Friday, July 21, 2017

Parashat Mattot: Seeing The Other

The ad took up a full page in the newspaper. A prayer, a Jewish prayer, for soldiers going off to war, presented by the religious leader of the local community, beginning with the Shema in transliterated Hebrew, and ending with the words of the Psalms: “For thy salvation do I hope, O Lord!” The prayer, fitting a time of war, beseeches God to defeat the enemy, to inspire the young soldier and watch over them, and to watch over the welfare of the country and its leadership. The local Jewish community, having seen this prayer, watching their own children and their neighbors’ children go off to war, must have found it inspiring, and the Christian community, I suspect, found it encouraging as well.
The prayer I’m referring to is the Prayer for Confederate soldiers, written by Rev. M. J. Michelbacher, “minister” of the Hebrew Congregation, “House of Love” in Richmond Virginia, now headed by my colleague Scott Nagel. The enemy invoked in the prayer is, of course, the North, the Union…you know, the good guys. And here is a Jewish prayer celebrating what we know and understand, and what many of our Movement’s founders understood, to be the bad guys, the Confederacy.
It would be really easy for us to dismiss this as a particular stain of our history, but a minor one, that little shadow on the tablecloth where the wine got spilled at Seder once. We could blow it off, or explain it away, or justify it in a hundred different ways: a product of its time and place, the local Jews were afraid to speak out against injustice, etc. and so forth. Or we could just ignore it, and celebrate Jewish abolitionists and later civil rights leaders and pretend it’s not there. But there it is, beautifully and thoughtfully written by the local Jewish leader, publicized and memorialized at a time of great conflict, as Michelman writes, “this once happy country inflamed”.
That part should sound familiar to us. Perhaps you’ve moved on from the gnashing of teeth and bitter divide of 2016, and if you have, I commend you. I’m still a mess, and let me be clear; I’m a mess as much over the division between people—the anger, the howling rage and alienation—as I am over any particular policy or political stance. We are very quick to see one another as enemies instead of neighbors. We are being “Othered” from one another; along divisions old and new. And we are increasingly insulating ourselves from people who are different and with whom we agree, happily dismissing their lived experience. When the threat from the Majority leader in the senate is they may have to collaborate and compromise with the other side of the aisle, I think it’s safe to say that our ability to relate to each other is pretty trashed.
What happens when we see each other as enemies? Our Torah portion gives us an example of that. Moses is preparing Israel to finally, finally enter the promised land, when the tribes of Reuben and Gad make a modest proposal. You see, the lands just outside what would be Israel happen to be great land for cattle, which was Reuben and Gad’s thing. They ask, rather than enter the land, if they could settle just outside, where it makes more sense for their livelihood. “It would be a favor for us” they say.
Well, they may have thought that was a reasonable request, but Moses instead hears treachery and cowardice. Moses accuses them of being rebels, just like the previous generations, letting their brothers in the other tribes go to fight while they betray their loyalty to God. They don’t want land for their cattle; they just want to blow up the whole enterprise and ruin Israel, just like the previous rebels did. That Reuben—the tribe behind the last rebellion—was asking for this favor didn’t help. It takes both tribes declaring that they would go into the land and fight in front of the rest of the tribes as shock troops, as the vanguard, to calm Moses down from his wrath and help him see that they in fact were not trying to betray Israel, but do what was right for their families.
Moses doesn’t see fellow Israelites looking for their own interests asking permission and blessing for their choices; he sees—through the lens of previous experience—enemies trying to destroy God’s people. In fact we see a role-reversal of Moses here; instead of being the gentle and understanding one who patiently explains God’s commandments to a rebellious people, the commentator Abravanel imagines the leaders of the tribe stepping forward and explaining again, quietly, so Moses understands the request, desperately trying not to embarrass him.
How often are we Moses, quick to anger, to assume we know the other’s motivations, and those motivations have to be harmful, or na├»ve, or foolish? How much easier is it for us to speak to like-minded people about how we see them, those who would harm us, rather than step forward to speak patiently, quietly with those who would disagree with us? We talk about loving the neighbor and the stranger, but do we practice what we preach?
In her book “From Enemy to Friend”, Rabbi Amy Eilberg talks about different spiritual practices, even simple ones, to help us get beyond seeing the other as “Other”. Deepening our curiosity rather than our defensiveness by asking questions, checking in to our reaction to conflict and being self-aware of how we viscerally respond to others, trying to speak as our seeming opponent and explain from her point of view, even something as simple as asking ourselves “Are you sure?” when our inclination is to dig in. Any of those would give us the tools Moses lacked in the parasha, to truly see and embrace the other, minimize stereotyping and blame, while still upholding our own values and beliefs, in order to come to understanding. I think it is possible, but only if we put in the effort, the spiritual work of slowing down our own gut reaction to conflict.
The Prayer for a Confederate Soldier begins and ends with the Shema, our prayer from Deuteronomy, reminding us that God is One. But Oneness is not Sameness, and the rabbis remind us that God’s greatness is that we are all, as different and diverse as we are, created in God’s image, and that makes us sacred. So I pray not for victory against enemies, but to help us see those differences as holy; not for victory, but for love, not for victory, but for understanding. Not for victory, but Wholeness, for Shalom. May it be so. Amen.