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 Zakhor: Fear of G*d

The learning of this week’s parashah all comes down to a confrontation between Shifra and Pu’ah, on one side, and Amalek, on the other. Shifra and Pu’ah were the Hebrew midwives whom Pharaoh commanded to carry out his plan to eradicate the Hebrews by killing all the boy babies as they were born. But the midwives did not follow the command:

וַתִּירֶאןָ הַמְיַלְּדֹת, אֶת-הָאֱלֹ-ם, וְלֹא עָשׂוּ, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֲלֵיהֶן מֶלֶךְ מִצְרָיִם;  וַתְּחַיֶּיןָ, אֶת-הַיְלָדִים.

The midwives feared G*d, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them; they saved the male babies alive. (Ex.1.17)

The midwives “feared G*d.” In contrast, as we are reminded in the special reading associated with our parashah this week, the Amalekites, a tribe living in the Negev wilderness, did not.

זָכוֹר, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לְךָ …

Remember what Amalek did to you…

אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל-הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ—וְאַתָּה, עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ; וְלֹא יָרֵא, אֱלֹהִים.

how he met you by the way, and attacked you from behind,

all the weak, straggling in the rear, and you were faint and weary; he had no fear of G*d.(Deut.25.1-18)

The great Torah teacher and commentator Nehama Leibowitz asks, “what is the common denominator of these contexts? What is the character of the fear of G*d that animates or should animate [us]? …the criterion of yir’at shamayim, G*d-fearingness, may be measured by one’s attitude toward the weak and the stranger.” (Studies in Devarim p. 253.)

In a seeming contradiction, we are to remember to forget. We are commanded to remember what Amalek did, but we are also commanded to blot out the memory of it in the world and “under heaven”. There is only one way to do that, and it is not through a simple act of forgetting. The act of blotting out the memory must be an ongoing effort. This is an interesting variation on the famous dictum that “those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.” Our tradition teaches that Amalek will appear in the behavior of human beings throughout the generations, and we are to remember that it is up to us to resist it wherever and whenever we see it.

The only way that we can eradicate the lack of yirat shamayim is to nurture it, in ourselves and in others whom we teach and for whom we serve as role models. To be G*d-fearing is to uphold standards of common human decency, by reaching back to the source that informed them – religious ethics such as “love your neighbor as yourself” and defending them against cynicism and despair. Jews, as Rabbi Nakhman of Bratslav famously said, are forbidden to despair.

This Shabbat is named for this imperative – Zakhor – “Remember!”  We are commanded to remember the signs of Amalek, and to keep an eye out for all that would attack, demean and take advantage of the weak and the stranger, and resist it. Amalek is rising in our day, and the signs are there in the social assault on all who are politically or economically weak, the refugees and immigrants who are strangers among us, the minority, the historically disadvantaged, the poor.

So much to do. In this holy work, watch out for your yetzer hara’. Your evil inclination will whisper to you that it’s too much, and you have to withdraw, you’re overwhelmed. My people, we have not yet begun to be tested. As we settle in to this struggle, each of us must find a way to draw strength to stay engaged. We are urged by the ancient wisdom of our people:

It is not up to you to finish the work, yet neither are you free to desist from it. (Pirke Avot 2.21)

Take care of yourself; like Shifra and Pu’ah, figure out which mitzvah is yours to do, and stay focused on it.* The great Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik ז״ל once asked, “how can one have yirat shamayim, Awe of Heaven, without beholding the Heavens?” Keep your eyes on what matters, and let your eyes be filled with that which lifts you up – what you believe, what you trust, that which stirs your Awe. 

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

Shabbat Matot-Masei: the Long, Confusing, Chaotic Road to Freedom

In this week’s double parashah we wind up the Book of BaMidbar. The word bamidbar, actually three in English, is usually translated “in the wilderness”. But the root word, dalet bet reysh, can as easily be understood as “speaking”. Our ancestors wandered across a land that was unsettled, and that they saw as chaotic and uncontrollable. We, similarly, wander in a wilderness of words. They come at us from so many directions, and so many sources: media, social media, neighbors, friends, family, community, books, and, of course, from the inside of our own heads. Uncontrollable, and often chaotic in their impact upon us.

In parashat Masei, “journeys”, the Torah recounts every stop our ancstors made on their trek from Egypt to the Land of Israel. Similarly, every community that shares a sense of common purpose may be lucky enough for its members to feel that they are going somewhere, toward some vision of a promise of an endpoint. And for every community, no doubt, the story that is told afterward makes sense of what may feel at the lived moment very much like trackless chaos. No doubt there were many days of confusion along the way, even though now the Torah simply lists each campsite, so calmly that it seems boring.

What were the Civil Rights days of the 1960s like? We look back now and see a narrative, or more than one, and it seems that people must have been so clear about their vision, so much so that one expects to actually see a path open up under their feet as they progress toward Equal Rights goals more visible now, even if not yet achieved. But what was that time really like? no doubt, there was chaos, and a sense of trackless wilderness. It is only afterward that we can see where we were, as we tell the story.

As we tell the story, we give it meaning by the way we tell it, with the perspective we gain from the struggle on the way, but only after it is over, and the dust has settled, as we can see again. Rabbi Nakhman of Bratslav taught that we, each of us, is a portrait that is finished only on our last day of life; only then do we see what we have created.

We don’t know the end of the story through which we are living now. We don’t know the meaning of the Jewish story of transition from the Rabbinic Era to whatever we’re entering now in our time. We can’t know the outcome of the Civil Rights Struggle of our day, or even the election cycle only a few months from now. And we are not privy to the Omniscient Narrator perspective on the Land and State of Israel. In all these cases, the final outcome is unknown, because we are still shaping the portrait through our choices.

We can only hope and pray to be as mindful and intentional as we can, with each other’s help, and to remember that each of our acts toward the good is needed. While we are wandering in a chaos of confusing and painful social change, which for many of us is accompanied by religious alienation and economic struggle, let’s try, as it is said in the Black struggle for Civil Rights, to keep our eyes on the Prize. And as Jews put it, to take care that each step carries us closer to the vision that we call Yerushalayim Shel Ma’alah, “the Ideal Jerusalem”. Keep kindness in your mind and your heart always.

We finish this book of the Torah the way we always do: with hazak, hazak, v’nithazek, “be strong, and of good courage, and let us strengthen each other”.