Rabbi’s Corner

Sermon for June 26, 2020
By Rabbi Alana Wasserman

Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is called Korach. It comes from the book of NUMBERS 16:1−18:32. In it, a man named Korach (who is Moses’ cousin) leads a group in rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. God punishes them by opening up the earth and swallowing the rebels whole. In a D’var Torah titled, “Learning How to Go from Stress to Empowerment,” (which can be found on reformjudaism.org), Rabbi Vered Harris takes a different approach to this parashah. Instead of agreeing with our sages that if Korach is leading this rebellion because he is jealous of Moses and Aaron, Rabbi Harris argues that Korach is acting based on “a feeling of helplessness and a fear of being disenfranchised.” She then goes on to say that Samuel, from this week’s Haftarah reading (I Samuel 11:14-18:32) also has similar feelings of helplessness. She then goes on to suggest that, “Perhaps Samuel used a simple strategy to harness his power and lower his stress. Maybe he asked himself three fundamental questions: What can I do? What am I willing to do? What am I not willing to do?” Rabbi Harris wrote this D’var Torah three years ago. Today, as we continue to deal with the stress of COVID-19, racism, and division, I think we can and should apply these questions to ourselves today in order to cope with our modern day stresses.

As we remain at home, the question of “What can I do?” becomes an increasingly more difficult question to answer. It is easier to answer the question of “What can I not do?” We do not all have the ability to cure COVID-19. We do not all have the ability to end racism. And, we do not all have the ability to make other people listen to our side of things. But these answers don’t help. Instead, they make us feel helpless.

So let’s get back to the question of “What can I do?” We can choose to listen or not. We can choose to follow the recommendations made by scientists and medical professionals, or not. We can choose to listen to our black brothers and sisters, and for that matter, all those who feel persecuted, or not. We can choose to use our voices, or not.
Now that we know what all of our options are, we can move on to the next question: “What am I willing to do?” We need to be willing to listen to the scientists and medical professionals. We need to be willing to put on masks and stay 6 feet apart. There may not be a cure or a vaccine for the pandemic yet, but these are things we can actively do to help end the virus.

To do our part to end racism, we need to be willing to listen to what our black neighbors have to say. We need to be willing to listen to their experiences and their pain, so that we can learn more. We need to then be willing to educate others as well. We need to be willing to remember what it has been like for us and our ancestors, so that we may better understand what the black community is going through.

We need to be willing to listen to people with differing opinions – even political ones. By choosing to actively listen, we are trying to help bridge the divide.

“What am I not willing to do?” We should not be willing to just let everything fall apart. We should not be willing to do nothing. We should not be willing to ignore other people’s pain and hurt. We should not be willing to talk without listening first. We should not be willing to sacrifice our own values and beliefs merely for the sake of comfort.

In Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of Our Fathers, we are taught, “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirke Avot 2:21). We may not be the ones to find cures for illnesses (not just COVID-19), and we may not end racism and hate in our day, but no one else will either if we do not continue to do what we can, what we are willing, to ensure that things get better. As we continue to muddle our way through this pandemic, as we continue to learn more about the racism that black people continue to endure today, let us remember that we must do our part. So, I ask, “What can we do? What are we willing to do? What are we not willing to do?” Shabbat Shalom!

Sermon For June 12, 2020
By Rabbi Alana Wasserman

Shabbat Shalom! This has been an extremely difficult few weeks. The killing of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others, was awful. It is a sad reminder that hate and racism and prejudice are alive and well.
As Jews, we were already well aware of this fact. After all, we have even been blamed by some people for this pandemic! Because we know what it is like to be persecuted, to be hated for being OTHER, we must, we are COMMANDED, to do what we can to put an end to racism and prejudice.
We are all the more reminded of this today: June 12th. Three different events happened on this date in history that are pertinent to our world today.
• Today marks four years since the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando,FL. The Pulse nightclub was a gay bar. The shooter had plotted to attack this nightclub because of his homophobia.
• Today is Loving Day, which marks the anniversary of the 1967 US Supreme Court decision Loving vs. Virginia, in which the Supreme Court struck down state bans against interracial marriage. The couple at the center of the case were Richard (a white man) and Mildred (a black woman) Loving.
• Today would have been Anne Frank’s 91st birthday. On this day in 1942, Anne received a diary as a present for her 13th birthday. She died in Bergen-Belsen in 1945.

What do these events have to do with each other and our world today? All of these people experienced hate. The victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting were hurt and killed by someone who was homophobic. The Lovings experienced racism and prejudice because Mildred was black. Anne Frank died as a teenager because she was Jewish. They were all OTHER. They were all hated, considered “less than,” because they were different.
Judaism teaches us that NO ONE person or group of people is inferior. In the Talmud, the Rabbis ask, “Why did God create only one person, Adam?” The answer explains, “All people are descended from a single human being, Adam, so that no one can say, ‘My ancestor is worthier than yours.’” The story of creation teaches us that we are all created equal in the eyes of God. There’s even a midrash that says, “God formed Adam from the dust of all the corners of the earth – yellow clay and white sand, black loam and red soil. Therefore, the earth can declare to no race or color of humankind that it does not belong here, that this soil is not its home.” Even the belief that we were created from the dust of the earth illustrates that every race is equal in our world.
I’d like to conclude with a few quotes by Anne Frank. She said, “Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.” Let us be the brightness. Let us be the ones to lead the world out of the darkness of racism, hate, and prejudice. “In the long run, the sharpest weapon of all is a kind and gentle spirit.” Let us remember to be kind to those around us, especially those who have experienced hate for being different, because we know what that is like. “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” I love this quote because it is hopeful and true. We saw it in 2015. After terrorists killed four men in a kosher supermarket in France, there was a massive rally to show support to the Jewish community. “Je suis juif” – “I am Jewish,” was a slogan that trended on social media as a sign of solidarity. All those who showed their support reminded us that people are really good at heart.
Today, we must continue to remember what the rabbis taught us. We are all descendants of Adam. No one person or group of people is superior. And, we need to prove Anne Frank was right by being good and doing good. As Anne also said, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” Let’s start today. Shabbat Shalom!

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