In one special way, it was a triumphant weekend as we celebrated with the Friedman family a most beautiful Bat Mitzvah experience. But, of course so sadly, it was also a painful time, as we struggled with the fatal and anti-Semitic violence at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA. I hope you were able to read my response from Saturday night, and I appreciate the work done by Dan Smolensky, Laurel Crown, Ted Raichel, and Leah Jones to help organize our presence at Federal Plaza last evening. There we gathered in memorial of those who perished at Tree of Life and to stand in solidarity against anti-Semitism and the various forms of bigotry, gun violence, and other key social matters at hand. I felt inspired by the presence of so many of you huddled outside in the cold and mist. I am also grateful that a number of us gathered during religious school Sunday morning, so we could share our grief.
Now it turns out that Tree of Life works closely with HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) on matters of immigration and asylum-seeking, an organization about which I spoke at services last Friday. And while my d’var Torah did not anticipate the hatred that would overwhelm Tree of Life the very next morning, we were thrust into awareness that standing up for conscience, standing up as force for good, standing up against hatred and anti-Semitism--all possess risk. I say this not to alarm but to enlighten and to embolden--to summon our resilience, to strengthen our resolve, to band together with other people of conscience, to ensure the safe and secure world we deserve, to fortify a loving spirit of welcome beyond the walls of our synagogue, one that will go a long way in creating a world of greater dignity, gentleness and peace, not to mention open-mindedness and celebration of difference.
In addition to my d’var Torah, you will find a special responsive reading that we used to complete my d’var Torah and introduce the Aleinu Friday night.
And, last but not least, I want you to know that this upcoming Friday at 8pm, I invite you to a special Shabbat service, which will focus on finding light in the darkness, coping with anti-Semitism, and most importantly, memorializing those who perished at Tree of Life.
Make it a day of blessing and be a force for good!
Parashat Vayera 5779
Our Torah portion Vayera opens with Abraham sitting at his tent, surrounded by oak trees. He’s recovering from his brit milah, his circumcision, and he notices three strangers in the distance. Despite his pain, Abraham, with Sarah’s help, hastens to prepare for the oncoming guests--the first example of bold, audacious hospitality. Abraham’s position at the entrance of his tent--his body aching in the oppressive, midday heat--shows just how proactive our patriarch is about hachnasat orchim, the mitzvah of welcoming travelers, guests, and the poor. His eagerness. His generosity. His insistence that Sarah join him in preparing for and receiving the guests. Their insistence on seeing their guests off as they left. All these acts reflect audacious hospitality. And, the rabbis have a lot to say about the practice of hachnasat orchim. One sage calls hospitality “greater than welcoming the Divine Presence [Sh’khinah].”
As part of the Union of Reform Judaism’s 2020 vision, audacious hospitality is an important value and practice. From a Reform perspective, audacious hospitality is the focused effort to embrace our diversity and reach out to those currently not engaged in Jewish life. We strive to make sure everyone can feel at home here at Emanuel and throughout the Reform movement. That is because Reform Judaism is a faith tradition that strives to meet people where they are today so that we may thrive tomorrow. Like our movement, the Emanuel family stands for inclusivity and openness, that there is more than one authentic way to be Jewish. And, according to the URJ and we embrace this at Emanuel, audacious hospitality is a transformative spiritual practice rooted in the belief that we will be a stronger, more vibrant Jewish community when we fully welcome and incorporate the diversity that is the reality of modern Jewish life. We are blessed to embrace such a practice here at 5959 North Sheridan.
But if audacious hospitality is going to really mean something inside this house, it must also mean something outside of it. Audacious hospitality, then, must summon us to open our minds about, say, matters like gender identity. Gender identity is the kind of reality that doesn’t always fit neatly into traditional, binary categories of male and female. So, when the federal Administration attempts to undo executive and judicial protections for our transgender and gender-nonconforming neighbors because "a person's status as male or female is based on immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth,” audacious hospitality commands that we speak out, that we stand up against sex stereotyping. [By the way, on a related note, there is a gathering at Anshe Emet this week on Thursday, November 1 at 7pm. The purpose is to stand in solidarity with our transgender neighbors and reaffirm our welcoming embrace of them as a vital part of our community. I look forward to welcoming you there.]
I wish this were the only assault on the welcoming spirit of our nation, but it’s not. When the Administration threatens to send soldiers to our southern border to illegally shut them down to keep out a caravan of asylum-seekers escaping persecution, murder, sexual violence and gang recruitment, we threaten the welcoming legacy that has been an enduring hallmark of our nation.
According to HIAS, founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, “seeking asylum is a fundamental human right, one which is enshrined in both U.S. and international law. When people arrive at our border and legally apply for asylum, the U.S. must grant access to a fair process.” Note that the tagline for HIAS has two essential and relevant parts. One is: “Welcome the Stranger.” Hachnasat orchim. The very mitzvah invented by Abraham and Sarah long, long ago. And the second part is: Protect the Refugee. Our support for HIAS and our engagement with its efforts are crucial advancements of audacious hospitality.
We have much work to do going forward because remember we were sojourners and slaves in the land of Egypt, strangers in a strange land. We know the heart of a stranger and must reach out our kind hands with love and compassion. Education about matters of immigration and welcoming the asylum-seekers. Direct service to refugees. (Remember our summer’s backpack project, in which we collected backpacks for refugee children going back to school?) Tzedakah for organizations like HIAS. And, of course, voting our conscience and our values, like hachnasat orchim, like audacious hospitality. These are some ways we can make a difference. These are ways in which we can add to the collective good in the world. These are some ways we can shine light into the darkness. These are some ways that we can bring healing to the world. Let’s get moving.
We close with a special iyyun…
Aleinu: It was on us.
It was on us from the moment our ancestors were first forced to leave home,
charged with transforming their wandering into a blessing for all people.
It has been on us since that wandering became encoded in our DNA,
from Avram Ha’Ivri, Abram the one who crossed over,
to Ha’Ivrim, the Jewish people,
all of us inheriting the legacy of centuries of crossing from one home to another.
As our people became a refugee people,
we took on the sacred responsibility to see our story as bound up with the stories of all who continue to wander.
Aleinu: It was on us.
Aleinu: It is on us.
“Love [the stranger] as you would love yourself,
for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt,” God said.
To advocate for a world in which the 68 million people who flee for their lives
can find protection and a place to call home—
To stand with those who leave nightmarish situations only to undertake nightmarish journeys
so that they may exercise their legal right to find protection in these United States—
To cry out for the families who are separated from one another,
detained without an end in sight,
babies calling for parents who may never see them again—
To speak up when those in power shut the doors of our country to victims of violence and persecution—To stay outraged from a place of love rather than hate,
from a place of welcome rather than exclusion–
These, too, are our obligations without measure.
Aleinu: It is on us.
We know the cost of making any other choice,
of demurring from the holy task of transforming our wandering into blessing.
As we bow and bend to the Source of Freedom,
with visions of a repaired world in our minds
and the commitment to fulfill these visions on our tongues and at our fingertips—
Aleinu: It will always be on us to remember that there is no us and there is no them, there are only God’s children,
each deserving of blessings of liberty and justice.
We rise in body and/or spirit for the Aleinu.