Sunday, October 1, 2017

Sermon on Teshuvah, Btselem Elohim for Kol Nidrei 5778 2017

225 years ago, in 1792, Moses Seixas [say-shuss], a Jewish congregational president in Newport, Rhode Island, wrote a letter to the first President of the United States checking to see if the new nation’s leadership would, using Seixas’ words, “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” President Washington responded, repeating those words, in one of the best statements of the nature of America. President Washington wrote:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

Hearing those words, some of us cringe. Is our country still there? Was America ever truly there? We live in a time of great partisan divide. Today, discussions are often over the victories or losses of a party and not necessarily over the improvement of the lives of the people. Far too often in our real communities and in our digital ones, we see hatred put into words and action.

The Jewish people have seen that happen before. The flag and torch bearers, the hate filled marchers, too often have come for us. Whenever minorities have been persecuted or oppressed, if we have not been the initial target, historically, neither have we been far down the list.

We have seen some of humanity’s worst. We have seen inhuman hatred. Three thousand years ago, our people’s story already proclaimed our origin to be found in the words, “Let my people go!” Two thousand years ago, living under oppressive Roman rule, Hillel proclaimed, “In a place where there is no humanity, strive be to a human being.” We know that evil exists.

Yet, our tradition also loudly proclaims that we are all created, “B’tselem Elohim.” That is one of the most beautiful and, at times, also difficult teachings in the Jewish Tradition, the idea that we are all created in the image of God.
On the beautiful side of things, it is a teaching that reminds us of the inherent value of all people, that people should be treated equally. It is a directive to rise above concerns about difference, to overcome concerns about race, ethnicity, physical capability and beauty, or sexual orientation. B’tselem Elohim is an idea that helps us feel compassion for those who suffer, urging us to aid them. We should not be able to tolerate seeing people suffering. Everyone is like us. Each of us, in the image of God.

On the difficult side of things, that we are all created B’tselem Elohim is a teaching that reminds us that we have things in common with all people, including those with whom we’d much rather not, enemies, people whom we consider to be evil.

In the Mishnah, in Pirkei Avot, we find the statement: “Who is wise? The one who learns from every person.” Traditionally, this teaches that the wisest person can learn something from anyone and everyone, the most exalted can learn from the lowest. The teacher can learn from the student.

The Baal Shem Tov taught in regard to the statement:

When you look into a mirror you see your own blemishes. Think of other people as being your mirror. When you notice a defect or imperfection in someone else, that should tell you that you are tainted by the same shortcoming... Remember that Heaven shows you these sins in others in order that you search yourself and mend your ways.

It’s like a gut-punch. Our first response is “No way am I like….” “Not me! I could never act like that, feel like that, do something like that.” “I could never get so angry.” “I could never hate like that.”

How difficult is it to look at that image of those white supremacists and neo-Nazis standing with torches while shouting hateful slogans and say not only, “B’tselem Elohim,” this one too was created in the image of God, but perhaps, to use the words of the Baal Shem Tov, “I am tainted by the same shortcoming?” No, perhaps not exactly the same, not the same sort of hatred, not of the same things. But:

·      An ability to become enraged?
·      An ability to hate others?
·      A willingness and even desire to march along with others, to be part of a crowd, to rebel against authority, to want to fit in with a group?
·      An unwillingness to stand up to friends and family members even when we know that they are wrong, because we care about them?
·      A tendency to repeat hateful things about others whom we’ve never met?
·      A desire to see faults in others, to pass the blame to others?
·      A willfulness to see the worst in others who disagree with us.
·      A willingness or even eagerness to rise up from a place of frustration and hopelessness to take actions we might regret later.
·      An ability to look out at other people and easily say of them, “These are not B’tselem Elohim.” “I am likened to God, but them, those people, they’re nothing like God, they’re nothing like me. They’re evil.”
·      A blindness towards our commonality with those we do not like.

Remember that Heaven shows you these sins in others in order that you search yourself and mend your ways.

And how many of us would want to be defined by the worst picture taken of us, perhaps not one that was taken but one that could have been taken? Has there ever been a time when we acted in a way that would anger or embarrass us now?

We may not have ever considered the possibility of ourselves preaching hatred while holding a torch, but, and here is another difficult lesson, far too many otherwise good and even religious people participated in horrors in ages past and still in many places around the world do today. No few of those bearing and sharing their hatreds publicly will eventually repent and change their ways. There are a multitude of stories.

Father William Aitcheson, formerly the parochial vicar at St. Leo the Great parish in Fairfax City, Virginia recently wrote an editorial in The Arlington Catholic Herald acknowledging his past.

“My actions were despicable,” he wrote. “When I think back on burning crosses, a threatening letter, and so on, I feel as though I am speaking of somebody else. It’s hard to believe that was me. While 40 years have passed, I must say this: I’m sorry. To anyone who has been subjected to racism or bigotry, I am sorry. I have no excuse, but I hope you will forgive me.”

There is Frankie Meeink, who was a prominent skinhead when he was younger and living in South Philadelphia. He spoke at Beth El congregation a couple of years ago about his story. On TV fairly regularly, he is now an outspoken critic of white supremacy and an advocate for overcoming their hate with love and caring. Today, he lives in Des Moines and coaches youth hockey.

There is the story of the teenagers who defaced our building. They went through a restorative justice process, a teshuva process of learning with Rabbi Fink and working for the Temple that resulted in them not only overcoming their hatred of Jews, but in later inviting Rabbi Fink and Jack Huff to attend their wedding.

And then there is the story of Larry Trapp, once Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Nebraska, which you can find in Chicken Soup of the Jewish Soul. Larry Trapp repeatedly called to harass and threaten Cantor Michael Weisser and his wife Julie after they moved to Lincoln. Trapp was known to be dangerous by the FBI. He was heavily armed and made explosives. Trapp spewed hatred in numerous ways. The Weissers were warned to avoid him.

Trapp evidently was responsible for firebombing several homes of African Americans and had been making plans to bomb Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Lincoln, Cantor Weisser’s congregation. Over time, the Weissers called in to his radio show to tie up the phone lines, then eventually to ask him why he hated them, why he hated Jews. Trapp never responded but he listened.

They found out things about him. He was isolated, lived in a small apartment. He was in a wheelchair.

Cantor Weisser once left a message reminding Larry Trap that the Nazis came for those with disabilities first. They kept reaching out. They offered to help him, to talk with him, to take him to the grocery store. Eventually, Larry Trapp realized that the Cantor and his wife were the only people who seemed to care about him at all.

When Trapp finally met the Weissers, he burst into tears. Trapp took the swastika rings off of his fingers and handed them to Cantor Weisser, telling him that he couldn’t wear them anymore, to take them away.

“On November 16, 1991, Trapp resigned from the Klan.” He went on to right apologies to many of those he had threatened or harmed over the years. Trapp said, “I wasted the first forty years of my life and caused harm to other people. Now, I’ve learned we’re one race and one race only.”

Only a little over a month later, Trapp learned that he had less than a year to live because of the progression of his illness. The Weissers invited Trapp to move into their home so that Julie could take care of him. It was disruptive to their lives. They had three teenage children.

On June 5, 1992, Larry Trapp, former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, converted to Judaism in a ceremony at B’nai Jeshurun in Lincoln, in the very building that he had planned at one point to bomb. Only a few months later, on September 6, Larry Trapp died in a hospital bed in the Weissers’ living room, Michael and Julie, holding his hands.

One doesn’t really atone for the acts committed by Larry Trapp over the course of his lifetime. But people can change their direction in life. We can perform T’shuvah, turning from paths that led us in bad directions to the path of righteousness. Sometimes, those who hate simply need to see that we are all created B’tselem Elohim, in the image of God. Sometimes, what the haters need is for others to see them in that way as well, not as other, as entirely different, or as inherently evil.

Cantor Michael Weisser, during the time he was interacting with Larry Trapp, offered a prayer for healing during services in his congregation, one that I will repeat here with the hope that it impacts not one specific person in our country, but many, all of those so afflicted:

            May those who are sick with the illness of bigotry and hatred be healed.

And in this time of political discord, when our passions are easily kindled, when we too often forget even among our family and friends that our commonalities are greater than our differences. May we recall the words spoken by President Abraham Lincoln as he closed his First Inaugural Address:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.
Though passion may have strained,
It must not break our bonds of affection.
The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and
Patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land,
Will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched,
As surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

May our better angels allow us to see the divine in those with whom we disagree and in all of God’s children.

This Yom Kippur, this Day of Atonement, this Day of T’shuvah, of turning and returning, let us remember the words of the Baal Shem Tov:

When you look into a mirror you see your own blemishes. Think of other people as being your mirror. When you notice a defect or imperfection in someone else, that should tell you that you are tainted by the same shortcoming... Remember that Heaven shows you these sins in others in order that you search yourself and mend your ways.

After all, we are imperfect human beings and all created in the image of God.

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah tovah tikateivu v’teihateimu,
May you be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a good year.

Kein Yehi Ratson. May it be God’s will.

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