Parashat Tzav – Fight or Flight For the Future

This Monday and Tuesday, we begin the observance of Passover. One of the most important parts of the seder is when we respond to the Torah’s warning:

“When in time to come your children will ask, what mean all the decrees laws and rules that God has commanded?”

I have been thinking about this phrase not just because of Passover but also in light of yesterday’s events with our nation’s missile strike on Syria. I am not sure that I have any special wisdom regarding the appropriateness of the attack in either objective or scope. So I have little to offer other than prayer. We pray, Ribono shel olam, Master of the Universe that the needless suffering of innocents will come to an end. We pray for an end to the rule of heartless tyrants like Bashar al Assad. We pray for healing among the survivors in the gas attacks, and we pray for comfort for the relatives left to bury their loved ones. We pray for comfort to anyone who mourns. We pray that the nations of the world including the United States of America, open their doors to refugees fleeing the terror in their land. We pray that this will not spark a larger world conflict with globally catastrophic ramifications. And lastly, we pray that this decision proves to be wise, not just for those who live today, but for the future generations who will inherit the consequences of these actions.

This last prayer is perhaps the most complicated. We cannot know the outcome. It is easy to see pictures and be moved to action. We are hardwired to respond to our impulses. It’s almost Newtonian. Every action has an equal opposite reaction. However, as humans, thoughtful beings with intellect, we do not respond to the world merely by reflex. Rather, we can subdue reflex and be analytical in forming our response.

A classic example is in dealing with our “fight or flight” response. In a threatening situation, a wild dog either lashes out or runs away. Usually they lash out. Evolution has provided us with the same impulses. However, we cannot be like wild dogs. Living with rule of law, part of our social contract keeps us from lashing out just on impulse. We have the ability to subdue our inclination. And that is a very good thing.

As Psychlologist, Marc Schoen of UCLA points out, in the information age, as we are accustomed to instant gratification, we have become hypersensitive and little things, even insignificant things can trigger a stress response. Fight or flight can hit us at any time, even when we are enduring something mundane like a slow internet. The more sped up we are, the lower our threshold for discomfort, the blurred the line becomes between real danger and and other stresses, and the more fight or flight kicks in. If we choose fight every time…. that could lead to trouble. Living as citizens of the world demands of us more than reacting to stresses in the moment. We can lash out resolving our need for instant gratification, or we can stifle our impulse, and save ourselves and others from embarrassment or pain in the moment.

Still, our reaction in the moment is only part of the story. At all times, we must consider our impact on the future. Some would argue that we can only be accountable to the people who are alive today. We can’t see hear or talk to future people, so let’s just focus on the world as it stands before us. As a more cynical extension, one might say, who are we to assume that we know what future people will want or need? So Carpe Diem! Let us live for today.

Judaism prohibits us from thinking this way. We are to operate under the assumption that future generations will be more or less like us, with the same basic desires and needs, for life, love, and security. Therefore, we must resist the impulse to react in the moment. Instead, we must give clear thought to the results, and the potential chain reaction of events we might set in place. To this end, this week’s parasha gives us a framework for responding to the stresses of the world. It begins with the word “Tzav,” meaning “Command.” Specifically, God is telling Moses to command Aaron regarding the burnt offering to be done in the Temple. But the action being described here is less important than that powerful word at the beginning of the verse. Rashi, in his commentary ponders, why this word here when the Torah usually has Moses, “speaking” or “saying” something to the people. He wants to know why the Torah here uses stronger language of “commanding” like it’s an order of higher imperative. Rashi states that “Command” is used to reinforce that a particular deed is to be done right away, to benefit this generation, AND it is intended for the good of future generations. So Tzav for us underscores the value that what we do today, can and does affect what will be done in the future.

It is an echo of what we hear when we read in Deuteronomy about God’s covenant with us:

“I the LORD your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me, 10 but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.”

The message is clear. What has been done in the past affects us today. And what we do today will affect those who come after us. So we must be thoughtful and clear-headed and avoid the temptation to react in the moment, lashing out in disgust or anger. Instead we should always keep an eye toward the future and the consequences which our great grandchildren will inherit.

This is what we must hope about our nation’s actions in Syria. We must recognize the severity of this act against another sovereign nation and all it implies. We must hope that our leaders have done this as more than just emotional reflex. We hope they have acted with clear heads and a plan which anticipates the potential fallout. There is no question that actions of Bashar Al Assad are a travesty, and that he has committed war crimes against his own nation. There is also no question that this is occurring in a region of the world with a very delicate balance of power and significant key players who seem more than willing to escalate the conflict. Our past actions and thoughtful inaction has kept those realities in mind. It is our hope that this most recent action has done the same, and that we are prepared to bear the consequences, and furthermore that those are consequences we will be proud to give our children.

When it comes to Syria, the recent past has been dark. The present, quite murky. The future is yet unknown. We can only hope and pray that it work out for the best, bringing us closer to witnessing the end of the people’s suffering and the world closer, God willing to peace. Any other outcome is unthinkable, and whatsmore unconscionable.

And so as we gather around our seder tables, and our children ask what mean all of these things, may our answer be, as prescribed in the Torah.

“God freed us in order to take us to the Promised Land, and we were commanded to observe the laws, to revere Adonai our God, for our lasting good and for our future survival.”

May it be so for us. May it be so for those who suffer from oppression. May it be so for all people in ever generation who wish for nothing more than to live in peace.


“Something There Is That Doesn’t Love A Wall,” and that “something” is us! – Sermon For Parashat Va’eira

What I am about to say should not surprise you. I have always loved a teacher with a good sense of humor. I’ve shared before in Torah Study how my American Literature Teacher in High School, Mr. Bill Boley used to offer an automatic A to anyone who could successfully incorporate the words “Mexican Bean dip” into a term paper. I was never bold enough to try. I had to get an A the old fashioned way. Cheating. No just kidding. I worked hard. There was something else Mr. Boley did that took me a long time to appreciate. Looking back on it now, I simply admire his brilliance. On the wall of his classroom was a crude looking homemade poster. On a very plain piece of white pasteboard, he had written in large letters, with a Sharpie, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” I used to sit there and ponder what on Earth that meant. It was kind of an eyesore, so I figured it made us not love the wall. So were the something that doesn’t love a wall. Or was it the person who intentionally hung the thing there, interfering with our appreciation of the wall, who didn’t love a wall? Or was the “something” the thing itself and its clash with the wall? What did it mean? What was the “something?” It drove me crazy, until we finally reached the unit on Robert Frost.

The words were the opening line of his famous poem, “The Mending Wall.” It begins:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

Two neighbors have converged at their property line to discover that the elements of winter have ravaged the wall that separated their property. The ground has swelled, and hunters have passed through, knocking stones to the ground. It is not secret, that time and nature have taken down the wall.
And so the neighbors take to repairing it. But they are not of like mind.

One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

Good fences make good neighbors. Despite the lack of threat, the sheer innocence of the trees who cannot rival each other, the neighbor wants a fence. And this is where I feel a kinship with the speaker of this poem.

Spring is the mischief (I love mischief) in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

And the speaker wants to goad his neighbor, but stops short of ridiculing him.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself.

He could point out that the wall actually serves no purpose. The imaginary elves and the perceived and exaggerated threats. It might as well be the bogeyman. He cannot fathom why the neighbor wants the wall. He is just set in his ways.

Despite the facts at hand, all the neighbor can say are the words he has been taught since childhood.

“Good fences make good neighbors.”

On the one hand, the annual act of repairing the fence does make good neighbors because it is likely the only time these men interact. For one day a year, they are actually neighbors, the rest, they act as little more than strangers, as one clearly does not trust the other.

Thus what I think Frost was saying, was not “Good fences make good neighbors,” but rather “Good fences make us into strangers.”

What does hold firm are the words that Mr. Boley scotch taped to the wall of his classroom, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” And that something, I suggest should be us. We do not love a wall.

In Jewish tradition and history, we know an awful lot about living behind walls. Sometimes they have been good for us. In the Torah portion this week, Parashat Va’eira, we read about the Israelites living together in the city of Goshen. And as God brings the plagues, God sets apart Goshen from suffering the swarms of insects and the terrible deluge of hail. So, being brought together had its upside. However, when Jacob and and his sons were first permitted to settle in Goshen, it was an act of welcome and benevolence. When an evil Pharaoh arose later, having the Israelites in the same place was a matter of convenience, as it was easier to enslave them, oppress them, and demand the killing of each firstborn son. This proto-ghetto was a mark of subservience, suffering and slavery. And as we study the early story of Exodus, we can paraphrase Robert Frost’s question, “What were they walling in and what were they walling out?” In the Torah, it only took a few short generations, before the walls around Goshen went from keeping people out to keeping people in against their will.

As Jews, we have experienced the same cycle again and again. During the Middle Ages, Jews often demanded to be protected by walls before settling anywhere. They knew the threats that were beyond their walls. But at the same time, they left themselves vulnerable to being trapped. In the city of Venice, the Jews were placed in a ghetto. In fact this is where the word ghetto originated. The Italian geto means foundry, and the Jewish community was moved inside the walls of Ghetto Nuovo, an old cannon foundry. At first, the ghetto was a compromise. Rank and file Venetians had wanted to expel the Jews like Spain and England had done. So they decided instead to have the Jews live behind walls where their interactions with the wider community could be controlled. The Jews accepted this arrangement because it was better than expulsion and it came with stability in knowing what the laws were. According to historian Paul Johnson, this certainty was what the Jewish community wanted most. But, the privilege of living in this ghetto came with hefty taxes, and the Jewish community was forced to pay for the guards who kept attackers while keeping the Jews in.

The ghetto walls from Goshen to Venice, were ultimately a means of keeping a people subjugated as second class citizens and making them easy prey for oppression. And as we know, from Warsaw and other ghetto walls during the Holocaust, they managed to contain Jews as sitting targets. This means we should wonder, do the benefits of a protective wall outweighs the dangers of that same well becoming containment? A wall is a divider that prevents true interaction. Lack of true interaction leads to distrust. Distrust, well distrust can lead to terrible things.
And yes, I do want to talk about the proposed wall along the 2000 mile border between the United States and Mexico. It would serve as a divider between two allies and significant trading partners. It would further sow the seeds of distrust between the two nations. The threats of the border in its current condition are grossly exaggerated. The numbers of immigrants crossing illegally are lower than ever. Net migration shows the numbers crossing back into Mexico. Violent crimes committed by people here illegally occur at a lower rate than the national average. And the presence of those who manage to cross the border and stay actually provides an economic boon to the places they settle. The perceived dangers are inflated, and so many people are not afraid of fact, but rather are afraid of fear itself.

Furthermore, the cost of building the wall, 14-15 billion dollars, far outweighs the magnitude of the perceived dangers. We are looking at a net loss at a time when our nation has large deficits. And the wall is generally amoral, separating families and being used as an instrument to bully and “other”-ize an entire nation as it would stand as a visual symbol of our fear of encounters with the people of Mexico. Then there is a question of general honesty. Who is going to pay for it really? At their best, Robert Frost showed us, fences make good neighbors when both agree to work on it together. In such a case, there are moments of true partnership. But that is not the case now. One neighbor cannot force the other to construct or pay for something they neither want nor need. This fence would not make good neighbors. It threatens to sow resentment and to make bad enemies.

This is why Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism issued an important statement this week:
“Today’s executive order announcing plans to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border is a deeply misguided means of addressing the very real challenges facing our immigration system. Instead of myopically prioritizing border security alone, we need immigration policies that holistically fulfill our national security imperatives, meet the needs of employers and workers, and unite and strengthen families.

Our historical experience as Jews who dwelled as guests in others’ lands sensitizes us to the imperative to ensure a just and compassionate immigration policy. We urge President Trump to endorse the principles of comprehensive immigration reform, including border security, as well as streamlined processing for visas and entry to the United States, a commitment to obey the rule of law, family reunification and a much-needed pathway to citizenship.”

As he said, there are indeed gaps in our immigration policy. We can fix them, but the proposed wall is a distraction. A very large and expensive, unethical distraction. We can do better. Jewish history shows us we need to do better than trust walls alone.

The Book of Joshua in the battle of Jericho demonstrates the best way to take down a wall is to lift up our voices and shout. That is what we need to do. Lift up our voices and shout. Call our senators. Call our representatives. Call our friends, relatives, and neighbors. Get them to call Senators and representative. And if we are looking for something to shout, we can turn to the words of Robert Frost: “Something there is that does not love a wall,” and that something is us.

Remarks From Nebraska Appleseed vigil to support refugees, Jan 12, 2017

Like many of you I have had some intense conversations with people since Nov 8. Over Facebook, one of my more heated exchanges concluded with a friend saying his biggest concern was my belief in supporting Syrian refugees. My answer to him is this…

The Torah teaches,

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings [the Hebrew here is “nefesh,” which is more akin to the soul] of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.

You understand the depth of the soul of the ones who are oppressed.

The classical Jewish commentator, Nachmanides explained that God was saying:

I behold the tears of such who are oppressed and have no comforter, and on the side of their oppressors there is power, and I deliver each one from him that is too strong for him….
[and] you know what it feels like to be a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. That is to say, you know that every stranger feels depressed, and is always sighing and crying, He will have mercy upon him even as He showed mercy to you, God had mercy, not because of your merits but only on account of the bondage [and likewise God has mercy on all who are oppressed.]

God cares about the oppressed, and by extension so should we because we are the ones who are in a position to act.

But I don’t need this to know supporting Syrian Refugees is right. I know it in my heart. I feel it in the depth of nefesh, deep in my soul. For those who speak Yiddish, I feel it in my kishkes.

I know it from experience. I have shared my pulpit with a Syrian refugee. I have heard her story. I have never felt threatened by her or her family, only the kinship of peace. Furthermore, I know only friendship from those who the ignorant would assume to be my enemies.

When my Temple received a bomb threat last spring and my life was threatened, there was an outpouring of support from our community, from law enforcement to faith and civic leaders. But I want to point out, the support in the faith community for our little synagogue was driven by my good friend Farida Ebrahim, an Afghan refugee who also helped to mobilize leadership from the Bosnian mosque who came to our Sabbath worship service in a show of unity. The refugees, the Muslim community, they sense the fellowship that comes from fearing the same enemies. We stand as friends, with anyone willing to join together in the face of all terror whether it comes from fundamentalist, radicalized religion or white nationalism which poses the most immediate threat to minority groups in America.

Ultimately, it boils down to this:

Refugees need a safe home, and they need friends. It is my human, civic, and religious duty to help them find both. We. owe them nothing less.

Benediction for Nebraska State Commemoration for MLK

As we reflect on the meaning of this day, we thank Officer Moore for her service to our community and for her inspiring comments today. You have shown us that the Police are not only our protectors, you are our teachers too. I also thank these young people, the essay award winners, for their words for giving us hope for the future. We look forward to you joining us in the cause and to one day having you become the leaders of tomorrow. The future looks bright.

So, let us consider these words spoken by the man whose memory and legacy we honor today. On the last night of his life, Dr. King said:

[If] the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?”… Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.” Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars…. And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we’re going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.

As we go forth from the is place, let us go forth advancing the legacy and dreams of the great dreamer, Martin Luther King, Jr. Let us always embrace the NOW never despairing in the darkness, as dark as it may be. Let us work to bring light into dark spaces. Let us look to our left and right, forward and backward and see in all people, in all places potential partners with whom we can grapple with and solve the problems which have plagued us since the beginning of time. May we always choose to live Now, for is the only time we know, as we work for a brighter future, for the future is all that we can look forward to. Now is the time, the only time, to embrace our shared existence, protecting life and guaranteeing dignity for all men and women. So now, let us continue Dr. King’s great work and at last bring equality and peace to our world.

Master of all things, Creator of the Universe, we pray that you give us strength and guide us as together we work to bring justice to the world.

Let us say. Amen.

Invocation for MLK Freedom Breakfast

img_3917As a young man, just before I began my rabbinical studies, I was working temp jobs in Memphis, TN. One of those temporary placements put me in the offices of the Church of God in Christ. During my time, I mostly answered phones, collated files, and maintained a database. Good work. Not too exciting. One day, my work took me to the Mason Temple where when I was shown their sanctuary I was truly filled with awe. In that space, Martin Luther King, Jr, spoke on the last night of his life, delivering his famous mountaintop speech.

In that speech, he said if God could place him in any time throughout history, he would choose the NOW. Despite the trouble of his time, he said, “Only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.” The sentiment is just as important today as it was in April of 1968.

Dr. King was known as a dreamer, but buttressed by optimism and faith, his words rang as the voice of a prophet. From where did this optimism come? He explained it well in the lecture he gave four years earlier when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. They are words we embody in our gathering of brotherhood and sisterhood this morning.

Dr. King said:

We have inherited a big house, a great “world house” in which we have to live together – black and white, Easterners and Westerners, Gentiles and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, Moslem and Hindu, a family unduly separated in ideas, culture, and interests who, because we can never again live without each other, must learn, somehow, in this one big world, to live with each other.

This means that more and more our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. We must now give an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in our individual societies.

This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men…. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response which is little more than emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.

So as we gather in this house together, let us pray, Master of all things, creator of the Universe, thank you for the life and inspiration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr who continues to teach us the true meaning of the brotherhood of man. As we break bread together, may the peace we model in this room have a ripple effect beyond these walls, through our city, across our state, to the borders of our great nation, and help bring peace to the four corners of your world. May this day cause us to embody the teaching in the Book of Proverbs, that all our ways be ways of pleasantness, and may all our paths lead us to peace.

Black Friday Winners and Losers – Sermon for Chayei Sarah

My foster kids are still working on understanding what it means to live in a Jewish house— which holidays we do, and which we don’t. What foods we eat, which we don’t. One of them asked me the other day, “Do you celebrate Black Friday?”

I wasn’t sure how to respond. I think Black Friday is celebrated by many, and dreaded by others. Personally, though I’m not agoraphobic, the thought of being in those crowds freaks me out. I think I saw on TV this morning that the Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square in New York had 16,000 people lined up waiting just to get inside. No thanks. I heard that there were riots in South Africa over discounted toilet paper. It makes me shudder. In past years people have died, being trampled as they rushed into Wal-Mart to take advantage of the holiday sales. Folks…. at some point, isn’t this beneath our dignity? Couldn’t we spend 50 more bucks for a television or 20 more dollars for a pair of boots just to keep our sanity? We have to ask ourselves, what is the price point on our dignity? We’d have to ply ourselves and spend a little more. Especially for toilet paper, we could triple ply ourselves, cushion the blow, and be more absorbent to the sticker shock, and pay what it’s actually worth.

Don’t get me wrong, I like a good discount as much as the next guy. I have driven across town two and three times looking for the best deal on a computer. With a conservative calculation for gas and mileage, I basically broke even. What I’m trying to say is, every now and then, it’s worth the extra expense to escape aggravation.

This is part and parcel of what our father Abraham teaches in this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah. The life of Sarah comes to an end, and Abraham needs a special place to bury her. Just like today, we don’t just bury in any old place. We seek special grounds, often locations adorned in beauty. Our Mt. Lebanon in Wyuka is a fine example. People picnic there. They perform Shakespeare in the summer. I will never forget the first week I was in Lincoln, and I went to do the funeral for Richard Sachs, and I was greeted by a pair of beautiful swans. The Wyuka Cemetery is no ordinary plot of land. This is precisely the type of place Abraham sought for his beloved Sarah, practicing the Jewish value of kevod hamet. That is honoring the dead with heartfelt devotion, just as much if not more than they were honored during their life. He doesn’t think long and decides on the cave at Machpelah in Chevron, in the land of the Hittites, on the property of Ephron the son of Zohar. The commentators have a field day with the name of this place just to glorify this piece of real estate. Machpelah, Rashi says, means double (from the root kaf-feh-lamed)… it has a lower level and un upper level. Rashi’s grandson, the Rashbam says it is called, “double” because it not only includes the cave, but also the field leading to it. And if you really like a garden view, the Zohar book of mysticism, teaches that Machpelah means double as it bridges this world to the Garden of Eden. I think a realtor would say, “It’s literally the ultimate green belt!” So what would you pay for such a plot of land? Do you follow the MLS listings, wait to see how many days it is on the market and see if the price drops, or do you just know that’s the place you want and you taking no risk on losing out to another buyer?

Abraham wastes no time. Machpelah is the cave he wants, and he wants to honor Sarah by returning her to the Earth as quickly as possible. He announces to the Hittites who live in the area that he will go to Ephron who owns the land and will pay full price. So intent is he, that even when Ephron offers to just give him the land, Abraham insists on paying. There is no reason, he feels to bargain for something so important. It is Ephron’s land, and he is entitled to compensation. Furthermore, by paying the market value, and doing so publicly, in front of the other Hittites, no one can question the fairness of the transaction or question the transfer of ownership. There are no hard feelings on any side.

What it all boils down to is this. We are living in an era that places a lot of emphasis on winners and losers. The stakes are all or nothing. It seems that sports fans have lost the ability to celebrate success and going deep into the playoffs, and end up mourning in frustration for losing at the highest level with the championship on the line. Fans of the Buffalo Bills only talk about losing 4 Super Bowls in a row, rather than the fact that they had an improbable streak of playing in 4 consecutive Superbowls. I can say, after the 2014 World Series, I did not feel better until the end of the 2015 World Series when at last the Royals won…. But still, I’ll never forget the bitterness feeling of seeing Alex Gordon standing on 3rd base as a weak popup ended that series. I and others had to remind ourselves that sometimes the victory is the excitement, the fun, the exhilarating feeling of hope, and the learning we do, being engaged in new, high stake situations reveling in the satisfaction of having fought hard in an environment of complete fairness. If we could think this way, we could all can be better off for the experience. Some are victorious. Some are runners up. But if we really do it right, we all can be winners.

Maybe our nation’s politics could benefit from such a view.

Elections are no longer about deciding who can lead us with a uniting vision. They have instead become about whose ideology can subjugate the other. In a democratic society, we are supposed to focus on the mutual benefit, not the suppression of the opposition. This is not only about the recent election, but in general. It has been a growing trend for many years. Elections no longer end with mere celebrations and congratulatory statements. They are punctuated by gloating and demands for the losing side to admit abject defeat that the percentage difference is a repudiation of their ideas. Leading up to the election, there was discussion on both sides about whoever won, their party would be in disarray and have to figure out how to rebuild from the ruins. It’s just not likely that both parties could be teetering that close to demise. In actuality, both were probably going to be okay over all, just needing to re-organize, and apply a new strategy. In this environment of perceived winner take all, half the country stops being able to work with the other half of the country. No one is allowed to lose with honor. And winners choose not to win with dignity.

In this environment, we are all losers.
It follows the trend of where I started this talk, the Black Friday sales. We are obsessed with getting the upperhand, finding the best deal, at the expense of others, so much that we ultimately lose ourselves in the process. It is not fun to fight over the last discounted Big Screen TV, or roll of toilet paper, when the ultimate cost is our own humanity. The feeling of satisfaction when we get the deal is fleeting at best. It is counterproductive to living under the rule of loving our neighbors as ourselves— the most important command in all the Torah.

What Abraham did was demonstrate this basic love of the neighbor through fairness and consideration. When he purchased the cave at Machpelah for a fair price, he simultaneously did a lot of things. He protected his own reputation as a fair player and honest broker. He likewise allowed Ephron to be perceived as a straight shooter and good business man. The Hittites looking on, they too gained because they never had to doubt whether these men could be trusted or if they would uphold the greater good. And they learned from this model the lesson we all learn, that when we value and respect our fellow men with fair negotiations, fair prices, and fair competition, everyone is happy and everyone wins in the end.

Those who love God, Hate Evil- Sermon for Shabbat, November 18, 2016


I am going to start by saying something kind of controversial. Despite what you may have been told,  what you might believe, it is okay to hate. This sounds strange coming from a rabbi, right? Well there is a Jewish way to hate, and no, I’m not talking about guilt. It is okay to hate racism.

In Psalm 97, we are taught, in command form, “Ohavei Adonai, sinu ra. You who love God, hate evil.” There are few evils worse than racism, and racism is a mere stepping stone to those other evils. So yes, let us hate evil and hate racism with all our hearts.

Now I want to be clear, when I talk about hating racism, I am talking talking about hating ideas, not the people who hold them. Admittedly, it is hard to differentiate between them, but we have to. There are restrictions and limitations to permissible hate. Defeating an idea allows us to maintain our humanity when the battle is won. If our goal is to defeat people, it causes us to push for complete humiliation of the opponent. It takes us too far down a dangerous road which can elicit the worst parts of our own humanity which we have to keep in check. It is important to offer the opportunity for every person to lose with dignity. To brag, or belittle, or intimidate, or dominate another in defeat is antithetical to Jewish ideals. Even if our opposition has behaved in such a manner, we are prohibited from doing the same.

We find instruction in the Torah laws of engagement which demand that, in war, the Israelites maybnever completely surround a city, thus offering a chance for citizens to retreat (Hilchot Melachim 6:7). Even our enemies deserve a chance at continued life, during which we hope they will re-evaluate their ideas. Additionally, Jewish law permits us to do only the minimal amount it takes to win. Maimonides teaches further in the Mishnah Torah (Hilchot Melachim 9:4) teaches about self defense against one who follows you to do harm. If one can stop an attacker by just injuring his leg, but one goes ahead and kills him, then that is tantamount to murder. The law is there to curb our inclination for blood thirst and total subjugation of another. Once the aggression has ended, we move on. So if we are able to defeat an idea, we can leave what’s left of the person intact. We can move on in peace, causing no undue harm to an already damaged person. That is the just way. That is the Jewish way. So let us set our sights on defeating the ills of hatred and racism, not to squash the haters and the racists. Who knows, they may one day become repentant and turn into strong allies. Our congregation knows this history personally with Larry Trapp, who died repentant for the harm he caused as a Klansman. It is also evident in the Nate Phelps, son of the the deceased Fred Phelps, whose Westboro Baptist Church once protested our Temple. Nate left his father’s church to become an outspoken advocate against his father’s wretched ideals and for LGBT rights. Complete humiliation or annihilation of people might have prevented these people from turning around so they could have s chance to reach more and bring them to a path of truth.

There is no singular way to deal with the forces of hate and racism, but we have no choice but to combat them. Racism fills our world with darkness. Clouds of hate envelope us, but again, we can turn to Psalm 97. Soon after the command to hate evil, we are told, “Or Zarua latzadik, ulyishrei lev simcha. Light is sown for the righteous, radiance for the upright.” So if we, in righteousness hate evil, not only can we defeat it, we bring light into the world. If it sounds easy, it shouldn’t. If it sounds overly simplistic, it is not. You see, the Torah speaks very little about feelings. It is mostly about actions. That’s what our form of hate needs to be. If we allow hate to be merely a a feeling, it can become all consuming and overwhelm us. It can reduce us to tired and bitter recluses who lose sight of the greater goal, to live in peace and love. So the command to hate that we hear from the Psalmist, does not allow us to become embroiled in anger. Sitting back, embittered in our rightness and bathing in cynicism achieves absolutely nothing. The directive in Psalm 97 is compelling us to take acton.

Consider for a moment what our tradition teaches about the opposite of hate– love. It’s so much more than a feeling. Love is action. We are taught to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our being. We show love for God when we lie down, when we rise up, when we walk by the way (Deuteronomy 6:5-7). We learn from this that feeling love is not enough. It can fill our hearts, it can even overflow. However when love is not expressed, whether it be love of a spouse, love of a child, love of a friend, love of our earth, love, as a mere feeling, can only be unrequited because the object of that love receives no benefit. That kind of love is pointless. And thus, the same can be said of hate. If we do nothing about it, it is like poison inside of us, harming only us who bear it.

I looked at today a passage of Leviticus, and understood it like I have never understood it before. It’s in chapter 19 verse 17), part of the holiness code. It teaches, “Do not hate your kinsman in your heart. Reprove your kinsman, but incur no guilt because of him.”

Wow. Hating in your heart. That’ resentment. Reproving. That’s action. Incurring no guilt, that is actively taking down repulsive ideas, without, as Rashi says, “bringing him embarrassment,” degradation, or undue harm.

This is where we begin. It does not matter who you voted for. The election is done. But we combat the hate-filled rhetoric which filled the campaign. We trust that there will indeed be policies which are good for America. But, that which is distasteful, we clear our voices and raise them up as loud, and as often as possible. I attended a rally on the campus of UNL today, and suffice it to say, there are a lot of people, gay, white, black, asian, native american, Latino, Jewish, Muslim, who are genuinely frightened for the uncertain future because the only things they know to be true are the words which have been spoken and the policies which have been proposed. Those fears deserve to be taken seriously.

Since November 8, I have had some fascinating conversations that have given me some hope. I have found people on both sides of the aisle who genuinely care about some of the same issues as I do. Some really care for LGBT rights. As those issues arise, we can join together with anyone willing to lend their support and knock down those ideas. I have found others who actually care about a woman’s right to choose. So we seek our allies, and knock it down. There are people on both sides who do not support the Muslim registry, so again, we work together to knock that down. Whatever the issue, we hate the ideas and we accept any ally, regardless of their vote or political leaning to reject those ideas we hold so dear.

Most pressing right now is how we address the formation of the new Presidential administration. Many of us have made a mistake by describing individuals themselves as white Nationalists and anti-semites. While it may be true, we cannot definitively prove either statement. What is quantifiable however is the presence of at least one adviser, who in his own words, provided a platform for the alt right, which is a euphemism for white nationalists, which is another word for Nazis and Klansmen.

Another way to look at this is to consider a great enemy of the Jewish people we read about in Exodus. The terrible Amalek attacked the most vulnerable Israelites from behind just as they were leaving slavery in Egypt. And we are to be at war with Amalek throughout the ages. A midrash (cited by Rashi on Deu 25:18) explains why Amalek is so hated. It was not that he attacked the Israelites. The rabbis believed that with God’s help, they could not be defeated. What Amalek did by attacking was to make it appear that other nations, who would otherwise know better, could do the same. And so Amalek’s sin was to open the floodgates for other nations to attack as well. So let us be cautious with our comparisons. We are not talking about Hitler, or even Goebbels. We are talking about a modern day Amalek, giving voice to racism and senseless hate, making it mainstream, and giving the appearance that others may do the same.

Again, it does not matter who you voted for. As Jews, we have to speak out against the forces of hate, by hating them in return, not in our hearts, but with our words and our deeds. We need to appeal to our elected leaders and tell them this is not ok. We need to call upon our president elect not to allow policies to be shaped by people whose presence instills fear in large groups of American communities.

That is not the world we want to live in, and hand to our children, so it is incumbent upon us to reprove our fellow citizens, to show them the positive force of hate, as we demolish destructive ideals, and set our fellow kinsmen on the path of right. We must hate evil, because that part of loving God.

Chazak ve’ematz. May we be strong and of good courage so that we may stand up for justice in the coming days.

Shabbat Shalom.