Sermon: Creating a Shelter of Peace
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As I struggled to settle on which important topic to open our High Holy Days with, I found myself coming back again and again to an incident I experienced a couple weeks ago. I was scrolling through my facebook feed late at night and a post by a family member caught my eye. This person and I disagree on most things, but typically we do so in an educated, respectful manner. The post stood out because placed right between a donkey and an elephant was a N azi flag at the top of a chart comparing the US Democratic and Republican parties to the Nazi party in Germany during WWII. This particular post claimed that US Democrats hold values in line with the Nazi party.
I sat there on my couch in my living room trying to decide what to do. Did I further engage and try to explain why the comparison of the Nazi party to American politics is so far off base, or was I to begin with the issue of the normalization of Nazi imagery across social media platforms.
It is not accurate to claim that any extremist group on either side represents the whole party monolithically. Nor is it accurate to claim that one administration on either side represents the whole party monolithically. American politics exist for the most part within the binary structure of Democrats and Republicans, but the people who vote within those parties have varied opinions and values. We must not reduce an entire political party, on either side to its worst members. Then there is the issue of comparing any mainstream American political party to Nazi Germany. The Nazis performed systematic genocide against millions of people. The tragedies of the Holocaust should not be used as a political comparison tool.
In my response, I started with a straight forward plea, asking him to stop comparing mainstream American political parties to Nazi Germany. I asked if he understood what message was sending his followers, or if he even cared… His response was that he was sharing stuff that was “on point,” and “eye opening.” I could go on with everything he said, but it was all just his attempt to win. He was so sure that this was an accurate portrayal that at one point he suggested it be placed in our public school history books.
He sent me paragraph after paragraph trying to prove the claims in his post. As his messages continued into the next day, I decided to offer one final response before disengaging completely from the conversation. I said, “Naziism can not be separated into parts for people to use the bits that work for them.Republicans are not Nazis, and neither are Democrats. Nazis are Nazis. They need to be left in the past, and modern iterations should not be tolerated.” I continued, “What you don’t understand is that every time references to Nazis and swastikas are shared to social media, it normalizes them. Comparing them to any of our political parties is neither accurate or acceptable.This normalization of Nazis and white supremacy is creating more violence and hate in this nation. It is statistically proven that antisemitism has been on a sharp increase since 2016. I feel it every time I leave my house showing any outward appearance of being Jewish, like the kippah I often wear atop my head.” I even offered him the invitation to find other ways to criticize the policies and parties he disagrees with. Then I shared that I would like to live in a world where it is safe for me and others to be our authentic different selves. Finally, I let him know that I was going to unfriend him, because I did not want to continue to engage with posts that cross far beyond the boundaries of what I am willing to tolerate.
Many of you have heard me preach in favor of keeping opposition voices in our social media feeds and our personal circles to avoid existing in echo chambers, seeing and hearing our own opinions on constant replay. However, I want to add an important caveat, which is that no one should be required to subject themselves to messages and symbols of hate groups, the incitement of violence against others, or the posts and comments designed to pit people and groups against each other. All of these are examples of toxic behavior. According to Psychology Today, “people with toxic behavior will often be disrespectful of boundaries. They may speak critically of others or rudely to others. Some may frequently interrupt people who are in conversation. The worst will likely manipulate others to meet their own needs, or undercut colleagues or friends to their own advantage.”
I am not saying that I or any of us is innocent of all these behaviors. Sometimes we cross lines that we wish we could walk back, in a conversation and even writing. This is how we learn boundaries and respect. Boundaries need to be tested. We need to learn to think critically without being critical of others. And we must find ways to listen before, during, and after speaking up.
In the situation I described, I decided it had gone too far. We had spent the past several months discussing and debating the facts about the pandemic, issues around race and equality, and politics in general. Both his unwillingness to listen to my personal knowledge and experience of antisemitism, and his inability to see that he was causing me anguish was disappointing beyond comprehension.
From this I learned that sometimes, it is best to disengage, and yes, even to unfriend someone if they have crossed the line.
In our Shabbat and High Holy Day liturgy, we ask Adonai to spread over us a shelter of peace in the prayer. We ask to be defended against enemies, illness, war, famine and sorrow, and to distance us from wrongdoing.
In Rabbi Chaim Stern’s version of the Hashkiveinu prayer, he connects with a Talmudic prayer recited by Rabbi Elazar. The Talmud says, “May it be Your will Adonai, that our lot will dwell in love and brotherhood, peace and friendship.” Stern poetically reimagined this quote writing, “Let there be love and understanding among us. Let peace and friendship be our shelter from life's storms. Adonai, help us to walk with good companions, to live with hope in our hearts and eternity in our thoughts, that we may lie down in peace and rise up waiting to do your will.”
I can not think of a more poignant message as we are faced with tackling multiple burdens, including political turmoil, a global pandemic, destructive climate change, the continued unjust murders of black and brown people, threats of nuclear war in the Middle East, and these are just to name a few… Asking God to “defend us against enemies, illness, war, famine, and sorrow” makes a lot of sense right now.
However I wonder where in spreading this shelter of peace do we hold responsibility. Do we have any individual stake in creating peace in the world and in our own lives? (pause) My hope is that by now you have responded yes, of course we hold some of the responsibility!
When someone asks “what does it mean to be Jewish,” we usually hear or offer a response that “to be jewish” is to do… fill in the blank- to follow halakhah, to do acts of justice, to commit to lifelong study, to participate in community, and so on and so on. Our way of existing in the world is not to believe that God will take care of everything for us, but to follow the lessons and the values we have learned through Jewish text and tradition to make sound decisions about our lives and the way we impact the world around us.
Chaim Stern looked at the Hashkiveinu and saw an opportunity to infuse it with action and individual responsibility. Through the lessons of Rabbi Elazar in the Talmud, Stern teaches us that we should build communities on the foundation of love and understanding. When life gets difficult we should seek peace and reach out to friends to find shelter and hope. While Stern includes Adonai in the prayer, it does not ask God to do the work for us, but to help us create this world of peace. To help us form relationships with good companions. To help us remain optimistic even in difficult times. And finally to help us rest at night, and get back out of bed the next morning.
It is kind of like building a house… but metaphorically:
Building a house consists of many different parts. Some play large roles, such as the foundation and walls which hold the house up, and the roof which protects the inside from weather. Other parts play smaller roles, like the plumbing under the sink and the deadbolt on the front door. Each piece is important for the house to to function as a home by keeping a family safe and comfortable. Missing some pieces would be devastating, while missing others might simply cause setbacks and frustrations.
Each of us builds a metaphorical home for ourselves. Each room is composed of different intersecting groups with which we identify. The parts and pieces are made up of individual relationships and values that we hold. They don’t all have to match, but they exist together under the same roof. If a large supportive section of our metaphorical home falls and we find ourselves in a difficult situation, we reach out for help. When a small situation occurs, we assess its damage, attempt to fix it if desired, and if it is beyond repair we remove it and replace it.
This same theory can be applied to just about everything and everyone we are involved with. We are each responsible for maintaining the structure of our own metaphorical homes. We can reach out for help when we need it, but when we see a problem we can not just look away. Like a leaky faucet can lead to a flood in a house, a toxic relationship can lead to a breakdown in your own social and family systems. Sometimes things can be repaired, and other times we must remove them and move forward with something new.
As we enter into the cycle of the new year, may each of our metaphorical homes stand tall and strong, filled with love and peace. May we reflect on the ways that we exist in the lives of those around us, and adjust our actions and reactions through the perspective of optimism and understanding whenever possible.
Ufros Aleinu Sukat Shlomecha. May Adonai spread over us a shelter of peace.
Mishkan T’filah, CCAR Press, p160-161.
Talmud, Berakhot 16b