(Rosh Hashanah 5779, Day 2)
To listen to the audio of this sermon, click here.
When our group was in Israel this past summer, we heard from people representing a wide variety of viewpoints, including a Muslim Imam, who welcomed us to his mosque in Haifa and an Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem who promotes pluralism. We also had an impromptu encounter with Prince William at the Kotel. But most unforgettable of all was the visit at our hotel in Jerusalem, late on Shabbat afternoon, by a Palestinian peace activist from Ramallah. His name is Issam Sa’ad.
Issam grew up in Gaza and rarely saw a Jew who wasn’t in a uniform – he was taught to hate Jews, and he was an excellent learner. But he needed money, so he took his seething resentment with him to Tel Aviv, where he found a job as a day laborer in an upscale restaurant near the beach. He was originally just working in the kitchen, but he wanted to make more money, so he taught himself to read and write in Hebrew in just a few days and asked the owner for a chance to wait on tables. As a joke, the owner let him service a few tables late one night, figuring he would fall flat on his face and that would be it. But to his surprise, Issam did a great job, holding his own with his rudimentary Hebrew. And with his family scrounging for every scrap of food back in Gaza, you can imagine how his resentment toward Jews only intensified when he got an up-close look at the bohemian, lifestyle of the upscale Tel Avivians filling his tables.
But now something was different. He was talking with them, with the few words of Hebrew that he had learned. And they were talking with him.
Just a few good words – and that was enough to change everything.
One day, an older woman sat at one of his tables – and this woman was different. She showed a keen interest in Issam. Her words were gentle and kind – and Jews weren’t supposed to be kind. This confused Issam – it went against everything he had been taught about Jews. A few days later she came back and brought him a piece of cake.
Aha! He got it now. She was trying to poison him! So, he threw the cake into the garbage.
But the woman didn’t give up. She continued to bring him food – and then clothing as well – and their friendship started to blossom.
She really cared for him. Issam talked about her tearfully, before our group that day, saying that she hugged him the way a mother hugs her child. He was young and consumed by confusion, self-pity and hate, in his late teens or early twenties – and had never been hugged like that before. He had many siblings and grew up in a house where he was never hugged at all. And his outlook began to change. If this one Jew could be so kind, might there be others?
As tensions between the Israelis and Palestinians escalated, Issam was no longer allowed to travel from Gaza to the restaurant to work – another casualty of the eternal conflict. A curfew was imposed. One night, there were reports of rockets fired from Gaza to a target near where the Israeli woman lived, so he wanted to go out and use the pay phone to see if she was ok. He had memorized her phone number. His family told him he was crazy, that if he went out after curfew, he might never come back. But he worried about the woman, his new friend, so he went anyway.
He called her up and they were overjoyed to hear each other’s voices. It turns out she was as worried about him as he was about her. But after a few minutes, Issam was approached by Israeli soldiers who put a bag over his face and hit him in the head with the end of a rifle.
He was taken to a prison, where he spent the next couple of days. No charges, blood on his head, just waiting. Finally, he was brought into a room and told he was going to plead guilty to one of several crimes he did not commit, including throwing rocks and attacking soldiers. He refused.
So the soldiers brought in a senior officer who asked what he was doing out after curfew. Issam explained the situation and gave the officer the woman’s name and phone number.
The officer left the room to verify the story.
A short while later, the officer returned to Isaam’s holding cell, noticeably upset, and this time alone. It was just the two of them. He carried with him a cup of tea for Issam and a wet rag and wiped the wound on Isaam’s head. Isaam was allowed to go home.
The woman had saved him – perhaps at some risk to herself. She could have denied knowing him and washed her hands of his fate. But she didn’t.
If you’ve seen or read Les Miserables – which I have, about a hundred times – then you recall that key instant when a bishop saves Jean Valjean from prison by giving him two silver candlesticks that Valjean had stolen from him, but that act of grace comes with a stipulation:
But remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man
This was Isaam Sa’ad’s Jean Valjean moment.
This human connection forged between a Palestinian man and an Israeli woman, two former enemies by accident of birth, took Issam out of the clutches of potential radicalization and turned him into a warrior for peace. His hatred had just melted away.
And truth be told, just as that woman in Tel Aviv melted Issam’s heart with kind words, so did Issam melt ours. That Shabbat in Jerusalem was for all of us, a Jean Valjean moment. We bonded with a man who grew up hating us, long before he ever met us.
Issam Sa’ad is now Director of the Palestine Dialogue Center (PDC). For the past twenty years, he has been coordinating and directing coexistence initiatives and peace dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis. He’s organized numerous conferences all over the world, including the US. PDC has conducted seminars attended by hundreds of Palestinian leaders as well as other workshops, meetings and discussions. Issam has created safe spaces for dialogue for hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian children. And as their Wikipedia page states, the PDC is strongly committed to the principle of dialogue as the method of dealing with all issues.
You will see almost no coverage about him in the media. His presence online is virtually nil. He collects donations the old-fashioned way, through word of mouth. This man risks his life every day to bring Israeli and Palestinian children together so that they can learn about how much they have in common.
So, if someone asks you if it’s hard to bring peace between Arabs and Jews, tell them it’s a piece of cake.
One piece of cake did it. That, and a few good words.
A few good words can change a life. And one transformed life can change many lives. And many changed lives can change the world. Issam is living proof of that, and our group was so fortunate to meet him. And, but for one kind Israeli woman who brought him dessert, his life and the lives of many others, would be very different – and who knows how many of the people that he has touched might otherwise have been killed – or killed others.
I’ve been speaking about how this is the Hebrew year Tav Shin Ayin Tet – 5779 – and that the Hebrew letter Tet stands for “Tov,” which means to be good and kind. My charge to all of us is that we dedicate ourselves being extra good this year – that this be a year for a personal “Tet Offensive.” An offensive of kindness, and that begins with a good word – a Milah tova.
We need to talk – and listen – sensitively, constructively, with full awareness of the impact of our words. We need to be mindful speakers.
Here’s an easy test of how mindfully we communicate. Can you recall the first words you spoke this morning?
I can. And they were: “Do you want to go out?” “Good girl….”
It’s pretty much the first thing I say every day, to Chloe.
Earlier this year, scientists at the University of York demonstrated that the way we speak to our canine friends is important in relationship-building between pet and owner, similar to the way that ‘baby-talk’ is to bonding between a baby and an adult. Even with dogs, words matter.
Speaking of animals, last June, we lost one of the greatest communicators ever to walk this earth. Greater than Churchill or Edward R. Murrow. Greater even than Oprah Winfrey. I’m speaking of course of Koko, the gorilla who had a vocabulary of 2,000 words of English, nearly ten times that of your average 3-year old – and her tenderness showed people how loving a gorilla can be.
Koko made famous friends like Fred Rogers and Robin Williams. She used her sign language skills to communicate with them. But could she really communicate on a human level? When Koko watched a sad movie, her eyes watered. When Koko’s friend, a kitten, was killed by a car, Koko reacted unambiguously. “Bad, sad, bad,” she signed, shoulders hunched. “Frown, cry, frown.” She really did seem to be frowning, and she really did seem to be weeping. And the world cried with her.
Ultimately, we don’t know how much Koko understood. But there are so many moments when I look at Chloe and say, “she gets me.”
In today’s Torah reading, describing the binding of Isaac, the animals have no problem communicating with people. It’s the people who have the problems. The donkeys know exactly what they’re doing. The ram seems to know exactly what his role is in this historic drama. Sort of like those Ibex our group saw at En Gedi this summer, who crossed the road in front of our bus precisely at the “Ibex Crossing” sign.
The animals get it – but the people and God– that’s another story entirely. God tells Abraham to slay his favorite son, the one he loves, Isaac. God’s so specific in describing who Abraham is supposed to kill – but then forgets to add the two most important words to the end of this command: “JUST KIDDING.”
Abraham and Isaac hardly speak to each other along this journey, when finally, Isaac asks where the is the lamb for the sacrifice. Abraham just replies, “God will provide,” deftly avoiding the subject. They never speak again – even as Isaac lies there, ready to be slain. As for Sarah, Abraham never tells her a thing. And then, the next thing we know, she’s dead.
This is a very tragic story, one where death can be seen as a function of failed communications.
So how can we make our words healing words? How can we speak the language of blessing? How can we all become more like Koko and Issam Sa’ad?
It was an angel who stayed Abraham’s hand as he held the knife over Isaac. We need to allow our better angels to emerge during this year of Tet.
At a time when America is being torn by toxic talk, we need to be soothed by Lincoln’s words at his first inauguration: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
As historian Jon Meacham’s bestselling book, “The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels,” discusses, America has often faced challenges such as the ones we face today; but every time the better angels of our nature have come through to affirm that ours is a society that is kind, compassionate, welcoming, caring and hopeful. And it begins with the words that we utter.
Jewish mystics have reflected on how we can speak healing words, the language of blessing – as a spiritual practice.
Nachmanides wrote about the need for gentle speech, about turning conversations into blessings. And when you think of it, we have the perfect vehicle for that – the Hebrew word “shalom,” which means hello and goodbye – and peace. So, when you are saying farewell to someone, you are also granting them a blessing, wishing them peace.
We need to recapture the language of blessing in all that we say.
This past year, we ran a terrific series of conversations here on Israel, produced by the Hartman Institute, and no hot button was left un-pushed. We came out of it having heard multiple narratives, and it brought us all closer, to Israel and to one another. This past year, we also brought Danny Gordis and Peter Beinart here to have a similar kind of conversation, since their views are so different regarding Israel. We provided a safe space and it was a spectacular evening. These are conversations that even many Israelis can’t have anymore – as was evidenced by Beinart’s recent rude interrogation at Ben Gurion airport.
Yossi Klein Halevi, who was part of that Hartman series, has just written an excellent book designed to promote dialogue, called “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.” I’ll be leading a discussion of that book for the Jewish Historical Society. It’s a series of letters written to an imaginary neighbor living just over the ridge from Yossi’s home on French Hill, in Jerusalem. He makes the case for Israel unapologetically, but in language so sensitive that it invites his neighbor into dialogue. He’s even has offered a free copy of his book in Arabic to anyone who wants it. It’s one of the better efforts to promote dialogue that I have seen in recent years.
His seventh letter is entitled, appropriately for Rosh Hashanah, “Isaac and Ishmael,” and in it, Klein Halevi speaks of the multiple narratives of today’s Torah reading, the climax of which takes place on Mount Moriah. The chapter discusses what Jews misunderstand about Islam and what Muslims misunderstand about Jews. For instance, Muslims need to know that there is no Israeli government plot to blow up the Al Aksa Mosque. In fact, the Jewish belief is that at the end of days, the Temple Mount will be a place of prayer for all peoples, not exclusively Jews. “Ki bayti bet tefilla yikaray l’chol amim.” says Isaiah, “For My house shall be a house of worship for all peoples.”
And on the other hand, Klein Halevi states, Jews need to appreciate the depth of the Muslim connection to Al Aksa. We typically scoff, saying, “Well, it’s “only” the third holiest place in Islam – as if holiness can be quantified. It’s holy. It’s a big deal.
Peace is about mutual respect, and that begins with hearing the narrative of the Other. Klein-Halevi goes on to tell his partner in fictitious dialogue, “We must recognize the ways in which we are, for each other, the embodiments of our greatest fears… My side needs to stop reinforcing the Muslim trauma of colonialism, and your side, the Jewish trauma of destruction.”
What he’s saying holds true for any relationship, as much in a marriage, for instance, as in political dialogue. We’ve gotta stop pushing people’s buttons.
He then adds that the two faiths contain resources to help us live in peace and dignity as neighbors. He looks at how Jewish sources view Ishmael – and through him, the Arab and Muslim peoples – as violent and coarse, but also as the recipient of divine blessings. Meanwhile, while the Quran considers Jews sinners and ingrates, we are also called a “People of the Book,” and therefore are deserving of respect. We can begin a dialogue right there.
Years ago, Klein Halevi befriended a Sufi sheikh – they were drawn together by the deep curiosity that they shared about the other’s faith. The sheikh once quoted to him a powerful verse from the Quran, “Behold…we have created you out of male and female and made you into nations and tribes so that you might come to know one another.”
It doesn’t say “to kill one another,” but to KNOW one another. And as for the sibling rivalry between Abraham’s two sons, the sheikh said this: “What was Ishmael’s greatness? What was Isaac’s greatness? That they accepted God’s will. Don’t focus on the conflicting details but on the unifying message in the two narratives.”
There are other differences between how Muslims and Jews understand the Bible. When God says he’s going to destroy Sodom, the biblical Abraham challenges God in an act of extreme chutzpah. In the Quran, Abraham quickly acquiesces to God’s will. Klein Halevi says that both models are important – the Holy Chutzpah of the Torah’s Abraham and the Wise Surrender of the Quran’s Ibrahim. Each faith has known both the importance of surrender to the divine will and rigorous questioning of God’s ways. Each has had great men and women of quiet faith, as well as scientists and philosophers that have transformed humanity. Perhaps, he concludes, we can restore each other to balance. Perhaps we need both the Muslim prayer mat and the Jewish study hall, the chutzpah and the surrender.
And indeed, at the end of the Abraham story, Isaac and Ishmael do come together and reconcile – as they bury their father in the Cave of Machpelah, Hebron. Their place of reconciliation has become a place of such strife today.
We need to hear multiple narratives on many fronts, not just regarding Israel. When I was in Vietnam, I was forced to confront a narrative about the war that was not so comfortable to hear. I began taking notes for this sermon, in fact, while in a boat on the Mekong Delta during a brief but intense monsoon-like burst of rain. In my mind’s eye I thought of that famous photo of American soldiers wading through these same muddy waters during the pouring rain, holding their guns over their heads and wondering where the next ambush would come from. But for the Vietnamese, their greatest fear was that the defoliated rainforests alongside the river would never grow back.
It’s important to note that while there are often multiple narratives to hear – in many cases there is only one truth. That’s why God gave us reason, to properly evaluate empirical evidence.
At the Hanoi Hilton they show a video of American POWs supposedly having the time of their lives. It reminded me of the Nazis’ cinematic depiction of Terezin as a Czechoslovakian Club Med. We know that John McCain was tortured. The man couldn’t comb his own hair. That propaganda film is bogus. So while we should always be listening for multiple narratives, we should also never equivocate about truth when we’ve found it. Yes, truth IS truth, after all.
This year, Philip Roth died, and in his life, he presented narratives that were not always popular for American Jews, but we needed to hear them. The very same week as Roth’s passing, Michael Chabon, picked up the Rothian baton and delivered a very controversial speech at the commencement ceremonies at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. I don’t have time to quote from it here but highly recommend that you read it – and I will link to it in the transcript of this sermon.
We need to understand why one of the great American Jewish novelists of his generation feels so alienated from the Judaism of his parents. For he is not alone. We need healing words to reach out to those who are have felt alienated from the mainstream Jewish community, whether about Israel, American politics, interfaith marriage, anything. Whoever has felt left out needs to be heard.
Along those lines, we have been chosen to be one of a dozen congregations nationwide in this year’s cohort for Interfaith Inclusion Leadership Initiative, hoping to learn ways we can more sensitively address the needs of nontraditional families.
I’ve learned, for instance, that even calling an interfaith family “interfaith” may be insulting. Why should we make presumptions? Even the term non-Jew is negative and often a conversation stopper. There are many degrees of those who may not be Jewish by traditional standards but see themselves as being within the Jewish orbit. Some are now using the term “Jewish-adjacent.” Interesting.
Krista Tippett, host of the popular public radio program called “On Being,” has come up with a list of guidelines as to how civil conversations can take place on hot button issues. The Six Grounding Virtues of the Civil Conversations are:
- Words That Matter – use “words that shimmer” — words with power that convey real truths.
- Generous Listening – which is about connection more than observing. Real listening is powered by curiosity. It involves vulnerability — a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity. It is never in “gotcha” mode. The generous listener wants to understand the humanity behind the words of the other, and patiently summons one’s own best self and one’s own most generous words and questions.
- Adventurous Civility – Civility, in our world of change, is about creating new possibilities for living forward while being different and even continuing to hold profound disagreement.
- Humility – a companion to curiosity, surprise, and delight. Spiritual humility is not about getting small. It is about encouraging others to be big. It is not about debasing oneself, but about approaching everything and everyone with a readiness to be surprised and delighted.
- Patience, which is not to be mistaken for meekness. It can be the fruit of a full-on reckoning with reality — a commitment to move through the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. A spiritual view of time is a long view of time — seasonal and cyclical, resistant to the illusion of time as a bully, time as a matter of deadlines. Human transformation takes time — longer than we want it to — but it is what is necessary for social transformation. A long, patient view of time will replenish our sense of our capacities and our hope for the world. And…
- Hospitality, a bridge to all the great virtues. You don’t have to love or forgive or feel compassion to extend hospitality. But it’s more than an invitation. It is the creation of an inviting, trustworthy space. It creates the intention, the spirit, and the boundaries for what is possible.
Nine centuries ago, Maimonides provided a roadmap for dialogue. He spoke of both the content and tone of proper speech, saying that a Torah scholar should not shriek while speaking, greet everyone cheerfully and judge everyone in a favorable light, never shaming a person in public. No interrupting, the Rambam adds. Give the benefit of the doubt, love peace and pursue it.
Maimonides also was a great advocate for silence, which he called a safeguard for wisdom, and for not obsessing with our own needs. He quotes Ecclesiastes in saying, “The words of the wise are heard in tranquility.” He was a big advocate for honesty. He also said, “It is forbidden to deceive people,” and he gave the example of someone who invites a colleague over for dinner at a time when the colleague can’t possibly make it. He disdained hypocrisy, mockery, and excessive frivolity.
And so, as we enter this year of Tet, of Tov, of goodness, let our words be healing words. Use only a milah tova, a good and kind word. We all need to learn how better to listen and to convey love in our language. And we need to show, in all that we say and do, that… Hate has no home here.
And it never will.
Rabbi Moshe Cordorvero stated, “You should never speak ill of any human or any animal, or any creature of God.” We were taught the exact same lesson by Koko the gorilla. I will try to be more mindful of my words as I enter this year. If I call someone a dog, that creature will always have four legs. It might be Chloe.
…Or Chloe’s new brother.
Yes, just a few days ago, we drove to upstate New York, and there we met a five-week-old back ball of poodle puppy fur.
A year and a half after Crosby’s passing, it’s time to fill that void with new life. Chloe didn’t join us in this visit, but I figured out just the strategy to soften the blow when her new brother comes home. You see, there’s one thing Chloe loves almost as much as her family – and that’s hallah. For her, hallah is like a piece of cake. Like the cake that melted the hardened heart of Issam Sa’ad.
And when we met our new puppy, we taught him his first good word, a milah tova – his name. Casey.
He’s only got 1,999 words to go to catch up to Koko the gorilla.
And then I taught him two more kind words.
“Kelev Tov.” “Good boy.”
And he is truly a good boy.
May this new year bring peace and healing to everyone, to the House of Israel, to the American people, and to the world.