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.
Leslie and I experimented with the readings for a short opening unit on how to study America. I advocated the first year for excerpts from the political philosopher Michael Walzer's Interpretation and Social Criticism. Walzer articulated the idea of the "connected critic", someone who was inside a society enough to be committed to its people and its narrative and its articulated values, and able to criticize in the name of those values and out of shared commitment. It's when Rev. King said that his dream was "deeply rooted in the American dream", even as he called out America. For Walzer, the alternative is the disconnected critic who might not care enough about fellow citizens and/or who speaks a language entirely foreign to the society the critic hopes to change or improve. Another alternative of course is someone so identified with things as is that they cannot criticize at all.
I wanted our students to see themselves as connected critics of America. It was a bit easier to articulate for American Jewish students, for whom inside-outside is already set up.
"Connected critic" is always a position of built-in tension. It's a challenge to nurture your own connection and your critical outlook. Particularly when you are just learning about your own history, and the history of your own society.
In the past few years, the "connected critic" view of founding American ideals has been called into question, and I am hoping for a way to vindicate it nonetheless. Does Thomas Jefferson's slaveholding mean that "created equal.... life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are bankrupt? I accept the challenge of those who answer yes. I have to consider the alternative, and/or come up with an account of the citizen as connected critic that does not whitewash anything.
Assignment: Choose an artifact that to you represents America, American society, or American culture. Feel free to share an image and/or explanation in the comments here or in your own post.
When I began co-teaching the course, the artifact I chose was the book and album “Free to Be You and Me.” It’s a 1972 project created by Marlo Thomas. For the younger people here, that’s Rachel’s mother from “Friends”, and this project is one reason why that casting is so amazing in a counter-to-type way (read on).
“Free to Be You and Me” was a series of songs and stories for kids aimed at breaking down gender stereotypes. What a boy and a girl has to be like, want to be when they grow up, etc.
I chose this as my artifact for three reasons.
This last point in particular is what I want to interrogate through the course of this year. That assumption, and whatever knowledge I need to gain and reflect on in order to assess how far it is.
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.
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This was my Dvar Torah on Parashat Pinchas from July 3, 2021.
ותקרבנה בנות צלפחד -- Vatikravna Bnot Tzelophechad, they came up close, the daughters of Tzelophechad son of Chefer son of Gilad son of Machir son of Menashe of the families of Menashe son of Yaakov, and these are the names of his daughters: Machlah, Noah, Choglah and Milkah and Tirtzah. Va’ta’amodna, and they stood in front of Moshe and in front of Elazar and in front of the tribal leaders and in front of the community at the entrace of the tent of meeting, and said...
ותקרבנה, ותעמדנה Vatikravna va’ta’amodna -- it’s important that they came up close and that they stood together, and it’s important to know their names and their back story even though the Torah is leave them and focus on a specific issue. I want to explore ותקרבנה ותעמדנה vatikravna v’ta’amodna, they came up close and they stood.
A few weeks ago, Marsha Feder and I spent an hour at the Bronstein Apartments, which is public housing a few blocks west of Main Street in Nashua. This is in the middle of my city and I drive there all the time now that there’s the Broad Street Parkway. I should say, I drive past there; I can’t really say I drive through there. Bronstein is on my way to my daughter’s middle school and it’s along my shortcut to the Court Street Theater or anywhere downtown south of the Riverwalk Cafe. But in thirteen years I don’t think I had ever walked the neighborhood there until now.
ותקרבנה vatikravna-- they came up close. The reason we were there, with Aron DiBacco of the Granite State Organizing Project, is because the Bronstein Apartments are going to be replaced with even more affordable apartments on the same site. About 50 are there now and about 200 will be there. 200 is more than 50, so that part is great.
If you work a few blocks away from Bronstein at City Hall, 200 affordable apartments is more than 50, and that’s great. I imagine that’s how it looks at the Department of Housing and Urban Development in DC, and it’s easy to see it that way if you are informed enough to read the local newspaper, or even attend a meeting of the Board of Aldermen or the Nashua Housing Authority.
But for the 48 families living there now, the project with the good numbers also means uprooting and dispersing a community. Disrupting patterns of getting kids to school, and relationships of helping each other out. Separating people from others you’ve gotten to know in a city or a country that for some is still new to you, who you can communicate with maybe if you don’t speak English well yet. It means finding a place to live, yes with assistance from the authorities which is being provided -- but it’s not easy to find a place in Nashua that’s right for a large multigenerational family, for instance.
So we went to talk to people up close, ותקרבנה vatikravna, to find out if people are getting what they need from the government. You can’t do this just by letter, or e-mail; it really requires one-to-one contact, up close, and even why would would I assume that someone would see me, a stranger, and open if I knock on the door? But going there and knocking is better than not doing that at all.
I won’t speak for Marsha, but in addition to talking to people, and for the most part being reassured by what I heard, I also saw a lot more by being up close. I met a mother of young kids, who said sure the city has helped them find a new place, but the prospect of packing and relocating the kids is daunting, and she was grateful someone heard that, even though none of us can do anything about it. Or perhaps we can; maybe the Interfaith Council should be there to help pack or schlep of keep the kids entertained on moving days. I don’t know.
I saw what the green area between buildings looks like, how bare it seems. It’s hard to put my finger on the difference between a nice patch of grass and one that’s not so inviting, but it’s there. There’s little flavor to Bronstein as it exists now; it doesn’t look like a place that’s home-y but I didn’t ask so who am I to say. One hour doesn’t really make for getting up close. You think of downtown Nashua as a place people walk around and walk through, but there are little physical suggestions like the black fence along Central Street that don’t exactly say walk through here if you don’t live here, on your way to the Allegro Dance Studio or the Crossway Church. Bronstein is just a few blocks from the river, but you really don’t feel like that walking through there on their way to the riverfront paths.
Somebody has to get up close and stand there, ותקרבנה ותעמדנה vatikravna vata’amodna, for a lot more time. You can’t make good policy if no one does that; you miss a lot of the picture that makes not just affordable housing but an affordable community. You end up saying 200 units is more than 50 full stop, and you don’t take account of the fact that living is neighborhood and relationships and culture, and those things have value. They have concrete civic value, public health value, economic value. You can’t just count on those values being maintained when the community is scattered for a time, and bouncing back when they return. Those values have to be integrated into the numeric equation of 50 becoming 200. To improve that policy, to make an increase on more than a numeric dimension at the same time, requires getting up close.
I have to find a way to get up close more, because for almost three years I’ve been working with other local clergy on affordable housing and even we have been largely about numbers -- adding 2,000 more units over a decade that a typical working person could live in without paying more than 30% of their income, and developing a city capital fund to spark more building on the order of five million dollars. I’ve been at a lot of meetings, some of them a few blocks from Bronstein, but none of them right there.
The part of our parasha with the five daughters of Tzelophechad is about an economic problem, related to land ownership and inheritance, a structural problem of discrimination against women. So Machlah, Tirtzah, Milkah, Choglah, and Noah come close and stand in front, ותקרבנה ותעמדנה vatikravna vata’amodna, and they present their story. Moshe had just right then learned about the distribution of property among families in the new land and the laws of inheritance. As a result of this up-close advocacy at that moment, Moshe went to God and God told Moshe to adjust the law because the five daughters had spoken honesty and correctly -- כֵּ֗ן בְּנ֣וֹת צְלׇפְחָד֮ דֹּבְרֹת֒ נָתֹ֨ן תִּתֵּ֤ן לָהֶם֙ -- give them what they are asking. The midrash imagines that God says to Moshe: the law was not ready to be completed until they came up close to you and you saw up close what was missing.
The work of ותקרבנה ותעמדנה vatikravna vata’amodna, of seeing up close, and advocating face to face with authorities, and standing, confidently and respectfully and together -- it’s hard work. Hard for those who have to ask for things they shouldn’t have to ask for, and hard for allies who want to stand by them. But without doing as the Bnot Tzelophechad did you can’t have good policy and good law. You can do the numbers but you can’t do community and you can’t do covenant that way, and then even the numbers will end up not working out right.
And I think our parasha heightens this insight by contrast with the opening story of Pinchas. Pinchas sees a problem, a crisis of idolatry and sexual immorality, and he jumps up, ויקם vayakom, and he takes matters into his own hands and he kills the people at the center of the injustice. He seems to be rewarded from God -- with a ברית שלום brit shalom, a covenant of peace, and a ברית כהונת עולם brit k’hunat olam, a covenant that his descendents will always be priests.
The midrash says two kinds of things about him. One is that the rabbis envy Pinchas, for being able to turn his outrage into effective activism that works in an instant. It actually seems to work. Pinchas is their secret fantasy. Especially as they were under the thumb of the Romans and other empires.
The other thing is that the rabbis are terrified of Pinchas. He needs a covenant of peace because he’s not any good at covenant. He needs to be forced to be a priest because otherwise he’ll be a dangerous, violent loose cannon and think every problem in society or Torah can be solved with force based on his own read of the situation in the moment. So the rabbis look at Pinchas and say: individual action, or violent action out of outrage, is a card you can play at most once in your lifetime. Then you require a covenantal approach even to what’s difficult and unjust in the here and now.
The rest of the time it’s the daughters of Tzelophechad, ותקרבנה ותעמדנה vatikravna vata’amodna. That’s not about settling for gradualism vs complete solutions, but about hanging together, working together, exploring up close and telling stories and histories. It’s about trusting what happens when you come up close to people who disagree or to people haven’t seen it right yet, who have power. It’s about timing; the five women had a sense of when Moshe was ripe for their pressure, when he was starting to think about what they needed him to do more on.
And the impact of their work was broader than one law of inheritance. They weren’t actually just gradualists -- it is right after this passage that God tells Moshe his tenure as leader is up, and it’s time to find someone else. Moshe gets it, and he pleads with God to find the people a shepherd who cares for every sheep, who can account for every person. A leader who would know what the laws of property should have been even before the five daughters came to tell him.
So many of the hero stories we tell about change and activism are more Pinchas than Bnot Tzelophechad. But when we really look into those stories -- whether it’s the American Revolution, the Zionist movement, the civil rights movement -- it’s the daughters of Tzelophechad pattern we see everywhere. Let’s see and lift up those kinds of leaders. Let’s be leaders like that, on whatever plane we operate in. Let’s do that so we make better public choices together, and grow close and stand with each other as citizens in that process of ותקרבנה ותעמדנה vatikravna vata’amodna.
I'm going to dip my toes into Clubhouse this week, and talk with anyone who shows up about the D'var Torah I promised to complete when I spoke last week. If you're on Clubhouse find my room "Help Me Write My Shabbat Sermon!" Friday at 1pm eastern time. Or feel free to read this and add your comments here.
I want to continue to delve into this passage from the Haggadah:
אָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן־עֲזַרְיָה הֲרֵי אֲנִי כְּבֶן שִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה וְלֹא זָכִיתִי שֶׁתֵּאָמֵר יְצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם בַּלֵּילוֹת עַד שֶׁדְּרָשָׁהּ בֶּן זוֹמָא, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר, לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ. יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ הַיָּמִים. כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ הַלֵּילוֹת. וַחֲכָמִים אוֹמְרִים יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה. כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ לְהָבִיא לִימוֹת הַמָּשִׁיחַ:
Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said:
Look, I am something like 70 years old -- or, I am as though 70 years old
And I didn't merit to understand -- or, I didn't merit to persuade others that the law should be
That the Exodus from Egypt should be said at night, until Ben Zoma derived it from this verse:
"In order that you shall remember the day of your leaving the land of Egypt all the days of your life"
"The days of your life" means the days; "All the days of your life" adds the nights.
And the Sages [as a group] say:
"The days of your life" means this world; "All the days of your life" means to bring/to include the days of the Messiah.
So, who was Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah in his time, and how old was he really, and what is the difference between seeing the Exodus as a daytime or a nighttime story or memory.... These are literary and philosophical but also very political questions too. Thoughts?
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.