We need to plant seeds of human connection, teaching tolerance and mutual understanding.
The man who may have saved and revolutionized Judaism in the First Century CE was Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. It was one of the worst times in Jewish history. In 70 CE, the Romans destroyed the Temple. There was extraordinary loss of life. Roman oppression and cruelty were horrific. Jew turned against Jew. Many prayed for and waited for the Messiah to rescue them, but the Messiah never came. These were desperate and terrible times.
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai knew that there was no escape and no Messiah to save the people. One Jewish faction barred exit from the city so that people would have no choice but to remain to fight the Romans who had surrounded the city, and were breaching the walls. This was suicide. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai knew there had to be an alternative solution. The guards at the gates would respect the law that people need to be buried outside of city limits. He arranged to be smuggled out of the city in a coffin. The ruse worked and those barring the doors let the funeral procession leave. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai teaches us an important lesson. Sometimes to save life we have to take immediate, drastic action. We have to improvise and be creative.
And the story goes on: Legend envisions him encountering the Roman general Vespasian, and informing Vespasian he would be triumphant. Vespasian asked, “What do you want?” Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai replied, “The city of Yavneh.”
Why did he want Yavneh? At Yavneh, he established a small academy, believing Judaism would survive through learning, interpretation and evolution of biblical concepts. He envisioned what could be, and how to start over. At Yavneh, he taught that Judaism was based upon creating holiness in everyday life, gemilut chasadim, – acts of love, and prayer in a communal setting. The Judaism that emerged quickly replaced the destroyed Temple with the House of Study, the synagogue, mitzvot, community, and faith. His escape from Jerusalem was about more than immediate survival; he had a vision of what could be. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s chutzpah and vision saved Judaism.
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai subverted the notion that we must wait for the messiah. In a famous teaching, he says:
“If you are in the middle of planting a tree and word comes that the messiah has arrived, finish planting the tree, then go seek the messiah.”
When, or if, the Messiah comes, finish what you are doing, for the Messiah won’t save us. Only we can bring about our own salvation. Stop waiting! Start acting! Plant seeds that will grow!
This is a formula for right now. We have the need for immediate response as life is endangered. We need vision. We need to plant seeds. Lasting solutions take time and effort, patience and humility, seed by seed, tree by tree. People want quick fixes, but the truth is that real change takes time, effort, frustration, failure, tiny steps, and suffers constant setbacks. It’s not easy tending a garden. Our backs hurt; the weather can ruin the harvest. We have to wait for the seeds to grow. But we are in this for the long haul, to create a better world for our children. It is not easy, but in the words of Rabbi Tarfon:
You are not obligated to finish the task, neither are you free to neglect it.
This morning I would like to weave together Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s wisdom with themes from Isaiah in today’s Haftarah. Isaiah confronts us with the imperatives of the moment: evil that surrounds us, poverty and people in dire need, our connection to Israel, and caring for one another in community. These all call to us as we seek to respond to his words. We can’t do everything, so we find our particular passion.
Listen to Isaiah:
“Is such the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day when Adonai is favorable? No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free.”
We see the fetters of wickedness all around us, racism, anti-Semitism, injustice, words and acts of hatred. Statistics reflect the startling rise of hatred, anti-Semitism and violence. We see it. We feel it. Our children feel it.
Certainly Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s call for immediate response, like his escape from Jerusalem, is required. We need to protest, rise up, stand together. We need to call out President Trump, for speaking of moral equivalence between neo-Nazis and protesters only emboldens haters. As my colleague, Rabbi Sharon Brous, shared last week, “Charlottesville did not happen in a vacuum. It is the inevitable outcome of racism being met with anything short of forceful, explicit condemnation. There’s a reason white supremacists didn’t wear hoods to march in streets this summer. They didn’t feel they had anything to hide.” For words spoken and words unspoken, we say to the President that we will not tolerate hatred, racism or misogyny in any form at any time!
Our voices matter and make a difference. We call also out those who respond to hatred with violence of their own, for that too violates the evil Isaiah calls upon us to reject. Immediate response demands that we rise together as people of faith, rejecting evil, and turning to, partnering with, and supporting organizations which fight hate and racism.
Even more important, we need to plant seeds of human connection, teaching tolerance and mutual understanding. This is about education, making sure each school effectively teaches tolerance and how to confront racism. It means getting to know and supporting other communities. Seeds of connection between the Jewish and Muslim community that have been planted this year are beginning to yield fruit. Hundreds from the Muslim community joined us to stand against racism and anti-Semitism. We held events where we got to know each other. We were invited to mosques, and the Muslim community came to synagogues. We learned about our shared beliefs. We came to understand that the Muslim community in this area rejects and repudiates terror done in the name of Islam in words and deeds. We learned that we all want an America of tolerance, and that we really want our children to know their heritage. We will water these seeds and watch them grow in coming days, months and years.
Listen to the next line of the Haftarah describing the fast God wants:
“It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them.”
Images this past year, both here and abroad, of people suffering have become overwhelming, but we do not have the luxury of being overwhelmed. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s paradigm instructs us – give immediate help in a crisis, and plant seeds for systemic change. As I speak, there is a humanitarian crisis in a devastated Puerto Rico requiring immediate action. So many remain in desperate need! At this moment, the horrific persecution of the Rohingya people, an ethnic and religious minority in Burma, has intensified. In the last month there have been massacres and displacement. An estimated 400,000 people have fled on foot or by boat to refugee camps in Bangladesh. A group we partner with, the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) is on the ground, offering immediate and longer term humanitarian aid to the refugees, as well as supporting Rohingyan human rights activists in Burma. Ours is the call to act, immediately and for the long haul.
In addition to AJWS, we are partnering with another extraordinary organization, IsraAID, an Israeli NGO which just opened a branch in our area. In every major humanitarian crisis in the Twenty-First Century, IsraAID has been the first boots on the ground. They are in Puerto Rico right now giving emergency relief, post-trauma mental health support, and water sanitation and hygiene solutions, as well as helping with debris removal. Their efforts are continuing in Mexico, Florida and Texas, each response varying to the needs of the area and the local partners with whom they work.
But it is not just with the initial trauma, but also with the ongoing work of reconstruction, rehabilitation and, eventually, sustainable living that IsraAID excels. As we seek to deal with the global refuge crisis in a sustainable way, CBJ will work with IsraAID to create a special connection to a project in Kenya in the Kakuma Refuge Camp, focusing particularly on a project seeking to educate people in the camp to provide one another with psycho-social support. As we support IsraAID, financially and with volunteers, we plant seeds of redemption for the refugees to rebuild their lives. IsraAID works with refugee communities around the globe helping them thrive after losing their home and their lives. There is so much good we can do as partners.
Isaiah also envisions a dynamic relationship between Israel and the Diaspora. The Haftarah begins: solu solu panu derech. Build up, build up a highway! Clear a road! Remove all obstacles from the road of My people. This piece of Isaiah dates to a period of history where the Jews returned to Israel, while retaining communities in Diaspora. The road between them connected the two communities. We continue to build that road, traveling back and forth.
We are connected to Israel. It is who we are and who we need to be. Travel that road. You understand Israel when you go there, when you meet Israelis and when you partner in envisioning what can be. Join Bill in an empty nester trip for the 70th anniversary. Join with me and area rabbis and leaders in December 2018. You’ll meet our partners in creating justice, kindness and dignity at Aleh Negev and AICAT. The power of Israel is its aspirational vision. The Declaration of Independence declares that Israel: “will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.” Israel is the place where Jewish values come to life.
We embrace Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s lesson of responding to immediate need by safeguarding Israel’s safety. Israel is strong and secure, yet still faces existential threats, like the massing of weapons on its borders and massive efforts to delegitimize her as a nation-state. We use our influence to help Israel remain safe. Realizing that there are places where Israel has yet to realize her aspirational vision, we step forward as activists to plant seeds. We let frustration with the manners in which Israel does not live up to its aspirational vision of freedom, justice and peace, to push, prod and partner so that the propositions in the Declaration of Independence come to be realized.
Small acts create ripples. Currently, large gaps exist between the employment opportunities for Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis. Listen to the words Israeli President Reuven Rivlin: “Integrating the Arab population into the work force is an existential, social and economic challenge for the state of Israel. The Arabs in Israel…are part and parcel of this country…but, without equal distribution of resources, opportunities, and infrastructure, there will be no trust between Arabs and Jews.”
Did you know that all of us through the San Francisco Jewish Federation are helping to plant a seed? The Federation is helping to fund an organization called Collective Impact. Its mission is to work with some of Israel’s fifty largest employers to hire qualified Arab Israelis for mid to upper level management positions. The employees of these companies and the newly hired Arab Israelis all receive training about how two peoples with two different cultures can work together and can learn to respect each other, all to the personal benefit of the people involved and the financial benefit of the companies who have hired the new employees. So far more than 600 Arab Israelis have been hired and the results have exceeded expectations. Economic well-being and face to face connection create seeds for peace to grow. Our job is to plant and nurture seeds.
One more line from the Haftarah: After describing the fast which inspires us to take care of those in need, Isaiah brings us back to our own people: “And do not ignore your own kin.” We have an obligation to take care of one another and create community together.
And as we reflect on the need to care for each other, we must face an honest truth. Community connections are fraying. In some ways, community is starting to splinter. The devastating factionalism of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s times is lifting up again. Too often, people aren’t talking to each other because they disagree politically. We are so charged up by the passion of our convictions that our community is separating based upon political ideology. In too many Jewish communities, echo chambers of like-minded people form, who only listen to people with similar points of view, and belittle those who disagree. I worry about the synagogue of the future. Will different communities segregate based upon political lines? It does not serve us well in the short term or the long term. Judaism thrives when we interact with those whom we disagree, listening, challenging, arguing, but within the context of relationship, of love, of respect. It requires care in our words and tolerating opinions we may not like. I call on this community to nurture seeds for connectedness by creating room for opinions you may not agree with or like. We are family and must be here for each other.
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai saw how extremism, sectarianism and fanaticism engulfed his world. Amidst that painful reality he led us down another path. He taught us that moments in history require immediate action, but that real redemption comes through vision, planting and watering seeds. Respond to immediate needs with passion, activism, protest! The times demand it! Think about doing so in the context of the seeds you plant. Meet our people involved in these organizations. Choose a passion. Act, knowing your work will not be completed.
A Roman soldier asked the famous Rabbi Choni the Circle-Maker why he was planting a tree when as an old man. After all, he would never eat its fruits. Choni replied, “As my grandparents and parents planted trees to leave for me, I plant trees to leave for my children and grandchildren.” Planting trees is the ultimate act of love. It says, “I care about you so much, I will leave the world a little better for you than I found it.” Let that be our legacy.
Gmar Chatimah Tovah – May we all be sealed in the Book of Life.