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Once upon a time, a Chasidic rabbi, Rav Ya’akov Yitzchak told his student, Simcha Bunem, to make a journey to a distant hamlet.  When Simcha Bunem asked what the purpose of the journey was, his teacher remained silent. So Simcha Bunem took several of his fellow Chasidic students with him and traveled.  By the time they arrived at the small village the sky had already turned to dusk.  Because the village had no inn, Simcha Bunem ordered his coachman to stop at the first cottage.  He knocked at the door and was invited in along with his fellow students.  When they asked whether they could join their host for dinner.  The man replied that he had no dairy food and could only offer them a meat meal.

Instantly the Chasidim bombarded the man with questions about his level of keeping kosher.  Who slaughtered the meat? They demanded to know. Were the animal’s lungs free of even the smallest blemish, and was the meat salted enough to draw out all traces of blood as required by kosher law?  The interrogation would have continued had not a commanding voice from the back of the cottage called out to them.  They turned their attention from the owner of the home to a man who looked like a beggar sitting near the hearth smoking a pipe.  “My dear Chasidim,” the beggar began, “With regard to what goes into your mouths, you are scrupulous.  Yet, regarding what comes out of your mouths, you make no inquiries at all.”  When Simcha Bunem heard these words, he knew exactly the reason his teacher had sent him on this journey.

It is significant that a story from Chasidic tradition, a culture that embraces strict observance of Jewish law, reminds us that our commitment to a particular belief should not justify cruel action.  Last night I spoke about how real truth is our attempt to increase goodness in our world. Today we will explore a different approach – the undermining of kindness by cruelty.  And, I will ask each of us to honestly question ourselves:  are we cruel?

We begin with another question.  What is a basic source of cruelty?  The answer is pretty clear – anger.  Unless someone is so mentally or emotionally sick that they gain pleasure out of cruelty, it is anger that pushes us to a cruel action or belief.  The easier we become angry, the faster we slip from exhibiting kindness.  Many of us regret anger, and try to control it.  Some of us see anger as a justification for a belief or action we are taking.

Further, we need to consider what cruelty actually is.  Here I think we can draw on traditional Jewish teachings.  Yes, Judaism is filled with all kinds of rituals and laws a traditionally observant Jew will emphasize and follow.  Yet, there is also an amazing amount of focus between the Torah, Tanach, and Talmud on the necessity for kindness and a discussion of anger and cruelty.

Here is an aggadahfrom the Talmud. (Berachot 7a)

Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Yossi, “From where do we learn that the Holy One, Blessed be He, prays?”  As it is stated in Isaiah 56:7, “I will bring them to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in the house of My prayer.”  It does not say “their prayer” but rather “my prayer.”  From here we see that the Holy One prays.  What does God pray?  Rav Zutra bar Tovia said, God prays, “May it be My will that My mercy will overcome My anger towards My people for their transgressions, and may My mercy prevail over My other attributes, and may I conduct myself towards my children with the attribute of mercy, and may I enter before them beyond strict law.  Rabbi Yishma’el ben Elisha taught, “Once I entered the innermost sanctuary of the Holy of Holies to offer incense, and I saw the Lord of Hosts seated upon a high and exalted throne.  He said to me, ‘Yishma’el, My son, bless Me.’  I said to Him, ‘May it be Your will that Your mercy overcome Your anger and may Your mercy prevail over You other attributes, and my You act toward Your children with the attribute of mercy, and may you enter before them beyond strict law.’  The Holy One Blessed be He, nodded His head.  This teaches us that you should not take the blessing of an ordinary person lightly.”  (Berachot 7a)

Interesting that God’s sole prayer is one to help God with anger management. Remember, we are taught in the first chapter of Genesis that humans are created in the image of God.  As Jews do not believe God is a physical being, “image of God” is not about appearance.  It is about emotions, intentions, spirituality and intellect. So we can draw certain lessons from this Talmudic story.  First, that God experiences anger yet understands how kindness, mercy, and caring must take precedence over anger, and all other attributes.  We humans should be imitating God’s priorities. Second, God struggles, ergo, of course we struggle.  God’s use of prayer is significant as the Hebrew word for prayer, tefillah, is related to the verb l’hitpaleil, which means “to judge oneself.”  True prayer, then, is not about asking God to do us favors, but about examining if we are behaving the way God requires and models.  Third, God appreciates a blessing from a human, teaching us we should not look at fellow human beings in denigration.  Rather, we should be open to accept any person’s offered blessing.

Here is another question. How extensive is God’s anger?  The same page of Talmud addresses this.  It says in Psalms 7:12 that God has anger every day.  Yet, that anger lasts less than a 58 thousandth of an hour.  Indeed, Psalms also teaches us that the vast majority of God’s day is spent in kindness and mercy.  This page of Talmud also teaches that an evil person knows when God’s moment of anger occurs and uses that brief moment to justify their cruel actions. Now let’s consider this question: what is cruelty?

Rabbi Akiba, one of the key early Talmudic contributors, teaches this: “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a fundamental principle of the Torah, so that you will not say, “I was degraded, let my fellow be degraded with me; I was cursed, let my fellow be cursed with me.”  Rabbi Tanchuma adds to Akiba’s teaching saying, “If you do this, know whom you are degrading, for each person was made in God’s image.”  Cruelty, then, is degrading a fellow human being; ANY other human being, as we are all made in God’s image.  And remember, God’s image is not physical, but intellectual and spiritual.  A person’s physical appearance is irrelevant to God. It is their soul that must try to be as God tries to be.  Why am I stressing the need to dismiss the importance of physicality?  Because so much of our anger and cruelty is based on a physical appearance that makes us uncomfortable.  We are now experiencing a despicable episode of this in our country.

I sadly share some incidents.  A Yemenite American man, who along with his 3 youngest children were American citizens, committed suicide when his wife and 2 older children who were not citizens, were denied visas to join him because of the travel ban.

A middle-aged couple living peacefully in Brooklyn for 2 decades decided to visit their daughter and son in law – an American army sergeant who just returned from duty in Afghanistan – at his military base in upstate NY.  They were turned over to ICE and face possible deportation to their home country of Mexico.

A 63 year old Peruvian born grandmother, who became an American citizen, now has US agents trying to take her citizenship away from her, presumably because she was working for a fraudster boss.  This is despite the fact she fully cooperated with the police in the probe into her boss’s business.

A Guatemalan mother who crossed the Rio Grande this spring with her 8 year old son got caught by the U.S. border patrol, had her son taken away from her just before she was put on a plane back to Guatemala.  She cried that she could not go without her son.

Let’s add to these individual episodes the policy decision to retract the Temporary Protected Status of 195,000 El Salvadorians, 57,000 Hondurans, and 50,000 Haitians.  Yes, one can argue that legally that status is supposed to be temporary, yet, all of these folks fled their countries because of natural disasters or oppressive circumstances, and they are NOT living off of welfare here.  94% of the men and 82% of the women are working, contributing 4.5 billion dollars in pre-tax wages annually to our GDP.  Some are small business owners.  Reality is they have established positive lives here.  Why can we not modify the law and embrace their presence and contributions instead of just throwing them out?

We can add the annual increase of arrests of undocumented immigrants by 40,000 – most of whom have no criminal records.  We can add to that the still unresolved question about those protected by DACA or the “Dreamers.”  We can add to this an increase in the retraction of American citizenship from Hispanics born close to the Mexican border in Texas because of claims a midwife or doctor falsified the birth certificate – even though these investigations were concluded in 2009 and despite the fact that those under investigation are not criminals, but often people who served in our military or even the border patrol.

Those who support these policies will cite the necessity to abide by the law.  They will point out the need to keep criminal elements from coming into our country.  Those who oppose these policies will cite the fact that the criminal rate among immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, is less than the rest of our population.  They will say that opposition to current immigration policy is in the same class as opposition to racist policies overturned in the 1960’s.  I will add that no one of any common sense supports open borders allowing the admittance of criminals into America.  The problem is how we define criminality.  Is trying to illegally enter our country, while running from a horror in your native land, a wrong act?  Here, however, is the key question I ask of everyone debating these issues, what is the true common thread shared by all of the incidents and policies I just shared?

The answer is the center of my concern – we are talking about opposition to non-white people establishing their lives in our country.  If you doubt this opposition exists, then here is what Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham said on August 8, “In some parts of the country it does seem like the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore.  Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people and they’re changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like.”  While Ingraham tried to qualify that she did not mean ethnicity, David Duke certainly saw it that way and embraced her statement.  Indeed, how can you be referring to a change in our population’s demographics, including immigration (which Ingraham later mentioned) and not be referring to people of color?  Ingraham, without intending to, made clear the true cruel, bigoted feelings of a significant segment of our country.

If we will be perfectly honest with ourselves, we must ask if we are part of that group of people who are scared over the demographics changing at a rate where white people will become a minority sometime between 2040 and 2045.  I am convinced that fear is the basis of support for the current policy approaches to immigration and the repeal of Temporary Protected Status for non-whites.  I am convinced that fear is why the status of the Dreamers has failed to be resolved.  I am convinced this racist stream is confirmed by the inarguable increase in the public presence of white nationalism.  By the way, this group includes an increased amount of anti-Semites who take anti-Jewish public positions such as Holocaust denial. If you need evidence of the climbing of white supremacy, just read about the racist robo-calls received even by some members of our congregation after Mayor Gillum won the Democratic primary for governor last month.

What I have just described is one of the worst examples of cruelty condemned by Jewish tradition – consistently so from Torah through Talmud to today.  If we are truly trying to act in the image of God, we cannot focus on the physicality of others, but their soulfulness.  Here are 2 clear citations from Torah.

From Exodus 23:9  “You shall not oppress a stranger (ger), since you know the stranger’s soul, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

From Leviticus 19:34,35 “When a stranger (ger) lives with you in your land, do not persecute him.  The stranger living with you must be treated as one of your citizens. Love him as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt.  I am the Lord your God.”

The Hebrew word ger in these quotes can be translated as either alien or stranger.  The quote from Exodus reminds us that it is the soul, not the appearance that takes precedence, for we share elements of the soul with the stranger.  The Leviticus quote teaches our treatment of the stranger should not just be tolerance, but love.  By ending the verse with the phrase “I am the Lord your God,” we are reminded it is our task to try and emulate God.  The importance to our people of kind treatment of the stranger is amplified by constant repetition throughout the Torah.  It is re-enforced by teachings in Jeremiah and Ezekiel – all stressing not to mistreat the ger.

Yes, cruelty is failing to follow this very clear commandment from the Torah, but there is another part to cruelty as well.  Recall I shared an aggadah about God’s anger. Recall that the Talmud teaches God’s daily anger is about a 58 thousandth of an hour.  The same page also shows how a cruel person draws on the limited  moments of God’s anger to justify their cruelty.

The example it gives is Balaam, the non-Israelite prophet who is hired by king Balak of Moab to curse the Israelites.  Balaam is considered evil by most of rabbinic literature, but someone God took control of to convert his words from curses to blessings.  Talmud teaches that Balaam had knowledge of when God’s anger occurred. In Numbers 24:16 it refers to him as someone who has knowledge of the one who is most high (God).  In Numbers 23:6 Balaam declares, “How can I curse whom God has not cursed?”  The rabbis interpret this to mean that Balaam, indeed, any person who is evil, will use their knowledge of God to curse and oppress people.  They will take their knowledge that God has a brief moment each day of feeling anger, and use that to justify actions based on God’s anger. They will stress Psalms 7:12 that teaches us about the daily moment of God’s anger but will ignore Psalms 30:6 that states, “His anger is just for a moment, his favor for a lifetime.”

The person trying to justify an evil act will draw on a Biblical verse to justify that action, often ignoring the full context of the verse as well as the general direction of Biblical teachings.  Historically, this has been done by bigots, drawing on Biblical verses to support slavery, oppose equal rights for women, to condemn gays and lesbians.  All of this is a metaphor for a person drawing on the brief moment of God’s anger to justify an evil position.  When this happens, they are purposely ignoring the overall dominant themes of the Bible, Christian or Jewish, on justice, on acceptance of all people as children of God.

Last night I concluded my definition of truth by saying it is not simply about factual correctness, but real truth is what pushes morality forward in our world.  The truth we all must embrace is to search our own hearts and souls, to confront our own prejudices, our own bigotries.  A real truth is that we too often make our judgments based on appearance.  A real truth is that we need to connect to other people’s hearts and souls.  A real truth is that the atmosphere in our country today is inhibiting our ability to do this.  A real truth is that our treatment of immigrants and refugees is an expression of our personal moral failures.  A real truth is that too many of us worship the wrong elements of our world, those elements that feed our anger and help us justify wrong actions, even if they are technically legal actions.

What is it that causes God’s anger?  Rabbi Meir teaches that when the sun rises and the kings of different countries place their crowns on their heads and bow down to the sun, God grows angry.  So each day starts with that flashing moment of God’s anger, caused by ego and worshipping an idol.  But that moment flashes by and God’s compassion and faith in us drives the rest of the day.  The final questions we must ask ourselves are these.  What are we doing to justify God’s compassion for us?   Are we trying to be in God’s image by connecting to the hearts and souls of the strangers?  And finally, ask yourself – Am I cruel?

Now is the time when we are supposed to look into ourselves, to judge ourselves, as we know God will. Then, we must begin to change. The section of the Talmud I have been teaching closes with this thought.  A single regret or pang of guilt in one’s heart is preferable to many lashes by others that cause physical pain.  It is the shape of our soul that concerns God, not our body.  It is our willingness to judge ourselves in truth, not judge others that concerns God.  It is our actions to create shalom, with others that please God.  If we are serious about our teshuvah, our repentance, it will center not on our needs, but how we treat the needs of others.  May our journey in these Yamim n’orim, these High Holidays, bring us to a place not just of acceptance, but of love for the stranger.  May we truly live our lives in the image of God.  Amen.

 

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