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Balak 5778 — "Safe at Home"

June 29, 2018

I stood here roughly a year ago, on Parashat Balak, at my first official service at Beth Elohim.

I spoke about houses.  Specifically, this house.

I said what a beautiful house it is.  Beautiful because of the spirit and dedication and love that’s in it.

And, a year later, I haven’t wavered from that conclusion.  It is a great blessing to be your rabbi, in this house.

That conclusion was anchored in a text from this week’s parashah.  As you may remember, the king of Moab has an irrational fear of the refugee Israelites.  He finds a prophet-for-hire, the spiritual mercenary Bilaam, to curse them.

Bilaam opens his mouth but can only say blessings:

Mah tovu ohalecha. "How beautiful are your tents."

This month, though, our beautiful tents were vandalized.  At Acton-Boxborough High School, a place of community and learning — a second home for many of our children and some of our adults — the Jewish people were attacked.  By now, you know that a trailer on the school field was painted with a yellow Star of David, and the word Jude. 

It was an act of willful cruelty.  It was an attack on our home.

I am so grateful to share with you that local clergy, Christian clergy, came together to respond to this attack, in a beautiful ritual of rededication on the athletic field.  I want to mention in particular Pastor Cindy Worthington-Berry, Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes, Reverend Laura Harris-Adams, and Reverend Amy Lunde-Whitler as key allies in this moment.

I was less satisfied with the initial response of the school district.  I was not contacted by anyone from the district beforehand, and in a subsequent meeting with the superintendents, I was not told how the district planned to respond going forward. 

I have lots of jobs at Beth Elohim.  (I love almost all of them, almost all of the time.)  It’s my job is to teach, It’s my to open paths to spiritual authenticity, it’s my job to cultivate our ethics and values as a Jewish community.

But on a basic level, as a leader in this community, there’s one job I see as crucial.  To keep us safe.

And, when someone comes to curse our tents, it’s my job to clearly and strongly defend them.  To defend us.

Because when someone comes to hate and curse, clarity and strength are essential. 

I heard clarity and strength from our own Sal Lopes after the ritual at the athletic field.  After we concluded, Sal spoke to the entire crowd, demanding to know what would come next.  “This was all very nice and made us feel good,” Sal said, “but how will the district respond?”

It was bold.  It was loud.  It was angry.  Perhaps it lacked, in the word of the day, “civility.” 

And I’m so grateful that he said it.  It opened a conversation that needed to be opened. 

An administrator who was present contacted me to say that the conversation Sal initiated was “uncomfortable.”

I responded to the administrator: you should feel discomfort.  In an email, I wrote:

“You should feel discomfort that there was a threat to my community made on your campus.  You should feel discomfort that Jews in your community now question their safety walking on district grounds.  You should feel discomfort that the threat made against our community was grounded in murderous propaganda that resulted in the greatest catastrophe in the history of the Jewish people.  You should feel discomfort in working in a district where these concerns are not being properly addressed.”

Again, not warm and fuzzy.  But when we are under attack, warm and fuzzy are inappropriate and irresponsible.

When we are under attack, do not expect me to be deferential.  Do not expect “civility.”

Expect me to speak forcefully on behalf of this community.

I will never apologize for speaking loudly against hate.  Against us.  Against anyone.

I will never apologize for rejecting curses of violence, whether they come from Balaam or Boxborough.

Because all children, all our children, deserve to feel safe in their homes.

Thanks to Sal’s courage, the curse may yet be turned into blessing.  Thanks to Sal’s leadership, the A-B administration is taking its responsibility more seriously, and we are currently discussing how to work together to create safe community together.

As painful as this whole experience has been for us, I wish I could say that our tents were the only ones that have been vandalized.

Tragically, as you can see any time you read the news, America’s tents continue to be vandalized. 

Balak is not the only ruler in history to have an irrational fear and hatred of refugees.  He is not the only leader to send his employees to bring curses upon the stranger in his midst.

Last year, I joked about it: “Just imagine,” I said. “A petulant leader who impulsively decides to summarily drive out hundreds of thousands of immigrants, based on nothing but irrational fear.

“I know.  It’s a stretch.  Just humor me.”

And people laughed.  But afterward, I was approached by some congregants.  Wasn’t it divisive to mock the President, especially if some of us at CBE voted for him?  Wasn’t I mocking them?

And I thought about it.  Especially at my first service, maybe it was disrespectful.  And so I apologize to those of you who to whom I showed disrespect.

But I will not apologize for criticizing the President.

Because a year later, after a year of witnessing what’s happening at South Bay Detention Center and the ICE office in Burlington, it feels like there’s a lot less to joke about.

If I owe anyone an apology, it’s the Franciscos and Jacobs and Juan-Carloses of our country, for not doing more, and not doing it earlier.

Because their children — like our children — deserve to be safe at home.

Because even though I was disappointed in the district’s response to the hateful attack in our town, I had the power as a rabbi to call a meeting with the superintendent.  I had the connections to involve local clergy to help me.  I trusted that speaking up would not put me in any danger, physically or legally.

And, just as assuredly, immigrants in our country do not enjoy any of those privileges.

And that has everything to do with those who hold power in our country.  And it has everything to do with the forces of racism and xenophobia that have allowed those people to come to power.

It’s our job as Jews to protect Jewish bodies, to insist on physical safety for Jews — whether or not it makes some non-Jews uncomfortable.

But it’s also our job to protect Jewish souls, to insist that Jews stand up for our spiritual mission to advocate for the poor and the immigrant, to stand up to the privileged and powerful — whether or not it makes some Jews uncomfortable.

The reminder this week comes from the most unlikely of sources.  A non-Jewish prophet who talks to a donkey.  But Bilaam, unwittingly, becomes a model for all other prophets — speaking poetry in defiance of the mightiest of kings.

It is not why Balak hired him.

To Balak the xenophobe, it is not polite.

In the context of a culture of hate, it is not civil. 

Rather, it is a bold blessing upon all the Israelite tents that they are beautiful and holy and sacred — a blessing so bold that it reverberates to us here, now, so bold that we say it every morning in our morning davvening.

Is that not the job of religion?  To declare all homes holy?  Is it not the job of religion to take note of the forgotten and forsaken?

Is it not the job of Judaism to turn their curses into blessings?

Since Balaam was a non-Jewish prophet, I’ll close with a teaching from another non-Jew — Reverend Amy Lunde-Whitler. 

Reverend Amy sat with our colleagues and me yesterday, as we all discussed Jews and justice, Jesus and Moses, religion and redemption.

As religious leaders, Amy said, “It’s not our job to be ‘nice,’” She continued, “It’s our job to shine the light of God in the world.”

Yes, Reverend.

May this house shine that light throughout Acton, throughout Boxborough, throughout all the world.

And may all God’s children live in tents of blessing, in spaces of sanctuary, in houses of safety and sweetness and love.

Fri, March 22 2019 15 Adar II 5779