Sunday, September 15, 2013

Whatever Happened to Love Thy Neighbor? Kol Nidrei Sermon 2013

I have to admit that I am a big fan of Mel Brooks’ comedies. They are anything but politically correct, making fun of stereotype after stereotype. From the Producers  to Spaceballs, from History of the World Part I to Blazing Saddles, Brooks’ movies make us laugh, but they also make us think about the world in which we live and how we treat one another. Often, they make us cringe. As a recent PBS documentary noted, “Mel Brooks never met a stereotype he couldn’t upend.”

Perhaps, his most politically incorrect work is Blazing Saddles. Released in 1974, the film starred Cleavon Little as a Black Sheriff named Bart, no doubt after the famous outlaw “Black Bart.” Bart is full of Yiddishkeit and sophistication. He works alongside sidekick Gene Wilder and the people of a small western town to oppose the machinations of Harvey Korman aided by a very racist and ignorant Slim Pickens. Along the way, racist stereotype after racist stereotype is confronted head on. Brought to light, they appear absurdly ignorant and silly, but throughout the movie the viewer is confronted with the reality that some people really act this way and believe this stuff.

There are many verbal exchanges in the film that are very funny, very pointed, and very much inappropriate for a High Holiday sermon, but there is one story that I would like to share. It begins with a knock on the side window of the Sheriff’s office.

[Bart gets up and sees the same woman who insulted him earlier]

Elderly Woman: Good evening, Sherriff. Sorry about the (Insult and racial epithet) I offered earlier.

[Many of you know the exact words of that insult. Tonight, on Kol Nidrei, let us operate under the Jewish premise, Hu mei-vin Ya-vin, the one who understands will understand… She continued].  

I hope this apple pie will in some small way say thank you for your ingenuity and courage in defeating that horrible Mongo.
Bart: Well, uh... thank you, much obliged. Good night.

[Bart closes the window and smells the pie... but returns to the window when he hears another knock]

Elderly Woman: Of course, you'll have the good taste not to mention that I spoke to you.

Bart: Of course.

Elderly Woman: Thank you.

The bigger picture, pardon the pun, within the movie is a very Jewish narrative. Bart and his fellow railroad workers, all with dark skin of course, are driven by a taskmaster who does not value their lives at all. Bart strikes the overseer and flees. The narrative diverges of course, the move is a cowboy spoof, but throughout—with its outlandish violations of political correctness—one theme develops: When people of all sorts work together, they can overcome those who discriminate and hate. That message remains as appropriate for today as it was nearly 40 years ago.

Tonight, I would like to talk a bit about discrimination in our day and age and then I will answer two questions. How do we overcome hatred based upon difference? And bringing it into the context of Yom Kippur, whatever happened to ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’, the directive that we read in tomorrow’s Torah portion?”

Where we are today?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The moral arc of the universe bends toward justice.” In response, at the 50th anniversary of March on Washington and Dr. King’s “I have a Dream speech,” President Obama stated that, “The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own,” one of the better statements concerning civil rights that I have heard.

As I look back at this past year with Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, with battles over Same Sex Marriage and Immigration Reform, with voter restriction efforts reminiscent of the early 1960s, I wonder how much of an arc there is at all. It appears as if the arc of the moral universe has been running pretty much parallel to justice for a very long time, never getting too close or at times rebounding in the other direction. In fact, sometimes, like when discussing the absence of concern about children dying in conflicts overseas, one wonders whether or not the “moral arc of the universe” curves at all.

I would more confidently say that there is a “moral arc within our lives.” We relate to those around us, to our family, our friends, but not necessarily to our universe, to all of humanity or all of creation. We are far more angered by relatively small injustices close to home than by massive injustices committed at a distance. We tend to care much more about our neighborhood and our neighbors than about others further away. We care even more by things affecting people whom we have met in person. Our personal moral arc is more likely to bend toward justice for them.

So what happens when our lives consist of waking up in the morning, driving to work alone in our cars, working in a cubicle or small office, interacting in person with few others at work to any substantial degree and then returning home? We might interact with a few people on Facebook, send a few emails, make a few phone calls, but too often for most of us, our actual person to person interactions are very limited both in number and duration. While we may indeed interact with those who are different from us, we are almost certain to avoid talking about that difference, especially if it makes us uncomfortable.

I’m not telling you to go out and act like the Elderly Woman in Blazing Saddles by confronting difference by airing discriminatory views, but I am going to tell you that avoiding addressing them or only doing so by looking at Google search results online, as those of us who are younger are wont to do, is not going to have the same impact as personal interaction. There is a big difference between speaking to a Sudanese refugee from Darfur about what it is like being an African Muslim in Des Moines and looking up “African Muslims in America” online. You may get a very different answer if you ask a Muslim woman why she is wearing a Hijab, a head scarf, than you would if you look it up with Bing. And if you look up different views about issues related to Judaism, after scrolling down through multiple links taking you to ultra-Orthodox websites which make no effort to represent Reform or Conservative perspectives, what answers you may find may not only confuse you, but could well mislead or anger you.

This brings me to the discussion to which I had the privilege to listen between Leon Wieseltier and David Wolpe about the Jewish people today when I attended a program for rabbis put on by AIPAC in Washington DC in August. Wieseltier began with an observation that defines our age. He said that:

“The Internet is the greatest attack on human attention—and Judaism is largely based upon attention and constancy of mind.” ADHD is not the disorder. Attention is now the disorder.

It is certainly humorous, but the implication isn’t. By this, Wieseltier meant that the practice of Judaism in general is under threat because Judaism requires regular participation in person and over a period of time. We, especially the younger generations, hardly do anything regularly over a period of time. Further, Judaism mandates that we be focused on what we are doing, that we pray with intentionality. In the internet age, we are easily distracted. We quickly click and look and then click and look away just as swiftly.

But the threat from the internet that Wieseltier noted is greater still:

You don’t support institutions with a click. You don’t support institutions by visiting the webpage. You support institutions by maintaining the boiler. Judaism operates in places and places need maintaining. We are a physical people.

Obviously, he was more than implying that there is an essential financial component. We need institutions and we need to be able to maintain them. We are also a people with the concept of a minyan. In the Jewish tradition, when ten Jews gather, the presence of God is with them, the dynamic changes. Connection to other Jews is vitally important and the primary place where that connection should happen is in our synagogues.

At the recent opening of this year’s Sunday school program, it was noted that an individual child being absent from class does not just affect that child’s ability to learn, it impacts others as well. In small groups, the absence of one child can make all the difference in another child feeling comfortable in attending or participating. We know this affects youth group activities as well. Kids want to know if their friends will be attending.
This doesn’t stop when we graduate from high school. Even as adults we feel much more comfortable seeing friendly faces and this is all the more true when we are feeling sad, insecure, or have something we are excited to share. Think for a moment about the times when people feel the greatest need to attend services. You got it. It is exactly at those times when we feel sad, insecure, or when we have something going on in our lives that we feel excited to share. The basic reason for a congregational community to exist is to be there at those moments. That is part of fulfilling the commandment “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” If we want that support, we should be there for others.

In that vein, there is the story of the supposedly religious Jew and avid golfer who decides to play golf all by himself on Yom Kippur instead of sitting through services and hits a hole in one. He’s so excited that he can hardly contain it. He shouts to God, “Thank you God! I’ve played for many years and finally, finally, I hit a hole in one. I thought, ‘God will strike me down for playing on Yom Kippur,’ but look! Look what happened today. The sun is shining. No one is out here to slow me down or hurry me up. And I hit a hole in one! You are so gracious, God. Thank you for not punishing me. I finally hit a hole in one!”

A voice calls down from heaven, “Who are you going to tell?”

We want to share our accomplishments and our joys. It is torturous for the golfer who hits a hole in one on Yom Kippur not to be able to share his joy. It is not all that different for those of us who have something we are eager to share to have no one with whom to share it. And let’s be honest, sharing it online isn’t the same as getting a high five from a good friend. We know well that there is an essential dynamic when we gather with other people, especially with our friends, that isn’t there when we are sitting alone in front of our computers at home or in our office. Hanging out with friends in person is far superior to a Google Hangout and that is much better that clicking the “like” button when your friend posts something on Facebook.

When it comes to liking life, clicking “like” isn’t going to get the job done.

It is not just that we need to put into action the directive to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” We need to make sure we have neighbors in our lives. We need to interact with other people.
A significant nuance should not be overlooked. The term “v’ahavtah” does not mean “love” as in “like” or “appreciate.” It really means “be devoted to” or “act like you care about.” It is not an emotional term but a term of action. The “V’ahavtah” reading which follows the Sh’ma in every service is not about “Liking God no matter what you are doing,” though that is a nice sentiment. It is about “acting like you care about what God expects of you” no matter what you are doing or where you are or when. V’ahavtah l’rei-ekha kamokha, “Love thy neighbor as thyself” really means “Act like you care about your neighbor as much as you care about yourself.” It is a statement about how we should treat other people more than it is about how we should feel about them.

The problem, of course, is that we all too easily develop the belief that very few people whom we know well, or only a certain kind of people, qualify as our neighbors. We equip ourselves to treat others differently than we would want to be treated. The Jewish tradition is constantly working to correct that and throughout the year, we are reminded to “Remember the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

We were just like those different people over there. We were just like the new people who moved into our neighborhood, the new kid at school, the new employee at work. We were just like that woman dressed differently, that man from a distant land having trouble speaking our language. We have been the “them” for generation after generation. We know what it is like to be oppressed and yearn for freedom. We know what it is like to be bullied and praying for strength. We know what it is like to not be called “neighbor” and to not be treated with care. We know from over three thousand years of history how that feels. It is in that context we are to hear “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

I am not going to tell you to stop sharing your joys and your sadness with “friends” on Facebook, some or many of whom, you may not really know. I am telling you that you need more than that in your life. I’m reminding you that life is much better lived not in isolation but among friends and neighbors. And that if you work at getting to know strangers, you might make them neighbors and friends.

And one last thing—a vitally important thing to mention on this night: tonight we come before God asking God to be gracious to us, to pardon our failings, to treat us kindly and generously, to be merciful. Our tradition challenges us: How can we ask that for ourselves if we are not willing to act that way toward others? To an extent, this day is all about those five words, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Shanah Tovah and G’mar Hatimah Tovah!

May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a good and happy year!

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