ROSH HASHANAH 5780 – DAY 1
Rabbi Susan Elkodsi
The first High Holiday sermon I ever wrote grew out of a Facebook post. Our friend Jessica posted that her son Seth, who was 7 at the time, was playing his trumpet in his room, and refused to stop when she asked. He gave a loud blast, and suddenly, a thunder-boom! He yelled out, “Why are you mad at me God?” His bar mitzvah is coming up soon.
I’m not sure if I’d rather have God mad at me, or other people mad at me, but given a choice, I’ll take my chances invoking Divine anger. And that brings me to another Facebook post, which I’ve been thinking a lot about in recent months. It suggested that rather than teaching our kids to avoid talking about politics and other controversial topics, we should teach them how to have a civil conversation where they can agree to disagree, shake hands at the end–or even hug–and remain friends.
I was taught that you never ask someone who they voted for or how much money they make, although the first time I voted for President, my father asked permission, and asked. I replied that I had voted my conscience – anyone remember who that was? His reply was, “My father would be turning over in his grave if he knew I voted for Reagan, but I didn’t like Carter, and I couldn’t take Anderson seriously.” The only other remotely political conversation I remember having with him was him telling a story about jogging with a 20-something, who asked if he remembered the first time he voted. He said, “My first time I voted for Adlai Stevenson for President.” The young man asked, “Oh, did he win?” Oy.
Growing up during the Vietnam War, I remember refusing to watch the news because I couldn’t deal with the graphic footage of the war, the body counts, the fear that if the war went on long enough, the guys I was in school with would be drafted. Race riots were happening, student protesters and black people minding their own business were shot by police and the National Guard, we were destroying the planet at an alarming rate and women were fighting for equal pay and the right to a safe abortion.
And then there was Woodstock, a 3-day music festival in White Lake New York that could have resulted in unmitigated disaster – but didn’t. Hippies and police got along, the US Army airlifted food and medicine, off-duty New York City police officers were hired to be part of a “PLEASE force” to provide security and assistance … at a time when “cop” was one of the nicer names you could call a police officer. Had the planned 50th anniversary festival actually happened this year, I’m not sure it would have been quite the love-in as the original.
Ah, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I think just about every generation from the beginning of time can say that. We certainly can now. We have amazing medical technology that saves and improves lives, that cures or at least treats many diseases that just 50 years ago meant a life of disability or early death. The internet has allowed us to stay in touch with faraway friends and relatives, and to connect with people from our past–for better or for worse.
However, this all comes with a cost that must be balanced. Yes, people are living significantly longer lives, but in what condition? When I visit people in a nursing or rehab facility, and all I can do is put my hand on someone’s shoulder and chant the Shema … do they hear me? Do they know I’m there? What are they thinking? When someone asks me why God is keeping them alive, when their friends have died and they’re confined to a bed or chair, I don’t have an answer, and I say that. I do believe that we’re all here for a reason, and as my grandmother said, “if it’s not your time, even the doctors can’t kill you,” but gee, it’s complicated.
Despite commitments and efforts to reduce pollution and our carbon footprint, our planet is warming at an alarming rate. Human rights violations are happening all over the world, including in Israel and here in the US. But you didn’t come here today to have me tell you what’s wrong with the world, and I really do want you to feel better when you leave today than when you came in. But I also want to challenge you, to make you think a little differently that you might have, and to think Jewishly.
A couple of months ago I shared a news story on Facebook about Hindu activists and employees of the Wayfair company who were calling on the Hindu owner of the company to cancel a $200,000 government contract to sell beds to the detention centers at the border. My comment in and reason for sharing was that the Jewish value of welcoming the stranger and the immigrant, of caring for those who are marginalized in society, was shared by the Hindus. I know, I should have known better. One person posted, calling these detention centers “concentration camps,” and another person called her out. This started an exchange between two people who have never met, whom I’ve never met, on MY timeline! That second person told me the first person’s statement was inflammatory–which it was–and that I should have called her out, that he expected more from a leader in the Jewish community. So one, thank you for the promotion and two, sorry to disappoint you. Now take this fight elsewhere. After all, I’m a congregational rabbi. My politics are my business, and I don’t want to get in trouble.
And then this past Friday, I shared a post about a group of employees at a Home Dept who stepped in and built a walker for a small child. The family had found instructions for a PVC walker online, and were buying supplies, because they weren’t sure if their insurance would cover the cost. That boggles my mind, but that’s beside the point. The employees sent the family to get ice cream, and presented them with a finished walker, refusing to accept payment. Someone, whom I do know, and is Canadian to boot, criticized my posting because of what she considers to be Home Depot’s terrible politics, and that we shouldn’t be giving them publicity. This isn’t about politics, it’s about people, people! This person is entitled to her feelings, but I’m annoyed that people can’t seem to see beyond their own positions to agree that life isn’t always black and white.
I love being a rabbi, and I come from a long line of women who don’t like controversy. However, Rabbi Israel Salanter, who died in 1883, was the father of Musar – a Jewish ethics school of thought. He said, “If a congregation does not want to run its rabbi out of town, he is no rabbi; and if it succeeds, he is no man.”
I certainly don’t want to be run out of town, but I do think it’s my responsibility to challenge you the way I need to challenge myself. In October of 2018, RPG.net, an online role-playing game community banned support for Donald Trump and his administration on its site, equating support of the president with support for white supremacy, and that would no longer be allowed in the site’s forums. This decision didn’t come about in a vacuum; it came about because women, people of color and those in the LGBTQ community were being trolled and attacked on this site and others. The policy didn’t say you couldn’t support the president, it said you couldn’t talk about it on their site. Back in June, Ravelry, a website designed for knitters and other fiber artists, followed suit, using much of the language from RPG.net’s policy to craft its own. I don’t know about the gaming site, but Ravelry’s declaration made international headlines. Apparently, people in the media were surprised by this; what did they think? That knitters are all grandmas in rocking chairs, and spinners are all dressed in colonial garb demonstrating a lost art at Old Sturbridge village and perhaps still fighting the Revolutionary War?
Do I think that people who support the president are white supremacists or support that kind of hatred and vitriol? Absolutely not. Making a blanket statement like that doesn’t help anyone. Do I believe that there’s too much hate speech and rhetoric floating around – especially online–and more people acting on it than before? Yes, and I also believe that there are multiple layers to any situation, and many angles that need to be addressed.
Let’s look at another side. Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib have been outspoken proponents of BDS and delegitimized Israel’s right to exist. I’m not going to argue about whether they’re antisemitic or not, I can’t speak for them. I can say that comments they’ve made do come across that way. On the other hand, I also know that they weren’t elected by overwhelming majorities in their home states because of their positions on Israel – they both have strong records in their districts. And, both have gone on record charging Saudi Arabia with significant human rights violations and atrocities, causing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to accuse them of conspiracy to interfere with that country’s relationship with the US.
Most of us are of an age where as students, we were taught to think critically, to look at both sides of a story, to truly listen to the what the other person had to say, and to consider multiple sources. When news reporting was just “reporting the news,” Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite, or the duo I called “Hunkley Brinkley” told us what was happening with little, if any, editorializing. To say that has changed would be a gross understatement.
I’m as guilty as anyone of avoiding political and charged conversations because I don’t want to get into arguments, but also because I don’t feel I always know enough to speak intelligently and with conviction about the facts. Now, I’m beginning to think that’s a cop-out.
The question is, how do we re-learn, and teach our children, how to have these types of conversations? One answer is to look to a more than 1500-year old text called the Talmud, specifically, the recorded makhlokhets, the disagreements, of the schools of Hillel and Shammai. You may have heard the story of a non-Jew who came to Shammai and said, “Teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot,” and Shammai, not known for his patience, chased him away. The same man went to Hillel and asked the same thing, “Teach me the entire Torah while I stand b’regel echad,” and Hillel replied, “That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary, now go and learn.”
Good advice in general. Hillel and Shammai, and their disciples, disagreed about just about everything; whether we start with one candle or 8 during Hanukkah, whether something was ritually pure or impure, but they also married each other and lived in each other’s communities. And, not only are their arguments recorded in the Talmud; even though the accepted rulings almost always sided with Hillel, Shammai’s were recorded as well. In Tractate Eruvin of the Babylonian Talmud, it says,
אמר רבי אבא אמר שמואל שלש שנים נחלקו בית שמאי ובית הלל הללו אומרים הלכה כמותנו והללו אומרים הלכה כמותנו יצאה בת קול ואמרה אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים הן והלכה כבית הלל
Rabbi Abba said Shmuel said, “For three years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. These said: The halakha is in accordance with our opinion, and these said: The halakha is in accordance with our opinion. Ultimately, a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed: Both these and those are the words of the living God. However, the halakha is in accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel.”
So of course, the question is asked, if both are divrei elohim chayim, why side with Hillel? Our sages taught, Beit Hillel were agreeable and showed restraint when affronted, and when they taught the halakha, they would teach both their own statements and those of Beit Shammai. Moreover, when they formulated their teachings and cited a dispute, they prioritized the statements of Beit Shammai over their own statements. It wasn’t necessarily what they said, it was how they behaved that Beit Hillel merited this kavod, this honor.
Pirkei Avot, commonly translated as “The Ethics of our Fathers,” speaks about these famous disputes, and says,
כָּל מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, אֵין סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם.:
Every dispute that is for the Sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the Sake of Heaven, will not endure.
אֵיזוֹ הִיא מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת הִלֵּל וְשַׁמַּאי. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת קֹרַח וְכָל עֲדָתוֹ
What is an example of a controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? The makhlokhets of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? The controversy of Korah and all his congregation.
I can’t imagine how history might have treated Hillel and Shammai, and the rabbis of the Talmud, had they had the internet and Facebook, but that will have to be another conversation.
Let’s bring back the art of civil discourse, rather than choosing to shy away from difficult conversations. As Evelyn Beatrice Hall, better known as S. G. Tallentyre, wrote in a book about Voltaire, “I Disapprove of What You Say, But I Will Defend to the Death Your Right to Say It.”
As we enter the new year of 5780, may we have the courage to engage in arguments respectfully, for the greater good, and to help us to understand the opinions, beliefs and positions of those with whom we disagree. May we do this over coffee or a glass of wine, not online. May we see the face of God in the other person, and may these arguments be like those of Hillel and Shammai, l’shem Shamayim, for the sake of heaven and earth.