R. Noa Kushner // Rosh Hashanah, 5779
The Busy Man’s Prayer
The Baal Shem Tov said:
“Imagine a man whose business hounds him through many streets and across the market-place the live long day. He almost forgets that there is a Maker of the world. Only when the time for the Afternoon prayer comes, does he remember: ‘I must pray.’ And then, from the bottom of his heart, he heaves a sigh of regret that he has spent the day on vain and idle matters, and runs into a by-street and stands there, and prays. God holds him dear, very dear and his prayer pierces the heavens.
And he doesn’t feel so strange any longer.
The command to take care of, even love the stranger / גר famously is all over Torah: Love the stranger because you were a stranger, protect the stranger. Torah takes this seriously enough to repeat it again and again.
And we learn we should love the stranger because we were strangers in Egypt. And this love is defined and redefined in specific, legal terms: You cannot cheat the stranger. You must act justly in business, regarding weights and measures, and in the courts.
Not only that, the treatment of the stranger is defined in ritual terms: The stranger keeps Shabbat just like us. The stranger sits in our sukkah and eats at our Passover table.
The stranger even listens to our same teachings. By the end of it, the stranger does not seem so strange any longer, more like family.
It’s as if the tradition knows that someone who is different, living amongst the majority, immediately sets up a vulnerability, an instability. If there are problems in the society it’s not hard to figure out who could get penalized first. So the system works to correct for that by being overly explicit. We are not to exploit those vulnerabilities, we are to honor them as one of us. Otherwise, the whole society starts to fall apart.
So I was interested to find one of only places in Torah where a person uses this same root גר / stranger but not in a communal, categorical sense,
But rather in a personal sense, in a story, hidden in a verb.
Let me set this up. Jacob, grandson of Abraham and Sarah, son of Rebecca and Isaac, is describing his time living in his father-in-law Lavan’s house and says, Im Lavan garti v’echar ad atah / Some translations will say, “I sojourned with Lavan, and stayed there until now.”
But if you hear the word גרתי (gar-ti) / it has the same root as גר (ger) “stranger.”
I was an outsider with my father-in-law.
I wasn’t home.
I did not have say, original rights.
I strangered there.
Maybe even: I was estranged.
Why does Jacob use this unusual word to describe the twenty years he spent with his own father-in-law? How does he get there to begin with?
I’m glad you asked.
Back in Jacob’s early life, Jacob has run from his older twin, Esau. Why? Because Jacob stole Esau’s birthright and now his blessing so Esau is furious, and threatens Jacob. So (remember?) Jacob flees for his life and goes to live his uncle Lavan.
On the way there, Jacob meets Lavan’s daughter, Rachel, and falls instantly in love. He kisses her and weeps. So far so good.
But, according to the rabbis, a peculiar thing happens as Jacob enters the house of Lavan. By the way, Lavan in English means, “White.” So we could also easily call the house of Lavan, the “White House.” Just something to keep in mind.
An odd thing happens as Jacob enters the house of Lavan. Rather than greeting Jacob warmly, or expressing joy over a future son-in-law, or an expanding family, the rabbis teach that Lavan first and foremost, only looked for Jacob’s money.
“He looked for other camels or riches, then, when they wasn’t there, he thought there must be gold coins in Jacob’s saddlebags. When those were missing, when the two men kissed hello, Lavan searched for pearls in Jacob’s mouth.”
When nothing is found (!), according to the rabbis Lavan says, “Really, there’s no reason for me to take you in, since you didn’t bring me anything. But since we’re family, you can stay a few weeks.” (and a bit later on) “Better you than an outsider.”
Immediately, one rule of this White House becomes clear: If you are wealthy, if you have something material and obvious to offer, all well and good. But if you are just a person, just a human being, even a future son-in-law, you have no inherent worth. You are valueless until proven otherwise.
After the few weeks are over, they make an arrangement. Since he has no bride price, Jacob will work for Lavan for seven years, then marry Rachel.
But, as many of you know, after the seven years, although Lavan throws a big communal wedding feast for Jacob, at the last minute, on the wedding night, Lavan blows out all the candles and puts his firstborn daughter Leah in place of her younger sister Rachel.
The callousness boggles the mind.
What kind of a father does this to his daughters? To his future son-in-law?
How could Rachel agree to this?
How could Leah?
In fact we don’t see any reaction at all from the sisters. And this could be Torah being, well, patriarchal (wouldn’t be the first time). But there are places where women speak up in Torah and I think this is a clue to something else.
I suggest the silence of Rachel and Leah is because the culture in the white house is like a closed circuit of anxiety, a place where one’s worth is constantly in question, where an existential mistrust in each other is normal, where power and status are the only things that matter, where basic rules of ethical and social behavior are twisted in order to accommodate Lavan and his need for power. And so they are quiet, afraid to acknowledge the depravity of the situation lest Lavan shame them further, lest they lose even more status.
In this White House, it seems everyone is a commodity, nothing more.
And notice, when Jacob confronts Lavan, saying,
“What have you done to me?! Why did you lie to me?!” Lavan doesn’t even flinch. He only answers: “In our community, we honor the firstborn.”
First of all, you’d think in seven years, he coulda found a way to bring that up, hm? Second, we see how Lavan manipulates Jacob with this remark, hinting at how Jacob, earlier in his life, stole the honor from his older brother. As if bringing up Jacob’s past mistakes -- whether or not they are relevant to the moment at hand -- evens the score, notice the bully tactics.
Notice also, how by saying, “In our community, we honor the firstborn,” that Lavan also deflects any personal responsibility (a theme) while emphasizing Jacob’s difference. “You didn’t know? Everyone knows these rules…” Lavan hides behind the “we” -- making no apologies, not even acknowledging anyone else’s pain.
See, in Lavan’s house, in the white house, what I think of as a house of mirrors, no one ever has enough security to be at rest, no one can rely on being treated with dignity. This is why, the description of Jacob’s time there is filled with constant competitions, a vying for status – Rachel and Leah over Jacob, over the number of sons they can deliver, Jacob and Lavan trying to outwit each other over sheep. You can practically feel the anxiety in every verse.
Because if you are only as good as what you produced that day, or whether you won or lost the latest power struggle, if the rules change all the time, much of life becomes about avoiding shame.
This goes on for twenty years.
Now we understand why Jacob uses this word, גרתי / I was an alien, I was not at home, even for a place where he lived for so long and did so much.
It is as if he is saying, I saw and I got sucked into and I participated, willingly and unwillingly, in dealings that were not mine, and in treating myself and people like things and worst of all, no one said it was wrong. I was estranged from myself.
Now we understand, we see how dangerous it is, we feel the spiritual implications of living in this kind of place.
Now we understand, we see, the crux of what Torah means when it says,
be careful of how you treat the stranger,
don’t ever again create a society like in the house of Lavan,
like it was in Pharaoh’s Egypt,
where people are things,
where status and production is idolized,
and everything else -- morality, honesty -- is twisted in its service,
where the strong are given free reign to be abusive and the weak are invisible,
where it seems there is no other choice but to participate,
where everyone is one step away from being proven worthless,
or proving each other as worthless.
Now we understand Torah’s obsession with making sure it never gets that bad again. God forbid, says Torah, that you would be a part of helping such a system to thrive ever again.
Masters of our House
But here we are. And, what can I say, what we have now is not so different from what I just described, the very thing Torah warns us against over and over.
And, as much as it might feel good, and as much as Trump has, in an unprecedented way, accelerated a culture of shame and mistrust --
As much as Trump has used the equivalent of verbal gasoline to whip up fires of fear and hatred, each one seeming to blaze in 1000 different directions —
We can’t just blame Trump for our current situation. We can’t just blame Trump. For, if we all live in this house of mirrors, feeling not unlike those in Lavan’s white house, wondering what happened to our country’s dignity and morality and values, we also have to admit we have helped to build this house, this system.
It’s our house after all. And we could not be where we are as a country without our tacit approval along the way.
You see, just like Jacob, who ran from his brother, ran from what he stole,
-- rather than return it or stick around to try and fix things -- those of us with privilege and power in this country, many of us in this room, have stolen some things. Anyone who was with us in Montgomery and went to the Legacy Museum: From Slavery to Mass Incarceration knows what I am talking about.
Those of us with privilege and power in this country have also run from some things. We, too, forgot to notice that what we’ve been doing is wrong, that some of our success has come on the backs of others.
Now we find, that the fantasy that we could be completely moral and upright,
That we could claim we are doing the right thing while abdicating our communal responsibilities,
while being largely absent in the election of politicians and local agendas, while neglecting to hold our portion of civic weight,
while quietly and steadily refusing to share what we have beyond our own families -- let alone work to shine the light or try to change systemic inequalities,
or even tell ourselves the truth about how unequal it has become,
how our daily choices, our schools, our neighborhoods, our legal system, the way we spend,
how it is our choices that contribute to and bolster that inequality --
Now we find, as we assess the state of our country, among many things, that particular fantasy that we could be moral while absent has come crashing down.
And, beyond our complacency or even our complicity, there’s another reason we find ourselves in this moment.
The second reason we’re in this White House is that in ways large and small
we have reinforced the narrative of Lavan. Namely, that power and economic status is God, and everything else, all resources -- moral, emotional, social -- can and should be subservient, to that God, to that ultimate status. We might be upset with where someone is on the economic ladder, how someone is treated, but we rarely talk about using a different ladder, another measure altogether.
No matter how many radical T-shirts we wear, many of us work as if personal economic failure is almost tantamount to self-destruction. We work as if economic status is the sole determinant of whether a person belongs and how they are treated by others, as if people who are poor simply do not exist. I am not making it up. Go and spend a day at GLIDE, take the tour of the Tenderloin, walking distance from here, and go see for yourself. Then go up the street to the areas where you usually go to, witness the contrast, and you tell me with a straight face that everyone is created equal, everyone deserves to be treated with respect and dignity and we as a city or a country (one of the richest in any time, any place) are at all serious about making that justice a priority.
Because I am not seeing it.
And it has been like this a long time, long before the current president.
Because if this is our house, we must realize that, no matter what we’ve been telling ourselves, the actual way we live in the world set the stage for such a house, such a leader. Because before he ever showed up, we had already conveniently replaced real activism and sacrifice with laps for status, and buzz words and told ourselves it was the same thing.
So if we now live in the white house, the house of mirrors, every room filled with refracted narcissism and existential insecurity, we realize, at least on this point, Torah is right. It is impossible to classify another group as strangers, to live as if poorer people deserve different rights, a different life altogether, and then still expect to remain at home with ourselves.
[R. Abraham Joshua] Heschel quotes the social and economic historian, R. H. Tawney, an authority on the close relationship between religious ideologies and economic growth in the 1920’s. He wrote:
“…Society will not solve the particular problems of industry which afflicts it, until that poison is expelled, and it has learned to see industry in the right perspective. If it is to do that, it must rearrange its scale of values. It must regard economic interests as one element in life, not as the whole of life.”
We exist in a moment in this country where everything is commodified -- people, time, art, weddings, nature, relationships, self awareness – many things that could never be measured at all, let alone in terms of financial gains or losses. No matter how ineffable or complex or profound, everything is forced through the same mental sieve. And this is so common, so American, we don’t even notice it.
“That is a beautiful idea, but does it scale?” “Good thought to accept those folks, but what is the bottom line?” No matter if it is medicine or religion or art, we lean on money to quickly demonstrate or assess whether something is worth our attention or effort.
But, many aspects of life, certainly religious experiences and ideas, cannot be understood through an economic lens, only misunderstood. It would be like looking at a poem under a microscope. It doesn’t matter how pure our intent is -- we just won’t get it. And the minute we try, we’ve already lost.
For an example, in a purely economic reality, making sure there are no strangers who come into the United States, foreigners who might deplete our resources, going after people who somehow manage to sneak in --
from a purely economic perspective – this still may be something worth arguing against (we are a country built on waves of immigrants, after all), but still, in the context of this conversation, the deporting of immigrants is a reasonable perspective to maintain.
But when you leave the realm of economics, of measurable gains and losses, and consider the second grade girl who slept with a backpack on for six months because her father was deported in the middle of the night, and she was terrified they would come for her mother, and she did not want to be alone, we realize how seeing everything through a lens of money makes us blind to other worlds, other truths.
We realize that the pain of this family cannot be measured in economic terms. We not only realize that the soul of this girl is infinite, but that her love of her father and mother is infinite, and the level of her estrangement, her now broken trust in the world is infinite. And we see just how limiting our economic blinders can be.
Or maybe we should listen to the El Salvadorian woman who stayed with her six year old this year in a detention center. She wrote, “I was forced to flee my country because of violence and threats of violence against me and my family.
…But after we crossed the border, we found no relief. Instead, we were held for two months in a family immigration detention center in Artesia, N.M., run by a for-profit company.
…When our children were sick, we waited days for medical attention. When one mother whose daughter had asthma informed the officers that her child needed medical care, she was told that she should have thought about that before she came to the United States. Another mother asked for medical assistance for her son but it never came. She was deported, and her son died just a few months later.”
Her son died in the United States this year -- not on a boat coming over in 1918, in a for-profit detention center in New Mexico, 2018. And we know now of other stories, children molested, hurt, and of course, the many separated from their parents.
In fact, we could listen to fragments of letters from those very mothers separated from their children, this one for her seven year old son:
“When we’re together again, I will spoil you like always. I will cook your meals and we will go on walks and I’ll lie next to you until you fall asleep. I love you, my prince. I hope to God and the Virgin Mary, my child, that we will soon be together and we’ll never be separated again.”
How do we measure the torment in that letter in dollars? How do we begin to measure the love? We cannot. These letters are like prayers. To classify them, to monetize them is to render them mute. And in insisting that this and all problems are disproportionately financial questions, we deny the truth in these letters, we deny a great many truths, and we are in danger of making strangers of us all, compromising our great country.
In the house of mirrors we think that if we say “No,” or exhibit moral courage in our individual spheres, if we move away from the constant upkeep necessary to acquire status or make money, we worry -- like Jacob, Rachel and Leah caught in their destructive and competitive web for years and years -- we worry we will find ourselves alone, powerless, and irrelevant.
So we climb and climb and try not to look too much at those beneath us, all the strangers, and tell ourselves that this is normal. But children who are ill and dying on our borders in for profit institutions should shake us all to our very core. Those we now know personally in the Tenderloin who cannot get a place to sleep night after night, year after year, should keep us up at night. Because This is not normal. This is not inevitable. There is another way. And allowing that very thought -- that it doesn’t have to be this way -- and returning to that thought again and again, refusing to rationalize our way out of it, this may allow us to be of real help.
כאלו / As If
Many of you know the story of baby Moses. When Pharaoh has commanded all the boy babies be thrown into the Nile, Torah records no newspaper article, no demonstration. I believe that silence is one of the loudest, most painful sounds in our tradition.
All Hebrew parents are commanded to drown their babies. Moshe’s mother, a stranger in a strange land, in an attempt to save him, puts him in a basket. Pharaoh’s daughter, Batya the princess, the epitome of power and privilege,
Is out one day, bathing in the Nile. She sees the basket and opening it, hears the cry of the boy. And then the most unlikely thing happens: From the heart of Pharaoh’s palace, Batya decides she will raise this slave child (the rabbis say) כאלו / as if he were her own .
It is not a perfect act. I can already imagine Batya’s twitter feed: forced adoption of a helpless baby, why didn’t she save more than one baby, couldn’t she have done more to lobby Pharaoh, all true.
And yet, the rabbis teach that she would kiss and hug and adore Moses כאלו / as if he were her own son.
I don’t know what the opposite is of treating someone like a stranger, but it seems to me that demonstrating this compassion and love must be a part of it.
Seems to me this living כאלו / as if the world is a just place, where no children die in rivers or schools or for-profit jails for-profit detention centers must be a part of it.
And it turns out, Torah teaches, this decision is enough. Just treating someone else as if he were part of her own family,
just loving one stranger as if he were family,
this stops one cycle of estrangement upon estrangement long enough
to allow the possibility of freedom to live in the world again.
*To get involved now, contact these Kitchen-ites:
Sue Reinhold, Board Member, Bend the Arc (house party this Sunday!), email@example.com
Abigail Trillin, Executive Director, Legal Services for Children, liaison to Faith in Action, firstname.lastname@example.org
Jodi Jahic, Board Member, Defy Ventures, program that creates opportunities for formerly incarcerated people, email@example.com
Jo Stein, Full Circle Fund, connects volunteers from all walks to Bay Area community organizations, firstname.lastname@example.org