tainted by the bias of what is good for me.  Real learning requires the humility of knowing you don’t already have the answer; it requires a willingness to hear all voices and contemplate all perspectives, especially those that contradict the clarity we want so badly to reach. Only slowly do we come to learn that our own well-being is wrapped up in each other’s.

My learning comes from so many brilliant, brave sources: from the Oregon ACLU, from Don’t Shoot Portland, from Empower Portland, from the NAACP, and from Portland United Against Hate. It comes from Portland Resistance, from the Oregon Justice Resource Center, from the Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice, from APANO and IRCO and from Basic Rights Oregon; from Black Lives Matter and from Jewish Voices for Peace and from the Democratic Socialists of America. Downtown at a demonstration, it comes from the Unpresidented Marching Band, from the National Lawyers’ Guild, from Rose City Antifa, and from my own Portland Interfaith Clergy Resistance. I am grateful for all the learning.

The second pillar that holds up our world is prayer, in the best sense of that reality: not the repetition of rote words, but the piercing clarity of finally realizing their meaning.  A good prayer moment is a time of quietness, when one listens for a voice which speaks of the complexity of truth. It is the time after learning when one sees the fullness what one is discovering, and knows it is changing one’s sense of self and purpose.  You may call it meditation, or musing, or a walk in the park, but it requires a willingness to face one’s own soul, and one’s own solitude.

The third pillar is called by the word hesed. This Jewish word refers to the kind of caring that we extend to another person whom we recognize as part of our group; a member of our tribe; a companion upon who we can depend. While the ancient Hebrew term was never meant for a multi-cultural society, nevertheless in it is a key to our survival and thriving: unless we come to see everyone as an equal companion on our path, worthy of the same kindness and support we need, this third pillar that supports our lives will not stand.

The third pillar can only be understood in terms of the first two. The humility that comes with real learning echoes in the quiet moments of a single life, and perhaps to the realization that we are, after all, all connected. In my tradition we are all born with a beautiful and perfect soul, and all of us join in that purity, connected one to the other. My tradition rejects the idea that any human being is less than human – even the human being you find most odious. Every soul has a part to play, every human being is irreplaceably precious.

In this way of thinking, no one can be demonized as “other” and therefore dismissed; someone may be a deeply damaged human being or a highly developed one, but we are all human. This is disconcerting, because it means that I am no different in my potential than a racist or a murderer; on the other hand, it is encouraging, because I’ve got their number – I can find a way to stop that evil, because I recognize it.

It follows, then, that for resisting the effect of that tainted grain we must work together. Your path must be my path or ultimately it is no path. Learning by listening rather than speaking, deferring to others, and sharing space, is essential. Acting with open hands and heart, putting down the defensive posture and the certainty that I know already all I need to know, and to let go of the need to be noticed, to be first, to get credit – because we all get there, or none of us do.

Twenty years ago the sociologist Robert Putnam noticed that less and less of us are able to talk to our neighbors. The scale of our lives doesn’t allow us to stop on our way and chat. Less time spent in each other’s presence translates to less ability to see each other as approachable. Divides between different communities became wider, and within communities as well. Rather than talk to each other, some are now more likely to call the police, expecting them to make up for our increasing lack of ability to learn outside our comfort zone. That comfort zone becomes a pair of blinders, and we don’t even know what we don’t know about each other.

These are terribly upsetting days. Everyone, it seems, has eaten tainted grain, and it’s hard to know which way is forward, and what will confront each of us next in society. In my experience it is too easy to believe that those who disrupt are the problem, when they are actually serving in the role of symptom. There is no cure for what ails us if we don’t consider the symptoms a valuable warning.

I believe it’s not only a Jewish value to stand with those who are being trampled upon, even when they are upset enough to act in ways which are seen as disruptive and unpleasant. No one really wants to spend their time marching downtown when they could be hiking in Forest Park. The traffic jams and the vandalized buildings and the embarrassing headlines should be seen as a signal to all of us that something systemic is very, very wrong, and disruptive and unpleasant change may be inevitable.

One has to be willing to consider the upsetting voice truthful, even prophetic, in the sense of the Prophet Jeremiah. He was jailed, and even thrown down a well for saying upsetting things, such as declaring that his corrupt society would be destroyed. But it was anyway. You do not change the facts because you silence them. A prophetic voice is perhaps simply that voice which says something that we all know is valid, even though we may not wish to think about it.

No one really wants to think about the fact that the entire harvest is tainted, and that radical change may be necessary, lest the pillars give way and our world sink into chaos. Yet the work of resisting the tainted grain will always be uncomfortable, upsetting, and disruptive.

The Rabbis said to Rav Hamnuna Zuti at the wedding of Mar the son of Ravina, “sing for us!”

He sang, “Woe for us that we are to die!”

They said to him, “what shall we respond?”

He sang, “Where is the Torah and the Mitzvah that will protect us?”[2]

A mitzvah is a sacred obligation. Someone like me, given access to the dais because of my position, whether I have earned it or not, is obligated to use that advantage for the nurturing and thriving of all the life on this dirt raft we share together. The mitzvah of being present downtown at a protest is to simply act upon my belief that in a city which respects and protects all its residents, all of us should be equally able to be present, at all times, anywhere. I come downtown whenever I can (note to organizers: please plan a Sunday sometimes.  Jews like me take Shabbat off).

I am downtown and I will be present where voices are raised against the violence we would rather not see, because it disturbs and disrupts us and we can’t fix it all. I will continue to join those who do something, anything to voice protest, because I find my common path to lie with those who are raising up the prophetic voice of our day in declaring that

Killing is evil.

Compassion is good.

Violence is evil.

Patience is good.

Separating children from their parents is evil.

Empathy is good.

Using tear gas is evil.

Listening is good.

Racism is evil.

Humility is good.

Justice is not justice if it is just us.

This is what I think works: getting grounded in one’s own traditions of finding one’s way and one’s balance. Keep learning and seeking community, so that we can stay strong and centered in these days. Figure out your own Shabbat, your own down time, and use it to think deeply about what you are learning and doing. Keep learning; try to get used to being uncomfortable. Find a delight in learning that all you thought you knew on an issue was actually wrong, and now you know better. Remember the kindness and mutuality of hesed, and try to be gentle with others, and with yourself when you realize how much more work there is to come before we can bring in a good harvest of nurturing, healthy grain, and celebrate it together.

Thanks for this honor: it really belongs to all from whom I have learned, and I will try to be worthy of it. I do hope that it’s neither indicative of the lifetime I have yet before me, nor the achievement toward which I still hope to grow.

[1] Tales of Rabbi Nakhman of Bratslav

[2] BT Berakhot 31a

Shabbat VaYeshev: Minority Status

Hanukkah begins on Sunday December 2 at sundown. We always find it in proximity to the parashat hashavua which we study this week, VaYeshev. The word means “he returned” but we might also read it as “here we go again.” One month after the massacre of our fellow Jews joined in Shabbat prayer in Pittsburgh, we prepare to kindle Hanukkah lights with a somewhat sharper sense of our minority status and its implications. The tiny little light we begin with on the first night shines this year against a very dark night.
VaYeshev recounts the experience of Jacob, Leah, Rakhel, and their families, a large camp of kin who travel with flocks and herds, camping outside of the city walls of Shekhem. Their experiences of the people of Shekhem are varied: some take advantage of their helpless immigrant state, others apparently try to befriend them – but no trust grows between the two groups. A violent end to the story forces the camp to move hurriedly away, and they resume their homeless walk.
One enduring lesson of this parashah is the difficultly of minority status. Our ancestors wandering in medieval Europe knew this well: their survival always depended upon the whims and moods of others. In our own day, we who have passed as white and participated in the hegemony of this nation have recently awakened to the fact that our own whims and moods have defined the lives of targeted minorities in our own midst. We have recently been reminded that we are also vulnerable, in a very powerful way. Not long ago we were going about our lives, as oblivious as possible to unpleasantness happening not far away. We should be grateful to Black Lives Matter and many other justice-based organizations for welcoming our support, now that we’re starting to wake up, and for their leadership in discerning what paths might best help targeted minorities survive in our own day.
For us Jews, Hanukkah brings us the lesson every year that to survive as a minority means to be awake to the sources of our strength. The Books of the Maccabees (not included in the Jewish canon) chronicle the experiences of a happily assimilated minority – the Jews living in the Greek empire – coming under pressure to renounce distinctive practices. We ourselves know this pressure, in a more subtle way, when we are socially snubbed for being Jewish, or for not eating certain things, or for not celebrating certain holidays. In a city in which the public school system has ruled the Christmas tree to be a non-religious symbol and therefore suitable for school hallways, clarifies for us the local impact of the fact that we constitute only two percent of the U.S. population.
The Jewish experience as a minority has been summarized as developing in three stages: (1) the demarcation of ghettoes expressed the attitude “you cannot live among us as Jews’; the expulsions demonstrated (2) the declaration that “you cannot live among us.” Finally in the twentieth century we saw the ultimate declension: (#) “you cannot live.” To our horror, in our recent relative safety we have lost track of the fact that it is not only against us that these statements and their attendant violence have been perpetrated, and now we see that even those of us who were able to separate ourselves from the violence once done to us, now done to others, are no longer able to secure that separation.
We are back there again, feeling unsafe because we are Jews. There is no satisfaction in the voices of those who say “I told you so,” only resignation and sadness. Let the Hanukkah lights this year illuminate what we must learn:
One candle sheds a very small light: we will not be safe if we attempt to keep only ourselves safe.
One candle is quickly blown out unless it finds protection larger than itself: we cannot depend on our own resources alone.
As each night of Hanukkah passes, may the growing light inspire us to consider how we might work with other minorities for the safety of all.
And may that light shed the necessary illumination, so that we are able to see each other, and the support and strength our tradition offers us when we come together.