Well, if you follow the news at all you probably know it has been a tough week for Roseanne Barr, the actress and comedienne. She had been riding high. The reboot of her mega-hit sitcom was at the top of the ratings, and had just been renewed for a second season. Roseanne seemed to be as popular as she was during the mid-90s, when her original show was pulling down huge ratings. But as is true in many areas of life, everything can change in a single instant, or in her case with a single tweet. And after sending that tweet – that many read as racist – a crude comment about an African American woman named Valerie Jarrett – Roseanne suddenly found the rug pulled out from under her. Within a few hours ABC had cancelled her show, and she faced a firestorm of criticism, much of it coming at her on that same Twitter platform that got her in trouble in the first place.
It seemed more than coincidental that all of this happened the very same week that Starbucks closed its stores – almost 8,000 of them across the US, so that its 175,000 employees could engage in a conversation about race, and could participate in a training program that was designed to help the workers be more sensitive to people of different racial backgrounds. This was Starbucks’ response to an incident that occurred in one of its Philadelphia coffee shops, where staff called the Police on two African American men because they were sitting in the store and had not yet ordered. In a moving and beautifully worded letter about the closure Howard Schultz, the founder of the company – who is Jewish by the way – wrote about the angst that he felt that something of this nature had happened in one of his stores, and about the plan the company had put together to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.
Many of you know that I grew up in the Reform movement, and I remember to this day one of the lines in the Reform Mahzor we used in my shul on the HHDs. It was in that list of sins that we recite on YK, and the reason I remember it so well is that it had a word in it that I didn’t understand as a boy – it said this: on the sin we have sinned, because of xenophobia. Xenophobia, I thought as a boy? How could any word that sounds so strange and seems so complicated be describing a sin? It was only later that I found out – probably when I was studying vocabulary words for my SATs – that xenophobia meant fear of the other. The word comes from two ancient Greek words – xenos, meaning ‘strange,’ or ‘foreigner.’ And the second word we all know – phobos, which means fear. Fear of the stranger, of the other, of what you are not.
Certainly as Jews we know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of that kind of fear. I am reading the second volume in Simon Schama’s new history of the Jewish people. It begins time wise in the mid 1400s, and location wise in Spain where Jews were being forcibly converted to Christianity by the thousands. As we know many of these Jews – called Marannos – continued to live Jewish lives in secret. But one of the things that struck me about Schama’s description of the period was that even when the Jews converted, and even the Jews who converted who lived faithful Christian lives – they were always under suspicion, they were always viewed as being other, different, suspicious, strange, even dangerous, and they were never fully accepted.
It may be that the natural human tendency to view ‘the stranger’ – those who are not like you – with suspicion is as old as human history. It certainly is as old as the Bible, and that sense of xenophobia that seems so present in our society today is at the heart of a troubling story that appears in this morning’s Torah portion. It is a difficult time for the Israelites as they begin their journey through the wilderness, a journey that will last for forty years. And it is an even more difficult time for Moses, who has to deal with the people’s complaining, and a variety of rebellions along the way. But I suspect the most difficult moment of the entire journey for Moses occurs in this morning’s reading because it is personal, it is his own brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, who are publicly speaking out against him. And what is their complaint? כי אישה כושית לקח – they complain that their brother has married a Cushite woman. That is to say, he has married a foreigner, someone who is a stranger. So Aaron and Miriam, two of the greatest figures in the Torah, fall prey to the sin of xenophobia.
And if it can happen to Aaron and Moses, it can happen to any of us. Particularly in these difficult times, when political discourse has become so strained and even conversation between friends can be so difficult. I don’t know about you, but it feels to me like that natural human tendency to fear the other is as strong as it has been in a long, long time. Which is one of the reasons why police are called when young black men are innocently sitting in a Starbucks. And it is also one of the reasons, by the way, why anti-Semitism is on the rise. The old saying is ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’ But the opposite is also true. Xenophobia, racism, hatred, fear, mistrust of the other will not only affect a single group. It will not only be directed at African Americans, or Muslims, or immigrants, or Jews – it will ultimately be directed at every minority group, and as that happens, it brings us all down, coarsening our society and our culture and diminishing our values.
So in Roseanne’s tweet, you saw one reaction to what is going on, and that was to buy into it and to contribute to it. To give in, either to the fear that she felt, or the distrust, or the racism, or maybe a combination of all of those things. But in Howard Schultz’s letter, you saw a different reaction. Not only the apology, the sincere regret, but also the determination to actually do something about it, to create something through his stores that would help, even if in a small way, to make our society more tolerant, more open, and more accepting. So that, as he wrote in his letter, a Starbucks store will be a place where everyone feels welcome, regardless of where they’ve come from, what language they speak, what color their skin is, or what faith they believe in. Don’t we need more places in America like that?
The Torah would suggest the answer to that question is yes. One thing Judaism is quite clear about is that God created all people, and that all people are equal in God’s eyes. One faith tradition is not better than another, one skin color is not better than another, one ethnic identity is not better than another. Our job is to always remember that. If we are able to do that, if we are able to remember it, we will be living more authentically Jewish lives. We will also, one conversation at a time, one interaction at a time, one friendship at a time, rise up together on a tide that draws us closer to one another, and to God.
may that be God’s will, may that be our work, and may we do it together –