June is LGBTQ Pride Month, 2018

Image: “We are ALL made in God’s Image” in Hebrew and English, on a poster identifying the group from Temple Sinai, Oakland in the Oakland Pride Parade in 2016. For full picture, see the end of this article. All rights reserved, Linda Burnett.

When I think of “Pride Month” I think of stories:

I think of the queer folk at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, fighting back and starting what would come to be known as the Stonewall Riots. Click the link, or Google them, and learn your history, fellow LGBTQs. They weren’t respectable. They weren’t nice. But all the rest of us owe them for the progress we’ve made since. I was 14 and hadn’t heard the word “lesbian” yet, but my life had changed for the better, even though I didn’t know it yet.

I think of my first SF Gay Pride, in maybe 1987 . I was not yet “out,” and was terrified to come out, because as the mother of two small children I knew that there was a lot at stake. Women like me lost children to homophobic relatives all the time in those days. One court wasn’t deterred by the fact that dad was a convicted murderer: he was still seen as a better parent than the lesbian.

I think of the next Pride in SF, when I was out, and I took the kids. It was a defining moment for our family – we were not going back in any closets. Jim asked me why the guys on the Folsom Street float were dressed in leather. I told him, “They like to play dress up.” He nodded his five year old head and promptly lost interest in them, but the bear float guys throwing teddy bears into the crowd won his heart.

I think about the next few Pride marches in SF; the AIDS epidemic was raging. ACT-UP was re-teaching the lesson from Stonewall: fighting for our rights could not be “nice” because we were fighting for our very lives. I wasn’t at much risk for AIDS, but I saw what was happening to the guys, and I saw what the courts were doing to LGBTQ parents, and I knew that we were all fighting for our lives.

I think about how times have changed, and how people haven’t changed. We’re in the middle of backlash now: certain folks are trying to roll back the advances made by people of color, LGBTQ people, women, disabled people.

We must remember that we are all in this together. We must not let the  social conservatives roll back the calendar to the bad old days. “Social conservatives” sounds so nice, like sociable jam or something – but relative to us, they aren’t nice, not one bit. You may not have my rights, social conservatives. I will fight you every step of the way.

Celebrate! because they don’t want us to. Be proud! because if we aren’t, who will? And fight back, in the primaries, in the general election, whenever you have a shot at a voting booth, vote!

Judaism is unequivocal on the necessity of speaking up when something is wrong. Leviticus 19 commands that we not stand by while another human being bleeds. Hillel speaks of the necessity of speaking up for ourselves and for others:

If I am not for myself, who is for me? When I am for myself, what am I? If not now, when? – Pirkei Avot 1:14

This Pride month, let us be for ourselves and for one another and against hatred in all its disguises.

Pride Parade Sinai Group
Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin,far right, with 4 members of Temple Sinai of Oakland, including me. Photo by Linda Burnett, all rights reserved.
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Angry that US Agencies Separate Families? Some Things to Do.

Image: A crying child. (TaniaVdB/Pixabay)

Last week I wrote Human is Human is Human, looking at the fact that my government, to whom I pay taxes, is using those resources to punish immigrant families by separating parents from children at the borders.  While this is not the first appearance of this behavior in American history, it is reprehensible. Several readers had good suggestions for action. I’ve seen several other suggestions online. Here’s a compilation of options for those who want to right this wrong:

The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights is an organization dedicated to protecting immigrant children. Support them with donations and publicity; they don’t get a lot of attention and they do great work. ( from Slow Lorist)
Support the ACLU in their legal work on this issue.
Contact Your Elected Officials. Write, tweet, email, phone – you know the drill. Be clear, be concise, say how you feel and what you want. Avoid swear words and hyperbole, and don’t make threats. (The link will take you to the League of Women Voters page that can get addresses and other contact info.)
Educate Yourself. Two different issues have been conflated by some concerned individuals. This link will take you to an article in which the Washington Post sorts the issue out a bit. It’s a very important article.  This article from the Political Charge blog has both good information and excellent suggestions for action.
Use Social Media Judiciously. If you are a user of social media, you can help by several strategies.  First – I cannot say this strongly enough! – educate yourself on the issue. Focus what you want to say. Then when you are ready to say it, you can do these things:
– On Twitter: We can boost the signal of Congresspersons and Senators who express concern about this issue. Retweet them. “Like” their messages. This accomplishes two things: it brings attention to the issue and it rewards legislators who are doing the right thing. This is one time when we CAN influence someone even if we aren’t in their district. Remember that these are the people who actually have the power to do something.
– On Twitter: We can boost the signal of particularly good messages on the subject. One of the beauties of Twitter is that we don’t have to generate content: we can save time by making good content go farther.
– On Twitter: Beware of coarse language, name-calling, etc. It does not add emphasis to what we say. Instead of calling someone a bad name, say, “I’m angry about….” Be direct.
– On Facebook: We can link to good, informative articles if we are sure they are good information. We can refrain from publicizing dubious info.
– In both venues: Boost what’s good. Ignore what’s bad, or reply with a link to better information. Ignore, mute, or block bad actors. Fighting with them excites and rewards them, and attracts attention to them, which isn’t going to help.
– In both venues: Remember that not everything we read can be trusted. The more sensational a story is, the less likely it is to be true. See what the major journalistic outfits (NYT, Washington Post, NBC, ABC, CBS, BBC, NPR) have to say before we spread a story.
These principles apply in other social media venues as well – I mention these because they are the ones I use.
I hope that something here is helpful. Let’s do what we can.
If you are interested in following me or interacting on Twitter, you can find me at @CoffeeShopRabbi. 

The Tannaim, Models for Action

Image: The kever (grave) of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. (PikiWikiIsrael)

I’ve had a lot of trouble writing blog posts lately. Part of it is that I’ve been living on the mitzvah plan, getting through one day at a time doing mitzvot. Individually, I’ve had health challenges and work challenges. And as with many of you, the stresses that come with membership in my various communities have taken a toll.

I am worried by the rise in hate speech and hate crimes. I am worried by the loss of civility that I see all around me. I am worried by the “all or nothing” attitude I hear from most of the voices I hear, the absolute unwillingness to compromise. I worry about Israel. I worry about the United States. I worry that we are entering a period of history when democracy is drowned out by fascism and corruption.

The ancient rabbis we know as Tannaim (rabbis from 10-200 CE) lived in very troubled times. They lived in the Roman province known first as Judea and later as Palestina, through two disastrous attempts to throw off Roman rule. Many of them were hunted men, and we remember ten of them every year on Yom Kippur in the prayer known as Eleh Ezkerah, “These I remember.”

Lately I feel close to those rabbis: Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Meir, and the others. They lived at a time when history swirled around them. They did work that has lasted for centuries: they midwifed Rabbinic Judaism into being. They assembled the Mishnah.  They made some terrible mistakes, too: Rabbi Akiva encouraged Shimon ben Kosevah to lead a revolt against Rome, renaming him “Shimon bar Kokhba,” Simon, son of the Star. The revolt ended in 135 CE with the Land in ruins and the Jews in exile.

Living in the middle of tumultuous times, they did not allow those times to paralyze them. Instead, they took action: Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai seized an opportunity to negotiate a place for a rabbinic school as Jerusalem was burning. Rabbi Akiva gave Shimon ben Kosevah his support, because he thought Shimon could lead a successful revolt. Rabban Gamaliel traveled to Rome to plead for his people with the Emperor Domition in 95 CE. Judah haNasi recognized a moment at which precious Torah knowledge might be lost forever, and broke with tradition to write down the first part of the Oral Torah, the Mishnah.

I look at what those rabbis did, under conditions of great stress and danger, and I am challenged to step up in my own time. I write postcards to my elected officials. I joined a study group on prison reform in California. I have committed to start a book group to study racism. I have amended my own coursework to better address the divisions in the Jewish world, and prepare my students to do better in their own generation. I try to keep my mind and calendar open for opportunities to do good, whether it is a little mitzvah no one will ever see or a public action, like showing up for a demonstration.

Tough times call for action. I know that you have your own worry lists. I am aware that your lives are full of challenges. Still, I implore you not to be paralyzed by the times. Find ways to make this world better, not worse. That action will take different forms for different people; we all have different strengths and abilities. But now, more than ever, it is important that we recall that we are God’s hands in this world. As Rabbi Tarfon (another tanna) taught us:

Rabbi Tarfon used to say: The day is short, the task is great, the laborers are lazy, the wage is abundant and the master is urgent. …You do not have to finish the task, but you are not free to give up. If you have studied much Torah much reward will be given you, for your employer is faithful, and he will pay you the reward of your labor. And know that the reward for the righteous shall be in the time to come.  – Avot 2.20-21

If you are willing to share, I would love to hear what actions you are taking right now to make your part of the world better. It does not have to be earth-shaking; better that it is something small that can inspire me and others to continue to do our best, too.

I hope you will share your stories in the comments!

For the Questions We Have Failed to Ask, O God, Forgive Us

Image: Intersection of 4th Avenue and Main Street in Franklin, Tennessee today, not far from the place where Samuel Bierfield was murdered. (ichabod via wikimedia, some rights reserved.)

This is a story about teshuvah: mine.

I grew up in Williamson County, Tennessee, a rural county south of Nashville. Today it is filled with suburbs and shopping centers, but back then there were few paved roads and no city water. We were acutely aware of the Civil War, because the countryside was littered with minie balls and other detritus from the battles.  People make pilgrimages to visit the Carter House, which is still riddled with bullet holes.  For the most part, what I heard from adults about “the War” was the standard Lost Cause story. There was little discussion of the institution of slavery and absolutely none of Reconstruction or the years that followed.

This situation is changing for the better.  I see on the Battle of Franklin Trust website that they have recently added a “Slavery and the Enslaved” tour to recall Frank Carter and the other souls who worked the land and built the economy of the area.  At its peak, in the 1850’s, the Carter House farm made use of 28 enslaved human beings. My thanks for that information to Kristi Farrow, a genealogist with the Battle of Franklin Trust. I am glad there are many people now involved in the holy work of remembering what should not be forgotten.

Last week I saw a CNN piece about the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice soon to open in Montgomery, AL. The museum has exhibits about slavery, about Reconstruction, and about Jim Crow. There is a memorial to the “more than 4400 African American men, women, and children were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, and beaten to death by white mobs between 1877 and 1950.” (Quotation from the memorial website.) I realized, not for the first time, that although I was raised in a place that was absolutely obsessed with history, there was a lot of history I didn’t know about the place I grew up.  On a whim, I googled, “Williamson County Tennessee lynching.”

I got an education.

I learned that there had indeed been lynchings in my home county.  I, who had written a history for a church in Franklin, who could at one time tell you reams of detail about Franklin life in the 19th century, had no idea that there had been public hangings from the courthouse railings. I had no idea how active the KKK had been in Williamson County. I had no idea that there were many, many lynchings in the town and in the green hills of the countryside. It had never occurred to me to ask questions about any of this; I was as guilty as everyone else who has failed to ask and failed to remember. 

Farther down the Google offerings, I found another surprise: the first Jew ever lynched in the United States was a man named Samuel Bierfield, murdered in the summer of 1868 on Main Street in Franklin. The whole story, with all its complications, is beautifully laid out in The Untold Story of the First Jewish Lynching in America by Paul Berger in The Forward.

In 1868, the county was in the first stages of Reconstruction, and Bierfield was undeniably a “carpetbagger” (new resident from somewhere north, with an eye to opportunities in the postwar South) and a “foreigner.” He moved from Riga, Latvia to Toronto in the late 1850’s. In 1866 he moved south to Franklin, TN in hopes of making his way in the world. His letters back to family in Toronto reflect the ups and downs of his dry-goods store on Main Street in Franklin. On July 6, 1867 he wrote a letter to his parents about his losses due to a riot the week before, a battle between white and black citizens on Main Street.

1867 was a volatile time in Middle Tennessee. Blacks who had until recently been enslaved were now free and had high hopes for a better life. Most white men were Confederate veterans who had thereby forfeited their right to vote in the renewed Union. There was devastation all around and a great anger in many people.  Where, exactly, Samuel Bierfield fit into that mix is uncertain; perhaps it would be more true to say that he likely did not fit in at all. He had an unusual accent and he wasn’t a citizen, although he applied for citizenship in 1867. He is known to have waited on blacks in his store, which would be evidence enough for angry whites to decide that he was the enemy. We have no record that the lynching was about his Jewishness. Rather, it was more likely over his friendliness to the freed men and women in Franklin.

So why write all this on my “Basic Judaism” blog? I am writing to say that it is absolutely imperative that we all keep learning. I was so certain that I knew “all about” Franklin and it turns out that I knew only the parts of the story that I had been told.

God gave us brains. We can continue learning past age 13.  Whether the conversation is about race in America or the situation in Israel, we have to keep our ears open for the story we have not yet learned. If we only listen to the stories we like, we limit ourselves and do an injustice to others. Instead of framing things as “our” side of the story and “their” side of the story, it is time we recognized that we are in all the stories – together. When the two “sides” don’t match, maybe there is still more to learn.

So what’s my teshuvah plan? I’m going to keep learning for my own knowledge, but I won’t stop there. I’m gathering information about how best I can support education about the journey from slavery to freedom, so that the next generation will be less ignorant than I was.

For all the questions we have failed to ask, O God, forgive us! Let us go forward seeking both shalom (peace) and tzedek (justice.)

Wrestling With God: the problem of suffering

Image: Two men wrestling (skeeze/Pixabay)

A reader wrote to me:

I find myself in the middle of a trying time, and it’s put me in an odd place that challenges my thinking about life, purpose, hope, Hashem, surrender, etc, and not entirely in a good way. … Wrestling with Hashem or, well, feeling lost or abandoned, specifically, is the kind of thing I’m looking for.

 

 

Jewish tradition teaches us that every life has tsuris (trouble.) Bad things happen. Some bad things are relatively small and some are true tragedy. Some make us sad for a while, and some things leave a mark that will stay with us forever. Some people have a year with one tragedy after another, and others appear to live charmed lives but may have secret sorrows that few of their friends know about.

Some misfortunes come from nature (earthquakes, tornadoes) and some from human carelessness or cruelty. The latter can be particularly difficult when the other person justifies their behavior, or simply doesn’t care. On the other hand, when an earthquake destroys my home, how am I to understand God’s role in what my insurance company may call “an act of God”?

When these things happen, we may indeed feel lost or even abandoned by God. It may set off a spiritual crisis: what is the point of being good, if bad things will happen anyway? What is the role of God in my suffering? What can a righteous person do when everything has gone horribly wrong?

Jewish tradition offers many answers to these questions, and we are free to find the answer that best fits our situation.

Deuteronomy says that trouble comes when we have been bad; if we are good, nothing bad will happen to us. Almost immediately, though, other books of the Bible explored why it is that bad things happen to good people, and the rabbis followed up with more discussion which continues to this day.

It is reasonable, when faced with misfortune, to ask, “Did I bring this on myself?” If the answer is “yes” then it is an opportunity to learn, and to make teshuvah if my mistake harmed anyone else. We have to take responsibility for our mistakes and misdeeds.

If the misfortune is the result of human misbehavior, it is reasonable for us to seek justice. Torah has many examples of people seeking justice. Ordinary Hebrews came to Moses and later to the judges for justice. (Exodus 18: 13-24) Tamar sought justice from Judah, who avoided her. She took extraordinary steps to receive what she was due, and he eventually acknowledged that she had been right. (Genesis 38) The daughters of Zelophehad believed that a law was unjust, and appealed to Moses. God agreed that the law was unjust and corrected it. (Numbers 27)

Sometimes we seek justice and cannot find it. Psalm 58 is a cry against the injustice of human beings and institutions. It ends with confidence in the justice of God, that God will punish authorities who judge unfairly. It is a very satisfying prayer to read when one feels wronged.

This brings us to the question of what to do when it is God who seems to be unfair. If God is both powerful and good, then why do bad things happen to innocents? The Book of Job explores the question. First we have the so-called comforters, who have read Deuteronomy and insist that Job must have done something to deserve his terrible losses. Job rejects their advice, and expresses frustration with the mysteriousness of God. He demands answers of God. In reply, God gives the “Whirlwind” speech in chapter 38, asserting that God’s plans are mysteries beyond the human mind.

The Book of Lamentations offers us another model, one that is uniquely Jewish. We are in a covenant relationship with God, and we can lament our loss and our pain. Lament is the passionate expression of grief or sorrow. The voices in Lamentations acknowledge that the people of Judah did not heed the warnings of the prophets, but they grieve and complain about their suffering. A great city and a beautiful Temple were destroyed. People died. Terrible things happened. And as the voices express all of the emotions, they are confident that God listens. God has to listen, because there is a covenant. We can pray prayers of lamentation when we are suffering. We can say, “God, pay attention to my suffering! I do not meekly accept it!” In other words, we can be angry with God.

Another answer from tradition: Some of the ancient rabbis and mystics suggested that the answer to injustice lay in the afterlife. If things are not fair in this world, they will be set right in the next.

Some authorities suggest that suffering is a test. In the first line of Genesis 22, God tests Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son. In the story, God sends an angel at the last minute to stop Abraham from killing Isaac, once he has passed the test. Certainly we can frame sufferings as a test, but it is for many an unsatisfying answer.

Other answers say that suffering teaches us things, that it is an opportunity to grow spiritually, or even that it is a special gift from God. To all that, I say a doubtful “maybe.” It is certainly possible to learn and grow from suffering. It is also possible to be destroyed by it. I would never, ever say to someone who is suffering, “You will be a better person for suffering this.”

My favorite text on suffering from the tradition is aggadah in the Talmud:

Rabbi Chiya bar Abba had fallen sick. Rabbi Yochanan went to visit him, and asked, “Are these afflictions dear to you?” Rabbi Chiya replied, “Neither they nor their reward!” Rabbi Yochanan said, “Give me your hand.” Rabbi Chiya gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yochanan revived him. Later, Rabbi Yochanan was ill, and Rabbi Chanina went to see him. He asked the same question. Events proceeded exactly as in the first story: Rabbi Chanina asked, Rabbi Yochanan replied, “Neither they nor their reward,” Rabbi Chanina asked for his hand, and Rabbi Yochanan was revived. [The text then asks why Rabbi Yochanan needed help, since he had been able to revive Rabbi Chiya. The answer:  “A captive cannot release himself from prison.” – a paraphrase of Berakhot 5a

Each of the rabbis who suffers is asked if his suffering is dear to him, and each rabbi says, “neither they nor their reward!” In other words, if it is a lesson, they don’t want the lesson. If there is a reward for it in the next life, they don’t want that. If it is a test, or a gift, or whatever it is – they don’t want it! They don’t want to suffer.

Then each time, the visitor says, “Give me your hand.” And what revives them is the touch of another person. They cannot heal themselves; but in relationship with another human being, they get relief.

The answer to suffering, for me, is not about God. I think the Book of Job and Maimonides are right: I am not capable of understanding God. What comfort there is comes from the touch of another hand. I have to reach out: I have to take some initiative to connect. But when I am suffering, if I will reach out, if someone will return the touch, my suffering will be reduced.

That is why it is so important that we respond to the suffering of others when we are able. God is not going to appear in a fiery chariot from the sky to fix suffering. God has created each of us with a heart and hands that can reach out. We are here to do the work of God in the world. If we have the power to fix something, wonderful! But even when we cannot fix anything, we can be present. We can notice. We can care.

As the activists of Black Lives Matter say, #SayTheirNames. We can acknowledge suffering, we can be witnesses to it. We can have the courage to remain aware and present even when it is uncomfortable to do so.

 

This world is full of trouble. People get sick. Old age is hard. Pets die. Children suffer. Children die! Sometimes unjust leaders are in charge. Even the most powerful of us need help sometimes, for as the story says, a captive cannot release himself from prison. What we can do is reach out to one another. Sometimes we can fix things; usually what we can do is extend a hand and say, “You are not alone. I’m here with you.”

And in that moment of connection, the Holy One is there.

 

 

Our Orgy of Anger

Image: A young woman with steam coming out of her ears. (Komposita/Pixabay)

Yesterday I threw a tantrum and wrote about my anger and disgust at the prevalence of gun violence in the United States. The article hit a nerve: I rarely get such a large response to a post in its first 24 hours. Many of the replies I received had a single message: “Yes! I’m angry too!”

And when it comes to guns, we are really angry. Gun owners feel slandered by every other word from the anti-gun left. People who don’t like guns are angry when they hear  “thoughts and prayers” as the only response to gun violence.

So one group of people say the problem is guns. The other group of people say the problem is violent people, be they mentally ill or just plain bad. (“Guns don’t kill people” etc.) Neither group is inclined to change its mind; we are at an impasse, getting angrier and angrier. We luxuriate in our anger; we fairly radiate it.

One of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Arthur Gross-Schaefer, taught me that we humans are prone to see only two answers to any given problem, and that the first thing to do when we are stymied is to look for other possibilities. Today I read an article that suggested another possibility at the root of our gun violence problem.

How to Stop Violence by psychologist Laura L. Hayes makes the case that it is a mistake to frame violent behavior as the product of mental illness. Mentally ill people are mostly harmless, despite what we may have learned in horror films. She cited some persuasive studies and figures:

Paolo del Vecchio of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has said, “Violence by those with mental illness is so small that even if you could somehow cure it all, 95 percent of violent crime would still exist.” A 2009 study by Seena Fazel found a slightly higher rate of violent crime in schizophrenics—but it was almost entirely accounted for by alcohol and drug abuse. Likewise, the MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study found that mentally ill people who did not have a substance abuse problem were no more violent than other people in their neighborhoods.

Dr. Hayes identifies out-of-control anger as the real culprit behind the cascade of gun violence. She suggests that the answer to the violence is not to identify the “bad people” but each of us to take responsibility for the anger epidemic in the country. She concludes:

Uncontrolled anger has become our No. 1 mental health issue. Though we have the understanding and the skills to treat the anger epidemic in this country, as a culture, we have been unwilling to accept the violence problem as one that belongs to each and every one of us. We have sought scapegoats in minority cultures, racial groups, and now the mentally ill. When we are ready to accept that the demon is within us all, we can begin to treat the cycle of anger and suffering.

I’d like to take her analysis a step further. Anger is at the heart not only of this wave of violence, but at the political dysfunction that has paralyzed the nation. Why work with a political opponent when we can cuss him out and have a vast chorus agree with us on FOX or MSNBC? Why work on solutions when we can “enjoy” a permanent rage state on social media, complete with friends and enemies?

We don’t talk like adults about those who disagree with us – and we rarely speak with them at all. We call them hateful words like “idiot” or “moron.” We ridicule their bodies. We make up names like “Orange Cheeto” and “Pocahontas.” We are righteous in our fury and we are loud. Then, when we are worn out with name-calling and rage, we collapse. Nothing improves.

Even within our bubbles, we are poisoned by our rage. Both major political parties seem to spend all their energy on self-destruction. On the left, it’s rare to bring people together now and get anything but combustion: witness the Dyke March debacle last summer and the polarization around Antifa.

Back to gun violence: Whether we focus on mass murders, urban drive-bys, or the epidemic of murder-suicides connected with domestic violence, anger is at the core. Whether the angry person wants revenge on someone in particular or on the world at large, if they don’t know how to deal with their anger in constructive ways, violence is the result.

Most of us learn not to let our anger go so completely out of control. However, as we give increasing permission for angry behavior in others. Our own self-indulgence in anger makes us part of the problem. 

Torah takes the issue of anger very seriously. Moses was barred from ever entering the Promised Land after he lost his temper and hit a rock with his staff.  (Numbers 20)  Readers debate whether that was fair or not, but the message in Torah is clear: losing one’s temper is a very serious matter.

Even God gets angry in the Torah narratives, and God’s uncontrolled anger usually results in disaster. In Exodus 32, God is so angry at the Golden Calf incident that Moses has to talk God out of destroying all the Israelites. This account is concluded with the following, telling line:

And the LORD repented of the evil which He said He would do unto His people. – Exodus 32:14

Even God repented losing God’s temper! This strongly suggests that the ability to keep one’s temper and deal with anger is a Jewish value.

Proverbs 16:32 tells us:

Better to be slow to anger than mighty, To have self-control than to conquer a city.

Rabbinic literature goes on at length about the importance of self-control. Early on, we hear from Shammai, a rabbi who is known to have resorted to violence at a prospective student. Shammai seems to have repented of that behavior, because one of the sayings that come down to us from him is:

Shammai says, “Make your Torah fixed, say little and do much, and receive every person with a pleasant countenance.” – Pirkei Avot, 1:15

Maimonides comments upon that verse:

“a pleasant countenance”: That is when he interacts with the creatures calmly and with pleasant and welcome words. – Rambam on Pirkei Avot 1:15:2.

…In other words, don’t run around angry. Learn to control yourself.

These are just a few examples from the tradition.

If I personally want to do something about the wave of gun violence, perhaps the place to begin are with the things over which I have some control. I can’t control what other people think. I am not the Queen of Congress. And maybe – just maybe – the people I disagree with are right: maybe if I got the laws I wanted, the only people with automatic and semi-automatic guns would be angry bad guys.

No, I will work on the violence problem by practicing self control and modeling it to others. Instead of ranting about how angry I am, I will channel my anger into effective political action – not just more anger on social media. Instead of passing my anger around, by writing more articles like yesterday’s, I will write about ways to maintain equilibrium in an upsetting world.

There’s more to say. For now, I will take a breath. I will say my prayers. I will do my best to be better tomorrow.

Abraham & Sarah in the Court of Pharaoh

Image: “Sarai is taken to the court of Pharaoh” by James Tissot. Public Domain.

This week’s portion is Lech Lecha, and it is the beginning of Abraham’s story in the Tanakh.  It tells us many things about Abram, soon to be Abraham, some very impressive, some less admirable. The same man who bargained with God for the lives of people he didn’t even know, who was willing to go on a great adventure with God, was also the man who handed his wife Sarai over to be the concubine of Pharaoh because he was afraid.

We are none of us flawless, even Father Abraham. Each of us can recall things we’ve done that we hope no one ever finds out.

We don’t know what Abram said when Pharaoh rebuked him for lying about Sarai’s status; it isn’t recorded in the text. We don’t know how Sarai felt about this, or what if anything she said to Abram. We don’t know how Abram answered her, if she confronted him. All the text says is that Pharaoh assigned guards to march Abram and his household out of Egypt, and that they went north to the Negev.

While there are more famous stories in the text, I think this narrative is most evocative of our present moment. Women accuse famous, powerful men of treating women like property. One comes forward; she is ignored and reviled. More come forward – and if some of them are white and almost as famous as the man, perhaps we pay attention. Perhaps the press takes note. Perhaps (but rarely) law enforcement takes note. Then the famous man lashes back in a whine: Why are these terrible women after me? And in the end, while there may have been some intermediate consequences, he goes on being powerful and famous and the women disappear from the news.

Another example: there is apparently nothing more horrible anyone can do to a white American than to say that their behavior was racist. “What? Who me? I did nothing! You are playing the race card! You are the racist!” Defensiveness rises like a fog, and people take their usual sides in the matter. Nothing really happens.

We can change this conversation. We can change it by handling it differently when someone says to us, “That behavior was sexist” or “That behavior was racist.” Instead of defensiveness, a better reply would be “Tell me more, please.” If the behavior was a mistake, fix it: apologize and learn better. If it was deliberate, we can apologize and take our medicine.

I am white. I grew up in the United States in the 1950’s and 60’s. I was taught racist ideas and behavior and I will spend the rest of my life learning better. There is no shame in it, unless I refuse to learn better. I can, I must, listen to what people of color have to say to me. Racism in America will only get better when white people like me close our mouths and listen.

I am a woman. I was born in the United States in the 1950’s and I’m still around in the 2010’s. I live in a sexist environment, whatever other advantages I may have. I can give sexist people the benefit of the doubt, assume that they were taught that behavior, but I do not have to put up with it. I can complain, and they should listen to what I have to say. Not talk. Not defend. Not argue. Listen.

We don’t know what went on as Abram and Sarai left Egypt. Here is my fantasy, because we are talking about Avraham Avinu, Abraham our Father, here:

Sarai: Abram, how could you use me that way? Are you my husband or my pimp?

Abram: Sarai, Pharaoh might have killed us!

Sarai: (Glares silently at him)

Abram: Sarai, I was scared.

Sarai: How do you think I felt?

Abram: (Sighs. Swallows.) Why don’t you tell me how you felt?

And then he listened.