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Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

10/02/2019 10:52:23 AM


Rabbi Robinson

Rabbi Yair Robinson

Congregation Beth Emeth

Erev Rosh Hashanah 2019


Can I share a somewhat embarrassing story with you? I feel like, after 11 Rosh Hashanahs together, maybe we can level with one another a little bit. Several years ago, don’t ask me when, I was trying to buy something at a pharmacy near my home. I remember that I was rushing, because I was trying to get meds to my kid, and as I was ringing up, I was trying to signal with my body language that I just wanted to get out of there. It wasn’t life or death, these weren’t prescriptions, but I was definitely stressed in the way that a parent can be when their kid is not feeling well. The cashier asked me if I wanted to participate in some kind of promotion or sign up for a frequent shoppers program. I really had no interest and just wanted to get out of there, so I said no, but she didn’t drop it. In fact, she kept pushing. I don’t know if she had been instructed to really hustle for these or if she was just a super optimistic person, but we went back and forth a few times. At that point, in that moment, I told her that if she didn’t stop pushing, I’d talk to her manager. I didn’t actually want to talk to a manager—I just wanted to get home, but that’s what I said. It was as if I punched her in the gut. She immediately shut down, and stopped making eye contact, looking down at the register. I think she even said, “wow”, and not in a good way. I just wanted to get out of there, but in my hurry to depart, I made this stranger fear for her livelihood. Did I really need to do that? Would it have been so bad if I had smiled and made a joke, or just said “hey, I know this is your job, but I’m just trying to get home in a hurry.” Or just signed up for it to get her off my back? Was my reaction necessary?

I bring this up not to embarrass myself or just whine about my failings, or use this as therapy time, but because I think there is a real question in front of us about how we as a society interact with people, especially in moments when we’re in a hurry or stressed out, or feel we need to take control of the situation, and that is to do something similar to what I did; to assert some level of authority or threaten the other person with some kind of consequence. In effect, it is to perform an act of violence.  Oh, I don’t think anyone in this room is going to resort to physical violence: I don’t think anyone here is up for a barroom brawl. But physical violence is only one kind. Certainly, it’s terrifying, and we see far too much of it, especially in the last year: from mass shootings around our country to the violence in our own city’s streets. However, we know and experience other kinds of violence in our lives, other ways we can be assaultive. It’s all around us: the use of punitive measures in our schools to correct behaviors, for example, rather than trying to use empathy. The threats of violence inherent in so many ways that we interact with one another, ways that we as individuals or a society try to force compliance, to assert control. Reflect, for a moment, on how we speak, how we posture ourselves. Do we operate from a place of entitlement, where our words, our needs, our wants, are more important than that of the people around us? Do we ask for help of our co-workers or make demands? Is there an implicit threat in our voice when we ask for something? Must we win at all costs, in every argument? Do I even need to discuss the way we talk to each other on social media, especially about politics and our political views? How, when we disagree with someone, or we don’t hear the exact right turn of phrase from a person we’re interacting with, we are quick to ‘cancel’ them? Cancel them? Really? Yes, really. Perhaps it is a result of the world we’re living in, where we are all wound so tight, all living right on the edge of explosion, that these kinds of defensive reactions seem appropriate. And yet, are they?

In his book Between The World And Me, The author Ta Nehisi Coates describes an experience leaving a movie theater with his son where an adult pushes the son out of the way. The woman is white, and Coates and his son are black. When Coates tries to protect his son, tries to intervene in some way to shelter his son, to do what any father might do, the woman’s response is “I’ll call the police.” That in and of itself is a threat of violence, a threat, as Coates points out, against any control he has over his body. Maybe we don’t have an exact corollary experience in our own lives, but we can ask ourselves the question whether we are quick to threaten consequences—to our children, to the people around us? Are we quick to call for a manager or supervisor, whether of the person ringing us up at the store or the teacher at our child’s school? Go back to the example I gave at beginning, the woman at the pharmacy: While I didn’t threaten her physically, my words was assaultive, and did clear violence to this poor woman. I didn’t know anything about her—not even her name. I don’t know what traumas she’s faced in her life, and how I may have fed into those traumas.

And essentially, that’s what we’re talking about. Trauma. Violence—whether words or actions—exposes others to the possibility of trauma and reawaken the traumas they’ve already experienced. What would it look, like, then, to live in a trauma-informed world, one where, while we might not know exactly what each other has experienced, we live in such a way that we take people’s trauma into account? The Jewish thinker Immanuel Levinas put it a little differently: we cannot know each other’s burdens, not really, because we live our own lives, not each other’s lives. But we can be responsive to each other’s burdens and take them into account in our interactions. Maybe it’s assuming best intent in others, rather than assuming they’re out to get you. Maybe it’s taking a moment and listening to the voice of the other person, and reflecting on the stress in their life, and giving them the benefit of the doubt, knowing we’d want the same for ourselves, or giving them the space to give voice to that trauma. There are so many ways to put a salve to each other’s wounds rather than exacerbate them; I’ve mentioned a few, I’m sure we could think of many more, but all of them require us to be willing to commit to living in a non-violent fashion.

As it happens, our community—this congregation and our city—is in the midst of that effort even as we speak.  This evening, at the conclusion of Peace Week here in Delaware, our interfaith and civic partners are gathered much as we are gathered: to commit to a new year, a year full of possibility, a year full of potential holiness waiting to be unlocked. However, they are not preparing to enter the year 5780. Instead, they are gathered to commit to the first year of NonViolent Wilmington. Part of the nonviolent cities movement, the vision is exactly as it might sound, for us as a city—institutions, nonprofits, houses of worship, businesses and citizens—to commit to Wilmington being a place of nonviolence. It is a noble idea, an effort that we as a congregation are committing to as well. And to many of us, I’m sure it sounds totally Pollyanna. To begin with, we are weighed down by the sheer amount and intensity of violence we as a city experience weekly, sometimes daily. While the last year has been better in terms of violent crime, a brief reflection on the shootings only in the last month tells us that we have a long way to go, to say nothing of the trauma the residents of Wilmington are still grappling with; lost parents and children and friends. Add to that the physical threat our community has felt since the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh less than a year ago, the way minorities have been under increasing stress this last year. Then add on top of that the various ways violence shows up systemically—in our criminal justice system, in our impact on the environment in our treatment of the vulnerable, then add on top of that t the kinds of violence I was describing earlier—the hurts and threats we make as expressions of our own stress, well, it would be understandable if many of us felt this was a lost cause.

Which I would argue even more strenuously that we should commit to this effort. Since that encounter in the pharmacy, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I can do to be a more peaceful person, to “seek peace and pursue it”, as our tradition admonishes. I am increasingly convinced that the violence around us—whether we perpetrate it or not, whether we are victims of it or not—debilitates us. Whether it is the violence we see around us—the crime in our city, or the way we respond to that crime—the violence of our actions, or the violence of our rhetoric, including our political rhetoric, we find ourselves locked in a system that amplifies and emphasizes violence as always justified, always warranted, always necessary, and always traumatic. Why would we choose to live in a world so comfortable with violence? Why wouldn’t we choose to make real a vision of non-violence? Violence cannot be resolved merely by our elected officials, or our schools, or our police and first responders; it is not contained ‘over there’: it will take the entire city, all of us, each of us committed to the well-being of this community, choosing to move forward, even if this goal is aspirational. 

In order to make that commitment, we must understand what non-violence means, especially as Jews. As we know, our tradition is not one of pacifism. Our tradition reminds us that sometimes, sadly, violence is necessary. For self-defense. In warfare. Even to protect the vulnerable. Again and again the Torah and rabbinic tradition give us profound examples of how restricted, controlled violence is sometimes necessary. But our tradition never values violence for its own sake, nor does it understand it as the best possible choice, only the sometimes necessary choice. Think, instead, how often our tradition emphasizes the importance of peace and maintaining peace; how the blessing of peace is repeated again and again. Meanwhile,  violence is understood to interrupt what should be a natural order, a disruption, a violation. Even the violence perpetrated by God is not idealized nor is it celebrated by our texts and traditions. In Genesis, right before tomorrow’s Torah reading, when God chooses to destroy Sodom and Gamorrah for their many sins, Abraham chooses to challenge God and push back against the divine decree, rather than revel in the destruction of the wicked. Similarly, when the Egyptians are drowning in the sea after Israel has fled, Israel sings songs of praise, songs that inspire the angels themselves. How do the rabbi’s imagine God’s reaction? God stops them, appalled, and asks: “My children are drowning, and you sing songs of praise to me?” While violence may be a necessary, according to the Torah, it should be understood as a tool of last resort, and should not be our first instinct.

I’m sure there are many listening to this right now thinking, “but that’s not how the world works.” No, it’s not. Not yet. We tell people to get tough, because it’s a tough world. We tell people to suck it up, figure it out, rub some dirt in it and move on, move forward. We tell children these things. That their pain doesn’t matter, or if it does, it’s because it’s supposed to make you stronger. That it’s a test. That’s the way the world is: it’s a big tough world and you just have to be tough enough to get through it. That’s how you succeed. That’s what we say, isn’t it? That’s what we tell ourselves and each other. That’s what we expect. What a bunch of nareishkeit. Is that really what we want to teach? Is that how we really want to live? That it’s okay to torment one another because that’s how previous generations dealt with their trauma? That it’s a dog-eat-dog world and we should go out there swinging? Why? What’s Jewish, exactly, about that idea? I don’t remember anything in the Torah saying “suck it up”. I remember the Torah reminding us to love our neighbor, to look out for the orphan and the widow, and to care for the stranger, the vulnerable in our midst. Thirty-six times in the Torah, we are reminded to care for the stranger, to love the stranger, and that love is unconditional. Not to love them when they comply, or submit, but to love them because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Maybe it is a tough world, the Torah seems to say, but it’s our job to make it a little gentler, a little kinder, a little more generous. A few years ago when I urged us to become rodfei shalom, pursuers of peace, I was struck by how many people came forward telling me of how other people should be more willing to pursue peace. Virtually no one spoke of themselves or their own failings. We are quick to point fingers in every direction but our own. And, to be sure, we are commanded to rebuke our neighbors, but only after we reflect inwardly on our own behavior, and only as an act of love. Can you say that the last time you called someone out, it was out of love? Out of a sense of peace? I suspect, perhaps unfairly, that many of us, perhaps most of us, struggle with that. We struggle with acting in a non-violent way.

Our city could be a non-violent city. But if it’s just about getting Wilmington’s name on a website, it does no good. This effort must be a grassroots one, requiring all of us—each of us—to pull in the same direction. This is about violence on the streets and violence in our homes. This is about the violence in our rhetoric and in the structures of our society. This is about the violence to our environment and to our neighborhoods. This is about choosing to live in a way that is trauma-informed, remembering that we are neither the centers of our universe nor God, but people interconnected and dependent on one another, even, and perhaps especially, when we differ. I’m not going to lie: this is going to be hard. Everything is going to push back, including our own fight-or-flight response. But if Wilmington is to heal its streets, and if we’re to heal our own hearts, we need to pursue it.

So I ask you, I invite you, to make a pledge, to commit to pursuing non-violence in your life, to helping others pursue non-violence, to live your life in a trauma-informed fashion. To affirm the values of our tradition, to seek peace and pursue it.

I don’t know what happened to that clerk. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t remember her name or what she looked like. I have never apologized, and I don’t know that I could find her now if I could. But I know I can do better, I can be more responsive to those around me. And I know that, if I do so, it can make a real difference. I hope you will join me.

Thu, June 13 2024 7 Sivan 5784