Tag Archives: presidential race

Some Election Thoughts – or Maybe Not

This is one of those Shabbats where a rabbi is darned if he does, and darned if he doesn’t, if you know what I mean.  If I decide not to talk about the election some of you will be happy, probably feeling, as my wife Becky warned me, just simply exhausted from the whole business, and not wanting to hear any more about it.  On the other hand, some of you will be upset, wondering why I chose not to deal with what without question is a significant moment in the history of our country.  That being said, if I decide to talk about the election those of you who don’t want to hear about it will be disgruntled, while others might not like what I have to say.  As I said, darned if I do, darned if I don’t.

It is perhaps no coincidence that we are reading Parshat Lech Lecha this week, the Torah portion that tells of God’s initial call to Abraham and the beginning of his journey.  I often think of how Abraham must have felt during those moments.  First going to Sarah, and saying to her ‘we have to pack, we are going to leave the one place we’ve ever known.’  They readied their possessions, took their nephew Lot, their flocks and herds, their servants.  And then a morning came, and as the sun began to rise, Abraham turned his back on the dawn and looked into the darkness of the distant west.  He looked out at that moment on an unknown future, and I imagine he was filled with trepidation, wondering what would happen in the course of his journey.

And there are many Americans this week who feel much like Abraham did so long ago, looking out on an unknown future with trepidation, wondering what that new landscape will mean to their lives, to their families, to their country.  The simple truth at this point is that no one knows what the future will hold – if the election taught us anything, it surely should have taught us that.  And one of the striking things about the Abraham narrative is that as unsure as he was of his future, he stepped out into it boldly, and with faith.  I don’t think that was because he believed it was going to be easy, and in fact we know, because we know his entire story, that he would have more than his fair share of trials and tribulations along the way.  Instead I think that Abraham was able to begin that journey, take that first step, because he knew he was not taking it alone.  He had Sarah with him.  God also was with him.  He was not alone.

Neither are we.  We will travel the next years together, together with our families, together with our friends, and together as a sacred community, as a congregation.  We will share the road with our fellow travelers, some of whom we agree with, some of whom we disagree with, some of whom make us a bit crazy, some of whom we’ve known for years, some of whom we’ve just met.  But all of whom we care about, all of whom we will support and respect.  Our journey will not be physical the way Abraham’s was, but Abraham’s journey was also, and perhaps more so, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual, and it was also a journey of personal growth.  And God willing that is the kind of journey we will all be blessed with in the months and years ahead.

Of course we have a say in that, we have the ability to at least in part determine our own destinies, the quality of the journey we take.  That is one of the chidushim, the new ideas, that Abraham brought into the world as the first Jew, and over time that idea would grow into one of Judaism’s great gifts to the world.  Our actions matter, they make a difference in our own lives, and even in the world we live in.  The classic commentators note that Abraham is the first person in the entire Bible to call God by the name Adonai, a name we still use for God today.  It happens in this morning’s Torah portion, toward the end of the sedra, in the context of a conversation that Abraham has with God.  God assures Abraham that he will one day be in possession of the land of Israel, Abraham responds to God by saying this:  Adonai Elohim, במה עדה כי אירשנה  – literally, how will I know that I will possess it?  But you can hear in Abraham’s address to God the word Adonai – the very first time it is used by a human in the Bible.

What does the term mean, literally translated, the word Adonai?  Literally translated it means ‘my Lord.’  Lord in the sense of a master, like in the Middle Ages, the Lord of the Manor.  And the Talmud teaches that Abraham uses this term for God intentionally because he had an insight that no other person had had, namely that religion, at least Judaism, is less concerned with belief in God, and more concerned with serving God, with doing God’s work.  And so Abraham called God Adonai – my master, my Lord – the One I will serve.

And that is something I’ve come to understand over the last few days.  My service of God is not dependent upon who sits in the Oval Office.  It is something that is independent of politics, or elections, or the way the country may or may not be divided ideologically.  The issues I care about, the concerns that I have, the way that I live Jewishly, the mitzvoth that I engage in, would remain the same regardless of what state I lived in, what country I lived in, or who the leader of that country was.  These come out of my understanding of what kind of world God wants us to build together, and what my role in that building process is, and what responsibilities are incumbent upon me in terms of living a committed Jewish life.

For me that is a fairly long list.  It includes rituals I engage in every day, like tallit and tefillin and daily prayer.  It includes study of our sacred texts and traditions.  The celebration of Shabbat and the festivals.  And it also includes heeding the words of the great prophet Isaiah, to care about the downtrodden, to cloth the poor and feed the hungry, to stand up for the rights of those who don’t have a voice in our world, to ensure that hateful speech and hateful actions are not tolerated, and to cry out when any one group – whether ethnic, racial, religious, or gender oriented –  is singled out because it is different.  And my service of God consists of some complicated stew of all of those things, the values and the practices and the traditions and the texts and the ideals that together make up a full and meaningful Jewish life.

As presidents come and go, as congressional seats change hands, as stentorian senators speak, my sense of what it means to serve God stays the same.  In that I take comfort – this week, in all the weeks gone by, and in all the weeks yet to come.  There is much work to do to make this a Godlike world, as there was, as there always will be.  And I have a responsibility to engage in that work, as I always have.  To paraphrase the great words of our sages, I don’t have to finish the job myself, but I am not permitted to walk away from it either.

So there you have it.  Darned if I did, darned if I didn’t.  In a way I suppose I did both.   Or maybe neither – you’ll tell me.

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Filed under America, American Jewry, Baltimore, Beth El Congregation, Bible, civil rights, clergy, community, LGBT, politics, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, the rabbinate, Torah, Uncategorized

In the Image of God

this the text of my shabbat sermon from from 10/11/15

It might seem perfectly logical to us that the Torah begins where it does, with a description of God’s creation of the world – the literal beginning of everything. After all, why not, as we often say, ‘begin at the beginning?’ But there is an interesting argument presented by the sage Rashi in his commentary on the first verse of Genesis, that it might have made more sense to begin the Torah in the book of Exodus. His reasoning is this: if the Torah is a book for the Jewish people, then why not begin it with the history of the Jewish people, which is the Exodus from Egypt?

And the question that Rashi raises stems from a long standing tension in Judaism between what I would call ‘universalism’ and ‘particularism.’ Big words, but fairly straight forward in terms of their meaning. Universalism is the idea that God is God of the entire universe, and that God cares about all people and all nations. Particularism is the idea that God is particularly interested in and concerned about the Jews and the land of Israel. These ideas can work together, but often they are perceived as being in conflict with one another. To get back to our original question about the beginning of the Torah you might think of it like this – if the Torah wanted to emphasize particularism – God’s relationship with the Jews – then it would begin with Exodus and the story of the Jewish people.

But it doesn’t. And by intentionally choosing to begin Judaism’s most sacred text with the story of the creation narrative, the Torah from the very beginning reminds us that the God we are in relationship with as Jews, is also the God that created the entire universe and all people. Think for a moment of the way the Torah describes the creation of the first human beings, Adam and Eve. It is clear in the text that Adam and Eve are not Jewish, and not just the ‘parents’ of the Jewish people. Instead they are the parents of all people, and that would included any faith tradition, any race, any color, any ethnicity. The one thing the Torah is very clear about is that Adam and Eve were crated in God’s image – בצלמינו כדמותינו says the Torah – in our image, in our likeness. And since Adam and Eve are the parents of all people, it means by extension that all people – again, regardless of race, color, religion – are created in the image of God. This idea is central to Judaism, a core tenet of the faith, and is arguably the most important idea that Judaism has ever introduced to the world.

I had a professor in Rabbinical school who once said ‘the Torah doesn’t tell you something you don’t need to know.’ What he meant by that is the reason it says in the Torah לא תגנוב- ‘don’t steal’ – is because, as we all know, people will steal. They have to be told not to. And I think the same idea is operative with the creation story and Adam and Eve. We need to be told that all people are equal, we need to be reminded that all people come from the same place, precisely because it is something we too often forget. Intellectually most people understand the idea, but emotionally they get caught up in all kinds of things. They are afraid of what they don’t know and understand. They will take the radical actions of a small minority and ascribe it to a larger group. They will stereotype, so that certain groups will become in their minds innately lazy, or violent, or stupid, or money hungry. Sometimes these kinds of comments come from a place of hatred or small mindedness, but I believe most of the time they come from a place of ignorance, of simply not knowing enough about the other to fully understand who that person is and how they live in the world.

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve seen two public examples of that kind of ignorance from presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson. As you are probably all aware, the first comment was in response to a question as to whether Dr. Carson believed it was OK for a Muslim to be president of the United States. And he said he did not think a Muslim should be president. He was pretty roundly condemned for that statement, as he should have been. But the fact that he made a statement like that and has nevertheless stayed so high in the polls should make those of us in the Jewish community very uncomfortable. Because there is no difference between saying a Muslim should not be president and saying a Jew should not be president. It is exactly the same thing. It is singling out one religious group, and saying that group does not deserve to have the rights that are extended to all other groups. That statement directly conflicts with the values that this nation was founded on, and it is also clearly against the core value in this morning’s Torah portion, that all human beings are equal, created in the image of God.

Dr. Carson’s second statement, just a couple of days ago, was more directly connected to the Jewish community. In a bizarre conversation that conflated questions about gun control with the events of the Holocaust, Carson seemed to suggest that if Jews had had guns during the Second World War, Hitler would not have been able to kill the six million. I would imagine from that statement that Dr. Carson has no knowledge of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, or of the armed Jewish resistance that fought against the Nazis throughout the war.

Now perhaps Dr. Carson is just a fish out of water, and he hasn’t yet learned the political game of talking and saying nothing, or at least of talking and saying nothing that will get you in trouble. He is obviously an intelligent man, I don’t think there is a question about that, but in some ways that makes his comments even more disturbing. When taken together, what he said about Muslims and Jews shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the way the rights of minorities must be vigilantly protected. I would hope that anyone running for president would remember that the United States is a country made up of many races, many ethnic groups, and many faith traditions, and that one of the greatest strengths of this country is the way those various races, ethnicities, and faith traditions have learned to live together and respect one another.

There is a classic statement in the Talmud attributed to the sage Hillel: אם אין אני לי מי לי – if I am not for myself, who will be for me? וכשאני לעצמי מה אני – but if I am only for myself, what am I? The Jewish community here in America has done very well with the first part of Hillel’s phrase. We strongly defend ourselves and our rights, and we are intensely vigilant for even the slightest hint of anti-semitism, as we should be. But the second half of the phrase – if I am only for myself, what am I – is also crucial to the integrity of the Jewish community. First of all because Torah teaches us that we have a duty as Jews to care about others, especially those who are marginalized. But the second reason is because if the rights of one minority group are challenged or threatened, then the rights of another minority group won’t be far behind. So when misguided statements are made about Jews, we must speak out, and we do. But when misguided statements are made about other religious or ethnic groups – our responsibility to speak out is just as important. This morning’s Torah reading reminds us of the power and importance of that idea. Let us remember it throughout the year and beyond –

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