Rosh Hashana–Seeing, Doing, Belonging

Stand for what is true and just–act to realize it.

In a moment in history that so full of anger, upset, despair and discontent – it took the words of the late Senator John McCain in his final message written before his death to give me comfort and perspective. He reminded us that our country will emerge “stronger than before.” He speaks to this moment when he wrote:

“Do not despair our present difficulties, but believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here.”

I believe what he says, but wonder how we realize our promise and greatness. How do we change the current reality of intense acrimony and darkness? If I had an answer to that question, you could change my name to Solomon. There is no simple response or pithy pronouncement that will magically change things. We start by defining what it is that makes us great–and then consider what steps help us get there.

How would you answer that question? What is the greatness and promise of America?

I believe there are two pieces of our greatness. First, is our connection to one another. Second, that we are a country of goodness and righteousness. These pieces of our essence reflect shared American and Jewish values.

Sociologist Brené Brown helped give me language and insight as I strive to reorient us to this path. In her new book Braving the Wilderness, she urges us to embrace a paradox.

What is the paradox? One part is the need to talk with each other face to face. In Brené Brown’s words “It is harder to hate close up–move in” and stay connected! AND at the exact same time, in her words: “Speak truth to BS–be civil.” If I am to translate it into rabbinic language: stand for what is true and just–act to realize it. These two values can seem hard to hold onto at the same time. What if the person we are engaging with face to face espouses what to us is unjust and wrong? Brené Brown teaches to stay connected AND stay true to yourself–for the consequence of losing either aspect of the paradox is devastating.

The paradox is predicated upon the truth that we need each other. For me, this is spiritual language. Judaism’s beauty is the connections it fosters. We are there for each other during happy times and sad times. It is in community that we effectively bring sacred values to life–knowing that we have a collective responsibility for the common good. We discover the power we possess to change other people’s lives for the better. We explore what is good and right through study of sacred text together. We need each other. But it is so hard to stay connected these days–especially with those with whom we disagree with politically. I have watched families ripped apart and communities suffer. It is profoundly sad!

So we are back in to the question of how we stay connected. Some have suggested, “Just connect with people with whom you agree.” That is what is happening in many synagogues–we either don’t talk about what is real, or we share our outrage with like minded people. We nod our heads in agreement about how terrible those other people are–as we grow more and more distant from them and angry. In Brené Brown’s words: “We’re screaming at one another from further and further away.”

There is a danger to binding together based solely upon shared fear and disdain. We lose our common humanity, shared trust, respect and love (Brown, p. 33). Sorting ourselves out by the faction with whom we agree deepens blame and rage. Rather than solving any problem it contributes to the deepening anger that builds upon itself.

And what happens next is even more disconcerting–and reflects what we are witnessing at this moment–we are dehumanizing and demonizing those with whom we disagree and assuming the worst about them.

Brené Brown brings Professor Michelle Maiese (Brown, p. 72), who writes: “As we take sides, lose trust, and get angrier and angrier, we not only solidify an idea of our enemy, but also start to lose our ability to listen, communicate and practice even a modicum of empathy.” And once we dehumanize, another position hardens and the enmity grows. Think about the language being hurled about these days. We are often participants in dehumanizing another–and we justify it by insisting how wrong they are. But it is a dangerous road we are walking.

There is a painful scene in this morning’s Torah reading. Whether justified or not, Sarah demands Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael. She no longer sees them as human and refers to Ishmael as “that boy” and Hagar as “that slave-woman” rather than by their names. “Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son, Isaac.” Isaac is named–Ishmael and Hagar are not. Despite misgivings, Abraham accedes to this demand. The second we stop seeing someone as not worthy of a name, we lose our ability to find compassion–and others go along. Thrust into the desolate wilderness with insufficient water, Hagar cannot watch as Ishmael almost dies.

But God hears the cry of the boy “where he is–basher hu sham.” God opens Hagar’s eyes to see the life sustaining water. God guides her to what she needs at that moment. The Torah will not allow us to dehumanize Ishmael or justify his death. It focuses on Ishmael and Hagar–whose name means “the stranger.” God cares for every human–especially the stranger. God rejects the dehumanization that has become so commonplace.

Jewish teaching asks that we turn toward one another–face to face–for all of us are created in the Divine image. In one of the most dramatic moments in the Torah, after years of hatred and fear, Jacob and Esau unite and Jacob proclaims, “To see your face, is to see the face of God.” Ask yourself: Have I stopped seeing the face of God in one another?

And there is more to consider as we turn away from one another and retreat to our silos. To not engage with those whom we disagree means that we no longer have our ideas challenged. We lose the ability to refine and revise our position–or change our mind. The Jewish ideal of a marketplace of ideas passionately held and debated is lost. When we stop interacting with those with whom we disagree, we lose a piece of our humility and our humanity.

Brené Brown pointed out another cost of associating only with like-minded people–loneliness. When we exist only in our own silos, what happens if we happen to disagree with the opinion of the herd? We can’t say our authentic truth–we will be kicked out of the group. Brené Brown writes: “The looming threat of blowback should we voice an opinion or idea that challenges our bunker mates keeps us anxious. When all that binds us is what we believe rather than who we are, changing our mind or challenging the collective ideology is risky.” (Brown, p. 137). Turning away from each other has a high cost!

I am calling on our CBJ community to look for the divinity of those with whom we disagree. Stay connected. Engage. Listen. Discuss. Disagree passionately–but don’t disconnect. Talk face to face. Brené Brown is right–it is harder to hate close up. I am calling upon us to reject a growing trend of not tolerating someone with an opinion that we don’t like. Don’t send a nasty e-mail–talk directly. I am calling for courage to stay connected face to face. Move in toward one another.

AND AT THE SAME TIME embrace the second part of the paradox–speak truth to that which you feel is wrong! Stay true to your convictions and truths! Act!

The power of Judaism in this aspect of the paradox is that it gives us moral imperatives which we seek to realize in everyday life. Justice, respect, compassion, sanctity of life and dignity of the individual are our essence. Judaism and politics intersect as sacred Jewish values are realized or rejected in the public arena. We seek to bring moral passion to life via political activism. There are so many issues where my Jewish faith drives me to activism:

My Jewish soul believes I must safeguard the environment. We are called upon to till, tend and safeguard the environment. So when I see policies that undermine the well-being of planet and I believe will result in future disaster–I become an activist for laws that will safeguard the environment and turn the tide against the devastation we are creating.

Key Jewish teachings reflect reverence for life. We are commanded to “Choose life!” and that one human was created because to save a life is to save a world and to take a life is to take a world. For me, that drives me to embrace limits on accessibility of weapons, which have gotten into the wrong hands and taken so many innocent lives.

Love the stranger, care for the one who is suffering, remember being a slave–commandments repeated throughout sacred literature translates for me into activism around immigration policy which protects and shelters those who are escaping danger.

Belief that truth is God’s seal causes me to cringe every time lies are shamelessly spoken.

A core conviction that all humans are equal and created in the divine image leads me to activism when I witness discrimination and racism. Driven by the verse: Justice, Justice you shall pursue causes outrage as injustice persists.

And I say all of this with humility and awareness that how I translate values into activism may lead me to disagree with others, who share deep commitment to Jewish values. What we can do is study together. We can talk about other values connected to the issues I have lifted up–which may lead them to different conclusions as to the proper actions. As we talk face to face, more often than not, I see that people with whom I disagree also come from a place of sacred values. It is discussing and debating how values apply to actions that we become more thoughtful in realizing values.

And for all that I embrace the paradox–stay connected, passionately embrace values–there are certain lines that for me cannot be violated. Racism, dehumanizing, hatred, lying, or demeaning another–can never be tolerated. There is a line. It’s etched from human dignity. And raging, fearful people from the President, the right and left are crossing it at unprecedented rates every day. (Brown, p. 75) Things have to change and I believe most people regardless of politics can unite together by rejecting crossing these lines.

If we are truly talking face to face, the moments when we cannot stay connected should be the exception rather than the rule. Don’t let the exceptions pull you from the paradox–we can stay connected to those with whom we disagree while holding fast to our convictions. It happens all of the time here. Let those stories be the ones you lift up. I read an interesting article in Sports Illustrated about Robert Quinn, one of the first football players to raise his fist during the national anthem as a way of expressing his anger about racial injustice. He believes we are not the land of the free as long as racism persists in ways he personally experiences. Robert Quinn grew up in Ladson, South Carolina. His football coach Steve LaPrad stands at the opposite end of this discussion. He is a conservative whose patriotism demands standing at strict attention during the national anthem. Listen to his comment: “I’m sure me and him don’t see things exactly the same right now, but that guy–the world would be a better place if there were more Robert Quinns. …So however you feel bout what he does [during the anthem], if you know Robert Quinn you just say, ‘It’s Robert, so he’s got a good reason.’”

That is what happens when you know someone face to face–people are hard to hate close up.

We face a spiritual crisis at this moment. Can our actions impact the dangerous drift of our nation and Jewish community? I don’t know–but change starts with a small step followed by a small step.

Let’s reject winner/loser mode and make generous assumptions about the people around us.

Let’s step out of our bunkers and reaffirm our connections.

Let’s bring our authenticity and integrity to our community and be a place where many voices and avenues of activism exist under the same roof. Let’s see the divinity of God in one another’s faces.

Let’s passionately embrace tradition’s truths, and engage in activism–bringing those values to life in the public square. John McCain reminded us that America can realize its legacy of connection and values. Hold fast to the closing words of his letter:

“Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history.”


Shana Tovah