Bereshit 2019: Don’t Stand by the blood of your neighbor, again….
Dave and I were in a parking lot in Great Neck on Sunday, shopping for food for yontiv. (Yes, we drove to great neck for food)…but that’s not the point. As many of you know, it is a very Jewish area, so it isn’t surprising to see people with kippot, or to have a lot of kosher food around. What struck me on this visit however, was a bumper sticker that, at first blush read, “Veahavta L’Reeycha Kamocha…Love your neighbor like yourself”-However….that bumper sticker said more than that. It had an extra line, in a different font and color, between the words, Love your neighbor, and like yourself. It said “even if they aren’t”…So a fuller reading was ‘Love your neighbor, even if they aren’t quite like you. WOW. How important a read.
It is common, in Jewish tradition, to add a deeper and fuller understanding to our texts, and so this bumper sticker, was serving God well, in a long line of different modes of doing midrash. Rabbinic exposition on text. It stopped me in my proverbial tracks, not because it isn’t something i do, but reading something like that, which often rolls so easily off one’s tongue, was fascinating, and it got me thinking about how our texts are read and understood.
The message with that one is obvious….in today’s world people are not all the same. And at one point, we had to be instructed just to be nice to others. Now, sadly, we need to qualify that…not just because they are members of humanity, created equal before God, but even if they are different than us, we need to love them.
This is an important read as we begin our Torah again, today. When we look at Torah, we have to ask, why are there certain stories, certain laws, certain sentences there?
For example, in the book of Leviticus, in the holiness code, we read “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. You shall not hate your brother in your heart.” Isn’t this obvious? Maybe…but sadly no.
We often see people standing idly by the blood of their neighbor and we often see hatred within families. In fact, it is in this morning’s parasha, Bereshit, that I would argue, this reminder to not hate, to not stand idly by came from, as we read, following the story of the murder of abel by his brother cain,
“The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.”
Our original stories include hatred and blood, even of those we love, so it is not a surpirse that our TOrah makes a deicision to say, don’t hate your borther and don’t stand idly by the blood of your neighbor, for if we can do it to our brother, the torah sadly understands, we can do it to our neighbor.
So what do we do with this?
This week’s parasha is a warning to us, what can happen we we let evil, and jealously, into our midst…we know that throughout time, people have stood by and watched the suffering of others, but I believe that our tradition is telling us to look up and look around. Don’t just take things as they are but figure out how to do better.
It is why we are reminded not just to save a life but also, that we if we destroy a life we have destroyed the world. We are even taught in pirke avot that we should not rejoice when our enemy falls and we should not be glad when our enemy stumbles.” It doesn’t mean that we aren’t grateful for our own life but we don’t celebrate at the downfall of others.
So how do we do this….
There are two parts of tradition that help elevate our thoughts and our deeds. The first, is to remind ourselves of what God said in the book of Deuteronomy: I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore, choose life, that you and your children may live.” We need to find ways to speak up and find blessings to help people celebrate life. Further, and i believe, even more crucial, we need to continue to cultivate relationships with those that we disagree. In fact, in Avot D’Rabbi Natan we read ‘Who is mighty? The one who makes an enemy into a friend.”
This isn’t easy, unfortunately. And on this first year anniversary of the attacks at the tree of life synagogue in pittsburgh, we know that there is a lot of hatred of people, including Jews, out there.
We have seen it around the world and last night, I spent time paying tribute to those who lost their lives because they were Jews, and on RH, I stood up and talked about how this is terrible for our community.
But today, with parashat bereshit, where we have the reminder that people often do stand by the blood of our neighbors, I want to challenge us not to.
There are many ways to do that.
I know that Zavier spoke about the protests he has gone to with his his mom. These are improtant. Whether it was the march for our lives against gun violence or the climate march in September, he has shown that we need to stand up and use our voices to speak out against the passivity of what we are seeing.
We need to speak out when we are seeing violence in so many areas-the recent tragic loss of life of the Kurds or the murder of Atatiana Jefferson, a black woman who was shot from behind, in her own home.
These are sadly, clear examples where we are watching our brother’s blood cry out to us from the ground. But unlike Cain, we don’t need to just wander, aimlessly. We can form alliances with those different than us to speak up and speak out. It is why I am glad we are partnering with St. James Episcopal and Christ Church to commemorate Kristallnacht as we hear the story of righteous gentiles who didn’t remain silent in the face of their brother’s blood calling out.
Over the past year, we have been wondering, who do we speak out for and who speaks out for us? How do we ensure that we can sit in our sanctuary and feel at home and simultaneously, help others who need safety and security find their places.
I don’t have the answers, but I want to share two teachings, which can help us think towards the future. The first, is from Senator John McCain, who said the following in April of 2015: Expressions of outreate and promises to fight against anti semitism with all means at our disposal, while necessary, bring little comfort. We all know that we cannot be silent, but we cannot allow words to replace action either. Moral outracge means nothing without the force of action to back it up. This means that all governements, including our own, must be bold in our atrage when we see AS and categorically condemn its exression, even when doing so is inconvenient or unpleasant. He said that in 2015. This is not a partisan statement. But his statements feels even more urgent today, for over the past 2 years not only has there been a rise in AS, in a recent AJC survey, ¼ Jews said they are nervous about displaying their Jewishness. This is tragic and we need to work within the community and through the creation of allinaces to help fix this. And why? So that we can fulfill the mandate written by George Washington in 1760 in his famous letter to the Jews of Newport, RI:
May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants-while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid. So many of us-Jews, Christians, Muslims, are the children of abraham. Let us go into our homes, our schools, our community centers and feel safe and secure, so that we can uphold what is commanded in Leviticus, as opposed to reading the story of Cain and Abel, and seeing its relevance.