Shabbat Tetzaveh: Values Are Not Expendable

Our parashat hashauva for this week is Tetzaveh, which can literally be translated “tell them what to do.” One reason for the Torah’s powerful presence in our people’s lives over several millennia is the sure sense, explicitly offered, that someone is telling us the right thing to do.
If only we had such a plumb line to grasp to carry us through the chaos of our days. The President of the U.S. uses his power to sow disorder and suffering; our Jewish community finds ourselves targeted and afraid for our safety; and this week here in Portland our own police force has been found to be cooperating with violent white supremacist thugs who have targeted our city for their hate and violence.
Add to this the sufferings of normal daily life – some in our own congregational community are housing insecure, others of us are ill. Some face death. Some are struggling with other kinds of personal challenges to their happiness.
This week the Portland City Council voted to end our Portland police’s cooperation with the FBI (you can learn more from OPB’s report here). After the vote, Mayor Wheeler was reported by OPB as saying: “while values are extremely important, values alone cannot protect the safety of the community.”
With respect to the difficulty of his job and what he may have meant (since it is a Jewish value to give the benefit of the doubt), I appeared at that City Council meeting to speak of those values that I believe must define our city as a community: mutual respect, personal safety, and insistence on transparency in the service of truth.
In so many places in our lives, we are all tempted to compromise on our values in the service of being safe. The value of due process even for the evil man in the White House; the value of living our lives in the dignity of freedom despite our fear; and the value of upholding a community ethic of social justice as an end, not a luxury. The Mayor has it backward, it seems to me: unless there is a value we uphold as essential to the nature of our safety, our safety itself will be compromised. We can see this in the decision some join to militarize the security of our own Jewish institutions in the wake of the Pittsburgh massacre – זכרונם לברכה may their memory be a blessing. And we can see it in the support some gave to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, to the extent of excusing abuses suffered by minority communities – since once we are afraid, we have a hard time finding the room in our hearts to care about others who are also afraid, and who are the first target.
Unless we defend our values first and last, what kind of society are we creating? Not a just one, probably; not one in which, in the end, when they come for you, there will be anyone left to speak up. A society that operates without absolute values is an absolute abhorrence to our prophets, and they rightly see its destruction as brought about by internal rot (children are still in cages today) more than the outside forces that were so feared.
The first line of our parashah, the one that gives us its name, is this:
וְאַתָּ֞ה תְּצַוֶּ֣ה ׀ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְיִקְח֨וּ אֵלֶ֜יךָ שֶׁ֣מֶן זַ֥יִת זָ֛ךְ כָּתִ֖ית לַמָּא֑וֹר לְהַעֲלֹ֥ת נֵ֖ר תָּמִֽיד׃

You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly.

From this we can derive what is perhaps the most important value supporting us this week, and all weeks: shed a light on it. Bring the fuel that keeps the light burning bright. Truth and goodness flourish in light; only evil cannot stand it. For this we owe a great debt of gratitude to all the journalists investigating and digging and reporting in this time of rising hostility to that targeted community.
Only values that transcend moments of fear, of chaos, and of violence can protect our community, at the end of the day. May we continue to support each other in learning them, sharing them, and upholding them: hazak hazak vnithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.
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Shabbat VaYeshev: Do You Believe In Your Life?

Do you believe in your life? Enough to lose it?

The media reports that people are frightened. More and more, the ordinary activities of daily life seem to be places in which a mass shooting might occur. “When I drop off my child at school,” “when I go to the mall,” “when I am at work,” “when I go into a cafe to grab a coffee, I realize, it could happen there.”

An article describing the rising fear Americans feel about random gun violence goes on to consider ways we might cope with this anticipatory, more and more general fear.

“I think awareness of your own fears is the only way to go and to do the things that are soothing and comforting and distracting to do, and to do things that bring meaning to your life and bring comfort to other people,” said Dr. Sherry Katz-Bearnot, assistant clinical professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. “It’s what your grandmother said: Keep busy.” (“Fear in the Air, Americans Look Over Their Shoulders”)

Our Jewish ethical tradition holds that we can do better than that. We cannot just “stay busy” if our lives do not have value to us; busy nonsense does not calm the storm of existential terror. And we cannot simply stay in bed and pull the covers up over our heads.

We Americans are beginning to experience what other peoples in our world have already learned: there is no guaranteed safety. On any day, life may end for any one of us. We are accustomed to as, as an idle conversation starter, “what would you want to do if it were your last day?” But we do not live our lives that way, because it’s not possible. 

There is a different question we should be asking ourselves. In a world in which my choices might end with my death, do I believe in my choices enough to stake my life on them?

In Israel during the second intifada of 2001-2003, I witnessed the way people behave who are used to random violence in their everyday lives. Average Israelis, many of them opposed to the policies of their government that had caused the uprising, and had no necessary connection to politics, were aware that their daily choices were existential choices. Israeli social culture has evolved, over more time than just the last decades, a common awareness that life, itself, is not a supreme value, but a relative value, to be used to demonstrate one’s convictions about how life should be lived. Israelis do not stay home and cower; they live with a heightened awareness that where they live, how they live, will cost them their lives.

In America in these dark days, we are surrounded by random violence by the armed and angry, and heinous cowardice on the part of our elected officials. The choice to live as we wish and be safe is not now, if it ever was, available. Many of us average Americans have had no direct part in what makes the gun wielders angry, but we may be killed. 

Your life as you live it, with its commitments, expectations and desires, is going to require you to walk into a world of random violence today. Do you believe in what you are doing today, this and every day, enough to say “I may be cut down before I can finish, but I am building a meaningful life day by day”.

In our parashat hashavua for this week, people suffer and sometimes die, sometimes because of choices they have made and sometimes as a result of another’s whim. May our lot be with those who are privileged to be aware that our lives are made valuable by our conscious choices, and may we believe in our lives.