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Rosh Hashanah 5779, Day 1 - "Days are Scrolls"

September 10, 2018

These days.

I said last night that these days are days of stories.  The stories told about us.  The stories we tell about ourselves.

But Rosh haShanah is not just an inventory.  It is an invitation.  To retell the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves.  Not just who we were last year.  Who we are, every year. 

As a rabbi, I’m a story collector.  People tell me about themselves all the time.  In my office, at the café, on Facebook, walking to my car.

Sometimes as I’m trying to drive away in my car.  When I’d like to be, you know, going home.

But maybe it’s not surprising that being in a transitory state evokes our most powerful stories.  On a long car ride, on a walk.  Our stories are traveling stories. They walk with us.  Sometimes they live with us.

Sometimes our stories sustain us.

And, sometimes, they shame and plague us.

But the turning of the year is a time for telling.  And so we tell those stories, in the hopes that we can learn from them.

That they can save us.

Sometimes, there is pain in the telling.  That pain may feel terrifying, suffocating.

But there is also, we pray, liberation in the telling.

I will share some of this type of story this morning.  Stories of people in power.  Stories of mostly men, abusing their power in unspeakable ways.

If you are concerned that you or your children may not want to be present for stories that illustrate the cruelty of which humans are capable, I understand.  I’ll get it if you want to leave this space, now or during any of these stories.  Stories like these have sharp edges. 

So why am I telling them, here, on Rosh haShanah?  Because I wouldn’t do what I do for a living, and for a life, if I didn’t believe in the redemptive power of stories.  For you.  For me.  For all of us.  For the whole world.

***

Stories like the ones that have emerged over the past month, stories about Catholic priests in Pennsylvania.

You may know the details.  I will admit that it took me some time to gather the courage to read these stories.

Stories of a priest permitted to stay in ministry after impregnating a young girl and arranging for her to have an abortion.  Stories of a priest raping a young girl in the hospital, after she had her tonsils out.

Stories of 1,000 victims, 300 perpetrators, over 70 years.

Stories of Church officials, according to a Pennsylvania grand jury report, following a “playbook for concealing the truth,” refusing to inform the community of the real reasons behind removing an accused priest.

“Tell his parishioners that he is on ‘sick leave,’ or suffering from ‘nervous exhaustion,’” the report said.

 “Or say nothing at all.”

For the Jews in the room, the temptation may be to assume that this is their problem.

Of course, if we truly believe that God is One, and that all of us are created in the divine image, such distinctions begin to fall away.  If we really believe that God is One, “their problems” are our problems.  And, we pray, vice versa.

But also — it pains me to say that these kinds of stories are Jewish stories too.

Stories like the 14-year-old mentally disabled boy who was molested in, of all places, a mikveh, a Jewish purifying ritual bath.  Stories like the head of the Brooklyn South Shomrim, a Hasidic neighborhood watch group, arrested for raping a teenage girl. 

Stories like that of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a global Jewish leader who officiated at Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner’s wedding, who ignored multiple instances of sexual misconduct by educators affiliated with the Upper East Side Ramaz Academy, widely considered one of the best private Jewish schools in the country.

Or stories of ultra-Orthodox leaders punishing not the perpetrators of sexual abuse, but rather those who expose them. Like, for instance, Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg of Williamsburg, who maintains a hotline with instructions in Yiddish, Hebrew and English for victims to call 911.  Stories like those of fliers being posted around Brooklyn depicting a coiled snake, with Rabbi Rosenberg’s face superimposed on its head: “Nuchem Snake Rosenberg: Leave, Tainted One!”

What the Catholic Church and the Orthodox world have in common is the elevation of authority, and the taboo against questioning that authority.  But again, this invites the temptation to write this off as someone else’s problem.

And again, it pains me to say that these kinds of stories are also non-Orthodox Jewish stories.

Stories like the Reform rabbi accused of forcing a kiss on a 17-year-old girl.  Stories like the USY leader who would pull teenagers swimsuits off and perform sex acts on them while they slept.  Stories like the New York cantor and religious school principal who molested an 11-year-old bat mitzvah student.

These stories of childhood abuse are, of course, not confined to religious leaders.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2005 two truly startling statistics — 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls are sexually assaulted before the age of 18.
 

***

Making this all particularly difficult to process is that these stories continue to emerge as we approach year two of the #metoo movement.  We know it is not just children, but also adults, who are targets of painful and traumatic sexual behavior.

Those stories are perhaps better known because they involve famous men. 

Stories like Harvey Weinstein forcing himself into apartments and hotel rooms and assaulting his victims.  Stories like Bill O’Reilly calling female colleagues and employees and making graphic and lewd comments.  Stories like Charlie Rose exposing himself and groping his victims.  Stories like Garrison Keillor making numerous requests of female employees for sexual contact.

And, sadly, stories like that of sociologist Stephen M. Cohen, the once-lauded researcher into American Jewish community, that span decades — stories of touching and grabbing, sexual propositions and advances, and inappropriate sexual remarks.

The Jew-haters say that Jews are over-represented amongst these stories.  Even a casual glance at the list of perpetrators reveals this to be slanderous nonsense.  But that doesn’t mean that there are no Jews on this list.

One perpetrator is one too many.  And one Jewish perpetrator is one too many.

And one victim is one too many.

It is the turning of the year.  It is the time for telling our stories. 

***

Like the story we told this morning, in our Torah portion.  The story of Sarah and Isaac.  And also of Hagar and Ishmael.  For many of us, the story is a familiar, if uncomfortable, one.  Sarah and Abraham cannot conceive a child.  Sarah “gives” her maidservant Hagar to Abraham, and Hagar gives birth to Ishmael.  But later Isaac, the miracle baby, is born to Abraham and Sarah.

Which leaves us with what we might charitably call an “uneasily blended family.” Until, ultimately, Sarah tells Abraham to kick both Hagar and Ishmael out of the house.  Why?  There’s only one cryptic verse in the parashah:

Vateireh Sarah et ben Hagar haMitzrit asher yaldah l’Avraham.  “Sarah saw the son, who Hagar the Egyptian had birthed to Abraham.”  The son.  Sarah, it seems, can’t even bring herself to say the name “Ishmael.”  And just what is it that Sarah saw him doing?  There’s only one word that the Torah gives us.

Mitzacheik

Mitzacheik, of course, sounds like Yitzchak, Isaac.  Yitzchak means “he will laugh.”

But this time, maybe, it is Yishmael having a laugh. 

What is the source of laughter?  Our sages give various interpretations.  Some say Ishmael is derisively laughing about how old Abraham is compared to Isaac.  Others say he is giddily scheming to take Isaac’s inheritance.

But there’s another, more troubling, interpretation. 

It comes from later in Genesis.  In chapter 26, the grown-up Isaac will lie to the Philistine king Avimelech that he and Rebekah are brother and sister.  The lie is eerily similar to the one Abraham tells to the Egyptian king Melchitzedek.

Children learn from watching their parents’ behavior.

But one day, Avimelech will see Isaac and Rebecca together, and know they are married.  He knows this because he sees them mitzacheik.

“Playing together.”

The famous medieval commentator Rashi says that this is euphemism for sexual play.

The modern Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann picks up this troubling thread. “the [Hebrew] word ‘play’ in the intensive tense in the Bible always connotes a playful teasing of a sexual or foul nature…”

The rabbi continues:

Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State coach accused of child sexual abuse… described in his own words his contact with young boys as “horsing around. ” “Horsing around” like the biblical, mitzachek, conjures up that potentially imaginary line between playful and harmful.

That line, between playful and harmful, is too important to remain fuzzy.  We need to face this, to talk about it, to keep talking about it, until the line comes into focus.

If Sarah really did think she saw Ishmael molesting Isaac, did she do the right thing?  Should she have told Abraham what she saw?  Would she as a woman have been believed?  Or did she assume that this is what she saw because, as she said, Ishmael was the “son of an Egyptian?”  Was there an element of racial prejudice in Sarah’s conclusion?

So hard to parse out, these stories.

These are the stories that plague us.  That tiptoe upon us in the night, in the shower, on the drive to work.   That threaten to suffocate us.  They grip the heart even before the narrative registers in the brain.  A quickening of breath.  Panic.  Shame.

Is there an Isaac or an Ishmael in your life?  Now?  In the past?

Most days, we move on.  Change the channel, shift in our seat, check to see if the important email has arrived.  But today isn’t most days.  Today is a day for turning.

Today is a day for looking.

Because if we look away, we put everyone in our community in danger.  The potential victims of inappropriate and abusive sexual behavior, of course, suffer the most.

But there is suffering in those who are pressured into participating or ignoring it.

There is guilt, shame, and grief for those who would have stopped, it but were prevented from doing so by fear.

Or who may have tried to stop it, but did it the wrong way.

We feel this all the more acutely because we are a religious institution. 

The tragedy of religious organizations being the site of some of the worst violations of trust is that we are supposed to be held to a higher standard.  We are supposed to do better.

Chaim Levin, a victim of abuse in the Orthodox community, has written extensively about both his abuse and his healing.

“I have taken a lot of my pain,” Levin has written, “and tried to transform it into something that is actually positive.” 

Rosh haShanah, the turning of the year, is the time for transforming pain into healing.

This past year at Congregation Beth Elohim, we have been talking a lot about safety.  We have discussed how and when to lock our doors, we have installed keypads at the entrances, we have an alarm system.  I am so grateful for the leaders in our community, the tireless volunteers who are doing the holy work of protecting us from outside intruders.

But we also must do everything in our power to keep everyone safe on the inside, on our property, safe in a way that Isaac needed to be safe from Ishmael.

To be sure, we have a wonderful staff in our synagogue, our religious school, and our early learning center.  The teachers and madrichim are dedicated and caring.

But what about those fuzzy lines between playful and harmful?

The CDC reports that over 70% of abuse victims know their abusers.

***

So let me tell you what we are already doing, and then I’ll talk about the future.

The cantor and I do not ever meet with an individual student behind a closed door, unless you can see into the room through glass.  We are asking that a second adult remain in the building at all times when students meet in the building for b’nai mitzvah tutoring.

I always ask adults if they are comfortable meeting me behind a closed door.  If they wish, the door remains opened, or in a public place.

Now, many of you know that I’m a “hugger.”  You may not know that my policy is always to ask first.  When I say that we should put our arms around each other at services only with the consent of the people next to us, it’s no joke.  I mean it.  What seems like friendly contact to us can be uncomfortable, or worse, for another person.

If I have ever made you feel judged for wanting to protect your own space, I ask here, in public, for your forgiveness.

You should also know that I do not ever seek out any embraces or hugs with children.  If a child hugs me, I will ask in person or by email if the adults in their life are OK with that contact.

I have been speaking this summer with Susan Perry in the ELC and our wonderful new educator, Beth Goldstein, about reinforcing our standards and procedures around safety.  I learned from Susan that our ELC always has two teachers in a room to ensure that children are never alone with one adult.  ELC staff are instructed, at all times, to use a separate bathrooms from the children.

We are currently in the process of doing CORI background checks on every staff person and volunteer that comes into regular contact with our students, from the cantor and the ELC interns to the rabbis and volunteer storytellers. 

We will be reinforcing policies prohibiting madrichim to be alone behind closed doors with individual students, unless the door has a window.

As we know, clergy are in a unique position of being with people when they are vulnerable.  That is why I say, again, we must meet higher standards, be more careful and exacting regarding our contact with others.

But board members and committee chairs, as well, have a special responsibility to maintain the highest interpersonal ethical standards.

This is why I am also asking the board to think carefully about guidelines for appropriate behavior and ways for those who may have, God forbid, been hurt in this community to have a trustworthy and safe way to report such incidents.

I’m happy to report that a project called B'Kavod, in Hebrew “with respect,” designed to “help Jewish communal institutions and all who work, learn or worship at them develop cultures of safety, respect and fairness,” will, for the first time, be dedicating a trainer specifically to the Boston area.

Her name is Joanna Ware, a friend of mine who brings a lifetime of dedication to the Jewish world, and she will be offering “training and policy development as well as reporting and helpline services.”  Our president and immediate past president, Barbara Green and Alan Weiss, have already opened a dialogue with Joanna.

But, like I said before, even when we mean well, we don’t always get it right.

You may remember that last year, one of my High Holiday sermons opened with a quote a Woody Allen standup routine.  The quote was extensive.  People laughed.  I felt good about it. 

But a week or so later, I got a note from a congregant.  How was it possible, she wanted to know, that I could reference Woody Allen, and not talk about the allegations against him? 

I asked if she’d meet with me.  She agreed.

She explained that she works with numerous victims of abusive or exploitative relationships.  She wondered how I could expect people to think about the topic of the sermon, she asked, when I hadn’t even acknowledged the pain that referencing Woody Allen might cause victims of abuse?

She was right of course.  Even if he’s not guilty of the accusations against him, for me to ignore them and to give him prominence — in a sermon, on Yom Kippur no less — was at best insensitive, and at worst a sign of approval.  I am grateful that she approached me.

I ask you, this community, for your forgiveness this morning for that mistake.  I assure you I am trying to do better.  This is sermon is part of that effort.

I am also grateful for the stories that she told me.   I pray that they are liberating.

“Some people don’t realize this but there is never a singular moment in which one is suddenly free from the demons of the past,” Chaim Levin wrote. “Sometimes they go away or get quieter, but keeping them quiet or away requires constant work and maintenance.”  He continues, “I want the ones who don’t know this to know that it’s ok to not be ok. It’s ok to recognize and accept that something bad was done to you. The moment you do that you can start focusing on a plan of how you will transform this terrible experience into something useful and good for the world.”

And I would add — It’s also OK to look back on when you’ve been witnesses to such behavior.  It’s OK to wonder what you should have done.  It’s OK to ask questions about right and wrong.

But what doesn’t help anyone is to suffer in silence.  What destroys people, relationships, families, are the secrets, the silent shame, the self-inflicted suffering.

It’s why I say here, today, that if one of these stories is plaguing you — either because you were a victim, or because you feel complicit — come talk to us.  To the Cantor.  To me.

Maybe it’s about these topics.  Maybe not.  But to speak the truth, especially a truth that carries with it self-recrimination and regret, is so liberating.

The past cannot be undone.  But there is healing in the telling.

And, perhaps, your story can help keep all of us safe.

“Days are scrolls,” wrote the medieval Spanish Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda.  “Write on them what you want remembered.”

There are scrolls in our lives that we wish had never been written.  That’s a wish, of course, that can never be fulfilled.  We look at the words written on our scrolls.  The words stare right back at us.  No matter how hard we squint, the scroll is never unwritten.

But we can read those scrolls.  Find that there is learning in those letters.  And healing.

That’s why we tell the stories.  Even the hard ones.  Especially, perhaps, the hard ones.

So we can learn.  And grow.  And, finally, look out for each other.

And know, when this time comes around next year, that pain can lead to love, that shame and regret can yield to healing and honor and life.

A book of life.  With all our names inscribed in it.

Tue, October 22 2019 23 Tishrei 5780