How can I love my neighbor?

Sermon at Unitarian Universalist Church in Redwood City

It is an honor to be here today. I have been to this church numerous times and you have come to CBJ. Let’s continue to get to know each other. And to visit today feels especially important, at this time of rising unease, discord and upset. To have different faith communities come together provides light in difficult times.

I begin with one of the most painful days in American history in the last fifty years. It was the night that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died, and Robert Kennedy was scheduled to speak at a campaign rally in Indianapolis, Indiana. Many in the crowd did not know that Dr. King had died just an hour before. After he shared the news, Kennedy said these words: “Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another.”

On that day of great pain, echoing the prophetic voice of Dr. King, Robert Kennedy called for love.

Love your neighbor as yourself – v’ahavta l’re’echa chamochah. This morning, I want to explore how it is that we can fulfill this commandment. It is an enigmatic commandment: Who is my neighbor? And let’s say it is my actual neighbor, what does it mean to love them?

Let’s begin with a story. It is on the study sheet we distributed from the 18th Century Chasidic Rabbi, Moshe Leib of Sassov. Moshe Leib taught: “I learned from a peasant how to love my neighbor. Once at a party, I heard a drunken peasant say to his friend, ‘Do you love me or not?’”

The other answered, “I love you greatly.”

The first peasant went on to ask: “Do you know what I need?”

“How can I possibly know what you need?” was the reply.

“How then,” asked the peasant, “can you say that you love me, when you don’t know what I need?”

From this, Rabbi Moshe Leib learned that love meant knowing what pains another, for when you know what they need, you know what pains them.

This is a sweet story, but it is hard to live by it. It calls on me to not only get to know the neighbor I hardly wave at, but to come to a point where I am listening, connecting and seeking to understand what causes them pain. I think we need to live this. We need to know each other. And our connection needs to grow so deep that I know what causes you pain and you understand the same about me. To truly love your neighbor requires openness, vulnerability, empathy and listening. Do you know me? Do I know you?

I had a moment of realization in my rabbinate a couple of years ago. I realized that in over two decades as the Rabbi in Redwood City, I had never had a Muslim leader speak from my pulpit. So I connected with an extraordinary imam who was the Muslim chaplain at Duke University, Abdullah Antelpi, who was in the area talking about the attempts he is making in the Muslim community to deeply understand Judaism – our faith, our connection to Israel, our shared heritage, and he joined me on the pulpit. We studied and worshipped together. And he shared what caused him pain – when America treats all Muslims with suspicion and as potential terrorists. I have preached against it, but as I listened to him, I felt it in my heart. I knew that I needed to do more than preach. I needed to reach out to Muslims in this area. I needed to write notes of support and show up when hatred manifested to say I stand with you. I needed to live Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov’s teaching about loving your neighbor. We have begun some incredible work, and there is still so much work and activism to do in this particular area. You too in this church have done important work. When there were anti-Semitic bomb threats in our community, you took the time to write our synagogue a letter. It made a difference. We felt that our pain and sadness was seen and felt. Love heals.

Now let’s look at it from another angle. What do you do when your neighbor, or your fellow congregant’s viewpoint, is anathema to your understanding of what love demands? Honestly, that is the situation that I am finding myself in at this moment, a congregation, a community and a country with intensely divergent points of view about our present reality. Look at Pinchas Peli’s interpretation: “The test of the fulfillment of the commandment is in loving those who are not as good and lovable in one’s eyes. I fear that we are becoming a community and country that only interacts with those with whom we agree. We speak in echo chambers of like-minded people. I wonder if we can create spaces in our hearts to truly listen to those with whom we disagree. Maybe if we apply Moshe Leib of Sassov and seek to understand the pain or needs that drive their opinion, we can begin to build love.

Loving begins with concrete acts of caring. Look at Maimonides – it is visiting the sick and comforting mourners. Or Nachmanides – it is to wish them well in all things.

As we explore what it means to love our neighbor, through study and prayer, we find a response to the moment in which we live and that response is to double down on love and believe with all of our hearts that ripples will occur. I know you are studying religious authority this month in your church. That’s a whole series of sermons, but for me, religious authority begins with study. As I study the sacred obligations of tradition, those obligations bind my heart and my deeds. Together as community we study, interpret and re-interpret so that authority emerges. It emerges through the voices of rabbinic interpretation and leadership, and through individual faith. That authority stands upon and responds in the context of certain fundamental truths, and for Judaism, everything is seen through the prism of loving your neighbor. If any religious leader rules in a way that contradicts love, we would deny that authority. Look at the study sheet: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is the major principle of the Torah.

One last story: As Jewish Muslim partnership has grown, loving your neighbor has become real. You may have read in the news that the Jewish Day School in Foster City was evacuated a couple weeks ago due to a bomb threat that was accompanied by an anti-Semitic phone call. It was traumatic for our community. On Friday, the Director of the Day School received this note: My name is Mona Nezzar and I am the principal of Silicon Valley Academy, an Islamic preschool, elementary and middle school in Sunnyvale, CA. We were saddened to hear about the bomb threat, but very glad to hear that it was only a hoax. Our students wanted to show their support and solidarity with your school, students, staff and parents. They came together to create a support banner for your school. We would love to hand deliver the banner. If possible, can you please let us know when a good day and time would be for us to deliver it? We truly believe in supporting all communities and working together for the betterment of society. Let us know if we can support you in any other way. I will send you pictures when it is delivered.

It will be a long journey, but ours is the call to love, through empathy and action. Love always conquers hate. May we help make it so. Amen.