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How Free Am I? - Parshat Sh'mini

04/10/2021 11:56:01 AM


Rabbi Weinberg

Tomorrow marks the 60th anniversary of the commencement of Adolf Eichmann’s trial.  The World War II fugitive who attempted to escape his fate- fleeing to the welcoming beauty of Argentina with assistance from the Catholic Church- would be brought to justice in the city of peace- Yerushalayim.  Apprehended by a team of Mossad and Shin Bet agents, Eichmann was flown to Israel where his trial would begin on April 11, 1961. 

The prosecution, led by the renowned, Gideon Hauser, created a spectacle that was viewed across the world.  Charged and found guilty of ‘crimes against humanity,’ Adolf Eichmann was instrumental in organizing the transfer of millions of Jews to various concentration camps and their eventual death.  Hauser will, forever be remembered for exposing Eichmann’s claim, “I was only following orders.”  Hauser proved to the world that such a defense for one’s actions is invalidated if such orders are criminal and illegal.

I share these opening words with you this morning to remind us all that Antisemitism is, regrettably the world’s oldest expression of hate.  Today, the concerns associated with increased incidents of Antisemitism are everywhere to be found.  Yet, hate for the Jewish people has not cornered the market.  We, as a society have found the ability to express disgust and indignation towards many beyond the Jewish community.

There are so many amongst us who are incapable of seeing members of the Black community as human beings, imbued with a spark of the divine like every other human being.  The trial of this past week has compelled us, again to deal with some of the worst expressions of our human nature.  Terribly demoralizing to me are the statements of hatred and disregard for others voiced by members of our Jewish community.  Hiding behind accusations that they are anti-Semitic, it then is OK to ridicule, deride, and consider the offenders as something less than human beings.

Our sentiments are little different when speaking of members of the LGBTQ community, Asians, Republicans, or Democrats.  Something tragic is happening to so many of us. 

There was some real hope- the pandemic would soothe some of our frayed nerves.  With time to slow down, collect ourselves, redirect our energy, and recalibrate our value system hope was on the horizon.  The anger and willingness to degrade one another would, perhaps find an opportunity to relieve itself in the course of the post- pandemic world. 

There were so many acts of lovingkindness demonstrated by people across the world.  Neighbors supported each other.  It seemed as though everyone was subjected to the perils of COVID 19; we were in it together.  Following the Polar Chill that struck Texas so dramatically, there were countless beautiful examples of people helping people. 

But, then it seemed that social media took over, again.  Our ability to castigate one another, behind the blind wall of anonymity on social media platforms has led so many of us down deep channels of no return. 

Recently, there was the seize on the capitol.  Then, the political volleyball contest over the voting rights decision in Georgia.  Even the sanctified space known as the baseball diamond has become the fulcrum upon which the political winds will attempt to make their point.

Just three short weeks ago we all sat at our seder tables.  The subject was freedom and slavery.  The remarkable story of our Jewish people remains an inspiration to everyone in pursuit of such a text.  Other peoples would have chosen to discard such a story but not the Jewish people.  It is our narrative and it is embedded in the very fiber of our people.  Every single time we recite Kiddush- every Friday night and holidays throughout the year- we remind ourselves in the liturgy that we were slaves, that we cannot forget the pain of such treatment, that we were able to overcome the straits of Egypt with the providence of God’s outstretched arm. 

I have to tell you that as I sat at our seder table this year, reflecting on the year that was defined by COVID 19, I shuddered at my own thoughts.  I used to feel that I was extraordinarily free as a rabbi.  I could express myself as I sought proper, always trying to be honest and critical of my own assessment.  But, I fear that those days are gone. 

I am no longer free as I was.  I can say whatever I want but, I cannot have an intellectual discussion anymore.  If I write or say something that trends a bit to the right or to the left I am, immediately harangued by defenders of the opposition.  It isn’t that I don’t welcome a challenge.  It is, simply that the nature of the challenge is so very different.  The goal seems to be the ability to say, “I gotcha!”  The level of discourse is devoid of respect for everyone not just the rabbi.  It seems our goal is to paint each other in a corner and then remark, “I have exposed your true colors and you are of the opposing team.  I no longer have respect for you- you don’t see the world as do I.”

How terribly unfortunate that we have let ourselves be degraded to such an extent.  We have lost a degree of our humanity.  We prefer to see the worst in each other rather than the best.  It seems as though it is a seismic shift, imperceptible at first and then, shocking in reality.

This past week I taught a Mishna with my Thursday morning Tanach class that bears on this subject.  In the name of Rabbi Yishmael, one of the great rabbinic minds of the Mishnaic period, he stated, “Al tihi dan yichidi, sh’ain yichidi ela echad.  Do not render decisions alone. There is only One who judges alone.” 

In a wonderful statement of deference, Rabbi Yishmael is reminding the wise judge that, regardless of his or her accomplishments he or she should never presume that they are immune from being unfairly influenced.  Only the Kadosh Baruch Hu is beyond such influence.  The rest of us, the judge as well as the accountant, the attorney and the rabbi, the housemaker and the carpenter, not one of us should feel we are incapable of being adversely influenced.  We need the astute eye and ear of colleagues to keep us honest, to consistently assess our thought process, to challenge us as we strive to refine our response to the world around us. 

This wonderful statement from the Mishnah reminds us that we all need a dose of humility.  There is no better indicator of an individual’s personal character, their internal strength than the ability to say, “I was wrong.  I made a mistake.  I welcome the assessment of my peers.”

There is an outstanding midrash that was included in this week’s Daf Yomi, of the Massechet Sh’kalim.  While addressing the destruction of the first Temple by Nevuchadnezzar and the Babylonians, the midrash suggests that the King of the Jewish people, Yehoyachin, knew that the time had come for God’s home- the Temple- to be destroyed.  The midrash teaches us, “King Yehoyachin took the keys to the Holy Temple and went up on the roof.  He said before God:  Master of the Universe!  In the past we were faithful to you and your keys were given to us.  Now that we are not faithful, your keys are returned to you.”  He then, either threw up the keys and they disappeared, or a hand from heaven came to receive them. 

The message of the midrash:  The people had rebelled against their Maker.  The keys that had been entrusted to them no longer belonged in their custody.  They had lost their privilege. 

I fear that we, too are losing sight of the privilege afforded us as human beings inhabiting this blessing called earth.   We have refused to respect the natural environment.  We don’t seem to be able to control our emotions when conversing with one another.  I fear that if we don’t improve our demeanor we, too will be asked to turn over the keys to this blessing we call life.

May each of us take this warning to heart.  Whether the subject is Antisemitism, Rainbow Pride, Black Dignity, or a host of other issues let us commit ourselves to speaking with respect, writing with deference, and demonstrating to each other and to God that we are worthy of the gift of our own existence. 

Wed, August 17 2022 20 Av 5782