These were my words at services on Shabbat morning.
I may have been the last adult in New York City to be aware that the attack on the World Trade Center towers had occurred. Laurie went to work in midtown, and I was home with two-and-a-half-year-old Alex getting ready for an upcoming trip to my parents, both to celebrate my father’s 65th birthday and to lead Rosh Hashanah services at our family’s small congregation. Alex and I were sitting in his room going through his long sleeve shirts from the previous winter to find something warm enough to take. At some point we were going to go out to Forest Hills High School and vote in the primary for Mayor Giuliani’s successor. The phone rang a few times in the other room, more than usual for a morning, but we were busy and I ignored it.
Around 11 the phone rang again and so I picked it up. It was Laurie, calling from her office in Midtown, and she said something like, “Did you hear what happened? It’s the biggest terrorist attack ever.” I assumed she meant some horrible thing happened in Israel; that’s what terrorism meant to me. But she told me the World Trade Center towers were gone.
With the two-year-old I didn’t want to be watching this on TV, so I waited for a minute when Alex was out of the den so I could turn it on. There was a view from a camera on top of the one of the TV stations, showing the smoke. Alex came into the room and said, “Helicopter” – and immediately I turned it off. My sister Ellen was also working in Manhattan, and after another call or two I knew they’d just have to walk home to Queens, for Laurie an eight-mile walk. I reached as much of our family as I could to tell them we were safe, and at some point it was hard to get a cell signal; the frequencies were taken over for security needs. Alex and I walked through the neighborhood to pass the time. It was a beautiful day, with F-16s flying across the sky.
A few days later we decided to fly to Minnesota – making the decision it was safe, very aware we were making a life-and-death decision for our toddler. At La Guardia, one of the military people at the security scanners confiscated the tiny nail clipper from our carry-on. We all knew the hijackers had gotten unlikely sharp weapons onto the plane and I felt a bit embarrassed for bringing one and tying up the soldier. Leaving New York seemed so strange – going away from what seemed like the only place anything was happening in the world, where God’s eyes even seemed to be riveted. It felt too like breaking faith. It was so quiet in St. Paul on a weekday afternoon. One of the first things I did when I got settled at my parents was to call the local mosque even though I didn’t know anyone there, to leave them a message of friendship on behalf of the Jewish community.
There are so many spiritual imperatives every 9/11 and especially on an anniversary of significance like this one twenty years later. First and foremost is to remember and honor those who were murdered.
The second to last name alphabetically on the 9/11 memorial is Andrew Steven Zucker. I didn’t realize I knew anyone in the towers until at some point the New York Times published their exhaustive list with photos. I saw his name and a familiar face. For one year Andrew was “Coach Zuck” at the Solomon Schechter school where I worked. He was in his late 20s, and he was the first young, big coach-y looking coach we had. Other than passing hellos, I think I only really talked to him when I had to tell him that one of my Jewish programs would be interfering with one of his practices. I learned since that he was a law associate at Harris Beach, on the 85th floor of the South Tower, and that seven people said he helped them escape down the stairs and saved their lives. He davened every morning before work there. A Torah scroll was written in his memory at the Riverdale Jewish Center, and it was read for the first time on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 at Monday morning minyan. May Andrew’s memory, and the memory of all who were murdered that day or who died as a result of the day be a blessing.
The second spiritual imperative is to call this what it was: a mass murder and an act of pure evil. Evilhas to be part of our vocabulary. Enemies has to be part of our vocabulary. We have prayed this morning already that we overcome evil -- our own for sure, and that evil in the world be destroyed beyond even our own ability to destroy it. We pray for safety from our enemies. We don’t like to apply words like evil and enemy too specifically; we distance ourselves from these words even as we say them in Hebrew. Yet the terrorists who destroyed the Twin Towers and crashed into the Pentagon and who tried to fly Flight 93 into Washington were enemies of America, enemies of Jews, enemies of freedom and universal human dignity. Enemies of equality for women. They attacked and murdered innocent people, deliberately and with forethought and with satisfaction.
We should not be distracted from this by any reflection or regret we properly have over what followed, the wrongs of our own decisions and our own wars that went wrong and took many innocent lives.
The attackers chose deliberately not only to kill indiscriminately, but to attack centers of government, military, and finance. They attacked the things many Americans had come to lack confidence in, to make it harder for us to stand up for ourselves and see ourselves clearly. They dared us to look in the mirror. But our freedom, our strength, and our prosperity are so much more than any flaws in them. They are worth defending and strengthening and perfecting. They are a tremendous gift in the history of the world.
We have to look straight into the reality that small, disciplined groups can magnify evil and harm and death. There are parts of the human world beyond bargaining and incentives and change. We cannot strengthen what is good without acknowledging this.
The third spiritual imperative is awe at the goodness that sprang into action immediately. The Andrew Zuckers. The first responders who went back into buildings to look for more people to save, knowing very well they might not survive, as many did not. The people who retook Flight 93 and saved so many lives at the cost of their own. I remember the evening of 9/11 how the site of the Twin Towers had become a well-organized place for rescue and cleanup. In the face of the unthinkable, people did not miss a beat around their responsibilities, even as they improvised. There could have been chaos and pandemonium, or at the very least paralysis. Instead there was determined work to seek anyone who might still be alive.
We came to know stories like Gander, Newfoundland, where international flights back to the U.S. were diverted and a small town took care of strangers even in their homes – it’s the subject of the amazing musical “Come From Away.” President Bush came to the side of Muslims in our country to warn us against blaming the wrong people.
I had always been a reluctant New Yorker, living there because of rabbinical school and staying because of Laurie’s work and my own opportunities. The last five years we lived there, the rough city seemed transformed, toward a graciousness and helpfulness that hadn’t been there in the same measure. At least that was my experience.
We have to view this part of the story and the evil together, and think very hard about what it means. Margaret Mead said famously, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” Nineteen hijackers committed mass murder. Twice a minyan, not even, that’s all. It is easier to destroy than to build. How many multiples of nineteen are there committed to good on an equal scale, on a lifesaving scale, a Gander, Newfoundland scale?
So the fourth spiritual imperative is to take responsibility for how we have responded as a nation and as Jews over the twenty years since. The instincts to bring democracy and freedom to the Middle East were good, even though motives are always mixed. We shouldn’t be hard on ourselves for not looking down on people in a part of the world so unfamiliar to most of us, to the vast majority of Americans and Jews. We believed and still should believe that people in Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East deserve democracy and are capable of freedom and prosperity. I supported both wars when they started, in Afghanistan and even Iraq. Yet it was clear even to me from very early on that we were not willing to be accountable. For caring about the people in those countries, for bothering to learn about them or build connections with them commensurate with our interference in their world. Some people have done incredible work – some of our military, some of our NGOs -- and they have brought education and health and fierce friendship. As we go forward, leaving behind what we have left behind, we need to consider who is left whom we still owe.
And we still have an obligation to learn more about the Muslim world and about Islam itself. I said this ten years ago on this anniversary, and while I have learned more, it’s certainly not ten years worth of more. We all, myself surely included, let our leaders and elected representatives let themselves off the hook in terms of oversight and engagement. But at least we can learn and connect here in our local community. In fits and starts, some of us have tried to connect to the local mosque from the shul and through the Interfaith Council. Yesterday, Jeff (our Board president) and I sent a message of friendship to the Islamic Society of Greater Nashua, for day when surely it is more difficult than usual to be a Muslim in America.
We have drawn some wrong lessons from the aftermath of the two wars, and the collateral effects in Syria and other places. It’s becoming easier in the past twenty years to give up on the societies of the Middle East and to see the Palestinians in particular as fundamentally interwoven with terror. Yes, American power cannot do everything, and the destiny of faraway lands is not up to us primarily. But we have many powers and things to offer. And again our conviction that all people deserve freedom, that women’s rights and girls’ education are not only for some in this world -- those convictions are still right and we cannot run away from them.
There are people standing up to the Taliban, and people still learning how to do good work in Afghanistan. We owe them. I think the people who were architects of our bad decisions and those who supported them like me have a special obligation. I read the reflections of nearly twenty key American government and military leaders from the post-9/11 period in Politico the other day on what we did wrong, and truthfully what sickened me more than the mistakes they acknowledged was how many of them are now making their living as lobbyists and in the 1% sector, and how few are in public service and academia. They have run away from debts they still owe.
And my fifth spiritual imperative is for any of us who identify as religious people of any faith, to be a Kiddush Hashem, to do honor publicly to the Divine Name in what we do and what we say. Rabbi Aryeh Klapper wrote about this in the days following 9/11. The hijackers are in a long line of mass murderers claiming divine sanction. They weaken the ability of any faith to be seen as a positive force and not a divisive one. To be religious and to identify publicly as religious after 9/11, we have to be far from even the first cousins, even the second cousins of the attackers and their ideology, in our own faiths. We need to publicly repudiate our own Kahanists – our Muslim-haters, our Arab-haters, our Ben Gvirs and Smotrichs.
So a lot of spiritual imperatives, not just one or two, on this anniversary. I remember that first Rosh Hashanah trying to find words in my small pulpit, thinking what a burden President Bush had taken on by declaring war on evil itself. How fortunate we were to have a place and a haven of time a week after the attacks -- to gather together, to take time out to think about good and evil, to humble ourselves about what we can do and briefly trust the work of fighting all evil back to God. Just for a couple days. So it’s fitting that we are remembering and reflecting now during the ten days of teshuvah. What will we learn, how will we change, how will we honor those who died on 9/11 and in everything that flowed from that day? The answers are not easy, but they will flow as everything does from love. Love of those whose memory is precious; love of the American ideals that made the attacks hurt even more; love of each other in this gathering today and in this country; love of those who responses over the past twenty years have uplifted and inspired us. May we find our way in teshuvah, through all of that love.
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.
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.
I just finished the first version of a new page on my site, which I'm calling simply "USA". It has sources and mostly my own reflections about American politics, racial justice, anti-Semitism, and political leadership. I will be updating it with the best links I want people to know about, and anything good I generate as well.
It feels healing particularly today to look back on things I have written, said, and done out of my faith in this country and its politics. Rather than focus only on today's troubles, I am trying to be drawn toward MLK Day.
October 29, 2020 is by the Jewish calendar the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin z"l, by a Jewish religious extremist opposed to Rabin's peacemaking with the Palestinians. This is the D'var Torah I gave five years ago for Rabin's yahrzeit.
This is the week of the 20th yahrzeit for Yitzchak Rabin, the prime minister of Israel who was assassinated by a Jewish religious religious fanatic. By the Jewish calendar it was last Sunday, and by the secular calendar next Wednesday. His murder took place in the first hours of the week of פרשת וירא, this morning’s reading, and I will never forget one of the headlines in an Israeli paper the week of his funeral: עקדת יצחק, the sacrifice of Yitzchak.
There is a particular story told about Yitzchak Rabin in all the biographies and memoirs from Israel’s War of Independence. It was June of 1948, only about a month after the State of Israel officially came into being. The Jews of Jerusalem were under siege, living truly near starvation, because the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was cut off around its midpoint by the Arab Legion, which was holding a police fortress in a place called Latrun. The Israelis had already tried several times to storm Latrun without success. The fortress was on ground just high enough to see the plain around it, and the Israelis did not have enough troops to take it by overwhelming force. The battles for Latrun had been some of the costliest in the war in terms of lives lost; many of the soldiers had been refugees from the Holocaust, just liberated from displaced persons camps, with almost no training and no language in common to hear instructions in battle.
As dire as the siege was in Jerusalem, there were Arab armies threatening Jewish areas all over the country. The Israeli commanders felt they had to make choices about where to deploy their limited number of trained forces, and they knew that attacking Latrun again would be futile But David Ben Gurion was obsessed with Latrun and had summoned his army leaders repeatedly to demand an attack on Latrun to open the road to Jerusalem.
The commanders responsible in early June for the area of the road to Jerusalem included Mickey Marcus, an American Jew and experienced solider who had come to volunteer. Some of you may know him and this part of the war through the film “Cast a Giant Shadow”, where he was played by Kirk Douglas. Also Yigal Allon, commander of the Palmach, the most elite and well-trained Jewish fighting group. Yitzchak Rabin was the young commander of the Harel Brigade of the Palmach. Ben Gurion summonded his commanders, and Alon and Marcus knew they would be asked to divert their scarce resources to Latrun, and when they would object they would be subject to Ben Gurion’s fury.
So they decided instead to sacrifice Yitzchak. The 26-year-old Rabin went by himself to talk to Ben-Gurion, to present an alternative proposal. By accident, one of Rabin’s underlings had discovered a way to go around Latrun, out of sight of the Arabs, and create a path for supplies to get to Jerusalem. Rabin would propose that they pave a new supply route and avoid Latrun altogether.
When Rabin came to Ben Gurion, the prime minister lived up to his name, son of a lion cub, and flew into a two-hour rage. Yitzchak was astounded as Ben Gurion at one point threatened to shoot his own commander, Yigal Allon, in the head, but Rabin stood his ground. Where other times Ben Gurion had overruled a more senior commander and ordered an attack on Latrun, not this time. The attack did not take place, the road was built, and the siege of Jerusalem came to an end just in the nick of time.
For people who knew Rabin or wrote later about his life, that confrontation with Ben Gurion exemplified a couple key things about the man. His wife Leah wrote in her memoir that as a commander and a statesman, Yitzchak was fanatical about his goals and but always looking for the least costly way to achieve them. He tried to minimize risk to soldiers in battle -- by doing his own detail work of intelligence and reconnaissance to outmaneuver his enemy, by considering creative alternatives, rather than relying on superior force alone which could lose more more lives. After Ben Gurion, Rabin was probably the most detail-oriented and methodical prime minister Israel has ever had.
The confrontation with Ben-Gurion also showed how little Rabin was interested in ingratiating himself with anyone if those things put the mission at risk. He didn’t care overly about the feelings of his peers or his superiors, but about the many people he knew less well, the men who served under him. So Rabin didn’t bother to join Mapai, Ben Gurion’s political party, even though he would have advanced much faster if he had. He had no hesitation when he was prime minister about cutting his own mentor, Yigal Allon, down to size when he disagreed with him.
Later on, as Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. and then as prime minister, Rabin could be plenty sharp and critical. He could seem detached. But at the same time, and this was key -- as long as he could win he had no need to demonize the people who disagreed with him.
These were not the things we call people skills. Rabin was not a jolly man, and in no way a glad-handing politician. Leah reprints a letter she received when they were dating in the mid-1940s and Yitzchak was imprisoned by the British, and it was more like a business letter than a love letter. Rabin was not beloved or revered, the way his peers like Moshe Dayan would be. He didn’t unite his country when he was prime minister or when he signed the agreement with PLO on the White House lawn. It seemed ridiculous to me when Bill Clinton called Rabin his friend.
Yet without the typical people skills, Rabin was able, at key times, to surprise people and earn their trust. How could Rabin have possibly negotiated with the Palestinians? For fifty years, he had not only defeated them in battle -- he had out-organized and outwitted and outsmarted them. He had every reason to have contempt for them, as soliders and leaders, and therefore to doubt their ability to do the things they were promising -- but he chose to see them simply as opponents. Just as in 1948, Rabin was willing to fight only the battle that was necessary, in the 1990s Rabin was clear about exactly how much he needed to be the PLO’s opponent and in what ways he could be their partner.
Rabin knew that in order to bring Israelis along with the peace process, he would have to teach through his example how to balance peace ahead with justice and grief looking back. At first, he wasn’t going to go to the White House to sign the Oslo agreement, but eventually he figured out that if he didn’t, Israelis would write it off as a ridiculous dream cooked up by Shimon Peres. Rabin managed every step so carefully, relating just as in 1948 not to his fellow leaders but to the average Israeli. So he opened his speech at the White House by talking about Israeli families who would never stop grievning, he shook Arafat’s hand in the only way he could, politely but not enthusiastically.
At the White House and in later ceremonies to sign agreements with Arafat, Rabin put on his non-Israeli-style suit and looked like an adult, and made Arafat look like a child who could not take off his costume. Rabin made sure to have a working relationship with Arafat and to show that when they appeared together, but he was also carefuly not to portray to Israelis that he and Arafat were becoming friends. He was perfect for the role; he wasn’t big for smiling or scolding, his natural face and voice were holding back even when he tried to do revolutionary things.
Rabin understood that leadership is not like other relationships. He didn’t try to use on the people skills he didn’t have, because that’s not what leading his people is only about. And Rabin could lead because he was aware that he was modeling a new way of being a Jew in a new world. Not just modeling, but maybe inventing it as he went along.
In 1994, at an award ceremony honoring Israeli writers just a year after the White House handshake, Rabin said: “These days we are in the midst of a battle without cannons in a war without fire, which may turn out to be perhaps one of the most significant and decisive battles in the annals of the Jewish people in recent generations.” In that speech, he said:
Let us admit the truth: the atmosphere of siege, the hostility, and the war have elicited tremendous energies from us for almost five decades. Much of what has been achieved in the State of Israel in all areas is a direct or indirect outcome of the necessity to defend our existence, of the atmosphere of siege from which we are so glad to free ourselves these days. Ours was a productive unity, a healthy unity, standing shoulder to shoulder against the manifestations of enmity and facing a hostile world. Just between us, we have become accustomed to this lifestyle, and, already, we think we cannot do without it. Perhaps we have even come to love the pleasant warmth of power and the encircling siege.
And now? What are we to do now? What message should we deliver to our people these days? How should we avoid becoming entangled in delivering a double, and contradictory, message: are we on the brink of peace, or do we expect another war? How do we change the atmosphere that has characterized our state for generations? What should we choose – should we declaim again and again: "a state under siege," "the whole world is against us," "all the Arabs are the same"? Or perhaps we should bear a new message: "the new Middle East," "the peace of the brave," "nation shall not lift up sword against nation," "He who makes peace in heaven above..."?
How do we become accustomed to a world of new concepts, to a different culture, a different style, and at the same time not completely abandon the old world, just in case, God forbid, we might need it again? How do we maintain the invigorating rhythm of our lives, the Jewish mind, all those tremendous energies of ours, our unity – without the sword hanging over our heads?
This is the Rabin who was taken from us by his assassin. How do we become accustomed to a world of new concepts,.... and at the same time not completely abandon the old world, just in case, God forbid, we might need it again? This is who the Jewish people lost on the 12th of Marcheshvan 5755. Not necessarily the man who signed the Oslo agreement, which may well have stalled even had he lived. We lost the man who fought wars until the moment he thought they were not necessary, and was prepared to fight them again if necessary. We lost the one who hoped we might figure out how to live as Jews in the world we are in and not in the mythic worlds of dreamy peace or eternal Jew-hatred.
Rabin’s assassin took the worst message from the Akedah -- that to be Jewish is to live as though you were always just escaping a knife at your throat; and that extreme atrocities are beloved to God. That is a Judaism of no joy and no hope, an impossible Judaism -- and in the square 20 years ago a desecration of God’s name.
Yitzchak Rabin was the truer heir of the biblical Yitzchak. He lived through the wars of survival and knew they were over for his people, and he didn’t pretend to know for sure what was next or how long it would take.
We would honor Yitzchak Rabin’s memory most if we could find a way as Jews of being comfortable with our power, and with taking responsibility for how we use it. We would honor his legacy if we could take the proper measure of the threats to Israel, and to Jews, and fight them rather than our ghosts, and take satisfaction when we are defeating them That is the true spirituality of Zionism. To know the perfect place between the smile and the scold, to scowl appropriately while trying revolutionary things.
Yehi zichro baruch -- May Yitzchak’s memory be a blessing.
This is an attempt to write down something I’ve never written out before: how I decide whom to vote for in elections for national office. This is how I understand what I am doing. There’s plenty here to discuss or argue about.
Voting is in one way the most morally consequential thing we do. The outcome of a vote, especially for national office, has far more of an impact that the generous or committed acts of most individuals (myself, at least) or the money we give to nonprofits.
It’s worth approaching the vote in the spirit of Rabbi Moses Maimonides’ teaching that we should always regard the world as in a perfect balance between merit and guilt, such that our next act will decide whether we will earn a judgment of merit or a judgment of destruction. While most elections are not decided by our single vote, we know well that they can be. It’s important to vote with the thought that your vote could be the one that decides about budgets and military actions and how laws are implemented and enforced. Who will eat and who will go hungry, whose illnesses will be researched and treated, whose lives will be risked in battle, who will live or die in another land because America does or does not act in those places.
I am writing this as an American patriot, a lover of my country, who is also a Jew trying to follow the spiritual and ethical teachings of my Torah and aware of my place in the long history of the Jews. I have for a decade not been registered with a political party. Political acts and decisions are religious acts for me; the parties are practical instruments.
If I had to put this into a flow chart, this is how I break it down. I’m going to do all of this in theory, conceptually.
At the root for me is an idea that the political philosopher Michael Walzer puts this way: “[T]hink of the welfare of the most vulnerable people in the country. And then vote, gladly, for the candidate who minimizes their vulnerability.”
There is a lot here. Walzer (who is worth knowing a lot about, and I should write about him separately sometime) says right before this quote that it’s not about whether you like or inspired by a candidate, or whether you judge the candidate to be a good person in some fundamental way (more on this below). It’s about what that person can deliver in terms of the most vulnerable.
I think this would be an ethical imperative for me regardless of my Jewish principles. For me it’s a fundamental part of Torah. I generally apply this in the spirit of the political theorist John Rawls. Rawls argued that inequality, or something that increases inequality, can be justified morally so long as it also benefits the most vulnerable in society.
And Walzer argues that today, the first part of that is to minimize vulnerability. There is also a step beyond that, which is transforming the conditions that allow anyone to be vulnerable – but first, who minimizes their vulnerability.
The vulnerability I have always thought about first is economic vulnerability – whether it’s not being able to afford adequate shelter or food, or not being able to afford adequate medical care. With that, I have thought about economic vulnerability that comes from discrimination, on the basis of color and other bases, and the discrimination itself. More lately, I have come to think much more about the vulnerability of refugees.
1. So first I want to know – does the candidate even care? And not just about certain vulnerable groups, but about all of them. Everyone has blind spots, and many have come up through the ranks on the basis of work on behalf of a particular group. But caring only about vulnerable whites or vulnerable people of color, to the exclusion of other vulnerable people, isn’t enough.
This isn’t only about policies. I think certain policy approaches show more caring about vulnerability. But I’m always open to the candidate who argues for why another approach is also caring and is effective. Anyone who is sincere makes my first cut. Even if the policies being offered have been associated in the past, or are associated today, with people or groups who clearly don’t care about the most vulnerable.
2. Walzer argues specifically about our era that ‘[w]hat the most vulnerable people need right now is the protection afforded by a strong constitutionalism. The defense of civil liberties and civil rights… -- this is a centrist politics.” I would add another element to this “centrism”, which is a defense of the idea of America as a whole, made up of different groups with different origins and with different philosophies.
Some of this is about policies and the ways laws are enforced. It’s also about a political culture – the responsibility not to divide. I look for a candidate who speaks about America expansively and inclusively in her or his rhetoric, and who can disagree with passion without demonizing.
3. There are two things I think about next: Are the candidate’s policies reasonable approaches to minimizing vulnerability? Is the candidate someone who could actually accomplish something that minimizes vulnerability?
While these two don’t come in a particular order, I have been thinking more and more about the second question, the leadership dimension. One candidate might have a better set of policy ideas, but be a terrible leader – ineffective, bad at mobilizing people, wilting under pressure, and/or polarizing. Having that person in office hardly minimizes the vulnerability of the vulnerable.
The “How To Be President” initiative I helped found is about aspects of leadership beyond policy choices. I am looking for a leader who is clear-eyed about things like failure and compromise; who has forcefully, driven-ness and humility; who knows that not all your allies are good people and not all your opponents are evil; who has a way of thinking about how decisions at the top affect everyone; who has a way of knowing how to ache when policies fail or ignore some Americans, and when to push through in the face of that pain.
4. There are also Jewish issues, meaning issues of the interests of the Jewish community. A lot of Jewish issues are covered already in the earlier passes -- particularly with regard to hate, bias, discrimination, religious freedom for minorities. But other things being relatively equal, the candidate who has a blind spot about anti-Semitism will fall back in my line.
Then when it comes to Israel, I am looking for the candidate who believes Israel is a fundamentally democratic country; who understands the dangers Israelis live with in their region; who supports justice for both Jews and Arabs in Israel-Palestine and does not place the responsibility for the conflict solely on Israelis; who knows that most Jewish-American supporters of Israel have no truck with Muslim-haters, racists and the religiously intolerant just because those people might also support Israel.
5. Usually, these cover everything for me in the decision tree. Sometimes, in a given election, there is a specific issue of the moment. I reserve the right to figure out where it should fit in my general scheme.
I never get someone who is perfect on all these criteria. Elections are always choices between two or more actual candidates. Each time, I try to assess who is best overall on these criteria, and I figure out how I am going to weigh each consideration as I go. If the choices each have serious flaws, I don’t know how I am going to “dock” for them until I do it.
I don’t vote to feel good about what I believe or to have the satisfaction of “being right.” Lives are on the line. As long I keep my eye on why I am voting, whose lives depend on my vote, I believe I am doing the best I can.
Go to my post from a couple years ago, with links to the text and to a later reading of the letter from King himself. Simply the most important teaching about what it means to be religious that I think I have ever read:
Writing about AIPAC, on a day when seven Israelis were hurt by a missile shot indiscriminately toward Israeli cities by Hamas. Outraged, and praying for their healing.
This week’s AIPAC Policy Conference is a gathering of about 18,000 people in Washington, DC. Many of the candidates for president on the Democratic side made a public show of staying away, and MoveOn.org called on all of them to do so, stating that AIPAC is nowhere that a progressive should be. (Sen. Cory Booker was there; I'll update this post if I hear of others.)
To me this is both a slander, and as far as leading Democratic candidates are concerned, a political blunder.
I have a few things to fill in about AIPAC, as someone who has been and is involved in the group. I am not registered with either political party in the U.S., and I do align in Israeli society with groups working on coexistence and peace, particularly within a Jewish religious framework. I wanted to add some data to the picture, particular for those more on the left, and to explain my more-than-frustration with the posture of the Democratic presidential candidates.
AIPAC is not a “PAC”, a political campaign fundraising organization. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is a grassroots lobbying organization. It was founded long before political action committees (“PACs”) became a big thing. The idea that AIPAC could be targeting officeholders and candidates is an absolute lie.
The influence AIPAC members have comes far more through citizen activism than paid lobbying activities. Obviously there is a synergy between the two – but other major lobbies, such as AARP and the NRA, rely to a much greater extent on paid staff than AIPAC does and have much larger budgets. People who support other big lobbies give more and maybe much more to campaigns than people who support AIPAC, from figures I have been able to find.
The basic premise of AIPAC is “to strengthen, protect and promote the U.S.-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of the United States and Israel.”
AIPAC is a coalition. The group has hewn to a strategy of bipartisanship, working with administrations of both parties and trying to build equal support in both parties for congressional policymaking and resolutions. If you look at the U.S. senators and representatives who are speaking this week at AIPAC, a bit more than half are Democrats. Maybe this is meant to balance out the presence of members of the administration. The leaders of both parties in the House and the Senate are on the program.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was slated, before he had to return to Israel. And today his main opponent in next month’s Israeli election, Benny Gantz, spoke, and didn't hold back from distingushing himself from the prime minister.
It’s a coalition in terms of AIPAC members’ outlook on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You wouldn’t know from the news, but “Two states for two people” is the first “talking point” on AIPAC’s web page about the peace process. I don’t know exactly how many AIPAC members or conference participants want a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians ardently, passively, or not at all. I think all three groups are substantial.
This week’s conference includes programs featuring thought leaders and activists working on all the challenges of Israeli society. There are so many of Israel’s leading idealists, for whom Israel is a lab for Jewish values in action.
The wide spectrum of Israeli perspectives at AIPAC, on the official program, isn’t window dressing. Like Rabbi Susan Silverman, who advocates dramatically as an Israeli for African asylum seekers and the rights of non-Orthodox Jews. And Yehuda Kurtzer, from the Shalom Hartman Institute, a think-tank doing incredible work on social thought, ethics, and Muslim-Jewish relations.
I am not saying of course that AIPAC itself is a progressive or a Democratic group. There are plenty of people aligned with the Israeli right and center-right who are speaking at AIPAC and who are there. What I’m saying is that if you are running for president, you shouldn’t buy into lazy thinking about any group in our society. That’s what it is to write off AIPAC members as a partisan interest group. Obviously, you should not buy into worse, into anti-Semitic stereotypes.
This is exactly a group of people that Democratic candidates for president ought to want to engage. Boycotting the conference is a blunder, and one that’s not going to fade away.
For one thing, there are tons of Democrats within AIPAC who are active on all kinds of issues. They are waiting to pick a campaign to get involved in -- and weighing whether to stay on the sidelines.
For another, if the candidates are serious about a foreign policy in the Middle East based on measurable achievements in human rights, there are many people within AIPAC who want to hear what they have to say, in depth. If Palestinian lives are a core issue, then surely a candidate for office knows they will never improve without the partnership of the governments of both Israel and the United States. What are the elements of a progressive and effective approach for American leadership, a strategy for one of the world’s most difficult regions?
I would think that skilled candidate could have mingled, attended the breakouts, networked, held their side gatherings, found ways to communicate about their perspectives in the framework of peace and security for all..
I am looking to see if the Democrats vying to be leaders are going to re-engage – for their own political self-interest, for the security interests of America, and for the good of Israelis and of Palestinians.
This post is based on the D'var Torah I gave at services on Saturday, March 9, 2019. I also plan another post with some thoughtful articles on the topic from other sources.
I always set out extra books for services in addition to the Siddurim (prayerbooks), on the cart outside the Sanctuary and in the small Chapel too. They are not just for you; when I am not leading a service, I use them too! On Thursday evening in the Chapel, I took a Tanakh (Bible) instead of a Siddur and read from the Megillah, the story of Esther. We are in the month leading up to Purim in less than two weeks.
For most of us, the Bible that’s most familiar is a kind of Sunday School Bible. The Book of Esther that we have learned that way is a hilarious story. Even in the parts related to Haman’s plot to get rid of all the Jews, the story is funny and over the top. The Megillah is like that all the way through Haman’s being finally exposed and then executed by the king.
In the real, complete Tanakh, that’s not the whole story. There’s a lot more text, and it is not at all funny.
On Thursday night, what I did was to read the Megillah to myself, but starting at chapter 8. That chapter follows immediately the demise of Haman. Mordechai is installed in power by King Achashverosh in Haman’s place. But when Queen Esther asks the king to revoke his original edict against the Jews, the king says he is powerless to do that. All he can do is to authorize them to fight back legally, with another royal edict. Chapters 8-9 tell about the many people Jews kill all over the empire as they defend themselves, and they tell the fear that the Jews elicit because of their fierce response. Here is a verse you most certainly did not learn in Hebrew School:
וְרַבִּים מֵעַמֵּי הָאָרֶץ מִתְיַהֲדִים כִּי־נָפַל פַּחַד־הַיְּהוּדִים עֲלֵיהֶם: …V’rabim me-amay ha-aretz mityahadim ki nafal pachad hayehudim alayhem -- "many among the peoples of the land passed themselves off as Jewish, because fear of the Jews had fallen over them” (Esther 8:17).
Achashverosh, the king, comes across in the last three chapters as someone who loves his Jewish wife Esther, who appreciates or at least respects his new Jewish vizier Mordechai. And as someone who possibly feels intimidated by them, doing what he needs to do in the moment to restore peace and to stay in power.
Once the fighting dies down, Esther and Mordechai institute the annual festival of Purim. It’s a celebration of the reversal of fortunes for the Jews, and includes also mishloach manot and matanot la’evyonim -- bringing gifts to each other and helping those in need.
Chapters 8-10 of the Megillah are about Jewish power established in the immediate wake of vulnerability. They are about having powerful allies and knowing that alliance comes from both love of us and fear of us. They are about figuring out what to do with Jewish power and the power of our allies. And they are about what it’s like to remember a recent threat, to remember fear, from the vantage point of more recently achieved power. They are about figuring out what to do with this power going forward -- when to unleash it and when to worry about what it does to us.
I selected this part of the Megillah to read and meditate on Thursday evening, because it was a spot-on text for this past week. Reading it felt unsettling and reassuring at the same time. Which is exactly how I have felt all week as the controversy surrounding Rep. Ilhan Omar from my great home state of Minnesota continued to unfold. The words of hers were straight out of the Megillah -- fear of the power of the Jews. I had all these kinds of reflections during the week: It was good to see the power we have as American Jews at work against repeated slanders rooted in anti-Semitic stereotypes. It felt strange and weird to be the center of attention once again, so soon after Pittsburgh, which I have certainly not yet gotten over. I wondered whether I am living up to the responsibility that comes with so many people paying attention to anti-Semitism -- whether I have been a person who fights against hate directed at others as fully as I expect others to fight against hate directed at us.
It is important, it is spiritually critical, to have a swirl of these kinds of reactions, and not to let ourselves settle on only one. If we are only thinking one thing right now -- if we are not acknowledging the many such reactions within our own community -- we are lying to ourselves, and hiding from ourselves and from each other -- and from our responsibilities.
I want to fill in some information, and then propose a way of thinking about our responsibilities. What’s the mitzvah here always has to be the grounding Jewish question.
Part of what I say I hope has merit for you because I personally hear Rep. Omar and am horrified out of my own religious, leftish Zionism. I have said from the bimah (pulpit) in the past that the eventual freedom of Palestinians as a nation will become part of our own Jewish story of being agents of freedom in the world. I have been involved for a long time in AIPAC, where my view about the Palestinians is widely and openly shared, though probably not by the majority. If your perspective in anywhere near that, or anywhere to the right of it, I think you’ll be able to hear me.
Part of what I can tell you is because I’m a Minnesotan, and I know rabbis who live and work in the Minnesota 5th, Rep. Omar’s congressional district -- particularly rabbis involved in progressive circles. They have been right in the middle of trying to fix things; they are the people most frustrated by Rep. Omar's repeated slanders. The district includes the city of Minneapolis and many of its first-ring suburbs, including St. Louis Park, which is the Brookline-Newton of Minneapolis. Some of the Jews you may know of who grew up there: former Sen. Al Franken, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, Columbia University development economist Jeffrey Sacks, the Coen Brothers. When I was young, that’s where you would go for kosher meat and Jewish books. There are today about as many Jews in the Minnesota 5th as in the state of New Hampshire.
When the district elected Rep. Omar, an immigrant from Somalia and a Muslim and a woman, a lot of us native Minnesotans were very proud. The story of Somali immigration in Minnesota has at times been very difficult, and Jews have been active in fighting the anti-Muslim and anti-African bigotry surrounding the integration of Somalis. And that’s what has made the congresswoman’s recent statements particularly painful, for the rabbis and progressive Jews in the district.
Beyond what you’ve read in every article, Rep. Omar said a couple of other things at the DC bookstore where she spoke at length about a week and a half ago. She said that the Jewish constituents who have met with her to speak about her AIPAC comments talk about Jews in Israel as their family, but don’t seem to have actual family in Israel. She also said that the Jewish activists who have come never talk about the Palestinians and their suffering.
Rep. Omar is not telling the truth about the Jewish people she has been in touch with about all of this. I know who they are, and I can tell you that they include both moderates and progressives, including people from an organization called Jewish Community Action, a social justice group that my parents are often involved in. JCA members are people who have stood up previously to vouch for Rep. Omar publicly even when other Jewish groups haven’t, and who have been in vocal and active solidarity with Palestinians, even when that puts them at odds with others in the Jewish community. So Rep. Omar is either misrepresenting them, or somehow unable to hear them.
My friends who are in the thick of this in Minneapolis are befuddled and confused and angry. They don’t understand why Rep. Omar is invested in misrepresenting their views, and putting them as Jews in boxes where they are so clearly not. They do not feel that things are in a good place right now, despite a lot of dialogue. They who are up close are also committed to trying and trying again with her, and remaining in solidarity with the Muslim community in the district. As one of them put it a couple days ago: we are doing the best we can, and we are exhausted.
This is part of a larger story of Jews not being seen or acknowledged or even allowed in certain places on the activist left, unless they leave behind nuance about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and agree not to say that there are Palestinian leaders who are also responsible for the fact that it continues.
Even on Thursday, the day of the House resolution against anti-Semitism and other hatreds, a fundraising letter went out from Rep. Ocasio-Cortez that said: “It’s official -- AIPAC is coming after Alexandria, Ilhan, and Rashida”, the three recently elected representatives from New York, Minnesota, and Michigan. Which is completely false. And the letter is easy to read as: the rich, bad Jews are going after us, and dividing us from the good Jews who support equality and would want to be with us.
And all of this is a form of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism does not have to come in the form of a white supremacist attacking a synagogue to deserve our attention, or to be a palpable threat to us. It is not all right ever for any political leader or any political movement, even while promoting other good things, to tell lies about Jews. It is not all right to say things that can easily be taken to justify terror attacks against Israeli civilians.
So what do the final chapters of the Megillah tell us, about our power in this kind of situation and the mitzvot we ought to be doing?
One mitzvah: We need to build alliances with the Achashverosh-es, to use our power so that people in positions of power want, and think it’s in their interests, to stand up for us or to stand behind us as we stand up.
One person I have been reaching out to is my own congresswoman, Rep. Annie Kuster. I wrote her a few weeks ago when this began to heat up, asking for her support on this question of “dual allegiance”, and more than that, asking her to reach out personally to Rep. Omar. Because both of them represent areas with small but politically active Jewish communities of the roughly same magnitude, and Rep. Kuster has such good relationships with me and many Jewish leaders and Jews who are prominent in New Hampshire Democratic politics. Annie has offered more than once to come to Beth Abraham and speak about her own experience visiting Israel and her views about the situation. She supports two states and has voted for Israeli military aid, and she is very well-informed. I suggested that she could talk with Rep. Omar about how she does this. I am pleased to tell you that I got not a standard note back, but a phone call from her office affirming her support for Israel. It's a conversation I intend to continue when I am in DC this coming week.
Another mitzvah from the end of the Megillah: We need to get and build our power so that we have the confidence to go to difficult places without fear for our safety. We, or at least some of us, need to be willing to go into difficult places where the anti-Semitic canards are incubating, and engage there. Those of us on or closer to the left need to take responsibility for talking with people on the left -- just as those on or near the right need to do it there.
So another thing I am doing: Last week at the monthly meeting of the Nashua Area Interfaith Council, I said that I know people are talking about Rep. Omar, and announced that I will have coffee with anyone who wants to talk about it. Many of the people in that group come from denominations or organizations that have supported boycotts of some sort against Israel. Before I left and in e-mails starting that day, people jumped up to tell me they want to talk. In response to one Facebook post, from an activist I know and respect, I held back the comment I was going to write but probably wouldn’t have been heard. Instead I wrote my e-mail address in the comments with invitation to anyone on the thread to talk. And I separately reached out to the person who posted to get together, and we’re going to do that.
There is trust that I have built painstakingly with many people in the interfaith council, and I know we can talk. I am going to offer a class this fall, I decided this week in the fall in the RISE and OLLI programs -- about the Israel-Palestine conflict, from the Zionist viewpoint that I have described to you. I am a popular teacher there, and I know people will sign up.
We are fortunate in Greater Nashua that we have not been driven apart from other people whose causes we share because of Israel. There is no coalition here that I can’t be a part of so far because of my Zionism. I am much more interested in cultivating these local relationships and talking to people, really getting into questions and sharing information, about all the factors from Arabs and Israelis that have kept the conflict in place -- that is much more important for me to do than responding with a written public statement to everything that national actors say or do.
And a final set of mitzvot from the end of the Megillah. The practices that Esther and Mordechai instituted begin but do not end with retelling the dynamics of a past threat and how we fought it. On Purim, we read the Megillah twice, evening and morning. Twice we marinate in the story of the plot against our lives, rooted in statements about our disloyalty. But Esther and Mordechai wanted to make sure that the lesson of Purim was not just about remembering that, and not just about building ourselves up in anticipation of the next such battle. So they instructed us to do at least three acts on the day of Purim from an open heart and an outstretched arm. To send food to at least one friend, and to give to at least two people in need.
So a rule of thumb for today -- a 3:2 match. For every two acts of fighting anti-Semitism, three acts of compassion. One act to build up our own Jewish community in a joyful way. One act of being there when someone in our Jewish community needs comforting or needs help. And one act of standing up for a person or group outside of us who is the target of hate.
I have been trying to take this as well to heart. Because I've said these kinds of things out loud or published them, I was invited to give a blessing at the local African-American MLK event in January. There I heard a speech from a senior at Nashua North named Jamila-Ashanti Scales about all the racism that has been directed at her from grade school through high school. I offered to her that morning to be an ally if she ever needed one. Sure enough, two days later in the local paper, she was dragged into a conflict within the Board of Education, on the day of her final exams no less. I reached out to her family, who I know and some in our shul know, and asked what I could do. As a result, I published something supportive of her in the Telegraph, and I spent an hour with the school board members who were involved, cajoling them to make it right until they agreed to a step I suggested.
The last chapters of the Megillah are not easy ones, and the work we have in front of us right now is not easy. Why should it be. I don’t know, and my colleagues in Minnesota don’t claim to know, whether we’ll reach a good outcome with any specific leader we are at odds with. But I do believe that we can succeed and build here, where we actually have the power to influence people. We will not make everyone into lovers of Israel; that’s not the measure. But with hard and long work, we have it in our power to make the anti-Semitic into true fringes on the left and the right, and to help make all forms of bigotry a fringe within our own souls and our community.
And who knows, as the Megillah also says in a more familiar part, whether it was for a time like this that we have been given so much power.