It has been a tough year, a long and interminable election cycle. In the midst of it, I hope you all have kept a sense of humor. Its not easy. Its hard to tell what is a joke and what is not. Let’s try:
A Democrat, a Republican and a rabbi walk into a bar. The bartender looks up, points to each one, and says, “This is a joke, right?”
A Republican, a Democrat, and a rabbi go into a bar, where they sit down, share a drink, engage in a respectful conversation about politics, where everyone enjoys listening to and learning from each other, and … oh wait … I said this was a joke, not fantasy…
A Democrat, a Republican, and a rabbi walk into a bar. The Democrat and the Republican sit at separate tables out of principle, so the rabbi between them. They all order drinks but the bartender mixes up the order, placing the Democrat’s drink before the Republican and vice versa. To which the rabbi says, “now will you reach across the aisle?”
And they do, and over drinks, they soon begin to pour out their hearts.
The Democrat says: I am tired. And a bit angry. And I have just had enough.
And the Republican confesses: Me too. This ugly election is too filled with meanness, hatred and anger.
One says: I can’t even watch the news any more because it focuses on the mundane, instead of what’s genuinely significant. We have 24/7 coverage of dramatic character assassination, and yet meager attention paid to true leadership.
Says the other: The news fails to call out the absurd or challenge the lies. I’m a political junkie, but I’m sick of it all because in a time when we need people to lead, they instead spew insults and duck responsibility.
Then surprisingly all three agreed on something else – the Republican, the Democrat and the rabbi: that this election has given voice to some of the most rampant anti-Semitism in generations. What once lurked beneath the surface has raised its ugly head – here in America – inviting haters to post pictures of Hitler, to suggest a return to the gas chambers, to seriously question Israel’s right to exist, and to spew hatred at Jewish journalists, rabbis and other Jews with whom they disagree. That, my friends, should make us all very worried and a little bit afraid.
A mini focus group
Back in the bar, it was as if we were our own mini-focus group, pulled together by pollsters. The conversation continued, as other patrons in the bar joined in, talking about today’s culture and how it has given rise to this election climate.
One person, a parent, said: Ever notice how the mean-spiritedness of reality TV has become the norm, substituting caustic cruelty for compassion. Our priorities are messed up. Our society is embracing style over substance, bullying over befriending, critique over kindness. When did we give the loudest voices permission to hurl insults instead of insisting they propose serious ideas to better our world? Why don’t they suggest how we might better put our precious time on earth to good use?
Said a college student, studying sociology: Maybe we have evolved to this chapter because we don’t really know our neighbors. We have little interaction with the people with whom we share Los Angeles County and this state. We don’t know many of our fellow Americans, especially those who look different than we do.
The veteran suffering from PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, agreed: Yes, anonymity online has allowed us to ignore our responsibilities to each other. Because when I don’t know you and you don’t know me, and neither of us knows what keeps the other up at night, we lose the ability to empathize. And then you don’t have to think about me. And I don’t have to care about you. And it’s just a hop skip and a jump from there to your ignoring me and my needs. Especially when mine impinge upon yours.
A sports fan turned away from watching the gymnastics competition and waxed philosophical: Our society has become one big Olympic competition. A zero sum game. Meaning for you to win, I must lose. And if I’m gonna win, you must lose.
My friends, sitting in that bar, in that makeshift community of neighbors, one realizes that we have lost our way, and while wandering off course, we have embraced a trio of cultural sins: Intolerance. Sloganeering. Meanness.
Like so many of you, I am growing weary and worried. Because like you, I want a better world, a more compassionate society, a world overflowing with justice and love. For my children. For your family. For us all.
“They don’t do anything”
Now we are not the first to feel this way. Our rabbis tell a midrash, a story, that back in Biblical times, our ancestor Abraham was a young man making spending money by watching over his father’s shop. He sold stone idols to people craving a savior, something that would guarantee prosperity and blessing. But Abraham grew to doubt what so many in his time took as undeniable truth – that these idols worked, that they were what we should value most, and that just by believing in them, life would be better. Abraham increasingly became aware that this was a bunch of bunk.
Standing alone in the shop one day, Abraham took an iron rod and started smashing the idols. He broke the big ones and the small ones, the luxury models and the best sellers. Then he placed the rod in the outstretched hands of the last remaining idol, a rather intimidating one.
When his father returned, and eyed the destruction, he cried out, “Abraham, what have you done?” Abraham responded calmly, “Dad, I didn’t do anything. That big idol there. He got jealous and destroyed all the others.” To which his father replied, “My son, you and I both know that is impossible. Those idols, they could not have done it. They don’t do anything!” To which Abraham replied, “Exactly, and that’s the problem. They don’t do anything.”
What Abraham realized, we too ought to understand: that the idols of contemporary life –intolerance, sloganeering, meanness – don’t do anything to better the world. And they are destroying us from within.
The great 20th century theologian Martin Buber explained it this way: We shall accomplish nothing at all if we divide our world and our life into two domains: one in which God’s command is paramount, the other governed by the laws of economics, politics, and the ‘simple self-assertion’ of the group.
Rather, let us hear the call of the shofar, summoning us to make our existence meaningful. How?
During the Summer Olympics in Rio viewers witnessed something fabulous. With 2,000 meters left in a 5000 meter race, New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin and the USA’s Abbey D’Agostino collided. They both fell hard onto the track.
The American D’Agostino got up but saw that Hamblin was in pain. Says Hamblin, “I was like, ‘What’s happening? Why am I on the ground?’ Then suddenly, there was this hand on my shoulder [and it was D’Agostino saying], ‘Get up, get up, we have to finish this.’ And I’m like, ‘Yup, yup, you’re right. This is the Olympics. We have to finish this.’”
They tried to continue running, but realized that D’Agostino had seriously injured her leg. So Hamblin hung around, and help her up, and, supporting each other, both of them eventually finished the race.
After D’Agostino was taken off in a wheelchair, Hamblin reflected how Olympians train all their lives for this moment, to win the gold medal. “But D’Agostino showed the true Olympic spirit right there. Regardless of the race and the result on the board, that’s a moment that I’m never, ever going to forget for the rest of my life… that girl shaking my shoulder, saying, ‘Come on, get up.’ ” We have to finish this.
Unlimited, Unconditional, All-Inclusive Love
D’agostina and Hamblin exhibited something fabulous. And Torah calls it “chesed.” According to Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Chesed is “God’s unlimited, unconditional,.. all-inclusive love for creation.” Let me repeat that: “Chesed is God’s unlimited, unconditional, … all-inclusive love for creation.”
According to the Zohar, that primary text of Jewish mysticism, chesed “represents the God of love, calling forth the response of love [within us], in the human soul.”
The Jewish value of chesed demands that when there is a pile up as you race through life, and you and your neighbor go down, you stop and lift each other up, helping each other to the finish line.
Chesed, explains scholar Tirza Firestone, can be likened to “the surge [of overflowing love] that a nursing mother feels when her milk lets down. As any lactating mother knows, milk lets down when the baby’s hunger hits, regardless of how far away Mama is, how many bottles Grandpa has on hand, or how beautiful is the silk blouse she is wearing when the call comes.” Chesed demands that we respond in the moment, now.
Chesed, the core middah or ethical virtue of Judaism, is embedded in the DNA of Creation; it is baked into the very essence of our universe. According to another midrash, before creation, when God considered how to fashion existence from nothingness. So God developed a blueprint: Torah. Using black fire on white fire, God fashioned primordial letters in flames to etch, in warmth and love, the beginning of time and space.
God’s first encounters with humanity are characterized by chesed. When in the beginning Adam and Eve, being naked, needed to cover up, who clothed them? God did. When in the end Moses died, who buried him? God did. And in between, when people needed caring, who cared for the people? God did.
From the beginning of Torah to its end, God role models how we should act toward one another. It is pretty simple. We should clothe the naked. We should bury our loved ones. And we heal the sick, and free the captive, and moving beyond the color of one’s skin or the weight of one’s purse, we should lift up the downtrodden… all of them.
Chesed is our essence
Because chesed is our essence. Chesed is not some earthy-crunchy dreamworld of the downtrodden and disenfranchised. It is our mother’s milk; it is our father’s teaching. As we read in Psalms 89:3, Olam chesed yibaneh, the world – all of existence – was built upon Chesed.” And with chesed, we can renew it.
Chesed demands that when you want to lash out in anger, trolling another person because their choices differ from yours, you act instead with refined restraint and thoughtfulness. When you see someone hurting, or when you come across someone who is different from you and you become a little nervous, you reach out with love and openness. Torah, you see, goads us to embrace an approach to the world that is at once unwaveringly ancient and newly refreshing: To be champions – of befriending over bullying, of kindness over critique, and of love over loathing. Torah moves us to reject intolerance, sloganeering, and meanness. And to wrap ourselves in chesed.
Together we all can get up and finish the race, realizing that life is not a zero sum game. One of us doesn’t have to lose so the other can win. Shouldn’t the goal be: for all of God’s children to win?
Mishearing God’s call
In a moment we will read in Torah, about a much older Abraham, who is weighed down by the responsibilities of parenthood. We meet Abraham as he hears, or mis-hears, what he thinks is a call from the Holy One, to elevate his son to the top of a mountain, to tie Isaac up, and sacrifice his boy to the imagined insatiability of an idolized God. Just as Abraham lifts up his knife about to plunge it into the heart of his beloved boy, the Holy One, in the form of an angel, calls out, “NO! This is not the way.”
Rashi, an eleventh century Biblical commentator from Provence, France, explains: If you read closely in the Torah, God didn’t say, “v’shechateihu, and slaughter him,” but rather “v’ha’aleihu, and lift him up, elevate him.” God really didn’t ask Abraham to sacrifice his child. God wanted Abraham to show chesed, elevating his son up spiritually.
“You, Abraham,” God says, and “we Americans,” your rabbi says, have somehow misunderstood why we were placed on this earth. Not to slaughter each other by the sword or the word, not to demean our neighbor nor rob him of his dignity, not to slap others down so we can raise ourselves up.
Live lives of chesed
No, we in this sanctuary and we in the electorate at large and we in the whole wide world, are called by our Creator to do something fantastic. We are called to live lives of chesed. And to reject the call of the wild.
So as we go about our days, as we vote our consciences, as we act and react to the happenings in this world, may we do so elevated by unlimited, unconditional, overflowing love of Creation.
This is how the world is meant to be, teaches Torah. This is how we should live our lives, the shofar calls to us.
So let’s work diligently, with all our hearts and souls and might, to do our part to make it so. Go out there, when the service ends. Go out there, in the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Go out there, every moment of your life from this point forward. Be the agent of change. Be chesed. Overflowing, unlimited, unstoppable, unconditional love. That’s what Torah teach us. That’s I think what God wants from us. May it be so.
L’shana tova t’kateivu. May it be a sweet New Year.