“When you’re lost, you feel afraid and you don’t know what to say, then Listen listen to our God… When there’s a question on your mind and the answers hard to find, then Listen, listen to our God.” (video | ©Doug Cotler and Jeff Marx).
Powerful words, our Cantor Doug Cotler penned. For many of us, the prayer-song Listen is a poignant reminder that we are not alone. That there is always a Holy Presence surrounding us. And within us. Especially in those moments of intense discomfort, when we feel most unsure about what to think or how to act, we can just close our eyes and … Listen.
Soon, we will listen to the Akeda, the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22). It is an uncomfortable story during which our Biblical ancestor Abraham almost sacrifices Isaac, his son. After the Akeda, Abraham and Isaac never speak again. It is the tragic story of man who thought he listened, but only heard what he wanted to hear, and in the process, really messed up his life. And it is a cautionary tale about the need to set aside blind faith, and instead to listen compassionately to others.
During the Akeda, Abraham doesn’t process what he thinks he heard from God. So intent on the story as he thinks it must unfold, he does not seem to seriously consider how else he might interpret it.
What Did God Want?
It makes me wonder, was God’s intention for Abraham to sacrifice his son? Or did Abraham mis-hear God? A close reading of the Torah suggests that God was asking Abraham for compassionate spirituality, not cold-hearted blind faith. Check out the Hebrew.
God says v’haaleihu sham l’olah (Gen. 22:2). Bring him – your son Isaac – up for an olah. Olah comes from the Hebrew root Ayin-Lamed-Hey, meaning to rise up. Olah becomes connected to sacrifice because the smoke of a burnt sacrifice rises up to God. But that same Hebrew root yields the word aliyah, which describes the spiritual experience coming up onto the bimah to bless the Torah.
What if God intended the second meaning – a spiritual ascent – and not the first? Rashi, the great 11th century French commentator, taught that God purposely said v’ha’aleihu – bring him up – not shechateihu – slaughter him. God wanted Abraham to act with compassion, to take his son Isaac on a spiritual journey, to introduce Isaac to the Holy One.
But Abraham didn’t listen or ask penetrating questions, like “Are you sure?” or “Is this really what I need to do?” I wonder: Are we, Abraham’s spiritual descendants, that much better at listening?
Who among us doesn’t know people who are so sure of their understanding of events that they cannot hear, or even fathom the possibility of any alternative understanding? It happens daily. TV broadcasters describe a devastating tragedy that should evoke our compassionate concern – a shooting of an unarmed black man, the rape of a woman, the beating of a Muslim American, a flood of people fleeing the Syrian civil war.
Initially we are concerned. But with only one story to go forward with, it becomes easy to blame the victim. We rationalize: “He had a police record. She was scantily clad. He belonged to a group that denounced Israel. They aren’t really war refugees, but migrants seeking a better economic situation.” Without listening to the personal stories of others – and not just from the news sources we prefer – we miss the humanity at the core of these stories.
Yet compassion requires that, without judgment, we truly see others as their lives are unfolding. The Akedah comes to challenge us: Listen to others and unleash your compassion.
Compassion: At the Center of Being Jewish
Being compassionate is at the center of what it means to be Jewish, to be part of a Jewish family. According to the Talmud (in Yevamot 79a), compassion, or rachamim in Hebrew, is one of the three distinguishing characteristics of the Jewish people: humility and acts of lovingkindness are the other two. In fact, the word rachamim is connected at its root to the word, rechem or womb. As Rabbi Jennifer Gubitz points out, “…From the building blocks of our beloved Hebrew, we understand that from the womb, from our very birth, we are endowed with the capacity to cultivate compassion. It’s already within us. We just have to tap into it” (Rabbi Gubitz, Birthing Worlds of Compassion, 2013).
We have learned to tap into that compassion when we hear stories about challenges experienced by children with special needs, and about the exhaustion and frustration that sometimes burns within their parents. Hearing those stories allows the wellspring of compassion to bubble up within our community. And so, for example, at Congregation Or Ami, we embrace inclusion. Today when a child with special needs becomes a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, it is no longer special. We are just doing what Judaism expects from us.
As a country, we have tapped into compassion when we began to listen to people like Sam and Dave, that couple “down the street,” who used to hide their true selves, then gradually came out of the closet, and then endured rejection by relatives. After hearing one too many people talk abstractly about the morality or immorality of “gay marriage,” Sam and Dave began to share their story aloud. When people heard about the depth of their love and commitment to each other, hearts began to open up. Compassion led to understanding, understanding to acceptance. And you know the rest. The United States Supreme Court ruled this year that the right of marriage equality is found in our Constitution. Now Sam and Dave are married, making official the commitment and love they have shared for 17 years.
Compassion requires more of us than dropping a coin in a tzedakah box or donating used clothes to a clothing drive. As Albert Einstein hypothesized, “our task must be … to widen[ing] our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures…” Compassion demands that we recognize tzelem Elohim – the image of God – in each other, and take seriously the uniqueness, infinite value, and the equality of each person. It means walking a mile in another person’s shoes – whether that person is a parent in our neighborhood, a man or woman in the next office cubicle, or the recent arrival in our state. Or from a different school, another church, or even a part of the city we might not visit. Better yet, it means spending an hour listening to others talk about their reality, rather than conjuring up our own image of their reality.
Abraham was sure he knew the story, so without questioning, he marched forward on his own predetermined course. Given what happens to him and his family, do we want to follow this example? Rather, let the prayer-song Listen guide us forward. Let’s listen to each other, and be connected to that which unifies us.
Walking the Freedom Highway
That’s what I was doing, as I walked 23 miles down Highway 80, tracing the footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. After a year of learning about the dangers that black men and women face, of watching the demonstrations in Ferguson and elsewhere, I was so uncomfortable that I needed to learn more. What better way than to hear stories firsthand. So I marched with America’s Journey to Justice, a group of Americans raising awareness about the challenges facing African Americans and other minorities in our country (naacp.org/ajfj).
I have to be honest. I probably know a dozen African Americans, and only a few of them well. Thus the hours I spent walking, talking, listening and witnessing opened my heart to so many life stories. This march required me to move out of my comfort zone, to interact with people whom I did not know, and to ask lots of questions, and as I walked in the sweltering heat and humidity, to listen, and listen, and listen. There is incredible potency in listening, because as we hear the voice of another, we unleash its power.
I heard the voice of an African American man who has made a good life for himself on an upstanding path, but remains afraid of police engaging him when he walks down the street. More, he fears for the safety of his grandson, a kid not much older than my 18-year-old son Noah. He worries about the dangers that boy faces “driving while black.” It breaks my heart thinking about that grandfather, staying up nights, worrying about his grandson’s safety, simply because he was born with darker skin than mine (Rabbi Seth Limmer reminded me of this story.)
And there was Joyce, an Episcopal priest on the march. She is white, her husband is African American, and their bi-racial children suffer terrible discrimination. Her 14 year old son was even arrested by police in New Jersey simply because he was a dark skinned boy walking in their predominately white neighborhood. Can you imagine that? (This story was related beautifully in a letter by Rabbi Elyse Frishman.)
Michelle and I have three kids. I worry constantly about them driving. About drunk drivers hitting them. About cell phones in the car. But I never, ever worry about what might happen if they encounter police while in our neighborhood. Yet as I marched, I heard from so many good people living with so much worry and fear.
It felt stifling. I could not breathe.
When I ask about their reality living as a person of color, uncomfortable truths came out. About inequities in education and about challenges in the job market, about barriers to voting and dangerous encounters with police. I confronted the possibility that being white gives me certain privileges that I rarely notice or acknowledge.
There I was, walking in the footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., reliving the experience of the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Dr. King in 1965, and who said that “his feet were doing the praying.” I wanted to relive the past, to have my feet do the praying, glorifying how far America has come from the days before civil rights. And America has come so far, I’m proud to say. We live in a truly great nation, these United States of America.
And yet that march in Alabama shook my image of how far our great nation still has to go. I felt genuinely afraid for fellow Americans and their children. I wanted to cry out in disappointment and frustration, and simultaneously, to retreat into my own daily reality – my dream world – where I could easily ignore these injustices.
And I worried about how people would receive these stories when I returned home to share them. Would you listen and hear them with compassion as the real experience of real people who are not so different from you and me in their dreams and aspirations? Or would people automatically filter them through preconceived pictures of reality?
Back when we were united
It shouldn’t be that difficult to see connections. Just fourteen years ago this week, on 9/11 – September 11, 2001, we transcended difference, after experiencing the horrors of the unimaginable – planes crashing into New York’s Twin Towers, an attack on the Pentagon, and a plane forcibly downed into a Pennsylvania field.
Cheryl Sawyer captured the overwhelming sentiment (in her poem One):
As the soot and dirt and ash rained down, we became one color.
As we carried each other down the stairs of the burning building, we became one class.
As we lit candles of waiting and hope, we became one generation.
As the firefighters and police officers fought their way into the inferno, we became one gender.
As we fell to our knees in prayer and strength, we became one faith.
As we whispered or shouted words of encouragement, we spoke one language.
As we gave our blood in lines a mile long, we became one body.
As we mourned together the great loss, we became one family.
As we cried tears of grief and loss, we became one soul.
As we retell with pride the sacrifice of heroes, we became one people.
We are: One color. One class. One generation. One gender. One faith. One language. One body. One family. One Soul. One people. We are The Power of One. We are United. We are America.
We can learn to listen better. Especially us, Jews and Jewish families, who are heirs to a tradition that calls us to bear witness to the lives of the vulnerable. More than Torah mentions keeping kosher or observing Shabbat, it calls on us – 36 times – to care for the stranger. Our tradition demands we remove our blinders and become unrelenting witnesses to the stories of the downtrodden.
Unleash your compassion
Now you need not fly to Alabama to unleash your compassion. Just choose to march forward, for whatever cause is dear to your heart. And slow down to ask questions and listen. To the people sitting near you in the restaurant, or in the next row of the airplane, or in the park around the corner. Listen especially to people who seem different from you, either in skin color, economic status, religious commitment, or national origin. All people have tsuris, concerns leave them worrying about how they will make it through the day, the week, the year. We need to hear these stories. Because these are the stories of our fellow Americans.
Consider this: In this sanctuary are people who look so well put together on the outside, but whose hearts are breaking inside. People whose children are struggling, or who themselves are fighting through the darkness of depression. The guy in the big house next door who is really upside down financially but cannot bear tell his family or friends. The woman with the beautiful smile down the street who works hard every day to heal from the abuse inflicted by her boyfriend or husband. People trying to hold it together after the devastation of a miscarriage, through the pain of divorce, or while wrestling with early signs of Alzheimer’s.
We need to step out from behind our pretty facades and our curated Facebook feeds to discover the many, many of us who are feeling overwhelmed and overextended: as we care for our aging parents, or deal with the kids bullying – online and off. Too many of us are being kept up late at night with worries – shared concerns – that consume us.
We must become witnesses to the realities in our communities – first within Congregation Or Ami, and eventually as we will turn outward, and start listening deeply to people from other faith communities, we will discover where our self-interests align. Then we can act to transform the realities we hear.
Announcing A “Listen Campaign”
I am proud to announce that while the rest of the country is about to descend into a divisive presidential campaign, this month, at Congregation Or Ami, we are embarking on a unique campaign. A Listen Campaign, if you will, designed to move us beyond the facades and into the hearts of others.
Over the last few months, a group of congregants from Or Ami – including Linda Blumenfeld, Julie Buckley, Debbie Cutter, David De Castro, Craig Lazar, Ike Praw, Nina Treiman, Rabbi Julia Weisz, our rabbinic intern Dusty Klass, and I – have been learning about the importance of listening and storytelling. This group has discovered that our compassion for others grows once we know what’s on their minds and in their hearts. It happened when I heard the stories of the grandfather, and the Episcopalian priest in Alabama. And it will happen throughout our community as we move forward.
Our Listen Campaign is about building relationships, connecting with others, and ultimately working on shared concerns to effect justice and compassion in our world. Our team has had nearly fifty of these conversations already, fascinating us with the diverse interests, motivations and experiences of this community. And now we are looking forward to at least a couple hundred more.
In each aisle, underneath the seats, are big envelopes with pledge cards and pencils.
We aren’t asking for donations or money. I am asking you instead: Would you participate with us, and meet another community member, to share your story and listen deeply to another person’s? We are hoping that you will pledge your time to elevate the compassion quotient of our community. Our leadership team will collect your envelopes. And in the next month, someone will reach out to you.
Tekiah Gedolah: A Call to Justice
In just a short while, after we read Torah, we will listen one more time to the resounding call of the shofar. This third series of blasts, culminating with tekiah gedolah (the great sounding) is not a spectator event, designed to make us feel good. The shofar sounds are supposed to shake us out of our comfort zone, to split our hearts open, reminding us of our messianic responsibility, to bring healing to the world’s brokenness, to transform the world into a place of tzedek v’rachamim (justice and compassion). Let our Listen Campaign lead us to hear each other, and thus to become more compassionate, just human beings. And may the sweetness of the new year be far reaching, touching the lives of people we can see, and those we have not yet met.
Shana Tova umetuka. May it be a sweet year!
Each sermon is shaped through a collaboration with talented individuals who help edit the words into the sermon I deliver. I thank my wife Michelle November (my co-author for Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness, Jewish Lights Publishing) for the intense process of guiding my ideas to life. Rabbis Ronald Stern and Julia Weisz, and Rabbinic Intern Dusty Klass, repeatedly offered in depth insights and edits to shape and improve this sermon. Congregation Or Ami’s Listen Campaign team inspire me with their dedication. The 200+ Rabbis who marched in America’s Journey for Justice, organized especially by Rabbi Seth Limmer of the Central Conference of American and Joy Friedman of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism).