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Vayetze: December 10, 2016

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

In looking at the Patriarch Jacob, we get the impression of a man who is deeply flawed who will endure many years of trial and tribulation to learn how to overcome his deceptive side and unlock the potential within him. In fact, all of our Patriarchs are flawed, each one struggling to overcome the darkest parts of their nature and pass on to the next generation the key to what God wants from human beings.

Just a few weeks ago, we saw that God chose Abraham to begin the Jewish People. We don’t really get any motive about why God chose Abraham or what God was trying to do. From the stories of creation and the flood we get the impression that God is not happy that human beings are turning out to be violent and cruel. Even after the flood, there seems to be no stopping the evil that humanity is capable of. Having failed to eliminate violence through the flood, God chooses Abraham to bring an end to human cruelty. God will now take the long view; each generation will grow in their quest for peace and harmony until that day in the future when human beings will no longer live violent lives.

God, after all, is not subject to the laws of Time and Space so God can afford to be patient. But we still have the question about why God chose Abraham. What qualities did Abraham exhibit that made God understand that here was the person who could begin the process of making God’s plan for a peaceful world a reality?

My colleague, Rabbi Michael Strassfeld has written that it was that moment as God prepared to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorah, that Abraham stood up and demanded that the God of Justice act Justly. Good people must not be swept away with the Evil, as they were in the flood story. God must spare the evil people for the sake of those who are good. This is the moment when Abraham becomes a prophet, a man of faith who speaks truth to power. Even if that power is Divine Power, Abraham must speak up in defense of what is right in the world.

The prophets of the Bible all take their cues from this first incident in the history of our people. Deborah, Hoseah, Isaiah, Malachi, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Elijah and Elisha all called upon both men and God to “Do Justice, Love mercy and walk humbly with God.” These Prophets, both men and woman, were not afraid to tell kings and leaders that they had sinned in allowing the poor and the helpless in society to suffer and now these leaders would face divine punishment. Human actions have consequences that can either uplift those who are in need or undermine the foundations of society. Rich people must not rise to the top on the backs of those who are helpless. God hears the cry of those who are denied their place in society.  History has judged harshly those who were condemned by these prophets for using their temporal powers to pervert justice and to show no mercy.

From ancient days until our own, the words of Abraham and the words of the Prophets have always sounded true. If God must be just, then we too must practice Justice. If Justice is about caring for those in need, then we must care for those in need. If God hears the call of those who suffer, we too must hear their call and act as God’s agents to bring about the end of suffering. Part of this call depends on our own good nature overruling our selfish nature. But there is a role for society as well to combine resources to help those who are most vulnerable.

Every day, as part of our morning prayers, we recite Psalm 146 which reminds us of our God given responsibilities in this world. It says: “Happy is the one who has the God of Jacob for his help… who secure justice for those who are wronged, gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, …  the Lord loves the righteous; the Lord watches over the stranger; God gives courage to the orphan and the widow.”

From the beginning of the Torah, God has wanted to make life better for those who had no one to speak up for them. From the time of Abraham, the Torah has tried to teach the primacy of Justice, especially Social Justice. The biblical prophets understood that if there was to be justice in the world than we would have to seek Justice for those who can’t speak for themselves. And yet, in every generation, there are always people who would protect their own possessions by taking advantage of those who can’t speak for themselves,

One of the first lessons we learn as Jews is that God loves the orphan and the widow; that God protects the stranger and the poor; that God cares for the hungry and the sick. And we learn that our job is to be God’s hands and feet to care for those whom God cares for. No matter how many others may turn against the vulnerable of society, we have to take up their cause. This has always been the role of religion in society, to take up the cause of those who are forgotten and to speak for those who have no voice.

This is one of the reasons why this last election disturbed me so greatly.  While neither party expressed any policy that would speak to these social concerns, at the same time each party made the issues that most affected those in need, political issues, insuring that helping others would become locked in a partisan struggle and nothing would or could be done to alleviate their plight. So once again it is the job of religion to remind the leaders of our society of their responsibilities to those who depend upon others to survive each day.

We can take our cue from Psalm 146. It reads, “God secures justice for those who are wronged”. There is no more clear call to end the hate that pits one group against another. Justice must be equal, so that a white man in Louisiana who kills a black man should not be able to go home at the end of the day while a black man who shoots a black man spends months in jail. It means that stop and frisk laws that are only applied to Blacks and Latinos are unjust laws. If we expect officers of the law to treat us with respect when stopped for a traffic offense why should Muslims, Latinos and Blacks expect anything different?

Psalm 146 declares that “God gives food to the hungry” and yet, to balance state and local budgets the first cuts are applied to SNAP programs that allow the poor to buy food, or school lunch programs that give hot meals to children who may not have any other food to eat that day.

Psalm 146: “The Lord sets the prisoners free.” I have to give credit to our state; we are closing prisons here as our prison population falls. For years we filled our jails with those we did not like by making laws that disproportionately targeted minorities. We closed our institutions that cared for the mentally ill and left our jails to care for those with mental illnesses. Alabama is still building new jails as their prison population swells. President Obama declared that those who were victims of strict sentencing laws for minor offences should be granted pardons. The question being asked is will he continue to grant pardons to the thousands of such prisoners who are serving sentences far in excess of the severity of their crimes?

Psalm 146: “The Lord watches over the stranger.” We have been fighting political battles over immigration since 1920. The best way to end illegal immigration is to make the whole immigration process easier and quicker. And yet we blame these immigrants and we have always blamed these immigrants, legal and illegal, for every problem in our society. We say they take jobs away, they commit crimes, they undermine our culture and values. Every survey shows that immigration is the engine that keeps our economy strong. Whenever we welcome strangers we bring new ideas and more hands to solve some of our most difficult social challenges. The refugees of the world are only looking for a new home where they can raise their children in peace. Are their dreams any different from our dreams? Just because people are different does not make them someone to fear.

“God restores sight to the blind” What issue has become more politicized than health care? But since when does healing the sick depend on party affiliation? Making people well is not just a personal value, but one that benefits all of society. It is cheaper to give people access to affordable health care than to have to treat them later for horrific diseases that can be prevented. Communicable disease is easier to control when people go to doctors early, rather than after they have exposed others at work or in public places. Whatever we spend on sending people to doctors is far less than what we spend when they show up at the hospital. And yet the first people we deny care to are the poor and those most in danger from accident or disease. Many people become poor because of medical bills that can’t be paid. They skip follow up visits to doctors and they can’t afford their medications.  Where is the justice in this?

Finally Psalm 146 teaches that God provides for the orphan and the widow. This is the Bible speaking to a social safety net. There will always be those who fall on hard times. The sad reality of our society is that every one of us is just a paycheck or two away from losing our homes, our cars and our security. We are all just a paycheck or two away from poverty, hunger and homelessness. The people who we are helping are not any different than we are; they are just a bit unluckier. Maybe they don’t have family to support them. Maybe they were the victims of a scam or some conglomerate that refused to pay them for work that was done. The poor in our community are not different than us, they ARE us. And by supporting them, we are supporting ourselves should the day come when we will be the ones in need of a hand up. It is far cheaper to give free tuition to college students than to pay them a lifetime of unemployment compensation. Micro loans to help the poor start businesses are cheaper than a lifetime in homeless shelters. A decent minimum wage will go a long way to easing the suffering of the working poor who work long weeks and still can’t afford both a home and food for their families.

These are not political issues. They are moral issues that have been made political so we don’t have to address them. All of us who live by our faith and who learn the lessons of the Torah know that there have always been others who would oppress the poor and helpless, who would protect their own interests rather than care for the interests of others. It is our duty, as the followers of Abraham and the Prophets, to speak out, to make not just our voices heard, but to help everyone hear the voices of suffering, the sound of hunger and homelessness, the sounds of those hurt by bigotry and xenophobia, the cries of the sick and the cries of those unjustly in prison. They are not the voices of others, their voice is our voice and we must speak up to our representatives at all levels of government, hold them responsible for those who can’t speak for themselves.

And we must speak up not as members of one political position or another; we must speak up as human beings demanding that we are all morally responsible for each other.  It is our call to rise above politics and take to heart the commandment to be Holy, because our God is Holy. If God is concerned for those in need, can we be any less concerned?

May we fulfill our religious mandate to love all human beings, and to care for all who are in need. May we speak up for those who have no voice and stand up with them for what is right and for what is just. May we live to see a world that someday will be free of violence to others and instead be filled with justice, mercy and peace as we say ….. Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, December 10, 2016.

Mon, July 6 2020 14 Tammuz 5780