RH AM 5779 – Engaging the Divide

Temple Micah is a pretty cool place … singular, extraordinary.  We strive to be radically welcoming, audaciously hospitable. No matter how your Jewish household in constructed … one Jew, All Jews or anywhere in between … G, L, B, T, Q , I.  No matter your Jewish background, observance level or comfort level with institutional Judaism … we strive to welcome all. It is the kind of place where from this pulpit (no matter what building it resided in through the decades) that its rabbis (including this one) could say things that could not be said at other synagogues ― about God, about Israel, about Judaism itself.  We are the kind of place that – with our partners at PHUMC – wholehearted invites a stranger to live in our building and offer the protection of sanctuary to her while she fights to stay in this country with her family. We are the kind of place that intentionally dwells in a church (yes, that is a cross behind the banner behind me and it is Jesus who is peeking out from behind the shades on the windows above you!).  We are so welcoming … that my arm is getting a bit tired from patting myself (on behalf of all of you) on the back.

So, let me give my arm a break.  Seriously, I am so proud of our community in so many ways, but there are some constituencies to whom we need to work on showing a little more audacity in our hospitality.    Who are these constituencies, you ask? Well, if you if you roll with the Republicans, you might not feel so welcomed. If you lean toward Likud, you might not feel so welcomed.  If you are one who bolsters Bibi Netanyahu, you might not feel so welcomed. If you curry favor for the Current Occupant of the Oval Office, you might not feel so welcomed.

Is this self-critique accurate?  Is it fair? Is it justified? After all, consider the landscape of the Jewish community.  How many safe places are there for Jewish individuals who might self-identify (or at least lean towards self-identifying) as liberal, progressive, pro-labor, pro-Palestinian, etc. to participate in the honest, frank inquiry that we believe those descriptors demand?  There are plenty of other places for people who think more conservatively to get their Jew on, we need this place. Let’s consider the the current landscape of the American marketplace of ideas and the nature, tenor and tone of the reaction and comment to those ideas.  It is demeaning, frightening and demoralizing. We need a safe place, a sanctuary, not even to express those ideas, but simply to catch our breath and heal a bit from the toll it takes from being part of this historical moment. And let’s consider, frankly, what we believe our Jewish tradition demands of us in regard to how we treat any other human being – and so any ideal, platform or policy that transgresses those precious values is simply, plain, wrong!  (And in turn, makes us right.)

Yes.  Yes. And, Yes.  And yet, some of the greatest marriage advice I ever received comes to mind: Would you rather be right or would you rather be happy?

Being right.  This malady, this stumbling block, this internal human firewall of that disables our ability to really listen to differing ideas and outlooks seeks to undo us.  And while I have begun by painting it as a liberal and conservative issue it is not limited this particular political divide or even the political realm itself. It is a liberal and liberal thing … and a conservative and conservative thing … a boss and employee thing … and a brother and sister thing … and a parent and child thing … and a even a soulmate and soulmate thing.  

Another piece of wisdom I remember, in the form of joke/story: There is a well-known story about a rabbi who was called upon to settle a dispute between two of his followers.  The first man poured out his complaints to the rabbi, and when he finished, the rabbi said, “You’re right.” Then it was the second one’s turn. When he finished, the rabbi said, “You’re also right.”  The rabbi’s wife, who had been listening to the conversation, said incredulously to her husband, “What do you mean, ‘You’re also right’? They can’t both be right!” The rabbi thought for a few moments, and then replied, “You know, my dear, you’re also right.”

It is one thing to talk about – overcoming this need to be right and in turn make other wrong – but doing it is another.  Imagine your other. Who is the one whom you know in your bones is wrong? Loved one. Friend. Co-worker. Politician. Rabbi.  What do you do when what they present to you electrically pushes intellectual, emotional and even physical buttons. Their idea ― or even the very fact that they could have that idea – makes you mad, scared, crazy.  How do we deal with that moment, that idea, that person? Perhaps, in a calmer moment like this, we can take some time acknowledge that this this distance, this difference, this dissonance … is how it is supposed to be.  As hard as it is – having these kinds of divisions in the world is how it needs to be.

The Torah portion that we do not read today, relates to how Rosh Hashanah fits into the myth of the creation of the world.  Today – the 1st of the Hebrew month of Tishrei is day #1. If we gaze into the spiritual wisdom that the myth of creation points us to – I think we find something quite interesting.  The story – and in turn the world – begins with three knock-down, drag-out acts of distancing, dividing and dissonance:

God separated the light and darkness. 1:4 וַיַּבְדֵּ֣ל אֱלֹהִ֔ים בֵּ֥ין הָא֖וֹר וּבֵ֥ין הַחֹֽשֶׁךְ׃
God made a distinction and called the light, ‘day and the darkness, ‘night’. 1:5 וַיִּקְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ לָאוֹר֙ י֔וֹם וְלַחֹ֖שֶׁךְ קָ֣רָא לָ֑יְלָה
(God) made a separation between the waters (above) and the waters (below). 1:6 וַיַּבְדֵּל בֵּין הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר מִתַּחַת לָרָקִיעַ וּבֵין הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר מֵעַל לָרָקִיעַ

This myth of ours suggests to us that differentiation is an essential element to the life- giving, dynamic, and forward moving process of creation.  How did the world get going? “Hey, you, Light ― over there in that corner. Darkness, you’re over there in that corner. Go!” Boom! Opposites. Contrasts. Confrontation.    “Waters! Moisture! Stop huddling together, you are not the same. Differentiate!! Now!” Distancing, Dividing, Dissonance.

And if the spiritual story of creation does not speak to you, how about a little science with your spirituality.  Each and everyone of us is here today because of the process of creating distance, becoming different, experiencing dissonance.  Encyclodpedia.com puts it pretty succinctly: “Cell division is the basis of life itself.  It is how animals grow and reproduce.” We all started as one cell in our mother’s womb and since the moment the dividing has not stopped.  When it stops, so will we.

Here’s the rub.  This division hurts.  It is uncomfortable, anxiety inducing and painful.  Whether I try to imagine the experience on a spiritual/cosmic level or purely on a biological level it is messy.  The cell that starts as one and ends up as two somewhere, somehow needs to start tearing away from itself. I am pretty sure there no tab to begin this process – like there is on a bag of potato chips or a carton of milk.  What is the place on my own physical self that I would start such a tearing. And I am only thinking about the beginning of the process. What would a continuing ripping away of myself feel like? What would organs, tissues that have only known together-ness experience as such division?  And yet the cosmos ― macro and micro ― fully engage in this dividing and separating process. For it is the nature of life itself.

The cosmos and our bodies engage without thinking about it.  For better or worse, we human beings do not have the luxury of that approach.  We think about. We feel it. I would suggest to us, however, that embracing the distancing, division and dissonance is no less essential to us … no matter how difficult, messy or painful it may be.

In the political realm engaging in this fashion is called bipartisanship.  We have been reminded of its possibility as our nation has said farewell to Senator John McCain.  In the fullness of his life ― highs and lows, successes and failures – Senator John McCain embodied the best of this ideal.  Senator and former VP candidate, Joe Lieberman, spoke at McCain’s memorial service. After sharing with the crowd a little about McCain’s attempts to understand orthodox Judaism, Lieberman spoke about how John McCain strived to embrace this political aspect of this distance, division and  dissonance. “In 2008 when he was republican nominee for president, he had a far out idea of asking a democrat to be his running mate. Can you believe that? Let me explain it to you as he did. When he first talked to me about it I said “You know, John, I’m really honored, but I don’t see how you can do it. Even though I won my last election as an independent, I’m still a registered democrat.” And John’s response was direct and really ennobling. “That’s the point, Joe,” he said with a certain impatience. “You’re a democrat, I’m a republican. We could give our country the bipartisan leadership it needs for a change.””

That’s the point.  Our country needs both sides of the aisle for a healthy change.  Our communities need both (or all) sides of each issue for and vitality and growth.  Our relationships need the respectful, loving and open embrace of the other one her or his ideas to enable them to realize their greatest fullness and richness.

This work begins with us.  We will not give up our ideals.  We will not stop doing what we believe to be right.   And while we continue walking the path that is our authentic one, we must also strive to accept and engage with the distance, division and dissonance that is an elemental part of life itself.  We are about to listen to the final call of the shofar this morning. May its final piercing, jarring sounds this morning open our ears to those whose ideas create distance, division and dissonance in our hearts. And from that challenging, painful yet essential effort to hear and to listen, may we plant the seeds of justice, compassion and peace.


    1 Comment

  1. Rabbi Adam Morris
    October 28, 2018

    I am absolutely riveted by your Oct 24th sermon. I have read it over and over and applaud you “for going there” in terms of we Jews needing to help lead the way to discussion by different political discussions. I know how difficult it is to try and engage people in those kind of discussions, with name calling and seeing brains and ears closing at the beginning of those discussions to frustrate those trying to understand each position. It is terrific to try, but the largest question in my mind is how do you do you get the discussion going without everyone closing minds and thoughts? The HOW is critically important and most people don’t want to del with it. I’d love to see this work, because without it, we are in severe trouble. I could thru each sentence in this sermon, both sides, and try to “discuss” their positions, but that isn’t the how to…..it is just more talk. I so wish we knew the HOW so we could get started. Thanks for this, it is so important and wish everyone in our congregation would read it!!!

    Question for Rabbi (or maybe Boomers or somewhere else):

    With all of the generations of Jews who have talked and taught of freedom of religion and how important it has been in our Jewish history, why aren’t more Jews supporting people like the baker from Masterpiece Bakery? Why aren’t Jews helping other people of other religions stand up for their faith and values like we Jews have been doing for generations? It never has made sense that we only consider ourselves as receiving discrimination of our beliefs and values, but not support others who try to do the same? Just one of many questions I have had in my reveries of how to get people talking instead of turning away from each other.

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