Lech Lecha 2016 – On a Narrow Bridge toward a Promised Land

*Please note: This sermon was written before many of the hate crimes happened on Friday and throughout the weekend which is why they aren’t present in the text as well as before the appointment of Steve Bannon as Chief Strategist to President-Elect Trump. Let me say in clear terms-the appointment of Steve Bannon is dangerous. This isn’t an issue of policy differences this is an issue of how people view the world. I still want to be hopeful that President-Elect Trump won’t fulfill many of his campaign promises but the appointment of Bannon is highly problematic and we need to be able to say so. I don’t want to be afraid. I want to walk, with everyone, on a bridge, even if it is narrow. But what has taken place over the past 72 hours leaves me quite concerned.

Lech Lecha 2016-On a Narrow Bridge toward a Promised Land

Shabbat shalom.

I thought High Holiday sermons were difficult ones to write…

I know, that as we gather together today, in reflection on this past week, one person’s celebration is another person’s nightmare. It probably evens out to about 50/50 in this country, though I don’t know what the percentages are in this room, and it doesn’t matter. Because even if it is 90/10, in either direction, this is a sanctuary, a sacred space, where people should feel welcome and comfortable.

That being said, there is a phrase, is it is rabbi’s job to comfort the afflicted or afflict the comfortable? I am not sure and in giving sermons and classes week in and week out, I struggle with that question as I believe there is wisdom in our tradition that doesn’t always point to one answer but many answers, but simultaneously evokes different reactions by many.

So this morning, as I reflect on our parasha, and our election, let me share a few caveats before I even get to Torah.

I am approaching these thoughts with humility. I, like you, am human, and have had a human response and a community response as your spiritual leader. Much of the words I am going to share, I hope I would have shared regardless of the outcome of the election, but we must acknowledge that this is a difficult time in our country and emotions are high and that we are all not in the same place. I know this would have been true has Hillary Clinton won the election.

Over the past 96 hours, wise people have offered opposite reactions to where we stand today-some say it is important to stand for togetherness; some say this is davka the time to work to change, especially if you don’t agree with the results of the election-not to change the results but to advocate against policies that you believe are in conflict with your understanding of what it means to be an American. While there are no “right” answers, here is what I do know. Protests of those who are saying ‘not my president’ who were in favor of Hillary aren’t helpful. Racist, Anti Semitic tweets, graffiti, comments, and threats to minorities are certainly not helpful by those who supported President-Elect Trump. It is happening on both sides.

Today, we have an invitation by Torah to go on that next step. You see today we begin reading Parashat Lech Lecha, the story of Abram, later Abraham’s, steps toward the promised land. And so today, I want to explore the beginning of his journey to understand lessons for us, today.

  • First-

Lech Lecha is a story about journeys-It begins at the beginning-And God said to Avram-Lech Lecha-Go forth-From your home, from your birthplace, to a land that I will show you, AND YOU SHALL BE A BLESSING. And Abraham went, with his wife Sarai, with his nephew lot, and with the souls they encountered on the way. WOW. Incredible.

So many things to learn here.

First, that he shall be a blessing-that his and their presence will be a blessing to others-that what he does, what they do, how they act will bring blessing to all.

Second-and I believe more important today, is that he didn’t go out at alone. He sought out others that were like him-like his wife and nephew. But also the Nefashot. The traditional understanding of Nefashot are the souls that were converted because they were inspired by his message. A message of growth and possibility and understanding. But a recognition that not everyone starts in the same place. That we don’t look the same or act the same nor will we all be the same.

There is so much to learn here. We have to learn that as we all go on a journey to promised land, a more perfect union-not the American that was only once great, but an America that will continue to be great and even greater that we can’t go at this alone and that we can’t disengage from living here. We can’t threaten to move. We can’t throw up our hands if we disagree with the process. If there are problems we see, and there are, we must engage with them.

To make a more perfect union, we need to realize that we are all in this together. We need to reach out to those on “the other side” and understand how people are feeling. If you supported Trump, you must reach out to those who didn’t and understand the fear and sadness that the Hillary voters are feeling. And if you are a Hillary supporter you must reach out to someone who supported Trump and speak about what is the vision that they are hoping for? What was the anger and the pain that is being expressed and reported? This is not a time for complete gloating or complete despair, even if those are the emotions today.

Third-That there will be times we will be afraid but we need to conquer our fear-and there are fears right now-and fear throughout the election ON BOTH SIDES-so we need to see how to respond on the face of our fear:. Where does this come from? From later in the parasha:

As Rabbi Steven Exler shared, Avram inserts himself into the war of the 4 kings and the 5 kings in Bereishit Chapter 14 because he hears that his nephew Lot has been captured by the 4 kings in their defeat of the 5 kings.  Avram immediately gathers his men and sets off to battle the 4 kings, and catching them weary from victory at night, overcomes them, beats them back, restores the looted possession and the captives to their homes, and of course emerges with Lot.  After brief interchanges between Avram and Malkitzedek, and  Avram and the King of Sodom, the strange episode concludes.

The next verse, Chapter 15 verse 1, begins:

God has to reassure him AL TIRAH: DON’T BE AFRAID.

As Rabbi Steven Exler wrote, If someone tells you not to be afraid, in this case God, it is fairly reasonable to assume that you either are, or have reason to be afraid.  But why should Avraham have been afraid?  He just mounted an against-all-odds military campaign and achieved, by all counts, decisive success.  What is there to be  afraid of?  The midrash on this pasuk cites a few possibilities.

For R Levi, Avaham has fears.

First, what if he harmed someone good and righteous in the war?  War, conflict, has collateral damage,  unintended consequences.  People we didn’t mean to hurt are hurt.  Our methods of fighting inevitably spill over beyond the domain in which we meant to use them.

Rabbi Exler said “Certainly in our world today, we know this is true, sad but true. Tactics that people use to win, hurt people in the process, and create a sense of fear. We are hearing it day in and day out.

There is a fear that over the brutal year and a half of this election season, we our nation have hurt each other.  We have not read each other intentions charitably, we have stereotyped each other and made assumptions about each other, and we have probably said things we deeply regret.  A fear that what was left in the wake of this election and its outcome was a license for racism, for sexism, for religious discrimination and discrimination based on whom we love.  Fear that as far as we have all come as a nation, that some of that is going to start sliding back. That we as Americans, especially women and minorities, feel less safe now, and more vulnerable. [And since delivering the sermon I understand where they, why we, are afraid. Hate crimes are up. Anti Semitic and Racist slurs are being found in many places].

So what are we to do?

Some have taken that stance.  Don’t be afraid.  Plunge forward.  Come together.  It’s going to have to be okay.  God – or the system of checks and balances in our nation, or the collective good will of the American people, will slowly wash away the hurt and the pain and the divisions we suffered over these

last months.” You are probably thinking-will this work? I am an optimist.

[however, since delivering this sermon as I view the appointment of Steve Bannon I have concerns that are getting deeper and deeper]

But even Avram is not satisfied with this promise of God’s.

He says, how do I know this is going to be ok? You promised me kids and I don’t even have those.

God responses, Anochi Magen Lach. I will protect you.

This answer, Anochi Magen Lach can help us. Anochi-the God that took us out of Egypt, the God that protects the vulnerable and the oppressed will protect those who are fearful, because all of us are created b’tzelem elohim and we will protect each other. But more that that, Anochi. I. I am unique. We are each unique. We each know that and I believe, I hope from the depth of my being that we will care for each other-the widow, the orphan, the stranger. Those in our midst. Those that we know and those that we don’t know. Those that the torah commands us to see as part of us.

So, as we move forward, we offer a congratulations to President-Elect Trump but we ask him to bring the nefashot on his journey. Those who are different. Those who might be fearful. Those who are unsure of what the promised land might look like.

And we need to be on that journey. We need to add our voices where we believe they can help. If the values and work to which many of us are committed remain as important as ever we need to keep talking about them: We need to support organizations that will continue stand up in the face of bias whether directed at Jews or any other minority group. As it says in Pirke Avot, “It is not up to us to complete the task but neither may we step back from it.”

We need to expand our circle, not tighten in.

Reb Nachman of Bratslav wrote, “All the world is a narrow bridge. The main thing is to not be afraid.”

My friend, Rabbi Dan Cohen shared, “those who voted for the President-elect did so because they felt they were standing on a bridge that was growing increasingly narrow. Those who are disappointed in the outcome of the election feel as if they are standing on a bridge that is far narrower today.”

Regardless the reason we find ourselves there, let us remember that we are all standing on that bridge TOGETHER and we need to move forward for a more perfect union and into a promised land.

Shabbat shalom.