Our October 27th Friday Night Shabbat was R’Lizzi’s last service before her well-earned sabbatical. She took this moment to reflect on what it means to be human, and what it means to be a rabbi in this moment of dehumanization of “enemies” and others. You can listen to this sermon on the Contact Chai podcast or watch on Mishkan’s YouTube channel.

Seven years ago on this very week, this parsha in fact, we were packed into this space. It was three days after Donald Trump got elected after a campaign rife with misogyny, racism, fear and dehumanization of immigrants, Muslims, and women. It was standing room only, people were sitting on the floor, on each other’s laps. We were dazed, didn’t know what to do, we felt totally destabilized. But we did know that sacred space, prayer and song, grounding ourselves in Torah, in short, being in spiritual community would help. It would help us rise, so that we could stand with whomever needed us during whatever lay ahead.

And the months and years ahead included some of our most proudest moments as a community — we marched together for immigrant families, for Black lives, against the rampant Islamophobia we were seeing, Mishkan sponsored 3 asylum seeking immigrant families. In the face of dehumanizing rhetoric from the highest offices against so many minorities, we felt our response had to create more humanity, which for us requires being more Jewish.

Hillel the Sage in the Mishna says, 

וּבְמָקוֹם שֶׁאֵין אֲנָשִׁים, הִשְׁתַּדֵּל לִהְיוֹת אִישׁ:

In a place where there is no humanity, try to be human. 

And then, five years ago this very week, a guy whose head was full of racism, fear and dehumanization of immigrants, as well as infected by conspiracy theories about Jews, walked into the Tree of Life building in Pittsburgh, home to two synagogues, and killed eleven Jews praying on Shabbat morning. And folks came to services the following week morning dazed, destabilized, depressed. We felt in our bones, some of us for the first time, that the road from dehumanizing talk to dehumanizing violence is short and inevitable — especially in a country where guns are so readily available — and that as Jews were not just important allies of targeted minorities in America, we were reminded that we also were one. 

And so showing up to shul became an act of defiance, because what terrorists want to do is terrorize us, make us abandon our values and our identity out of fear and reactivity, and we knew that one way we as Jews would avenge the deaths of our brethren would be to do the exact opposite: to show up as Jews. To embrace Judaism, to love it, to love each other, and not to be terrorized out of showing up in the spaces that remind us of our humanity and the particular Jewishness of that humanity in this lifetime.

And here we are tonight, still reeling from the news out of Israel and Gaza. Last time we gathered in this space, two weeks ago, so many of us were coming to terms with what seemed like the moral whiplash of witnessing the most deadly and savage act of terrorism toward Jews anywhere in the world in 75 years — 1300 people brutally murdered and 200 + hostages taken with threats of public execution, unprecedented in modern history in the world, awakening in Jewish people everywhere that age-old sense of our constant precariousness in the world including in the place Jews are supposed to be the most safe… And knowing how intimately bound up we as Jews have been with the causes of other targeted minorities and people working for justice, wanting and hoping for that same solidarity from our friends in those spaces, and then, feeling utterly alone, disappointed, like the ground dropped out beneath our collective feet, incredulous at the inability of friends and people of conscience to simply decry Hamas’s brutal provocation — without also saying somehow those Jews had it coming. Do we, too, have it coming, here in Chicago, or wherever in the world we live? Is that the idea? Or just Israeli civilians? 

And of course there is context, and of course it’s not that simple. But in moments of grief and trauma, it actually feels pretty simple. How hard is it to say without qualification that the murder of 1300 Jewish people is a tragedy?

And as time passed we started to hear about the funerals and shivas of the dead, the stories of people still missing, the captives — who they were, what they stood for, in so many cases, they stood for peace and co-existence of Jews and Palestinians, they were people who did humanitarian and relief work trying to bridge the divide between Israel and Hamas-ruled Gaza on a person-to-person level, like Vivian Silber — a founder of the organization Women Wage Peace, who would drive sick Gazans to Israeli hospitals for treatment… it didn’t matter who they were, they were targets because they were Jews and they lived on the Israeli side of the border.

Any country attacked in the way that Hamas attacked Israel would respond militarily. And reasonable people can debate what that response should be. And reasonable Jews can debate what is done in our name in defense of the Jewish state. I know some of you are active in advocating for a Ceasefire, and some of you are active in collecting funds and resources to support the IDF come what may. And I deeply believe that folks in this community involved in activism are doing it from a place of hope for a better, safer future, for all people in the region. We don’t come here for lessons on military strategy — lord knows I can’t teach you that. We come here to be reminded of how to live our humanity as Jews, day after painful day in this world that would threaten to rob us of it.

וּבְמָקוֹם שֶׁאֵין אֲנָשִׁים, הִשְׁתַּדֵּל לִהְיוֹת אִישׁ:

In a place where there is no humanity, try to be human.

And within a day Israel’s campaign to root out Hamas began, and the conversation moved on from what had happened to us, to Israel’s response. Shutting off electricity, water, food, medicine and fuel to the 2 million people who live in Gaza, most of whom didn’t vote for Hamas because they were too young to vote, or weren’t born yet.  600 Gazans dead, 1500, 3,000, 5,000, 7,000. Please don’t debate the accuracy of the numbers. Every one of these numbers had a name, and a family, and hopes and dreams and a story, like every one of our dead. And a story of their relationship and history with the land, just like everyone of our people had a story, and a relationship with the land. I want to tell you that every time I’ve said Kaddish in the last three weeks I’ve said it for my people, even tho I don’t know all of their names. And I’ve said it for Palestinians, even tho I don’t know their names. 

בְמָקוֹם שֶׁאֵין אֲנָשִׁים, הִשְׁתַּדֵּל לִהְיוֹת אִישׁ:

In a place where there is no humanity, try to be human.

It’s an audacious instruction that Hillel offers — not even God could create humanity to be fully, satisfactorily human. God — whose character in the Torah reminds me of a frustrated artist, especially in this section — tried creating humanity in the Book of Genesis, and by the end of the Parsha, humanity is so corrupt, cruel, oppressive, bent on destruction, that God regrets having created them. God decides to wipe them out and to begin again with a new prototype, Noah. But as we read last week, the new human family that emerges from the ark after the flood is no better, and God muses to God’s self that she will never again send a flood to wipe out all humanity because the devisings of human beings will never really change. You would think at this point God might go create another timeline or universe somewhere else and start another race of conscious beings in God’s image who aren’t as morally flawed, as committed to our own destruction, as we appear to be. Maybe at that point God invented man’s best friend, dogs… nonetheless.

But God tries again, not to reconstitute all of humanity, but to start a new family, with a specific covenant. And we meet Avram, and this week’s torah portion begins with God sending Avram on a journey. Avram doesn’t know where he is going, but God promises to show him. Avram has no children, but God promises that he will in fact have descendants as numerous as the Stars and grains of sand on the shore. God promises to take him to a land that God promises to his descendants for the rest of time. 

So our sages look at the Torah portion this week and wonder why God chose Avram to create a covenant with, because the Torah gives no clues. And so the Midrash fills in some background — we’ve been looking at these stories all week in morning minyan — Avram was an iconoclastic kid, and was on a relentless pursuit of the truth. His father made and sold idols and Avram smashed them! And when his father came home and saw the mess, he said to Avram, What did you do? And Avram said, “I didn’t do it! Look, the big idol is the one holding the baseball bat! He did it!!” and his father said “Not possible! You know these idols have no power!” And Avram said, “Let your ears hear what your mouth is saying, Dad!” 

And so they send Avram away, and he finds himself wandering out in the fields, still looking for the Truth, he’s a spiritual seeker, he wants to worship the most powerful thing in nature, so heworships the earth! So he bows low to the earth and all its vegetation, but that vegetation can’t grow without the sun! So he shouts praises to the sun! But then a cloud covers up the sun — ah, clouds are more powerful than the sun, so he prays to the clouds. But then the clouds are moved by the wind! He realizes then that there is a bigger, more powerful connecting force, Y-H-V-H, weaving all of this magnificence together into one. And Avram begins to preach something no one had ever heard before, that instead of all families and tribes of the earth being against each other, vying for land and dominance and supremacy, we are connected to one another inextricably and so when we behave with fairness and righteousness toward one another, it comes back around to us. We even see our first examples of negotiating land for peace in this week’s Torah portion as Avram works out who should live where with his nephew Lot. It seems Avram is able to hold complexity and a bigger picture in his head, holding not just short term gains, but long term goals.  Perhaps Avram’s ability to delay gratification and think not just strategically but with compassion, is why God chooses him to bless with the covenant of blessing, of love, and of land.

Finally, another angle: Avram is referred to as “HaIvri,” which means the one who is “over,” who crosses, specifically, who crossed the Jordan river into the land of Canaan. But for thousands of years Jewish tradition has read this more expansively —he was willing to be a transgressor, to cross into new intellectual and spiritual realms, to explore, to stand on one side while the world stood on the other and not be intimidated or shamed. 

I will be honest with you, over the past few weeks I have struggled with the question of what my job is in these times. What does it mean to be a rabbi? I actually went back to my ordination certificate — in beautiful Hebrew calligraphy that says I was ordained a Rabbi: a teacher and sage in Israel, to uphold and interpret the sacred traditions of the Jewish people. 17 May 2010, Los Angeles California. 

And I have to tell you, reading that, seeing that, being reminded of that today brought me to tears. Well, everything’s been bringing me to tears lately. But it was helpful for me to right size sense of what leadership can look like in these moments. 

A rabbi is not a fortune teller, which is good, because I don’t know the future, tho part of my job is to convince myself and all of you that it can be better than the past. 

A rabbi is not a military leader, which is good, because I don’t have any idea how Israel should respond to the crisis of this moment, though I know that eventually it will require all the people between the river and the sea to see each other as human beings worthy of life, respect and dignity. 

A rabbi is not even a therapist, though I do feel like a lot of what we do here together is create a safe space to be vulnerable and to push our comfort zones. 

A rabbi upholds and interprets the sacred traditions of the Jewish people. Because for 2,000 our sacred traditions are what have kept us going, kept us strong, and kept us human in a world that would destroy our humanity. 

בְמָקוֹם שֶׁאֵין אֲנָשִׁים, הִשְׁתַּדֵּל לִהְיוֹת אִישׁ:

In a place where there is no humanity, try to be human.

As I step away from the community for the next three months and take Sabbatical, that’s what I’ll be working on, outside of my role here. Being human. And as for what happens here while I’m gone…Well, the same that that happens when I’m here. Singing, praying, learning, meeting great new people and deepening friendships, growing as Jews. The world will keep turning, we’ll probably still live in times that feel like the end of days because apparently that’s just our reality now… And you’ll keep gathering, showing up, hosting each other for dinners and studying Torah and meeting for minyan, and you’ll keep taking care of each other and teaching each other from the wisdom of your own life experience and how you understand and interpret our sacred traditions. In short, you’ll help one another stay human. And together, week after week, you’ll remember how to rise, so that you can stand alongside our people in times of trouble, and alongside whomever needs us, come what may.