This was my Dvar Torah for (Zoom) services on June 6, 2020. I'm making reference here to the Bar Mitzvah of Seth Brown.
I want to thank the Browns again for this simcha and as I told them, usually my words of Torah are light on days like this, but sometimes the world thrusts events at us that call for some Torah that can’t wait. So I will take a few minutes for words of Torah after the week we have had. I am going to speak quietly and with humility, not pretending to be possessed of every insight about race in America or to be a tzaddik myself in this area. I will add some more to this at our program on Monday evening.
And this is Torah from a particular point of view, the Torah of this particular Jew who is white and has many privileges, who has been thinking most of all about the black people who are closest to me, namely my own cousins and members of this Temple community, some of whom are children. I have been thinking about how I see the world and change in the world, because of where I come from. My formative experiences center on the mid- to late-1970s. Saturday night TV in that time in my house was The Jeffersons, Bridget Loves Bernie, Mary Tyler Moore – the television of a world moving toward integration of every kind – and I was a Sesame Street child, who took for granted Gordon and Susan and Bob and Luis and Maria. In there was the struggle for Soviet Jewry, which was everywhere in my Jewish world, and seemed like the same thing.
And one of the records always playing in my home was Marlo Thomas’s “ Free to Be You and Me.” Here’s the verse that for a long time was my anthem: “There’s a land that I see where the children are free, and I say it ain’t far to that land from where we are.”
I was taught to see that better world not too far away, to know it wasn’t here but to believe it was being created by people like my parents and their friends and my teachers and by me and my friends. The question I never had until a few years ago is how far is that land, really, from where we are. If it has taken so long to get there since the mid-1970s, is that because it is in fact farther than I thought, or is it close enough to see but there is a river in between with dangerous rapids and we have not built the bridge, is it close enough but we have for some reason refused to pay the money to clear the road that would get us there straight and fast.
Or to say it like the Torah would, as we are in the book of Numbers -- why is such a short walk from Egypt to the promised land taking forty years.
So what is the basic spiritual outlook of someone trying to get us to that land?
In the Talmud (Yerushalmi Nedarim) two rabbis debate: If you had to sum up the Torah, basically, how would you do it? Rabbi Akiva says that the most important principle of the Torah is in Leviticus, “Love your neighbor like yourself” (19:18). Ben Azzai, who was a younger scholar, said it’s a different verse, from back in Genesis: “This is the book of the story of humanity: In the day God created the human, in the likeness of God God created him" (5:1).
Rabbi Akiva says: It’s all about of love of other people, and the action that flows from that love. The major thing is to stretch yourself – first to the limit of the comfort zone you have with people who are like you, and then a bit beyond that. Get to the person who is near you, and figure out how they are not basically different from you but basically like you. There is effort to care, the effort is to look for something in common, and the effort is actually to do something helpful or caring.
Ben Azzai says, basically, Okay Boomer. Flower child. Love is great, but if you’re really loving you’re going to reach a limit pretty soon. We can only love so many people. It’s exhausting and there’s going to be resistance because of that. At some point you’ll make your neighborhood of concern bigger, sure, and then you’ll stop and you’ll decide that the other people aren’t your neighbor. You’ll say that you can’t find anything like yourself, you tried but you couldn’t. You’ll start coming up with reasons not to love certain people.
No, says Ben Azzai, we need a bigger frame. This is the book of the story of all humanity. If you’re going to stretch, stretch your imagination to include all people. In the Torah, a book is a place to keep records. A book is bigger than our hearts. It’s where the data is, whether we have an emotional attachment to it or not. And we know that a book is also stories, and stories take us farther than neighbors can and stories get us talking about them. Books and stories are going to take us to neighborhoods we’re just not going to get to otherwise even in our own towns, to prisons we’re never going to visit ourselves. Get some data, learn some history. Learn where your neighborhood itself comes from, who built it.
Rabbi Akiva would say back: You young people, you think you share enough brilliant articles on Facebook you’ll change the world. The brain might see farther than the heart, but it is weaker. If you learn more than you can do, you are in danger of overwhelm, and of not being able to see an ending that’s different from the terrible stories that have been told so far. At some point you have to decide to care, or you have to decide to act, and you can only do that by knowing someone new or by knowing someone familiar in a new way. So work on stretching what like-yourself means to you. And when you made your neighborhood a bit bigger, now try to love all the neighborhoods in your city. This is how it really works. Most people need relationships to change. We don’t have a book with the right ending yet, because no one has written it, and the only way to write it is to love our way there.
Who’s right – I find something compelling in both approaches and both critiques. I wish I knew if one was more right. But be one of them, commit to at least one of these middot, these qualities, and get someone to hold you accountable. If you’re an Akiva, get yourself an Akiva-guide and also a Ben Azzai to challenge you, and vice versa. Please please, I beg you here, please hold me accountable.
I would like to think that this week’s protests happened because we have all been living for weeks in a daily reality of being more attuned than usual to life and death. The germ that is killing is literally novel, that’s its very name, and we have been hiding because that’s what is necessary. The way George Floyd was killed – from that we have been hiding too long. We have been saving lives for months now, lives we know and lives of strangers we can’t see, all of a sudden we’ve been doing it, and at great personal discomfort and sacrifice. When it comes to black lives, why can’t we do the same.