A Place We Do Not Know
Shabbat Lech Lecha
November 11, 2016/11 Cheshvan 5777
Congregation B’Nai David, Visalia, CA
This has been a momentous week as the citizens of our nation went to the polls to elect national, state and local leaders and to answer important questions of governance. Wednesday, November 9th was indeed the morning after we had been waiting for, but, wherever we stand politically, I think that few of us could have anticipated the results of this election. Here are some reactions that I have heard or read in recent days: excited, gob-smacked, elated, enthusiastic, anxious, angry, disappointed, elated, nightmarish, validated, devastated, frightened, uncertain. And in our sanctuary tonight, we are holding our own set of reactions.
In yesterday’s news there were surreal images of the President and President-Elect, two men whose policies and outlook are diametrically opposed to each other, exchanging pleasantries as the peaceful transition of power, the bedrock of American democracy, begins. I doubt that any of us can reasonably predict what will be the outcome of this transition, but I think it is abundantly clear that our nation has gone off-script and we will just have to wait and see what the players on the national stage say and do next.
As a nation we find ourselves in a place we do not know. This week’s parsha, Lech Lecha, speaks to us from across millennia:
Adonai said to Avram, Lech Lecha, go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you. I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those that curse you, and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you. (Genesis 12:1-3)
This is the moment of the origin of the Jewish People. God commands Avram to leave the life he knows and to go out on a journey, with his wife Sarai and their clan. God is inviting them into not merely a relationship but rather a covenant.
The Torah is silent on Avram’s life before God spoke to him. But we can presume he was a man of his time and place. There is a story in Midrash of Avram smashing the idols in his father’s shop, but Midrash is our tradition’s way of filling in the gaps of Torah. It is written in Genesis that Avram was 75 years old when he left Haran and took with him Lot and Sarai and all the wealth that he had amassed, including servants. That must have been quite a band of travelers! Avram was well established, successful and living a prosperous life, when God changed his plans.
The Torah continues the story of Avram and Sarai as they become Abraham and Sarah, and their descendants move through migration, prosperity, slavery, redemption, and nationhood. We know how the story turned out, but Abraham could not have known what would happen next.
As I’ve been trying to make sense of this week Lech Lecha has felt like a gift. The parsha asks “What does it mean to go on an unexpected journey?” And that is precisely the place I find myself tonight.
Moving past the inflammatory and at times toxic rhetoric of the long campaign, one truth is staring us in the face: we are a deeply divided nation and there are people who feel that our government has failed them, and their vote to elect Donald Trump and not Hillary Clinton was their voice. There is a corollary to this truth, and here it is: the statements and behavior of the President Elect during the campaign have emboldened some…too many…to engage in racist, and misogynistic behavior. Not only during the campaign but also in these first days of the transition to a Trump administration.
Across the nation there are reports of racist graffiti in schools, and children of color receiving taunts that they are soon to be deported. As I drove home yesterday, I encountered a street demonstration of what appeared to be high school students, Latino and angry, almost certainly about the election of a president who has repeatedly denigrated their people. I fully believe that this election has shown us that there are significant divides among the American people that must be addressed, but sadly it is also creating divides. I pray that President Trump will behave differently than candidate Trump. That he will be a president for all Americans, and that citizens of good will across the political spectrum will come together to move our country forward.
But praying isn't enough. As we set out on this journey to a place we do not know our Jewish tradition commands us to be repairers of the world. This isn’t merely something we tell ourselves to feel good. It demands action. So, where do we go from here?
Well, I don’t know where we are headed. But I have a few ideas of how we should travel there:
First, right now, we need to give each person the time and the space they need to feel what they are feeling. We must be aware that many of us may share feelings in common, but that others do not. The first stage of coming together is honoring the place where each of us stands.
Second, we must look out for one other. My friend and mentor Rabbi Michael Adam Latz said beautifully, “When you see someone acting or speaking violently towards another person-especially a vulnerable person-your task is to interrupt and to report. Religious people are upstanders, not bystanders.”
Third, we must stay engaged in the political process in order to do our part to create a nation, and a world, of justice. We need to be ready to act to protect the ideals upon which our country was founded and has prospered. In the words of Psalm 89, “Olam Chesed Yibaneh,” we must build this world from love. We can do this by seeing injustice and giving our time, our talent or our money to organizations and causes that create justice.
This list is far from complete, but perhaps it is enough to guide us as we set off on our journey.
Finally, for some of us current situation may feel too big, too painful, but we must be on guard against despair because it can paralyze us from moving forward. A little later in the Lech Lecha story God took Abraham outside and said, “Gaze, now, toward the Heavens and count the stars!” (Genesis 15:5) As we move on our journey to the place we do not know, the same sky is above us, its stars acting as a canopy of light to guide our way. And we will find our way, so long as we travel together.