Category Archives: America

Strangers in a Strange Land

Following is a text version of my sermon from 12/14, touching on the Executive Order signed this week to combat anti-Semitism.

     It has been a tumultuous week in the news, to say the least, from the election results in England to the need for a third election in Israel, to the impeachment hearings taking place in Washington DC, to the tragic shooting in Jersey City.  But there was a particular story that, at least for a couple of days in the middle of the week, captured the attention of the Jewish community.  That was the signing of an Executive Order by the President entitled Executive Order on Combatting Anti-Semitism.  As with so many other issues these days, reaction was swift and at times fierce, some people in the Jewish community claiming this was a good thing for the Jews, others claiming it was not so good.  

     If you didn’t follow the story, the order essentially connects Jewish identity to Title VI of the Civil Rights act that was passed in 1964.  That act outlaws discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving Federal financial assistance.  So, for example, if a university receives financial assistance from the Federal Government – and most do – and it refused to hire someone because of their race – that university would lose the federal assistance it receives.  And for many universities this is serious money – at Maryland, for example, %16 of the budget comes from federal money.  And the new Executive Order ensures that this same law will be applied to Jews.

     Whether in the end this will be good or bad for the Jews only time will tell.  If I had to guess at this point it will be mostly neither good nor bad.  If you’ve read the order it has a parve feel to it, and sometimes within the document, which is short – the whole thing is about a page long – there are sections that work at cross purposes, and it really doesn’t say anything new as far as I can tell.  I would honestly be surprised if at some point in the near future we read a story in the paper about the Order actually being applied in a court of law.  

     What did catch people’s attention about the order, particularly in the Jewish community, was the inclusion of Jewish identity in the general rubric of the Title VI law, which again, is about race, color, and national identity.  And of course the question about this is does Judaism fall into any of those categories?  By and large we understand Judaism as a faith tradition, as a religion, like Islam, or Catholicism.  You cannot convert into another race or nationality.  If I wanted to be Italian, for example, I can’t!  There is no mechanism, no structure, that I can use to become Italian – it is a nationality, an ethnic identity.  But it is possible to convert to Judaism.  That in and of itself seems to indicate that Judaism is defined not as an ethnic identity, but as a faith, a religion.

     That being said, there is a strong ethnic flavor to Jewish life.  You can’t find, for example, lox, or herring, or gefilte fish for that matter, listed as requirements for a Jewish diet in any of the codes of Jewish law.  But those foods are associated with Jews and with Jewish life, with Jewish breakfasts and lunches.  There is a tribal sense to being Jewish, and that comes from ethnic identification.  In the most recent Pew study of the Jewish community younger Jews report that they are very proud to be Jewish, but they don’t want to do anything religious.  And what that means by definition is that they see themselves as Jews, even though they are not at all engaged in religious life.  How can they do that if not through their ethnicity, through ethnic or national identity?

     So the truth seems to be that Judaism is an odd bird in terms of the world’s great faith traditions.  It is a weird hybrid of ethnic and national identity, on the one hand, and religion on the other.  It is possible to live your life as a proud Jew, connected to Jewish history, to the Jewish people, proud of Israel, and to be entirely areligious.  You can’t say that, for example, about Catholicism.  It just wouldn’t work.  

     In part Judaism developed this way over time because we have so often in our history lived in lands that were not ours.  When Moses’ wife Zipporah has their first child she names the boy Gershom, and she gives the name an etymology, an explanation for its origin.  The name Gershom comes from two words – גר – which means stranger – and שם – which means there.  “I was a stranger there,” or as Zipporah herself says it in the Torah, גר הייתי בארץ נכריה – literally, I was a stranger in foreign land.  And that sums up the majority of Jewish history.  

     And that also is the story of our ancestor Jacob, about whom we read in this morning’s Torah portion.  At the beginning of the reading we find Jacob returning to the land of his birth, but he has been away for twenty years, living in a land not his own.  If you think about it the arc of Jacob’s life parallels the history of the American Jewish community.  He leaves home as a young man, with nothing – he himself says כי במקלי עברתי את הירדן הזה – I left with a staff in my hand, nothing else.  Exactly like our grandparents and great grandparents left Eastern Europe, with a few bags, with little to no money, with virtually nothing in terms of material possessions.  

     And then Jacob arrives in Haran.  A foreigner, a stranger there.  But he makes a good life.  He marries, he has children, he works hard, he is clever, and also smart.  He builds a business, becomes very wealthy, his life is a success in every measurable way.  And again the parallel to the American Jewish community and our ancestors – coming to these shores, working hard, emphasizing the importance of education and the intellect, creating successful businesses, and over time the Jewish community here, and many of our families, becoming successful and thriving.

     But Jacob never feels fully settled in Haran.  And he is never fully accepted.  He always feels that he is other, he remains the stranger who arrived with nothing so many years ago.  And I think that is also our experience here.  Despite the fact that we’ve put down roots, despite the successes we’ve had, despite the level of assimilation, the way we’ve integrated into American life – despite all of that, there are moments when we are reminded we are still ‘other,’ still looked at as strangers.  

     The shooting in Jersey City this week was certainly one of those moments, now one in a series of anti-semitic incidents that our community has had to grapple with over the last year plus.  But the Executive Order signed into law this week is also one of those moments.  It is theoretically designed to protect Jewish life, but it is also a reminder that we are still seen as a distinct minority, we are still seen as other, by the culture and society in which we live.  

     That is why we need each other.  And by the way we need each other in both senses of Jewish identity, both ethnically and religiously.  We need that tribal feeling of connection and caring, that sense of responsibility, of looking out for one another and caring for each other.  But we also need a connection to religious life, to our distinct rituals and customs and holy days.  We need to have Hanukkah when there is so much Christmas around us!  

     We should always be grateful for where we are.  We have been truly blessed as Jews to make a life, both as families and as a community, here in America.  But when we are grateful for where we are, we should never forget who we are.  Ethnically, religiously, in every facet of our being, in every aspect of our lives.

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A Shanda

Usually understood as meaning shameful or scandalous, from the Yiddish.  What other word can we use to contextualize news reports that Stephen Miller, the current administration’s ‘immigration policy expert,’ and a Jew, is a frequent reader of white nationalist websites and magazines?  It is indeed a shanda – both shameful and scandalous – that a Jew should immerse himself in such hateful and racist writing, and not only immerse himself, but seemingly buy the entire worldview, hook, line, and sinker, including the paranoid conspiracy theories so often championed on those sites.

There had long been rumors about Miller.  In high school he was already staking out a far right political position that included hateful anti-immigrant ideology.  Then at Duke he worked with Richard Spencer, a self avowed white supremacist, to put on a program.  His background was, to say the least, checkered.  But a week ago the release of close to 900 of his emails shines the plain light of day on his thinking and focus, and also on what he reads.  These emails are recent, most of them written within the last 5 years.  They contain frequent references to racist websites, books, and articles.  It seems that Miller has fully digested the material and uses it systematically as he continues to shape the current administration’s immigration policy.

Much has been made of the fact that Miller’s own family emigrated from Eastern Europe to the United States.  But what I can’t get my head around is how a Jew can embrace this kind of racism.  He is a young man, but doesn’t he know his history?  Can’t he see the connections between the websites he reads and antisemitism?   Is he so blind (or so filled with hate of the other) that he can’t recognize that people who hate minorities, of any kind, also hate Jews?  Does he not know that while the Germans were killing Jews, they were also killing people who were gay, that the Nazis hated blacks, that they slaughtered Gypsies?  Whatever was ‘other’ was caught in the hateful quicksand of the Nazi machine and dragged down.

It would be no different here.  If the world view that Miller espouses fully became reality the Jewish community in the United States would be destroyed.  Either he knows that and doesn’t care, or he hasn’t been able to connect the obvious dots.  Either way, to see a Jew embrace this rhetoric and help – or even lead – in the implementation of these policies – is a true shanda.  When Stephen Miller entered the bizarre and hateful space occupied by white nationalism he left his Judaism behind, whether he realizes or not.

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Gun Laws

As the nation goes through yet another round of soul searching following not one, but two mass shootings that took place within a few hours of each other, I would suggest our legislators look to Israel to get a sense of what responsible gun regulation legislation looks like.

Maybe that sounds surprising to you.  There is a common misconception among Americans that guns are commonplace in Israel, that most Israelis own guns and know how to use them.  How often do Americans return from their first trip to Israel struck by the vision of young Israelis, many still in their late teens, walking the streets of Jerusalem in their Army uniforms, machine guns slung over their shoulders?  And it is true that Israelis are more familiar with guns than most Americans, because the vast majority of Israelis serve in the military where they are trained in the use of firearms.  But the truth is guns are very carefully and thoughtfully regulated in Israel.

First off, there are a series of preconditions that Israelis must meet before they can even apply for a gun license.  They must first of all be of a minimum age.  That is defined as 20 if you have completed your military service.  Let me restate that.  In Israel, even if you’ve served in the military and been trained in the use of firearms, you can’t apply for personal gun ownership until you are 20.  And if for some reason you did not serve in the Army, you can’t own a gun until you are 27 years old.  27!  In addition, background checks are strict.  Any person who applies for a gun license must include medical information from his or her doctor, with the doctor’s knowledge that the person is applying for gun ownership.  The doctor takes into account both physical and mental health in the evaluation.  Once the individual satisfies these requirements, they are permitted to apply.

In the application the individual must explain why he or she needs to own a gun.  And the answer ‘because I want to keep my home safe at night’ is not acceptable.  Licenses are typically granted to people who might regularly cross through the West Bank, or who work in security, people who could find themselves in truly dangerous situations.  Figures vary, but estimates are that minimally 40% of applicants are rejected.  Let alone the fact that the entire process of applying takes many months.

Even more importantly, gun ownership is tracked carefully by the State.  Citizens are permitted to own a single gun at a time.  One gun at a time.  If you want to sell your gun, you have to ask the Israeli government for permission first.  Ammunition is also regulated.  An Israeli can legally be in possession of fifty bullets at any given time.  That is it.  Before they buy new bullets they must shoot or return the old ones, and that has to happen at a tightly regulated shooting range where the bullets – the bullets themselves! – are registered.

There is more, but I suspect you have a pretty good sense of it at this point.  After these most recent shootings the President, parroting Fox News, talked about the problems of mental health and video games.  Clearly mental health plays a role in these tragedies.  But video games?  Seriously?  The problem is crystal clear, in each and every shooting, one after another after another:  someone who should not have a gun was able to quickly and easily purchase one, and often times more than one, with as much ammunition as they wanted.

The Israelis, pragmatists that they are, understand this and have taken care of it through strict and responsible gun regulation.  When American Jews talk to their legislators about Israel, they might want to remind them that along with Israel’s many other accomplishments it has some of the most tightly regulated gun laws in the world.

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Same as it Ever Was

In the fall of 1980 the Talking Heads released their fourth studio album, entitled ‘Remain in Light.’  Jimmy Carter’s presidency was winding down, and in November, a month after the record was released, the country would elect Ronald Reagan to be its 40th president.  The signature song of Remain in Light would become Once in a Lifetime, a charged blending of funk and world music beats overlaid with David Bryne’s surrealistic ravings delivered in a series of preacher-like cadences.  Here are the lyrics of the memorable first verse:

And you may find yourself
Living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself
In another part of the world
And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?

In the band’s live version of the song, recorded for its 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, Byrne shakes, trembles, and sweats as he sings, conveying the sense of a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  It is all too much.  Too much going on.  Too much to understand.  Too much information.  What is real, what is important, what is true, what false, and how, indeed, did we get here?

One answer to that question is found in the song’s haunting refrain, that Byrne hypnotically chants over and over, slapping his hand against his forehead – ‘same as it ever was.’  It is in essence a reframing of the famous biblical line from Ecclesiastes 1:9:  ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’  Here is that verse in its entirety:  “What was will be again, what has been done will be repeated, for there is not a single new thing under the sun.”  In other words we get to ‘here’ because it is inevitable.  We don’t have a choice because we are doomed to repeat the same story lines over and over.  Make the same mistakes, never grow, never change, never break new ground.  Same as it ever was.

I’ve been thinking about both the song and the verse from Ecclesiastes over the last weeks, while finishing Jill Lepore’s masterful one volume history of the United States, entitled ‘These Truths.’  In vivd and elegant prose Lepore recounts moment after moment in the history of our nation.  Many of those moments are glorious, stirring tales of the human spirit at its very best.  In generation after generation Americans stepped forward to risk everything for values that we hold to be true and eternal – human dignity, freedom, justice, and mercy among them.

And yet.  Reading through the book’s 800 plus pages also reminded me that so many of the sorrows and troubles we live with today have been a part of our country from the very beginning.  Lepore makes it clear that racism is chief among those.  But we must also add to that list populism, political partisanship, poverty, the conservative / liberal divide, wealth inequality, and the list goes on and on.  Just like in the Talking Heads song, or the verse from Kohelet, we got here because we’ve been here before, and we just can’t seem to figure out a way to move forward.  Same as it ever was.

But I did not put the book down in a state of despair.  Instead I felt inspired, touched, moved, and reenergized.  In a way what is truly astonishing is that we have not given up.  We keep trying.  There are lights along the way, great figures and thinkers that show us who we are and encourage us to be better.  They help us to move down the road just a bit, a step or two.  Sometimes we slide back, sucked in by selfishness or fear to past mistakes and hatreds, repeating and revisiting them as if for the very first time.  But other times we are better.  We do better.  We live up to the ideals that we believe should define our country, our lives, and ourselves.

Of course the true question is how can we more consistently follow, using Lincoln’s term, ‘the better angels of our nature?’  There is no clear answer to that question.  One thing we should all know – it is not easy work.  Another is that Lepore’s splendid book can remind us all of where we’ve been, which will help us chart a safer and straighter course through the storms of the future.  Perhaps that is why she concludes the prayerful last paragraph of her history with the metaphor of a boat sailing on choppy seas:

“It would fall to a new generation of Americans, reckoning what their forebears had wrought, to fathom the depths of the doom-black sea.  If they meant to repair the tattered ship, they would need to fell the most majestic pine in a deer haunted forest and raise a new mast that could pierce the clouded sky.  With sharpened adzes, they would have to hew timbers of cedar and oak into planks, straight and true.  They would need to drive home the nails with the untiring swing of mighty arms and, with needles held tenderly in nimble fingers, stitch new sails out of the rugged canvas of their goodwill.  Knowing that heat and sparks and anvils are not enough, they would have to forge an anchor in the glowing fire of their ideals.  And to steer that ship through wind and wave, they would need to learn an ancient and nearly forgotten art:  how to navigate by the stars.”

In that clarion call Lepore reminds us all that the stars are there if we have the vision to see them, and the strength and will we need to chart the course.

For those interested here is a link to the classic Talking Heads performance of ‘Once in a Lifetime.’

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Sacred Language

One good deed leads to another good deed, while one sin leads to another sin. (Mishnah Avot, 4:2)

The above rabbinic maxim has often been on my mind of late.  It captures the idea that one good thing commonly leads to another good thing, while the opposite is also true – a destructive action frequently sets off a series of disturbing events.  This is true about our actions.  For example, the telling of a single lie often begins an extended process of telling multiple lies.  Conversely, a person who gets involved with charitable work will discover how good that work feels, and become more and more involved.  ‘A mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, a sin leads to another sin.’

The same is true of the language we use.  Destructive, hateful, and hurtful language leads to more and more destructive language, and potentially to destructive and harmful action.  It is no coincidence that as the midterm elections loom, and the political rhetoric grows more and more heated, a series of pipe bombs have been discovered in the mail boxes of well known figures on the left.  As I write this it is not yet clear whether the bombs were functional or not, but the point remains the same – hateful and hostile talk will lead to destructive action.  Sin causes sin.  With the President’s constant use of divisive and hateful language, both in the tweets that he sends so frequently and the stump speech he is currently using on the campaign trail, is it any wonder that someone decided to translate his words into actions?  How can we be surprised?  Once you cross the line with words you don’t have to go much further to get to that place of violent action.  After all, you’ve already crossed the line.

Jonathan Merritt, an occasional writer for the Atlantic, recently published an op ed in the NY Times about the gradual diminishment of what he called ‘God talk’ in our culture today.  If you track the column down and read it you’ll find that he is mostly writing about his God, the Christian God, but his point is well taken.  Our language has become coarse, our discourse uncivil, and our ability to voice disagreement respectfully almost non-existent.  Words like grace, kindness, sacrifice, patience, modesty, sacred, and holy are all words that often come up in faith oriented conversations.  We need those words today as much as, if not more, than ever.

Judaism has long believed that what you say can make an impact on what you think and feel.  The recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish is a prime example.  This prayer, a litany of praises of God, is recited by those who have suffered the loss of a loved one.  An odd choice, when you actually stop to think about it.  Or is it?  Perhaps the idea is that the constant praising of God through the recitation of the prayer will over time enable a person to return to a place of faith, and to reclaim a sense of God’s greatness and presence.

I would argue it is the same for the language we use every day.  Lets talk more about modesty and kindness, about grace and justice, about sacrifice and patience, about how we experience the sacred in our lives.  The old saying is a rising tide lifts all boats.  One good deed leads to another.  We can say the same about sacred words.

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Immigration Reflections

Following is a text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 6/30/18 – some reflections about the current immigration debate –

     It has been a rough season for the Orioles, with poor play on the field and loss after loss piling up in the standings.  But this week, for a brief time, there was a ray of light on the field at Camden Yards.  Those of you who are still watching the games probably know that on Thursday afternoon the Os fell to the Seattle Mariners 4-2.  What you may not know, unless you tuned in to the game very early, is that the best moment of the afternoon happened before the game even started, with the singing of the National Anthem.

     A young man named Nicholas Nauman – 18 years old – was wheeled out onto the field by his mother in his wheel chair.  He has a host of serious challenges that he wrestles with every day, among them cerebral palsy and cortical vision impairment, which essentially means Nicholas is blind.  He was adopted from eastern Europe and raised by his parents in Maryland, and grew up rooting for the Orioles.  With his mother holding a microphone at his mouth, he leaned his head back in the wheel chair and sang the National Anthem.  When he finished singing the crowd burst into thunderous applause, the umpires came over and shook his hand, and a number of the players and staff from the teams came by to say hi and thank him.  

     It was a heart warming moment, and in many ways struck me as being quintessentially American.  It wasn’t just the setting – Camden Yards, still to this day one of the most beautiful ballparks in the Major Leagues.  It was the spirit of what happened on the field Tuesday afternoon.  The sense that we are all equal, all human, regardless of the severity of the challenges we face in life.  That we all deserve to be treated equally, and that we all deserve – again, regardless of the challenges we face – to have every opportunity to live our lives fully and with meaning, with the support not only of family and friends, but of the very society we call our home.

     Those are classic American values – freedom, opportunity, equality, and of course baseball.  As the young man sang the Stars and Stripes was waving gently in the breeze of a summer afternoon.  The crowd stood, many putting their hands over their hearts, doffing their caps, feeling a joined sense of identity and common purpose.  They all came together in one beautiful moment Thursday afternoon at the ballpark.  

     And it seems so odd to me – such an incongruity – that that moment happened in our present time.   That moment that was so much about our shared humanity, and the capacity we have to recognize in the struggle of our others our own story, and the sense we so often have that there but for the grace of God go I.  I guess maybe that is precisely why Nicholas’ singing of the National Anthem stood out so starkly in this dark and disturbing time.  

     I guess what seems so jarring to me is this:  how can we, on the one hand, as a nation, create that kind of moment – so beautiful, and pure, and uplifting – how can we create that on the one hand, while on the other hand we have been forcibly separating parents from children, or figuring out ways to close our doors to those who would wish to join with us in common purpose?  Which of these things reflects what America truly is?  Which of them reflects what and who we are, as Jews, as members of a community, as human beings?

     Perhaps the answer is that always we are some balance between those two poles.  That within our society – and within our selves – there is always the capacity to create that Camden Yards kind of moment – a sacred, uplifting, that celebrates our humanity.  But also, within our society and within ourselves, there is the capacity to create moments when we give in to fear of the other, when our baser instincts get the best of us, when we focus on what makes us different, not what makes us the same, and when we fail to live up to the promise of our tradition, our national values, or for that matter ourselves.  And sometimes, as Lincoln said it, the better angels of our nature prevail, and we find ourselves celebrating a young man who is somehow, almost miraculously able to sing our national anthem.  And other times we lose the battle, and we give in to our fear and paranoia, and we suddenly find that we have separated thousands of children from their parents.  

     I say ‘we’ because in a sense we are all responsible.  Rabbi Loeb would often say that there are sins of commission and sins of omission.  With sins of commission we participate in the wrong that is done.  With sins of omission we don’t lend a hand, we just look the other way.  But our tradition is crystal clear on this – whether we actually participate in what is wrong, whether we look the other way and pretend it is all fine, or whether we decide to speak out for what we know in our hearts to be true and right and just – what ever our decision, it is OUR decision and we alone are responsible.

     We read from the Torah this morning the sad tale of Bilaam the prophet, called upon by the Moabite King to curse the Israelites.  Three times Bilaam steps forward to utter those curses demanded by the King, and three times, instead of cursing the Israelites, he blesses them.  Tradition has long understood that Bilaam’s sudden reversals are caused by God.  That is to say, his true intention is to curse our people, but God forces him to bless them.

     But what if Bilaam’s blessings came about not because of an external force – God – but because of his own internal struggle.  That is to say, it wasn’t God that forced Bilaam to do the right thing.  Instead, in his own heart and soul he came to an understanding of what was right and what was wrong, he managed to conquer the fear and the suspicion of the Israelites that was driving him, and then he made a choice – HE made the choice.  Instead of cursing these foreigners, (he said to himself) instead of wishing them harm, I am going to bless them, because I see myself in who they are, I see in their struggle a struggle that I may have had, I see in their humanity my humanity, and also simply because it is the right thing to do.

     Please note, by the way, this is not an argument about who should or should not be allowed into the country.  It actually has nothing to do with that.  Bilaam does not invite the Israelites into Moab.  It is obvious that our immigration system needs a serious overhaul, and it goes without saying that there must be a system in place, and that it has to have restrictions and guidelines.  And the politicians will have to figure that out.

     But this argument is about something different – it is about how we treat people, whether we say yes or no to them.  Because how we treat them says a lot more about us than it does about them.  And in every case, in every interaction, we can choose to treat them with respect and dignity.  And when we don’t, it is our own respect and dignity and values that are diminished. 

     A moment like that young man’s singing of the national anthem reminds us all of what we aspire to be, as a nation, as a community, as individuals.  Let us choose that path, let us fulfill those aspirations, let us reaffirm those values, remembering that we are all children of God, whether wheel chair bound or walking free, whether black or white, whether stranger in a strange land, or long time resident.

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Tweets and Coffee

     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 – 

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