I Am a Rock
Rosh Hashanah Morning, 5777
Temple Beth Israel
Rabbi Rick Winer
One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that I have to listen to the soundtrack playing in my head. I realize I have a song stuck in there and there’s something about it that’s leaping up, saying ‘pay attention.’
Paul Simon’s I Am a Rock has been playing in my head for weeks now… the second verse…
I’ve built walls,
A fortress deep and mighty,
That none may penetrate.
I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain.
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.
I am a rock,
I am an island.
…I am shielded in my armor,
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock,
I am an island.
I’m hearing a lot of talk about building walls lately and every fiber in me tells me to focus on the opposite. In a world divided along lines of difference, it’s time to build bridges not walls. Build relationships not barriers.
Our sacred history gives us a model for welcoming the stranger from a patriarch who was considered a paragon of mitzvah. He undoubtedly had his faults but Tradition looks upon him very kindly.
Abraham was the subject of this morning’s Torah reading, so let’s look at some of the context… some of what led up to Abraham’s moment in the spotlight, what makes it all the more significant and how it relates to mitzvah opportunities for us today.
Creation… generally a good place to start… people are created in the image of God. We were placed within the paradise of the Garden of Eden but we ate from the Tree of Knowledge and got ourselves kicked out. Judaism does not consider this a sin. It’s more about the inevitable. It’s about growing up. It’s about gaining knowledge.
But sometimes the knowledge sends us off in the wrong direction and using it for the wrong purposes can lead to sin. Sometimes, we think we’re building bigger and better when, in fact, we’re building idols of edifice rather than shelters for souls.
This was the Tower of Babel. The people of the world we’re focused on building ever higher to reach the gods instead of building relationships across humanity.
That episode did not end well.
Enter Abraham. We don’t know anything about his past. He appears in our story being chosen by God to become the father of the Jewish people. Nothing in the text preceding his entrance tells us why.
Soon, however, in the unfolding of Genesis, we will learn more about his character.
A few chapters before today’s reading, we find Abraham and God having a discussion…
God is once again troubled by human behavior. There was the Tower of Babel and you might remember Noah’s generation a few chapters before that. Neither of those two episodes were considered shining points in human history.
Now, we’re back in the time of Abraham and God’s looking at the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah and says to our first patriarch, “You know, I think I’m going to wipe ‘em both out. What do you think?”
Abe responds: “Don’t you think that’s kind of harsh?”
God - “I’m not going to wipe out the whole earth again, just a couple cities.”
Abe - “I know, but everyone? There’s got to be a few good people there.”
God - “Have you been there lately?”
Abe - “Yeah, they’re pretty bad, but what if there are fifty innocent people? Are you still going to wipe ‘em out? That doesn’t really seem fair.”
God - “Alright, if you find 50 decent people I’ll let them off the hook.”
Abe - “Well, what if we’re a few short?”
And on they go with this bargaining for the souls of Sodom and Gomorrah until they get down to ten to which God agrees that, yes, if ten decent people are found there, the cities will be spared.
Turns out it was a lost cause, but the point is… Abraham stood up for people he did not even know. He stood up for innocence. He stood up for justice.
Abraham was inclined to care for humanity whether he knew someone or not. The text gives us some clear examples of his hospitality to strangers and a midrash tells us that his tent was open on all sides to better welcome guests.
We would do well to learn from his example. A little hospitality can go a long way. This is not a time to build walls. This is a time to tear them down. Build relationships not barriers.
Ever since we tore down the Tower of Babel we’ve been erecting walls to separate people from each other and through walls it is impossible to understand each other, to get to know each other.
For some of us living up here in northern Fresno, there’s a wall running right down Shaw or maybe Shields depending on how adventurous we’re feeling. Not only do many of us feel uncomfortable traveling south in our city but I was fascinated to learn that there are many living in southern Fresno who do not feel comfortable coming up here. They fear being suspected of wrongdoing by being in the wrong neighborhood with the wrong color skin. But there are beautiful people in southern Fresno with beautiful families and beautiful values and we all are enriched by opening our world to the breadth of beauty all across our city.
I’ve felt compelled to cross the artificial boundaries and partner with people from all corners of our city… and I believe I’ve seen fruits of this already.
Anti-semitic incidents and attacks appear to have been on the rise across the country and across the world and, when it comes to religiously targeted attacks, in the most recent FBI statistics I’ve seen, we beat out every other religion, including Islamic victims of attacks by more than double. Not a statistic over which anyone should be proud.
I’ve personally watched as the bridges we are building have made a difference.
I was pictured in a social media post by a friend of mine in the local Islamic community. Someone he knew commented on my presence, disparaged me and made assumptions about me regarding how I would treat Palestinians. I don’t like to engage in any political discussion on social media, so I was taking some time to figure out what to say. Before I had the opportunity to respond, it was members of the local Islamic community who spoke on my behalf. This is a direct result of the relationships we are building between our communities. The person who originally disparaged me actually ended up friending me on Facebook.
Here’s another example…
A pastor friend of mine went on a social media rant in which, among the various groups he disparaged, he included the Zionists. He was defending the underdog Palestinians but assuming that all Zionists could be characterized together. Before calling him out publicly for the statement, I tried a private, compassionate, yet clear message to educate him in his error. I let him know that we Zionists come in all types. We absolutely support the State of Israel but many of us are seeking just ways to assure both Israeli security and the rights of the Palestinian population. He thanked me for educating him, apologized for his words and removed the offensive post.
Another brick in walls coming down.
On a much larger, international scale, I watched this week as Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority sat in the front row of mourners at the funeral of Shimon Peres. I wouldn’t call myself a fan of Abbas and I understand that even Peres had a realistic view of the Palestinian leader but Abbas was there. He was there under severe criticism from many of his own people.
More bricks coming down from the wall.
Last night I recalled one of our morning prayers, one we read already this morning in which we were reminded to…
Perform acts of love and kindness,
Welcome the stranger,
Make peace when there is strife,
Abraham has become a symbol for hospitality, for welcoming strangers and, yet, his own family remains divided. He and Sarah sent off Hagar and Ishmael and, across the world, we’re still not getting along. We, here in Fresno, may not have a significant impact on the peace efforts in Israel, but there is a great deal we can do in our own community and, perhaps, the beauty of what we create may serve as a model beyond the Central Valley.
Every bit counts, every stone taken from the wall of mistrust becomes a part of building important relationships.
In August, members of our local interfaith community brought a resolution to the Fresno City Council to condemn Islamophobia. As a Jewish community, we cannot stand for baseless hatred of anyone, so I stood with the Islamic community and a variety of interfaith leaders at the city council meeting to support the resolution. I was not involved in authoring the resolution but, as I read it, I noticed some verbiage that I believe is a direct result of the relationships we’ve been building. The resolution includes this passage:
WHEREAS, Islamophobia is defined as the fear of Islam, Muslims, or anything related to the Islamic or Arab cultures and traditions; and, the language of Islamophobia is extremely toxic and un-American and creates an unsafe and divisive environment for Muslim, Middle Eastern (Christians & Jews), South Asians, and others who may be perceived as being of similar descent, and these claims are completely opposite to the American values;…
I have no doubt that the awareness to include the Jewish community comes from the strong relationships we’re developing. I am so thankful to the many members of Temple Beth Israel who have long participated in the Interfaith Alliance of Central California, opening doors to make my work easier, creating more opportunities for the rest of us and creating the groundwork for the kind of awareness represented by the words of inclusiveness we see in the resolution to the city council. This is why I offered to host the annual Interfaith Alliance Thanksgiving service at the temple this year, so please come and show our commitment to interfaith gathering.
Is this work in breaking down religious and racial barriers actually a mitzvah?
Let’s look ahead in our liturgy. On Yom Kippur, we recount our sins. There are two famous, centuries old confessional passages. ‘Al cheit shechatanu - for the sin we have committed’ and ‘Ashamnu.’ Both were composed over a thousand years ago. We have a problem rendering Ashamnu in English because the original composer followed the Byzantine, liturgical poetic practice of an acrostic in which each line or, in this case, word, begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew Alef Bet. Our Gates of Repentance editors chose to compose a similar acrostic in English capturing the sense of the original rather than offering a word for word translation which would have lost the feeling of what the editors called ‘an alphabet of woe.’
I always appreciated this stylistic effort until I came to the end of the alphabet where it seemed the authors were reaching. Our movement published this prayerbook in the late ’70’s and I lived in northern California where, for the most part, people embraced racial, religious and other cultural differences. So, when I reached the bottom of the text and found the term ‘xenophobia,’ I thought it was a silly stretch to include an ‘x’ word which I grant is not an easy task.
I wish that xenophobia still felt like a silly ‘x’ word. Xenophobia, the fear of the other. It’s an immense problem worldwide. It’s the cause of great ugliness here in America and we are not immune to it in California. Unfortunately, it belongs on the list… perhaps even more than it did when this book was published in 1978.
So, if xenophobia is a sin then I believe it is fair to conclude that the work we do to eradicate it should be labelled as a mitzvah.
Abraham rushed to greet strangers passing by. He did not ask his guests who they were. He did not ask what they believed. The old man, recovering from a recent, self-inflicted surgical covenant, shall we say, ran to greet visitors… strangers… and, he and his wife Sarah offered them hospitality. Their tent was open on all sides.
When we open our doors and welcome strangers, we are not only performing a mitzvah, we are tearing down the walls of intolerance.
When we venture out across our city and build relationships with people whose background appears so different from our own, we take steps toward the goal of making peace where there is strife.
I appreciate those who have come out to our local interfaith events but, frankly, I’m disappointed. If we are going to break down prejudices and stereotypes then we have to come out to interfaith gatherings, meet our neighbors, hear their stories, share our own stories, get to know each other and appreciate the beauty of their traditions while sharing the beauty of our own tradition. I’m happy to represent the Jewish community but I’m not happy to do it alone. I do see a few of you at these events but we really must do better.
We host the Interfaith Scholar Weekend every year. Mark your calendars for February 25th. The Interfaith Thanksgiving service will be here on November 20th. Check our weekly emails and Facebook posts for more events. Many of them come up with short notice.
I knew immediately when I first heard Paul Simon sing I Am a Rock… that he meant the opposite of the words he sang. We are not meant to be islands. How do I know? Paul Simon liked to cross the tracks for influence, long before he mined the talents of South Africa for the amazing musicians he brought together on his Graceland album, the Jewish kid who grew up in Queens drew inspiration from the vocal improvisation of the African American gospel singers, the Swan Silvertones who sang just the title line of what became Simon’s hit, Bridge Over Troubled Water.
When you’re weary, feeling small
When tears are in your eyes, I’ll dry them all
I’m on your side, when times get rough
And friends just can’t be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
This is not a time for building walls. We have more than enough troubled waters… it is a time for building bridges.