This sermon was delivered at our Saturday morning service May 4th.

Today is the 11th day of the Omer, a 49-day counting practice which comes right out of the Torah but which remains fairly obscure or even unknown among most Jews because of its strange agrarian roots. Starting on the 2nd night of Passover through the next big holiday on the calendar, Shavuot, we count every single evening (Jewish days start when the sun goes down), one day at a time, 7 days, for 7 complete weeks, a practice dating back to when Jews cultivated land according to the agricultural practices described in the Torah, counting sheaves of barley and wheat to bring to the Temple in Jerusalem, one more each day, for 49 days. 

Since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, Jews have had to make new meaning of– well, everything that had constituted Judaism up til that point, but specifically in this case – the practice of counting the Omer. Today is the 11th day of the Omer, which is one week and four days of the Omer. (repeat– now you’ve fulfilled the mitzvah of counting the omer!)

The story is told, that Rabbi Akiva, who lived during the time of the Roman occupation and destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, had 12,000 pairs of disciples across the country, and all of them died at the same time during the first month of the Omer. And so, from Passover forward, for 33 days, we adopt a posture of mourning. Traditionally observant Jews won’t attend weddings or shave or get haircuts during this time, out of respect for the memory of the plague that killed Rabbi Akiva’s students. 

But it’s the reason the plague happened that gives meaning to the first 33 days of the Omer beyond the simple act of counting. The Talmud says they died not because of physical illness but because of a spiritual plague: שֶׁלֹּא נָהֲגוּ כָּבוֹד זֶה לָזֶה – they did not treat each other with respect. Just out of curiosity– what do you think that could mean? It doesn’t give more details. What does it mean to not behave with respect, when you’re talking about people you’re supposed to be hashing out truth with, ie arguing with? (answers might include… They assumed the worst of each other; they condescended to and judged one another ungenerously; they allowed themselves to be easily insulted; they dehumanized one another and considered each other less than worthy of respect; rather than debate the merits of arguments they descended into violence.) 

So in order for us to internalize the lesson that we must treat one another with respect, even in matters of deeply held conviction and difference, we spend the first month of the Omer reflecting on the consequences of what happens when we don’t. People get hurt– yes emotionally, but eventually physically. People die.

It is only because of the lessons learned by the next generation of students after that immense loss, that we have the Judaism we have today – a tradition in which we prize and celebrate not only the relentless pursuit of truth, justice, and righteousness, but uniquely among religions, practice spirited and even intense debate as our mode of getting there. But importantly, we emphasize that our pursuit of all those goods must be done in a way that does not compromise the honor, dignity and humanity of whomever you’re arguing with. While the Houses of Hillel and Shammai disagreed on almost everything, the reason why the House of Hillel routinely won, the Talmud says, was not because their arguments were stronger, but because they were kind and gracious, and they put forward the best version of Shammai’s arguments first. They were Mensches.

You can imagine why, this week, I’m thinking about what Jewish wisdom has to say about the pursuit of truth, of justice, of righteousness. Anyone paying attention over the past two weeks has seen or read about the encampments on dozens of university campuses, and has talked to or heard from local high school students present for the walk-outs. They have been alternatively described as peaceful spaces advocating for dignity, freedom and justice for Palestinians and welcoming all people who share that goal, including many Jews, (even holding Shabbat services and Passover seders in the encampments)… and they have also been described as spaces rife with antisemitic chants, slogans, signs and sentiments, threatening students who in any way support the existence of Israel, which is to say, most Jews. Depending on who your friends are on social media and which news outlets you get news from, you saw and heard about very different realities on college campuses these past few weeks.

I went up to Northwestern’s campus earlier this week and spoke with students and faculty who have experienced all of the above– the sense of community and solidarity and inspiration being part of a movement in support of Palestinian lives; and, alternatively, others who experienced a sense of profound isolation and exclusion on their campus, not to mention pressure from professors and colleagues to join in the protests whether or not they felt comfortable there, whether or not “from the River to the Sea” means what some say– peace and freedom for everyone– or actually means what the Hamas charter says it means, which is disappearing Jews from the land of Israel/Palestine and sending them, where exactly? 

Part of what makes this moment painful is our collective Jewish American self-concept is as a people deeply concerned with the social justice issues and being at the forefront of those movements, whether for the abolition of slavery, for civil rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, labor rights or climate justice. And I know that Jews involved in this movement feel the same way. So it is painful to see police in riot gear called in, clubbing, manhandling, tear gassing student protesters and counter protesters– of course there need to be consequences for violating school policies, for harassment and hate speech– but when has violent suppression of free speech ever been good for minorities, including Jews? and by the way some of that violence was both created by and visited upon the counter protesters holding Israeli flags as well. 

Adding insult to injury, the task force created at Northwestern to help address and combat antisemitism in this painful moment wasn’t even consulted as the university brokered its compromise with the protesters. As of now, that task force has been disbanded because one by one its own members stopped believing the university was serious about combatting antisemitism while simultaneously taking the concerns of protests seriously. 

And there are legitimate concerns being expressed in the protest movement that we cannot and should not dismiss because of some of its worst elements– Lord knows I don’t want anyone dismissing or judging the entire Jewish people, or people who identify as Zionists, because of Judaism’s most vile, violent, and racist actors, and we have them, and some of them are ministers in the current Israeli government. It’s therefore all the more important to extend that same courtesy to the sincere people on the other side of the ideological barricade. 

But the other reason we can’t dismiss them is because many of the positive  sentiments at these protests are shared by protesters on the streets of Israel. Haviva Ner David, a Jerusalem based author, halakhic/Jewish legal expert, and human rights activist, wrote this week that she, too, has been protesting the occupation for years, she, too, is out on the streets calling for a mutual ceasefire and a return of all the hostages (some of whom, thank God, are still alive, which should motivate us all the more to end this war now). She’s also been calling, along with so many Israelis on the streets, for the resignation of government officials and early elections. She is pro-Palestinian rights, as are her colleagues and friends. But she is also pro-Jew. And so, she writes, hearing the chants of “from the river to the sea,” or “there is only one solution– intifada, revolution,’ exclude her, and any Israelis or Palestinian Israelis who remember the bombing of buses and cafes and weddings and passover seders in the name of intifada, from participating, because they can’t join in a protest against violence that sounds like it’s calling for violence against them and the people they love. This is something I want our Jews involved in these protests to think about. As Rami Nashashibi, a local Palestinian leader who spoke at the Northwestern encampment last week, said to the crowd, “if there’s any one of you that hears anyone articulate anything inconsistent with the larger message of love and liberation, shut it down.”

Unsurprisingly, most of the Jews at the Hillel I spoke with agreed with 75% percent of the anti-war message across the street at the encampment, but didn’t feel comfortable there because the emphasis and feeling skewed so anti-Israel or anti-Zionist in its pursuit of being pro-Palestine. That doesn’t make it all anti-semitic per se, it makes it an incomplete pursuit of liberation. A movement for self-determination of one people cannot simultaneously deny it to another people indigenous to the same land. The freedom, safety, and dignity, of both peoples on that land is inextricably bound together, and as long as our protests and counter protests only hold the narrative, the pain and suffering of only one side as real or worthy of our concern, there cannot be peace and for all who dwell between the river and the sea. And there won’t be peace on our campuses either. 

But there were a few moments this past week where it was possible to imagine another way– another camp, a camp between the certainties, based on holding as sacred and real everyone’s heartbreak and not ignoring or diminishing anyone. My mentor, Rabbi Sharon Brous described being on the UCLA campus as the protesters and counter protesters were shouting and chanting over one another, violence brewing in the air. And in the middle she stood, along with a small group of people there with the organization Standing Together, a grassroots movement of Israeli Jews and Palestinians who are committed to co-creating a just and shared future together- we’ve featured them and done programs with them at Mishkan. They start chanting, “B’Gaza v’ Tel Aviv, yeladim rotsim chayim,” In Gaza and Tel Aviv, all children deserve to live,” and people on both sides began to hear it, and began to clap and say those words in unison. That moment was a microcosm of a third way: it’s possible to transcend the binaries of us versus them to arrive at a greater we.  For someone whose heart is still hardened and reeling from the cruelty of October 7 murder and sexual violence, or whose heart is hardened and reeling from the ongoing images of destruction, death and starvation in Gaza, imagining that greater We may feel nearly impossible… But it remains the only way forward. Remember Rabbi Akiva’s students. We must be able to envision a future that doesn’t erase the other, but includes and affirms them….and builds a bigger tent, inside which us and them…become WE. It might feel like an act of radical moral imagination but that is how the world changes.

So we are 11 days into the Omer, this period of mourning whose purpose is to remind us of the dangers of disrespectful speech and dehumanizing engagement with those whose opinions we don’t share, whose opinions may even disgust or threaten us. This mourning posture isn’t hard to adopt with the images we’re seeing of our campuses and our world right now. And yet, on the 33rd day of the Omer, Lag B’Omer, tradition holds that the plague finally relented, and Jews the world over celebrate by having barbecues and singing around campfires. After that there are another 16 days until Shavuot, the holiday celebrating revelation at Sinai. 

But even what happened at Sinai is a matter of debate! Jewish history is littered with fierce debates between schools of thought on how to interpret Torah, not just Rabbi Akiva’s students. Ha Dv’arim ha’Elah, these words, the tradition says, these words lead one rabbi to say the oven is pure, and another to say it’s impure, lead the house of Hillel to say that learning Torah, even converting to Judaism, should be welcoming and friendly, and lead Shammai to say it should demand that one subject one’s self to physical and emotional pain. These words lead one Israeli toward opposing the war in the name of existential safety, and another toward pursuing it in the name of existential safety. So what, then, is Torah, even? Is there such a thing as truth any more? 

Rabbi David Hartman, may his memory be a blessing, begins his book A Heart of Many Rooms, with this ancient quote from a book called the Tosefta: 

“Just as a plant flourishes and grows, so too words of Torah flourish and grow. The students of the wise enter into multiple gatherings and declare what is impure impure, and what is pure, pure…. Perhaps it will arise in one’s mind that since the House of Shammai declares something impure and the House of Hillel declares it pure, so-and-so prohibits and so-and-so permits… what is the point of learning Torah? 

Scripture teaches in Ecclesiastes, All of these words were given by “one Shepherd.” One God created them, one Benefactor gave them, the Master of all deeds, blessed be the One, said them. So: make for yourself a heart of many rooms– chambers within chambers– and bring into your heart the words of Beit Shammai and the words of Beit Hillel, the words of those who declare impure and the words of those who declare pure.”

With the world so torn asunder, so full of pain, destruction, hatred, violence, and fear, I understand the desire to try to find a place of not just physical but psychological safety, a place where things make sense, where it can be black and white, good guys and bad guys, evil doers verses victims. Maybe it was easier on October 8th to do that, but now, 7 months and over 34,000 Gazan deaths and over 2,000 Israeli deaths later, with over a million Gazans starving, hundreds of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians displaced from their homes, and no guarantee that this war has brought any more security to anyone than before, and with so much doubt about the motivation of those in charge whether the Netanyahu government or Hamas to arrive at the terms of a ceasefire and bring home the hostages…  it’s not black and white. It’s messy. 

Reality is messy. 

You have to put on blinders to make reality simple.  If we’re really paying attention to the totality of this moment we don’t get the luxury of feeling comfortable. It’s profoundly uncomfortable.

But if you feel like you’re on the side that is blameless and pure, I invite you to make yourself a heart of many rooms and invite in it the voice of the Jew who is on the other side of the barricade, or on the other side of the generational divide. To stand in the breach and find the places where we can identify what we do agree on, so we can work toward it together. And in this movement we’ll find community, belonging and inspiration as well: one that is based on building trust, being a Mensch, and absolutely refusing to dehumanize anyone wrapped up in this awful conflict, whether in Israel/Palestine or right here at home. Because envisioning and working together toward a different way forward, is the only thing that will make it possible.

Shabbat shalom.