Rabbi Robinson’s Sermon November 17, 2023

Rabbi Yair Robinson

Parashat Toldot: Wide Spaces and Healing Wells

November 17, 2023


It was a beautiful day in Washington DC this past Tuesday. I do not just mean the weather, though that was about as perfect as you can get in November. No, what made it a beautiful day was the thousands of people—nearly three hundred thousand, who streamed into the National Mall to rally against antisemitism and for a safe and secure Israel, and the return of hostages.

It should have been a nightmare. Aside from the logistics of trying to get hundreds of thousands of people into DC—and let me tell you, the roads, the Metro, the airports, Amtrak and even the sidewalks were full to overflowing—here was an event that hadn’t happened in decades, a moment to bring our people, our stiff-necked, opinionated, often difficult people, together and speak with one voice. Young and old, Orthodox and Reform and Secular, LGBT+ and traditionalists, Americans for Peace Now and J-Street and Truah and AIPAC and ZOA, fellow landsmen who would never be caught in the same room together, now shoulder to shoulder. Who would speak? Would there be infighting, or people saying things that were beyond the pale? If there were prayers, who would recite them? And what about security? Would there be counter-protesters, or someone looking to cause harm? There are so many ways this could have gone off the rails, but it did not. Yes, there were speakers from certain political camps that many of us did not want to hear from, but they did not incite the crowd either. Yes, it was distracting when the Chabadniks tried to get you to wear t’fillin while you were trying to hear Deborah Lipstadt or Bougie Herzog. And yes, it was easy to get separated from your home congregation or group. But somehow, over one hundred Delawareans, including a dozen Beth Emeth folks, joined another 289,900 people (give or take a few) to be together. No fighting. No violence. No hostility toward the Palestinian people, no fear of the Other. Instead, pride in our Jewish heritage and values, a sea of blue and white, and cries for freedom for those taken captive, and to remember those who died in a war no one wanted. The most powerful moments were the crowd reciting Psalm 121 together, and hearing from three of the mothers of the hostages and hearing the crowd chant ‘never again’ and ‘bring them home.’ I know that many got their news afterwards from organizations like Truah who were unenthusiastic about some of the more conservative speakers, or the press who downplayed the event, or other organizations who saw this as a pro-war rally. It was not perfect to be sure, but it was a moment of action and healing for so many of us who have felt at sea since October 7th, helpless and terribly lonely as we agonize over the violence, mourn, and grieve for the dead, and struggle with those who we thought were our allies who cannot seem to understand or care about our pain. It was a brief moment where, despite our stark differences and incredibly diverse world views, we could come together as a people and speak with one voice and feel heard.

I think it has been a long time since many of us have felt heard. Maybe since 2016, maybe even before that. I was just having this conversation—and I should say, I feel like I’ve been having versions of this conversation for over a decade—that we have utterly lost the ability to share in our differences with one another, without the fear that we will be labeled as an enemy, or have our lived experienced dismissed out of hand. And with an eye toward Thanksgiving and gathering with our diverse tables of family and friends, that was true before the horror of October 7th! You cannot move forward from trauma until you establish safety, and whatever thin remnant of that ideal was finally torn apart on the morning of Simchat Torah. When we as Jews hear so many people, including our own people, on multiple sides, declare, “you are either with us or against us”, we know there can be no nuance, no ability to hold two different ideas, two different kinds of pain, at the same time, no safety, no ability to process our pain or seek support or allies, no ability to seek real dialogue or understanding.

Perhaps that is why our portion resonates so deeply for us. Every time Isaac—not a confrontational man by any stretch of the imagination—tries to dig wells, he finds his neighbors come and chase him away, or stop them up, or take them over. So he names them strife, and hatred. Only once he is far enough away from the hostility and threat of violence that he is able to name one Rehovot, wide places. That the opposite of contention and strife is not ‘peace,’ but ‘space’ tells us something about our reaction to hostility—to escape, to get to a safe distance, to be left alone. We understand that instinct, and many of us have turned inward these last six weeks, seeing only strife and contention waiting for us out there. That gathering on the National Mall was the first moment for many of us to feel like we could move past the tightness of this moment. It was the first moment in weeks where we could move past “you are with us, or against us,” where we could hear “yes, and” instead of “yes, but” or “no, but” about our own grief.

And Rehovot need not be a wide space between us and the hostility we feel. It can also be a way to acknowledge the wide differences we may have but amicably, peacefully, lovingly, without the threat of harm. That we can say ‘yes, and’ to one another. I know it feels like a fantasy, a fairy tale from another time that perhaps never really was. Fine. I like this fantasy over a whole lot of other ones. And if our stiff-necked, stubborn, difficult people could find a way to say ‘yes, and’ to one another on Tuesday on the National Mall, I have to believe that we can find a way to say, ‘yes, and’ to our friends and neighbors, to lean into nuance and away from ‘with us or against us’ language, to remember and lift up all our humanity. Not to run away, but to provide that space, that safety.

Yesterday I had coffee with an acquaintance who, like me, works in the liberal non-profit world. Not Jewish, but she had come to the rally at the JCC, and weeks later, asked me to share about what I and our community was going through, and what we needed, and wanted me to be real. While I have had other non-Jewish clergy reach out with sympathy and support, all of which is appreciated, this was the first time I felt like I could talk freely, with nuance, about this terrible moment that we are in. It was a moment of Rehovot, of room. I believe we can dig more of those wells, wells of nuance and kindness, wells of ‘yes, and’ and safety, with fellow Jews and non-Jews alike. And from those wells, find mayyim chayyim, living waters. It will be hard work, and it will take time, but I believe from that effort will come blessing, and I urge us to do what we can to dig those wells in our own lives. May we make it so. Amen.