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Rabbi Robinson's Sermon, July 20, 2018

07/18/2018 09:27:58 AM


Rabbi Robinson

Rabbi Yair D. Robinson

Parashat Devarim


This was not a good week for reading the news. Once again, your best bet while reading or watching the latest reports were to have a paper bag, perhaps a scotch or a pint of Haagen Daaz or whatever your poison of choice as close at hand as possible. But there was one thing on NPR that made me less miserable, and it wasn’t France’s win at the world cup.

Eritrea and Ethiopia, two countries we rarely think about except in the context of famine or evacuating Jews, have been fighting a war for 20 years, ever since the former separated from the latter. It has been a bitter, awful fight, claiming 80,000 lives and resulting in expulsions from both countries. But recently there’s been a thaw, negotiations, an official end to the fighting declared, and even an embrace between Ethiopia’s young prime minister and Eritrea’s longtime leader.

How would you respond, knowing your country and its neighbor are no longer at war? What would that look like, or feel like? For people in these two countries, it elicited an interesting response. They started calling each other. Not long-lost family or former neighbors; they started calling, like, random people. An Ethiopian would get a call from a random Eritrean, and vice versa. It was already a miracle that they could reach each other; the phone lines had been cut off from each other for decades. But there was something about this moment that compelled people across a border to call each other and express their happiness with total strangers. One example reported was that of Selehadin Eshetu. I’m quoting the news report here:

 It took Selehadin Eshetu three days of dialing random numbers to connect with someone in Eritrea. On Wednesday, as he was getting dressed to go to work in Addis Ababa, someone picked up.

Eshetu said hello; they said hello. The person asked, "Who is this?"

Eshetu said: "I am Selehadin and I am calling from Ethiopia. And I am calling randomly to say hi and to tell you how happy I am."

"And [the person called] said, 'I am going to save your number; I am going to call you regularly. We will be family,'" Eshetu said.

We will be family. Those are powerful words. Even if they never speak to each other again, those words are transformational. The act of picking up the phone and calling a random person that only a few days before was your bitter enemy and hearing them say those words, we will be family, is empowering. We need those words. My God do we need those words. If it is powerful for people of warring countries to say this to each other, how much the moreso for us as Americans to say this to one another, when we are so profoundly at war with ourselves? When a day doesn’t go by when we look at those with whom we disagree and we call them the enemy. Or we are called the enemy, with devastating and violent results.

A few minutes ago I read from Deuteronomy, the introduction to the book, which begins with admonition. As I said before, quoting the various sources, the book opens with a reminder of the places and moments when Israel sinned, delaying their arrival to the promised land. And we need those words too. We need the criticism, the reminder of our mission as a people; we need to be challenged. But we can agree that there is a difference between admonition and hate, a difference between criticism and hostility. On this weekend of Tisha b’av, a day commemorating the destruction of the Temple and Jewish sovereignty for 2000 years, we are reminded that it was words of hate that led to our self-destruction as a people, and that we need those words of comfort, those words of celebration, those words of empowerment as well. And while Devarim, which literally means ‘words’ begins with admonition, it concludes with inspiration and comfort. It begins with reminders of our past failures, and it ends with a reminder that we are all family.

I am not a believer in observing the 9th of Av, you know that, not when Israel exists, with all her faults and challenges. But it is worth our pausing this Friday to reflect on our words and how we share them. We are, sadly, too far away as a country from being able to call strangers over the phone and call them family, but we can try, and we can begin today. We can use this time to repair the breaches as we see them, to share words of comfort and love with each other. We can call each other family. So we pray as the psalmist did, Adonai, open my lips, that my mouth may declare your glory. Amen.

Wed, December 6 2023 23 Kislev 5784