I confess, I decided to read the second day RH torah reading, meaning I had to learn a lot of torah, because I could not bear to chant and translate and discuss this year, the binding of Isaac, the story that just felt too upsetting in this year of upset…
The second day reading in the Reform tradition is the creation of the world, because, well, this holiday also celebrates the creation of the world and the creation of humanity. As we discussed last night, it also compels us to look at our place in the universe, in light of the sovereignty of God.
What we are about to read in the seven days of creation, moving from the chaos of the unformed universe with God’s spirit hovering over it, creating light, to separating the waters above and the waters below, creating sun and moon and stars, the plants and all the animals. All the animals. Including the creepy crawling ones. And then God decides to create humans in God’s image and likeness, and then creates us—in God’s image, but not likeness…And then God gives us dominion over everything on earth.
Since then, we have debated what dominion means. The most generally understood meaning for millennia was that we could conquer it and bend it to our will, use it however we wanted. However, I tend to agree with what the Union for Reform Judaism stated in its 2009 resolution on Climate Change and Energy:
Jewish tradition emphasizes that human dominion over nature does not provide a license to abuse the environment; rather we are called to “till and tend” God’s Earth (Genesis 2:15), and reminded in the Midrash that if we fail to do so, there will be nobody after us to repair our damage (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13). We are also repeatedly commanded to care for the poorest and most vulnerable among us; this means ensuring adequate access to basic resources and a healthy environment for all people, including marginalized communities at home and throughout the world.
And I would go a few steps further: it’s about how we tend ourselves, our loved ones and our human community.
God gave us this responsibility over everything on earth. And not just for our own lifetimes, but forever and always – or until we destroy it, because, as the midrash says, there will be no one after us to repair it.
As we all marveled over the Total Eclipse—who actually went to see it in Totality?—we believed the scientific consensus over prediction of its path. When scientists at NOAA predicted the ferocity and path of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, we believed them and saw their predictions come brutally true. At the same time, 97% of climate scientists have agreed that climate change is real—and certainly that heat wave a couple of weeks ago seemed to convince me we might have to invest in central air conditioning in our home. People can believe scientists when they predict eclipses and hurricanes, but not this? We are still debating whether a fact is a fact. We should be debating how best to mitigate the problem. Warmer ocean and gulf water intensify hurricanes so that Harvey was a 1000 year event. As the air warms, it holds more vapor, so more rain dumps, causing the flooding. It has been hypothesized, although not yet verified, that “[a]s Arctic sea ice is lost, wind systems can meander and create blockages — like those that locked Harvey in place over Houston. It was this stalling that led Harvey to be so destructive.”
Added to this is Houston’s abhorrence of regulation so that chemical plants could be built next to neighborhood schools, and as the city grew, no greenbelt was required to catch the massive run-off that could absorb flood waters.
This is what dominion can look like. Stewardship would look different. But we would have to recognize that our job is to protect the planet for our children’s children’s children’s children and to protect it for itself and all its habitants, not just us and ours.
Thank you for indulging my need to speak at least briefly about climate change and science as part of the work of creation…
But what I really want to talk about is the concept of the goodness that was woven into creation. Every time God reviewed what had been wrought, God saw it was good.
This goodness built into the structure of creation is something worth thinking about today. I’ll be talking about it in a different construct on Yom Kippur morning, but today, I want us to think about the goodness that is present in our universe, in our country, in our communities, in our families and in this room and in our hearts.
It’s there in part to balance the bad stuff, because the shadow side, the dark side–our dark side–is also a part of creation. I have a few stories that instruct us in how can we use goodness and love to transform the bad stuff.
The first is from a New York Times story back in January 2009. It is a story about a rabbi in Flushing, Queens, down the road from where I grew up. Before Rabbi Weisser moved to Queens, he had been the rabbi of a shul in Lincoln, Nebraska, and when he moved in, in 1991, the Grand Wizard of the White Knights of the Nebraska Ku Klux Klan called him on the phone, referred to him as a “Jew boy” and told him he would be sorry he had moved in. Two days later, a thick package of anti-black, anti-Semitic pamphlets arrived in the mail, including an unsigned card that read, “The KKK is watching you, scum.”
This Grand Dragon, a man named Larry Trapp, kept loaded weapons, pro-Hitler material and his Klan robes at home. Mr. Trapp, at 42, was nearly blind and used a wheelchair to get around; both of his legs had been amputated because of unchecked diabetes.
Mr. Trapp said he had wanted to scare Rabbi Weisser into moving out of Lincoln. He told Time magazine that, “As the state leader, the Grand Dragon, I did more than my share of work because I wanted to build up the state of Nebraska into a state as hateful as North Carolina and Florida. I spent a lot of money and went out of my way to instill fear.”
Rabbi Weisser, who suspected that Larry Trapp was his nemesis, found his phone number and started a love campaign, leaving messages on Trapp’s answering machine. He would say things like “Larry, there’s a lot of love out there. You’re not getting any of it. Don’t you want some?” and, “Larry, why do you love the Nazis so much? They’d have killed you first because you’re disabled.” Then he would hang up. He made one call a week.
One day, Mr. Trapp answered the phone. The rabbi and his wife had agreed that if Trapp ever answered the call, the rabbi would say something nice. Rabbi Weisser told Trapp, “I heard you’re disabled. I thought you might need a ride to the grocery.”
Then, one night, Trapp called Rabbi Weisser. He said, “I want to get out of what I’m doing and I don’t know how.”
Weisser and his wife drove to Mr. Trapp’s apartment that night. The three talked for hours, and became close friends. Trapp moved into their home as his health deteriorated, and the rebbitzen took care of him until he died.
Mr. Trapp eventually renounced the Klan, apologized to many of those he had threatened and converted to Judaism in Rabbi Weisser’s synagogue.
This is the power of love.
I am trying to imagine having the fortitude of mind to do what Rabbi Weisser did, to take on the local Grand Wizard of the KKK and practice love, a quiet, genuine, non-flashy love. So that it could actually soften someone’s heart.
Maybe you heard the recent NPR story about Daryl Davis, an African American blues musician who has collected robes from people who have left the Ku Klux Klan after contact with him. He speaks of his first meeting, with a Klan member who said, first, he’d never heard a black man play the same type of music as Jerry Lee Lewis, and was surprised to learn that Lewis had gotten it from Fats Domino, Little Richard, scores of black musicians… Then the white man noted that this was the first conversation he’d ever had with an African-American, and then, urged on by his friends, explained that he was literally a card-carrying member of the KKK.
Davis asked the man why he hates African Americans. The man told him that African Americans have a gene for violence. All of them. Davis pointed out to him that he, Davis, had never done anything violent in his life. The man responded, “The gene is latent at this point.” After a while, Davis said that whites, all whites, have a gene for serial killing—all the serial killers we know are white. And the man said he’d never killed. Davis pointed out that his gene is latent. The man responded that that was stupid. And Davis agreed, but not any more stupid than the idea that blacks have a gene for violence. The white man was quiet, and later, sent his robes to Davis after he’d resigned.
Davis studied up on the Klan and started traveling to talk to them, using his gentle way, using their commonalities, giving them an opportunity to think for themselves.
And now Davis’ collection has grown to 200, symbols of his battle against racism.
That’s the power of love, of transformation, of being able to see the good, to believe that you are part of the creative force for good, that you can help to bend the arc of the universe that way.
Another story…this one comes from Cory Booker, senator from New Jersey, former mayor of Newark. I’ve been following him since we watched Street Fight in 2005, a documentary about his first race for mayor, which he lost. I love that he races into burning buildings to save people. And I think he’s the most spiritually connected politician I’ve ever ‘known.’
He told this story—which is in his new book, United—on Pod Save America. He had just told it to John Lewis, the Georgia congressman, as they sat on the steps of the Capitol during the fight to save the Affordable Care Act: that John Lewis was partially responsible for Booker becoming a US Senator at all.
John Lewis was one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the most important civil rights organizations of its day. He marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. across the Samuel Pettis Bridge in Selma each time they tried to cross it. He was beaten badly as he stood up for civil rights.
Up in New Jersey, a young white lawyer watched the horror that would be known as Bloody Sunday and turned to his law partner in their new practice, and said, “We have to go there.” His partner convinced him that they were in no position to drop everything—new practice, wives, children and go. Instead they looked around for ways they could help in New Jersey. They found the Fair Housing Council, a group that helped integrate neighborhoods. Too often, black couples were told the home they wanted to buy was no longer on the market. The Council would send in a white couple, who would be invited to put an offer on the same house, and then confront the realtor.
Around this time, Booker’s parents moved to New Jersey for work and experienced this same discrimination. They found their way to the Fair Housing Council. When they identified the house they wanted, they—like so many others—were told it was already sold. The Council sent in a white couple, who made an offer on the very same house, which was accepted immediately. The couple said they wanted to show the paperwork to their attorney and would return the following Friday. That day, Cory Booker’s dad and their lawyer from the Fair Housing Council, Marty Kaufman, showed up instead. The realtor punched the attorney and sic’d his Doberman on the lawyer and Mr. Booker. In the end, the Booker family moved into the neighborhood, and their neighbors welcomed them. Their younger son Cory went to good local public schools, and then to Stanford, Oxford, and Yale Law School. Because those lawyers watched John Lewis being beaten on the Pettis Bridge and found a way to stand up, Senator Cory Booker could tell Congressmember John Lewis this story on the US Capitol steps as they stood up for the millions of people whose health insurance coverage—and thus health and lives—were at risk.
This is the power of love. This is the power of the love that permeated the universe at those moments of creation—v’yar Eholim, ki tov. And God saw that it was good.
One of my teachers, Rabbi Mordecai Finley, teaches that one way to have that dominion over ourselves is to build a wall—yes a wall—of virtue around ourselves. And that wall is built of our commitment to what he calls the 4 Cs—no condemning, criticizing, complaining and no escalating of conflict on your side of the wall. If the person on the other side does those things, you stay on your side, stick to your commitments. And you practice it. Regularly. You examine when you have failed (because we fail). And you commit again.
I have found for myself that this has been a challenge sometimes. Complaining is something I am very good at. Criticizing too. But as I have gradually worked to stop, I have found the Jewish concept of judging for the good to be a great option. When someone does something I don’t like—it’s been known to happen—I now come up with all sorts of interpretations that don’t require condemnation, and that actually demand compassion. And those interpretations are usually closer to the mark than what I might have done before.
Do we have enough dominion over ourselves to wield love instead of anger? It seems to me that we shouldn’t have dominion over anything or anyone else, until we have it over our selves. And that takes practice. A lot of practice. A lot.
That is the power that we have to use in the face of discrimination, in the face of hatred, in the face of meanness. That is the power we have to harness and to disseminate into the world in these troubled times.
 Climate Change and Energy. Resolutions. URJ. https://urj.org/what-we-believe/resolutions/climate-change-and-energy.
 Nicholas Kristof, We Don’t Deny Harvey, So Why Deny Climate Change? NY Times, Sunday, 9/2/17. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/02/opinion/sunday/hurricane-harvey-climate-change.html. Accessed 9/4/17.
 Manny Fernandez, Lessons on Love, From a Rabbi Who Knows Hate and Forgiveness. New York Times, January 4, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/05/nyregion/05rabbi.html. Accessed 9/7/17.
 Dwane Brown. How One Man Convinced 200 Ku Klux Klan Members To Give Up Their Robes.
http://www.npr.org/2017/08/20/544861933/how-one-man-convinced-200-ku-klux-klan-members-to-give-up-their-robes. Accessed 9/8/17.
Fran Danoff says
I love these stories! So important to be reminded of the power of love in these dark times. Wishing peace, good health, and joy in 5778.