We Need To Talk – A Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Friends, we need to talk.

We are currently in an age where instead of actually talking to each other — that is each person who may be an Other to us because of their political views, their looks or their lifestyle, or because of the person we think they are — instead of talking to each other, we hide in our echo chambers, and engage in affirmational dialogue, seeking out only those with whom we agree. In other words, when we talk, we like to talk to people who will agree with us and validate our beliefs and feelings. And too often we cast out those with whom we disagree, choosing to block them out, physically, emotionally, or digitally.

I recently had this situation on social media: I have a Facebook friend with whom I vehemently disagree. I think he’s a lost cause, and he thinks I’m a lost cause. And the question I had to ask myself recently is this: is it worth having this conversation? And I’m not just referring to having civil discourse. I mean — is it worth having any discourse?

We are a People who engage in dialogue and debate – some even say that arguing is the true national Jewish sport, which is why we laugh so heartedly when the villagers of Anatevka argue whether he sold him a horse or a mule. But these days, is it still true that we can argue and “live in simple peace and harmony” when the stakes are higher than whether you heard “Laurel” or “Yanni”? (“Tradition,” Fiddler on the Roof)

In the Talmud, there were two primary schools: Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. While those who came from these schools of thought almost never agreed with each other, they were more than just cordial — they were friendly — their families even married each other. The Talmud shares this story: For three years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. One group said, “The Jewish law agrees with us!” The other group said, “The Jewish law agrees with us!” And after three years of arguing, a voice came from the heavens, saying, “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim Chayim hen – These and these are the words of the living God. But, the Jewish law agrees with Hillel.” (Talmud Bavli Eruvin 13b)

You can imagine how this would have played out in today’s society! At some point, the supporters of one school of thought or another would make their way to their corners, get further and further away from each other and instead of engaging in a discourse for the sake of something bigger than themselves, the dialogue would have ended with “you’re a bigot”, and “you’re a traitor.”

This is a problem. We need to talk.

And, sometimes, it is useful to have a framework for talking.

I would like to present five Jewish values that frame how we engage in dialogue:

Sh’ma – listening;
derech eretz – common decency;
v’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha – love your neighbor as yourself;
kol yisrael arevim zeh b’zeh – we are responsible for one another;
and, when we engage in these values, we create a kehilah kedoshah – a holy community.

First – Sh’ma – Listen.

In the postscript to the story I mentioned earlier, the one about the three year debate between Hillel and Shammai, the Talmud asks, “Okay, so these and these are the words of the living God, but why did Hillel prevail? It is because those from the school of Hillel were pleasant and patient, and not only did they teach both their own perspective and that of Beit Shammai, they actually prioritized the perspective of Shammai before their own.” (Talmud Bavli Eruvin 13b) In other words, Hillel sought first to understand before being understood as a way to underscore the value of listening, hearing, and respecting differing opinions. (“7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Covey) Kate Lauzar, a community builder and leader in New York notes, “the value of listening to others, and feeling heard [yourself], is the very thing that promotes understanding, connection, deep engagement, and where required, even healing.” Indeed, often, the best way to diffuse a situation is to hear the other, to listen.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches, “Listening is profoundly therapeutic. It is also deeply spiritual. The good news about the Jewish people is that we’re among the world’s best speakers. The bad news is that we’re among the world’s worst listeners. This has to change. Shema Yisrael, the great command, means, ‘Listen, Israel.’”

Second – Derech Eretz – literally, “the way of the world,” or Common Decency.

We should give people the benefit of the doubt, that people come into conversation with good intentions. (Pirkei Avot 1:6) After all, “at the core of community is communication, and at the core of communication is decency.” (Rabbi Justin Goldstein) And part of that decency is respecting the outcome of a debate, even if it does not go the way we desired. We know that if we seek respect and show respect, we will earn respect. But to what end?

The Talmud tells another story about Hillel. You see, Hillel was known to be an incredibly humble, patient teacher. One day, these two guys made a bet with each other: the first person who can get Hillel mad at them gets 20 bucks. One tries by going up to him on a Friday afternoon, right after he’s gotten out of the shower and is getting ready for Shabbat, and asks a ridiculous question. Hillel calmly answers him. The next week, this guy does the same thing, and Hillel responds in the same calm way. This goes on for months on end, and after a while, the guy finally confronts Hillel and says, “I lost 20 bucks because of you!” Hillel responds, “I hope you lose lots of money, because I won’t lose my temper.” (Shabbat 31a)

Hillel is saying that it’s not about your character, it’s about my character. I’ve got my character, and I have to be aware of the times when I lose my character and make it all about their bad character. In other words: don’t let a bully make you a bully; don’t let a nudnik make you a nudnik. In more modern terms, derech eretz, common decency, means be aware of mansplaining, interrupting others, and diversity.

Third – V’ahavta Lareiacha kamocha – Love your neighbor as yourself.

This phrase comes from the Torah portion we will read on Yom Kippur afternoon, known as the holiness code. It says, “You are not to hate your brother in your heart. You will surely reprimand your fellow, but not bear guilt because of them. You are not to avenge nor keep a grudge [against one of] your people. Therefore, you will love your neighbor, [your fellow,] as yourself.” (Lev. 19:17-18; Author original translation) The Torah recognizes what happens when we don’t talk – we bottle up our resentments, which are unleashed into the world as wrong acts. “This is one of the rare instances when the Torah seems to command feelings rather than behavior.” (Etz Hayim Torah Commentary, 696) And yet, it is an incredibly important feeling to maintain. Why? Because of our fourth value:

Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh b’Zeh – All of Israel is responsible for one another.

Rabbi Melanie Aron accurately observes, “We live today in a time of intense individualism…We listen to our own playlist of music, read our own [echo chamber] newsfeeds. This intense individualism can lead us to forget that we are part of a larger community.” And, yet our foundation as a people, as a community, is this idea of communal responsibility. Surely we will not agree on everything, but we do need to care for and about each other. So when we do engage in dialogue, try not to think in terms of victory or defeat – rather, think about what is best for the community as a whole.

When we live by these first four values — Sh’ma, listen; derech eretz, common decency; v’ahavta lareacha kamocha, loving our neighbor as ourselves; and kol yisrael arevim zeh b’zeh, our shared communal responsibility to each other — we will create our fifth value: a kehilah kedoshah – a holy community. Both of the words “community” and “communication” come from the same Latin word: communis, meaning “shared by all or many.” And in Pirkei Avot, the ethics of our ancestors, we see the spiritual value of communication as being central to community: “When two sit and share words of Torah between them, the Divine Presence is between them.” (Avot 3:2, adapted) Beth Israel is surely a place where we share words of Torah within our community of communities.

Which is why we need to talk.

Quoting community builder Kate Lauzar again, “Constructive controversy is vital to growth and relationship building. Issues swept under the rug can fester, ultimately damaging the fabric of the congregation in ways beyond the particular issue. We strengthen community by being in relationship with one another around the difficult topics.” In short, dialogue builds trust, and thickens and strengthens connections within our community.

We need to talk, and we need to keep talking. Remember that in the first story I shared about Hillel and Shammai, these two schools of thought who loved each other, who cared for each other, whose kids and students married each other, and yet, debated for THREE YEARS on one topic! And they kept studying, and debating, and caring for each other.

I will admit — this is a rather counter-cultural idea. Today’s culture says, “Find your corner of thought and stay there.” Judaism says, “Find your corner of thought but then listen to what someone else has to say, and if you need to, change your thought.” As Rabbi Sacks notes, “[Keep these values of dialogue] in mind the next time you are tempted to walk away from a group of Jews that you think has offended you. We are each called on to make some effort, some gesture, to listen to one another, to forgive one another, and to stay together as an extended, almost infinitely varied family.” (Sacks)

How can we remain so counter-cultural, even when seemingly no one else around us is open to these ideas? We have a unity in what we’re doing. We have values that we will uphold. We have a mandate of tikkun olam, repairing our broken world, even, and especially when, it bucks the trend of the majority.

Some of this dialogue has begun here at Beth Israel — starting with last year’s congregational self-study, and most recently with a series of post-Friday night service sessions facilitated by the clergy and experts in particular fields — and this year in the religious school, dialogue will be our year-long curricular theme. Students will learn about these five values of dialogue in their classes. It will begin when we all learn this hand gesture pneumonic on the first day and will continue throughout the year with monthly themes infused into each level of our programs as well as in our family education sessions, which will each feature age appropriate tools for kids and their families to facilitate dialogue with each other in their own homes.

As we enter 5779, we need to talk.
May this be a year of talking and listening.
May it be a year of conducting ourselves with common decency.
May it be a year of loving our neighbors as ourselves.
May it be a year of communal responsibility.
And may we use these values to create a holy community so that we might have a good and sweet new year.
Shanah tovah.

About the Author
Rabbi Jeremy Gimbel is the assistant rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego, CA. He produced the film, "Hatikvah: A Documentary About One Aspect of Israel," and has released 3 albums of original Jewish music.
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