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November 11, 2016

America: Illuminated and on Fire (Parashat Lech L’cha)

Rebecca Rosenthal

Lech Lecah – go forth from your native land to the land that I will show you. Avram hears God’s call and begins a journey. God doesn’t tell him where him family is going, just that they are leaving their home, leaving behind all they know. This journey is one from the familiar to the unfamiliar, from the certain to the uncertain, from family and stability to the unknown.

There’s a midrash that says that Avram is walking along and he sees a birah doleket, an illuminated palace – a beautiful building engulfed in light. Avram, observing no one around, asks, “Is it possible that this beautiful palace has no caretaker?” At that moment, the owner of the palace calls out, “I am the guardian of this place.” So too, the midrash tells us, that when Avram walked in the world, he saw many wonders and asked a similar question: “Is it possible that such a world has no caretaker?” God answers, “I am the guardian of this place.” It is in that moment, when Avram sees God’s hand in the world, that God reveals Himself and commands him to set forth on this momentous journey.

But the Hebrew translation of this palace that Avram stumbles upon – birah doleket – is also interpreted a different way by the rabbis. Not only does it mean “engulfed in light;” but it could also mean “engulfed in flames.” The building is alight not because it’s twinkling but because it’s burning. Read this way, the person encountering the palace cannot believe that the owner would allow such a magnificent building to be burned to the ground. Such carelessness! At the last moment, the owner assures Avram that he is looking out for it and that, in some way, it can be rebuilt.

Two very different readings. One of a beautiful world and one of a world on fire. Two radically divergent ways to understand the same edifice – one a beautiful blaze, one an all-consuming fire. That is how our country feels to many of us right now: split between two drastically different perspectives. Two halves seeing such dissimilar Americas that there is no way to bridge the chasm.

I cannot stand here tonight and pretend I am not afraid. This election has exposed so much hate in our country, including numerous reports of hatred against Jews. There is hatred against Muslims, against the rich and against the poor, against women, against LGBT people, against immigrants, against people of color. And it is my obligation as a Jew, as a human being and as an American citizen not to let that hatred go unnoticed and unchallenged.

If you are among those that see the birah doleket and interpret it to be a house on fire, if you are scared, know that we, your rabbis and cantors, your teachers and your Central synagogue community are standing with you and will do everything in our power not to let you fall. Together, we will find hope and strength and a way forward.

And if you are among those who see the birah doleket only as a house illuminated, who see this only as a moment of shining opportunity and cannot see the flames licking at the heels of another, perhaps we can try to put ourselves in the position of those who are feeling singed by the heat.

We each need to ask ourselves, how can we hold the same America as both a luminous country and a country on fire? Who can reconcile these two visions?  How will we bridge the gap?

Maybe one answer is tucked inside our Avram/Sarai story.  The text tells us that Avram and Sarai take their servants along with them on their journey, a journey that the servants did not necessarily choose. The rabbis tell us that those servants were so captivated by Avram and Sarai’s vision of the future that they actually converted to follow God, too.2 Avram and Sarai did not have to drag their support team, unwillingly, along the journey; they treated their servants with compassion, grace and even love. They carried them gently and protectively, making them partners on the path. And so both parties came together to forge a trail to the Promised Land that included and even required them all.

Perhaps, after nearly two years of watching conflicting viewpoints clash so fundamentally, we can take a page from our fore-parents’ story and make our next journey one of kindness, respect, and collaboration. The only way I know how to move forward is to work like hell to make this next chapter can be one where we genuinely sit with the person we disagree with most, and extend our hand. Where we strive for real empathy – not symbolic compassion but the harder kind, where we ensure not just that our voices heard, but that we hear others. Because America is both: It is illuminated and it is on fire, and we need those who see both visions to do this work.

I’ll acknowledge that finding common ground feels far away right now. The rift that was exposed, especially in these last few months, looms daunting and deep. But for me, the indelible learning of this election is that there are far more Americans than I realized who are hurting, who do not see what I see, who experience the world very differently than I do. Whatever my worries for my family’s future, they have just as many for theirs. I’m not sure how we’d meet across the table if we had the chance, but I now believe it’s incumbent upon me, upon us, to make that happen.

I wish I could stand here tonight and tell you I know how to do as Avram and Sarai did, to go steadily and confidently forth and to bring others along the path. But I can’t. I am walking it with you right now, just as uncertain, just as unsteady, and like Avram, I can’t necessarily see where we’re headed

God’s first promise to Avram, and to the Jewish people, is that he will reach a promised land, the land that God will show him. Avram is assured that he will be blessed, but that blessing does not come without obstacles, nor does he find – when he finally arrives in Canaan – that everything is laid out for him. He has to work for the blessings of milk and honey.

America is no different. A Promised Land that is also stubbornly complex and unfinished. So the only thing I can say when things seem this uncertain and this divided, illuminated and on fire, is that we need to stick with it. We have to stay with the road, and not just trust that it will lead us to a better place, but do our part to get us there. We have to shout from the rooftops that hate is not who we are. Discrimination is not how we build. We cannot hide from the world right now. We have to engage with it and fight for it because it is the birah doleket, the promise of a land engulfed in light, and we, along with God, are its caretaker.

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