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Walking With Abraham, Standing With You

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

On the other hand, Abraham’s belief, which he stubbornly held on to, was that there was only one God, a just and compassionate God who wanted people to be like Him: just and compassionate.

The different beliefs led to two very different—and in many ways opposing—lifestyles. What Abraham was looking for was a place where he could live and worship freely, without fear of persecution.

People have been fleeing persecution, seeking liberty, for as long as humanity has existed. In fact, America was founded upon this principle. The social and political system that was created here is a democracy, guided by the principle that we, the people, have the right to participate in the selection and running of our government. Our democracy enshrines freedoms we hold sacred, holy.

Elections in a system such as ours never result in a unanimous vote. In a democracy, it’s a given that there will be different opinions and dissenting views. Elections are often divisive; all you have to do is look at what’s happening in our country today. A mere fortnight after one of the ugliest election in people’s memory, you can see people hurling insults, pitching hate at each other. In the media, among ourselves and even within families, people are unfriending one another, refusing to speak to one another, going as far as to cancel Thanksgiving family dinners because of the election, and who supported which candidate.

Democracy is not perfect. In fact, Winston Churchill once stated that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” But democracy is still the only system that allows us, the people, to have a voice, to place a person in office or take them out of it again. So far, this system has been more successful than all the others. Economically, socially, culturally—in every possible way, democracy has provided us with untold opportunities. It has granted us the greatest number of freedoms and rights. It has worked well—though not perfectly—for nearly 240 years now.

Still, what happened last week has left many of us in a state of shock and disbelief. In poll after poll, we were led to believe in a different outcome. For many of us, this election was to be an affirmation of principles we believed in, that we worked hard for, and that took decades to accomplish. But instead, we saw a swing in the other direction.

As a result of this election, there have been demonstrations, protests, marches and rallies. We have also seen and heard mean and ugly words. Symbols of hatred have been popping up in neighbors’ yards, in mailboxes, in the social media. One of the most common of these symbols is the swastika, a fearful symbol that to the Jewish people has special, ominous meaning, as it represents death and destruction, reminding us of the Holocaust, the most terrible disaster our people has endured in the last 2000 years.

But it isn’t only Jews who are seeing these signs of hate. All minorities—Muslims, gays, Latinos, African-Americans, immigrants—are feeling threatened by a wave of hatred and intolerance.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization, reports that since the election, there have been close to 500 incidents of hateful harassment and intimidation. In the larger picture, 500 isn’t a huge number. But the cumulative effect has been to strike fear in the hearts of millions more. These hateful acts have been taking place at K-12th grade schools (!), on university and college campuses, in places of business, private homes and public houses of worship. Even if we don’t experience the hate ourselves, television, the papers, the social media, all make sure we become witnesses to it.

One thing that we have learned from Abraham, the first Jew, the first recorded refugee from persecution, is that we are all responsible for one another. Throughout our 3600 years of existence the Jewish People have learned that, in order to survive, we must be there for one another. The legacy that the Founding Fathers of our country—all followers in Abraham’s footsteps—have left us, is that if America is to remain the Land Of The Free, we must be there for one another whenever we see acts of injustice, hatred, violence and intimidation.

Like yet another Abraham, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who fifty years ago marched in Selma, Alabama, alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King, arms linked to show support for those whose felt intimidated and disenfranchised, we too need to let all people—individuals and groups of all genders, races and beliefs—who are filled with fear, who see the hateful signs and words and know all too well what they mean, we need to let them know that we are there with them and will continue to be there for them. No individual, no group in America today need feel that they are alone. WE STAND WITH YOU. No one should feel afraid of his or her neighbor. We still believe that “love your neighbor as yourself” is the most important rule of humanity, and we must stand up and defend it whenever we see it threatened.

Father Abraham heeded the call to leave his homeland. Despite his standing in the community, despite all the contributions he made to his society in religion, business, art, literature, and philosophy, Abraham felt unsafe in his own homeland. And so he left all he knew and began his journey. It’s a path we still find ourselves on today: A journey toward a land and a time when all people, in all their marvelous diversity, live in peace and harmony. We don’t know when we will get there, but if our way of life is to survive, we cannot stumble and fall out along the way.

May our communities be strengthened by our pursuit of justice and compassion. May our nation continue to be a shining beacon for all who feel oppressed and persecuted. And may we all become messengers of hope, carrying forward the task of making America the great nation that it is and can be. May we see the day when all people shall walk free, tall and unafraid, and may this day come soon. Amen!

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Who Is The “You” in Tetzaveh

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

D’var Torah for Parashat Tetzaveh

This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh (“You shall command,” Exodus 27:20-30:10) is unique in that it is the only parasha in the Torah since the birth of Moses and with the exception of the book of Deuteronomy, which is told almost exclusively from Moses’s perspective, in which Moses’s name is not mentioned once. The use of the second person pronoun has been addressed by rabbis since the third century and possibly even earlier. Some explain it as a harsh response by God to the “You” used pointedly by Moses to remind God of His responsibility toward the People of Israel, the People God had created and chosen. “You talking to me?” God seems to ask; “How about you and what YOUR responsibilities are!”

The Chassidic Lubavitcher Rebbe has a softer interpretation. By using the familiar “you,” God bypasses the formality of calling Moses by name. It’s all about relationships, the Rebbe teaches.

Still, the question remains open. Why bypass the pattern the Torah uses so frequently, “And God spoke unto Moses, saying…”?

By traditional understanding, the Torah was given to Moses directly by God; the “you” therefore needs no further interpretation. To whom else would God be addressing these words?

The rest of the portion seems to bear out this understanding. The subject matter is mostly the clothing of the High Priests and his fellow Levitical priests. Moses receives instructions for the preparation of the High Priest’s clothing. The ornate nature of the weave, the expensive materials, the gold thread and precious stones and gems used for this outfit, are of the same pattern and mold as the materials and patterns used for the Tabernacle. The holiness of the Mishkan, God’s dwelling-place among the Israelites, extends all the way from the innermost Holy of Holies, to the outermost garments worn by the priest. Clothing may not make the man; yet it must have been difficult for the High Priest to distinguish between God’s holiness, encased by the Holy Tabernacle, and his own importance, encased by similar designs, forms and materials. Gems on his breastplate, gold stones on his shoulders, a golden diadem on his head—how easy it must have been for the High Priest to be carried away by his own self- importance!

It’s a lesson easily adapted to our own day. At almost-daily awards shows, popular media stars model the most lavish outfits, the most expensive accessories and the most costly jewelry. In their own eyes, and in the eyes of many of their followers, that qualifies them to give voice to outrageous thoughts and opinions as though they were the very words of God Himself. Sporting blue contact lenses, Famous Person Tila Tequila recently called herself “an Aryan Goddess.” Another popular media star, Kanye West, waxes exuberantly about his own superiority. And Presidential candidate Donald Trump, notwithstanding the many business ventures he has failed in, describes himself as being good—if not better or even best—at just about anything he touches and does. A true Midas, that.

It is easy to let the trappings of power go to our heads and turn us—in our own minds at least—into something greater than we truly are.

At CNN’s New Hampshire Democratic Town Hall, my friend and colleague Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett recently directed a pointed question at Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton: “How do you cultivate the ego a person must have to be the leader of the free world and the humility to know you can’t be expected to be wise about all the things that the President has to be responsible for?”

In her eloquent and appropriate response, Hillary Clinton did not place herself above or even alongside God. Rather, she explained that prayer and devotional readings sent to her by spiritual advisors keep her balanced.

The recognition that we are not gods, that we are fallible and prone to the excesses of ego and exaggerated self-worth, are essential qualities for any leader. If we are to remember the purpose for which we were elected or appointed, if we are not to be blinded and swayed from the goals set for us by the people we are supposed to represent, we must also understand that we are merely human beings, all flesh and blood, all equal under the clothing we wear and the masks we put on.

Perhaps this is behind the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s teaching regarding God’s use of “you” instead of addressing Moses by the name we know him by. A name, regardless of how good or royal, is no more than a handle. It’s a superficial symbol, an arrow pointing towards someone. “You,” however, is a direct address. It reaches all the way to the very core of a person’s being.

Still, without a name there, we can be excused for wondering. Is it Moses that God addresses?

On the one hand, of course it is Moses. On the other hand, the “you” that God speaks to is you and me, the ordinary people whose responsibility it is to appoint or elect our leaders. It becomes our charge to remind them—as many times as it takes—that behind the trappings of power resides a mere human being, as fragile and flimsy as anyone else. None of us has the one and only answer, the one and only right way. It is only by working together, with each of us fulfilling his and her role in life and society, that we have a chance to solve the many issues and problems that face us at any given moment in history.

“You” may refer to Moses, to a wise and kindly rabbi, or to a child who perceives that the king’s new clothing is no more than his birthday suit. Ultimately, the “You” in “You shall command” is each one of us, commanded to remember and remind one another that, underneath it all, in God’s eyes, we are all equal, all deserving of the same rights, all of us equally worthy of equal dignity and respect.

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From Sinai Forward

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

Sermon/D’var Torah for Parashat Mishpati

One of my all-time favorite movies is “School Ties.” Set in the early 1950’s at a prestigious Massachusetts boys’ prep school, “School Ties” tells the story of David Green, a high school senior who is brought in from the grungiest part of Scranton, PA, to play on the school’s football team and help it win its annual homecoming game. Oh yes, David Green also happens to be Jewish.

Beautifully filmed, scored and acted, the screenplay (by Dick Wolf) is as sharp and incisive as can be. In one of the most powerful lines of the movie, Green tells the headmaster of St. Matthew’s, “You used me to win a football game; I’m going to use you to get into Harvard.”

Truthfully, it’s not a beautiful sentiment. People using people isn’t the way society ought to work. Yet that is exactly the picture that “School Ties” paints. The movie is a microcosm of America in the 1950’s, a time that, today, some of us gaze back at with a kind of romantic longing. For many Americans, those were, indeed, “the good ol’ days,” days of optimism and success. World War Two was over, the Great Depression was gone, and with America now a global superpower, the American Dream was finally becoming real for the common man.

Yet despite the shiny veneer in which the period was portrayed—think “Father Knows Best,” “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” and, of course, “Leave It To Beaver”—just beneath the surface were deep fissures, class, gender and race divisions that would blow up a mere decade later in the social upheaval and furor of the 1960’s.

A society so deeply divided, a society where people get ahead by using one another, is not a healthy society. Reliance on one another is a much healthier model. It’s a subtle distinction, I know, but it makes all the difference in the world.

A society of users cultivates prejudice, disparity and inequality. This is the kind of society Abraham Lincoln called “a house divided against itself,” in which some become rich and powerful, while others are marginalized, ridiculed and scorned. Despite claiming to be a model of freedom and opportunity, this kind of society is bound for trouble; it truly cannot stand.

Which brings me to this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Judgments,” Exodus 22:27—23:5).

Coming on the footsteps of last week’s Torah portion, Yitro, which contains the Ten Commandments, Mishpatim at first glance seems to be the total opposite of its exalted predecessor. In Yitro, Moses climbs up Mt. Sinai to receive from the very hands of God Himself the Two Tablets of the Law, those monumental principles that would become the cornerstone of Western Civilization. Mishpatim, on the other hand, delves into the most mundane subjects of all—those crimes and misdemeanors, legal torts and offenses, the rights and wrongs that have little if anything to do with God, and everything to do with the way we behave among ourselves.

In Mishpatim, we are told to observe the Sabbath not because God made it holy, but rather because the people and animals we rely on to do the hard labor in our fields and homes deserve a day of rest. The lofty commandment “Honor thy father and thy mother” here is replaced by the much bleaker ruling that states, “One who strikes his father or mother… or curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.” And the exalted vision of liberated slaves is replaced with regulations that merely limit the kind of abuse an owner can heave upon his slaves.

There is very little mention of God in Mishpatim, and only one reference to the holy days.

On the other hand, much weight is given in this portion to how we behave toward the stranger, the poor, the homeless, the widow and the orphan among us. We are told to treat the earth with respect and to feel compassion for the animals we would otherwise take for granted.

Mishpatim teaches us that it isn’t only God’s word that is holy. In our everyday transactions, our word becomes sacred. Honoring God means honoring one another. We dignify life not only by the clothes we wear or the sacrifices we offer, but also by the way we show dignity and respect to our humblest among us.

Mishpatim is all about how we create a great society versus an unhealthy one, the total opposite of the kind of society that “School Ties” portrays.

This year—in fact, this week, the week of the intensely anticipated New Hampshire primaries—we have an unparalleled opportunity not only to listen to the candidates, but also to observe ourselves. As we look at—and listen to—the various candidates that come begging, cajoling, promising, scaring and reassuring us in turn if only we vote for them, we have to also judge ourselves and our society.

As a nation, America is facing serious issues and problems. The issue of security is ever-present of course. Every decade brings its enemy, a culture so hostile to our own that it seems willing to stop at nothing short of mayhem, chaos and even total destruction. America’s position as leader of the free world has been made precarious not only by the advances of such a culture, by a group of people so ruthless and barbarian that it can rightly be called evil, but also by our own seeming indecisiveness at how best to counter this attack.

Poverty and marginalization in our cities have contributed to greater street violence than ever. Opioid addiction has reached epidemic proportions. The social media, once touted as tools of positive change, have become shouting matches where insults, bullying, bigotry and prejudice seem the rule rather than the exception.

Education, both in our elementary schools and in the institutes of higher learning, seems to have been taken over by a system that cares more for higher grades and measureable results—at any cost—than for true learning and scholarship.

These—and more—are huge problems, but they are not insurmountable. Yet the solution is not fear mongering or finger pointing. We can only achieve positive results when we work together; not when we use one another, but rather when we rely upon each other. Each component, every member of our society, from the highest to the lowest, is of equal value to the wellbeing of the entire community.

America’s greatness is not on some high mountaintop; it exists in how we relate to one another. If America is to keep its position as leader of the free world, it is not going to happen by spouting anger and frustration, but rather by the way we treat one another; by the way we treat the earth, water and air around us; by the way we treat the animals that we rely on for food, labor and companionship.

God’s holiness is not found only on this mountaintop or another. Nor is it limited to this house of worship or another. Rather, God can be found in our handshake. God’s holiness is in the word we give one another.

God’s oath is present not only in what we promise we will do in return for God’s favor, but rather, as Mishpatim teaches us, תִּֽהְיֶה֙ בֵּ֣ין שְׁנֵיהֶ֔ם שְׁבֻעַ֣ת יְהֹוָ֗ה –God’s oath is between a man and his neighbor (Ex. 22:10 in the Hebrew, 22:11 in the English translation). It’s OK to lift your eyes up to the mountain for hope and vision, but what really counts, what really matters, is what we do down here, on this earth, among ourselves, among our neighbors and among our fellow living creatures.

May the meditations of our hearts, the words upon our lips, and the deeds of our hands all lead us forward to that vision that Moses and all Israel saw revealed at Mt. Sinai—a vision of freedom, respect and dignity for all for all humankind.


Rabbi Heilman