Build Me a Sanctuary of Hope, Freedom, and Justice

I would like to ask you to “join hands and march together” with me on the journey we will begin with this election and going forward into the future.

The US election is only 23 days away.

Our nation seems to be at war with itself. Institutionalized racism is still very much a part of our US society, legal system, culture and so much more.

Civil discourse and honest debate no longer seem possible.

Covid-19 is making us weary to the bone, fraying our nerves, setting us on edge without the added stress of partisan politics, heightened racism and xenophobia, anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and…and…and…

When will we find sanctuary?

When will we find the ability to come together, as “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” again?

I was thinking about this and recalled the remarks that I delivered two years ago at a service of solidarity after the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA.

Even though these words were written to address a specific incident at a particular moment in time, they are still so relevant to the many issues of our day, here and now. The words are particular and universal, of a moment in time, yet timeless. The message still a vision of hope for the future, a future we can bring to fruition. So I share them again now:

Welcome to all who have joined us here this evening: Framingham Mayor Yvonne Spicer, our Massachusetts State Representative Jack Lewis, our own TBA member and Framingham City School Committee Chair, Adam Freudberg – everyone who is here from our city and state leadership community, our friends from our Interfaith community, our Temple Beth Am family, all of our guests from near and far – all of you who have gathered together for our Musical Shabbat of solidarity, unity and pride, commemoration and healing.

This weekend, across North America, we gather together in our synagogue sanctuaries as one people, no matter our religious affiliation – or lack thereof, no matter our political affiliation, no matter our race, our gender, our sexual orientation, no matter our national origin.

We gather together in compassion, community and courage. We stand shoulder to shoulder in this sacred space on this sacred Shabbat to show that we are one united people with one heart, we stand united for love, we stand united for peace and justice and equality for all. We stand united against anti-semitism, we stand united against racism, against injustice of any type. We stand united in our pledge that together we will work to make our broken world whole.

We hope our encounters with the Divine this evening and with each other will lift us up, will inspire us to be better people, will elevate our every day actions and help us to see the Divine spark in one another.

There is a story that the rabbi’s of the Talmud tell: Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, the Gerer Rabbi, noticed that one of his students had seemed emotionally absent from the community for awhile. So one day, after the morning prayer service, he questioned the young man: “How is your neighbor, Moshe doing?” Rabbi Yitzchak asked? ‘I…I’m not sure…Is Moshe not well? Is there something I should know?” “the rabbi paused before he replied softly with great sadness?” “You live right next door to Moshe, You see him every day. Your children go to the same school. You pray under the same roof. You pray from the same book. You serve the same God. You study the same Torah. And you’re telling me you don’t know how Moshe is? You don’t know whether he needs help or advice, comfort or compassion? How can that possibly be?!”

This my friends, is the very essence of life: to share in each other’s life, not to leave one another alone – either in sorrow or in joy.

Since the horrific events last Saturday at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, we, the Jewish community, have felt so embraced by all of our neighbors and friends in the most heartwarming, loving and compassionate manner. These acts of friendship, outreach and compassion are proof that goodness and kindness are stronger than hatred, anti-semitism and violence. We know that we are stronger together. We know that together we can work to educate ourselves and our children to eliminate ignorance, to break down barriers of hatred, to eliminate the scourge of hatred and xenophopia so that anti-Semitism and racism will no longer afflict this beautiful country we call home.

We can work together to eliminate the plague of gun violence which has afflicted our country too many times in too many schools and too many houses of worship and too many ordinary places, so that we do not have to worry about our children returning home safely from school every day, or we do not have to worry about making a trip to the grocery store or the post office or going to synagogue or church or the mosque or any where at all. Each and every one of us deserves to live in a world that is safe, that is beautiful, where we are free to just: BE. And to LIVE our every day lives.

Tonight, during our Shabbat service, our Sabbath service , we prayed – as we do every week, to help us understand God’s oneness, for freedom, for wholeness, for peace. And at the end of the service, we will sing the prayer “Alaynu” – which hearkens to a time in the future when all will be perfect in the world, when all will be right, when hatred will be gone and “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall there be war any more.” Our prayers will be meaningless however, unless we dosomething to bring them to fruition: how will we make freedom’s bell ring out? What will we do to ensure that wholeness and peace will prosper in our world? How can we, as an interfaith community of faith help other’s understand that all of us pray to the same one God?

The great humanitarian, social activist, and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” People of faith have a particular responsibility to speak out. And there is no better time to call ourselves to action now – on Shabbat. A day that hearkens to a time of hope for a better world, when each and every one of will have done all we can to eradicate all that is wrong and to make a better tomorrow.

The mystics of old, known as the Kabbalists, liked to say that Shabbat is a taste of this time to come, a taste of this time of perfect peace, when we all live in harmony, when we all welcome each other with “Shalom, salaam, peace be unto you.” As the well-known poet Ahad Ha-Am said, “Shabbat is a sanctuary, an island in time.” A time where we all feel embraced, welcomed and safe from life’s storms. Last week, 11 Jews gathered in their sanctuary: a place that was supposed to be that place of tranquility, that place of peace. Their came to celebrate and observe that Shabbat refuge, their Shabbat safe-haven, their “island in time.” And instead, their lives ended in a torrent of bullets and hatred, violence and pain. Shabbat was desecrated, Shabbat was violated for the Jewish community of Tree of Life Synagogue and life was changed for the good people of Pittsbugh and for the Jewish communities in North America.

This was the largest anti-semitic attack in the history of our country. Anti-semitism is one of the oldest types of racism and hatreds in our world. We are one of the smallest minorities – we make up .02 percent of the population. And studies show that anti-Semitism is an indicator of many other kinds of radicalism. We must work together to wipe out and denounce anti-semitism, overt or covert, no matter where it comes from. We must work together to make our country a sanctuary of refuge for all peoples, no matter their religion, no matter their ethnic identity, no matter what we look like or where we come from.

So how do we embrace the notion of “sanctuary” tonight with the events of the past week lingering on our minds? How can we feel secure in our world knowing that the concept of “sanctuary” is an ideal we have not yet achieved? How can we make our religious homes a place of welcoming and safe haven for all who choose to walk in our doors? In Exodus 25, God tells the Israelites, build Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among you. God does not dwell in the sanctuary, rather, the sanctuary becomes a vehicle for bringing people together. God’s presence – God’s sanctuary – dwells within the relationships between the people.

I know that as a faith leader in the public realm, I walk a fine balance: I minister to those whose thoughts and feelings fall on all sides of the political and social spectrums. At times, I must keep my personal feelings and ideas to myself in order to respond pastorally to my entire congregations.

Yet, at times, as a religious leader, there is a moral imperative to speak out, to share the prophetic voices from our religious teachings, to heed the call of my faith traditions.

Now is the time to speak out, because our notion of “sanctuary” is at risk. Now is the time to act. Now is the time for our community to come together and unite across every political, religious, or social divide. We must remember that in our American “Pledge of Allegiance,” we make an oath that our democratic republic promises to be a place of “liberty and justice for all.”

For centuries people have come to the United States seeking a life of freedom, opportunity, and peace. Each of our faith traditions shares a conviction in the full humanity of every person. We believe that to be human is to be created in the image of the divine we call by many names: among them God, Allah, Spirit. When we fail to see the divine in one another, we diminish our own humanity. The biblical imperative to “love your neighbor” knows no religious, political or national boundaries, and our common interest in security is only undermined when we allow fear to dismantle the very principles of our democracy.

Across North America, Interfaith clergy communities meet regularly to share, learn and be supportive of each other, just as our Framingham Interfaith Clergy Community, does here in MetroWest. We celebrate both our commonalities and our differences, because together we demonstrate the beautiful fabric that is our community and our nation. That support, friendship and dialogue turns into action at a time like this: this past week, hundreds of Interfaith groups across North America gathered together in solidarity and commemoration at vigils to mourn the 11 people murdered at Tree of Life Synagogue and to pray for healing for those who were injured; and so many more of you are gathering at synagogue during this special #ShowUpforShabbat this weekend. Your presence this Shabbat is so meaningful to us, because it reinforces the notion of friendship and support and the notion of “love your neighbor” as well as what it means to create “sanctuary.” No matter your religion, each of our Scriptures calls upon us “love your neighbor as yourself” and “to welcome both the neighbor and the stranger, just as we have been welcomed.

Yes my friends, it is us – you and I together who brings God’s presence into the Sanctuary, for God’s presence is found inside you and inside me, when we look deep into each other’s eyes, getting to know each other’s hearts, joining hands, marching together, for the sake of a better world, a sanctuary of peace, freedom, justice and goodness, for all men, women and children. You and I together will bring the true meaning of sanctuary back into our sanctuaries and homes, schools and streets, and yes – even into the very fabric of this great United States of America.

The Koran teaches: “We have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another.” And in our Jewish tradition, we recited in our prayerbook, Mishkan T’filah, this evening “There is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands and marching together.”

So now I would like to ask you to “join hands and march together” with me and my community on the journey we will begin tonight (updated for 2020: on the journey we begin with this 2020 election) and going forward into the future, a journey of hope and action, a journey of community, courage and justice and sanctuary for all: “put out your right hand like this, put out your left hand like that, and hold the hands of the person next to you. Feel the loving strength in those hands. We teach that these are the hands of God holding you tight, holding you up… It doesn’t matter what religion you, or if have no religion.. but by your very presence tonight, the world shines a little brighter, with a little more hope.” (hand-holding idea paraphrased from Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Congregation Or Ami, Calabassas, CA)

(End by singing “Sanctuary” in English and Hebrew)


“We Deliver Love…” If Only!

The other day I was stopped at a traffic light behind a floral shop delivery van:

“We Deliver Love”

Their tag line (as seen on the photo above): “We Deliver Love.”

If only life were that simple. If only our world could be filled with love by receiving a delivery of flowers! No more hatred, no more violence, no more racism. Only flowers…lots and lots of flowers, and therefore, love!

Unfortunately, we know this isn’t the case. We know where hatred, violence and racism abide, love, flowers and beauty seem to disappear.

How can we “deliver love” to the world around us in the midst of violence, evil and hatred?

Perhaps we can learn something from what has come to be known as “The Golden Rule”, one of the most famous lines in the Hebrew Bible which teaches about “love:”

“V’ahavta l’re’echa kamocha (Leviticus 19:18). Love your neighbor as yourself.” Many other religions have their own version of this as well.

There is much discussion surrounding this: what does it mean to “Love one’s fellow”? WHO is one’s fellow? Is it only people just like ourselves? Or is it everyone? Do we love those people who don’t love us back? I was thinking about this last week because as we are well aware, last Wednesday and Thursday, on two different continents, racism and hatred motivated vicious attacks on religious institutions.

We all know of the horrific shootings on Wednesday, June 17, 2015 at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Nine people who were engaged in bible study were gunned down in cold blood by a young man steeped in hatred and racist ideas. First, he sat alongside the pastor studying for awhile in this beautiful, historic church, before pulling out his gun. (For a thoughtful, cogent and articulate perspective, please read Rabbi Lucy Dinner’s “Response to the Massacre in Charleston”. Rabbi Dinner is a Reform rabbi and a southerner, with keen insight into the situation).

The very next day, Jewish extremists perpetrated a horrific arson attack on the Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha in Israel. This is one of the most famous Catholic churches in the Holy Land. They too, were steeped in hatred and racism.

And if we were to scour the news, we would find multiple other events happening across the globe on a daily basis, all motivated by those same ideologies: hatred and racism.

Racism and hatred are learned ideologies. Each of us is born innocent. Those who hate, are taught to hate by others around them, by their environment, by their cultural upbringing.

But there is hope that even those who grew up learning about violence, hatred and racism can change. For example, in Israel one NGO called: “Combatants for Peace” comprised of Israelis and Palestinians grew out of a desire of Palestinians and Israelis who were tired of fighting each other. They now work together to promote dialogue, understanding and harmony.

So what does “V’ahavta l’re’echa kamocha” have to teach us about this situation? Dr. Jacob Milgrom, (in his book “Learn with Torah,” Vol. 5, number 30) teaches us three things about this verse:

  1. Loving to or for your neighbor implies action not just feeling. (Do for your neighbor as you would do for yourself) (both Hillel and Jesus taught what is hateful to you, do not do to others, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you). Hatred is a learned response and therefore, it can be unlearned as well. We need to take whatever actions are necessary to teach understanding, respect and tolerance.
  2. “Your neighbor” implies someone who is physically close to you. This is not a stranger, not an anonymous next door neighbor – but someone who shares your neighborhood with you, who shares the same fears, hopes and dreams as you. For example, this means we must help our friends in the South understand that the Confederate flag is hateful and hurtful to many.
  3. How can you love someone else if you don’t or can’t love yourself? If we can’t find a way to love ourselves, it’s difficult or impossible to love another. When one feels worthless, one can’t find those God-like qualities within – and can’t recognize that other’s are also made in the image of God. Therefore, it becomes much easier to treat others as “less than” or as value-less.

So let us ‘deliver love’ by learning how to love one another and ourselves in our actions and our deeds. And then maybe our world can be filled with flowers, beauty and love for all.