Rabbi Ain Sermon June 16, 2018

CNN reported late this week:

“The toddler pounded her fists on the play mat, sobbing, with no parent to comfort her.

Dr. Colleen Kraft watched from across the room, shaken by what she saw.

“She was just inconsolable. … We all knew why she was crying,” says Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “She was crying because she wanted her mother, and there was nothing we could do.”

Kraft had been invited by local pediatricians to visit a government shelter for immigrant children in Combes, Texas. The majority of the kids there, she says, had been separated from their parents.

“I’ve never been in this situation where I’ve felt so needlessly helpless,” “This is something that was inflicted on this child by the government, and really is nothing less than government-sanctioned child abuse.”

Administration officials have defended the approach, arguing they’re protecting children in custody and that separations of immigrant families at the border are no different than what happens when anyone accused of a crime is arrested.

But since her visit, Kraft has been trying to convince them otherwise.

The association she leads — which represents more than 65,000 members across the United States — has sent multiple letters to the Department of Homeland Security, calling for a change of course.

The pediatricians’ group isn’t the only one that’s taken a stand. So have the American College of Physicians and the American Psychiatric Association. Together, the three organizations represent more than 250,000 doctors in the United States.

Kraft says there’s nothing political about the points she and other doctors are making.

“This is injustice against the most vulnerable people on this planet: little children,” she says. “And we can’t stay silent.”

The Talmud teaches that silence is akin to consent and so the question is, when, if ever, is it ok to remain silent in the face of something that just feels so wrong, and but just as complex, what is the most effective way of speaking up in the face of conflict?

In Pirke Avot  5:17, we are taught, “Every controversy that is pursued in a heavenly clause, is destined to be perpetuated; and that which is not pursued in a heavenly cause is not destined to be perpetuated. Which can be considered a controversy pursued by a heavenly cause? This is the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And that which is not pursued in a heavenly cause? This is the controversy of Korach and his congregation.”

As David and Zach already explained, this morning’s parasha is full of conflict, mostly focused on who has the ability to exercise leadership and power. Ironically, unlike our current situation today in the US, the argument in the Torah portion wasn’t about content, at least not w/Korach, but about a fight over power. This is different though with the daughters of Tzelophchad, who argued with Moses about inheritance rights, something i will get back to.

But the bigger issue is how does one speak up when they see a problem with leadership. The Rabbis clearly take a side-that the tactics of Korach, to yell and scream, aren’t effective. That antagonizing the leadership, in this case Moses, clearly won’t make a difference.

And that is why, Frank Bruni was absolutely correct in this week’s NY Times editorial. Referencing recent comments by Robert DeNiro at the Tonys, Samantha Bee on her own show, and other ‘trump haters’ as he calls them, he wrote:

“Dear Robert De Niro, Samantha Bee and other Trump haters:

I get that you’re angry. I’m angry, too. But anger isn’t a strategy. Sometimes it’s a trap. When you find yourself spewing four-letter words, you’ve fallen into it. You’ve chosen cheap theatrics over the long game, catharsis over cunning. You think you’re raising your fist when you’re really raising a white flag.

Bruni goes on to talk about how while they might be right in their emotions and beliefs the way they have communicated these beliefs are not only wrong, they are ineffective and a distraction.”

He continues:

“I’m not urging complacency.

BUT-The more noise, the less discernment. The more fury, the less focus. Proportion and triage are in order, and that means an end, please, to the Melania madness. Floating the idea that she’s a victim of domestic abuse merely supports Trump’s contention that his critics are reflexive and unfettered in their contempt for him and that all of their complaints should be viewed through that lens.

“When they go low, we go high,” said another first lady, Michelle Obama, at the Democratic National Convention in 2016. It’s a fine set of marching orders, disobeyed ever since.”

So the fact is, when having a conversation, you can think about both sides but still have a preference. It might be different than those with whom you are in dialogue. But if it is based in values, even competing ones, it will be a mahkloket l’shem shamayim-for it will be not only what is said but how it is said. This past week there are people making different arguments, but as I will get back to later, sometimes it doesn’t feel that there are two equal sides, but the only way to make change is to speak to people directly and calmly. Allow me to explain:

Clearly, yelling, isn’t the way to do it. But is the way that the daughter’s of tzelophad did it enough? Pulling Moses aside to complain to them about the unfair inheritance practices that were about to be handed down? Some could say yes. In fact, the Orthodox Union had a fascinating tactic this week. They said, with regard to the current “zero-tolerance” immigration policies,

“As an Orthodox Jewish organization whose values are anchored in those of the Torah and Jewish history, we are deeply concerned about any steps taken that affect families and the parent/child relationship. The family is viewed by the Torah as a sacred institution and fundamental building block of society. The Orthodox Union has consistently advocated for an array of public policies designed to strengthen and protect the family unit. Thus, we believe that immigration, asylum and border security policies must also be fashioned and implemented in a manner that takes all steps possible to keep parents and children united.

In this regard, as in all aspects of public advocacy, we undertake our efforts – through our OU Advocacy Center – in the manner we assess will be most impactful, and will likely yield the greatest influence.  Toward that end, rather than advancing in the public domain our community’s concerns regarding current border policies, leaders of the Orthodox Union took advantage of a private opportunity to raise these concerns, which occurred prior to the Attorney General’s address yesterday. Attorney General Sessions heard the concerns and questions of our community regarding these policies and offered his perspective and responses. Importantly, the Attorney General committed to further dialogue with the OU on this important topic, which we will pursue.”

So is this the correct approach? To do what the OU did this week, in giving Jeff Sessions their justice award and then quietly voicing their concerns? Will that help save these children from abuse that the doctors saw over and over again? To the credit of the OU, just yesterday, they added one important piece to their advocacy process. Allow me to explain:

Those of you who know more know that I generally like to take a balanced approach to looking at these issues. I like to look at this side and that side. But looking at both sides of these approaches i am not satisfied. It is too much yelling on one side and not enough moral indignation, certainly not at first, on the other.

So that brings me to what the JCPA, the Jewish Council on Public Affairs did this week. They gathered a coalition of 27 different Jewish organizations, including but not limited to the Rabbinical Assembly,

  • American Jewish Committee (AJC)

  • American Jewish World Service

  • Anti-Defamation League

  • B’nai B’rith International

  • Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, Inc.

  • National Council of Jewish Women

  • United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism

  • Uri L’Tzedek, The Orthodox Social Justice Movement

And just yesterday the Orthodox Union.

And they penned the following letter: On behalf of the 26 undersigned national Jewish organizations and institutions, we write to express our strong opposition to the recently expanded “zero-tolerance” policy that includes separating children from their migrant parents when they cross the border.

This policy undermines the values of our nation and jeopardizes the safety and well-being of thousands of people.

As Jews, we understand the plight of being an immigrant fleeing violence and oppression. We believe that the United States is a nation of immigrants and how we treat the stranger reflects on the moral values and ideals of this nation. Many of these migrant families are seeking asylum in the United States to escape violence in Central America.

The letter concludes….Our Jewish faith demands of us concern for the stranger in our midst. Our own people’s history as “strangers” reminds us of the many struggles faced by immigrants today and compels our commitment to an immigration system in this country that is compassionate and just. We urge you to immediately rescind the “zero tolerance” policy and uphold the values of family unity and justice on which our nation was built.

Here is the thing. There are those sitting here that agree with this letter. There might be those of you sitting here who disagree with this letter. I for one agree completely with the letter. But more than the fact that I agree with the content, I agree with the approach. It wasn’t vulgar. It wasn’t embarrassing. It wasn’t yelling. Nor was it behind closed doors. It was out in public. It was done in the name of the pursuit of justice. This letter isn’t just about the letter of the law it is about the spirit of the law. It isn’t just about doing what is right, it is about doing what is good.

Speaking out publicly is not wrong. As Cheryl Fishbein reminded me when we speak earlier this week, it is how we began to advocate for change for Women and African Americans in the 1960s and to free Soviet Jews in the 1980s. The fact is, leaders in the soviet jewry campaign we were first told that quiet diplomacy was the way to go.  That being vocal and embarrassing the Russians too much would force them to clamp down harder against the Jews.

But as Cheryl Fishbein reminded me this week, As we all know, it was only after we took to the streets in big numbers (and in a respectful way) – that we accomplished anything.

We aren’t always going to agree. And unfortunately, things aren’t always going to go the way we want it. But that doesn’t mean we don’t try to get our point heard, even if people don’t agree.

Sometimes, we just aren’t going to agree. Sometimes there aren’t two sides in our minds.  But speaking louder or speaking slower isn’t going to make the difference. It is at times where we feel that there is such a conflict of values that we need to figure out what the right approach is and keep working until we figure it out. But we need to realize that we might not accomplish all that we want but we will need to be be able to look in the mirror and go to sleep at night knowing we did all we could to make a difference. For as Jewish tradition teaches, Lo Alecha Hamlacha Ligmor V’Lo Atah Ben Chorin Lehibatel MeMenah. We are not obligated to complete the task but we can’t run away from it either. I know how I feel when I watch the news. Many might feel differently. That is ok. But what we must learn from this week’s parasha, the world we live in, and the rest of our Torah, is that when we see injustice we must speak out, but we must do so in a way that people can hear it, otherwise, the values that we so deeply care about, will be lost in the anger, and nothing will be done.

Shabbat shalom.