That word—tovah or really tov—permeates this Torah reading. Every time God created something, it was good. From the chaos of the unformed universe with God’s spirit hovering over it, to light and darkness, the separation of the waters above and the waters below, sun and moon and stars, the plants and all the animals. All good. 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…In this reading everything God saw was good—v’yar Elohim ki tov, or in one of the verses I chanted, tov me’od—very good.
Goodness was woven into creation. This goodness built into the structure of creation is something worth thinking about today, when everything seems so—well, not good. Division, anger, lies, personal attacks. And it’s worth noting, the bad stuff, the shadow side, the dark side is also a part of creation.
But the goodness—it’s there, if only we look. But lately, it seems like we really have to look for it. Even the New York Times has a published a weekly feature of Good News. Which I read, every Friday.
I want to share a few stories that didn’t exactly warm the cockles of my heart, but made me think, “I wish I could do that!” that show how we can use goodness and love for transformation.
The first is from a New York Timesstory 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 eventually close friends, so close that 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 NPR storyabout 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 spoke of his first meeting with a Klan member who told Davis he’d never heard a black man play the same type of music as Jerry Lee Lewis, and was surprised to hear that Lewis had learned 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, resigned from the KKK and sent his robes to Davis.
Davis studied up on the Klan and started traveling to talk to other members, using his gentle way, finding their commonalities, giving them an opportunity to think for themselves.
And now Davis’ collection has grown to 200, symbols of his battle victories 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. We Jews have a concept of dan l’kaf zecut, judging people for the good—and Davis seems to know how to do this.
My last 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 book, United—on Pod Save America. He had just told it to John Lewis, the Georgia congressman and civil rights hero, 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 unfold on TV 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. I’m not talking about romantic love, or the love we have for family or friends. I’m talking about the love that we are commanded to have for our neighbor, that Rabbi Akiva believed was the most important verse in the Torah.
If, as we just read, each of us is made in the image of God, with a spark of the divine in us, then it seems like loving our neighbor as ourselves would be about finding that spark within them.
When Rebbe Nachman of Breslov spoke about finding the point of goodness in each of us, and fanning its flames, I think that’s what he was talking about. Realizing that someone who voted differently from us has a story in which they did something they believed would make things better. Or at least, they share similar values as you—love the same music maybe, love their children.
One of my teachers, Rabbi Mordecai Finley, teaches that one way to do this 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 it important to judge for the good, dan l’kaf zecut. When someone does something I don’t like—it’s been known to happen—I now try to 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 believed before.
I haven’t succeeded the way Dwayne Davis has; I haven’t gotten to radical love for people I believe are perpetrating evil on others. I have had to start with smaller victories over judgment and anger. For instance, if someone cuts me off in traffic, I try to imagine they are racing to a loved one’s bedside, or they are new to the area and late for a new job. Each one has built up my love muscle, until one day, I hope, I might be able to convince someone I vehemently disagree with to just see the other side, building on our commonalities.
What about you?
In one of the verses I chanted, God told us v’chivshua all the other animals—to subdue them, trample them—have dominion over them. It seems to me that we need most of us to have dominion over ourselves. Enough 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.
And then, V’yar Elohim, ki tov. God will see that it is good.
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.