Rabbi Ain Sermon – Aharei Mot 2019

If you were at the same Mets game that I was at, with my family, during Passover, you would think the entire stadium was Jewish. You wouldn’t imagine that we are only 2% of the world’s population, and given the ability to have kosher food, including a k for P bun, you certainly wouldn’t think that there are people in this world who don’t want us around…In fact, as Tal Kienan writes in his book, God is in the Crowd, “America represents a zenith in Jewish history, at which Jews have achieved numerical concentration unprecedented in the Diaspora, financial prosperity, and political power. They enjoy the option of overt, unapologetic Jewish identification that, in their neighbor’s eyes, does not negate their Americanism…(or so we thought…)

Sitting at the ballgame last week, proudly a NYer (don’t tell my DC family I said that) and proudly Jewish, I was thinking about a line in this morning’s parasha,

3 You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws. 4 My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws: I the Lord am your God.

REALLY? Isn’t this exactly what i was doing-finding a way to “have it all?” To sit at a game w/my baseball hat on, eating a K for P hotdog, and counting the omer?

So what does this text from our parasha mean-What does it mean to not copy the practices of the land…How do we understand that today…are we really to remain truly separate? or Only sort of…

First of all, when it comes to laws, we are in fact, NOT supposed to remain completely separate. We are supposed to stop at stop signs. We are supposed to pay our taxes. We are supposed to get vaccinated. This is known as

“Dina D’Malchuta Dina”-the law of the land, is the law.

What is interesting is that the dina (= “law of the land”) was the only extraneous element that was incorporated into the halakhic law structure. The statement dina de-malkhuta dina, appears 4 times in the Babylonian Talmud and is a nod to Jewish acquiescence to Non Jewish authority.

But we must ask…is there a difference between law and culture. For example-can we continue to follow the law and be proudly Jewish? Of course we can…What does it mean when we choose to take a standardized test on a sunday, not a saturday. Or leave work early on a Friday…knowing that that means we might need to stay later the following monday. How do we live, simultaneously, in both worlds…and do we lose anything when doing so?

Rabbi Brad Artson taught, The guiding assumption of this passage is that we are tempted to become like the people with whom we live, so there is a need to speak out against this all-too-natural impulse. Why? Because one cannot blindly adopt the standards of other people and simultaneously remain true to the values of the Torah and rabbinic traditions. You cannot serve two masters. Or can we? Is the condemnation of assimilation really that sweeping? Isn’t it possible to learn (albeit selectively) from the accumulating wisdom of human experience, science and insight?

Two medieval interpreters do read the verse in a more restricted light. Rashi understands this as applying only to the Egyptians and the Canaanites, who were “more corrupt than all other nations.” Abraham ibn Ezra (12th century Spain) explains that this stricture applies to “the Egyptian legal system.”

Both of these sages perceive that there is much to be learned from the wisdom of non-Jews. Not only in the realm of science, but also in human relations, Jewish traditions have been open to insights from other peoples. The key, both to this Torah verse and to the later interpretations, lies in the final phrase.

Those non-Jewish practices and insights which strengthen Jewish survival, which sensitize us as a people, which teach us how to be more loving, more caring and more sensitive, which prompt us to understand more about Judaism and to practice it more fully, pose no threat to our Jewishness.

On the contrary, we benefit from their inclusion. An openness to learn, however, should not be mistaken for the blind adoption of all non jewish standards.

So maybe what we are being taught to do is not become like the other but bring our culture to the larger one in which we live.

This past week I was invited to a conference housed at the UN, called a conference on responsible leadership. The opening session was moderated by David Gregory, had Sen. Joe Lieberman as a panelist, and was focused on Restoring Civility to Public Discourse

Joe Lieberman:

How did we get here? Why are there such challenges today? (what is the difference between passion and incivility)-speech and communication are critical element….our politics and our leadership has become a divided triangle…what was a spirited politics has become a political war…and speech has become a weapon. It is used harshly. Without standards of what is acceptable. How can you sit with someone who doesn’t just attack your ideas but attacks you personally. How did we get here??

It isn’t one cause….lots of different things

  1. People don’t seem to be as interested in getting things done…
  2. Amount of $ spent on politics is only about political victory not communal progress…we have sadly shifted from criticizing ideas to calling people evil
  3. The way we speak affects everything…

But here was what is incredible…as Sen Lieberman was speaking, and sharing that the higher you go as a leader, the more responsible your leadership will be….HE BROUGHT IN MOSES!!! He brought our Torah, our story, to make the point. That Moses didn’t get into the land b/c he was held to a higher standard. And then Lieberman continued…In speaking about civil discourse he shared a famous hasidic story about a woman who was a gossip who went to her rabbi for advice. While the details aren’t even important for this moment, what is relevant is that in this day in age, in the UN, in NYC, our tradition, our culture, was invoked…

So where does that leave us? How do we engage w/who is around us and remain proudly Jewish?

First, we need to look at current events and know that unfortunately, no matter how at home we feel, we always need to remember who we are…we need to be aware that there has been, sadly, an uptick in anti semitism, and yet again, just last week saw how hate has infiltrated our communities. Maybe it is our destiny to be a tiny bit apart….

As Tal Kienan wrote “The Nazis themselves were irrelevant, a generic malevolence, interchangeable with the mobs of the Iraqi Farhud, the Cossacks, the inquisitors, the crusaders, and dozens of hostile majorities within which the Jews have lived over the last 19 centuries. They had all come and gone. It was the community in the background that was relevant. As its tormentors replaced one another over the centuries, that community remained constant. .. He continued, If my American Identity were forcibly revoked, as my grandfather’s german nationality had been, Jew would remain my only national affiliation, the affiliation that history has never allowed us to shed.

But as we recognize our distinctiveness, we must remain a part of the conversation.

This week’s parasha is called Aharei Mot, after the death. It is about after the death of Aaron’s son, they still find a way to go on-to engage-albeit scarred.

That is what we need to do. We need to know where we are bruised and we need to get up and live. We need to do what the rabbi in Poway is doing. What Abe Foxman said here this past wednesday night at our yom hashoah observance. We need to speak up for us and we need to speak out against hate of all kinds.

And we need to know who we are. And that is what we are doing this morning. We are celebrating Jackie becoming a bat mitzvah. Her presence here, with her family, is an affirmation of what it means to be proudly Jewish in the 21st century and to celebrate that with her family, her friends, and her community.

Towards the end of God is in the Crowd, Kienan postulates that there are 4 core values that exemplify what it means to be Jewish: Community, Tradition, Challenge, Dissent…If we can hold on to these, even when living amongst others, I believe that we can live, after the death. We don’t need to disappear. We don’t need to hide. We don’t need to be afraid. We can, like Jackie and her family, be proudly and unapologetically Jewish, and celebrate all that that means.

Shabbat shalom.