Teach Your Children Well – Shabbat Vayera 5777 (2016)

For whose sake do we act? On whose behalf? In whose name?

Abraham’s argument with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah powerfully invites us into that set of questions. After finalizing the divine plan to wipe out the two cities, God wonders aloud about the wisdom and obligation of sharing that plan with Abraham.

Now Adonai had said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? For I have singled him out, that (l’ma’an) he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of Adonai (derekh Adonai) by doing what is just and right, in order that (l’ma’an) Adonai may bring about for Abraham what God has promised him.” [Genesis 18:17-19]

The wording of the divine interior monologue seems to suggest that following the way/path of Adonai (derekh Adonai) serves the goal of ‘bring(ing) about for Abraham what God has promised him.’ In other words, one should do what is just and right in order to benefit oneself. We act, that is, for our own sake, on our own behalf, in our own name.

Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, the great 19th century Hasidic master, notices that the word l’ma’an, which means ‘in order that,’ appears twice in our verse. He sees in that doubling another possible understanding of God’s hope for Abraham. For Levi Yitzhak, Abraham’s “intention is to connect any mitzvah he performs not only with himself alone but with ‘his children and his posterity.’” We act, that is, not for ourselves and our benefit alone; we act for the sake of those who succeed us.

In this moment of uncertainty and worry about the future, we would do well to consider Abraham’s example. Seeking justice and equity for ourselves is right and good. It’s also not enough. As Abraham’s inheritors we have a further obligation to think, and to act, beyond our own needs and benefits. Our job is to act on behalf of our children and, I would argue, on behalf of other people’s children as well.

In the universe of Biblical ideas and ideals, that approach has an added advantage. As R Shmuel David Luzzatto (19th century, Italy), quoting the prophet Jeremiah, reminds us, it’s what God wants from, and for, us.  “As Jeremiah says: Only in this should one glory: In earnest devotion to Me. For I Adonai act with kindness, Justice, and equity in the world; For in these I delight — declares Adonai.” [Jeremiah 9:23]

Shabbat Shalom.

A Letter to President-Elect Trump

November 15, 2016

Dear President-Elect Trump –

I have sat down to write to you multiple times in the days since November 8th. Your words late on election night motivated me, suggesting a willingness on your part to hear voices from outside your circle of advisors and supporters. Your call “for America to bind the wounds of division” struck an appropriate note. Your reference to “those who have chosen not to support me in the past” was certainly the right thing to say at the conclusion of a painful and divisive election campaign as was your “pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans.” It was possible to hear those words as perfunctory; what the winner is supposed to say and nothing more. You added one sentence more which caught my ear. “I’m reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country.”

I am one of nearly 61 million proud and patriotic Americans who voted for Secretary Clinton last Tuesday. A majority of members of the community I serve as spiritual leader also voted for your opponent. Many of us found your campaign and your words to be beyond distressing and upsetting. Voters like me saw you and your rhetoric as deeply divisive and hate-filled. The content and tone of your comments about immigrants, women, Muslims, African-Americans, Latinos, and more, offended and insulted me and many others. Binding wounds of division needs to begin with a recognition that you and your campaign have played a major role in opening those wounds to begin with. And dismissing it as just campaign talk truly will not suffice. It is true, of course, that difficult and negative things get said in the rough and tumble of a campaign. It is also true, and more significant, that words hurt and that the harm done by derogatory words lingers.

Your election night speech, your relatively positive language regarding President Obama and Secretary Clinton in the days that followed, left me feeling a small measure of hope that healing might actually begin. Your appointment of Steve Bannon as your Chief Strategist entirely obliterated that hope for me. Your staff is, of course, yours to choose and I fully understand that Mr. Bannon has played a central role in your successful campaign. His own words, however, utterly disqualify him from serving as an intimate advisor to the President of the United States. I don’t know what’s in his heart, but I do know that the news organization that he led went out of its way, over and over again, to circulate hateful stories, many of them generated by white supremacist and racist figures and groups. His casual brushing off of the connections between the “alt-right” of which he’s a proud member, and the true haters of our society – racists, misogynists, anti-Semites – is disgraceful and outrageous. I don’t accept it and neither should you.

Allow me to add a word of unsolicited “guidance” about the American Jewish community. Three quarters of us chose not to vote for you; there are good reasons for that choice. While worry for Israel’s safety and security looms large for me and for most American Jews, it is not the only area of concern for many of us. I attended last March’s AIPAC Policy Conference and I stayed in the arena to hear and witness your speech. You managed to work all of the key ‘talking points’ into your remarks, as did all of the other presidential contenders who spoke. Your hawkishness appealed to many in the room that day. Many, but not all, me included. It’s important for you to know that the pro-Israel community is quite diverse. Even more, no group, including AIPAC, represents the whole American Jewish community. The narrow slice of American Jewish life that you know best through your own family and some of your employees and associates is but one small piece of a larger whole. Values like inclusiveness, concern for the most vulnerable among us, welcome to immigrants and refugees, and religious tolerance animate and motivate many American Jews. For many, commitment to those values grabs billing equal to our dedication to Israel and concern for her well-being.

Mr. President-Elect, I believe that the vast majority of Americans, those who voted for you and those who voted for your opponent, hope that you can succeed in promoting healing and renewing the American dream. I certainly do. Your call to “reclaim our country’s destiny and dream big and bold and daring” can be an inspiring and widespread invitation to all Americans. Whether it rises to that level or not depends entirely on you and your administration. Words, deeds, and appointments that promote divisiveness and rancor will turn that dream into a nightmare. That choice is yours to make.

Respectfully,

Rabbi David Ackerman
Congregation Beth Am Israel
Penn Valley, PA

Branches and Roots – Shabbat Lekh L’kha 5777 (2016)

The Avram of Parashat Lekh L’kha exemplifies many things. He’s both wanderer and warrior; person of deep faith and practical man of the world. His opening journey offers us important themes to ponder at this challenging time in our country’s life and in our own lives.

Avram sets out from his land, his place of birth, his father’s house, with destination unknown. Without knowing exactly where he’s headed, Avram feels compelled, nonetheless, to keep moving. Hasidic master teacher, R. Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, better known as the Sefat Emet, lays out the concept with succinct clarity: “The human being is called a walker, always having to go from one rung to another. For habit makes things seem natural, and this sense of ‘nature’ hides the inner light. This is true even of Torah and mitzvot: when we do them out of habit, they become our nature, and we forget their inward meaning. Therefore we need always to seek out some new counsel.”

Journey we must, despite not knowing where we’re headed. Like it or not, we are on the road to nowhere, or at least to we don’t know where. 

The Sefat Emet hints at another quality of Avram’s that may be of enormous help to us in this moment. While compelled to walk, Avram manages to journey in a way that isn’t rote or mechanical. He’s not just going through the motions. An earlier Hasidic teacher, R. Elimelekh of Lizhensk, known as the Noam Elimelekh, powerfully draws out the theme of Avram’s mindfulness in a fascinating way.

The Noam Elimelekh’s starting point is this verse – “Abram passed through the land as far as the site of Shechem, as far as the terebinth of Moreh. The Canaanites were then in the land.” (Gen. 12:6) A terebinth is a tree, or a cluster of trees, which leads the Noam Elimelekh to reflect on the relationship between branches, trunks, and roots.

“A tree,” he writes, “has many, many branches, but all of the branches are connected to the trunk, the inner core of the tree. In the same manner, each and every mitzvah has a root and source above in the Supernal Tree, and we must strive to discern and know the root-source of each mitzvah, and not merely by rote.”

R. Elimelekh invites a deep dive into the reality we observe. What, really, are the sources – the roots – of the painful divisions in our society? What, truly, motivated neighbors and friends to vote one way or the other in this week’s election? What can we say to one another that might open the way to the kind of searching discernment that R. Elimelekh describes?

I know that I am not alone in having many questions at the end of this dramatic week. I hope that I, that we, can follow Avram’s example in seeking a deeper (and I suspect more compassionate and empathic) understanding of our new, bewildering, as yet undefined reality.

Shabbat Shalom.

Leave a Light On – Shabbat Noah 5777 (2016)

I just took an online quiz called Do You Live in a Bubble? It was fairly sobering; I recommend it to you. According to the quiz, based on Charles Murray’s book “Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010,” my bubble is quite thick. Survey says I’m pretty disconnected from ‘mainstream’ American culture, whatever that is. Not that I didn’t already know this; but seeing it in ‘black and white’ was startling and troubling nonetheless.

Over the course of this excruciating election campaign, the idea of bubbles has become part of our common vocabulary. And there are many, each representing a different slice or segment of our society, seemingly hermetically sealed off from one another and from the rest of the world. 

This week, the phrase ‘living in a bubble’ popped into my head while thinking about the Noah story. The ark is perhaps the original bubble, maybe even the prime mythic example of what it means to live in a bubble. Noah and his family, along with all the animals on board, inhabit a floating bubble for roughly half a year – the Bible’s reports of the timing vary while the Midrash calculates it as a full twelve months – completely cut off from the rest of the world. Their bubble serves simultaneously as a haven and a prison. I suppose that’s true of our bubbles as well.

The Torah’s blueprint for Noah’s ark includes a curious detail. “Make an opening for daylight in the ark, and terminate it within a cubit of the top.” (Genesis 6:16) The words ‘an opening for daylight’ translate the Hebrew word tzohar, a unique term that appears only here. The Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 31:11) reports on a gathering of illustrious rabbis and interpreters who “could not explain” the term. Best guesses include ‘window’ and ‘skylight’ which is to say ‘an opening for daylight.’

Why the need for daylight inside the bubble? Or, to turn it in the opposite direction, why the need to see the sky from inside the bubble? Cut off from the world outside is one thing; completely cut off is another thing entirely. There needs to be an opening, even a small one, that makes connection possible. Without that hint of light, Noah’s ark would remain a prison. With it, the ark can serve as a temporary haven, paving the way for a return to the world and to life’s many, and varied, connections.

Whichever bubble you inhabit, cut a window in the roof, allow some worldly light in, and let some of your own inner Divine light out. Otherwise the world after the flood will remain truly unsustainable.

Shabbat Shalom.