Words Matter: On the Attack Against the US Capitol – January 9, 2021

Before the election last November, I asked our members to refrain from making political comments in certain synagogue contexts in the interest of maintaining our community as one in which Jews of differing political persuasions could all find a home. I commend us for doing a pretty good job of that.

And so I have been struggling with how to respond to this week’s storming of the Capitol by a mob whose stated goal was to violently prevent our elected representatives from performing their sacred constitutional duty.

What I realized is that what happened on Wednesday was not politics. It was rebellion and anarchy: the rejection of politics. It was an assault on democracy and decency, a denial of everything America stands for.

Not since 1814 has something like this happened, and that was during a war against another sovereign nation. Ever since John Adams quietly conceded to Thomas Jefferson in 1801 after a humiliating electoral defeat, the United States has never failed to have a peaceful transfer of power from one President to his successor. For centuries, the American example has been a model for younger democratic nations, and an inspiration to individuals living under authoritarian regimes who dreamed of freedom and democracy.

What that mob did on Wednesday undermined all of that. It was the opposite of politics.

If you are like me, you have spent the last several days poring over analysis and commentary. I do not want to repeat what you can read elsewhere by those who are more knowledgeable and eloquent than I.

I always try to remember that I am a Rabbi. You have heard me say this many times before. My authority to speak from this pulpit (right now it is a metaphorical pulpit) is derived from our Jewish tradition.

So how might our tradition speak to the violence that was perpertrated this week?

First of all, there is a long-standing concept in Jewish law of dina d’malchuta dina – The law of the land is the law. Whenever we have been subjects of a government that is governed by laws, we follow those laws.  When our Israelite ancestors were sent into exile in Babylonia, the Prophet Jeremiah said: “seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the LORD in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.”  (Jeremiah 29:7)  Ever since, Jews have included prayers for God to bless the government and its advisors. This was true in ancient Babylonia and Persia, in Rome, in Czarist Russia, and most especially in the United States.

America’s republican system of representative democracy is the best protection of minority rights that the Jewish people have ever known. As Jews of all political persuasions, we should be deeply offended by scenes of rioters openly wearing Holocaust-denying clothing, flashing white power signs, erecting a noose outside the Capitol Building and parading the Confederate Flag through the halls of Congress.

I have also been thinking a lot about language and leadership. Ours is a tradition of words. Our method of study involves ultra fine parsing of our sacred texts. The ideal model for learning is the chavruta: two partners, friends, arguing with their own words over the meaning of someone else’s words.

We have categories of mitzvot that specifically focus on the words that we use, specifically on the how the words that come out of our mouths have the potential to harm.

The most well known of these categories is lashon hara – “the evil tongue.” This is the term that refers to gossip and tale-bearing. It is when a person spreads information about another person that, although true, causes harm. A related term is motzi shem ra – “to bring out an evil name.” This applies to defamation or slander: the spreading of harmful lies.

The midrash compares the tongue to an arrow. “Why? Because if a person draws a sword to kill his fellow man, the intended victim can beg mercy in the hopes that the attacker will change his mind and return the sword to its sheath. But an arrow, once it has been shot and begun its journey, even if the shooter wants to stop it, he cannot” (Midrash Tehillim 120, ed. Buber, p. 503).

Another midrash makes a further comparison.  “Lashon hara that is spoken in Rome can kill in Syria.”  (Genesis Rabbah 98:19)

When a person in authority uses their words to incite followers to violence, this figurative statement becomes literal.

Another category of Jewish law that focuses on words is geneivat daat – stealing the mind.  It applies to many different kinds of interpersonal interactions.  Genevat Da’at is using one’s words to deceive or manipulate another person.  Genevat Daat occurs whether or not the information is true, if its purpose is to create a false impression or exploit another person in some way. According to one midrash, stealing a person’s mind in this way, because it is “more personal and direct,” is an even more heinous offense than stealing something physical.

Judaism teaches that leaders have enormous responsibility. Their personal behavior as role models, the way that they comport themselves in public, and the words they use to their followers, have the power to create or destroy. The words that leaders utter matter even more than they do for the common person.

When a person in a position of power uses his words to incite a mob to violence, that person has betrayed the trust that has been placed in him.

Former President George Bush pointed it out clearly in his written statement on Wednesday. He wrote: 

I am appalled by the reckless behavior of some political leaders since the election and by the lack of respect shown today for our institutions, our traditions, and our law enforcement. The violent assault on the Capitol — and disruption of a Constitutionally-mandated meeting of Congress — was undertaken by people whose passions have been inflamed by falsehoods and false hopes.

Statement by President George W. Bush on Insurrection at the Capitol

While members of Congress huddled in secure safe rooms, President-Elect Joe Biden addressed the nation. One line stood out to me in which he articulated the particular responsibility bestowed upon the President of the United States. He said: 

The words of a president matter, no matter how good or bad that president is. At their best, the words of a president can inspire. At their worst, they can incite.

Remarks to the Nation by President-Elect Joe Biden

All of the institutions of the Conservative movement came together to issue a joint statement this week. I would like to conclude by reading its ending. 

The basis for democracy stems from the Torah’s belief that every person is created equally in God’s image and is therefore entitled to equal representation in government and equal protection under the law. Each week we pray during our Shabbat worship to “uproot from our hearts hatred and malice, jealousy and strife. Plant love and companionship, peace and friendship, among the many people and faiths who dwell in our nation.” This prayer is more than an expression of faith. It is a call to action, and we have much work to do to heal the deep wounds and divisions which afflict the United States and society.

May the new US leaders, who are coming to power this month at every level of government, rise to the responsibility the voters have entrusted to them to bring healing and exercise responsible governance.

Statement on the Attack on the United States Capitol by Organizations of the Conservative Movement of Judaism

Amen

Because We Are Family – Lekh Lekha 5781

I did not originally intend to post this D’var Torah, as I wrote it specifically with the intention of it being heard in real time. After a number of requests, I have decided to post it. This has been an incredibly emotional time for most of us. For this sermon in particular, I felt it was important that we see each other’s faces – at least over Zoom. After services, I invited those who wished to continue to discuss the issues raised. I found the ensuing discussion to be honest and respectful. Please keep these factors in mind as you read this.

One of the main themes of the Book of Genesis is family. When the very first human is created, God quickly declares that it is not good to be alone. The human is split, revealing Adam and Eve, the first family. The rest of the Book is a struggle to figure out how to get along.

As Lekh Lekha begins, God tells Abram to leave his family behind and go somewhere new. He arrives in Canaan, encounters a famine, and flees with his household to Egypt. When the famine ends, Abram and Sarai return to Canaan, camping out in the Negev, near Beit El. By this point, Abram has acquired lots of wealth, consisting of animals, silver, and gold. But no land.

Lot, his nephew, also travels with him. He too has become wealthy, although the Torah only specifies that his wealth consistsa of flocks and tents. Lot is beginning to separate from his uncle and establish his own household.

Because flocks require pastureland, shepherds are by nature nomadic. When the animals have eaten all the food that the land can provide, it is time to move to greener pastures. One can imagine that there is a certain degree of competition among shepherds for the best pastureland. That is exactly what happens between Abram and Lot’s shepherds.

Parenthetically, the Torah informs us that the Canaanites and Perizzites were then dwelling in the land.

Abram, seeking to prevent the conflict from escalating, approaches his nephew with a plan. “Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate: if you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north.”

Abram, the older, wiser one, gives Lot the first choice, which is actually the opposite of what we might expect. Abram, the head of the family, older and wealthier, should be the one to get first choice. But instead he offers it to Lot.

Lot looks around in all directions, sees how green the land is in the Jordan river valley, and heads East. Abram goes the opposite direction and settles in Hebron.

What were the shepherd fighting about? Rashi, drawing upon a midrash, labels Lot’s shepherds as wicked. They would lead their flocks into fields that belonged to other people.

Abram’s shepherds would rebuke them.  “You guys shouldn’t be doing this. It’s theft!” 

Lot’s shephereds would respond: “The entire land has been given to Abram, and he has no heir. Our master Lot, as his nephew, will inherit from him. So it is not actually theft.” 

Ramban disagrees. In typical fashion, he cites Rashi’s comment in its entirety, and then explains why it is wrong. The clue to what is actually going on is the parenthetical comment that “the Canaanites and the Perizites were then dwelling in the land.”

Ramban explains that the words az, “then” as in “The Canaanites and Perizites were then dwelling in the land,” indicates that they are also nomadic shepherds who would set up their encampments in a certain place for a year or two and then move on to another location.

At this point, Ramban points out, Abram does not yet possess any land of his own, but he, (along with his nephew), have large flocks. This is an obvious recipe for conflict.

When Lot’s shepherds bring their animals into the pastures occupied by Abram’s animals, the resulting combined flocks are too large to go unnoticed. When the local population hears about it, predicts Ramban, one of two things will follow. Either, the Canaanites and Perizites will drive Abram and Lot out of the land, or they will attack them and take the herds for themselves.

Seeking to prevent such an outcome, Abram comes forward to Lot with a solution.  “To avoid conflict, we need to separate.” But he adds, ki anashim achim anachnu – for we are brother men. In other words, we are family.

This commitment is real. For even though they go different directions, Abram always recognizes his obligations to his nephew.  The following chapter describes a war in which Lot is taken captive. When word reaches Abram, he does not hesitate. He immediately assembles a fighting force from among his household and sets out to rescue his nephew. He travels as far as Hobah, which is north of Damascus.  This is quite a distance. They engage in battle, rescue Lot and the other captives, and take back all of the possessions that had been captured. 

Later on, after Abram has become Abraham, he argues for the sake of the innocent people living in Sodom when God declares an intent to wipe out the city because of its wickedness.

While not mentioned explicitly, it is not far-fetched to imagine that Abraham’s eagerness to save the city on account of the few righteous people is motivated by his desire to save his nephew.

Indeed, Lot and his family are the only ones whom the angels try to rescue before the cataclysm. Lot’s descendants become the Moabites and the Ammonites. Moab, of course, being the national origin of Ruth, the great great grandmother of King David.

This is a narrative about the struggles within a family over how best to utilize public resources. Our story focuses more on Abram’s perspective. In his wisdom, he recognizes that the only way for them to survive is to create some distance. To agree to disagree, if you will.

But that does not mean that the family ties are broken. As we saw, Abram sticks by Lot to the end.

You probably had a chance to read the email that I sent to the congregation last Sunday in which I asked that we refrain from making political comments in certain contexts. The email generated a lot of responses. In this real-time setting, I would like to elaborate on a few points.

First and foremost, I am not advocating that any of us should be complacent. It is our duty as Americans to be involved in our democracy, to make our voices heard through voting, and to do our part to build a more just society. There is so much at stake, and our voices need to be heard.

As Jews especially, we have to be involved. America is the first country in the history of the world in which Jews were considered to be full citizens. With all its problems, we have so much to be thankful for. We have a duty to be involved. 

And we should be smart about it. If you are not on social media, Yasher Koach. For those who are, I am sure you are aware of how difficult it is to have an open-minded disagreement there. For any given post, if I agree with it, my conviction is reinforced. If I disagree with it, my conviction is reinforced. 

I have been trying to think whether I have personally ever changed a strongly held political belief based on something that someone sent me or a comment I read online and I have not been able to come up with a single example. Usually, when I read something, I feel either angry or vindicated.

For a powerful illustration of the problem with Facebook and all of the other social media platforms, I urge you to watch the documentary The Social Dilemma on Netflix. If you have kids middle school aged and above, watch it with them. It shows how these technologies have contributed to much of the extreme divisiveness in society. These are incredibly powerful tools for connecting us to one another, but there is a dark side that was never the intention of these technologies’ founders.

What could be wrong with the “like” button? As it turns out, quite a lot.

In my email, I asked us to not make political comments on the Sinai Facebook page. That’s it. Why? Because what tends to happen is that a few people have a sometimes heated discussion back and forth. But they forget that there could be a hundred people or more watching silently from the sidelines. Without a three dimensional interaction, we have no way of reading how our words are being heard by those who are reading them. The result can be very divisive within our community.

Feel free to post on your own wall, but as a general piece of advice, I would urge us to be clear about what we are hoping to acheive with any given post or comment that we make. 

I also asked for us to refrain from political comments during and after Zoom services. People have different levels of comfort with their participation on Zoom – and that is fine. What I have noticed is that when those of us who are more comfortable interacting with one another do so, we tend to forget about the other people who are also logged in—often with microphone and video turned off.

Does this mean that we should not be sharing ideas with one another, or that we should never argue about politics within our community? Of course not. We just need to find a way to do so that is open-minded and respectful. Why should I expect you to listen to what I have to say if I am not willing to listen to what you have to say? Humble curiosity is a good thing.

There is something else to consider. Cole Buxbaum, who passed away earlier this year, may his memory be a blessing, once got up in front of the congregation and shared something that has stuck with me. He described how happy he was that with all of the chaos and conflict out in the world, shul on Shabbat was a place where we could gather together despite our differences, and be reminded that we are all part of the Jewish people. He said it with such emotion and sincerity – it really made an impression.

I think that is what draws a lot of people who come to services at Sinai.

A final note, and I have shared this many times with our community. There are pulpit Rabbis out there who are more politically outspoken than I am. I teach what I believe to be core values of Judaism, and I generally hold back from explicitly pushing particular policies. This is driven by my understanding that most people do not like to be told what to do or believe.

But if we can learn what Judaism might have to say on any given issue, we might be able to look at our own preconceived notions from a different perspective. I want us all to be challenged. To all be open to learning something new and considering ideas from a different angle.

And then, to do everything we can to go out into the world and right the wrongs around us.

Although election day is this Tuesday, and there is a good chance that we will not have an announcement for some time. 

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs issued a statement this week on Elections and Democratic principles that was signed on to by more than 90 Jewish organizations, including the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements.

The bedrock of American liberty is a strong, thriving democracy and an engaged citizenry. The COVID-19 pandemic has altered almost every aspect of the way we live, including how we vote in elections. It’s a longstanding tradition that nonpartisan groups across the spectrum do their part by encouraging their members and the larger community to vote. This year, these non-partisan efforts are even more essential to ensuring that every vote is counted and everyone can participate in our democracy.

We call upon all government leaders, candidates, and elected officials, Democrats and Republicans, at every level and branch of government to recommit to our nation’s core democratic principles and oppose violence emerging from the far right or the far left. In the case of contested or close elections we ask for patience and trust in the system, as we allow for every valid vote to be counted. We ask civic and faith leaders to set a standard of discourse, oppose violence and encourage peaceful engagement in the political process. We must sustain and carry out these ideals and principles in both our words and our actions at this critical moment in our history.

https://www.jewishpublicaffairs.org/a-jewish-statement-on-elections-and-democratic-principles/

When Abram knew he and Lot needed more space between them, he gave Lot the first choice of where to settle, and he kept on loving him. Why? Because they were family.