Shabbat Shemot: Listen and See that All Is One

we have met the enemy and they are us – cartoonist Walt Kellly in the comic strip Pogo

What is the cause of uprisings? the seed of violence? what did we see on Wednesday in Washington D.C., and all spring and summer in Portland?

Others will turn to political scientists and sociologists; to these sources of wisdom we are fortunate to add another resource: the Torah. Torah in its widest sense, which invites us to seek wisdom with which to respond to the challenges of our days thoughtfully, from our people’s experience and insights.

A new book of the Torah greets us on this Shabbat Shemot. (Even the way we name our weeks when we tell time centers Torah and its weekly offerings of consolations and challenges to our way of thinking!)

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “look, the Israelite people are far too much for us. Let us deal wisely with them, lest they increase, and in the event of war, join with our enemies and rise from the ground.” – Exodus 1.8-10

Once, Joseph had saved Egypt from famine. But the beginning of parashat Shemot, the first parashah of the book of Shemot, called Exodus in English, describes a time long after. Now the Israelites living in the midst of Egyptian society are suspect. They seem dangerous. After consultation, Pharaoh’s ministers advised him to murder every baby Hebrew boy by throwing them into the Nile
“because they are too much for us.”

Why would the Israelites become suspect?
Why were they suddenly seen as possibly dangerous? 

The Torah, and the midrash investigating the deeper meanings of its words, point to the very words: this people are too many for us, they might be our enemies. This is the timeless, fearful rhetoric of us vs. them.

The Jewish response to this is to suggest something far deeper and more difficult to fully grasp, and it is the true meaning of the Shema – that we are all One. There is no us vs them; only shifting groups that change and coalesce around thinking and feeling processes that we are only partly aware of in ourselves and around us.

Unless you are willing to try to understand that, you will never be able to grasp the insight that true monotheism offers you – the kind Isaiah tried to teach us:

יוצר אור ובורא חושך עשה שלום ובורא רע אני ה עושה כל אלה
Shaper of Light, Creator of Darkness, Maker of Peace and Creator of Evil; I HaShem do all these things. – Isaiah 45.7

To understand the central tenet of Jewish spiritual culture is harder than we might understand at first grasp. It tells us that there is no such thing as radical individualism. The mystics compare this to a drop of water in a stream; each of us is such a drop of water. We are barely aware of the ocean in which all our acts are contained, carried and influenced. We are, as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner put it in his writing, all linked by Invisible Lines of Connection.

More than one psychologist has suggested that the self was never meant to carry its own weight. We are herd animals. We would rather feel safe at home in a bad agreement than alone in righteousness, for good reasons: one who is alone is in danger of death – or the lesser death of ostracism – at the hands of the many. That is the spirit of the mob this week at the U.S. Capitol; it is the same spirit in the Klan. It is the same human spirit in a youth group and a football team and a group of anarchists breaking windows at night downtown.

We are all the same in our basic needs. We are all the same in our humanity. We are all influenced by factors in our makeup, our history, our community – and there are so many that we are completely unaware of! 

It follows that there is no meaningless violence – only causes that we do not as yet understand – or do not wish to understand. We may feel a certain leaning to condemn one more than the other. In such moments we do well to remember that none of us can claim to know Truth, but only a partial truth. 

As white supremacy expresses itself in police violence against Black bodies, so does alienation from social values similarly express itself – in violence that we want to distance ourselves from for our own safety.

Yet we all own all human acts, those we are aware of and those we are not, those we commit and those we witness. Yom Kippur puts these words in our mouths: for the sin we committed on purpose and for the sin we committed by mistake, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement. Atonement means at – one – ment, recognizing that we live within and among, not separate from, all that makes us recoil as well as all that makes us happy.

To believe in meaningless vandalism from individual thugs who can be punished individually for their individual stupidity or anger is the final absurdity – of which, alas, too many of us are convinced. It allows us to deny our own complicity in the state of our society. 

Jewish tradition is braver than that, and in every honest moment of study and prayer we are invited to step from safe space into that brave space. Brave Space – actually a recently developed concept to improve our thoughtfulness about how we behave in diverse community – is a useful way of fact-checking the truth you feel safe with, and allows you to consider how you might grow beyond your current definition of personal safety, in ways that might allow others to feel more safe with your support. Learn more here: Fakequity 

The Shema should remind us of our link to everything else in Creation every time we recite it – and if we are not Jews who daven regularly, we might be those who recite it at bedtime, and know that it has also become the cry of defiance of our martyrs. Why should it have become a sacred utterance if not because it stands beyond our ability to fully grasp, and therefore is always urging us to do better, to think more compassionately and with more humility, seeking the wisdom which our tradition tells us is the path to peace?

In this week of national horror and disgrace, to be overwhelmed is to fail in our response. The Shema is defiance because it calls us to recognize and accept our part, both in the evil and in the good that we can rally to overcome evil by our small, every day actions, and by recognizing how they add up. That’s what the gift of our mitzvot are, and they matter more now than ever. No, that’s wrong: they always matter; it’s we who must change.

Hazak, hazak, v’nithazek – let us be strong and strengthen each other

May Day Portland 2017

On Monday, some of us gathered at the Park Blocks at 1pm. We witnessed an hour of dancing – skilled indigenous dancers and drummers in beautiful costumes demonstrating their art in honor of the international workers’ day. Then at about 2pm we heard an hour’s worth of speakers: leaders and activists in communities such as immigrant, Muslim, migrant worker, and labor union – including a woman who tearfully asked if we could help her free her son from detention, since his own small son was missing him for these last six months.
Did you know that the observance of May 1 as International Workers’ Day began in Chicago in 1886? You can learn more here:
All this time, people continued to gather. The light rain had stopped and many milled about in the growing crowd, greeting each other, distributing newsletters and petitions. The May Day Coalition had brought together so many groups under its umbrella for the gathering that it took two speakers five minutes to read all the organizations’ names. We were asked to donate toward the work of creating solidarity among so many, and all who gave got a button to wear.
Then around 3.15pm it was time to line up in the street and begin the march. Just in front of me a man with a megaphone began a regular chant: what do we do when immigrants are attacked? “stand up, fight back!” we responded. What do we do when women are attacked? “stand up, fight back!” He included all you might have suggested to him: LGBTQ, Muslim, Trans people and more – a long list, unfortunately, of all those who have been targeted and made to feel vulnerable.
We carried signs: הנני Here we are – Jews for Justice; Jews demand צדק, justice. I wore my tallit for greater visibility, and ended up giving an interview to a nice young Jewish woman from the socialist workers’ newspaper. A young Jewish man came over to say “Hello to Shir Tikvah!” Parents, children, even some dogs marched (one wore a sandwich board). Many people stood on the sidewalks as we passed by – I saw a few members of our congregation in the mix. We passed a young man holding a case of Pepsi and holding out one of the cans (if you are unaware of the reference, look here).
I had an appointment I had to keep on the East Side, and the women I was marching with also needed to get places, so at a corner where the march made a turn, we headed toward our cars. It was not until I had reached the place where I was to meet a local civil rights attorney (who is kindly helping me to learn Portland racial relations and local government politics) that I had a chance to check my trusty Twitter feed and see that the march was disintegrating into chaos.
I was sad, and extremely disappointed. Sad for the organizers of our local expression of support for International Workers’ Day, and for all those who had worked and organized to be part of this celebration of workers’ solidarity. It was truly amazing and heartening to see the number of different groups that had come out.
And disappointed in the extreme: at the small minority of people who clearly were bent on destruction from the moment the march began. Men – some young, some old enough to know better – with megaphones, hurling abuse at the police who stood alongside the march. Some were content with words, but others were eager to do damage.
I am also disappointed in the police, for behavior that is reminiscent of that which ended the first May Day gathering in Haymarket Square in Chicago. On that day, one projectile aimed at police caused them to target the entire crowd for reprisal. Yesterday we saw the same indiscriminate escalation from the police, including the throwing of tear gas – by definition a weapon that cannot discriminate between the thug and the peaceful marcher.
How to understand all of this? As Jews, how to respond?
Although we were immigrants, some of us don’t feel that connection viscerally. And although our ancestors in the U.S. were radical, many of us feel ourselves far distant from that identity. We don’t celebrate the names of the Jews who led the fight for fair working conditions, who formed unions, and who led strikes and walkouts – consider even the name of their newspaper, the Forward!!!  We today, distanced from the Jewish culture and traditions that nurtured their ethical energy, aren’t as confident that we know a Jewish way forward for ourselves – and so we go to all the safe, high-profile (and pretty much white) marches on Shabbat, ironically enough. Although we have to leave our Jewish practice aside for such a march, that feels like where we are comfortable.
We are not those expressing the stress of the culture today; we are watching others express it. Their terms are loud and violent and upsetting – perhaps because they are expressing an outrage we are distanced from, have learned to live with, or barely register from our safe distance.
There are those who argue that demonstrations and marches will win no allies when mass transit is disrupted and people can’t get home after putting in their long day of work, and there are those who argue that targeted people in our communities live under stress far worse than transit disruption every day. If a family is torn apart because of any kind of injustice, should any of us be entirely comfortable?
As Jews, let’s suspend judgment, as our tradition urges. As Jews, let’s resolve to learn more about our place in this time of upheaval – wherever you decide yours is, let it not be out of fear, or a desire to stay separate from it. That is not tikkun olam, that is not doing our part to repair the world.
This was a disappointing May Day. I am committed to working through the Portland Interfaith Clergy Resistance and other venues to demand that the City of Portland do more to change the tone of police interaction with such crowds as marched, mostly peacefully, yesterday. They did not deserve to have their permit revoked and their march ended because a few people set fire to a trashcan.
And, just as importantly, I remain committed to working to understand how to influence the small group of those who are destructive, and attempt to help to move them toward more constructive demonstration.
I don’t approve of the destruction in any way, nor the hateful rhetoric toward the police, of course. But we need to understand that those who are so alienated from our society (although they apparently enjoy many of its perks, they looked well dressed and well fed) are not the problem. If you consider systems analysis, you might see them as a visible manifestation of the stress, horror and anguish many of our fellow residents of the United States are suffering.

As the Associated Press put it: May Day demonstrations, celebrated as International Workers’ Day, were far more peaceful in other international cities, which saw protesters demanded better working conditions.

But the widespread protests in the United States were aimed directly at the new Republican president, who has followed up his aggressive anti-immigrant and anti-socialist rhetoric on the campaign trail with action in the White House.

I will continue to offer you chances to learn how to ground yourself in meaningful and safe engagement. I hope you will join me in this terribly important work at the level which is right, and righteous, for you.
Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other…