Wednesday, September 23, 2015

"Do We Need Enemies" - Yom Kippur Evening Sermon - September 22, 2015

Do we need enemies?
    My direct answer to that question is NO – N-O in capital letters.
    Need is probably not the right word.  We don’t need enemies, but we do have enemies.  They enter our lives sometimes in a predictable way and, at other times, without warning.   Our Israelite ancestors knew that well. 
      It so happens that one of the more frequent words in the Bible is "enemy" - expressed with the word OYAYV, which means "to be hostile to someone else":  TZOREIR, to be an adversary, foe or opponent; and SONEI, meaning someone who harbors hatred.  In the Bible, an enemy may have been a citizen of another nation at war with Israel or Judah.   Or, an enemy could be someone who rejected belief in God or despised believers in God.   
    One of the most famous chapters in the book of Psalms prominently proposes that God can be a shield for us against our "enemies."      Just a few verses after that well known phrase, "The Eternal One is my shepherd, I shall not want - comes this declaration, as  translated by Martin Samuel Cohen:  "Even though I must sometimes pass through dark valleys, I fear no harm, for You, God, are with me; indeed Your crook and Your walking stick are sources of constant comfort for me. You set a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You have anointed my head with so much fine oil that I feel like an overflowing cup.   Nothing but goodness and mercy will pursue me all the days of my life; indeed, I feel certain that I shall dwell in the House of the Eternal One for days without end."  We will read this Psalm, Psalm 23, in the Yizkor/memorial service tomorrow afternoon.  What does this Psalm mean when it says,  "You set a table before me in the presence of my enemies"?     The previous verse declared with certainty:  "LO IRA RA KI ATAH IMADI -  I will fear no harm or evil for You are with me."   Put the two verses together, and the message is clear - with God, I won't be afraid, not even if my enemies were sitting right in front of me.  They might seek to bully me or destroy me, but with God's protection -NOTHING can happen to me. I am totally safe and secure. 
    Psalm 23 begins with the words, MIZMOR L'DAVID, a song of David.    You don't have to know your Bible in great detail to recall that David had many enemies, one of them being his royal predecessor, Saul.  There are a number of Psalms attributed to David that seem to describe his complex web of relationships.   Psalm 59, which is called a "golden song of David," was identified as a song written when Saul sought to kill David.  The first verse of Psalm 59 voices this plea: "Save me from my enemies, O my God; exalt me over those who rise up against me." 
       So it seems that the Hebrew Bible assumed that having enemies is just a part of life.  Even with that unavoidable reality, the Torah emphatically teaches us to show respect to our enemies and to those who despise us in any way.   We read every year in Exodus Chapter 23 this directive on dealing with those who don't like us:  "When you encounter your enemy's ox or beast of burden wandering, you must take it back to your enemy.  When you see the beast of your enemy - that is, someone who hates you -  collapsing under its burden and you would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless help your enemy raise the animal up."   This passage instructs us to show consideration to others without thinking about whether they like us or not.  This is one of the Torah's greatest teachings about bridge building with fellow community members.  We are commanded to extend a helping hand even when we know that the person on the receiving end may never have even one iota of an inclination to reach back and do the same for us.
      That section of the book of Exodus suggests that even after we have done something positive for a person, he or she may still remain our enemy.  That reality leads me to ask, again and again, "Wouldn't it be better not to have enemies in the first place?   How does hatred and prejudice of any type lead to a person becoming our enemy who refuses to treat us with dignity and respect?  Or do people believe that they must staunchly oppose those who don't share their ideologies in order to bring their own positions into clearer focus so they can hold on to those views for dear life?"  
    I believe that most of us try to get along with other people, to find common ground, to work as equal partners.  When we disagree, most of us aim to keep our conversations respectful without accusation or demonization. 
   Sadly, that type of approach fails more often than it should.  And people become estranged, to the point where "being cordial" is no longer effective.  Hatred develops and can intensify over many years.      
     Sometimes it can also burst forth in an instant and turn a trusted colleague or friend into a foe to be feared.
     Such a break in relationship may happen because of unmet expectations that were shared but not openly and honestly monitored over time.  Or it may occur because of expectations that were not shared at all, where unspoken assumptions or attitudes led to disaster. 
    It may be because of an unaccepted even if heartfelt apology. Hatred may remain due to a sense that a particular issue can yield only two possible positions, what we might call "my view and the wrong view."   There is no recognition of a middle position, and compromise is viewed as a show of weakness rather than as a solution that could be a win for everyone.
    And there are times when one person's desire for power and greater recognition can cause hurt and leave friendships in ruins, where the one climbing for the top doesn't care if he or she has left behind or emotionally injured people who had offered him or her help, support and even love.
    People may become and remain enemies because no one was willing to engage in THE conversation that could resolve even a serious misunderstanding.  But if hatred has found a home, that discussion would never happen.
    So we try to move forward in our lives, hoping that God will be with us, setting a table before us in the presence of both our friends and our enemies, enabling us to try to be decent and menschlikh to everyone, even when our attempts at positive interactions are rejected and rebuffed.
       It seems that the impulse for hatred that leads people to have enemies is deeply imbedded in who we are as human beings.  Journalist and science writer Rush Dozier, Jr.  explained the nature of hatred in his book, “Why We Hate: Understanding, Curbing and Eliminating Hate in Ourselves and the World.”   Dozier noted that hatred is our most intense emotion. Besides hate groups, hate speech and terrorism, incidents of shootings and violence at schools and in public places and cases of domestic violence reveal how hatred can poison our behavior and our lives. Dozier noted that scientists have discovered, over the last 20 years, the reasons why hate just doesnt go away. Hate emerges from a primitive response to perceived threats to our survival. The parts of the brain that control this more primal instinct tend to make us generalize and stereotype. At that point, our minds would be closed. A dangerous combination of prejudice and anger could embed hatred in our minds and our hearts. That response could lead to verbal assaults if not violent attacks. It explains why people sometimes dehumanize, discredit and denigrate whomever they consider as the opposition or the enemy. As we know, people can learn from others how to hate with a passion. A process of training in hatred has directly caused major terrorist attacks like 9/11, the destruction of ancient ruins and violent treatment of non-Muslims by the Islamic state, the kidnapping of female students by Boko Haram, the Boston Marathon bombings, and shootings such as the ones by right wing extremist Frazier Glenn Cross at the Jewish Community Campus in Overland Park, Kansas, in April of 2014.   Cross, in his recent trial, said that he had to try to kill Jews, who, in his belief, are out to destroy the white race.
        Dozier said that there may be a remedy to the these horrifying actions and the attitudes which lie at their root.  Scientists have developed a strategy to stimulate the parts of the brain that can take in new information and override our more primal tendencies, including hatred. In this approach, tolerance must be taught by example. We must replace an us-against-them orientation with an us-us perspective. We must try to focus on the commonality of our humanity with all people.  We can try to empathize with our fellow human beings and understand their behaviors and actions. Communicating the reasons for our anger or fear in a particular situation can move us beyond negative feelings. Education about diverse groups and cultures in society can prevent stereotyping and the harboring of prejudice. Cooperation with all types of people can replace feelings of mistrust.
      Scientists might remind us that we are all human beings and that many traits are inborn in ways we don't realize. Ethicists might teach us to treat each other as we want to be treated. Religious believers might say that we are all created in One image – BTZELEM ELOHIM - and that we should love our neighbors as ourselves – VAHAVTA LRAY-A-CHA KAMOCHA. On the other hand, adherents to a particular faith might claim that there are divisions among humanity….that there are those who do not deserve respect, because long-standing teachings say so.
      One example of such strongly held principles standing in the way of cooperation took place just after 9/11.    Dr. David Benke, president of the Atlantic district of the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, offered a brief meditation in the interfaith “Prayer for America” gathering at Yankee Stadium on September 23, 2001 that paid tribute to the victims, survivors and heroes of 9/11 and began the long process of grieving and healing.   Dr. Benke and other officials of his denomination were convinced that the Missouri Synods rules allowed him to participate as long as event organizers didnt restrict the language of his prayer.  In his prayer, Benke addressed God as a Tower of Strength who could grant us shelter and peace and help people unite across all boundaries in acts of grace and truth. The universal aspects of his words deeply resonated with many people, including me,  at that challenging time.
      Dr. Benke had no idea that he had jeopardized his career that day.   He reflected on the repercussions of his decision a number of months later, when he was turned into an enemy of his own denomination.  He explained, “The Yankee Stadium event was a pivotal day in my entire life....When I shared the podium with representatives of all the major faiths and prayed, that prayer became the center of a major controversy.  The very next day, I began to get messages filled with hate…from…people….within my tradition….They said, "You were wrong to be there. You never should have gone to Yankee Stadium. You are a heretic. You have dishonored your faith." One man said the genuine terrorism was me. He said, planes crash and people die, nothing big about that. Genuine terrorism was me giving that prayer. I just want to say that I have not gotten over that….I lived through the real terrorists driving the planes into the real buildings….I've talked to people whose loved ones were murdered….For me to be put in that same category is just not tolerable to me….A number of those people, clergy from my denomination, filed charges of heresy against me, saying that…because of what I did on that day, I should not be part of the church, that I should not be allowed to preach, and that I should have my collar removed……Their belief is that a Christian who stands at the same podium with someone of another faith will give everybody the idea that all religions are equal...If religion leads people to make these kinds of accusations at exactly the worst moment in American history, then what's underneath religion? Is religion a desire for such absolute power and security that people cannot see the need to reach out and help? If that's true, then I've got a lot of wrestling to do with my own religion.”   Pastor Benke was suspended by his denomination in 2002, but he was eventually reinstated in 2003.  He saw no reason to apologize for offering the people of the United States support and comfort through his words. 
      We, as members of the Jewish community, know of the hatred that continues to be cast upon us from many directions.  Jews around the world have debated whether or not the Boycott/Divest/Sanctions movement, in its uncompromising efforts to oppose policies of the State of Israel, has exhibited anti-Semitism in its approach to companies, universities and nations around the world.  Recently, BDS activists lobbied a music festival in Spain to ban American Jewish reggae artist Matisyahu from appearing for his scheduled performance. They singled out the singer, demanding that he sign a pledge in favor of the creation of a Palestinian state, a requirement which no other performer at the festival had been asked to fulfill.     Matisyahu replied that he makes no political statements in his performances, so he refused to sign the requested pledge and chose not to appear..    After many protests from around the world, Matisyahu was reinvited by the organizers and did sing at the festival, even as Palestinian flags flew in the audience. For that Jewish performer, there was only music, not hatred, not enemies, and Judaism's universal hope for unity as Matisyahu has expressed in his song, "One Day" (which goes like this):
All my life I've been waiting for, I've been praying for
For the people to say
That we don't wanna fight no more
There will be no more wars and our children will play
One day
  Even with this upbeat message about who we can be as a human family, shared by many faith groups and helping organizations, there is still hatred. Adversaries remain.  Enemies won't go away when so many people fail to consider that common interests like peace and living a life without violence could create unity that could encompass much of the world.
    Some of the remedies to hatred and the persistent presence of enemies in our lives are prescribed in the very words we recite every Yom Kippur.  We ask God for forgiveness for our sins, knowing that, when we are approached to forgive another person, we are called upon to be like God and to offer our mercy and acceptance.   On Yom Kippur, we confess all the wrongs that members of the human family may commit towards one another throughout a year or a lifetime, including hatred without cause, slander, disrespect, judging unfairly, violence, abuse, lying, deceit, and hardening our hearts.   Confession and forgiveness can open our hearts towards one another.  Compassion and empathy can bring us closer together.   We may not totally eliminate the presence of enemies in our lives, but we may have fewer vocal opponents and find ourselves with more people whom we can call "friend."
         Among the groups that try to turn opponents or enemies into partners are those that seek to create attitudes that will yield peace in the Middle East.  New Mexico's own Creativity for Peace trains young Palestinian and Israeli women to come together as leaders by breaking down barriers of anger and prejudice, facilitating friendships, and inspiring action to promote peace.    On October 14, participants in the Creativity for Peace program will be speaking here at Temple.  Seeds of Peace, based in Maine, maintains a similar program and purpose.  Their mission statement, generated by the young people brought together to get to know one another in a new way, declares what we, as human beings, can do if we try:   "Many of us live in places where killing and humiliation, poverty and homeless refugees are commonplace. We are surrounded by an atmosphere of hatred created by unjust realities. Violence does not begin when a gun is pointed or a rock is thrown, but in the hate-filled graffiti and political posters decorating the walls of our cities …Yet at Seeds of Peace, we have experienced real equality, unity, understanding and joy. Having faced this stark contrast, we now refuse to accept what is when we know what we can be if we truly implement these principles in our homes and our hearts. We refuse to be victims. We know it is possible to redirect human passions, even calls for revenge, toward the positive goal of creating peace … There are people who call us traitors because we recognize our enemies as equal human beings—but we are true patriots. Instead of creating dead-end situations for our nations, we are putting an end to an endless cycle of suffering. We are working together for peace, the only way to achieve optimal living conditions for our own countries and people. We were raised in societies which taught us to hate each other. Despite that, we have united here to fight together for a better future for us all, in the name of the dead and the generations to come. In succeeding here, we prove to ourselves and our governments that a solution exists and peace is not impossible."
       Washington Post writer Laura Blumenfeld shared, in many ways, that same approach and spirit when she sought to turn a potential enemy into a friend. In her now classic book, REVENGE: A STORY OF HOPE, she explained how she set out in 1998 to find the man who had shot her father, Rabbi David Blumenfeld. He was standing in an alley of the Old City of Jerusalem on March 7, 1986, when an assailant, who turned out to be a member of a notorious terrorist cell, aimed at Rabbi Blumenfelds head and shot a bullet that, fortunately, only grazed his scalp.   Even though her father didnt die from his wound, Laura was still troubled, even haunted, by this act of one man against a member of her family.   She felt that it was her responsibility to seek out the attacker and confront him.   Blumenfeld began to explore the emotions and actions that are related to the human desire for revenge. She noted that both sides in a conflict often try to claim the role as the pure and solitary victim.   As the ones who have been wronged or shamed, they feel they have the right and privilege of lashing out and evening the score. She traveled to Sicily and Albania, where she learned of the strict parameters and rules that dictate how revenge can be taken.   She spoke to Benjamin Netanyahu about the killing of his brother Yoni when he led Israeli troops in a raid on Entebbe airport in Uganda in 1976 to rescue American and Israelis Jews held hostage by a band of hijackers.   She was amazed that neither Benjamin Netanyahu nor his brother Iddo had a desire for revenge in a personal way against the hijackers.   The murder of their brother was national, not personal.
     Blumenfeld realized that, while taking revenge could be an act based on ones group or national identity, reconciliation can happen mainly when people move from the collective – the larger group – down to the personal, one-on-one level.     Once she discovered the identity of her fathers assailant, she began to visit his family in Ramallah, introducing herself only as “Laura” from America. She began a correspondence with the shooter, Omar Khatib. Their letters focused on political ideology and the despair he felt as a Palestinian. Blumenfeld began to share with Khatib details about her father without telling Khatib that she was the daughter of his victim.   What Laura Blumenfeld eventually learned was that the greatest revenge she could have was to change the heart of the perpetrator to make him realize the personal nature of his act.  
    She made Omar Khatib see that he had injured a man who was trying to work for peace.   At the end of the book, Laura appeared in court on Khatibs behalf and revealed to the court and the shooters family that she was the daughter of the man he had attacked.   Rather than being angry, Khatib and all of the members of his family were touched by Lauras humanity. Omar Khatib sent a sincere letter of apology to David Blumenfeld, in which he said that Laura “was the mirror that made me see your face as a human person who deserved to be admired and respected.”  
     It is possible to overcome hatred, xenophobia and the desire for revenge if we can move beyond the past just enough to learn about other people and understand who they are and what they want and need from life. Reconciliation and cooperation can happen when we are prepared to see the humanity in all people, to recognize that they too, want to live their lives in safety and in freedom.
     There is a popular story, attributed to Native American tradition, which is shared often these days as acts of hatred and violence in the United States and around the world have become all too frequent and common.  
      A boy was talking with his grandfather. He asked, “What do you think about the world situation?”
   His grandfather replied, “I feel like two wolves are fighting in my heart. One is full of anger and hatred. The other is full of love, forgiveness and peace.”
   “Which of the wolves will win?” asked the boy. The grandfather replied, “The wolf that will win is the one that I choose to feed.”
     May we - and our enemies - hear these words, and understand that we don't have to remain estranged, mired in conflict forever.  We can, if we sincerely try, in the spirit of forgiveness and change of these High Holy Days, nourish love, forgiveness, reconciliation and compassion in ourselves and in our community so that we can truly be inscribed and sealed in the years to come for unity, goodness, friendship and blessing. 

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