(Sermon for First Morning of Rosh Hashanah 5779/ September 10, 2018)
I really liked what our Temple President Josh Widdes wrote in his bulletin article this month. Josh wrote:
“As we look around our country and the entire world at all of the division and anger towards others that maybe don't see things from your point of view: Understand that the only way our world will continue to get better is to show respect for others’ opinions and beliefs. We have to live together no matter the circumstances. “
Josh has it right! Jewish tradition for centuries – and not just for centuries --- for millenia -- has distinguished between makhlekot leshem shamayim / arguments for the sake of Heaven --- and makhlekot shelo beshem shamayim --- Arguments not for the sake of heaven.
When we try to put our heads together to seek solutions to common problems, the interplay of conflicting conceptions is a valuable exercise. But when our policy debates devolve into tribalistic hatefests that deny the integrity of the other --- then we end up worse off than when we began.
Last night we talked about the word “teruah.” Liturgically speaking, teruah is that rapid fire shofar sound which in the Talmud is compared to the sound of a cry of alarm or distress. And this holiday is called in the Torah --- Yom Teruah. And, let it be said, many of us are indeed distressed at the current state of our nation.
However, as I shared with you last night, the medieval commentator Rashi defined “teruah” as leshon chibah ve-re’ut/ an expression of love and friendship.
As loving friends we don’t have to agree on everything. Unanimity of opinion has never been a primary Jewish value. In general, we Jews don’t have schisms – we have arguments for the sake of heaven.
Or, at least, that’s the ideal.
It is also, I would suggest, the ideal for American society.
Our national motto may be “E Pluribus Unum”/ “Out of Many, One” but the vigorous competition of ideas has always been a strength of our nation.
In these United States, can we still be friends in the midst of these heated times?
One of the most famous stories of friendship in the Talmud, at least among the rabbinic circles in which I have travelled, is a story that teaches us that -- as President Josh has suggested in his bulletin article -- debate can be harmful if done in an atmosphere of condescension but beautiful if done in an atmosphere of mutual respect:
This Talmudic tale is found masechet Bava Metzia, a tractate of the Babylonian Talmud which is mostly concerned with matters of civil law. I won’t repeat the whole story here because it gets a little complicated. But the upshot is that there was this big muscular guy named Resh Lakish who was a bandit, a thief, a good for nothing scoundrel. But one day he laid his eyes on Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai -- and was entranced by how beautiful he was.
(It’s quite a homoerotic account – I’m leaving out some details but you can check out Baba Metzia 84a if you don’t believe me.)
Anyway, the Talmud pulls back from that aspect of the tale and goes on to recount how Rabbi Yochanan took Resh Lakish under his wing and taught him Torah until Resh Lakish become one of the foremost scholars of his generation --- as well as becoming Rabbi Yochanan’s friend, study partner and brother-in-law in the process.
But one day, years later, there was a big academic debate in the study hall of Rabbi Yochanan’s yeshiva. The sages were arguing obscure halachic questions about at what point in the process of manufacture do various metallic weapons become subject to ritual impurity. Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan asserted differing views on the matter at which point Rabbi Yochanan lashed out at Resh Lakish in a personal attack and said in front of all the sages who were gathered there:
לסטאה בלסטיותיה ידע / lista’a belistiyutey yada
“A thief knows about thievery!”
Friends, that’s not the way to argue.
In fact, as the Talmud’s tale continues, Resh Lakish was so embarrassed and hurt by Rabbi Yochanan’s insensitive jibe that words escalated on both sides and the two friends became estranged.
Here let me pick up the story in the words of the Talmud itself, as translated and interpreted by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz:
As a result of the quarrel, Rabbi Yoḥanan was offended, which in turn affected Reish Lakish, who fell ill. Rabbi Yoḥanan’s sister, who was Reish Lakish’s wife, came crying to Rabbi Yoḥanan, begging that he pray for Reish Lakish’s recovery. She said to him: Do this for the sake of my children, so that they should have a father. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to her the verse: “Leave your fatherless children, I will rear them” (Jeremiah 49:11), i.e., I will take care of them. She said to him: Do so for the sake of my widowhood. He said to her the rest of the verse: “And let your widows trust in Me.”
Ultimately, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, Reish Lakish, died. Rabbi Yoḥanan was sorely pained over losing him. The Rabbis said: Who will go to calm Rabbi Yoḥanan’s mind and comfort him over his loss? They said: Let Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat go, as his statements are sharp, i.e., he is clever and will be able to serve as a substitute for Reish Lakish.
Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat went and sat before Rabbi Yoḥanan. With regard to every matter that Rabbi Yoḥanan would say, Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat would say to him: There is a ruling which is taught in a baraita that supports your opinion. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Are you comparable to the son of Lakish? In my discussions with the son of Lakish, when I would state a matter, he would raise twenty-four difficulties against me in an attempt to disprove my claim, and I would answer him with twenty-four answers, and the halakha by itself would become broadened and clarified. And yet you say to me: There is a ruling which is taught in a baraita that supports your opinion. Do I not know that what I say is good? Being rebutted by Reish Lakish served a purpose; your bringing proof to my statements does not.
Rabbi Yoḥanan went around, rending his clothing, weeping and saying: Where are you, son of Lakish? Where are you, son of Lakish? Rabbi Yoḥanan screamed until his mind was taken from him, i.e., he went insane. The Rabbis prayed and requested for God to have mercy on him and take his soul, and Rabbi Yoḥanan died.
End of story.
I am always moved by this story.
Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan had a falling out because their philosophical debates got sidetracked by personal insults and condescending behavior.
But when mutual friends tried to fix Rabbi Yochanan up with a new friend, with a new study partner – Rabbi Yochanan remained miserable because the new guy was a yes man who would just agree with him all the time and wouldn’t argue with him.
So, my remarks so far in this dvar torah are basically a very long winded way of me saying that I agree with Temple President Josh – and with centuries of Jewish tradition --- that debate is healthy but disrespect and condescension is not.
It gets challenging, however, to keep our debates on a respectful plane when the stakes seem very high and when the underlying assumptions of the different sides seem very far apart. That is certainly the case in our country today.
One particular area of ideological conflict that has preoccupied our society in recent months is the debate over immigration and asylum law as it affects our border with Mexico.
My friend Neal Rosendorf is a history professor at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces and a resident of the nearby border city of El Paso, Texas. He recently published an article about the situation at the El Paso-Juarez border in the journal The American Interest.
Here’s some of what Dr. Rosendorf has to say on the topic:
“Let me be clear: Every state has the right to control its borders and to decide who, how many, and on what schedule they should be admitted. This is as true for the United States as it is for any other country. At the same time, America’s history as a land of opportunity and a haven for refugees puts it on a different moral-historical plane than other states, at least for those of us who still embrace the notion of American exceptionalism and Ronald Reagan’s vision of “a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace.” But the basic, indeed defining, concept of a viable state having the capacity to maintain secure borders and exercise discretion over entrants is incontrovertible.
“The central question is: How do we decide what constitutes how many, and on what schedule? And then how should we carry out that policy? It is here that things get particularly sticky, given the noxious molasses of racism and xenophobia coursing throughout American history and the difficulty of separating it out, both intellectually and instrumentally, from the necessary task of making and enforcing rational immigration policies.
“I have always maintained, including in classrooms full of Hispanic immigrants and their children at New Mexico State University where I teach, that completely defensible arguments concerning the devising and implementation of immigration quotas—including reducing as necessary the number of legally admitted immigrants per year—can be made on the basis of economics, costs of social service provision, infrastructure and environmental stresses, preservation of respect for the rule of law, and national security. Furthermore, circumstances change so that potential immigrant cohorts who are an asset at one juncture can legitimately be perceived as a liability at another. The devil is in the criteria, the fraught historical context, and, crucially, the tone.
“President Obama’s immigration and expulsion enforcement policies were vigorous to the point that liberal immigration advocates denounced even him. But even as they did so, no one believed that the President of the United States harbored racial animosity toward [Central Americans or Mexicans] or countenanced it in others, much less that he had made it a central plank in his appeal for support. But from the moment Donald Trump rode down the escalator of Trump Tower in June 2015 to vilify Mexicans coming illegally into America as “people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” he drew a blood-red line between his predecessor’s policy and his own. […]
I think Neal Rosendorf does a great job of teasing out the complexities of the topic.
From my own perspective, however, and I’m sure Neal Rosendorf would agree with me on this, I would suggest that --- as Jews --- we always need to look at the human impact of whatever we do or whatever is done in our name.
We read this morning in our Torah portion how Hagar and Ishmael were forced to wander through the wilderness under harsh conditions such that Hagar was at one point convinced that Ishmael would die of thirst.
That’s a story from centuries ago – and, really, who knows how historically factual it is?
But it is nevertheless a story that resonates in today’s world.
Today, in 2018, at the start of the Jewish year 5779, undocumented migrants fleeing gang violence, or fleeing political repression, or simply fleeing poverty, face conditions easily as harsh as those faced by Hagar and Ishmael, as these poor souls wander through the desert regions of the American southwest.
Let me share with you an account that my colleague Rabbi Margaret Holub posted to RRANET, a listserve for members of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. She posted this early last month, around the same time that Neal Rosendorf was publishing his journal article that I shared with you just now.
Rabbi Holub writes:
“Hi folks — I’m just back — along with [rabbinical] colleagues Brant Rosen, Ari Lev Fornari, Salem Pearce and Shahar Colt and about 55 other faith leaders — from Faith Floods the Desert, a solidarity action organized by No Mas Muertes/No More Deaths together with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and the Unitarian Universalist Association. About sixty clergy-types, including the five of us rabbis, joined the extraordinary, mostly volunteer humanitarian aid workers of No More Deaths and the local Ajo Samaritans to leave water for migrants making the crossing in the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge, a remote, magnificent and blistering hot area of the Sonora Desert. Since 2001 the remains of approximately 7,000 people have been recovered in the Arizona desert by volunteer groups like the ones we joined — including 57 this past year from the desert area where we left water. Many more people have been reported missing but never found.
“Since the mid-1990’s folks from No More Deaths and others have been leaving water and other lifesaving supplies in the most remote and inhospitable places in the desert where migrants are known to pass. In recent days many of the gallon jugs of water have been found slashed or crushed. Analysis by NMD shows that it is extremely likely that this destruction of lifesaving water is being done by Border Patrol officials. More recently still, nine NMD activists have been charged with Federal crimes of abandoning property (jugs of water) in a wildlife refuge and similar offenses. This was the motivation for organizing this more public action by faith leaders — to shine a light on the obstacles being put in front of these humanitarian aid workers to prevent them from doing pikuach nefesh. [saving life]. It was also one more lens onto the particulars of US immigration policy and how these particulars actually affect — and sometimes destroy — the lives of human beings seeking refuge in the United States.
“It was 110 degrees yesterday when we were in the desert. The soles literally melted off Brant’s hiking shoes. We ferried 125 gallons of water out to spots where we hope that they will bring some bit of relief and safety to people who need them. And hopefully we provided some solidarity to these heroic activists who do this work week after week, year after year.
“I know that many of you are involved in all kinds of important work supporting immigrants and refugees in these times. I wanted to let you know about the experience that the five of us just had — just because it was so powerful and also in case any of you would like to know more about No More Deaths or about what we witnessed in the desert. I’d be happy to share my experiences and thoughts, and I’m sure the other four rabbis (and anyone else who joined us on the delegation) would as well.”
Rabbi Holub added to that post a link to two letters from No More Deaths supporters, one asking the land managers of the various Sonora Desert areas to permit humanitarian aid to migrants, the other to the US Attorney for Arizona to drop the charges against those already charged with violations connected with humanitarian aid in the area. I have signed on to those letters and I’ll include the link when I upload my High Holiday sermons onto the www.jewishduluth.org website so that you can also sign on if you choose.
As we gather today to mark the Jewish New Year, issues surrounding the plight of would-be migrants, refugees and asylum seekers continue to be fought over in a hyper-partisan way. However, surely there exist legislative and administrative solutions that can address both humanitarian concerns as well as concerns for border security and the rule of law.
Such issues have been with us from time immemorial. Today’s Torah reading from the Book of Genesis spoke of the plight of Hagar and Ishmael as they wandered through the wilderness of Beer-Sheva, but of course all four of the remaining books of the Torah are filled with accounts of our ancestor’s wanderings through the wilderness of Sinai in search of a better life. And, speaking of Genesis --- even its opening saga of Adam and Eve tells of their expulsion from Eden and the trials and tribulations that would follow.
As we move into this new year 5779, may we be granted the wisdom and the perseverance to advocate for our nation to live up to its highest ideals in offering refuge to those in distress, and the chance for a better life to those who would seek to join our society.
May we sort out the means for doing so in a spirit of mutual respect – leshem shamayim – for the sake of heaven.
And may all of us ---- friends, neighbors and the strangers at our gates, be inscribed in the Book of Life for a year of health, happiness, prosperity and peace.
© Rabbi David Steinberg (September 2018/ Tishri 5779)
 Rashi on Num. 23:21
 In his article Dr. Rosendorf actually uses the term “Mesoamericans” but I felt that that term would not be readily familiar to my audience. According to Wikipedia, “[t]he Mesoamerican region (often abbreviated MAR) is a trans-national economic region in the Americas that is recognized by the OECD and other economic and developmental organizations, comprising the united economies of the seven countries in Central America — Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama — plus nine southeastern states of Mexico — Campeche, Chiapas, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Puebla, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, Veracruz, and Yucatán. […] Situated within the wider region of Middle America (on the tapering isthmus of southern North America), the geographical region defined by the MAR loosely correlates with that of Mesoamerica, the pre-Columbian culture area defined and identified by archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists and ethnohistorians. For several thousand years prior to the European colonization of the Americas beginning in the early 16th century, the diverse cultures and civilizations of Mesoamerica also shared in common a number of broad cultural, historical and linguistic traits. The modern-day indigenous populations who are the descendants of pre-Columbian cultures number roughly over 11 million people (approx. 17.2% of total regional population) spread across the MAR economic territory, and are largely among the most disadvantaged and marginalized groups in the region.”