This is NOT a sermon about politics.
Last year on November 9th, I woke up early from a restless night’s sleep and immediately ran to my computer to check the results of the previous night’s presidential elections. My email reaction sent to the congregation brought comfort to many, but it also enraged and caused sour feelings among others.
Through this experience, I actually learned a great lesson from those who kindly called my attention to an important issue. While rabbinic schools cover “Politics in the Synagogue” — any new Rabbi learns best from hands-on experience. Over time we work and engage with the congregation; learning its needs and tendencies.
The good lesson that I learned from that experience is that our synagogue must be a safe haven for everyone. As clergy, we must be available to serve, support, and comfort all of our congregants regardless of political views. Therefore, while we can discuss issues that affect the lives of our community, congregational clergy cannot publicly endorse, or reject, any specific political party or candidate.
Of course I apologized to those I offended after November 9th. And I thanked those who came to see me in-person to explain to me over a cup of tea about their feelings, fears, and yes, their sense of betrayal as well. I was so grateful to learn what the boundaries are in expressing political statements, which allowed me to better understand current, local events, and political sensitivities.
I have learned that our synagogue cannot be a place for bias. People of all political opinions and affiliations should always feel welcome within the sacred walls of our Sanctuary.
While I have not spoken in public about our administration since, and I have not used our temple to express my own personal political preferences, that experience also taught me something even greater about myself.
The lesson I learned has to do with choosing to not hide, or apologize for the fact that I am pro-choice, pro-equality for women, pro- equal rights for Lesbians-Gays-Bisexuals-Transgenders-Questioning (in short LGBTQ), I am pro-mixed marriages, I am pro-animal rights, and most definitely pro-Israel. I am anti-alt-right, anti-capital punishment, and yes, on top of everything else – I am also a strict vegetarian for humane reasons. Some of you may refer to me as “that hippie Californian hot-blooded Israeli Female Rabbi.” And that’s ok. I’ve heard worse. As they say on the campaign trail: “I approve this message.”
[The Hubitzen told me to say this. I don’t actually know what it means J]
Speaking on behalf of those who require advocacy is the most compelling reason that drew me to the rabbinate in general, and to Temple Beth Tikvah in particular. Speaking up for the innocent, harmless minorities, the less able, and the weaker and less fortunate in our country is part of my rabbinate.
Knowing that I can make a difference, help make change by actually doing the work rather than just talking about it is part of my mission as a pulpit rabbi. To speak up, teach about the rights of the less-privileged, and march in protest against acts of violence, and human rights violations is also the mission and moral obligation of many pulpit rabbis, in fact it is advocated by the Reform movement.
I cannot, and will not stand idly by when others are suffering because of their color, country of origin, religion, who they love, or the way they look. In fact, I became very determined to make a great distinction between a particular politician and his or her point of view and fighting for human rights as a political issue.
That experience taught me that, while my lips must never utter in public another word about my who is my preferred president or political party affiliation, I will never ever be silent when “the other” is not treated like I am in my own country. I simply cannot go about my happy life when the stranger, the immigrant, is not welcomed here in the same way that I was welcomed 22 years ago, when I also was a stranger and an immigrant.
Over time I have become determined to strengthen my commitment to engage in that enormously overwhelming project called Tikkun Olam, Repairing the World. I want to restore peace in our world, while cultivating my own partnership with God to channel healing and comfort to those who seek it.
Do you know why?
Because this commandment from our Torah, was carved into my soul in early childhood: Veahavta et Adonai Elohecha be’chol levavcha uvechol nafshecha uvechol me’odecha, You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart and mind, with all your soul, and with all your strength.
But how can I love Adonai my God, if I don’t love, respect, and honor all of God’s creation?
Yes, I will remain silent when elections are taking place, whether locally or nationally. But no, I will never remain silent or impartial regarding any form of abuse, prejudice, and acts of violence in the Name of God or in the expression of anti-Semitism. I will never stand idly by when others are suffering.
And again, do you know why?
Because our Torah also teaches us this significant lesson, which as Rabbi Akivah taught, is the Whole Torah in One Sentence: Ve’ahavta le’reacha kamocha. You shall love the other as you would love yourself or yours. I have been keeping that teaching as frontlets between my eyes, let’otafot bein enecha (I showed Tefilin)
In addition, in Mishna Shabbat 31a, Hillel teaches us that “What is hateful to you do not do unto your neighbor. This is the entire Torah, all the rest is commentary.”
Moreover, the Torah commands us in Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” and because humanity was created b’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God), we show disrespect to God when we show disrespect to our fellow human beings. Hence, we are obligated to treat everyone with respect.
Judaism teaches us to celebrate each individual’s uniqueness, while affirming his or her divine worth. In fact it demands that we think about people in a particular way. To love our neighbor as ourselves means we behave towards others the same way we would want them to treat us. Therefore, the value of v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha offers the foundation for understanding and implementing moral behavior.
According to the Jerusalem Talmud, in Mishna Nedarim, the great Sage Rabbi Akiva taught that we are a religion that cherishes, above all else, treating people well, and that compassion for “the other” is at the heart of Judaism. And in Leviticus 19:14, we learn “…do not place a stumbling block before the blind… do not seek vengeance on your neighbor, or hold a grudge against your neighbor,“ and again, the same verse, “Love your neighbor as yourself, I am Adonai.“
Although one can certainly love Torah and follow different political paths, one cannot claim to be a “lover of Torah” and our ancient scripture, and not care about how our society treats those in need, the weak, the vulnerable, the stranger, and the oppressed.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of our Reform Judaism movement wrote: “We should be moral goads, always free to speak truth to power and lift our voices to affirm our 3,000-year-old mandate to ‘Speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy,’ as mentioned in Proverbs 31:9, as an expression of our care and concern for the world around us.”
I wholeheartedly believe that sermons that “speak up” on the great moral issues of our world and our lives—are not about politics. On the contrary, they are about our moral Jewish values; the values we teach and the values we pass on to our children; the values that have been written on the doorposts of our own homes; the values that kept us together as a people for centuries.
My role as a rabbi is not to avoid issues of human rights, but rather to shed a light on these debates, and model civil discussion in a manner that shows respect for different views. My role is not to use any type of divisive language or attack those who disagree.
The Judaism of which I feel proud to be a member and take part in does not limit Torah study to the parchment of our Torah scrolls, the commentaries we use, nor the new prayer books that we bought. My Judaism compels me to use those lessons to understand the most urgent challenges we face today, based on education and research. My role is to point in the direction of social justice, and freedom of choice, and equality for all.
Let me give you one personal example of my own transformation, from being prejudiced and unkind, to practicing compassion, and kindness to “the other.”
While commuting weekly to school from San Jose to Los Angeles, I used to fly with Rabbi Debbie Israel, my best friend and personal rabbi. Many of you met her when she came to install me as your rabbi.
We used to consult with one another on different topics, which we still do very often. We would pick each other’s brains on a variety of sugiyot, practical, personal and theoretical dilemmas that we have been encountering along our professional as well as personal paths.
One day, I felt that I couldn’t hold something in any longer, and I asked Debbie for advice on how to get over my own resistance and frankly, feelings of revolt against homeless men and women. I told her that whenever I see a homeless person, I cross to the other side of the road. Looking at their icky clothes and smelling their un-cleanness and lack of bathing really disgusted me. Their begging for money sickened me, and in my heart, I would say, “Get a job, you blood and money sucker!”
I shared with Debbie how I thought they should go to the local food bank rather than sit on the street and ask me for money. “Who knows what they’re doing with that money,” I asked, “I am sure they’ll go out and drink it away!”
With her usual loving calmness and amazing patience, Debbie responded, “Meeka, you simply have to remember that anyone who sits and begs for money or food on the street, was driven to do so. Even if they end up drinking or smoking your money, remember that alcoholism is a disease; it doesn’t matter about the stories of their lives. I am sure that if they had a choice they would choose to be as fortunate and blessed as you are; not to drink or smoke or sit on the street to beg. Remember that they are human beings, and that the circumstances of their lives have pushed them to live the life that they are living. We cannot be their judges and we will never know their full story. So when you feel disgusted, try to see the suffering humanity in them rather than those drunk hobos that are after your money.”
I was silent for a few moments, until I suddenly felt so ashamed that I could not see those people the way Debbie was able to. I shared with her my feelings, and she said, smiling, “Oh Meeka, don’t worry. I was exactly the same, if not worse, before our beloved old teacher Rabbi Eli Shochet sat down and shared with me these exact same words.”
“But how do I even begin to see those people in the same compassionate way that you and Rabbi Shochet do, when I clearly don’t?” At that point I was so upset, feeling so unworthy of the title “clergy.”
Debbie continued with her loving smile and said, “Start with small steps. Next time you see a homeless person, don’t cross the street. Then, when you are ready, just hand them a little bag with some protein like a tuna can and crackers, and perhaps some juice.”
“What do I say to them?” I asked. “Just look them in the eye and say something like, ‘Enjoy and have a beautiful day.’ Or ‘Be well.’”
Right there and then I decided to give it a try. I couldn’t stand myself for being so unkind, so I bought some canned tuna and some nuts and juice and divided them into small bags. The first time I saw a homeless man I did not cross the street. Instead I tried to imagine him as a young boy, riding his bike in the streets of Santa Cruz, happy and carefree.
The second time, I just handed a homeless woman one of the bags that I had prepared. I must admit, to do that was sooooooo hard and I was so embarrassed that I couldn’t look her in the eye. I just uttered something like “here you go” and nearly ran away. The third time was a bit easier: I managed to make eye contact, but I couldn’t say much more than “here you go.” The man looked at me and said, “Thank you for making my day.” I nodded and again, nearly ran away.
And I continued to practice giving out food for many months that followed, and slowly became so much more comfortable giving out goody bags, sometimes at a stoplight. Sometimes, I would ask Dave to hand out those bags if the homeless person was on the passenger side. And I began to prepare even bigger bags with more goodies in them, and at times I asked my B’nei Mitzvah students to help me portion out the goodies in the bags.
One day, during a particularly stormy winter night in San Jose, while everyone was out Christmas shopping, the rain was so strong. I noticed from afar a homeless man sitting under an umbrella in a wheelchair out in the parking lot, half of one of his legs was missing. Next to him I saw a smudged sign that read “Veteran of the US Navy.” So I got closer and I asked him, “Would you like to have my scarf?” He said, “Oh, yes please.” So I took off my pashmina scarf, and carefully wrapped it around his shoulders and neck. “This feels warm. Thank you for your care.” I smiled and told him, “Be well and thank you for serving our country.”
I walked away and started to sob. I knew then that my own barrier, my own resistance and rigid view of the homeless was forever gone. And then I started to knit scarves during board and other meetings. I began to add the scarves in my little goody bags as well, and give those out during winter months.
This past August, when Debbie and I met in Chicago for our little reunion, we each made sure to have many single dollar bills. We walked the streets of Chicago and we took turns in giving out $1 to each homeless person that we met. Yes, even to those who looked like “fake homeless.”
And one pleasant night in Chicago the Beautiful, when I walked by myself to the grocery store, I saw a homeless woman who asked me for help. I felt that $1 would not do, so I asked her, “Can I buy you some food?” She said, “Yes please, sure!” She asked for a bag of chips. So I went in and got her a big bag of chips and some cheese spread for dipping. When I handed her the bag she said “Thank you child, you are so kind. My name is Yvonne.” I looked right back into her eyes and I said, “Be well Yvonne, my name is Meeka, and I am wishing you happiness and health.” And I walked away. This time, I was smiling.
So I would like to challenge you, to challenge yourself this year and choose to face an issue that you are resisting. I would like to ask that if you are anti-LGTBQ please try to get to know someone who IS LGTBQ. Get to know the person, ask them about their life. Or if you are afraid, dislike, or even hate Muslims, then please make it your new year resolution to get to know a Muslim. One good place to start with this issue is Abraham’s Table, an interfaith event for which I am the Jewish clergy representative for a panel discussion on October 21st at the Packanack Community Church, at 120 Lake Drive.
Tikkun Olam is a big, and frankly, quite intimidating word. Very few people get to make a difference on a global level and bring change or repair to the world. But everyone can start in small steps, which include small acts of smiling and kindness from the heart. We can try to overcome our resistance when something like feeding the homeless is hard for us to do. Because Tikkun Olam begins with the mending of the olam she’bifnim; the world inside each of our hearts.
Perhaps fasting on Yom Kippur is a great reminder for what many homeless people in our community, environment, world DON’T have: the knowing of where their next meal will come from.
Tzom kal. May you have an easy fast.