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September 29, 2017

Then we Shall Rebuild Ourselves with Love (Yom Kippur 5778)

Stephanie D. Kolin

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Back when I was in rabbinical school, I had the opportunity to study with one of the great Talmudic minds of our era. Dr. Michael Chernick is not only unique in his intellect, but also in his kindness. He is also incomparably intimidating. I took an independent study with Dr. Chernick and in the middle of writing my final paper, I called him to make sure I was on the right track. As we wrapped up, I said: “thank you so much, this was so helpful.” He responded: “I’ll see you in class.” And I answered: “Great, I love you. Bye.” (Gasp). Oh no. What did I just say? I must have sat by my hung-up phone for a good five minutes trying to think if there was any way I could go back in time and not accidentally tell my professor that I love him.

Eventually, my embarrassment gave way to finding some humor in the situation. But I still think of that moment and how “love” felt so very out of place and far too intimate for that interaction. Love is, in fact, a very powerful force. Songs and poetry would teach us that it’s all we need, we count its ways, we measure it by bushels and pecks, it is both tender and sweet.  For the most part, human beings take love very seriously – but we tend to think of it as a private emotion between family, lovers, or dear friends.

But in the Jewish tradition, love is powerful. Love is primary. And love is not just private.

A couple of millennia ago, a false polemic was created which posited that while Christianity was described as a religion of love, Judaism was accused of being a cold, hard faith, concerned only with the law. But the truth is, the foundation of Jewish tradition is set deeply in the concept of love. And perhaps it is time that we activate, or re-activate – this heart-focused, faith-rooted love, for I would suggest that we need it now, more than ever.

I don’t have to tell you that there is great hate in our world and in our country today. A hate that haunts our children’s dreams, permeates our airwaves, fills our minds with images of fire-tipped tiki torches casting a shadowy light on angry faces spitting out vicious words. Nazis and White Supremacists marching on American soil, killing a young woman, severely beating a black man. Over Rosh Hashanah, a faction from the same group that marched in Charlottesville leafletted a town in Maine with notices of their intention to march there on Yom Kippur. New Hampshire, too. While in Oakland, CA, anti-Semitic slurs were scrawled on the wall of the Reform synagogue.  And last month, two nooses were found hanging from trees in Brooklyn.

This bubbling and mounting hatred makes us ask ourselves – should we be afraid? Makes us check to see if our passports are valid. Hate which, unchecked, threatens the lives of Jews, people of color, Muslims, Sikhs, our LGBTQ, and immigrant friends. Hate that flares in unmasked disdain for life and results in unbridled violence. Hate which has us sneaking our Torahs out the back of a synagogue for fear they will be destroyed by a khaki-wearing coward.

Those engaging in public acts of hate today – they want us to be afraid. And it is understandable when we are. They want to divide us and make us suspicious of one another, calculating whether we can trust others or other groups. I’ve heard people wonder out loud why we might stand up for others if we don’t know if those people would stand up for us. This is how hate overtakes a society. And we could let it exhaust us. We could turn inward. We could say it’s not that bad. It’ll pass over us. We could let it make us cynical. But Judaism offers us an alternative. About 1500 years ago our tradition set into motion an answer to this moment in history. It’s found in the explanation of another challenging time for our people – the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, destroyed by the Roman army as Jerusalem burned. The rabbis of the Talmud asked, much as we do now – How did we get here? Why did this happen? And they concluded that the Temple was not simply destroyed by some army that was able to physically overpower us. Rather, they explained that it was destroyed because of “sinat chinam”– boundless, baseless, unbridled hatred.  Not between one people and their enemy, but hatred between brothers and sisters. Because neighbors were callous toward each other, because no one helped the person in need, the foundation under their feet literally began to crumble. This destruction led to exile, generations of persecution, ruptured families, communities, and our sense of safety. The stakes then were high. The stakes now, too, are high.

So what hidden gem did the rabbis plant for us that we can harvest now? Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief rabbi of pre-state Israel taught: “If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to sinat chinam, baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love — ahavat chinam.”  In this moment in history – ahavat chinam, a boundless and unbridled love, he teaches, can undo the hate-laden destruction that we are witnessing.

But, then, it matters what we mean when we say “love.” Love how? Love who? And how can an emotion undo destruction?

We find something of a blueprint for this kind of love in a familiar verse of Torah which shows up in a prayer that we traditionally say twice daily. V’ahavta et Adonai Eloheicha b’chol l’vavcha, uvchol nafshecha, uvchol m’odecha. You shall love Adonai your God with all your “lev,” your heart, with all your “nefesh,” your soul, and with all of your “m’od.” Now “m’od” is often translated as “your might.” Or “your strength.” But we know this word. We hear it in the phrase “tov m’od” – very good. Tov is “good” and “m’od” means “very” or “muchness,” “all-in,” “all-encompassing.” We are commanded to love God with everything we’ve got.

But how can we be commanded to love anyone or anything? Can we control how we feel? The text continues: v’shinantam l’vanecha – How do we love? Teach My Torah to your children. Talk about it all the time – when you get up in the morning, when you go to bed at night, when you’re at home, and when you’re out. Bind my teachings on your eyes and on your hands, and write them on the entrance to your house.

For God, it is an act of love when we teach our children, when we engage in ritual, and when we ruminate on Torah every waking moment. This brief, but illuminating instruction manual, suggests to us that, in our tradition, love is more than an emotion; love is an action. If I tell you that I love my friend, but I never spend time with them, I don’t help them when they’re sick, I don’t show up when they need me – then my saying I love them is a whole lot of words and not much else.  Now, we all disappoint in our relationships at times – we are only human. But in the ideal that we reach for – love lives in the world of actions.

This blueprint, I believe, is not meant only to instruct us in our love for God.

V’ahavta l’rey-acha kamocha  - You shall love your neighbor as yourself, we are told. This is not just any old commandment, but referred to as the Great Commandment. It is the exact middle verse of the very middle book of the Torah, the fulcrum upon which the Torah unfolds - unabashed love of our neighbor. A person in our building, in our community, one layer out from our beloveds.

And in case the ever-widening circle of who we are called to love hasn’t made us uncomfortable yet, Deuteronomy teaches: v’ahavtem et hager  – you shall love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. The plot thickens, no?  The love with which we love God, unleashes the emotion and deed we have usually reserved for our inner circle, onto our neighbor and then onto the stranger, someone we don’t even know. Not just to feel kindly toward them, not just to care for them theoretically. But to feel our hearts stir for them and to LOVE them with all we’ve got.

Jewish tradition is revolutionary in our requiring of ourselves to love the stranger – it hardly makes sense in this Darwinian, preservation-of-self world. Unless, of course, loving the other is the only way to preserve ourselves – and our humanity.  In the face of hate, how do we not simply slip into despair? By loving our God, ourselves, our neighbor, even our stranger.

So if we have the How, and as challenging as it might sound, we have the Who, to make it real, we need the “What.” What does it look like to love hate out of existence? When love is not private, but is public, what does it look like to love with our heart, our soul, and our everythingness?

On a train car in Portland, four months ago, in a tragic moment of bravery, ahavat chinam dared disrupt an act of sinat chinam. Two teenage girls, one Muslim and wearing a hijab, were being harassed by a man yelling Islamophobic slurs and threatening them. Three people, none of them Muslim, stood up to protect the young women. The man then stabbed all three of the protectors, killing two. The last words of Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, one of the heroes who died on that train, were: “tell everyone on this train that I love them.” This was not syrupy, kumbaya love, or puppy love, but a worldview-love that shaped his character and actions, that required of him to live his life in certain ways.  This, I think, is a taste of the kind of love – a consuming, powerful, all-in love that guides who we are and how we act in the world. It is the m’od, that measure of courage it takes to stand up for a stranger who is scared or vulnerable.

When the waters of Hurricane Harvey threatened to drown an elderly man trapped in his car, a human chain of strangers formed immediately to bring this man to safety. The risk was high, but their actions were quick and decisive. That is ahavat chinam. When Nazis threatened to march on Boston Commons, 40,000 people flooded the streets with public love to protest White Supremacists. Many admitted that they were scared, but decided to show up anyway. And when the Nazis arrived and saw that, they went home. Love literally pushed back hate. After an attack on Jews in Denmark, hundreds of Muslims came and surrounded their synagogue to protect them on Shabbat. One said: if anyone wants to commit violence in the name of Islam, you will have to go through us Muslims first.”  This is ahavat chinam, a love that reverses the destruction that hate causes. Boundless love. Risky love. If hate tries to make us afraid and divide us, then love makes us courageous and allows us to see one another as partners in the work of repair and protection.

And when it is not one person drowning in his car, but many people who are drowning in healthcare debt. And when it’s not a man who is afraid of marchers with tiki torches, but instead it’s thousands of people of color afraid of getting trapped in a criminal justice system that is stacked against them, and when it’s not a child afraid of being attacked on a train, but 800,000 young Dreamers afraid of being exiled from their home to a country they’ve never known, then the actions we take to protect the vulnerable from ongoing and systemic injustice are also ahavat chinam, a boundless act of love for the other. Because I can say that I love the stranger, in theory, but if I let that stranger’s children go without access to food or housing, a good education, or healthcare, then love is relegated back to the world of emotion, while the action of it falls away. Cornell West teaches that “justice is what love looks like in public.”

And on Yom Kippur, the Prophet Isaiah tells us what love looks like in public. “To unlock the fetters of wickedness, to untie the cords of the yoke, to share our bread with the hungry, to take the poor into our homes, to clothe the naked, to not ignore our own kin.”  Actions that manifest a deep caring for those who struggle. And how does he end his charge to us? If we do all this, then we will be called “Repairers of the breach, rebuilders of broken streets.” If sinat chinam, unbridled hatred, destroys – then ahavat chinam – public and courageous love – rebuilds.

Many of us joined in an act of love last year when we worked together to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18, so that children will be treated like children in the criminal justice system, no matter their race. Many of us will enact love this year by joining the next tidal wave of Central’s work to love the stranger, the immigrant, the refugee, the incarcerated, the vulnerable. Many of you will visit someone who is sick or homebound or lonely or respond to someone in need. Many of us will manifest ahavat chinam the next time Nazis march or swastikas are painted on a school or an unarmed black man is shot, or hijabs are pulled off women, or immigrants are threatened in their homes. When hate arises like a biblical game of whack-a-mole, popping up everywhere, it can make us forget what the softness and welcome and joy of love feel like. It can make us feel cold, isolated, tired. But when we heap love upon love, we deprive hate of the oxygen it needs to burn. Think of the potential we have to love with a restorative love sitting here in this sanctuary.

1500 years ago, we lamented the effects of sinat chinam, boundless hatred. And now, ahavat chinam, boundless love, will have its day.

With our actions in the year ahead, can we create a different world, with different news, with different future paths than the ones we are on now which allow for unhooded hatred to scare the most vulnerable and divide us? Can our children one day ask us about this time in history and we can say, “oh sweet ones, there was a time when old hatreds tried to make themselves new again, but we didn’t let them. We decided together that love would win the day.” Who is ‘we?,’ “Oh, it was all of us. We Jews, we Muslims, we Christians, we Sikhs, we Hindus, we Buddhists, we Republicans, we Democrats, we teenagers, we grandparents, we the poor and the rich. We decided to refuse hate together. And we replaced it with our footsteps, our play, our work, our collaborations, our risky attempts to change some laws, to protect some people. And when we heard shouts of “Jews will not replace us,” the Muslims stood up and shut that down. And when Muslims were banned from entering this country, Christians stood up and said, “Welcome home.” And when immigrants were made to be afraid, native born third generation American Jews said “here, sit under this vine and fig tree with me because none shall make you afraid under here.” And then you children grew up. And inherited a world that did not crumble from sinat chinam, but was built and rebuilt from ahavah, from love.

G’mar chatimah tovah, may we be signed and sealed for a good year.

  1. Thanks to The Beatles, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Frank Loesser/Doris Day, and Elvis Presley
  5. Masekhet Yoma 9a-b
  6. Orot HaKodesh vol. III, p. 324
  7. Lev 19:18
  8. Deut 10:19
  9. I want to thank my friend, teacher, and fellow Auburn Senior Fellow, Valarie Kaur, for her inspiring and deep work on the idea of “Revolutionary Love.” Valarie, a leader of the Sikh community, gave of her time to share with me how she is conceiving of this idea and consistently puts forth transformative love into the world. She alerted me to the tragedy of the Portland train attack as an example of revolutionary love and helped me to think about what a new public-ethic of love might look like. Our friendship and her vision have certainly influenced my thinking as I explored what Judaism has to say about love. When you see Valarie’s soon to be published book come out, I encourage everyone to buy it, read it, and grapple with her ideas about love. 
  12. Isaiah 58:6-7