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For Jews, Isolationism is Forbidden - Social Justice is a Must

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This piece was adapted from my Rosh Hashanah sermon, which can be viewed here.

One of the great Hasidic masters, Rav Nachman of Bratzlov, had a very difficult life. He faced family tragedy, professional rivalry, and communal strife. His pain weighed on him and threatened to steal the joy from everything he cared about. There were days when it was impossible for him to enjoy the taste of food or meet with fellow scholars. He sometimes felt disconnected from God, and even prayer became painful.

On such days, Rav Nachman was tempted to hide from the outside world - to withdraw from his community and be alone with his pain. In some ways he ritualized this seclusion. But for the most part he would not give in.

Rav Nachman was known to dance, clap, and sing with his followers. Somehow, in the midst of his pain, he managed to reach out and connect with others.

Adapting a classic Hasidic parable, Rav Nachman explained:

Sometimes when people are joyous and dancing, they grab a man from outside their dancing circle, one who is sad and melancholy, and force him to join with them in their dance. Thus it is with joy: when a person is happy, his own sadness and suffering stand off on the side. But it is a higher achievement to struggle and pursue that sadness, bringing it too into the joy, until it is transformed... you grab hold of this suffering, and force it to join with you in the rejoicing...

Rav Nachman danced in defiance of his melancholy and as a way of acknowledging that his own pain did not diminish the reality of God's existence, even if God felt far away. His pain remained, but he could still experience joy.

Though he suffered throughout much of his life, Rav Nachman created a spiritual framework meant to support people who experience suffering. He did not ignore the pain that he and so many of his followers faced, but brought it to the center of their focus so that they could engage with it. Rav Nachman taught that sacred joy does not exist only in the absence of pain, but in a constant relationship with it.

As Rav Nachman knew, beneath many people's calm exteriors resides a well of pain within.

As one who has grappled with depression, I know what it is like to feel trapped by suffering. I am familiar with feelings of despondency and isolation that can follow me into the most crowded of rooms.

And I can only imagine the hurt felt by those who have suffered heart-rending loss - the loss of loved ones, the loss of health, the loss of bodily function, the loss of pregnancy, the loss of relationship, the loss of identity.

We come together tonight a loving, thriving, vibrant community - even as many of us sit with so much hidden pain.

One of the greatest gifts of our tradition is the freedom to acknowledge our suffering. We are not encouraged to hide its existence or understate its impact. Our tradition is not one that glorifies pain.

Countless stories of our sages reflect how far we should go to reduce human suffering. And our liturgy acknowledges the need many of us have to express our pain. We recite the Misheberach and Mourner's Kaddish in memory of loved ones who have died and in prayer for loved ones who are seriously ill. We share expressions of collective grief like fasting to commemorate the destruction of the Second Temple and lighting Yarzheit candles for Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The rituals we use to acknowledge personal suffering lie at the bedrock of Jewish life. In being together for many of life's difficult moments, we gain trust in each other and sometimes come to see that personal sorrow can be endured through community. Our tradition shows us that even the deepest hurts hold the potential to deepen our relationships.

Today we are faced with the renewed question of how to engage not only with personal suffering, but also with the suffering of our country and global community.

We are living in an era of unprecedented access to information, and we are constantly bombarded with evidence of the world's suffering.

It seems like every morning we awaken to news of another police shooting;

another bombing in Europe or New York;

another drone strike mistaking friends for foes;

another study showing the wealth gap widening and our college graduates sinking deeper into debt;

We spend our days glued to our phones, not just to communicate with each other, but in dread of the latest injustice or tragedy. It's not a matter of if - but when. Just think of the major events of this past year:

  • The ongoing genocide in Syria, and our moral failure to welcome more refugees into the United States.
  • Brexit.
  • New laws seeking to discriminate against the transgender community.
  • State legislation against reproductive rights and a correspondingly rapid rise in maternal mortality lity.
  • The rise of white supremacy on the national stage.
  • Continued mass incarceration and cruel but all too usual mandatory minimums.
  • Anti-Intellectualism, attacks on science, and a head-in-the-sand approach to climate change.

And all around us, so much senseless loss of life.

American Sikhs and Muslims attacked because of their faith and a passing resemblance to somebody's idea of what a "terrorist" looks like.

It is list of al cheits, a national and global list of transgressions and sources of suffering.

Many of us live in a constant state of gloom or anxiety because of our increased knowledge of the world's pain.

In many ways that is an appropriate response. Feeling the pain of others is core to what makes us human. The Torah teaches us not to stand idly by the blood of our neighbors, but it is easy to despair when confronted with suffering of such magnitude, and with so many different causes.

Moreover, our communal sadness and fear are starting to have real consequences in our lives.

Many of us feel frightened and alone, like our backs are against the wall and there is no one we can trust. We turn inward, seeking to protect ourselves from the frightening world by retreating behind the high walls of our micro-communities.

This fearful, isolationist approach to the world keeps us from seeing the countless allies by our side. Yes, there is true pain and terror in the world. But our reactions can be far more harmful. We risk becoming wallflowers at the dance, shrinking from the outstretched hands of those like Rav Nachman who beckon us to join in joyful song and dance in defiance of our pain and that of the world.

I am not immune from the temptation to turn inward to escape the pain of a suffering world. But whenever I have reached out across barriers that threaten to divide us, I have been rewarded with friendship, compassion, and connectedness.

One of the most emotional moments of my year came at New York's City Hall, as I gathered with religious, civic, and social leaders for a press conference condemning the killing of an imam and a Muslim community leader in Queens. A few minutes before the cameras started rolling, I caught up with my long-time friend, Imam Khalid Latif, who is a chaplain in the NYPD and at New York University - and has actually shared the bimah right here at TBJ. He had brought his young daughter to the gathering, and she was a bit overwhelmed by all the people. Coaxing her out of shyness, Imam Latif told his daughter, "It's okay, it's just uncle Josh. Will you say hi to uncle Josh with me?"

I was touched by the honorific - but I also realized the extra meaning it carried on that particular day.

My friend and colleague had brought his daughter to a gathering honoring a fellow imam who had been gunned down in an apparent hate crime. And there he was, making a point to ensure that his Muslim daughter grew up knowing and respecting Jewish leaders.

Seeing my friend and his daughter that day, I couldn't help but wonder. What do Imam Latif and his wife have to talk through when they hear the news of such a tragedy? How do they prepare for the unthinkable? What do they tell their young daughter about why bad people might want to hurt a man like her dad?

As a high-ranking police officer, Imam Latif could be killed defending his city. As an imam, he could be killed simply for his religious beliefs or appearance. He puts his life at risk every day, as a proud moderate who believes that Muslims can be patriotic Americans and Americans can be faithful Muslims.

How did we reach such a point?

Suffering has bred fear and fear has bred isolationism - or worse, genuine hatred of people who don't look or talk or pray like us.

I recently read an insightful article on the trend towards isolationism in the London Economist. Entitled "Drawbridges Up," it suggests that the new divide within our countries is not between left-wing and right-wing factions, but between people who believe in an open, interconnected society and those who seek to close it off and protect it from what lies beyond. The fundamental question, the Economist suggests, is whether we will raise or lower the drawbridges that connect us to other people and other nations.

Do you think the bad things will all go away if we lock the doors? Or do you think it's a big beautiful world out there, full of good people, if only we could all open our arms and embrace each other?

As the conversation plays out in the United States, are we afraid of immigrants, people of color, women's rights, and international trade? Or do we see the inclusion of different people and viewpoints as inherently good?

Now, let me be clear. You will not hear me tell you from this bimah how to vote or which political party to join.

But more than three millennia before the concept of the nation-state came into being, the Jewish tradition affirmed our identity as a people connected to the world and other communities within our countries.

Pirkei Avot, the ethics of our ancestors, teaches us "al tifrosh min ha-tzibur." Do not separate yourself from the wider community. Our tradition requires that we always remain engaged with our local, national, and global communities. Even in the face of a world of suffering, we are not permitted to pull up our drawbridges and hide behind our walls. The world needs us too much - and we need the world, too. We always have.

In our worst moments, our most vulnerable moments, our times of catastrophic loss, the drawbridge of the Jewish people has remained down.

Millennia ago, when we first settled in the Land of Israel, we found ourselves on the seaside trade route between two great civilizations: Mesopotamia in the northeast and Egypt in the southwest. Trade, war, language, and religious practices all crossed our borders. Judaism did not emerge in isolation, but in constant interaction with other cultures and religions.

During the time that the Europeans called the Dark Ages, we basked in the glow of global trade. Our religious codes of law enabled our people to enforce contracts from the edge of Spain to the coasts of India and gave us a structural advantage in commerce. Even when we could not own land in Europe, Jewish businesses prospered as a result of our people's global connectedness.

Today, the modern State of Israel thrives as a hub of high-tech entrepreneurship because its people are so versatile, multi-lingual, and willing to interact with their counterparts around the world.

If you visit different Diaspora communities - or for that matter walk down the street in Tel Aviv - you see firsthand what being a global religious community has done for us. There are Ethiopian Jews speaking Amharic and Yemenite Jews speaking Arabic; Argentinean Jews speaking Spanish and Scandinavian Jews speaking Swedish. The Iraqi Jews stay up late in the month before Rosh Hashanah chanting mellifluous melodies. Russian Jews cook borsht, and Syrian Jews fry falafel. Moroccan Jews keep Torah scrolls in decorative wooden cases, while German Jews keep them neatly clothed in fabric. Sephardic Jews rejoice in beans and rice on Passover - while Ashkenazi Jews are split on the custom and still trying to sort that one out.

Everywhere we've gone, we've absorbed the best that our host culture has had to offer.

And we have given back to the wider society, as well. Jews have been on the front lines of issues that are not only our own. Because we remember the bitterness of slavery in Egypt, our tradition demands that we lower our drawbridges, step across, and help repair the world.

In every generation, Jews have done the sacred work of tikkun olam alongside our friends and neighbors, fighting for righteous causes even when they do not directly affect us:

  • Establishing one set of laws, applied equally to Jews and to the strangers in our midst.
  • Feeding the hungry irrespective of religion.
  • Enshrining reproductive rights and protections against domestic violence in Jewish law.
  • Participation and leadership in the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Saving Darfur.
  • Championing marriage equality.
  • Advocating for humane treatment of displaced persons and refugees, inspired by our grandparents' experience with displacement and statelessness.

Several years ago, when I announced to my friends that I would be serving a wonderful congregation in New Jerseymatern, they teased me for becoming a "bridge and tunnel person."

I said, "Bridge and tunnel - and proud of it!"

And perhaps that is the perfect metaphor to describe not only the esteemed residents of New Jersey and Connecticut, but the Jewish people. No matter the danger, no matter the distance, we as Jews find a way to build a bridge or a tunnel to the world around us. Through intellectual exchanges, trade, social causes, or friendships, we are always reaching outside our own walls to connect with others.

Indeed, as Nachman of Bratzlov advised his followers, "The whole world is a narrow bridge...the most important thing is not to be afraid."

We are not just people of the book, but people of the bridge. Our connectivity is an essential part of who we are as a people and a religion. As the Hasidic rabbis taught, God is in all places. We are constantly seeking and embracing the sacred in other people, friends and strangers alike.

Sometimes that sacred joy is tinged with pain and fear. But our tradition does not condone running from complexity or hiding behind high walls.

As in so many forms of inaction, disconnecting ourselves from critical issues around the world may have dire consequences. Dr. Eboo Patel, Founder and Executive Director of the Interfaith Youth Core wrote that "In the twenty-first century, faith can be a bomb of destruction, a barrier of division, or a bridge of cooperation." And in the words of the great Jewish author Elie Wiesel, "Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."

We believe that justice is sacred. We are called to pursue it and told that it connects us to God. But justice is not delivered into our laps from heaven - it is something we have to go out and pursue. And it is impossible to pursue justice from behind walls of fear and mistrust. We have to lower our drawbridges, go out into the world, and make justice happen.

This Rosh Hashanah, we renew the process of Tshuvah, of returning and of reflecting on who we are in order to better ourselves and our community.

In such a painful year, it is tempting to withdraw and sink into isolation. But our tradition commands us to look beyond ourselves and to see how we have impacted others - including by our distance and unwillingness to engage.

We reflect on our actions, not simply in order to understand ourselves, but in order to repair our relationships, right our wrongs, and heal our world. Tshuvah is about affirming our interconnectedness, not only with Jews, but with people well beyond our community.

As our High Holiday liturgy teaches, the gates of repentance and redemption are always open - even in times of danger and doubt, even as the moment of judgment approaches. God never pulls up the drawbridge.

The gates stand open before us now. Let us face our fears and muster the strength to greet the world.