Rabbi Robinson Sermon, May 28, 2021

Rabbi Yair Robinson

Parashat B’ha’alotcha

May 28th, 2021

If you grew up traditional—Conservative or Orthodox—you would be familiar with the words of this week’s portion. Bracketed by two upside-down letter nuns, these words become the opening lines to the traditional Torah service: “when the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: Advance, O Adonai! May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You!”

Enemies? Foes? Yep, enemies. Oyavim.  Boy, are we not comfortable with that word as Reform Jews! That sense of duality, us-versus-them, our instinct to want to move toward a universalism that embraces all as created in God’s image, and here we are talking about scattering enemies and foes? It is no wonder that we took it out of our liturgy. Even the Rabbis in the Talmud note the bracketing nuns and declare that these words are out of place, and belong somewhere else, as they themselves get awkward about it. Similarly in the Amidah, the central prayer of the service, we would traditionally pray for the end of ‘enemies’, in this case the word is minim, those who would undermine us. First, we took the prayer out entirely, then we replaced it with a prayer to end ‘evil’, de-personifying it.

And it is good that we are uncomfortable with this language. We should not be walking around as a People with a chip on our shoulder, look to see who is on our side and who wants a fight. Aside from being an exhausting way to live, it also undermines so much of what we are trying to do in God’s world, in terms of tikkun¸ repair. How can we care for the stranger and the oppressed, how can we love our neighbor, if we see others as our enemies? Isn’t that part of what’s wrong with our country, our world, today? That we are so fractured, so divided, the language so hostile, that we have lost the ability to disagree without assuming the other is our enemy? In our politics, in our culture, haven’t we gone too far down the rabbit hole of seeing foes in every social media post?

And yet, as we have been learning these last several years, and with more intensity the last several weeks, we do have enemies. Five or six years ago, the Economist published an article arguing that antisemitism had fallen to such lows globally as to be all but eliminated. What wishful thinking. We have seen Jew hatred and acts against Jewish individuals and organizations multiply not just abroad but here in the United States as well, to the point where Gary Rosenblatt published an op-ed asking if America is still safe for the Jews? And, as we know, antisemitism today is, in some ways, more insidious than it used to be. It is not mere violence against people wearing kippot or attacks on synagogues—though to be sure it is that as well. It is not overt bans on Jews in occupations and universities as our parents and grandparents experienced. It is the use of Holocaust imagery to denigrate people’s pet issues, from abortion rights to petty gripes about mask wearing. And sometimes, it is weaponizing the Shoah by accusing Jews of being just as bad. It is the well-meaning non-Jew seeking to define Jewish identity or antisemitism in such a way that it leaves their political vantage point unharmed: so, the right-wing individual says nice things about Israel, while the progressive insists that no criticism of Israel could ever be considered antisemitic, not really. It is the local politician, or last summer, the hip hop artist, who copy-and-pastes an inflammatory post about the heartbreaking crisis in the Middle East without thinking about how his words and actions might incite violence, rejects both criticism and opportunities for dialogue on the subject. It is the other local politician who is happy to pose with Holocaust survivors and say all the right things at special events but will not say the hard things when we ask them to do so, because they do not want to get in trouble.

Now, here is the thing about all the versions of antisemitism that I just mentioned: for the most part, I was not talking about graffiti, or vandalism, or physical violence. To be sure, that is there on full display, and It will take some doing to manage them. But the incidents I have alluded to or described are much more difficult because they involve our friends, the people we think are on our side, the folks we know and trust. Perhaps they are our relatives, or people we have missed profoundly during the pandemic, or they are otherwise our partners in the work of social action and social justice. They are not Nazis, none of them are hiding a white hood in their drawers, and none would consider themselves anti-Semites. What do we do with them? How do we get them to see the harm that they are doing?

First, we must ask more of them. We do not like doing that; we prefer to put the burden of education and comfort on ourselves rather than others. But it is time to make our friends uncomfortable, to scatter their assumptions about Jews and Judaism and our place in society. It is notable that almost all the major Jewish organizations this past week put out a statement denouncing the uptick in antisemitism, and Rabbi Yehuda Kurtzer from the Hartman Institute asked: why are the JEWISH organizations denouncing antisemitism? Like, obviously we do not like it, where are the NONJEWISH organizations? Where are our friends? Our friends have been silent for too long, or when they have denounced antisemitism, they have done it in a mealy-mouthed fashion, having to also denounce anti-Arab or anti-Muslim hatred. Which, to be clear, is also bad! But if it were any other group, we would be rolling our eyes at their ‘All Lives Matter’-ing of the issue. We need to demand that our friends do better. That means writing and calling our elected officials. That means calling our friends out when they say something hurtful or simply wrong. Not in a violent way, or in a mean way—they are still our friends—but we want to disrupt their thinking, their assumptions. We want to engage them, and get them to think differently, and do differently. That is hard work, and as I say these words, I am already tired. Nevertheless, it is time to demand more.

And we need to not recoil, not hide. There are reports from LA of Jewish organizations like schools taking overt Jewish symbols off their buildings, and Jews in New York taking off kippot and the like. To be sure, we as a congregation have had that experience as well—good luck finding overt Jewish symbols on the outside of our building! Nevertheless, we need to be Jewish in the public sphere. That means being uncomfortable. That means making the space unsafe—unsafe for them. But especially as we re-emerge from Covid, I have no intention of resuming meaningless small-talk and banter, especially when people are inappropriate. The time has come to call people on their stuff. And call us on our stuff. How much antisemitism have we absorbed, unintentionally? That the God of the Torah is angry. That we are not good at physical things, or real work. That we are supposed to be better than everyone else. That we should be quiet and out of the way.

The words of our portion were said as the Israelites would go on their journey to the Promised Land. So it is with us. That hoped-for place of acceptance and justice is just there, over the horizon. We just need to walk a little further, work a little harder, and scatter our friends’ enemy ideas of what it means to be Jewish and face antisemitism. Only when we have done this, can we then say the next verse: Return, Adonai, Israel’s myriads of thousands. May we return in peace. Amen.