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

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Shabbat and Pesakh and more, oh my!

Hag sameakh! Today and tomorrow are hagim, holy days that end our Pesakh Festival. Jewish offices are closed today and tomorrow, and Passover ends tomorrow evening at sundown with the end of Shabbat. On this Shabbat, the Shemini or 8th day of the holiday, we depart from our usual Torah parashat hashavua (reading of the week) and read from the Book Devarim. The text includes reminders of the mitzvot associated with the holiday, including travel, offerings, and inclusion. In every Jewish community, not only do we devote time and energy to its observance for ourselves, but also those who have the wherewithall must take care to ensure that those who do not have are also able to celebrate the holiday.
It’s interesting in this context to note that the Yizkor prayer for our beloved dead is recited on this eighth day of Pesakh as well. In Jewish tradition, the dead are considered impoverished – for they have no ability to do mitzvot. When we include them in our prayers we bring them back into the living circle of us mitzvah-doers, and when we give tzedakah in their memory (another Pesakh tradition) we cause good to happen in the world in their name. This is why the yizkor prayer includes this phrase: “may their souls be bound up in eternal memory.”
Today, Friday, we are in the 6th day of the Sefirat haOmer. The mystical pattern offered us for this day invites us to meditate upon the intersection of Yesod and Hesed.
Yesod is the foundation of the individual and of the world. It is associated with loyalty and reliability, as well as with generativity and with the genitalia, the seat and source of physical life.
Hesed is the emotional expression of overflowing love and the mercy it brings; the feeling of one’s arms opened wide in love and trust to the world and in generosity without stint.
It’s a lot to take in, but it comes down to one simple lesson: in the face of death, only love matters. On this Shabbat, the last day of Pesakh 5778, consider what tzedakah you can do to keep a loved memory alive; what mercy you can offer the living to increase love in the world; and who is in need of the generosity and richness you have in such abundance.
Shabbat shalom and hag Pesakh sameah,

Shabbat Shemot: A World Full of Suffering

We begin reading the Book of Exodus (Shemot, “Names”, in Hebrew) in the Torah this week; in the opening scenes, our ancestors find ourselves in a developing nightmare – and, unlike the dreams of Genesis, we can’t just wake up from it. 

At first, all seemed well in our new homes in Egypt. But within the bloom of our success were found the seeds of trouble.

  וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, פָּרוּ וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ וַיַּעַצְמוּ–בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד; וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ, אֹתָם.

The children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them.

  וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ-חָדָשׁ, עַל-מִצְרָיִם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע, אֶת-יוֹסֵף.

Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph.

  וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-עַמּוֹ:  הִנֵּה, עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–רַב וְעָצוּם, מִמֶּנּוּ.

And he said unto his people: ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us;

  הָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה, לוֹ:  פֶּן-יִרְבֶּה, וְהָיָה כִּי-תִקְרֶאנָה מִלְחָמָה וְנוֹסַף גַּם-הוּא עַל-שֹׂנְאֵינוּ, וְנִלְחַם-בָּנוּ, וְעָלָה מִן-הָאָרֶץ.

come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there befalleth us any war, they also join themselves unto our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land.’ (Exodus 1.7-10)

For generations, Jewish commentaries have focused upon verse 8: “a king who knew not Joseph” to explain what happened; the lack of memory not only of those in authority, but of our neighbors as well, obliterated the good will we used to know, and allowed evil to begin to grow. Thus we understood the ensuing enslavement of our people to be a result of narrow perspectives, short memories, and the age-old fear of “not enough to go around”. But we are still left with a troubling question: why is it that the new king assumes that there will be trouble? and why does he respond to his fear with oppression? 

“Why?” is not always a question so easily answered. But unless we ask it, and search for truth in the answers we find, the evil we face will not be faced down.

Why are French satirists murdered? why Jewish hostages? why Syrian refugees? 

What makes a man or woman capable of killing an innocent stranger? 

What madness is this, in this world of ours?

The Jewish people unfortunately developed a real expertise in the mystery of cruelty and evil. During the terrible years of Exile we faced mystifying murder again and again, and easy, facile, untrue answers such as “we must have done something to deserve it” satisfied only those who need any answer rather than face a terrifying mystery. 

The Jewish mystics developed a much more troubling answer. Who knows if it is true? but it has a ring of truth to it. It is taught in kabbalah that our world is made up of ten sefirot, ten characteristics or attributes, that echo through all we are and do; among them is that of hesed, loving kindness, and gevurah, strict judgment. 

Gevurah, the attribute of strict judgment, is the source of our courage and our ability to find strength to fight evil. But it is also taught that evil itself comes into the world through this attribute, when it is mistakenly – unjustly, cruelly – applied. Judgment without mercy, judgment without thought for the individual situation – this kind of judgment opens the door to evil in the world.

This teaching offers us a way to inquire after the evil in our world. What opened the door to it? what unjust judgment was passed, and when? For Jews, to inquire is to look into Torah and consider the challenges its teachings offer us. One of those is the doctrine that sin will reverberate for three, and even four, generations, before the pain of the evil created by that sin abates.

Then there is evil that seems to defy even this doctrine; inexplicable suffering, cutting innocent lives short, leaving us who are left to witness such evil wondering if the universe is, perhaps, after all, a cold, meaningless void.

To this the mystics offer a teaching that is a mix of despair and hope. We balance our lives and our relationships between different attributes, sometimes more kindness, sometimes more judgment, sometimes more wisdom, sometimes more endurance. Some of us tend more toward one characteristic or another, and that is our own private struggle for a lifetime; in the next lifetime, that of our offspring and students, that tendency will become part of their lives, and they will balance it in their own way. 

There is no answer to the why of such a personal tendency. There is another teaching without a why, a teaching that our universe is also a lifetime, that also tends toward one attribute or another. The universe before ours expressed one or another of the attributes above all the rest, and ours does as well.

Unfortunately, it is taught, our universe was born into Gevurah, and the doorway that lets evil in cannot be barred. We see evidence of inexplicable callousness, cruelty, and other forms of evil every day.

It will take all the kindness of which we are capable to meet this evil, and hope to balance it, sometimes, and to do what we can to push our world toward the next universe – whose name is Tiferet, Compassion. So on a day when you don’t understand why there is such evil in the world, know that your answer can only be this: to be even more kind, randomly, hopefully, stubbornly faithful to the truth that even if the universe is a void, it doesn’t matter. We have to help each other create meaning for our lives anyway.