Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Rosh Hashana Sermon: Sisera's Mother and Us

The old woman sat at her window, worried. Her son should have returned by now. She peered out through the lattices, and started wailing. “Why is he so late in coming? He should already be back.” The other women present try to comfort her, making up all kinds of excuses as to why her son is delayed. But in her heart, she knows the truth. He’s not coming back. His lifeless body lies somewhere in a ditch, flies buzzing around his eyes, blood on his clothing. She knows that the words her companions speak aren’t true. He’s not coming back, and she begins to wail.

There are many different explanations as to why we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah we read about the Binding of Isaac, and how a ram was sacrificed instead of Abraham’s son. The shofar is a ram’s horn, and by blowing the shofar we remind God of Abraham’s merit and hope that he will be merciful to us for Abraham’s sake. The shofar is bent, symbolizing our contrition over our sins and failings. In ancient Israel, as throughout the ancient near east, the shofar was used as a battle cry, telling the troops what to do in the heat of the fighting. So Maimonides tells us that the shofar is the battle cry of our soul, rousing us from our spiritual slumber and calling us to fight against the evil inclinations which want us to remain complacent.

But there is another explanation for the shofar with which you may be less familiar. According to the Talmud in Tractate Rosh Hashanah 33b, the sounds of the shofar are supposed to be like those the woman I mentioned a couple of minutes ago made as she looked out the window and realized her son wasn’t coming home. There is no sound in the world that is more pitiful, more broken, than that. If the sound of the shofar is to arouse compassion, there is no sound more appropriate than this.
And who is this woman who sits at the window crying over her lost son? Is it Hannah, the heroic woman who lost seven children in the fight against Antiochus and the Seleucid Empire which gave us Chanukah? Perhaps it is Samson’s mother, waiting for her heroic son to return from fighting the Philistines? But no, the woman who sits at the window and wails, whose pain we reenact as we sound the shofar, is Sisera’s mother. Unless you come to synagogue on the Shabbat when we read the Song at the Sea, and pay attention that morning to the Haftarah, you may well be asking yourself who Sisera was and what his mother has to do with anything. But Sisera is the Canaanite general defeated by the Israelite general Barak and the prophetess Deborah, who was subsequently seduced by the heroine Yael who drove a tent-peg through his forehead while he slept. The bloodthirsty enemy general Sisera, whose well-deserved death meant our ancestors enjoyed peace and quiet for 40 years. But the book of Judges passage which we read as a Haftarah on the Shabbat we read the Song at the Sea reminds us that even brutal bloodthirsty generals have mothers, and that they suffer when their sons are killed.

Rabbi Ed Feld of the Jewish Theological Seminary writes: “what we are to hear is the pain and suffering of the mother of Sisera. . . Make no mistake, the Rabbis are proud of Deborah's victory, she acted to save Israel and did what was required in that hour. And yet, on Rosh Hashanah we are to feel not only the pride of victory but the pain that was caused the mother of our enemy even when we fought in a righteous cause.”

There are times in the Jewish calendar when we are to recall our own pain. Holocaust Remembrance Day, Tisha B’Av, numerous minor fasts that few of us observe such as Tzom Gedaliah, the 17th of Tammuz and the Tenth of Tevet. But on Rosh Hashanah, the Talmud wants to remind us, that if we are to get God’s attention and motivate God to have mercy on us, we need to recall not our pain but someone else’s. Our suffering is not a “get out of jail free” card and we are not exempt from having empathy for others -- even the mother of the bloodthirsty enemy general.

If you were raised in a Jewish family, chances are that some of your earliest Jewish memories are of the Passover seder. When we come to the ten plagues we spill a drop of wine at the mention of each plague. Why? Because our joy at our own deliverance is tempered by our recollection of the sufferings of the Egyptians. And in so doing, we’re reminded of the Midrash that God prevented the angels from rejoicing at the parting of the Red Sea, saying “my creatures (the Egyptian soldiers) are drowning in the sea, this is not a time to sing songs of praise.” The idea that we should have empathy for others, even our enemies, is ingrained in us from an early age.
As Steven Covey wrote in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Covey says that most of us don’t do that.  “Most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand. You listen to yourself as you prepare in your mind what you are going to say, the questions you are going to ask, etc. You filter everything you hear through your life experiences, your frame of reference. You check what you hear against your autobiography and see how it measures up. And consequently, you decide prematurely what the other person means before he/she finishes communicating.” We can’t have empathy without listening, truly listening, to others. Listening not to sharpen our rebuttal, but truly hearing the other person, including their pain. Our digital age has made it easier to listen to people who are not like us, since their tweets and blogs and Youtube videos are so easily accessible. But our digital age has also made real listening increasingly rare, both because of our diminished attention span and our ability to create digital bubbles so that rarely if ever are we confronted with perspectives which challenge us. It isn’t even a question of agreeing or disagreeing. Just listen to another person and their experiences.

The shooting deaths or deaths in police custody of African-Americans like Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Terence Crutcher and Philando Castile galvanized a movement known as “Black Lives Matter.” Some have criticized the movement, saying “All Lives Matter.” And of course, all lives do matter. But when the American Jewish community in the 1970s and 1980s organized under the banner of “Save Soviet Jewry,” were we saying that only Jewish lives matter? When activists organize under the banner of “Save the Whales” is the unspoken corollary “and to heck with the dolphins and the seals?” But the fact is that for much of our country’s history, Black lives did not matter.

I confess that for a long time when asked to give my racial information I either checked “other” or declined to answer. When somebody would use the phrase “white privilege” I would bristle. My grandparents came here almost penniless. They struggled to learn a new language in a culture where antisemitism was widespread. Not a single one of my ancestors lived in this country when African Americans were slaves. While my ancestors in Eastern Europe weren’t owned as chattel, their lives were not a whole lot better. In Israel, I visited with relatives who had survived concentration camps and others who spent all of World War II hiding in the woods. What kind of privilege is that?
But the reality is that African Americans have a very different experience of the police than white people do. I first learned this in the early 90s when I had jury duty in DC superior court. It was a cocaine possession case and there were 7 blacks and 5 whites on the jury. I was chosen by the jurors as foreman and I decided that before we even deliberated we ought to take a vote. Our first straw poll was 7 to acquit and 5 to convict. All 7 blacks found the defense claim that the police detained the wrong man and then planted drugs on him to cover up their mistake to be credible. At first, none of the whites thought this was remotely possible, because it’s so far outside of our experience. While the first vote divided along racial lines, it would not be fair to say that the blacks on the jury were motivated solely by race. After all, they had elected me as foreman -- but they simply had a different experience of the police in their neighborhoods than I had, living in Cleveland Park.
A couple of years ago the Montgomery County Police came to my home due to a misunderstanding and I was furious. I refused to let them into the house until a supervisor was called. I failed to comply with their orders, I stomped around in my driveway and I was not polite. It never for a moment occurred to me that my failure to comply could get me killed.
The fact that I did something incredibly stupid and potentially life-threatening only dawned on me a couple of weeks later when I saw a video of the arrest -- which ended in his death -- of Eric Garner. If you recall, Garner was at the time of his death in July 2014, 44 years old. He was a big man, 6 foot 3 and close to 400 pounds. He was arrested on suspicion of selling untaxed loose cigarettes, and when the police tried to handcuff him he said that he was tired of being harassed and pulled his hands away. One of the officers put him in a chokehold and he soon died.
When I watched the video of Eric Garner I saw myself on that afternoon a few weeks earlier. I recognized the frustration and anger he was feeling. He wasn’t threatening or violent, he was just fed up. Maybe he was breaking the law by selling untaxed cigarettes, maybe not, but he didn't deserve to die. Watching Eric Garner, I wondered in retrospect what would have happened to me if I had done exactly what I did under different circumstances or in a different place. If one of the officers who came to my house didn’t already know that I was the rabbi of the synagogue around the corner? If I lived in a less-affluent part of Montgomery Village? If my skin had been black?
My parents never felt that they had to warn me to always be polite if stopped by the police and to always keep my hands in sight. Is the same true of black parents in our country? When I demanded the officers call their commander to the scene, guess what they did. They did so rather than arresting me, or worse. My white skin allowed me the “privilege” of being angry and fed up when the police appeared and to be utterly oblivious -- at the time -- to the fact that people pay with their lives for doing what I did.
Saying the words “Black Lives Matter” has become more difficult for Jews in recent weeks as some elements of that movement have embraced the idea of boycotting and divesting from the State of Israel and have labeled Israel a colonialist, apartheid state. It’s also difficult, unfortunately, because so many people imagine that if you are concerned about unarmed black men and women being killed by police or dying in police custody, you are somehow anti-police.
Yet, it seems to me that we can have empathy both for the African-American mother who worries that her son’s skin color casts him under suspicion as well as for the mother of the police officer who knows that every day he goes off to work could be his last.I’m not talking about policy or laws here. It’s not my area of expertise. I’m talking about hearing another person’s pain and not minimizing it.  And I hasten to add that here in Montgomery County we have a fantastic police department. I’ve been in meetings with Chief Manger and Assistant Chief McSwain, and I’ve met patrol officers including those who protect our synagogue and always step up their vigilance whenever there are heightened tensions. I’ve not met a single member of the Montgomery County Police who was less than impressive.

Empathy literally means the ability to understand the feelings of others. That should be simple but it isn’t. It takes an act of imagination, to realize that my experiences are not universal and my frame of reference isn’t the only one. It means asking myself, not “how do I feel about this?” but rather “how would I feel about this if I were the other person? What would it be like to walk a mile in that other person’s shoes?”
I’ve focused so far on the Black experience of the criminal justice system only because for me, watching the video of Eric Garner’s death was a real eye opener. I could have chosen to discuss any of a number of other groups in our society who feel marginalized. Gays and lesbians and especially transgender people; Muslim Americans who are feeling very vulnerable and even Sikh Americans, who are not Muslims yet often fall victim to prejudice and even physical violence because Sikh men wear turbans and have beards and are thus often mistaken for Muslims.
You can also be part of the majority and still feel marginalized. Bruce Springsteen said recently “there's a price being paid for not addressing the real cost of the deindustrialization and globalization that has occurred in the United States for the past 35, 40 years and how it’s deeply affected people's lives and deeply hurt people.” White working class people are losing ground, particularly those who are over 50, those who don’t have a college degree, those working in industries which have declined and aren’t coming back like coal and steel and textile manufacturing. There are a lot of people in this country who are bewildered by the societal and economic changes which have taken place in their lifetime, they are angry and they feel that no one is listening and no one cares about them.
Can we care about unarmed black men and women who are killed by police and also care about police and their families? Can we care about members of racial and ethnic minorities and also care about poor whites who feel that the America they once knew is no more and that their future is bleak? Can we care about LGBT Americans and also have empathy for those who are sincerely bewildered that what once was unthinkable is now perfectly acceptable? Can we care about our Muslim fellow-Americans and also care about Israel and about our soldiers who risk their lives to keep us safe from those who seek to do us harm, many of whom wrap themselves in the mantle of Islam?

On Rosh Hashanah we blow the shofar whose sounds remind us of the grief of a mother who has lost her son. On Yom Kippur during the Al Chet and Ashamnu prayers we will strike our chests over our hearts, symbolically opening our hearts as if we were opening a hole in a wall. If we can embrace the pain of Sisera’s mother, we should be able to embrace the pain of our neighbors who are not like us. My plea to you on this holy day is to do just that. Take the time to listen with an open heart to someone who isn’t like you.
To quote the famous poem of Edwin Markham:
“He drew a circle that shut me out-

Heretic , rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle and took him In !”

Or if you prefer, the teaching found in Avot d’Rabbi Natan: “Who is a hero? The one who turns an enemy into a friend.” In the coming year, may we achieve the heroism of doing just that.

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