The new episode is published!!! Listen and read the show notes here!
Rabbi Dan Ross and I co-host once again. On “The Good Place”, Eleanor tries both to keep and not keep her promises to Michael — and on the podcast, Dan and I trade stories of dog-watching gone wrong and explore why promising is such a big, Yom-Kippur-level matter in Judaism. (That's Dan below!)
That's Rabbi Sari Laufer, my partner for Chapter 5 of Tov!
"To Measure or Not to Measure" -- on “The Good Place” Eleanor is excited when she is polite for the first time without thinking, Tahani’s philanthropy doesn't score enough points with her parents or the algorithm, and Chidi doesn’t find pleasure in doing the most good. So on the podcast Jon has his first stomach ache and Sari Laufer (new rabbi on the team) helps us think more about where measuring goodness does and doesn’t make sense. Oh, and where intellectual vs. sensual pleasure fits in!
Check it out here or wherever you get podcasts!
On “The Good Place” Michael tries to guide Chidi and Janet toward new things, but it’s Eleanor who finds unexpected inspiration because of Tahani. So on the podcast, Jon Spira-Savett and Audrey Marcus Berkman explore reincarnation Jewish-style and who the teacher you need turns out to be.
Posted at 08:45 AM in Calendar, Education, Elul, Ethics, Foregiveness, High Holidays, Holidays, Hope, Jewish Education, Leadership, Middot, Rosh Hashanah, Soul, Spirituality, Study, Talmud, Teacher-Student Relationship, Television, Teshuvah, Torah, Yamim Noraim, Yom Kippur, Young Jewish Adult, Youth | Permalink | Comments (0)
If you're a fan of "The Good Place" and at all connected to Jews or Judaism, try out my new podcast that I'm creating with a bunch of colleagues!
Tov! is on all the major podcast platforms, and it will be a fun and interesting way to explore some Jewish texts and ideas. Check out the website for episodes and show notes, or search for it in your app and try it out!
It's launching right as we begin Elul, the month in the Jewish calendar leading to Rosh Hashanah. This is the time of year when we're all Eleanor Shellstrop, trying to improve our lives as though everything is in the balance.
Posted at 11:06 AM in Calendar, Education, Ethics, Foregiveness, Gossip, Harry Potter, High Holidays, Holidays, Hope, Jewish Education, Lashon Hara, Leadership, Middot, Rosh Hashanah, Soul, Study, Talmud, Television, Teshuvah, Tikkun Olam, Tzedakah, Web/Tech, Weblogs, Yamim Noraim, Young Jewish Adult, Youth | Permalink | Comments (0)
This is the D'var Torah I gave on Saturday, July 17, Shabbat Chazon -- the Shabbat preceding the fast of Tisha B'Av, which commemorates the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the Romans.
I want to tell you a story from the Talmud often taught at this time of year, around the fast of Tisha B’Av. But first I want you to take a minute and think about the Jewish person who is most unlike you as a Jew. The Jew or the Jewish group you find it hard to admire, or who is hardest for you to feel connected to as a fellow Jew.
Here is the story (Babylonian Talmud Gittin 55b):
Because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, Jerusalem was destroyed.
It happened this way: A certain man had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy called Bar Kamtza. He once made a party and said to his servant, “Go and bring Kamtza.” The servant went and brought Bar Kamtza.
When the man who gave the party found Bar Kamtza there he said, “See, you are my enemy; what are you doing here? Get out!” Said the other: “Since I am already here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.”
Said the host: “Absolutely not.”
“Then let me give you half the cost of the party.”
The host refused.
“Then let me pay for the whole party.”
Still the host refused, and took him by the hand and threw him out.
Said Bar Kamtza, “Since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and inform against them to the government.”
He went and said to the emperor, “The Jews are rebelling against you.”
Said the emperor, “How can I know that this is true?”
“Send them an offering,” said Bar Kamtza, “and see whether they will offer it on the altar.”
So he sent with him a fine calf. While on the way he made a blemish on its upper lip (or some say, on the white of its eye)—in a place where we Jews count it a blemish but they Romans do not.
The rabbis were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the government. Said Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas to them: “People will say that blemished animals are offered on the altar.” They then proposed to kill Bar Kamtza so that he should not go and inform against them, but Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas said to them, “Is one who makes a blemish on consecrated animals to be put to death?”
Rabbi Yochanan thereupon remarked: “Because of the scrupulousness of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt, and we ourselves exiled from our land.”
This story from the Talmud is retold often around Tisha B’Av, part of the idea that the Second Temple was destroyed because of gratuitous hatred among Jews, sin’at chinam.
There is a lot here in the story and I’m not going to give you a complete analysis. But a few things stand out particularly to me this year:
The last issue is particularly worth our attention, always and especially this year. Jews argue and Jews don’t all get along always. Conflict is built into Torah and Talmud, and into Jewish culture. The good version of this is called machloket l’shem shamayim, disagreement and even division for the sake of Heaven. It goes hand in hand with Ahavat Yisrael, love of the Jewish people and love of Jews generally, beyond one’s own community and the Jews at your own Shabbes table or your own synagogue.
I do think what happened here is that a Jewish fight got turned into a Roman one, and the rabbis stood there and let it happen. They didn’t ask what Jewish ethics had to say about these two people in an uncomfortable situation, who maybe were enemies for a good reason. The rabbis got stuck on technical rituals questions and didn’t see the bigger human picture. So the Talmud here doesn’t blame the destruction of the Temple on the Romans; or on Bar Kamtza, the Jew who sold out Jews to the Romans; but on the rabbis who could have turned this around.
Bar Kamtza didn’t act well but we understand he was hurt. The rabbis didn’t act well because they didn’t put ritual and relationships together. And they got so focused on Bar Kamtza that they forget the Romans were a much worse enemy, a much bigger issue. The rabbis and Kamtza and bar Kamtza could have all gotten on the same side of that.
I’m very much feeling like our Jewish community’s conflicts today are being Romanized, so to speak. Americanized. And this story and the Tisha B’Av fast day are reminders to deal with our conflicts Jewishly. Ahavat Yisrael for me has always been about forcing myself to ask: Who is the Jew who is least like me, whom I have the hardest time feeling connected to. Then looking for a connection of friendship or admiration with someone in such a group. For me it’s a nice long list of Jews different from me who are hard for me. It’s charedi Jews, and West Bank settlers, and completely secular you-can’t- possibly-lure-me-into-shul-no-matter-how-good-the-music-or-food-or-your-sermon. I have to work at that. That’s not what modern day Romans do. Rather than get sucked in more to American-style conflict, I can find ways to love and connect that don’t sell out my integrity. I might even find something that my own Bar Kamtza and I both care about, a moral issue that we can work on together.
There is a tremendous example of Ahavat Yisrael that took place recently, from the new Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett. The speech he gave in the Knesset introducing the leaders in his new government was a like mashup of announcing the starting lineup for the Celtics at the Garden and a book club summary of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.
Prime Minister Bennett presented by name, with affection, the leader of each party in his government and the specific good each one was going to work on for Israel. More of these partners than not are ideologically opposed to him in some profound way. I know this was politics, but he turned a moment of just enough votes in the Knesset to an expansive and generous and forward-looking, hopeful moment. It went even beyond Jews, as the new prime minister even gave a shout out for Mansour Abbas of the Arab Ra’am party.
Bennett did this while the country was hardly out of war with Gaza and just beyond fighting in the streets between Jews and Arabs. He did this with all the emotion in the air around former Prime Minister Netanyahu, and he did this while death threats were being made members of his political party and the new government. I would say you should read the speech, but it’s not soaring, it’s not a great read. It’s just the fact of it. Prime Minister Bennett found a way for Kamtza and Bar Kamtza to fight the Romans instead of each other. And the Romans are worth fighting together even if you’re not going to be actually friends. In my proudest, Jewish-egotistical way I would say only a Jew could have pulled this off.
So we might all learn from that. We should try to find a way to say something true and sincere and generous about Jews we’re not like. And as part of that, we have to love ourselves as Jews – you for your own Jewish life, us for our shul’s Jewish life. We have to do better at making sure that there are many good and admirable things that a Jew so different would say about us.
There is a cost to Ahavat Yisrael, to putting this much value on loving all other Jews. Whenever you set aside even for a minute an ideological debate, you are putting on hold a belief you hold because other people’s wellbeing depends on that core belief. There’s a cost, no doubt.
But Ahavat Yisrael is a model not for when to give up our principles, but for how to enlarge our world. For saying: there’s a person unlike me who isn’t only my opponent, who isn’t all the timeworking against what’s important to me, and who I hate to say might be a role model for me in some way.
When I think of the charedi community or the settlements, I know there’s a tight-knit quality and a commitment to taking care of each other that I want more of in our community and that I want to imitate. When I think of the most secular Jews I know, I often find an honesty, a straightforward path toward moral commitments, that I want to work at more.
We Jews have more history than anyone of suffering because of our divisions -- losing life and losing our land and losing each other. We also have more history than anyone of enduringbecause we figured out how to be divided. We are resilient because we’ve learned to be at the same party, as Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. Our divisions have not destroyed us; sometimes they have helped us grow. I know my own Judaism is stronger because of the Orthodoxy I reject in my own life, because of the Reform I reject in my own life, because of the Israeliness I chose not to pursue in my own life.
Who knows if this is the gift we’re supposed to find for our time. To find our Ahavat Yisrael, our love of Jews, and machloket l’shem shamayim, division focused around things that matter. Who knows, we could spread this out to the Romans, to the Americans. At least we can try not to be swept up on other people’s terms in the divisiveness of the moment.
So as we go into Tisha B’av, let’s each think about the Jew who pushes our buttons, whether that’s here locally or anywhere in the Jewish world. Find something to admire or like or chuckle about. Find an idea from them that challenges you in a good way, and be thankful and gracious. Imagine a party we can all be at together -- or at least a Kiddush after services.
These were my words of Torah at the start of Temple Beth Abraham's annual congregational meeting on June 15, 2021. Though they refer specifically to that occasion in places, I think the Torah here is apt for all of us as we reflect on the past fifteen months and the transitions we in, each in our own way. I shared a version of this as a Shabbat D'var Torah the prior weekend.
It was taught among our early rabbis:
Rabban Gamliel said:
One time I was going on a ship, and I saw another ship broken apart
And I was in pain because of a brilliant sage who was on it
– and who was it: Rabbi Akiva.
But when I went up onto dry land, he sat and discussed in front of me a matter of Jewish law, halacha.
I said to him: My son, who lifted you up from the sea?
He said to me: a plank [from a ship] happened to come to me, and every single wave that came over me, I nodded my head toward it.
This story from the Talmud is a Jewish version and elaboration of the saying that we’re not all the same boat but we are all in the same storm.
Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Akiva experience a storm in very different ways. Rabban Gamliel was on a ship that was safe, even though it was tossed around, seeing other ships that are wrecked, and knowing some people have been lost, and some Torah in particular gone.
Rabbi Akiva was thrown from his ship, and the way he sees it, it’s only by fortune that he finds a plank to hold on to. He says that he nodded his head toward each wave as it came. Some interpret this to mean that he lowered his head, so the wave wouldn’t throw him off his board. Some say he nodded, to acknowledge the wave and its power much greater than any he had – a power to harm him or to bring him ultimately to the shore.
Rabban Gamliel is the one who tells the story. Rabbi Akiva, he says, starts discussing points of Jewish law, which is presumably what the two of them used to do on dry land before. But Rabban Gamliel stops him, and asks to hear his story. I think Rabban Gamliel was worried about his friend and student. Because Rabbi Akiva hadn’t been one just to sit and discuss the rules on their surface. He had been one of the most creative sages, an activist, a spiritual master -- and Rabban Gamliel fears that Akiva is not all there.
It’s a hard thing to ask after a storm, when someone seems to want to go back to business as before and pick up what you used to do together. It’s hard because when Gamliel says who saved you, Akiva says: It’s not a who. I got lucky. This plank came. He doesn’t say whether he thinks it was God. He tells a story of having to bow his head low and relives that.
There might be some resentment between the two rabbis, let’s be honest. Why did you have an easier time through the storm? Why did you worry about me and my ship from afar and not come by to help lift me up?
And yet Rabban Gamliel gets Rabbi Akiva to make a kind of Freudian slip in Hebrew. Akiva calls the plank of the broken ship a daf, which also means a page. A page in a book, a book of Torah, a folio of Talmud; a page in the story of a life; a page of our history together as Jews. A page came to me and saved me, and from that page I could turn toward the enormous wave and nod. Rabban Gamliel helps Rabbi Akiva perhaps begin to see that the story of the storm is not the only story. It’s not even the only storm. It’s certainly not the only trial in Akiva’s life, this Rabban Gamliel knows, and together perhaps they can start to tell a story of how each in their way arrived at the shore, and where that story fits into the dapim, the pages and planks that build the story of both their lives, and of their common life.
We have all been in a storm, and I’ll speak for myself, some days I feel like I’m walking onto the shore and other days I feel like I am still in the storm. I talk to people among you each day, who report being on a ship or a plank or on the shore. From the ship I have been fortunate to be on – a ship of my own family, a ship of community and colleagueship among local pastors and national rabbis – I have seen other ships broken apart, and not all of those ships left planks for people to hold onto. We in our Temple community have lost – people have died this past year and not only because of the pandemic. We have lost 5 people at least in our congregational families to COVID-19, and about ten percent of our households have had at least one person sick, and at least ten percent of our households have experienced the loss of a job or income since a year ago March. And so many other losses, of stability and friendship and connection and wellbeing.
Our ships and our planks and our pages – what you had, what you found, what you held onto or made into something, what you remembered as a source of hope -- so many of these the past fifteen months. And there have been waves aplenty, not only of disease but around national leadership and equality in our land. I see the waves that Rabbi Akiva nodded at, as representing his realization that in a storm you see what the truly profound forces are, what is deep and powerful. Or maybe you get a glimpse, you feel it – and you talk when you get back to land.
For us as a community, it’s important to realize that people experienced this storm differently, and also that plenty have not reached the shore yet. Let’s be generous with each other – don’t make assumptions, about where someone else is at, whether they are ready to come out or come here or give a handshake or a hug. We will continue to be a hybrid congregation, and work hard at doing that well. There are conversations to have about halacha, about matters of law and behavior; and there are the joys of conversations we so want to resume, with the people here we have missed. But somewhere too is the conversation that Rabban Gamliel invited Rabbi Akiva to have – about what you experienced, what was hard, what you learned, what gives you hope. It’s not healthy to leave those behind. It’s not what Sages do, to skip that entirely – and I look out and see so many wise people here. So I hope we each get the Rabban Gamliel we need, who will listen to our story, and for someone else who was Akiva this year, you might yourself be Gamliel.
The purpose of our community and our institution is to be the ship and the shore, and even the plank and the page, through times that are stormy and God willing less so. Tonight we look at the ship’s sturdy hull and soaring sails, and chart voyages and landfalls that lay ahead. May they be good and safe and joyful, for you and for all of us together.
This was my D'var Torah for Saturday, June 19, 2021, Parashat Chukkat. The article I reference at the start is really good, in ways that somewhat connect to my theme and also jump off in another important direction.
I was in the middle of thinking about the parah adumah -- the red heifer with its potpouri of potion parts that would be very at home in a Harry Potter book -- when I came across an e-mail from The Forward titled, “Has Shabbat become just another form of #self-care?” In one corner is the idea that Jewish practices are good for us in a self-care sense, on secular terms -- we need rest, we need to unplug, we need not to let seven days go by without calming and resetting. In the opposite corner is the red heifer, the most inscrutable practice in all of Torah.
In Midrash B’midbar Rabbah, we learn that a Roman pagan asked Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai specifically about the parah adumah: "These rituals you do, they seem like witchcraft! You bring a heifer, burn it, crush it up, and take its ashes. If one of you is impure by the dead, two or three drops are sprinkled on him, and you declare him pure?!" Rabban Yochanan said to the pagan, "Has a restless spirit ever entered you?" He said to him, "No!" "Have you ever seen a man where a restless spirit entered him?" He said to him, "Yes!" ..."And what did you do for him?" He said to him, "We brought roots and made them smoke beneath him, and poured water and the spirit fled." Rabban Yochanan said to him, "Your ears should hear what leaves from your mouth! The same thing is true for this spirit, the spirit of impurity...They sprinkle upon him purifying waters, and the spirit of impurity flees." After he left the rabbi's students said, "You got rid of him with a skimpy response, a thin reed. What will you say to us?" Rabban Yochanan said to them, "By your lives, a dead person doesn't make things impure, and the water doesn't make things pure. Rather, God said, 'I have engraved a rule, a chok -- I have decreed a decree and you have no permission to transgress what I decreed, as the parasha begins: ‘This is a chok [rule] of the Torah.’
To the Roman pagan, Rabban Yochanan says: You and I know that certain things work, and maybe what Jews are doing seems like magic to you but we’ve all got a common language of self-help. The red heifer is a kind of medicine; it makes us better. But to his own students, he says: There’s no explanation in this case, but we have to do it anyway. It is one of the chukkim, one of the inscrutable laws that are mitzvot just because the Divine has commanded, no other reason.
I do not think that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai believed that everything in Torah is like the red heifer, the parah adumah. Not everything is one of the chukkim, the impenetrable laws. But I admit I like his answer to the Roman. Not the outdated medicine part, but the idea that there’s a function to the practice that we could figure out, and it’s good for a person. In fact, in spite of what Rabban Yochanan says to his own students, Jewish tradition does try to interpret the elements of parah adumah potion -- the cedar, the hyssop, the scarlet -- to try to find a purpose for each element. Something for us to meditate on that will help us heal our souls or something that symbolizes how to become better people.
But at the same time, we have this phrase that is familiar from many prayers and the Torah -- chukkim u’mishpatim. In Jewish thought, chukkim are those practices that are or seem beyond our comprehension, while mishpatim are practices or rules that are socially valuable or valuable to our personal lives. Chukkim come first in this phrase -- the irrational laws before the functional ones. Some would say it's the chukkim that define religion as religion.
But trying to make most things in Judaism like the red heifer, something we do to prove that we can serve something other than ourselves -- that can lead in absurd directions and dangerous directions too. We here wouldn’t buy that. The Torah itself says later that other peoples look at Israel and our ways and say that only a wise and understanding nation could live in such a way. Wisdom, meaning wisdom to apply to life -- not just awe and obedience.
So, some Jewish philosophers have suggested that the Torah of revelation is a short-cut, because most of us don’t have the time or energy or wisdom to figure out for ourselves what is good for us.
And yet -- the problem with Shabbat as #self-care is that if we can explain Jewish practices always in terms of a purpose, is that really Judaism? Isn't that just looking back at ourselves? Surely we could design from scratch a weekly rest and even some rituals that give us rest, build community, and even move us toward kindness and justice that are more direct and easier, without the mumbo-jumbo and the details we don't get.
So where does that leave us, as far as chukkum u'mishpatim? Can we have both the red heifer and #Shabbat-as-self-care?
A big part of me thinks that if Judaism can be taught in terms of self-care -- dayenu. We certainly don’t suffer from a lack of self-care and grounding in our lives and this current world. If Judaism can be a vehicle for that, even if it’s for reasons that aren’t completely coherent intellectually, that’s not bad at all.
But my real answer comes sort of from the red heifer. It comes from magic -- specifically, the magic of Harry Potter world.
To me the genius of Harry Potter is not that it takes place in an alternative universe, although it’s true that Muggles can’t go to Hogwarts. To me, the big khap is that the magical world is layered on top of our world. If you are fortunate enough to have inherited the capacity for magic, you can see things others in London don’t see, and you have special powers too.
And my favorite locale in the universe of Harry Potter is Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station. To get from the regular city onto the train to Hogwarts, you have to run into a brick pillar. It really is a brick wall, and you run at it and into it. It looks impenetrable -- like trying to understand the red heifer. But your propensity for magic, even before you are well-trained in it, allows you to get through it, to the train that will take you to the special school, where you learn where you fit into the magic world layered on top of the world most people see. Where you struggle with how to make the potions that work and rescue, and you complain about the teachers, and you wonder whether it all makes sense.
Judaism, all its practices and rhythms and even the ethics that you could pick up elsewhere, are a magical world layered onto our world. To get there does require flinging yourself at brick walls -- red heifers, practices that aren’t obvious, Hebrew words, sometimes Aramaic -- but when we do go at them full speed, we see that we are connected to a bigger story. Our daily lives, our friendships, our rivalries even, our powers are all connected to a bigger story -- the Torah story, the Exodus, the story of redeeming and completing this world. Every Shabbat is part of that story, every word of our Siddur is, every specific ritual is. They don’t all make sense one by one; yet each is a piece that whole tapestry.
Being part of that story involves taking care of ourselves. Because being the person or the people who deserve care and rest and joy is itself one of the main points of the story and of Jewish history. Because Shabbat rest and ritual celebration are what allow us to glimpse where the story is heading. Our individual acts and each piece of the Torah, even the strange parts, are part of a much larger book we are playing a part in.
So whether it’s the parah adumah, the red heifer, or Kashrut or Shabbat or the Hebrew language, fling yourself at the brick walls of Judaism. Believe that the grape juice at kiddush is a magic potion, more than just the sugary chemicals in it, and enjoy the sweetness too. Keep flinging yourself, and don’t settle for easy but incomplete explanations on this side of the wall. It’s not bruises or intellectual brick walls ahead, but a deep care for you, and special powers for you and us together. It’s not just sensible; it’s magic.
I've had fun making these, and hopefully you'll enjoy learning a bit about Purim and the month of Adar, one short bit at a time. A couple more are coming in the next few days. "Hamentashen for thought"!
You can click on the video and watch it here, expand it, or click on the three horizontal lines toward the top that appear, which will reveal the whole playlist.
I am posting this just after seeing that the U.S. House has voted to impeach President Trump for his actions leading to the violence at the Capitol one week ago. This is from the D'var Torah I gave on the Shabbat of Shmini Atzeret, the end of the festival of Sukkot, Saturday, October 10, 2020. This was a few weeks before Election Day. It is a charge about peace during the difficult time that was coming and that continues in this country. I drew out how the symbols and rituals connected to "Sukkat Shalom" (a temporary shelter of peace) might guide us. We are still in a time that requires the kind of Shalom-making I describe here. That Shalom is more than avoidance, and it has a moral and spiritual cost even though it is an imperative. This is not all I have to say today and in the coming days.
What’s next for us after our holy season in 5781 is the election season of 2020…. My own week of Sukkot has been about contemplating Sukkat Shalom, Sukkot as a training about peace.
The Geonim taught that the blessing over Lulav and Etrog is said each morning of Sukkot right after the blessings of peace that conclude the Amidah – the Birkat Kohanim(the priestly blessing of peace), Sim Shalom, Oseh Shalom.
They taught that we need to accumulate blessings of peace on the way to Lulav and Etrog, because the ritual involves four species that are so different and distant and hard to put together into one. Our tradition takes the four species to represent vastly different kinds of people. Palm, citron, myrtle and willow have smell and taste, or one or the other, or neither one at all. The midrash compares this to how Jews come in different combinations – those with great Torah and great mitzvot (deeds), those with great Torah and few mitzvot, those with great mitzvot but little Torah, those with very little or none of either. Holding the four species together in one bundle is about the difficulty of holding together such a group. Four species that don’t by their nature automatically come together.
In that bundle, the Etrog looks like the heart. It has both a beautiful fragrance and a sharp taste – just as those with both Torah wisdom and goodness are the heart of a community. But the community is the whole bundle. The four species are so different and have different logics to how they live, and we are commanded to bring them together in one bundle of peace. Not a surface peace, but a challenging and dynamic one, a peace that has to be demonstrated each day of Sukkot. A peace that requires effort, working your way by concentrating on constant reminders of what Shalom could be. You cannot fulfill the mitzvah of Lulav unless the bundle is one you yourself have acquired. There’s no shortcut – you cannot use a stolen Lulav in Jewish law. You cannot have peace without acquiring it legitimately. There is no shortcut. You cannot have peace without actually wrestling with difference and division in the logics of how people live.
In the coming month until Election Day, and a period of time to follow, a fundamental imperative will be Shalom – peace that is dynamic, acquired, recognizing difference and tension, built around Torah and righteous action. Difficult peace.
At the heart of this will be anyone willing to be like an Etrog. A heart connected to what seem like different species, to people who are strong in wisdom and knowledge, and who are weak in them; to people who are strong in actions of goodness, and who are weak in them.
How fascinating that the Torah did not ask us to take a sweeter fruit instead. The Etrog, the heart, has to announce the fragrance it has, and it has to challenge with the sharp taste it has. The Etrog is held next to the Lulav, the palm that draws its strength from deep sources, from deep water that is true no matter what storms are in the sky or not in the coming season, no matter what water is flowing on the surface or not.
I am wearing this kippah today, the one with the Jewish star and the American flag, and will continue to wear it daily through the election and beyond. My nation, my values, my community. The Shalom imperative of this next period is something I am taking on along with other clergy leaders in our area. Hareini m’kabel alai – we take it on for our congregations and for this Nashua area.
This month and the next few are not going to be the months when we reach the long-term and deep solutions we need in America. We are not going to solve the issues of justice and suffering while we are voting, and counting votes, and in the waiting period that might follow. We are not going to be able to get to work on long-term solutions in the period right after the election is settled while many people are hurt and confused and disoriented and angry, which will be the case for more people than ever, even more than today, no matter who wins.
So as we take down our ritual Sukkot, we need to build another kind of Sukkat Shalom, a temporary and fragile Sukkah held up by those who are committed to peace on many levels – to nonviolent responses, to reaching out even to those who are deficient in Torah or deficient in good deeds or deficient in both. To speak to and draw out more of any Torah they have, any good deeds they have. This is a Sukkat Shalom we will need to hold up for a period of time but not for longer than necessary, to enable us to walk truly into a new American year, a new phase in this country.
We will hold it up, myself and my clergy colleagues and any of you who choose to join in this work. We will hold it up as a shelter, as a house of Sarah and Avraham where any can talk who is willing to talk, even if you are not ready yet to talk toward agreement. We will hold it up as a Sanctuary, for anyone who needs a quiet and safe place to pray or reflect or for any who are disoriented. This place here where I am standing, and other churches in our community, will be those shelters of Shalom.
Our clergy will hold up a Sukkah of peace in the public square, on Main Street and in the papers, by calling publicly for nonviolence before and after the election. We will do what we did four years ago in our Men’s Club political breakfast, when I got a commitment from then-Senator Ayotte and now-Senator Hassan to meet a group of us two days after the election to make a public show of Shalom. We have begun to approach the authorities in Nashua to offer ourselves, because we need to prepare and we need our authorities to be prepared. One spark in the wrong place can cause things to get out of hand. We need people of Shalom to be driving the response to any conflict we have, not people of violence.
A time that elevates peace above other things for a time means assuming responsibility for those whose suffering will not be addressed in the period of Sukkat Shalom. The suffering because of COVID-19 and around racial injustice is not distributed evenly, and calling for peace first means taking responsibility for delaying what many people need. So I and my clergy colleagues need to back that up with a commitment to stand up for those bearing the brunt nonetheless, and to make sure that peace is not an excuse to push off everything else indefinitely. A Sukkah that can stand for too long is no longer a kosher Sukkah. Already, the conflicts in our society that have pushed off the moral imperatives of our day give us much to repent for.
And if in this time of seeking peace any group is targeted for intimidation or worse, the Sukkat Shalom must shelter and protect them, and not trade them for a false peace. That could be us, by the way, who are targeted – Jews generally; members of our community who are people of color or LGBTQ+ or immigrants. People will stand by us if that happens and we need to stand up for others.
Shalom means lifting up the example of those leaders who embody a true solidarity. We need those models, especially in our political leaders. It has fallen too hard on local leaders to be the only figures of such solidarity.
Shalom means holding to account those who advocate policies we want but who are themselves divisive. It means asking those we know on the other side politically to do the same when they point the finger only our way.
So I will wear this kippah to show this commitment to Shalom. In this spirit I have been reaching out and will continue to do so – to fellow religious leaders in the area who are my longtime partners and my emerging ones, to leaders of groups I do not have relationships so deep with, to leaders of groups whose vulnerability I worry about. To members of this congregation whose commitments I respect and admire, to members of this congregation who express themselves politically with whom I am solidarity even though we do not have the same outlook on social questions of the day.
We will need in the coming months some backing off and cooling off, and some compromise, and those will be the right thing at times as long as we don’t mistake them for the truest Shalom. They will not last on their own. They haven’t until now. We have tried too long in America to find Shalom only by cooling off and compromising and pushing off until later.
But real Shalom is not avoidant and it is not shallow. It is not the lowest common denominator.
Peace comes only through people who are like the Etrog -- who probe their deeds and probe their Torah, who have both an inviting fragrance and a sharp flavor, who know that even a fruit that is beautiful has to be cultivated again and again.
The America we need will not come from violence, nor will it come from avoiding conflict. It will come in the period following a Sukkat Shalom, a dynamic and hard peace held up by those who will step forward and actively hold it.
I hope that my fears and preparations are overblown and not so needed – that the worst we have is unhappiness this month and next, not outright conflict – but the preparation is good no matter what. Though my words are solemn, I speak them in the same hope I taught on Rosh Hashanah: seeing myself and others step up in worthwhile action on behalf of people we care about, including you and others.
I shall keep wearing this kippah. As we turn to Yizkor (memorial prayers), I will reach to the example of ancestors who faced challenges as serious as the ones we do and pray that their merits will inspire and bless us, as we finally step out of Elul and Tishrei into the year it is our destiny to build for our country.