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Friday, July 17, 2015

Parshat Matot-Maasei: Embracing What Makes Us Most Afraid

This week's parashah/portion is the double portion called Matot-Maasei, which brings to a close the book of Bemidbar/Numbers. I will focus on the text of Matot, in the beginning of the parashah we read that if a man makes a vow it is binding on him. However, if a woman makes a vow while still living in her father's house and her father becomes aware of the vow and agrees to its terms, then the vow remains in effect. However, if he does not approve of the vow, then he may render it null and void. The same applies if the woman is married and her husband discovers the vow. If her father or husband do annul her vow, the woman is not to be held as guilty for not fulfilling the vow she has made. However, if her husband agrees to the vow upon discovering it and later changes his mind and annuls the vow, then there is guilt, but it is to be upon the husband's head.

Viewing this text through 21st century eyes, it is yet another example of how women had little or no control over their own fate. The only way a woman's vow could be binding without her father or husband's approval would be if she kept it a secret or if she were a widow or divorcée. In other words, only through divorce, death or deceit could a woman make a binding vow of her own accord.

As if this were not enough, the following passage does even more violence, literally speaking, to women. For in this passage, Moses berates the leaders of the tribes that, during their slaughter of the Midianites in their most recent battle they spared the Midianite women. This was particularly vexing to Moses because he believed it was the women who had "induced the Israelites to trespass against God" through illicit sexual conduct, thereby prompting Moses to attack. Therefore, Moses commanded the captains to murder any Midianite woman who was not a virgin, and to let the virgins survive and be counted as part of the spoils of war. In other words, as property.

I find these texts to be distasteful and misogynistic. However, as is often the case, that which we find to most troubling is often where we can find new teachings if we pay close attention. But how does one derive meaning from such problematic passages?

In first reading the text, it seems clear to me that in the biblical view, women could not be trusted. If they could, then there would be no need to give men the power to annul their vows. In addition, women are viewed as dangerous, especially if they are sexually active (outside of marriage), as made evident by Moses' anger and his command to kill all of the Midianite women who were not virgins.

In pondering these texts, it appears that the source of the mistrust and impetus for the violence commanded towards the women may well be the fear and mistrust that the men have of themselves. For no matter how "seductive" the Midianite women might have been, the men would not have "trespassed" with them if they did not have the same sexual desires and if they were able to control them. But, as is often the case throughout history, and until today, it is much easier to simply blame it on women. 

Rather than looking within and seeing what was in their own hearts, it was easier to look outward, to see the perceived immorality of the neighboring women and then destroy them. This kind of behavior was not new then, and it still happens today, as we are all too well aware. Even within Judaism. For instance, according to traditional Jewish law, still observed by many within the Orthodox community, since a women's voice or presence is considered potentially seductive, thereby distracting men from prayer, women's voices may not be heard and they are often relegated to the back of the sanctuary, or off to the side or up in a balcony (note: this law is observed to varying degrees even within the Orthodox world, and this is only one reason behind the tradition).

In the most strictly observant (or I would say repressive) the women can be found behind a wall with only a tiny window for them to try and look down upon the men. Again the message here is, in part, since men can't control their libido when around women, the women must then suffer the consequences.

If Moses had wanted to help the Israelite men to avoid transgressive behavior in the future, he would have done better to command them to look inside their own hearts, to find the lusts and desires within and pay attention to them, rather than focus on the external forces that "drove them" to act as they did. In other words, maybe the men should be the ones relegated to the balcony if they cannot control their lusts, rather than the women.

However, this interpretation does not address the passage concerning vows and women. In order to come to terms with this passage I feel the need to more drastically re-read in a more allegorical, and psychological, manner.

We know that each human being has male and female characteristics within. For each of us there is part within that feels more authentic. In a manner of speaking, there is a part within us that feels more like "I" and a part which feels more like "other" within our own individual psyches. The parts within that seem most like other are often the parts that we have kept most hidden throughout our lives. However, these parts are no more or less a part of who we are than those parts with which we are more comfortable. Yet, they are the parts try to ignore, repress, destroy or control. In a way, they are the parts within us that we don't trust.

Carl Jung wrote that there are aspects of the other sex within each us, what he referred to as the animus and anima, but I am talking about more than sexual or gender identity. For I am referring to any and all parts within us with which we are so uncomfortable or which we fear so much, that we try to repress, ignore or even destroy it. However, if we don't succeed, we can at least try to control those parts. But often rather than focusing on ourselves, we instead look for the “problematic” trait in someone else, and we criticize them, avoid them, and even verbally or physically attack them.

In the Torah text, a husband or father has ultimate control over the vows of his wife or daughter. Both are seen as an extension of him, and both are seen as other and not to be trusted. This is where the two passages dealing with women in the parashah connect. For just as the women of Midian are viewed as having the ability to control the Israelite men and bring about their moral downfall, so too a wife or daughter who has made the wrong kind of vow (and we can only imagine what those vows might have been) could bring about the downfall of her father or husband.

Following my analogy to a conclusion, it is the pieces of ourselves that we view as “other” of which we are most afraid and which we try to control or destroy. But it is because we remain ignorant or living in fear of these pieces that they have the potential to cause us the most suffering and harm. However, the solution is not to try to control or destroy them - whether within us or within others who bring up these feelings within us. Rather, the solution is to become more aware of them, acknowledge them, and accept them as part of who we are. These unknown "other" parts of us are not bad or evil. They are not "other." They are simply the parts of ourselves with which we still struggle.

I couldn't help but think of the debates going on in our country, in Israel and throughout the world dealing with issues of racism, gender bias, homophobia, misogyny, Islamic extremism, anti-Islamic response or backlash, and the list goes on.......

All of these prejudices, as well as racism and misogyny which is built into so many governmental systems, are based on this concept of us vs. the other. But ultimately, there is no other. As I spoke about on Rosh Hashanah, there is no “us and them.” In mystical terms, there is only the One. We are all part of that One, which we call God. But when we split the one into the many we can then focus on diversity, which is a blessing from God, and turn into into difference, which is a curse create by humanity. When we do this, we then feel the need to bolster and support those we see as “similar” our of fear of those who are “different.” And people often do that by blaming the problems and their origins on their differences, rather than looking within at the true origins of their prejudice, mistrust and even hatred.

Throughout the Torah we are reminded not to oppress the stranger, for we were once strangers in Egypt. But we must also not oppress that which we view as the stranger within ourselves. For that which we fear most within us is the root of what we mistrust, hate and oppress in the world around us.

We must start recognizing that our fear of violence, aggression and hatred in others is, at least in part, rooted in our fear, discomfort and denial of the capacity for violence, aggression and hatred within ourselves. And so we try to oppress or control that which is within us by trying to control or attack what we portray as being found only within others. But in the end, we cannot control these aspects of our world and ourselves any more than we can control anything. All we can do is become more mindful and recognize the difficult pieces within all of us. We must look straight at that which makes us most afraid. Then we must look at that fear with compassion and with honesty in order to determine how to best approach it so that we no longer feel the need to control it out of the believe that, if we don't, it will ultimately control us.

I can only imagine how differently the scenario in this week's parashah might have ended, or how differently recent incidents of racial strife and all kinds of incidents rooted in fear and prejudice may have turned out if people changed their perspective. All we need to do is look at what we fear or don't understand and embrace it as something which is part of us all, rather than trying to destroy or control it because it is something that belongs to the “other.” How different all of our lives, and our world, might be if we could practice this on a more regular basis ourselves.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: How to Find Holiness After Loss and Destruction

Dear Online Hevra/community,
I apologize for posting this so late. I wrote it for this past Shabbat as a response to the recent violence in Baltimore and elsewhere.  I had meant to clean it up a little and post it right after Shabbat, but somehow it took a little longer.  

I hope you find this meaningful in the face of recent events.

L'shalom,
SPN
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This week we read in synagogue a double portion/parashah from the Torah called Acharei Mot/Kedoshim.  Acharei Mot means “after death”. It consists of ethical and ritual laws concerning, sacrifice, Yom Kippur rituals, dietary restrictions and sexual prohibitions. These laws, which were part of creating a new society built on laws and justice, were given “after the death” of Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu, hence the name of the parashah.

The second parashah  is Kedoshim, which means holiness.  It includes the Holiness Code of Leviticus/Vayikra Chapter 19. In this code we are given a series of commandments and laws. given to the people because we are all to be holy, because God is holy, and we are created in God's image. And so the essence of the text is the creation of a society based on holiness. To give birth to a nation not only dedicated to God, but who imitate God. The Torah, here and throughout it's chapters, commands us to be a people and a nation that cares for one another regardless of social status and especially protecting the most vulnerable: the orphan, the widow and the stranger in our midst. At the heart of all the Holiness Code, and indeed the entire Torah, we find the central commandment of the Torah, v'ahavta l'reyakha kamokha, “you shall love your fellow human being as yourself.”

As I watched the violence on the streets of Baltimore this past weeks, I couldn't help but think of that central commandment, and how difficult it can be to fulfill at times. I asked myself numerous questions, such as, how do we love our fellow human beings as ourselves? And how do we do this especially when we might feel that others aren't doing the same? The essence of the answer to these questions is that we must not view anyone as self or other. We must love all of God's creation, all of humanity, because we are all one. We are all part of God. That is the essence of holiness.

Acharei mot kedoshim. Perhaps we should read the two names as a sentence? After death, there is holiness. Keeping this in my heart, I wrote following poem.
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After death.....holiness
After death holiness
after sacrifice renewal
after mourning rebirth
after destruction rebuilding
after fear trust
after judgment compassion
after hatred love


I look around and see only death sacrifice mourning destruction fear judgment hate
I see despair anger frustration I don't see anything else

I hear accusations of others of society of our world we accuse
youth without respect caring only about destruction violence
when it is really about feeling they are unseen feeling only frustration fear
those meant to protect us seen as wanting instead to destroy
when they really want peace harmony safety calm life
our leaders trying to divide in order to help their own agenda
when they are simply acknowledging the divisions already there seeking a way
to bring order reconciliation to see both the parts and the whole the holy

yes there are also
youth who want only to wreak havoc
too many police prone to violence instead of peace
leaders seeking only to divide in order to benefit from the support of others
with narrow minds
people of all types who seek only to foment hatred and fear

the forces of death destruction hatred will always be there on all sides among all
they are strong able to persuade others that they are right that there is no choice
other than violence hatred oppression control their own narrow minded agendas
hoping that we will be unable to see the truth beneath it all

that holiness is also always there beckoning us to walk down that path
the path of humility goodness love acceptance peace mercy kindness
the path of the Divine the true path of humanity
a path acknowledging differences reminding us we are not all the same
but we are all connected we are all One

so many think they know the right way they know what God wants
but their god cares only for them and not for others that is not truly God
that is the other the ego evil leading us down the path to destruction

around me I smell the smoke see the flames hear the chants the screams the proclamations the suffering and pain
but within me within all of us we can see the truth
we can sense the harmony see the source of compassion hear the voice of mercy
the cry for justice and the proclamation that we are all one part of the divine
we must all love each as ourselves for there is no other there is no self
there is only the one

at times I feel helpless hopeless this struggle is eternal we cannot bring it to an end
other times I feel strong hopeful that the struggle will end
for all will come to know that which is truly eternal
love compassion mercy connection God
the divinity within us all regardless of who we think we are

we have seen so many senseless deaths
we have seen needless destruction devastation frustration
but may we work together to instead create life compassion rebirth
holiness mercy love
let us work together to create a world where differences are embraced
while unity is acknowledged
where all human souls are valued equally
for we realize that God belongs to no one person no one belief no one people
for we are within God god is within us all
remembering this we can continue on the path to create holiness
which is our birthright and our purpose in life
the essence of us being human


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Beyond Us and Them.....How Do We Create a World In Which There is Only the One?

Bloggers Note:  This is a VERY lengthy post, as I felt the need to deal with so many different issues which have arisen over the past months.  Please take your time to read it and to respond, privately or on the blog itself, if you would like.  I'm sure you won't agree with everything, but that's not the point is it?   
L'shalom/In Peace,
Steven
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I would like to apologize for my lengthy absence from this blog. When last I wrote we were still reading about the sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau in the middle of the book of Bereshit/Genesis. Now we are in the middle of the book of Shemot/Exodus. This past Shabbat we  read the Parashah/Portion called Yitro (Jethro), which is the name of the High Priest of the nation of Midian who is also the father of Tzipporah, Moses' wife. In this parashah he comes to see Moses (and one would hope, his daughter as well, though the text seems to ignore this....hmmm) for he has heard of all the wonders which God did for the Israelites; so he declares  publiclythat the Israelites' God is indeed greater than all the other gods.

Yitro then notices that Moses is adjudicating all disputes among the people by himself. Yitro tells his son in-law that this is not good and then describes how to set up a system of trustworthy men to handle the minor decisions, thus allowing Moses to focus on the more difficult ones. Moses sets up this legal system recommended by Yitro and it remains in place throughout the years of wandering.

After Yitro leaves, the people remain in the wilderness of Sinai for three more month and eventually they receive the Ten Utterances of God, long been (mis)translated as the Ten Commandments. This is the central mythic event of the Torah which represents the eternal covenant between God and the People of Israel, later the Jewish people.   Here ends my synopsis.

It would be easy for me to focus this commentary on the Ten Commandments. But so much has been written about them already, I don't feel like there's much I could add at this moment. Nor do I feel like I have anything special to offer in terms of commentary on Moses, Yitro and Tzipporah. Rather, what prompted me to write about this parashah was simply the fact that I felt the time had come for me to begin writing again. For I realized that, to some degree, I had been avoiding this because so much has been happening in the world and I didn't know how I could connect these events to the Torah. And yet, I knew I would feel I had shirked my responsibility as a rabbi and a blogger were I not to at least try to find a way to comment on and connect the two.  And so, in what is clearly becoming more of a stream-of-consciousness commentary, I would like to at least begin this task.
Over the last few months there have been so many tragedies in our country and in our world which have been disturbing, infuriating, disheartening and inexplicable. These include, but are not limited to: the events in Ferguson, MO, Staten Island NY and Cleveland, OH involving the deaths of black men – and one 12 year old black boy - at the hands of white police officers, the subsequent protests and demonstrations in response to these killings, the unrelated ukilling of two on-duty police officers in NYC, the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the murders in the kosher supermarket in Paris, kidnapings, beheadings and other atrocities committed at the hands of ISIS, Al Qaida and other Muslim extremist groups, the kidnapping of hundreds of girls by Boko Haram, as well as the other kidnappings and murders taking place in Africa, the continued fighting in the Ukraine, missile attacks by Hezbollah into Israel, violence in Gaza and the West Bank, other terrorist attacks in Jerusalem and elsewhere, violence and unfair treatment of  many Palestinians and Bedouins at the hands of Israeli Jews, the brutal murder by ISIS of women seen as dressing or acting improperly and of gay men for simply being or appearing to be gay, the murders of transgender people (especially of color) in the USA  elsewhere for expressing their gender identity (which gets far too little press).......the list goes on.

In looking at this list it's easy to see why the task of writing felt particularly daunting. But then something clicked when I was reading this past week's parashah/portion and then suddently thinking of a favorite song of mine. What clicked was the underlying theme of what appears to be a human need to create separations, dichotomies, polar opposites, etc. in our world. We see it all around us: black/white, straight/gay, man/woman, Muslim/non-Muslim, Jewish/non-Jewish, Christian/non-Christian, believer/infidel, Israeli/Palestinian, majority/minority, conservative/liberal, Republican/Democrat, oppressor/oppressed, superior/inferior, and this list too could go on. In the end, all of these dichotomies, which are utterly and totally a creation of the human mind, can be summed up by one simple dichotomy, which is the name of the song I mentioned above: Us and Them.

We humans seem to have an intense need to glorify those we label as “us” while either ignoring, denigrating, oppressing or abusing those we label as “them.” And yet the reality, which is found in the teachings of so much of religion, especially in the mystical realm, is that there is no Us and Them. There is not even a You and an I. Those are all constructs and labels of the human mind. For in truth, there is only One. We are all part of the One. We are all “Us.” What causes suffering in the world is the rejection of this eternal Truth, which is then replaced with the labels which I mention above.

In the powerful lyrics, written by Roger Waters and performed by Pink Floyd, of which he was a part, long a favorite song from perhaps my favorite rock album, The Dark Side of the Moon we find the following:

Us and Them
And after all we're only ordinary men
Me, and you
God only knows it's not what we would choose to do
Forward he cried from the rear and the front rank died
And the General sat, as the lines on the map moved from side to side

Black and Blue
And who knows which is which and who is who
Up and Down
And in the end it's only round and round and round...

Though on the surface this song is about war, the deeper message is that when we live our lives based on these false dichotomies, rather than acknowledge that we are all connected, then we create suffering, violence, war and terror. There is a sense that in war, as well as other disputes and violence, we do not create these labels and separations because it is what we want to do, nor what God would want us to do (however one chooses to understand that concept). Rather, it is something which has become ingrained in us through the millenia, causing the strife of which the songs speaks. But in the end the need to constantly separate and define also leads to chaos and confusion, where those who are fighting may not even know “which is which and who is who.”

But how does any of this connect to this week's parashah? For me, the answer is simple, even though I never thought of it before now. For within Judaism, the Us/Them dichotomy is forever affirmed in the covenant at Sinai represented by the giving of the Ten Commandments. At that central mythic moment, the Israelites are designated (read: labeled) an am segulah/treasured people; they are chosen and told that they are to be am kadosh/holy people and a mamlekhet kohanim/kingdom of priests. This is the culmination of an endeavor begun generations before in the moment when God called to Avram (later Abraham) and told him to go to the place which God will show him.  From that point on, the Torah is focused on the creation of a new people dedicated to the worship of the One God and which now is designated as God's special possession.

I am not saying whether this designation is good or bad, for those are the labels of the false dichotomy which we create perhaps more than any other. Rather, I would state simply that this is what it is. It is the “Truth” of the Torah. It is, in many ways, its essence. The same can be found in the holy texts of other religions where the labels of Us and Them are very much present, though the players and the roles are different (or reversed).

Something else which struck me is that, this parashah, which is a central narrative of the Torah, is named after a non-Israelite priest.  Someone who could easily be that of as "other" or part of "them". Certainly, giving his name to a Torah portion is a way to honor Yitro's role in helping Moses to set up the new judicial system. And so one would imagine that this sense of honor would also be extended to his people, the Midianites. But this is not the case. In fact, the opposite is true. For ultimately, Yitro's people, the Midianites are another “them” or “other” who become demonized as an enemy of Israel. In Bemidbar/Numbers chapter 31 Moses commands the Israelite men to slay all of the Midianites, for it was the Midianite women who had led the Israelite men into illicit sexual and religious involving the worship of their god, Baal Peor.

As if this were not enough, when the soldier return to Moses with the women, girls and boys still alive, rather than killing everyone as Moses/God had commanded, Moses is furious. He tells them to kill all the women who were not virgins, as they had led the Israelite men astray (amazing how men seem to have no willpower, but it is THEM, the women as “temptresses,” who always get the blame and punishment for the the men's actions). He also commands them to kill the boys, but to spare the girls or the women who were still virgins. I won't even address the implications of the last part of the commandment at this time, except to say that it is but one of many disturbing aspects of this narrative.  But these commands could have been given and eventually obeyed if all of the Midianites were viewed as “them,” or as “the other.”

Only a few decades after Yitro advised Moses, Midian, the nation of Yitro the High Priest, had become Midian, the nation which tried to lead the Israelite men astray and which needed to be annihilated. Even the magician Balaam, who earlier in the Torah had praised the beauty of the Israelite encampment (the words of the Ma Tovu prayer) when the Moabite king Balak wanted him to curse them, is now portrayed as evil. For the text states that it was he who ordered the Midianite women to tempt the Israelite men, and so he too was put to the sword. I suppose he was always really a part of “them”and not “us,” but it is only now that this is recognized and his services are no longer needed, that he is treated as such.

Whether one believes the Torah to be written by God, human beings, Moses or some combination, the message of these texts is clear. There is an Us and there is a Them. Those labelled as Them are evil and against God. Those labelled as Us are good and are God's people. And yet the perhaps more subtle transformation of the image of Balaam and all of the Midianites from others who were allies or helpful to others who were evil and must be annihilated truly bothered me. For this kind of transformation is is something which has happened throughout history and still happens today.

We can all point to times when nations, people, even each of us, has praised, lauded, even befriended someone who could be seen as “other” as long as they are either serving our needs or helping us in some way. But should that change, the positive traits of those people is forgotten and they are simply seen as “other.” Ultimately any society or system which is based on a strong belief in Us and Them, risks becoming a society which becomes based on the dichotomy of majority and minority (often based on perception and not actual numbers) which can eventually lead to the dichotomy of superior and inferior, worthwhile and worthless, human and sub-human.

Look at the abomination of slavery in the United States. Even though it was based on the belief in superiority and inferiority, human and sub-human, it was also common for some white slaveholders to treat certain black slaves as special because of how they served the household. At times, it might even appear that there was a friendship between master and slave. But these were never true relationships or friendships. How could they be when the dichotomy and the inequities were so ingrained in the system. And so, if that particular slave were to do one small act which displeased the master, or if they were no longer useful to them, the slave would be cast out, beaten or even killed. This was easily done because the slaves were seen not only as “other,” but as sub-human. And that is the danger of dichotomies.

The Holocaust is another example. It is evident that Hitler, the Nazi party and many German citizens clearly saw the world as Us vs. Them. They could easily turn their backs on, imprison and kill Jews, Roma, Gays, and others who had lived among them, and been acquaintances or even "friends" because, deep down, they had always viewed these people as “other.” The tragedy was compounded by the fact that they Jews did not see this. They saw themselves as part of the German people. So many believed that they were part of Us and not Them. So many German Jews could not bear to see themselves as “other” and the land of their birth. And so, many of them clung to that belief, until they realized it was a charade which they had been playing all those year. But by then it was too late. It did not matter how they viewed themselves. In a dichotomous society it is only the perspective of the “majority” which really matters in the end.

The legacy of the inequities slavery in the United States continues to have dire effects on our society. Many of these have become evident during this past year to those who for years preferred to keep their eyes closed . And yet, still there are many who deny or ignore the reality. For here in our own streets we have seen African-American men and boys killed by police. This is something which the African-American community has taken for granted for many years. But only recently has it entered the public sphere in such a profound way.

For many, the debate has been about whether or not the police officers who shot these unarmed black men and one unarmed boy were blatantly racist or acting in what they perceived to be self-defense. But as so many have written, that is not the main point. For even if the officers believe that they didn't have a racist bone in their bodies and were acting out of self-defense, there was something deeper and more sinister at work. For we must remember that the society in which we live has it's roots, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not,  in White European Christian colonialism, which was inextricably linked to the slavery of Africans, the subjugation of Native American and later to Jim Crow laws and the inequalities between Whites and People of Color which still persists today. 

We may teach that our society is based on the belief that all men (sic) are created equal. And this is a goal for which we must strive.  But in truth, it is also based on a deeply ingrained Us/Them dichotomy, in which there cannot be true equality. Many whites don't like to acknowledge that there is such a thing as white privilege, nor do white men like to admit that there is such a thing as white male privilege. We also don't like to acknowledge that there is institutionalized racism which pervades our society and which we all need to fight against, especially if we are the ones who benefit from the inequalities of the system which we have inherited. The white people who marched in solidarity with people of color shouting “black lives matter” or “I can't breathe” this past summer and fall realized that, at least to some degree. But those of us who benefit from white privilege must acknowledge that we can never know what's it like for African-American parents who need to teach their children (especially sons) at an early age how to behave around police officers in order to avoid unwarranted arrests, harassment, and even death. We cannot know what it's like to be afraid that our sons might be killed for no reason on the streets of their city nor what it's like to simply not be able to hail a taxi on the streets of our cities because people fear us due to the color of our skin.

As a gay Jew I know very well that there is homophobia and antisemitism in the world, as well as other prejudices. And I know that antisemitism has been on the rise in many places. However, I am “lucky”that when people look at me they don't know my identity unless I chose to share it with them.  I am able to pass, should I so desire.  In addition, these prejudices, though very real, are not things which I fear every day, as do African-Americans and other people of color. And even should it become that, God forbid, that would not give me the right to claim my persecution is greater than yours, or to ignore the persecution of others. Rather, it should mean that all of us who are persecuted should join together to fight against hatred and against a system which perpetuates false dichotomies which create prejudice and intolerance.

I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine that gave me yet another perspective on not only the dangers of viewing people as “other,” but how easy it can be to go from being seen as one of “us” to being one of “them”in an instant.

This friend is a secular/agnostic Muslim from a place in the middle east which, though predominantly Muslim, is still a diverse and tolerant society, which is not dominated by extremists.  He is a valued member of this society, as he is a surgeon who, among other things, has saved the lives of soldiers fighting for freedom against the extremist forces in the region. He has gone to the front lines and worked to save as many as he can. He is a bright, creative, caring man who is dedicated to helping others.  However,  no one there, including his family members,  knows that he is gay. As he stated to me numerous times, he has no doubt that if it were discovered that he was gay, he would be dead within 3 days.  Being gay is against the norms of his culture to such a degree that it is punishable by death, sometimes at the hands of family members! This is only possible because the LGBT community is viewed as totally “other, as Them and not as Us. He may well be praised and admired by his people as a hero who has risked his own life and saved the lives of countless others fighting for freedom on the front lines, as well as in hospitals. However, that would mean nothing if it were discovered that he was gay. He would instantly become “other” because of his sexual orientation. He would no longer be seen as part of his society, part of his people, let alone as a hero or a person of value. And soon he would be dead.  And it is for so many in our world.

Returning to the lyrics of the song, we may think we may think that we know who is Us and who is Them, and to which group we belong, but it is rarely so clearcut. In any given moment we may assume we know which is which and who is who, but that may change in an instant. In the end the result is chaos and violence,  it truly is round and round and round. The only way to stop the downward spiral is to rid ourselves of the need to create dichotomies. This may seem an impossible task, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to acheive it, even in little ways.  We can start individually with something as simple as not trying not to label things, people or groups as right and wrong, good or bad, even when we might disagree with their beliefs. Starting there we may some day reach the point as a society, here and throughout the world, where we realize that we are all human beings. We are all a part of the One, which I choose to call God.

This does not mean we should deny the fact that we each have our own religious, ethnic, sexual, gender, racial, political and other identities. Rather, it means that we need to simply look at each of those as an aspect of who we are, as the things which make us unique, but not better. And yes, they also create a sense of connection to others who identify similarly. However, we must learn to do this without feeling the need to compare ourselves to those who belong to other identity groups. For once we do that, we begin to create a dichotomy which can then become a hierarchy (whether or not we want it to) and which can lead us back into the spinning circle of mistrust and hate which is at the heart of conflict, war, hatred, terror and violence in our world.
When Al-Qaida extremists stormed the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, executing their staff, the world was in shock. Whether or not one agreed with the political positions of the magazine or even liked anything about it, people gathered together and proclaimed Je suis Charlie, I am Charlie. When the terrorists entered a Kosher supermarket when trying to evade capture and killed innocent Jews, people then proclaimed Je suis Juif, I am a Jew. And as condemnation of Muslim extremists quickly turned into condemnation and hatred of Islam and all Muslims for so many, the world also became aware of Muslims who saved others and who gave up their lives in the Paris attacks. One of them was name Ahmed. And so we saw signs of Je suis Ahmed spring up as well.
These were all beautiful sentiments, but they were only the beginning. For slogans such as these often fade away, as do their meaning. But we must not let that happen.

Just as Jews, Christians, Muslims and others joined together in the streets of Paris, and white Americans joined together with African-Americans and other People of Color on the streets of Ferguson, New York and elsewhere, so we must join together with all human beings around the world to remind one another that we are One. Cries of I am Charlie, I am a Jew, I am Ahmed, Black Lives Matter, I Can't Breathe must eventually be replaced by cries of I am a Human Being, I am Your Sister, I am Your Brother, I Am a Child of God, All Lives Matter. We must all be able to breathe the same air. We are One.

When the Egyptians were drowning in the Sea of Reeds after the Israelites escaped to freedom, the Israelites sang a joyous song of praise and thanksgiving to God. In a midrash (rabbinic legend) the angels in heaven began to sing a song of joy as well. However, God immediately ordered them to cease their singing saying to them “how can you sing a song of joy when my children (the Egyptians) are drowning in the sea?”

There are always innocent victims, pawns in any war or struggle, as we continue to play the game of “Us vs. Them”. But the message of the midrash is clear. The angels, who are just a little lower than God, should know better than to celebrate the death of any human being, for we are all God's children. In Psalm 8 we read that God made human beings just a little lower than the angels. In that case, I believe the time has come for us to strive to be a little more angelic and a little less “human” (at least based on the qualities of being human of which I have written above). Only by doing so can we bring an end to the senseless hatred and violence which continues to destroy so much of our world.

Some of you who read my words might say “we didn't start these problems” or (as I could say) “my ancestors were half way across the world when slavery began. As Jews, they were not part of the White European Christian colonizers and expansionists who created the system of inequity which still exists today. My people has often been discriminated against as well.” We might also say that you are not guilty of creating this system and you can't help it if you benefit from it.   We might also proclaim that it's impossible to do much in order to end a system which is so ingrained in our society and our world. In response to these spurious arguments, recall for us the words of the great prophetic voice of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (may the memory of the righteous be a blessing) who marched next to Dr. King in Selma and who protested against the Vietnam War and other injustices:  "in a free society, few are guilty, but ALL are responsible."  Remembering these words, let us remember that it is not about acknowledging our guilt, but rather, embracing our responsibility.  May each of us find the strength to act responsibly together, in order to repair the world and bring together all of humanity as One, as we are truly meant to be.  As deep down we have always been. Amen.

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