Why did God choose to give us the Torah specifically at Mt. Sinai? What was special about that location, about that gathering, about us at that moment that warranted such a precious gift?
After all, we had been wandering in the wilderness for quite some time, and at any moment God could have said, ‘Here’s the Torah’; God could have waited until we entered into the land of Israel and said, ‘Here’s the Torah’. Why did God wait until we were gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai? Rashi looks very closely at the verses in the Torah that deal with the giving of Torah and he notices that when we get to Sinai, the Torah tells us, “They journeyed from Rephidim, they arrived in the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamped in the wilderness (Exodus 19:2).” But the Torah abruptly switches from the plural to singular: “Then, it (the people Israel) camped at the foot of the mountain.” Notice the language goes from the plural ‘they’ to the singular ‘it’. Rashi echoes Rabbinic tradition when he observes that, ‘what made us capable of receiving Torah, was the moment we became a single, united entity.” Rashi marvels that we were at that moment “like one person with one heart.”
That capacity to be as one is what makes it possible to receive. I share that insight with you because this summer has been among the ugliest summers that the Jewish People have ever endured. Please note that I am not taking a stand on any particular policy; I’m not going to take support or oppose any particular position, except to comment on the way we spoke to each other all summer. And that need to remind ourselves of appropriate and inappropriate ways to characterize each other very much in the season of teshuvah (repentance), fragility, and rejoicing.
How is it possible for one Jew in the heat of a political disagreement about policy, to demean a fellow Jew with the term Kapo (a Jew in the Nazi death camps who assisted in the murder of other Jews)? Many were the people who took a stand on the Iran deal, who were called Nazis. There were Jews who took a stand on the Iran deal, who were accused of being warmongers, as if their position was motivated by blood lust and they couldn’t wait to go to war. There were Jews who called other Jews Neville Chamberlain, as if their stance on the Iran agreement was motivated by a desire to appease the next Hitler.
Before we address how we can talk to each other, I want to acknowledge that Jews have the right to feel strongly about issues that seem to many of us existential: the safety and the wellbeing of the Jewish people, the security of the State of Israel, how we respond to this virulent brand of Muslim terror that has arisen (and afflicted not only Jews, not only Israel, not only Christians, but frankly, the Muslims in the Middle East who suffer the worst). Of course we have strong feelings, and our passions have been stoked by another existential reality: that in much of the world the extreme reaction to Israel borders on the insane. Israel’s very existence provokes people to viciousness, violence, and extremism. The reality of resurgent anti-Semitism, not only in Europe, not only in the Middle East, but even here, in North America, calls all of us to be vigilant and stokes our passions. The world clearly has a double standard of rampant hypocrisy, with half of the world indifferent to Palestinian suffering, except when it provides them an opportunity to attack Israel, and the other half indifferent to Palestinian suffering, except when it diverts attention away from Israel. Assaults on Western democracy and its values are a daily event around the world. Assaults on innocent civilians who simply want to speak freely and to practice their faith; the ruinous results of recourse to warfare in the Middle East, as simplistic foreign policies have left instability and chaos and ISIS in its wake – all of these contribute to our sense of alarm.
We, all of us, have good reason to be scared, to feel threatened, to be angry, and there is good reason for us to mobilize.
But here is the question a rabbi has to raise: I am not a policy expert and so I won’t presume to tell you what policy to support. You are educated citizens, you will make your choice, and you should, and you should take a stand. You should make vigorous arguments in favor of what you believe will advance those legitimate goals. But here is the question a rabbi has to ask if our people are to regain their dignity and affirm our humanity: What are we doing to make it possible to come together as one community after the fight is over? How are we speaking now, so that we can encamp “one person with one heart” again, when it is done.
I have been married now for 32 years. I am standing here in the Kitel (white ritual robe) that I wore under my Chuppah (wedding canopy), wearing the kippah (skullcap) that I wore under my Chuppah, with the same woman with whom I stood under the Chuppah. And let me tell you, I have learned something in 32 years: that when you have a disagreement (and you will), it is crucial to speak during the disagreements so that it makes it possible to rebuild the love after the disagreements have passed. You can’t express rage or disgust when you are angry and then expect it to be forgotten when the anger has subsided. Those wounding words will be remembered — trust me — forever! So we had better learn to speak in a way that allows us to articulate what we need to say, but in a manner that allows us to come together as a couple after the disagreement is over.
My fear is that for us, as a people, we have come perilously close to fracturing our unity in ways that are irreparable if we do not now attend. To come together as “a one person with one heart” cannot mean that only one opinion is legitimate. Real people simply don’t act like that. The only real significance for this aspiration is that if we are to be “one person with one heart,” then we hold in our heart love for each other despite our disagreements.
We should ask each other piecing questions: Realizing that you love Israel too, how is it that you are able to support this agreement? Knowing that you are concerned about Israel’s security too, why are you not outraged by that aspect? Knowing that you hate war and love democracy as do I, why are you not bothered by the risk involved?
We can ask each other these and other questions for the sake of clarification and learning, but we have to be able to speak throughout with reverence, affection, and unity. Permit me, then, to offer three examples from our tradition that I hope will help us as we move forward to reestablish our capacity to stand together as one heart.
The End of Sectarian Division
At another crisis in our history two thousand years ago, with Jerusalem besieged and the Temple in flames, Judaism at the time was riven by sectarian division. Nobody labelled themselves “Israel,” they were known as Perushim — Pharisees. They called themselves the Tz’dokim — Saducees. They called themselves Revolutionaries — Sicari. Jews were associated with different sects each of which thought they alone spoke for true Judaism.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Out of that crisis, the leader of the age, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai did a remarkable thing. In addition to smuggling himself out of Jerusalem (in a coffin!), in addition to realizing that the only way for us to survive as a people was to establish Yeshivot (centers of higher learning), he realized that if his efforts were to succeed he had to create a context in which every opinion is welcome. In this new model of learning, everyone argues, everyone debates, then after the learning everyone shares a meal together. The deal Rabban Yochanan made with every Jewish sect was to make explicit that each was welcome to join this new movement; but the deal was, if they wanted to join this broad coalition, they had to agree to leave their sectarian divisions outside forever. No more Pharisees, no more Sadducees, no more Sicarii, from this moment forth all are simply Jews. To advance that unifying message of diversity, he asserted a new title for all the leaders of this umbrella movement: rabbi, my teacher. That term had never been used as a title in Jewish life until that moment.
By convincing the former sects to drop their claim to monopolize truth, to foreswear their divisions, he constructed a Judaism hospitable to conflicting opinions. The great culminating work that expressed the unique genius of rabbinic pluralism was the Talmud. It records over 5,000 arguments, of which only 50 are resolved. That discrepancy wasn’t an oversight. The genius rabbis who brought us the Talmud knew that the action is all in the questions, in the debate. Once you express the final answer you shut down all conversation and then there is nowhere to go. So the Talmud is the book which lands you into the middle of a lively debate, and it expects you to add your opinion, vociferously, energetically, but also to allow others to jump in and disagree. Out of these passionate conversations comes talk, learning, clarification, but not resolution. We have to learn to live with the diversity, the disagreements. I want to hold that Talmudic model to us as a ideal we desperately need to embody.
Two People Claim the Same Object
Second example – is one that was pointed out to me when I discussed this sermon topic with my friend and colleague, Rabbi Edward Feinstein of Congregation Valley Beth Shalom. Rabbi Feinstein reminded me that the first passage of Talmud that every young kid is taught is found at the opening of Tractate Bava Metzia. Bava Metzia is that part of the Talmud that deals with business law – the laws of ownership and exchange – and the first Mishnah is called ” Shnayim Ochazin (Two who hold)”, and here is where it starts: “if two people have grabbed on to the same cloth at the same moment, one person says, ‘I found it’ and the other says, ‘I have found it’. One says, ‘it’s all mine,’ and the other says ‘it’s all mine.’ They each swear that they don’t own less than half, and then they share the cloak evenly.” You get the scene? Two people stumble across an item at the same time, they both grab it at the same moment, they each claim exclusive ownership. It’s all mine, says one. No, it’s all mine, says the other. Jewish law says you divide it in half; Jewish law is not about complete triumph. It is not that one’s victory has to include the other’s degradation, banishment, or defeat. Jewish Law – the very first Mishnah that any Jewish kid learns in beginning their studies stipulates that when one feels strongly about something, for God’s sake have enough humility to listen to someone who does not agree and make room for both views. The two people may disagree this time, but next time they are going to need each other. They may disagree in this instance, but that person may be saying something the first person needs to know.
A Thread of Blue Amid the White
In the days of the First and Second Temples, in the days of the Torah, we were told to put tzitzit (fringes) on the corners of our garments. And we were instructed that we are to take a thread of tekhelet (a thread of blue) and we are to weave it into our tzitzit so that we can look at that thread, that blue thread amid the white thread, and we can remember to do all of God’s Mitzvot.
Now here is a curious coming together of history, ideology, and scripture: While we enjoyed sovereignty in the Land of Israel during the days of the First and Second Temples, then we had access to the production of the blue die, tekhelet, and our tzitzit flashed blue and white. But when we lost our sovereignty in the land of Israel, we lost those blue threads. From the time of the Muslim conquest to the modern founding of the State of Israel, a Jewish Talit (prayer shawl) had only white threads. With the reestablishment of the State of Israel, some pioneering Jews reestablished a Tekhelet factory in the south of Israel, on the coast. There they found marine snails (Murex Trunculus) who produce the precise blue dye in a gland at the back of their necks. A growing number of people today have taken up those blue threads and restored them in the corners of our prayer shawls. That same blue and white is where the colors of Israel’s flag come from: from Tekhelet.
But the blue and the white also reminds us that God does not want us to look at a tallit that is monochrome, all the same color. Our tzitzit shouldn’t be all the same. We might have had to suffer that conformity while in Diaspora, Exile, but that was when we didn’t have an authoritative voice, when we did not have power, when we didn’t have our own sovereignty. But when we had our own place in antiquity, when we produced the Prophets who taught the world morality, justice, strength, and righteousness, then we had blue threads with our white threads. And now, by God, we have our own sovereign power again. In the State of Israel there are Jews who wrestle with the challenges of democracy and in this great country, there are Jews who hold power at the highest levels, and once again, we wrestle with issues of democracy. It is time for the blue thread to come back, to remind us when we look at our tzitzit that we are connected to a beloved and precious country in the Middle East, to an ancient wisdom tradition, to a remarkable people. We look at our multicolored tzitzit to remind ourselves that God likes diversity, and that if we only allow ourselves to see one color, then are not looking through the depth perspective of Jewish eyes.
Can we now, now that we have a strong Jewish State, now that we are proud citizens unapologetic in a democracy in which we can enter into the political argument as equals, without apologizing for our views, diverse as they are, can we now embrace those in our midst who feel strong yet differently than we do?
We differ about approaches, policies to deliver shared goals. But we do not differ about the goals; and we do not apologize for these consensual goals:
I will not apologize for engaging in American democracy.
I will not apologize or back down for supporting the State of Israel, and for believing that the Jewish People have every right to a national homeland.
I will not apologize or back down from supporting a just and peaceful two state solution so that the Israeli and Palestinian nations can thrive in independence, security, justice and peace.
I will not apologize for holding American and Israel up to the highest standards of justice, not because I am the enemy of Israel or America, but because I am their child, and children have the right to turn to their parents and say, are you living the values you taught me when I was growing up?
I believe that Israel and America, as democracies founded on Biblical values, have the innate capacity to redeem themselves, to rise to the occasion through debate, through engagement.
But here’s what will kill democracy here and there; if we turn our arguments into witch hunts; if we brand each other as illegitimate just because we don’t agree about the politician or the policy we support. If we only listen to those with whom we already agree rather than engaging those who see things a little bit differently but share our ultimate values.
I ask you to join with me in pledging that from this moment forward, we will speak to Jews and to all people who are sincerely engaged, with respect, with dignity; we will moderate our rhetoric, and we will demand of our politicians that they also will speak of those with whom they differ, with respect. The future of democracy is at stake. If we can be truly “as one person with one heart,” then we also will merit receiving a bountiful Torah that will ennoble our world, strengthen our democracies, and bring healing for our children and for theirs.