Between You and Me – April 2019

The Hagaddah does a great job telling the story of the Israelite’s enslavement at the hands of the mighty Pharaoh.  How with an outstretched arm and with signs and wonders, God redeemed us from captivity.

Many of us will reflect at our Seder tables about those who are victims of tyranny today at the hand of modern day Pharaohs: the Syrians at the hand of Assad, the Venezuelans at the hand of Nicolas Maduro, the children who labor illegally in the flower markets in Columbia and Ecuador, the degradation of human beings at the hands of human traffickers of all kinds, the oppression of women all over the world, the slow destruction of planet earth at the hand of humanity.  There is no shortage of victims and violators.

If the Hagaddah reminds us of the tragedy of involuntary enslavement, the Rabbis of the Midrash chose to point out the sin of voluntary enslavement in this story.  They argued that the book of Exodus tells about two enslaved peoples and concludes with the liberation of one of them and the destruction of the other.  The only difference between the Israelites and the Egyptians was that the Egyptians chose to become enslaved to Pharaoh.  “Why were the Egyptians compared to maror?  To teach you that just as the maror, the beginning of which is soft while its end is hard, so were the Egyptians…” (Pesachim 39a).  In other words, the Sages of the Midrash claimed that the Egyptians started out neutral but became complicit with their leader as the Exodus unfolds.  Pharaoh’s xenophobia directed at the Israelites leads him to deploy his own people to do the dirty work of murdering and enslaving them.  The Egyptians, say the rabbis, are guilty of self-enslavement because they followed their despotic leader.  Any moral Egyptian had a choice to walk away from his fellow countrymen and from his leader and be on the right side of history.  According to the Rabbis, some of them realized the error of their ways and did join the Israelites in exile.  The ones who remained, however, even when they saw they were on the verge of ruin, became Pharaoh’s instruments once again in his last ditch effort to salvage his rule, giving chase to the Israelites and meeting their end in the angry sea.

We’d do well to consider the importance of the moral standard the rabbis establish in their Midrashic reading of the Exodus.  It is always hard to stand up against the tide, to speak out when we see our people, our nation going astray.  But the rabbis say the difficulty of the task does not dismiss us from undertaking it.  We are not wholly responsible for everything that happens.  But in those matters in which we can be voices and actors on the right side of history, we are challenged not to enslave ourselves to the Pharaohs out there and be followers of our better angels, a greater Leader, and a truer Truth.

Between You and Me

You may remember the NPR audio series called This I Believe that aired a decade ago. They were short, personal essays written by various guests about a core conviction borne from an impactful life experience. I will never forget one called, “Always Go to the Funeral.” In it, the author recalled how her father insisted on taking her to funerals throughout her childhood but that what he really meant to teach her was how to show up for things even when she didn’t want to and how to show up for people even when it’s hard.

When I became a rabbi, I signed up for a life of showing up and I can’t think of any more meaningful way to spend my time, even when it’s hard, even when I’m out of gas and don’t think there’s anything left in the tank. Showing up to all of that is both the greatest joy and greatest challenge of my rabbinate because it often isn’t possible to be everywhere I’d like to be and it’s not always clear where I truly need to be. Oftentimes, I am pulled in the direction of urgent matters only to run short of time for the ordinary, but sweet moments of people’s lives as much as I’d like.

Every once in a while, however, the waters part in my otherwise chaotic calendar. In June, after years of friendly invitations, I was finally able to show up at a book share at Pisgah View HeadStart where temple members Marty and Kathryn Mann and Jim Theobald volunteer as members of the Tikkun Olam committee. Every other High Holiday season, Marty invites our congregation to donate children’s books that he distributes to kids who don’t have the resources to enjoy reading in their homes. Each comes with a sticker that says that the book is a gift from their friends at Congregation Beth HaTephila. It’s a beautiful Temple project, but until I showed up, I didn’t realize just how moved I’d be.

I was greeted at the door lovingly by Lorraine, the supervisor of the program. I knew immediately from her smile that these kids were lucky to spend each weekday welcomed by her warmth. As I proceeded into the building, I was introduced in each classroom filled with children, dressed in their best, playing with toys, learning to share and do puzzles and build with blocks. After the tour, a display of books was set up in the common area. Marty took small groups of children one after the other and invited them to choose one book to take home with them. You can imagine how precious the expressions on their excited faces were.
The book share is a special event at Pisgah View HeadStart. But what is truly remarkable is that the kids there know they can count on Mr. and Mrs. Mann and Mr. Theobald. They come to visit them every week. They are a presence in their lives. And they make a difference.

This I believe: each of us has a circle of people we make a habit of showing up for: our partners, our parents, our children, our pets. But life is always beckoning us to stretch and show up for a child, for a sick friend, for a stranger. The only question is, will we?

Between You and Me

Two weeks after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February, I accompanied 12 students to the March for our Lives in Raleigh.  Shortly after, one of our teens organized a rally for students here in Asheville.  Inspired by their passion for change, their stories of being afraid at school and a deep conviction that all life is precious, I feel a shared responsibility to keep the issue of gun violence in the forefront of our minds.

I’ve been a rabbi for 22 years and a student of Tae Kwon Do for the last nine.  On the surface, it appears counterintuitive, but the two identities really do complement each other: the discipline, the ritual, the cultivation of awareness and character each demands feeds the other.  I practice mostly because martial arts are mind, body and spirit practices that teach deep respect for others and cultivate the qualities of perseverance, self control, indomitable spirit, integrity and courtesy. Despite having earned a third degree black belt, I’ve often still wondered whether I should rest more easily because I’m better equipped to defend myself.  As a martial artist, I walk taller and more confident when I’m alone at night.  But should I ever be in danger, would my training really be sufficient?

I had a memorable encounter with a visiting 6th degree master instructor early in my practice at a Tae Kwon Do tournament.  “At your skill level, do you feel confident you could defend yourself against anything, even if someone pulled a gun on you?”  I inquired.  His response floored me. “Yes, because I never leave the house without my pistol.”

Guns are a game changer.  Americans are 5% of the world’s population and we own 50% of the world’s guns.  In such an environment, it seems the only credible defense against a gun is another gun.  At the same time, studies are inconclusive whether putting more guns in the hands of good people is a good or a bad approach to gun violence.  Folks who study gun violence think the difficulty or ease with which guns can be acquired has more to do with changing the number of crimes committed with firearms.  In addition, we know painfully well from the school shooting in Florida that the authorities are not responding even when people who have guns are on FBI watchlists.  Addressing the scourge of gun violence has to be comprehensive and decisive.

I believe Parkland revealed to us too late to be prophetic that gun violence is a public health issue.  More than 210,000 students have experienced it at school since Columbine in 1999.  Those students will never be the same.  But I’m glad I am hearing their voices and I will join with them in making Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High be the tragedy that inspires us to do something collectively that will be sane and smart.  We Americans are good at tackling tough issues.  Remember how we radically changed American mores around tobacco, got people to start wearing seat belts and addressed the issue of drunk driving.  And our society is better for it. For all our sakes, now is the time to act on gun violence, too.