Come On People Now, Smile On Your Brother…

 

 

In the Book of Genesis, Chapter 44, Judah speaks out to save Benjamin from slavery. He puts his life on the line to protect his step-brother in a way that Judah never did for his other step-brother Joseph. After years of lies, Judah finally stakes his life on telling the truth.

In my synagogue bulletin article for December 2016 I quoted Susan Talve, the founding Rabbi of Central Reform Congregation of St. Louis, who wrote in the September issue of Shema Now Magazine (Vol. 47 no. 719) the following sentence, “I found that we must all sacrifice self-interest for the common good while growing opportunities for dialog and the possibility for change.” I find myself drawn back to her statement time after time, because of the implications of her observation to all of our discourse in the United States today.

Rabbis have been preaching about the difficulties of dialogue for the last ten years. As our country polarized between points of view and because the internet made it possible for words we spoke years ago, to never really disappear, people began to speak out on topics of importance; but the possibility of dialogue, the ability to grow and change positions, the art of nuance in our speech and the quest for understanding, all began to disappear. It became more important to shout down an “opponent” rather than hear what they were trying to say. It was more important to silence opposition rather than admit that there might be a point in something they said. Those who took a middle position, refusing to engage in hyper-partisanism, were accused by partisans on both sides of being wishy-washy or secret members of the “other side”.

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It is in the political arena where this is most obvious. Political parties often would change positions as public opinion changed. What was a core value one year was off the table the next. Politicians at all levels of government would do a sidestep dance while waiting to hear what the public wanted. Over time, because of the instant communication possible, there were many who were looking for any sign of wavering among elected officials so that they could immediately show these officials that there was a price if they did not strictly adhere to the party line. The rise of the “Tea Party” is just one example of how wavering politicians found themselves losing to the rise of those who were considered “pure” when it came to hot button issues. Shutting down the government was more important than compromise.

Today the situation is getting dire. Politicians are all about getting elected and not about what their position is on important issues. There is no longer any talk about bipartisan agendas. Candidates are stressing their ability to hold fast to a position no matter what the other side tries to say. Today leadership means finding ways to work around legislatures unwilling or unable to do their job of creating laws that reflect the wide range of ideas that exist in our population. This leaves the political class to promise the electorate anything they want to hear, knowing that the agenda they espouse has no chance in the legislature, while at the same time accepting money from the people they will need to regulate to pay for campaigns that grow ever more expensive.

Now being elected has become more important than anything. So, voting districts are gerrymandered to make sure that one party or the other can’t lose their seat. Voter ID laws are promulgated to “prevent voter fraud” when in reality they are to prevent people who don’t “vote for me” from voting. And now, in North Carolina, when the party does lose an office, the legislature moves to strip the power from the office they no longer control. This is the real “Voter Fraud” defrauding voters into believing that legislators are making these changes to “protect voter rights” while actually stripping voters of their right to vote.

Self-preservation has become more important than self-sacrifice. What is good for me is often more important than the common good. Making my point is more important than listening to others. My being right is more important than creating change for the better.

Others may speak out on the political side of these problems but the arguments here put us on solid religious ground. My faith teaches: “Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone.” My faith teaches that we have responsibilities, no matter who we are, to the poor, the stranger, the orphan and the widow. My faith teaches that the greatest sage taught his students to give the opinion of your opponent before expressing your own opinion.  My faith teaches that we should be flexible like a reed and not rigid like the cedar lest the wind come and shatter us. My faith teaches that while a majority rules we must also take into account the opinions of the minority.  I teach couples getting married that “What is more important than what you give, is what you forgive and what is more important than what you get is what you can forget.” What applies in the microcosm of marriage applies even more in the macrocosm of society.

I keep hearing in my head, the probably apocryphal story of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan who taught homiletics at the Jewish Theological Seminary for many years. It is said that he would give a sermon in class on Tuesday and then challenge the students to give a sermon on the same topic in Thursday’s class. He was known for being very critical of the students’ efforts on Thursday. One week a student took copious notes on Tuesday and then on Thursday repeated back to Rabbi Kaplan the exact words he spoke on Tuesday. Rabbi Kaplan said “That was a terrible sermon”. That student said, “But Rabbi Kaplan, those were your exact words on Tuesday!” Rabbi Kaplan replied, “Young man, I have GROWN since then!”

I am looking for leaders who can grow into the positions of leadership to which they aspire. I am looking for leaders who are not afraid to say to an opponent, “You are right.” (and not just because the leader is on the left.) My faith defines that the best leaders are the ones who speak up for those who have no voice. My faith despises Lashon HaRa (hurtful speech) and Rechilut (lies) that defraud and delude those who are listening. My faith would change Sinat Hinam – causeless hatred, hatred only because you are different than me, it would change it into Hesed, acts of kindness, even if the kindness is to someone who would have no way to repay the favor.

I teach the story of George Washington and the cherry tree to children, not because I believe the story to be true; (I have no way of knowing either way if it is true or not) but because it teaches that great leaders don’t lie. George Washington imposed term limits on himself because he did not believe that leaders should rule forever. American politics need more leaders who are humble and caring about those they represent. No one person should think that they have to be right at any cost.

We need politicians who are more moral in their personal and professional lives. Not public figures who insist that their moral opinions should be practiced by everyone. That would be a violation of the First Amendment, the amendment that separates church and state. I want to see leaders who do what is right because it is right for all Americans. Who compromise because that is what will move our country forward. Who are willing to sacrifice themselves on behalf of the common good. We need leaders who are not afraid to say, “I have grown since then”.

What will it take to have leaders like these? It will take a concentrated effort from those in this country who hold these values to be the true test of leadership. Yes, my friends, we will always get the leaders we deserve. We will get self-serving leaders if we are only interested in what serves our self-interest. We will get leaders who don’t listen if we don’t listen to others about what is important to society. We will get politicians who lie if we reward them with election victories. But if we look for the real values for our country. If we elect leaders and legislators who would do what is best for our country, ones that speak out about fairness, understanding, cooperation and compromise, we will get leaders who will take our country not back to some past era of prosperity, but forward to a new era of peace, prosperity and hope.

Turn, Turn, Turn

For all can see that wise men die, that the foolish and senseless all perish and leave their wealth to others. They think their houses will remain forever; their dwellings for all generations; they give their names to their estates. But man, despite his splendor, does not endure.  [Psalm 49]

Derek Penwell wrote an article for the Huffington Post called “What if the Kids Don’t Want our Church”  and it cuts to a question that every generations asks each other; “Will our children really care about the things we value most?” it is a hard question. I look at the things my wife, Michelle and I have collected over the years and to almost all of it we have meaning and memories attached to it. We must only remember that these meanings and memories are our own, and our stuff may not have the same meaning or memory to our children who are now finding meaning and memory in their own lives. I admit to a certain curiosity of what things my children may want from the stuff we have collected and when, someday, I have grandchildren, I know that they will have their own memories of stuff they played with and saw at their grandparent’s house and perhaps our grandchildren may keep some of our stuff for their own reasons.

But there are things that I am sure my children will keep for as long as they are alive. They will keep our insistence on honesty. They will treasure our lessons on kindness. They will remember for a long time the lessons we tried to teach them about life and they will bring their own interpretations of our practical wisdom to meet whatever new situations in which they may someday find themselves.

We fool ourselves when we believe that the stuff we accumulate will live on after we are gone. The symbolic meaning we attach to it is very personal and perishable. The late Rabbi Jacob Chiel in one of his books tells a story of a mother who valued her stuff over her children, banishing them from the living room lest they break her valuable treasures. Now her daughter is sitting in the house while her mother is dying at the hospital and she looks around at all the stuff that her mother worked so hard to preserve and it has no meaning for the daughter at all. In fact, she has learned to despise all the things her mother scolded her to not touch all the years she was growing up and again when the grandchildren came over. Now, at the end, the stuff her mother had ‘saved’ was all “for nothing.”

This applies to our homes, and it applies to our churches and synagogues. What good are all the things we leave behind if we don’t leave behind memories, ideas and lessons for living? The next generations will not care about stained glass windows or who donated them if they never did anything worthwhile in their shadow. Why should they care about a building if nothing of substance was ever done inside?

I have said many times in my own sermons and on this blog, it is not about the stuff, it is about the relationships. We treasure the people we love and the meaningful activities that make a difference in the world. Rabbi Akiva once said to the wealthy Rabbi Tarfon that he had a good investment if Tarfon was willing to put some money in. Tarfon agreed and Akiva then gave all the money for scholarships for students. Later Rabbi Tarfon asked about the investments and when he might see the return on the investment. Rabbi Akiva took Rabbi Tarfon to the academy and showed him the students who were learning there. “Here is the return on your investment”, Akiva said. Rabbi Tarfon had to admit that his investment in Torah learning would pay important dividends even if it did not put more money in his pocket.

Our children don’t need our buildings, our architecture or our pews. They need to know about our faith, our acts of Hesed (kindness) and the important lessons of our religion. These they will carry no matter where they may go and no matter what they may do, and they will treasure in their own hearts  and in their own way these moral values no matter if the buildings we build will survive or not. The most important part of the building is what the people are doing inside.

It is interesting to see what happens to a building over the generations, the transitions it goes through and the transformation of its neighborhood. Israeli archeologists have uncovered some extraordinary ancient synagogues and a great many dedication inscriptions that are an important part of Jewish history. These synagogues were all lost and forgotten. The faith practiced in those buildings, however, has remained eternal though the buildings have not. Our ancient faith is still being taught, not in the old ruins but in new places. It would be a real tragedy if our children don’t find their own love of the values and lessons of faith they learned in our synagogues and churches. Our stuff comes and goes but the lessons of life are eternal. Our buildings and our “stuff” are only as important as the relationships to God that are forged inside.