Shabbat Shalom-With a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah–D’varim
“Khazon Yeshayahu ven Amotz …” 41 years ago, this Shabbat, I stood at the bimah (pulpit) in my Synagogue in Las Vegas, Nevada and chanted these words. They begin the Haftarah (prophetic reading) associated with this week’s Torah portion.
I was an ornery young man who maintained that the whole process of Bar Mitzvah was an act of oppression that rivaled our time under Pharaoh’s taskmaster’s whips. For a host of reasons, after it was over, I walked away … the Rabbi even encouraged me to do so.
As I reflect on the journey that began with my first steps out the door and has taken me to a place where I am beginning my 19th year post ordination as Rabbi, I have to acknowledge covering a lot of ground.
I had no idea who Isaiah was, and what the purpose of his prophecy might be. The words of the text were words of condemnation. God was upset and we were horrible people. You know, I had had enough of people being upset at me. All the text did was remind me of my parents and teachers, all of whom kept telling me that I wasn’t doing enough, that I was lazy, and that I had a lot of “fixing” to do in order to amount to anything. Okay, that’s how it all sounded to an ornery thirteen year old.
Unfortunately, as a rabbi, I have found that this is how it sounds to a great many people … adults … who have an, at best, tangent relationship with the text. If one picks the book up and reads snippets, God can come off as having real anger issues. When read casually and/or literally, there is a whole lot of senseless destruction going on. For this purpose, people either walk away from it rejecting an angry God, or take it so literally that they justify being angry at people with whom they disagree, because God is angry with all of the folks with whom God disagrees.
I find it troubling that for so many people, this is all they get out of religion and scripture. It really does not take much intention to sit with the text and find that neither is appropriate, and that the character of God in the Bible is not “God,” rather it is the purveyor of consequences for the actions of humanity: human and inhumane.
As I look back on the text I rejected so long ago, I keep finding new and profound teachings that make the text relevant in very adult and progressive conversations. I know many folks who join houses of worship to find God and feel bogged down in having to read the scriptural text, but if handled appropriately, it is the conversation spawning from the text that helps us commune with God. The purpose of scripture is to get us to talk about holiness with each other and learn from each other; to help us help each other into greater spiritual awareness. When handled as “the word and rule of God,” the book has no value and can breed devastating human responses.
Every day, we are inundated with the news of the destruction we force upon each other: the devastating consequences. Wars run by power brokers rage across the world consuming life and liberty in its path leaving only death and destruction in its wake. What is the largest impetus to war? Well, the claim by most … for all time … “we are fighting on behalf of God. Our scripture demands this service and sacrifice on behalf of divinity.” Really? So, the God who lovingly creates all things wants us to destroy some of it? Worse still, this one God who creates all things tells different groups to destroy each other? How can one pray for peace and then go into war to kill another?
I understand the argument that “the policies of the other have left us no choice.” Again, really? If violence is the only answer, then we really are in trouble, and at what point does defending one’s self become an act of offense against the other? There is no basis in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam for offensive violence. Each religion also admonishes followers to strive at all cost to turn enemies into friends. We each hold sacred some version of the teaching, “When the world is not behaving humanely, strive to be human.” It is hard to claim to be a person of faith when one’s goal is to destroy another’s life … even if in response to violence.
Many have questioned my relative silence on the war in Gaza and Israel. I say relative, for I have not been silent, I have just not said what many expect me to be saying. I am a Zionist, and I serve on the Board of Trustees in the Reform Jewish Zionist movement. I am brokenhearted over what is happening over there, and cannot but condemn acts of terror that oppress both the victim and the perpetrator (self-victimized in a different way).
Propaganda fills the news and while everyone has a sense of what is and is not right, it is clear to me that there are truths that exist from multiple perspectives that fall on deaf ears in the camps of the “other.” What I know is that while children are being orphaned and killed, the population around the world is picking sides as if this were a soccer match and the World Cup was at stake. Rallies gathering only partisan groups cannot help but fuel the fires of distrust and solidify the rhetoric heard in speeches as “the truth,” and not our understanding of truth. The media feeds our frenzy with photographs (some real and some manufactured) and agenda based debates that have experts (often partisan) instructing us as to what we are supposed to believe. I believe that these rallies serve only to drive us further apart and keep us from hearing each other’s very real pain. We allow power mongers to take control when we distract the world from seeing that the war really is not about what God wants, but about who wants to have control. If we really wanted peace, these rallies would be multireligious, multicultural, and multiethnic, and the conversation would focus on how we can help people on both sides who are suffering, how we can help open each other’s eyes, and how we can jointly hold the media accountable for its gratuitous depictions of violence to gain viewership and advertising dollars. Yes, there is hell happening, and I fear that people not living in the midst of the struggle but who try to direct and usurp the conversation help it proliferate.
The prophet Isaiah teaches us that the people who trample God’s courts bringing offerings rooted in ego and agenda are an abomination before God. Isaiah will later admonish us to remember that there can be no peace until the lion can sleep with the lamb, and until we have beaten our swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. This is not a condemnation from God, but an admonition for us to understand what is at stake. It seems to me, that if we want to respond in a Godly way, then our gatherings would be to heal and not to rally. We need to reach out and create relationships rooted in faith and set a better paradigm for those who now see us only putting fuel on the fire. Face it, every time only Jews gather, only Muslims gather, or only Christians gather, the perceptions of division only become more entrenched. For those of us who feel this way, let’s be more vocal together.