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Shabbat Sermon 8/18/2017: Parashat R'eih

posted Aug 19, 2017, 6:33 AM by Michael Rose   [ updated Aug 19, 2017, 6:39 AM ]
This week’s Torah portion, R’eih, begins with blessing and curse. Moses tells the people they have a choice, between being blessed if they follow God’s commandments and cursed if they don’t. Moses prescribes a ritual of pronouncing the blessing at Mount Gerizim, a mountain covered with vegetation, and the curse at Mount Ebal, a bare, steep mountain. It seems straight-forward: Follow God’s instructions, and all will be well. Fail to do so, particularly by beginning to follow other gods, and all will most emphatically not be well.
Idol-worship in the sense that it is discussed in our Torah is not an issue for us today. The rabbis of the Talmud, nearly two thousand years ago, said that even then, it had been a long time since idolatry was a real temptation for the Israelites. But as I read this week about what brings about blessing and curse, I was thinking about what our modern equivalent might be.

For me, following God’s instructions means taming my basest instincts and trying to put good into the world. It means taking care of ourselves, but not at the expense of the community. The 20th-century French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas saw Judaism itself as ethics. He said that seeing God looking at you out of the eyes of every other person is what motivates you to treat that person justly. 

Turning away from God means giving up on doing what is right, engaging in sinat chinam, baseless hatred. It means considering some human lives as less important than others. It means turning a blind eye to the suffering of others and to evil.

“Evil” is a very strong word, and I don’t use it lightly. I don’t see evil in many people or places, but there are times when it is the only word to use. 

As many of you may have been, I was shaken by the white supremacist, Nazi rally that took place last weekend in Charlottesville, VA. Seeing so many young people, most of them men, all of them white, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” and “You will not replace us,” waving flags with swastikas on them and wearing Nazi gear, brazenly displaying their hatred of Jews and people of color (some of whom are also Jews), was upsetting. For me one of the most chilling images was a shot of the crowd from above, after dark, with a sea of torches. I’ve been to candlelight vigils before—that’s very different than torches.

Even worse was the president’s response, equivocating, saying there was violence on many sides, that many of the white supremacist marchers were “good people.” In a world where so many issues are not straight-up black and white, this one is. You cannot embrace Nazi ideology and be a good person. Nazism is evil. White supremacy is evil. On one side of my family I am descended from the youngest signer of the Declaration of Independence, a South Carolinian named Edward Rutledge. There is honor in that. However, he also owned 70 enslaved human beings. I am ashamed of that. On the other side of my family I am German. My grandfather and my great-uncles were not Nazis, but they did serve in the German army in World War II. There is great shame in that for me. 

Jews in Germany in the early 1900s had it really good. They were largely assimilated, and Germany was the center for Jewish scholarship at the time. When Hitler came to power, that turned on a dime and we all know what happened, because we carry the scar of the Holocaust on our collective Jewish psyche.

That Nazis feel comfortable marching openly in the United States is bad. That the head of our government will not condemn them unequivocally is worse. The president is bringing a curse on our land rather than a blessing. This is as straight-forward to me as the beginning of our Torah portion.

Later in our Torah portion, though, it seems a little less clear. We are told “There shall be no needy among you,” and three verses later, “If there is a needy person among you…do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kin,” and four verses after that, “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land” (Deut. 15:4, 7, 11).

This apparent contradiction may hinge on that first mention, “There shall be no needy among you,” because it continues, “if only you heed the Eternal your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day.” The fact that “there will never cease to be needy ones” seems to be an acknowledgement that the people will never succeed in following God’s law so fully that there will be no needy. But neither curse nor blessing seems to be the response to that. It’s not as clear as: Do everything right and get blessed, or do everything wrong and get cursed: There seems to be a middle ground, as there would have to be, because we are fallible humans.

When it comes to the needy among us, the plain meaning of the Torah text is that it’s talking about financial need. But we know that there are different kinds of need. 

As some of you saw that I said on Facebook today, we in Brooklyn are still okay. Our local politicians are firm in their condemnation of and responses to antisemitism. In Brooklyn, some of the people who have a harder time are people of color (some of whom are also Jewish), undocumented immigrants (some of whom are also Jewish), and Muslims. 

In order to be worthy of blessing and to do God’s work, we must pay attention not only to our own needs—though we must pay attention to our own needs also—but we must also care for the needy among us, whether they are needy because of poverty, because of systemic racism, because of anti-Muslim, anti-transgender, or anti-immigrant rhetoric and action.

This can sometimes be a little more complicated than standing against Nazis. When the Black Lives Matter movement is also pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel, that can be painful for Jews. I stand with the Black Lives Matter movement anyway, but it’s not completely straight-forward. I was very moved this week when the March for Racial Equality, planned for Yom Kippur, posted an apology for putting the march on that day, suggested that there will be sister marches the next day, and acknowledged the intersectionality of antisemitism and racism. I’ll be at the sister march on October 1 if there is one in New York City.

When it’s uncomplicated and when it’s complicated, God’s Instruction obligates us not to stand by the blood of our neighbors and to love the stranger. It obligates us to call out evil when we see it, to stand up for ourselves and for those who are under attack by the forces of evil, including Nazis and white supremacists.
In the Talmud, there’s a story of how the great Rabbi Meir was being harassed by some guys in his neighborhood, and he prayed for them to die. His wife, Beruriah, a scholar, rebuked him and said should not pray for their deaths, but that they should repent of their wickedness and reform.

In that spirit, let us pray that the white supremacists and the Nazis and their supporters, including our president and many of his advisors, may repent and turn away from their hateful ways. And let us stand strong and together with the many people in our city and our country who are for justice and equity for all people. 

Amen and Shabbat shalom.