Category Archives: Ki Tavo

Emma Lazarus and Lady Liberty

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 9/19/17 –

One hundred and thirty one years ago next month the Statue of Liberty was dedicated on a day of great ceremony and celebration.  There was a parade through Manhattan that hundreds of thousands of people attended, followed by a nautical parade of dignitaries.  The ceremony itself, taking place at the foot of the great statue, was presided over by none other than President Grover Cleveland.  In his remarks that day he explained Lady Liberty’s symbolism in the following way:  “her stream of light shall pierce the darkness of ignorance and man’s oppression until Liberty enlightens the world.”

It wasn’t until 17 years later that the poem ‘the New Colossus’ was installed at the base of what had become by that time America’s most famous and symbolic statue.  Written in sonnet form, the 14 lines of the poem captured Lady Liberty’s symbolism, and also perfectly described the sense of America as a place of refuge, safety, and freedom.  I expect some of you probably memorized these lines at some point in school, but it is worth repeating them this morning:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The sea washed sunset gates of the poem are the Hudson and East Rivers, framing Manhattan on her east and west sides.  The imprisoned lightning?  The torch in Lady Liberty’s raised right hand, lit by electric light.  The twin cities?  New York is obviously one – what about the other?  Brooklyn, the true center of the world!  And the huddled masses are of course the thousands upon thousands of immigrants who came to these shores through the gates of Ellis Island.  A nearly perfect description in words of what the statue had come to mean to our country, and to the world.  America, a land of freedom, opportunity, and welcome to all.

The New Colossus was written by a Sephardic Jew named Emma Lazarus.  Lazarus lived a largely secular life until she was in her early 30s when she read the great George Eliot novel Daniel Deronda, about a young Jew who suddenly discovers his Jewish identity and decides to devote himself to the Jewish people.  She saw in that narrative a reflection of her own life, and from that point forward Emma Lazarus began to devote herself to Jewish causes.  She was particularly interested in the eastern European Jews who came to this country in the 1880s and 90s.  She was moved by their stories of hardship and suffering, combined with their deep faith and the sense of hope they maintained that they could build a better life here in America.  Lazarus saw her poem as an expression of gratitude for the past, for her own ancestors who had made their way to this country and the goodness that they found here, and she also saw it as expression of hope, that future generations of immigrants would be welcomed to these shores, where they could one day build lives of dignity and opportunity.

I’ve often wondered during the last week what Emma Lazarus would have thought about our current debate over the DACA law (deferred action for childhood arrivals) and the so called ‘Dreamers.’  I imagine you have followed the news.  DACA was put into place 5 years ago by then President Obama, and its intention was to enable children whose parents who had come to this country illegally to become legitimate citizens.  This week it was announced that the DACA protections would expire in 6 months, and if congress does not act (which it seems virtually incapable of) it is possible that as many as 800,000 young adults, who have grown up in this country, many of whom have jobs, or are in school full time, would be deported.

Of course like with everything these days the debate has become intensely politically charged, and there are also legal arguments being made on both sides.  But I wonder what Emma Lazarus would have thought in terms of the values that are being expressed in this national conversation.  Because at the end of the day this debate really is about values.  What do we want this country to symbolize, to stand for?   What ideals do we hope the citizens of this country believe in?  At the heart of this conversation is a question of whether we still subscribe to the ideals and values that are so elegantly and beautifully laid out in the 14 lines of that sonnet that Emma Lazarus composed 134 years ago.

There can be no question that caring for the stranger is a primary value of the Torah’s.  There are no fewer than 46 references to the stranger in the Torah, each of them a reminder of the responsibility the community has to care for those who find themselves on the margins of society.  And there are two reasons why the tradition is so concerned with this ideal.  The first is it understands the Jewish experience to be that of the stranger.  Jews know what it feels like to be ostracized, Jews know what it feels like to be marginalized, Jews know what it feels like to be expelled from a country.  And so if any people should have an extra sensitivity to the stranger, it should be the Jewish people.

But the other reason is that Judaism understands that the way a society treats its strangers is a measure of that culture’s quality.  There is an odd verse in this morning’s Torah portion.  In a series of curses, of bad things that will happen to the Israelites if they don’t obey God, you find the following:  והיית ממשש בצהרים כאשר ימשש העור באפלה – you will grope about in the daylight in the same way a blind man gropes about in the darkness.  And the commentators are puzzled.  Because what difference does it make to a blind man whether it is night or day, dark or light?

The Talmud provides a wonderful answer.  If a blind man is groping about in the darkness, no one else can see that man to help him.  But in daylight others will see him struggling, and they will come to him to help him find his way.

And that is where we are.  We are at a crossroads, not just with DACA, but in so many other ways, of deciding what kind of nation we want to be, what kind of values we want to embrace.  Do we want to be the kind of country where we grope about in the dark, each person trying to fend for him or herself, unable or unwilling to help one another?  Not able to truly see the other?  Or do we want to be the kind of nation that seeks the light, a light that is symbolized by the torch held up in the hand of Lady Liberty, so that when one of us stumbles, when when of us needs help, when one of us can’t see a way forward, he or she is embraced by others, and welcomed home?

What do we sing in the Sim shalom paragraph of the amidah?  כי באור פניך נתת לנו ה אלוקינו תורת חיים ואהבת חסד – in the Light of Your countenance, You gave us God a Torah of life, and a love of kindness, righteousness, blessing, compassion, life, and peace.

May that light and those values guide us and our nation in the months and years ahead –

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Listening, Hearing, and Dr. Oliver Sacks

In Hebrew, just like in English, there are multiple words that are used to describe what you do with your ears. Lets identify a couple of them in English first – To listen and to hear. Now two commonly used in Hebrew – as Hebrew likes to do, one of the words comes from the noun for ‘ear.’ Which is what? אוזן. The three letter root that makes up that noun is then taken and plugged into a grammatical verb form – להאזין – and that means to listen. And the another Hebrew word for what you do with your ears? You all know it – Shema! Hear O Israel!

In both cases, with the English and also with the Hebrew, there is a different nuance to the words. So you may have been in conversation with someone – maybe someone close to you – maybe even your spouse – and you will say to them or they will say to you in the course of a conversation – you were listening, but you didn’t hear what I said. Which is another way of saying you were looking at me while I was speaking, you may have even heard the words, but you obviously have no idea what I really meant.

Listening is relatively easy – you just have to let the other person say what they want to say without interrupting them. (I did say relatively easy!) But hearing – truly hearing – what another person is saying is a different skill entirely. In fact sometimes truly hearing someone may actually require you to not listen to what they said – to disregard their words so that you can sense the meaning behind the words. It requires paying attention to the other person on a deeper level, reading not just the lines, as it were, but as we so often say ‘between the lines’ where the true meaning lies.

That is not a skill everyone has, and I would venture to guess that just about everyone in this room can identity one or two people in their lives whom they know will really ‘hear’ them when they are speaking. There is something validating about that person – just by speaking with them we know that our concerns are being taken seriously, our worries and fears are shared with someone who cares, our joys and successes are truly celebrated. When you find one of those people you hold on to them, and hopefully you grow your own ability to truly hear others through that relationship.

This week the world lost one of the greatest practitioners of the art of truly hearing that we have seen in a long time. Dr. Oliver Sacks died on Sunday after a battle with cancer at the age of 82. He was a renowned neurologist and author who made a career by writing about some of the more unusual case studies he encountered in the course of his career. He had a knack for explaining complicated and technical information to lay people, in a way that they could not only understand it, but also learn about their own lives and their own world. Dr. Sacks was an inveterate chronicler – as his illness progressed over the last months he continued to write almost daily, producing a series of moving essays about mortality, how he measured success in his life, and just a few weeks ago about how his battle against cancer had brought him closer to his traditional Jewish upbringing. He also was a true polymath, deeply knowledgeable about a variety of disciplines, and writing with equal facility about music or nature, or the human brain in books with memorable titles like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, or his best known book Awakenings.

Oliver Sacks was blessed with many talents. He had a sharp and curious mind. He had an astonishing capacity for imagination, for seeing the world differently than most other people. But perhaps his greatest gift was his ability to communicate. And he knew intuitively what is hard for many of us to remember – communication does not mean that I’ve been able to get my point across to you. Instead, communication is a two way street – I am able to explain to you what is on my mind so that you understand it. But at the same time, I am able to hear you – to truly and fully understand what it is that you are saying, what it is that you need, and who you truly are. And Oliver Sacks was a master communicator, in the fullest sense of the word. When we talk about those who merely listen and those who truly hear, he truly heard.

That same sense of hearing is also at the heart of this last book of the Torah that we are now nearing the end of, the Book of Deuteronomy. The Hebrew root for ‘to hear’ – shin, mem, ayin – appears over and over again throughout the 32 chapters of the book, making the idea of ‘hearing’ a motif that runs throughout the Torah’s final book. Its most most famous appearance is in Deuteronomy 6 where we find the verse Shema Israel H’ Eloheinu H’ Echad. But we see the two words Shema Israel – Hear O Israel – repeated again and again, including in this week’s Torah portion – שמע ישראל היום הזה נהיית לעם לה׳ – Hear O Israel, today you have become the people of the Lord Your God.

That repeated use of the word ‘to hear’ calls us to a deeper engagement with Torah, with the words of the text we read week in and week out. We can all sit here and listen to the text being read. That simply requires us to be in the sanctuary, to be in the place where the words are being chanted. But to hear the words – to find true meaning in them – requires something more. Hearing words of Torah requires engagement. It requires study and effort, going beneath the surface, reading not just the lines, but between the lines. It requires not just the פשט – not just the plain meaning of the words – but also the דרש – the commentaries and conversations that the text has been generating now for more than 2000 years.

And perhaps more than anything else to be able to truly hear the words of Torah requires a fundamental belief – that the words of our sacred texts are still relevant – that they can still today bring meaning into our lives and a sense of God’s presence into our world. As the Sage Ben Bag Bag said long ago when talking about the words of Torah – turn them and turn them, for everything is in them. May we all remember that as we prepare to begin a new year –

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