Between You and Me

Excerpted from a sermon delivered February 9, 2018

Thich Naht Hahn, a world renown Vietnamese Buddhist monk and teacher, wrote: “The first time I tasted peanut butter cookies, I was in California, and I loved them! I learned that to make peanut butter cookies, you mix the ingredients to prepare the batter, and then you put each cookie onto a cookie sheet using a spoon. I imagined that the moment each cookie leaves the bowl of dough and is placed on the tray it begins to think of itself as separate”.

You, the creator of the cookies, know better, and you have a lot of compassion for them. You know that they are originally all one, and that even now, the happiness of each cookie is still the happiness of all the other cookies. But they have developed “discriminate perception,” and suddenly they set up barriers between themselves. When you put them in the oven, they begin to talk to each other:

“Get of my way.” “I want to be in the middle.”

“I am brown and beautiful and you are ugly!”

“Can’t you please spread a little in that direction?”

We have the tendency to behave this way also, and it causes a lot of suffering. If we know how to touch our non-discriminating mind, our happiness and the happiness of others will increase manifold.

We all have the capacity of living with non-discriminating wisdom, but we have to train ourselves to see in that way, to see that the flower is us, the mountain is us, our parents and our children are all us. When we see that everyone and everything belongs to the same stream of life, our suffering will vanish.”

In Buddhism and in mystical Judaism this is known as cultivating the non-self, letting go of perceiving ourselves as individuals in order to see we are part of one great whole. In Buddhism, this is a practice of letting go, of seeing the world through the categories of “me” and “mine” in order to conquer the accompanied suffering that goes along with such thinking: stories about what we deserve and don’t deserve and the persistent belief that someone else’s happiness or success means less for us and the like. In Judaism, seeing the world through the non-self is a way of pulling back the veil that perceiving separateness forms which keeps us from participating in the all-ness or oneness of God. After all, as Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl ultimately taught, everything is God and nothing but God.

But perhaps this caution around seeing separateness didn’t originate in the mystical or Chassidic evolutions of Jewish thought. I might argue it is embedded in something much more familiar to us that is mentioned twice in this week’s parsha: our obligation to the ger–the one who is other, separate. First, we are not to wrong or oppress him for we were considered “other” and separate in the land of Egypt. And second, in our quest not to oppress the stranger we must know the heart of being a stranger from our memory of being “othered” in the land of Egypt.

It’s easy to demonize someone who is different from us and to ignore what we share in common. But our memory of being foreign, our being intimately acquainted with feeling othered, is meant to help us blur the difference between us and who we—-or those around us—might see as “other.” As my teacher Micah Goodman put it, “Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, must have an anti-Egypt ethic. If Egypt is about separating and othering, then Israel must be about treating the foreigner as a citizen, knowing the heart of the stranger having been separated, made strange, made other. And by doing so, by perpetuating our identity as outsiders, the ethic of Israel actually erases the existence of an outsider among us.”

This notion is described beautifully by Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, who interviewed a Holocaust survivor named Yitzak, at a retreat for people with cancer, for her book Kitchen Table Wisdom. Given his painful past, Yitzak was understandably uncomfortable with the exercise of making himself vulnerable with a group of strangers. When Yitzak met Rachel, he told her that before he agreed to come to the retreat, he spoke with God about his reservations. “I said to Him, ‘God is it okay to luff strangers?’ And God said to me, ‘Yitzak, vat is dis strangers? You make strangers. I don’t make strangers.’” To Yitzak, the fellow cancer sufferers were strangers. To God, no one is a stranger. In essence, what Yitzak came to terms with is what Torah says we all need to come to terms with: that a stranger is a human construct, not a divine one. We decide to make people close to us or to make them distant. We decide who to let into our world, into the circle of our concern, and who to keep away.

This is what makes what is happening in the State of Israel with regard to African asylum seekers so incomprehensible. Beginning in 2005, tens of thousands of refugees from East Africa poured into Israel from none other than the land of Egypt. All told, by 2012 about 60,000 African refugees had come to Israel, some fleeing genocide in Darfur, others fleeing forced national service in Eritrea that the New York Times has called “slave-like.” Then Israel erected a steel barrier at its border with Egypt’s Sinai Desert and the influx stopped.

As of this year, some 20,000 of the refugees have already left the country. “The mission now,” as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it bluntly, “is to deport the rest.” And so, the Israeli government is offering the remaining refugees a choice: jail in Israel or $3,500 and a plane ticket to a third country, like Rwanda, in Africa.

Thankfully, many citizens of Israel—a country built by those who fled Hitler’s ovens and the oppression of Arab countries where they were treated as second-class citizens—understand the injustice of the government’s policy which is why 36 Holocaust survivors wrote a letter to the prime minister begging him to “learn the lesson” of our history. It is why Israelis from all parts of society—doctors, diplomats, rabbis, artists—have opposed this policy. It is why some El Al pilots have announced that they will refuse to fly planes bearing Africans being deported…

I pray that the Prime Minister sits in schul this Shabbat and hears again the Torah’s unequivocal imperative that no one can be allowed to be a stranger to us. And I pray that people in our own country listen just the same with regard to refugees and the undocumented in our midst. The commandment was given when we were wanderers but applies even as we’ve come home- we are to be perpetual strangers in our hearts. We must know that this world, can be hell if we go around thinking we are separate, or heaven if we remember that the mountain is us, the flower is us, the person who dwells among us is us. We were all created from the same stuff by the same Maker. And God’s wisdom is found in our Torah that also reminds us that for God, there are no strangers. We didn’t become a nation in order to have a land where others would be strangers. We are here to create a nation where ultimately the ethic of separateness of the stranger is finally overcome. And the only way to get there is to cultivate Jewish hearts that don’t see strangers among us. Kein yehi retzoneinu– may this be our will.


March, 2018