By Rabbi Mark Melamut
In the wake of our post-election weeks, please enjoy my d’var torah from this past week’s Shabbat. My hope is that in sharing these words, we’ll be able to move closer to consolation and healing with the necessary courage and strength that’s needed to draw us towards greater unity and shalom.
Tears, anxiety, grief, fear and so much more.
The election is over, but the journey is not.
In our torah story this week, Avram leaves home, departs from everything he knows, his home, his parents, his homeland and his comfort zone. Can you only imagine how he must have felt? Tears, anxiety, grief, fear and so much more.
It’s been a difficult week for so many. For me, I woke up on the morning of my 44th birthday, not elated as I usually am with my new double numbered year, but fearful of 4 more. My only solace was the FB posts, texts and emails that all called out the blessing and light that is my life, despite it all. Looking back now to that morning, I’m not sure how others who didn’t get these special and personal messages even made it through.
Today though, I want you to know and get the same messages I did on my birthday. It’s not your birthday, and despite it all, you are each a blessing and a light. A blessing and a light each in your own lives, but in this community, where we uphold the highest standards for inclusivity and welcomeness that we possibly can.
Have you seen our amazing printed pamphlet on B’nai Emunah’s Commitment to Inclusivity and Diversity! Whatever’s going on in the rest of the country, this statement declares the way that we as a community will continue to pave a wave forward.
Click Here for a page on our Commitment to Inclusivity and Diversity. While many of the difficult feelings still linger with so many, and these may linger awhile, we can’t get stuck. We, like Avram in today’s story, have to lech l’cha, we have to get going.
For some this is easier said than done, and for others it is easier than for others. How did Avram do it? For him, it took an outside force, it took G-d to tell him that he is to leave everything he knows, and, a carrot too. What was the carrot on Avram’s stick? His journey will transform him to be a blessing to himself, to his nation and to all the families on the earth. And that’s straight from the Torah (12:1-3).
And so, Avram moved forward, one step at a time.
How did he feel at the start and along the way, you ask? We’re not sure, but if we are to read into it a bit, we meet up with Avram and G-d a bit later. “Some time later, G-d’s word came to Avram in a vision: “Have no fear, Avram, I’m a shield to you, and you will be rewarded.”
We can’t get stuck in fear or even violence, our weapon is courage and not a knife, but rather, a shield. Our task is to protect everything, and I mean everything, that we hold to be sacred and valuable to our families, to our community and to our country. When we daven and pray in our every Amida that first paragraph, and conclude, “Baruch atah Adonai, magein Avraham – Blessed are You, Holy One, the Shield of Abraham”, we are to take upon ourselves this obligation: to protect the values that are sacred to us.
Avram asks G-d, what in the world could be my reward? All is lost he says, because I’m to die an old man without children, without a legacy to leave behind me. What does G-d do then?
G-d takes Avram outside, outside of his own self, because it’s so easy to get stuck in our own heads and hearts. G-d takes him outside to give him hope. “Look up at the stars,” G-d says, partly to get a break from feeling stuck here in our earthly matters, but also to look beyond yourself. G-d says to Avram, “Count the stars and thus will your legacy come into being.”
While election results have many of us staring up at the sky in disbelief and shock, and this may continue for awhile, eventually, it’s incumbent upon us to honor these feelings, and to ask, “what we can we do to make it better for our legacy, for those who’ll be walking in our footsteps?” How can we best embrace our value of “l’dor v’dor – from generation to generation?”
G-d warns Avram in the story, and perhaps speaking to us simultaneously today, thousands of years later, “this is not going to be a cakewalk.” For Avram learns from G-d that his people will suffer 400 years of oppression and feel like strangers in a foreign land (in Egypt). With the division in our own land, it’s not going to be a cakewalk and some will feel estranged for a long time.
In our Torah narrative, at 99, G-d appears to Avram and says, I am El Shaddai. The midrash tells us that this is the G-d who says, “Dai (like our Passover, “dayeinu”), Enough Already!.” G-d continues, “Hithalech l’fanai v’heyey tamim – walk before me and become whole again.” Bring your whole self, walk in ways of goodness, acknowledge what needs healing and become whole again.”
What could Avram do then? He, like many in the past week, was brought down to his knees, throwing himself on his face. I imagine that he’s breaking down though we don’t see in the Torah what’s actually going on in his heart and head. And then G-d tells him, you will become a father, of a family and of a nation. And, for this, you’ll need a name change, from Avram to the familiar Avraham. With the Hebrew letter, “hey,” added to his name, a letter representing G-d’s name, Avraham gets closer to who he is supposed to become. Sarai also becomes Sarah, as they begin this partnership, together.
Here’s my take on this story and its application to our times today.
Becoming Abraham involves leaving the familiar. Becoming ourselves often requires that we leave what’s most comfortable and familiar and journey into the unknown.
Becoming Avraham takes some walking around. Becoming ourselves also takes some walking around time, to breathe, to heal, to think and to regroup.
Becoming Avraham means getting out from behind his own tent walls and going outside and looking up into the heavens. Becoming ourselves means going outside and looking beyond ourselves: to our people, to our community, to our greater nation, and to what we name as Sacred in our lives.
When we move or mingle, as a part of the Jewish people, between circles of families, friends, community and citizens, we all walk in Avraham and Sarah’s footprints. When we are our true selves and act and speak as best we can be, then we can become, like Avraham, whole again. If we can simply be in this place and mindset then we can embody these inspiring words and teach our children, “Never tell me the sky’s the limit when there are footprints on the moon.”
As we all stumble through this transition time, from Avram to Avraham or from Sarai to Sarah, some have been asking, what do we tell the children? This is the title of an article, one among hundreds I received this week in the wake of our country’s own journey and I want to share some selections from its wisdom in part – for both us and our children. I read it with some in Hebrew school and though its context is the life of students in school, I think its application to sacred communities and congregations is a natural one.
It’s from Ali Michael, a contributor to the Huffington Post, teacher and consultant and parent, who asks, prior to the election results, “What should I say to my students after the election? What should we tell our children?”
Click here for full text of “What Do We Tell The Children?” by Ali Michael.
“Tell them, first, that we will protect them. Tell them that we have democratic processes in the U.S. that make it impossible for one mean person to do too much damage. Tell them that we will protect those democratic processes – and we will use them.
Tell them, second, that you will honor the outcome of the election, but that you will fight bigotry. Tell them bigotry is not a democratic value, and that it will not be tolerated at your school. Tell them you stand by your Muslim families. Your same-sex parent families. Your gay students. Your Black families. Your female students. Your Mexican families. Your disabled students. Your immigrant families. Your trans students. Your Native students. Tell them you won’t let anyone hurt them or deport them or threaten them without having to contend with you first. Say that you will stand united as a school community, and that you will protect one another. Say that silence is dangerous, and teach them how to speak up when something is wrong. Then teach them how to speak up, how to love one another, how to understand each other, how to solve conflicts, how to live with diverse and sometimes conflicting ideologies, and give them the skills to enter a world that doesn’t know how to do this.
Tell them bigotry is not a democratic value, and that it will not be tolerated.
Teach them, third, how to be responsible members of a civic society. Teach them how to engage in discussion-not for the sake of winning, but for the sake of understanding and being understood. Students need to learn how to check facts, to weigh news sources, to question taken-for-granted assumptions, to see their own biases, to take feedback, to challenge one another. We need to teach students how to disagree-with love and respect. These skills will be priceless in the coming months and years as we work to build a democratic society that protects the rights of all people – regardless of the cooperation or resistance those efforts face from the executive branch.
Say that silence is dangerous, and teach them how to speak up when something is wrong.
Finally, remind them – to ease their minds – that not everyone who voted did so because they believe the bigoted things that were said. Many of them voted for him because they feel frustrated with the economy, they feel socially left behind, and they are exercising the one power they have. We need to challenge others to differentiate between their fears and the bigotry catalyzed by those fears.”
And one final word today, in the week’s aftermath we also lost a precious and poetic Jewish soul, that of the lyrical, Leonard Cohen. It’s the words of Liel Leibovitz, writing for Tablet magazine. The following short excerpt not only honors Leonard Cohen but I think underscores our central obligation in these post-election times, no matter what our views are.
Click here for full text of “Goodbye, Leonard: The poet’s greatest talent was his gift for healing” by Liel Leibovitz
“In the years I’ve spent closely listening to him, Leonard Cohen has taught me many things: how to think about history, how to read a poem, how to chase God. But the greatest gift he gave me, maybe, is showing me how to be kind…This, maybe, is what he had in mind when he sang that every heart to love will come but like a refugee, or that love was the only engine of survival. This is the distillation of his life’s work, his manual for living with defeat: we have only each other. Whatever light we bring to this world, whatever strength we find in the face of so much fragility and fear, we do only because we aren’t alone, only because we look out for each other, only because we are kind. This is our one path to redemption, our cold and broken Hallelujah that is sweeter and more true than any other song we know.”
My prayer for us this Shabbat, coming week and year is: May we always remember, but especially in these times of transition, that we, like Abraham and Sarah, can become whole again. That we, have only each other, and can bring light to each other. And that we, can use our strength and kindness to look out for each other. Amen.
Rabbi Mark Melamut