This is my most recent newspaper column and I try to outline some history of the tradition of the clergy offering prayers for the president at the Inaugural ceremony. I hope you read it and let me know what you think. Thanks and Shalom
Saturday, February 11, 2017
A Sermon on the Immigration Issue in America and the ethos of welcoming the stranger and keeping us safe.
The Torah portion we read on this Shabbat B’shalach represents the beginning of a long history about Jews as the world’s quintessential refugee nation. I remember a book published a few years ago referring to the modern state of Israel as the start-up nation. It is a fascinating read for devotees of Israel’s technological and commercial successes. Yet the much longer and enduring narrative of our people is that of the refuge nation. In last week’s torah portion we began the exodus narrative. This week’s passages from Exodus describe the children of Israel actually crossing the Sea of Reeds and heading out to the Wilderness of Sin.
They fight their own demons when it comes to facing the reality that leaving Egypt is going to be much more difficult than they first anticipated. Finally, we see the very beginnings of the military conflicts that the ancient Israelites will face against tribes who seek to prevent the birth of a new nation in the region.
If we are the definitive example of refugee nation for three millenni[a] then what does it mean for Jewish identity? The truth is that we have had to fight not only marauding desert tribes but also our own self doubts as to whether we could handle the transition from slavery to freedom.
This week’s Torah portion reminds us that the birth of the refugee nation has always been a spiritual as well as a bodily struggle. We became not only strangers to the tribes but also at times we became strangers to ourselves.The fact that we see the Israelites repeatedly appealing, first to Moses and then to God, to return them to Egypt exemplifies this unresolved conflict in the psyche of the people. They desperately want freedom, but something inside holds them back from fully embracing their new found freedom.
What we learn about refugees then and today is that being a stranger in a strange land creates a push-pull tension for the refugee. People are connected to their native culture, even if they never feel a part of the majority culture. They realize that they must leave, but it is still home, whether they reject it or not. So those past bonds, born in an unwelcoming culture, never leave the refugee. And that fear of change is always part and parcel of the refugee dilemma.
I cannot help but believe that because we are the ultimate refugee nation, we have a history of resisting whichever dominant culture we found ourselves living in the midst of in an attempt to preserve our unique culture and theology of being connected to God and Torah. On the other hand, we have turned away at times from Torah, regressing into mainstream culture, denying our unique cultural and religious heritage.
So when we became the exemplary refugee nation what did we do about it? We created, in later chapters of Torah, laws and statues about how we are supposed to restrain ourselves, and, especially how we are to treat strangers who are not one of us but ask to be part of the Jewish people. Furthermore the Torah mentions over 35 times the idea of our being a stranger nation, while, at the same time, recognizing that we were supposed to treat others better than we were treated during our years in the desert. Laws about treating the stranger with dignity and compassion and not oppressing them abound in the Torah. The genius of Judaism is that the texts bequeath us an ethos of compassion as to how we should treat other refugee peoples as well as ourselves.
That is part of the struggle which we Jews are dealing with these days with regard to immigration and national security issues today. We have embedded within us this time honored ethos to go out of our way to provide sanctuary for other refugee peoples, even if others did nothing for us. On the other side, the conflict that we fear from experience is that there were tribes like the Amalekites then and ISIS now who will, as they did in the Torah, strike us from behind. We are vulnerable that way and something about that vulnerability spooks us about letting refugees from parts of the Middle East into America. We know that sleeper cells from terrorist refugees already exist in our great land. We want to learn from history, and Amalek is a symbol of that betrayal and underhandedness that so many Americans are afraid of today.
We are going to explore this dichotomy tomorrow morning at our “Hot Topics Shabbat” when two of our congregants will present their perspectives on the meaning of being a stranger, in light of the pressures we face today about immigration to America. The exercise is not just to give their opinions on immigration but to explore Jewish sources and use them as a way of developing a position based upon their respective interpretations of those sources.
I spoke about this topic on Rosh Hashanah outlining the tensions for the Jewish community on welcoming immigrants from the Middle East. I reiterate now that I support a vigorous vetting for such immigrants and at the same time oppose quotas based upon religion. It is absolutely crucial that we, as Americans, do whatever we can to keep ourselves safe. At the same time, should we completely abdicate our nation’s ethos by closing the doors on those who deservedly seek refuge as strangers in our midst? I do not expect everyone to agree with me, but I do insist on situating my views within a specifically Jewish frame of reference. I recognize that there are valid and heartfelt disagreements on this policy issue. Right now the courts will decide this current issue of limiting immigration from seven primarily muslim nations, for us, and we will live with the results of the judiciary’s decision. This is the way we solve problems in our great nation.
People say we should avoid politics and religion. What does that mean? For a reform congregation and a movement that is dedicated to social justice it has meant, in my humble opinion, speaking out on major issues of the day. It also means not framing the issue in a partisan way, especially from the pulpit. I believe I have done so responsibly over the years I have served as Rabbi here and in the congregations I have served in my career. So I completely believe in not mixing partisan politics and religion. What I do not believe, however, is that we should ignore serious policy and social issues that go to the heart of Judaism’s ethical teachings about how we treat people in our society.
The exodus is our faith’s central narrative and it provides us with the platform to share Judaism’s ethos of humanity with the world. I respect the diversity of opinions about what our priorities should be in the case of opening the doors of immigration and welcoming the strangers in our midst. Can’t we have this discussion from a Torah perspective without it dividing us as a congregation?
Tuesday, February 7, 2017
Monday, February 6, 2017
When someone refers to another person as hard hearted we generally understand the underlying idea which is that that individual is cold, unfeeling, unconcerned, unsympathetic mean-spirited. There are many other words to describe a person like this. Yet, when it comes to the Torah portion in describing the attitude of Pharaoh as hard hearted and, secondly, that God caused him to be that way, we have to think a bit more carefully about what the Torah meant.
In the previous chapter Pharaoh asks Moses and Aaron, “ I have sinned this time, the Lord is righteous and I and my people are wicked.Please beseech the Lord for it is enough (the plagues) that their be no more mighty thunderings and hail; and I will let you go and you shall stay no longer.” It appears clear enough that Pharaoh realizes that his language not that he is a bad person but what he may have meant was that Moses god prevailed over his power and that he is acknowledging defeat.
By the time we get to chapter 10 Pharaoh reverses himself and it takes until later on in the chapter for God to bring down the final plague of the death of Egypt’s first born to finally break the will and grip Pharaoh had upon his own power let alone Israel. The opening verse of Chapter ten says, “God tells Moses to go unto Pharaoh,”for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants that I might show these signs before him.”(10:1).
I choose to focus on what it means to be hard hearted and how that played out for Pharaoh and for us as well. The entire drama between Pharaoh and Moses and Aaron is a kind of negotiation. I am not thinking about this as making a deal, but, it is a kind of power negotiation in order to make a deal. The question is who has the leverage? The one who has the greatest leverage gets the best part of the deal. Moses is the returned Jew leading a slave rebellion with no army or weapons. Pharaoh may have been the most powerful man in the world who bends to Moses at the end and leads the Israelites to freedom. With God’s help, therefore, Moses had the greatest leverage over Pharaoh.
Was Pharaoh’s flaw was his own emotions and his deep-seated jealously of Moses from the time they grew up together? Yes, his pride as the reigning monarch of Egypt adds pressure to his stubbornness. I come back each time to the point that even though he realized Moses had the power of God over him and knew it would be best to let them go something inside Pharaoh said no. I maintain we are now talking about the inner relations going back to childhood between both leaders. Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers and Moses and Pharaoh. All these brothers deal with rivalries that lead to conflict and, in one case, murder.Isn’t it reasonable to postulate that the underlying aspect of this power struggle reported in Exodus comes from those unresolved conflicts stemming back to their childhood?
How can brothers hurt each other this way? How can sisters do it as well? Why do we become so hard hearted with family that we are willing to risk and destroy relationships? Is this what religion and Judaism, in particular, teaches us? Yet this is exactly what we see so often in the Patriarchal narratives of Genesis and now in this week’s Torah portion. Notice in the previously mentioned narratives in Genesis, only Joseph was able to rise above his anger at his brothers to reconcile. The rest of them never do. At best Jacob and Esau go their own way.
It is true that the Torah never reveals this idea and I am projecting my own thoughts onto the story even though I have no evidence to buttress my point. Yet, we all know the nature of people and most of us have probably experienced at some point of our lives a parting of the ways with a relative. Have we ever had or witnessed that feeling of such deep seated hostility and desire to hurt inside another person regardless of the consequences? My impression is that his embedded hostility towards Moses overtook his real politique intuition or strategy to expel the Israelites because it was in Egypt’s interest to do so after the devastating effects of the plagues.
I wonder if it is too convenient for us to identify with Moses and forget that we have Pharaoh in us as well. I interpret the verse that “God hardened the heart of Pharaoh” not literally but as a way of simply describing that entrenched resentment, anger, and jealousy of his exiled adoptive brother.
When we have a lifetime of built up or pent up hostility towards a family member, it is, admittedly, difficult to change the direction of those emotions. Surely Pharaoh cared deeply about his relationship with his adopted brother while at the same time despising him. That dichotomy is the core conflict, in my estimation, between the two leaders. It is also the same tension that people since time in-memorial have experienced because it is part of being human.
The challenge for us all is how to manage those emotions and to see how self destructive those emotions are and how others in the family suffer because of our inability to cope with them. That is the real tragedy of the story of Pharaoh because of his hard heartedness so many in Egypt unnecessarily died from a plague or the soldiers from chasing the people into the Sea of Reeds.
Whether we are talking about national leaders who demonstrate that kind of uncaring and cold feeling to a nation or just the members of a family the lesson of the story of Pharaoh in this week’s Torah portion send us a message of the consequences of unbridled anger. It is a lesson we can all heed no matter what age.