Parashat Ki Tetzei
Friday evening, September 1, 2017 11 Elul 5777
Shabbat Shalom. Oh my. What challenging times we are living through these days, aren’t we?
There is so much happening, so much coming at us every week: the chaos in our national government, the rise in anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia, hate speech and hate crimes, and this past week, Hurricane Harvey and the devastation it has wrought in Texas and Louisiana. This week I attended two meetings—one with leaders in the Jewish community and the other with faith leaders in different communities of faith in the greater Seattle area. Last week, I attended a conference of T’ruah: The Rabbinical Call for Human Rights. So many issues, so many things to address. As a rabbi, it’s challenging to know how best to draw on words of Torah or teachings of our Tradition to provide guidance, comfort, or hope in such a time.
For me, the Torah portion is always a starting place. I read the portion, and then read different commentaries, and see if anything jumps out or inspires me. As I studied it, one teaching did stand out, in light of the polarized rhetoric that makes up our national discourse these days, the meetings I attended, and the events of Charlottesville and other neo-Nazi rallies, including here in Seattle.
It’s a teaching that I’ve always loved.
You shall not see your brother’s ox or his sheep go astray and hide yourself from them; you shall surely bring them again to your brother. (Deut. 22:1)
Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda teaches us that “In Exodus 23:4, a similar verse appears, but there it states “your enemy’s ox” rather than “your friend’s.” This teaches us that it is not enough for you to merely return that which your enemy lost, but you must make every effort to change that enemy into a friend. The return of your enemy’s lost object should be the basis for uprooting the hatred between you, so that by the time you have finished returning it he will be your friend.
In these times of great division in our country, here in our own community, and in the greater Seattle area Jewish community, it is hard to imagine making those who are our “enemies” into our friends. We hold such different values, such diametrically opposed views-about our obligation to care for the vulnerable, about the reality of climate change, well-about just about everything. To be honest, I am not sure that I want to sit down with those with whom I strongly disagree and try to make them my friends.
But if I’m not willing to reach out my hand across the great divide that separates us, why should I expect anyone else to do so?
This week I learned about a project that has been launched on Whidbey Island, called Civility First. My friend and colleague Tom Ewell, a leader in the Quaker Community, is one of the founders. Tom shared at our meeting of faith leaders yesterday what they’ve been doing.
First, they’ve created a pledge, which begins, “In order to create a community where we are all treated with civility and respect, each of us affirm that we will: 1) value honesty and good will while striving to solve problems; 2) attempt genuinely to understand the point of view of others; 3) model civil behavior and tone, online as well as in public . . . ” It goes on to spell out what that civil behavior and tone looks like. Beyond just asking people to take the pledge, however, they’ve done some harder things. The first and most difficult thing they did, Tom said, was to create a board, and build trust between those who were more liberal or progressive minded folks and those who placed themselves on the Republican end of the spectrum. That alone took some work. But then, they rented a booth at their county fair for four days, where they talked with some 400 people. Tom said they had a number of very helpful conversations which gave them a good reading across the socioeconomic lines about how people are struggling with civility. Two weeks ago they did a “training” at the church of one of their board members, a large evangelical church in Oak Harbor, where they spoke with the “Silver Eagles” retirees group at a post-pot luck gathering. They gave brief personal presentations on how and why the group was formed. Mostly they engaged the folks in inter-active discussions. Everyone was fully engaged and appreciative of the opportunity to talk; no disagreements arose over politics or religion. The emphasis was on how to communicate across the divides and build relationships that may make the difficult conversations possible. Soon they’ll be doing workshops with the Republican women’s club and the Democratic leaders group.
Signing a pledge is easy to do. Speaking with those who hold dramatically different values and beliefs is so much harder. Even speaking with those in our own community with whom we disagree is hard.
At the same time, we’ve seen this week how people-when faced with a disaster such as the flooding from Hurricane Harvey-will reach out to help complete strangers-regardless of their political views, regardless of their values. When confronted with an existential crisis-in this case a hurricane that literally threatened people’s very survival–we are somehow able to demonstrate our greatest humanity.
I don’t mean to be hyperbolic, but I wonder if we are living through a period in which our nation is being confronted with its own existential crisis. Will we survive it? What will it take? As we prepare to enter into a new year, I wonder if we each might reflect: What is our vision for the world we hope will exist, and what is our role in helping to create that world? Are we reluctant to talk with those with whom we disagree, and if so, why? What might help us create bridges that will span the great divides between us? Surely if we are to heal the divisions that exist, it is bridges, and not walls, that we must help build.
Ways to Help Following Hurricane Harvey
Jewish Family Service, 4131 S. Braeswood Blvd., Houston, TX 77025, www.jfshouston.org
donations of money or gift cards to places like Target, Walmart, Home Depot, etc., to distribute those families in need, allowing them to purchase the things they need the most such as clothing, household items or food. All cash donations will be converted to the same types of cards.
Jewish Federation of Greater Houston: http://www.jfshouston.org/, 5603 South Braeswood Blvd, Houston, TX 77096
Union for Reform Judaism Hurricane Harvey Support: https://urj.org/hurricane-harvey
Undies for Everyone: https://www.undiesforeveryone.org/ organization that provides underprivileged kids in need with the clothing and dignity they deserve; significant need for clothing, underwear and large sizes especially, for the 30,000+ people in shelters.
Send gift cards to Houston-area Reform synagogues; to be distributed as needed:
NECHAMA: A Jewish Response to Disaster: https://www.nechama.org/: voluntary organization that provides natural disaster preparedness, response, and recovery services nationwide.
The Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund of the Greater Houston Community Foundation: https://ghcf.org/hurricane-relief/
The Texas Diaper Bank in San Antonio is asking for diapers and wipes: 5415 Bandera Road, Suite 504, San Antonio, Tex., 78238.
The United Way of Greater Houston flood relief fund will be used to help with immediate needs as well as long-term services like minor home repair. donate or text UWFLOOD to 41444.
The L.G.B.T.Q. Disaster Relief Fund will be used to help people “rebuild their lives through counseling, case management, direct assistance with shelf stable food, furniture, housing and more.” It is managed by The Montrose Center, Houston’s longtime community center for the area’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender population.
Houston Food Bank: “Houston Food Bank” to 535 Portwall, Houston, TX 77029. To make a gift by phone, please contact Donor Services at 713-547-8623. http://www.houstonfoodbank.org/
Food Bank of Corpus Christi: http://www.foodbankcc.com/
Houston Humane Society: http://www.houstonhumane.org/
14700 ALMEDA RD., HOUSTON, TX 77053
San Antonio Humane Society: https://sahumane.org/
There is an ever rotating wheel in this world. He/she who is rich today may not be so tomorrow, and he/she who is poor today may not be so tomorrow.
(Exodus Rabbah, 31:3)