Getting to the Tuna: Modeling Healthy Debate in Community
Rosh Hashanah 1, 5780
I look forward to this moment every year. First day Rosh Hashana- the first time we are all together in one space as a community- But what makes this community special is not that we are all sitting here today. We are not a community because we have filled out our paperwork, paid our dues, or given a generous Kol Nidre pledge- thank you in advance. We are a community because we strive to be a group of people who care about the person sitting next to us and will be there for one another when we need support.
Being a part of a caring community is one of the greatest gifts that we can cultivate in our lives. Think for a moment of a time when you felt the impact of community in your life. I know from my own experiences, and witnessing so many of yours, the power of receiving a hug when you are experiencing loss, the value of sitting together at a shabbat meal, the warm company of someone visiting you at the hospital, and the list goes on. Our chesed and membership committees have helped us connect to one another with caring outreach and as a result are helping us build our relationships as we develop into the community we strive to be.
The more connected we become, the more encumbered we feel to one another. We learn this sense of obligation in the Talmud, our Oral Tradition, with the teaching, kol Yisrael arevim ze bazeh– all of Israel are connected one to another. And our obligation to one another goes beyond care. We can, with practice – provide each other an additional support- the opportunity to learn and grow from our different perspectives.
Unfortunately this is not something we can take for granted but a skill we must practice. Today’s world of global communication through social media makes it easy to remain in an ideological bubble, as we consume the news that we choose to read and witness the ever growing divide in our country over leadership, parties, policy, and ideology. We are out of practice and uncomfortable with discussing issues of politics with people who hold different views on any number of subjects, whether they be political in nature or the much more divisive question of what’s the all time better tv sitcom- Friends or Seinfeld? Careful of bringing that one up.
But besides that particular issue, avoiding difficult subjects keeps us from growing and it isolates us from one another. There is a problem when we are nervous to get near the kiddush line. We are afraid what we might encounter if we discuss the rise of hatred and antisemitism, immigration, climate change, or Israeli politics. When our fear of expressing our ideas and listening to someone else’s keeps us from being in relationship and learning from one another- the tuna fish is wasted. And most of us here know- you can’t waste Val’s tuna.
Issues that bring out our emotions are most often issues that need to be discussed. Each matter affects real people and is connected to our core stories. These difficult times call for us to take part in the conversation and to approach these issues and one another with curiosity, respect, an openness to learning and giving one another the benefit of the doubt.
I sometimes hear from some of our community members that they feel politics does not deserve a place at synagogue. Rabbi- they say, we get enough of that everywhere else. At shul I want to learn about the spiritual aspects of Judaism. Why talk about something that just gets people upset? People come here to escape from all of that. I firmly believe that Judaism does and always has been relevant. It speaks to the needs of the day- which fall into any number of spheres- the spiritual and the political. And often- what is spiritual is political and vice versa. If we are committed to our heritage and continue the Jewish people’s mandate that our responsibility is letaken olam bemalchut shadai– (Aleinu prayer) repairing the world to be a place where God’s presence is manifest, then how can we avoid the opportunity to hone our ideas through honest conversation and ensure our Jewish values are relevant and applicable to the world we live in?
Our Torah is a resource to help us navigate a complicated world. Our ancestors asked many of the same questions that we ask and offered answers that may or may not work for us. But they laid the foundation for us to have a conversation. Our job is not necessarily to solve problems and come to an agreement on difficult issues. Our ancestors certainly did not. As the age old saying goes- 2 Jews 3 opinions. Our job is to model the way a community engages with one another utilizing the tools and being guided by the values of our tradition.
We learn from the Tosefta to make space for the views of another. “Aseh libcha chedrei chadarim.” (Tosefta Sotah 7:12) Make yourself a heart of many rooms and bring into it the words of the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel, the words of those who declare unclean and the words of those who declare clean. Hillel and Shammai, in other words, who disagreed about so many fundamental ideas continued to get into the kiddush line together.
Hillel and Shamai based this ability to make room for one another’s opinions on a concept found throughout rabbinic literature that Torah study makes room for multiple interpretations. The Jewish people, explains the midrash, heard revelation differently, in a way that was appropriate for them. We each come to the conversation with a different set of experiences and character that allows us to acquire our tradition and inform our opinions in a different way.
And so wherever your political opinion lies I invite you to hold these words as we interpret the story from this morning’s Torah reading. In my opinion our study can help us explore a conversation we have been having for a few years at Shaarei Tikvah led by our social justice committee about the global crisis of migrants and asylum seekers. I will offer some different views on this text and the issue related to it to model the complicated nature of this topic.
In this morning’s Torah reading, Sarah appears frightened by the way her son Isaac and Isaac’s half-brother, Ishmael, are interacting. Because of this fear, Sarah demands that Abraham banish Ishmael and his mother Hagar from their home, disparagingly calling Ishmael, “the son of this handmaiden.” She does not want Ishmael to inherit anything from Abraham, which could threaten her son Isaac’s future inheritance.
Abraham is very distressed over this predicament. Should he send his son and the mother of his son into the wilderness to face certain death or suffer the consequences of defying his wife, Sarah? God hears his anguish and makes his decision easier by telling him to listen to Sarah. When Hagar and Ishmael’s resources soon dry up in the desert, Hagar is distraught and cannot bear the sight of her child suffering. A messenger of God responds to Ishmael’s cries and tells Hagar that the child’s voice has been received ba’asher hu sham– “In the place where he is.” The messenger encourages her to go back to him where she sees a well of water, which God provides for them. Ishmael survives, grows up, and produces a great nation. (Gen. 21:9-21)
This story undoubtedly leaves us with many questions- If we understand Sarah’s desire that Ishmael and Hagar be banished then why does God save them? If we don’t agree with her decision to send them towards almost certain death, how do we consider Sarah’s apparent lack of moral concern for a mother and her son? Ultimately they are saved by God but miracles don’t happen every day. Is there a lesson to learn from this story and can we apply it to current events. Inherent in this story are seeming conflicting values between need for security versus empathy for those in need. When considering these core themes, perhaps this story can inform our understanding about differing perspectives on American immigration policy and asylum seekers in our country.
Rashi, the renowned Torah commentator from 11th century France, helps us open up the conversation by explaining God’s decision to save Yishmael. In a story from the Talmud, (Tractate Rosh Hashana 16b) the ministering angels challenge God’s decision to save Ishmael. They argue that Ishmael is guilty of being the forebearer of a nation that will cause harm to the Jewish people in the future. They protest, “O Lord of the Universe, for one who is destined to kill Your children with thirst, You are bringing up a well?!” God answers them with another question, (how Jewish!) “What is he at this moment, righteous or wicked?” They reply, “Righteous.” God responds, “According to his present deeds I judge him.” And that is why God hears the cries of the child, “ba’asher hu sham” “in the place or in the moment where he is.”
This midrash gives us insight into the debate about individuals who are affiliated with groups at any point in history. Do we group them together with others or judge each according to their own situations? From the perspective of the angels, because of what others from Ishmael’s lineage will do in the future there is a desire to punish him or prevent him from surviving. God responds by rejecting the notion that Ishmael’s descendants deny him the right to salvation. Rather, God judges him with compassion because of the situation Ishmael is currently in and puts the fears and prejudices of the angels aside in order to make room for what is necessary at the current moment. This perspective recognizes that while there may be negative consequences in offering compassion to others, sometimes it is necessary to help a human being who faces serious danger. Certainly, one can learn from this not to close one’s ears to the cry of someone in need.
It is totally plausible that you could side with the angels in this debate. For some readers of this story and perhaps for Sarah, Ishmael represents a clear danger to Isaac, and by extension, the Jewish people, and should not remain in Abraham’s household or in his family. To follow through with this argument, we sometimes need to put aside our feelings of compassion in order to take care of ourselves. As we learn from within our own tradition, according to Rabbi Akiva, when you need to choose between your life and your fellow’s life, he argues, chayeicha kodmin– your life takes precedence. (Bava Metzia 62a) Perhaps he would say the same in judging Ishmael.
Our discussion then can lead to the following questions for us to discuss. Is there a link between migrants entering the US and increased danger to US citizens? Does providing assistance to migrants negatively affect Americans’ ability to provide for their families? Is increasing immigration a threat to our safety or to our economy? And if bad actors have abused the system in the past should newcomers be punished today? If we choose to read this story through the lens of these questions we may deepen our thoughts about both the text and the issue of immigration.
As I reviewed the account of Yishmael I immediately recalled my experiences in Guatemala with American Jewish World Service earlier this year. There my rabbinic colleagues and I heard the harrowing stories of Guatemalan indigenous farmers, journalists, lawyers, and activists who bravely fight for human rights against a corrupt and dangerous government. These people, like Ishmael, face personal threats to their safety. The people we met with asked us to encourage our government to speak out against corruption and intimidation and to hold accountable political leaders acting with impunity against their own citizens.
We took their words to the halls of congress and made sure our leaders understood their predicament. Like God in the Biblical account, we heard the cries of the Guatemalans and advocated to open the eyes of our leaders in the US in order to provide these people much needed support from the wells of justice. Our hope is that they will be able to stay in their country, safe to live their lives as free citizens, protected, not endangered by their government. But should the people we met come into harm’s way and need to escape with their families to come to the US, should we not advocate for their safe entry? What is our responsibility to others when we hear their cry and know that they are in danger?
Hearing their stories, I understood more why people facing danger with no well in sight could risk everything to migrate with their family to a better place. America has for a long time been that place of opportunity- an oasis in a desert- providing a chance at a decent life for those fleeing from persecution. Guatemalans know this well and have seen the US as providing opportunity for a better life for many years. And we know all too well from the experience of Jewish refugees that a few generations ago, the US played the same role for us as we escaped from danger in Eastern Europe.
As a child I visited Ellis Island carrying the stories from my family’s journeys from Europe to America and the significance they recalled of seeing the Statue of Liberty welcoming them to a new home and hope for the future. I can imagine what America meant to my family and countless others who, thanks to America, could imagine a future for their families. To paraphrase Emma Lazarus’s poem, which is attached to the statue, how many huddled masses yearning to breathe free found solace in the site of the beacon torch held by the Mother of Exiles who welcomed them to this unique land?
For American Jews, activism around immigration has been a central unifying practice. According to historian, Dr. Jonathan Sarna, Jews played a leading role in the battle to keep America’s gates open during the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882; in the mid-1920s, when the U.S. imposed strict immigration quotas.
Today, amid continuing uproar over policies such as family separation, reduced refugee admissions and the travel ban that critics say targeted Muslims, many Jews are returning to, and reinvigorating, their community’s activist roots. Jews, who have experienced the uncertainty as strangers in a new place, escaping from danger in order to begin again in a new home, we know what it means to be the stranger and to be welcomed. The question that we must ask ourselves is can we do the same for others?
What is our role as American Jews at a moment when the quota of refugees has been cut by half in the coming year, decreasing from an all time low of 30,000 to an even lower quota of 18,000, down from 110,000 in 2016. As we consider these numbers and the stories that each of these individuals yearning to breathe free carries with them in search of a safe place to live, we recall Ishmael’s cries, Sarah’s fear, God’s mercy, and Abraham’s difficult decision.
I am also aware of the fear that we have today in the face of antisemitism, which is unfortunately connected to our reaction to these statistics. It is hard to be compassionate to strangers when we feel a threat to our own safety. Sarah’s voice here is significant. Given the fear of the moment- can we still advocate for the plight of refugees when a synagogue in Pittsburgh was targeted by a white supremicist because they advertised on their website a HIAS program called Refugee Shabbat? And from the other side of the political spectrum- can we advocate for more refugees to enter into the country knowing that they are coming from places where Israel is the common enemy and hatred of Jews not far behind? Perhaps then by advocating for increasing the quota of refugees we are welcoming in more hatred of Israel and by extension more antisemitism?
We live in a moment when antisemitism is surging in America on the right and on the left. In her book, How to Fight Anti-semitism, NY Times, journalist, Bari Weiss writes that on the far right Jews are condemned as internationalists, disparaged for being insufficiently white and refusing to renounce universalist values. This anti-Semitism is anti-globalism that repeats many old anti-Semitic tropes even as it pretends to be fervently pro-Israel. From the far left, anti-Semitism denies Jewish peoplehood and our right to self-determination by treating Israel as a uniquely evil state. It sometimes hides in the language of progressive values- standing up for the downtrodden, protecting the underdog even as Jews are targeted as a people apart and against the interests of other progressives.
The antidote, the best way to fight antisemitism, Weiss contends, is not to retreat from the spotlight and fade into the background. It is to do what we have always done to survive and thrive- stand up tall as Jews and act with pride. To lean into our heritage and live our lives according to our values and beliefs. We sustained our civilization not because we were anti-anti Semites but because we fought by waging an affirmative battle for who we are.
Sometimes, as our tradition reminds us, we have no choice but to get involved in helping others. In our community there is a lot to get involved in. Donate to our Kol Nidre Food drive, volunteer on cooking day, connect with Neighbors Link in Yonkers to support recent immigrants. Come to our Sukkot shabbat lunch and learn to learn about Westchester Children’s Association and decreasing homelessness in Westchester. There is always more to do and to advocate for. I invite you to get involved in making a difference.
The Jewish community in America is by no means homogenous in any area of public or private life. However, we can strive to do one thing together- and that is care. We show up and we think hard about the situations we face. And we are not silent in the face of injustice- however and whenever we see it happening. Rabbi Joachim Prinz- responding to the Axis of Evil in a speech he delivered at the March on Washington in 1963, “bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problems. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.” Prinz lived through the darkest moment in our history as a people but his call for engagement reminds us not to fall into the trap of keeping silent on things that matter out of fear of confrontation, damaging relationships, or status.
This year our community’s theme is the Hebrew word, Re’iya- seeing and being seen by one another. This Jewish value is a reminder that our community is as strong as the depth of our relationships. That through deep listening and seeing we can grow in our capacity as a caring community and impact lives through our connections. Listening to others’ opinions does not mean that we need to agree with them. Rather it is the process of really hearing one another that leads to transformation. Here at Shaarei Tikvah we strive to be vulnerable enough to let others in. To have the patience and resolve to give the benefit of the doubt, hold contradiction, and accept our own and one anothers’ imperfections.
Shaarei Tikvah gates of hope is a place where, in my vision, we encourage ourselves and others to hope and have faith that the world we envision is not only possible one day but being formed every day. When we bring a challenging conversation to a different level through the use of values, Jewish texts, honest and respectful dialogue and a feeling of mutual learning we are showing that we can do this- both as a Jewish community and as a group of Americans modeling civic discourse. I encourage you to seek me out for more discussion about topics you are grappling with. To attend a Bible class on a Wednesday where we sometimes discuss current events in relationship to the Biblical narrative and to other Life Long Learning opportunities like lunch and learns that focus on important issues of today.
Living with hope can be an antidote for living with fear. As we begin this New Year I challenge us to renew our hope by leaning into relationships, challenging ourselves to have tough honest conversations in order to learn from one another, and to spread goodness, kindness, and justice in a world that badly needs it.
So let’s get into the kiddush line and eat some tuna.
Shana tovah, tikateivu veteichateimu.