Abraham and the Visiting Strangers – A sensible way to welcome a wandering caravan


Sermon for Shabbat, October 27, 2018

The Torah portion this week tells about Abraham receiving mysterious visitors. The story is the paradigm for the Jewish way of welcoming strangers. As the story goes, Abraham is sitting outside of his tent in the Terebrinths of Mamre. It is an extremely hot day. A midrash tells us he is recovering from doing his circumcision, so he is in pain, and might be aggravated. It seems a weird thing to discuss, but it matters a great deal in the telling of this story. With this bizarre addition, the midrash connects two story points. It bridges Abraham’s surgical entry into a covenant with God with the events that happen next. Knowing that he is in pain, and irritable makes what happens next all the more remarkable. He sees men approaching. Strangers. And despite the heat of the day, despite his physical limitation, and despite the fact that he has no idea who these men are, he rises to greet them. And the language is very specific. It tells us Vayarotz likratam. He RUNS to greet them. The rabbis describe the fact that he runs as a sign of Zerizut. That is enthusiasm to perform a mitzvah. He is enthusiastic about welcoming the strangers to his land. At no point does Abraham question why they are there or impugn their motive. All he does is see three men, strangers, weary travelers, and he welcomes them with open arms. He offers them food and a place to rest. He starts with kindness and compassion as he anticipates their needs, and willingly gives of himself to provide for them.

For his kindness, Abraham is rewarded with a blessing and the promise of a bright future.

Now let us retell this story, not in the time of the Torah, but for the month of October 2018. Abraham sits outside of his tent in the heat of the day. He sees three men coming. He gets up and runs, but instead of running to the visitors, he runs through the town shouting that a caravan of foreigners is coming. Though the strangers are actually small in number, the townspeople have not yet seen them with their own eyes. From Abraham’s warning, they imagine a wild hoard of men, columns of armed warriors.  They are murderers and thieves. They are bent on destroying their precious land in the Terebinths of Mamre. Whatsmore they are providing haven for our enemies. Abraham’s neighbors are filled with fear. One wise neighbor knows enough to be skeptical. “What proof do you have?” he asks. And Abraham says, “I don’t have proof. But I have heard about angry mobs like this before. They want to cross our border. Take our jobs. Steal our food. Run our government. Why else would a bunch of strangers come here?”

The wise neighbor wonders if this is true, but speaks no more. All the people of the land have been worked into a frenzy. The once wise neighbor is fearful to go against the grain, so he falls in line. The people grab their weapons, and they rush to the border with Abraham to make sure not one of those strangers may enter their land.

When they get to the border, what do they discover. Three men, weary travelers, requiring nothing more than a place to escape the heat and to be refreshed.

Unfortunately, rather than welcome them with kindness, they have welcomed them with disdain and violence.

And the result of this behavior? It is hard to say since it is mostly made up. This second scenario is not in the Torah. The ending is left to our imaginations. Suffice it to say, nothing good can come from the fear mongering and isolationism powered by a belligerent attitude toward the stranger. At best the strangers will see they are not welcome and keep on walking. At worst, there will be violence, a massacre of homeless nomads under the swords of an angry mob. Abraham and the people of the land never bothered to get the truth, and they missed the opportunity to do a mitzvah, to welcome the stranger, to feed the hungry, and even possible to save some lives.

I prefer the actual Torah story of Abraham and the strangers. I like the content, and I like the ending. The second version of the story, the one I made up, is not in the Torah, but the story could have easily gone that way. There was a moment of decision. The whole episode turned on the way Abraham reacted at the sight of strangers approaching. Rather than run from them in fear, he ran to them with love.

And you probably know where this is going. Right now, more than a thousand miles away, there is a now infamous caravan winding their way through Mexico, headed toward the American border. Current estimates say there are seven thousand people, coming from some of the poorest countries in Central America. They have left countries terrorized by violence and political instability. They have left whatever they had behind and travelled with next to nothing, men, women, children together, desperately looking for a place to build their futures. Now, it is obviously not possible to bring in every person and harbor them here. That is beyond the pale of discussion. In all likelihood, most of the people in that caravan know that their chances are a bit like playing the lottery. Yet they know, their chances of survival are greatly improved when the reach our border over staying home subject to the whims of the crime syndicates and corrupt political bodies. I am not advocating simply opening our gates and letting everyone settle here. But, what I do believe, is that we can look to the story of Abraham for guidance in how to respond to this caravan of people.

They are poor. They are unarmed. They are desperate. Never before has a mighty nation like ours been so afraid of a group of unarmed, poor people. What they want is to apply for asylum, escaping the dangers of their home countries to which they cannot return. They want to work. To raise families. To live in stability with functional law enforcement. They want to participate in a democracy. Basically, they want to enjoy the very things we love about this country. We see them coming, and as a nation, we ought to be running to them, eager to help, to console, to support. But instead, we are running the other way, sounding the alarm, making up lies, stoking fear in a cynical ploy to gain political points. It has been said that they are going to enter our country illegally, though there is absolutely no way to measure their intent, nor can such a mass of people cross our border unnoticed. It has been said that the caravan is full of criminals, but there is nothing to confirm that. It has been said that they are coming as part of a diabolical ploy to vote illegally in our elections, as if it were even possible. It has also been said that dangerous middle easterners are mixed in with the caravan and are intent on slipping into our country to commit terrorist acts. The absurdity of this statement is astounding. He is playing on people’s fears of terrorism and an assumption that Hondurans and Mexicans would not know the difference between themselves and members of ISIS. Just because many of our fellow Americans see the world as being either white or everything else, does not mean that people of color cannot tell the difference. It smacks of racism. At best, it is utter naivete. As a nation, we should know to disregard such blatantly false statements.  But what is our national response? We are sending a thousand army troops to join the 2,000 national guardsmen who are already on the ground.  Meanwhile, we are working on a plan to prevent members of the caravan from even applying for asylum at our border.

That is a lot of soldiers being sent to confront a group of unarmed, poor people. Greeting people with guns in such a manner, after building up so much fear, the potential horrors of the possible outcomes are limitless. Such a military presence calls to mind the dramatic principle of Chekov’s gun. That is to say, when, a gun is introduced into a scene, it has to go off. Placing an army in front of a group of people whom we are told we are supposed to fear, that is playing with fire. If something, God forbid, happens, our nation could have a lot of innocent blood on its hands. We cannot allow this to happen.

So what might happen if instead, we treated the caravan the way Abraham treated the mysterious travelers. If we respond humanely, with a bit of food and water rather than guns and intimidation, we might help to sustain them for a short period of time. We also might be able to save lives by granting legitimate requests for long-term asylum. We might, in the end, gain some new hard-working citizens who contribute to our economy. We might gain new friends as we continue to expand the diversity of our country, enriching the melting pot that has made our country great for so many generations. Like Abraham, we might be rewarded by our visitors with a better future. Then again, maybe nothing great will become of it. Maybe none of them will get to stay. But we will always know that, when given the opportunity to do a mitzvah, to show compassion, we took it, running to the aid of strangers. Whether they stay forever or not, we can and must affirm the dignity of all people. We can also, like Abraham, show zerizut, enthusiasm for running to our fellow man, rather than running from them. We as a nation are reaching a moment of decision—between a campaign of hospitality and love or a campaign of fear and intimidation.

Let us hope we make the one which ensures blessings and life for us and for all.


Eicha? A Lamentation for the Tree of Life Synagogue


Spoken at the Jewish Cultural Center in Chattanooga, October 29, 2018

This feels like a moment for Lamentations. In Hebrew, the book of lamentations is called Eicha, for the opening word of the first chapter. Eicha means how? How did we get here? How lonely sits the city of Steel, a community where the various ores of nations have combined in a melting pot of unity. The city has become desolate, like a widow. With tears on her cheeks, her friends try in vain to comfort her.

Eicha? How can we comfort her, a Jewish community that suffers so deeply?

Eicha? How can we comfort each other, our Jewish community and our gathered supporters?

Eicha? How did we get here?

This past Wednesday, in my Mussar class, we studied a text I had not seen before (BT Nedarim 22a and Ran Commentary referenced by Igeret HaRamban). It resonated deeply with me. I had no idea how important this text would be. It spoke of anger. It said anger leads to idol worship, which the Talmud regards among the worst of possible sins. It explains that one who loses their temper might then make something the object of their anger and destroy it. This objectification is an affront to God just as much as making an idol. In anger and idolatry, the mind is deluded. They are one and the same.

Anger brought a killer into the Tree of Life Synagogue. His anger was built upon falsehoods, hatred, and bigotry toward Jews and immigrants. These became his idols. And the idols grew in an environment where lies can be spread irresponsibly and can go virtually unchecked. Then as idolaters do, he desecrated a holy space.

Eicha? How do we deal with our own anger? We must not let it turn us toward idols, lashing out at each other, breaking apart our institutions, or tearing down our social norms. We must address our fears before they overwhelm us. Rather than turn to idols of anger, we will instead turn to one another in community, first with words of comfort, and then assurances that we are here for each other. Then, together we can resolve to expose the lies and stop the forces of hate wherever we see them.

Eicha? How do we begin? We begin as Jews always do in times like these. We mourn the dead. We comfort their families. And then, we remember, despite it all, God’s world is a beautiful and loving place. So we turn our fears into resolve, because we know– that the Jewish mission as defined in the Torah is to pursue justice and make peace. And we will work in partnership with anyone who will join us as make the world into the paradise it is meant to be.

Eicha? We may not know exactly how. But we do know when. The time is now.

Reconciliation- Remarks made to Lutheran friends as their guest on Reformation Day

At Ascension Lutheran Church, Chattanooga, TN

When asked about my religion, I like to say I have three religions. Judaism, Kansas Jayhawk Basketball, and then Disney. And not always in that order. Usually around March Madness, Jayhawk basketball takes a front seat. No kidding, last year during Passover, I was at a Seder meal, and my hosts seated me right in front of a TV so I could watch the Final Four, all while we did the blessings. Sadly, my team lost. I choose not to see in that a theological message. One of my greatest thrills is when my religions combine to inform one another. Like when I read Leviticus 19:17, Thou shall not hate your fellow man in your heart. And then I add, even if they went to Duke. Its an incredible cross section of beliefs. So you can imagine my thrill when I discovered that my love of Disney also coincided with my love of Torah. I kid you not, there is a document called Mickeys 10 Commandments.

Despite the cartoon name, they are actually quite serious. The Mickey Commandments were written by a man named Marty Sklar,a Jewish guy by the way, who before his passing in July 2017, was the longest tenured employee of the Walt Disney Company. He still holds the distinction of being the only person present for the opening of every single Disney park across the world. From Anaheim in 1955 to Shanghai in 2016, he rose through the ranks of management and learned a lot about hospitality and running a company that is powered by creativity. He wrote the commandments as part of a lecture on innovation and technology. They reflect lessons from the many hard-won successes he took part in. They became the cornerstone of his life, and they can be a foundation for us as well.

My favorite of the Mickey Commandments is, Always have a wienie.While this word may elicit some giggles, it is a something Walt Disney himself taught about story telling. Always have something to look forward to. He said it was like dangling a sausage wienie in front of a dog to get their attention. When he built his theme parks, a medium he saw as the ultimate form of story telling, he always wanted there to be something interesting to see on the horizon, drawing you forward. Most famously, the Castle draws guests down Main Street, as the become immersed in the story that surrounds them. Always have a wienie. So I am going to to tell you, over the next several minutes, we will tackle some hard truths, but in the end, we will be okay. That is something we can look forward to on the horizon.

Before we get there, we must begin the journey together. This brings me to another of Mickeys Commandments. In fact it is the first one. It says,Know your audience.These words reflect a phrase one can find in synagogues throughout the world. In Hebrew it is, Da lifnei mi atah omeid.Know before whom you stand. In a religious sense, it is meant to humble us as we stand before God. Ultimately, that is the audience of audiences. But for Sklar, and and the Mickey Commands, it is to know literally before whom you stand and have a plan. It means to anticipate their motivations and desires. It means to have a goal.

So tonight, I know my audience. You are first and foremost friends. You have hosted me on an important night. Tonight you are attempting a nearly impossible feat, by simultaneous attempting to celebrate the heritage of the Lutheran Church and come to terms with some of Martin Luthers controversial teachings. Lets face it. He said some terrible things about the Jews. But I cannot be mad at Luther, nor can I be mad at you who sit with me in the spirit of friendship. You have come to listen with open hearts and minds as you learn about the Jewish faith.  You have reached out in the spirit of love and understanding. You have reached asked me to facilitate this process of reconciliation. So I know my audience.  What I do not know is if I am equal to the task. But I will try.

Tonight, I stand before you just one day after a terrible shooting took place at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Eleven Jews were murdered. The killer had a history of anti-semitic statements and reportedly shouted epithets throughout the attack. His motivations stem from ancient deep-seated hatreds of people who are different and lies which are told about them. While one of the beautiful things about America is that anyone is free to believe, even say, anything they want, the tragedy is those words can foment hatred which all too often leads to violence. In most cases, even someone who spouts off hateful rhetoric never intends to actually cause harm to another person, nor do they intend to call for others be violent. Still, they are far from innocent. Once words are spoken, the speaker no longer has control over them.

I would like for you to get an image in your head. It is from a classic Jewish folktale about a man who wants to repent for spreading slanderous speech. His rabbi tells him to take a pillow to the top of a hill, and then to cut open the pillow letting the feathers fly into the wind. He does just that and goes back to the rabbi. He ask what to do next. The rabbi says, Go out and collect all the feathers and put them back in the pillow.Only then does the man understand the power of his speech. Like feathers, they spread far and wide. How people respond to them he will never know, but he will be responsible for it.

We have to be responsible for our words. We do not have the luxury of ever just saying, Words are only words.Especially in the age of social media and mass communication, words spread faster than fire and can cause more destruction. There are many factors that go into what happened yesterday at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Mental health may be one of them. Access to firearms may be another. But one thing is certain, that the spread of vitriolic ideas and long-standing falsehoods about the Jewish people lie at the core of what happened. Hateful words turned into hateful actions.

When I thought about tonights topic in light of these events, a biblical name came to mindAmalek. In the Torah, Amalek is considered he greatest enemy of the Israelites. So bad is he, that the Torah says in Exodus 17:16, Hand to the throne of God, God will be at war with Amalek for all generations.No such thing is said about another individual or nation. And if you have read the Bible, there are lots of bad guys and lots of wars. Amalek gets special treatment. As careful readers of the text, we might ask ourselves why? In the Jewish tradition, we rarely let the text speak for itself. We see at times details that need further explanation, and so we turn to our history of interpretation. Ancient rabbis also recognized apparent gaps and worked to close them. They created a body of work called midrash. Midrash are explorations for the hidden meanings of the text. The midrash provide background stories, and a well-crafted midrash can become as familiar and authoritative as the text it self.

The Midrash on Amalek explains a lotnot just that he was bad, but that he was really bad.  Amalek attacked the Israelites immediately after their liberation from Egypt. Moses had led the people through the Red Sea. God had miraculously delivered the Israelites from Slavery and made the waters collapse on the Pharaohs army. In the wilderness, Amalek is lying in wait, and leads sneak attacks on the Israelites. He attacks from the back, going after the slower walkers, the weaker, the old, and the infirm. In such a way, he is compared to a predator, cowardly and fighting unfair battles against the defenseless. This definitely raises the stakes in making Amalek look evil, but the Midrash is just getting started. Attacking from behind, going after the weak, that is a familiar strategy. Remember, Amalek is a special case. Another midrash compares Israel to a boiling kettle, and anyone would know, if you touch it, you will be burned by it. But still some dare to touch it anyway. Yes, they get burned, but their attempt makes it seem to onlookers that they might have a chance.

Israel is like a boiling kettle, under Gods protection, and nations of the world knew about Egypts fate. Israel had a chance to be free and clear, BUT Amalek decided to attack the Israelites. He lost, but did a great deal of damage. Worse yet, his actions made it seem to other nations that they could also battle the Israelites. Basically, at the moment when the Israelites should have had their security established for all time, Amalek opened a door to all future attacks.

For this reason, does Amalek rest atop the enemieslist.

The message we get from this is, to perform an act of hatred is contemptible. And what is even worse, is to be the one who enables it by fomenting hatred and giving the impression that it is okay.

Now listen, I am going to be honest. And Reverend Crimm asked me to talk about Luthers relation to the Jews and reconciliation. Even though he once voiced a complaint that the Catholic Church were treating the Jews like dogs, and advocated for treating them cordially in efforts to convert them. His attitude changed drastically. It would be impossible to miss, in his body of work is a book called, On the Jews and their Lies.His writings encouraged the burning of synagogues and Jewish sacred texts. He added that rabbis should be prevented from teaching, on pain of loss of life and limb. He  advocated that they not know safe conduct on the highways and that their wealth be taken from them.

Suffice it to say, I have some grievances I would like to post on his door.

Hearing myself read those words even now, makes me angry because I know where those words can lead and where they have led. But an important Jewish teaching I learned only this week places overwhelming anger on par with the sin of idolatry. So I must reel it in and be more thoughtful in my response.

Let me be clear. I do not hate Martin Luther. In fact, a recent article in the journal of the Central Conference of American Rabbis says that, as Reform Jews, we owe a lot to Luther and his Reformation which helped pave the way for our own approach to Judaism. Clearly he did a lot of good for the Christian world, the world entire, and also did some good things for the Jewish world. I also hope that it is obvious, by the fact that I dined with several Lutheran pastors, and that I am standing before you this evening, that I definitely do not hate Lutherans. To the contrary, I love you. I love you for your openness, for your friendship, and for your willingness to talk about the difficulties of the past.

Still, it is impossible to whitewash that Luthers hateful language toward the Jews has inspired a lot of anti-semitism through the ages. He is not the worst enemy the Jews have ever known, but there is no escaping that, like Amalek, his actions enabled a lot of hatred against the Jewish people. Words have lasting consequences, and 500 years later, he has no control how anyone reads or understands his teaching.

He is like the man who tore open a pillow and let the feathers fly around the world. He cannot control what happens with his words. But you can. When I teach the story of the feathers, I like to tell people, you might see those feathers flying around, or hear the hateful words carried by the wind, and when you do, you can reach out, grab the feather and stop it from circulating.

You have the opportunity to reframe the teachings of Martin Luther.  You can do away with that which you find detestable and celebrate the wonderful things he did through protest paving the way for open-minded Christian faith. You can absolutely reject the statements of anti-semitism and build bridges with the current generation. In my research, I discovered something, actually on the website for the Missouri Synod. It rejected anti-Jewish teachings as unchristian and defined an important line between the man and the best of his teachings. The bases of our doctrine and practice are the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions and not Luther, as such;

And on the ELCA website, I found these reassuring words:

We who bear his name and heritage must with pain acknowledge also Luthers anti-Judaic diatribesWe reject this violent invective, and yet more do we express our deep and abiding sorrow over its tragic effectswe particularly deplore the appropriation of Luthers words by modern anti-Semites for the teaching of hatred toward Judaism or toward the Jewish people in our dayGrieving the complicity of our own tradition within this history of hatred, moreover, we express our urgent desire to live out our faithwith love and respect for the Jewish people.

That is exactly how you take feathers of hatred out of the air and begin to bring and end to their destructive forces. Reconciliation begins by admitting the fault and acknowledging why it is wrong. You have even owned the unintended consequences of hate and violence that sprouted from Luthers teachings and repudiated it. You have gone the extra mile making overt, intentional efforts to heal the wounds they might have caused. Because you have done this, this sanctuary is filled with nothing but love unity.

While it is not my place to forgive the past, neither you nor I can bear that repo I can say thank you for a wonderful present which can lead us to a beautiful future.

I thank you for your actions. For your sincerity. Most importantly, I thank you for your friendship.

May there come a day soon, when all of Gods children, every human being carrying a spark of the divine within us, will know safety, tranquility, and peace. May that be Gods will.

Let us say, Amen,