This sermon was delivered at our June 15th Saturday morning service. You can watch it now on Mishkan’s YouTube channel or listen on Contact Chai podcast.

The summer of 2011, I studied at a progressive yeshiva in New York. For those unfamiliar with what that looks like, imagine being in a library from morning minyan at 7 am to evening minyan at 7 pm — the hours in between (minus a short lunch break) were devoted to studying rabbinic texts. It was exhausting, but exhilarating. Our tradition compares the Talmud — that corpus of rabbinic conversations that serves as the foundation of the Judaism we practice today — to the sea, vast in size and diverse in content… and I was diving in deep.

One of the areas we studied that summer were the laws of capital punishment. This is something prescribed by the Torah for a range of transgressions, from murder to abuse — but this requirement, regardless of cause, made the rabbis who inherited the death penalty deeply uncomfortable. And so, through a close reading of its biblical origins, they create guardrails to ensure that it could only be prescribed in exceptional circumstances; in post-Temple Judaism, one could argue that the death penalty was more principle than practice.

First, we have to convene a panel of 23 judges, each meeting strict standards of education and experience (including, notably, that they all must be parents so that they might recognize the person in front of them as someone else’s child). Then we begin the proceedings by listing the defendant’s best qualities; only after this is done can we hear any incriminating evidence. Now this testimony needs to be delivered by two witnesses. Both had to be present at the scene of the crime. They also had to be aware that the other witness was present at the scene of the crime. They can not be related to each other or to the defendant. And they must be able to speak clearly and hear well. Why? Because they also, seconds before the crime was committed, had to have been able to ask the defendant: Do you know that what you’re doing is punishable by death? And the defendant had to answer them: Yes, I am aware, and I’m going to do it anyway.

This scenario might seem as absurd as it is impossible. And maybe it is. But it serves a purpose (and one often employed in rabbinic texts), to show what happens when our core values come into conflict. And our core values do come into conflict, often — but it is precisely in these moments of moral tension that our tradition becomes its most tenacious, its most creative. What happens when you see a drowning person on Shabbat and need to break its laws to save them? What happens if throwing away hametz, aka leavened goods, to prepare for Passover (when we are forbidden to have them in our homes) will lead to financial distress because the person doesn’t have the resources to replace them after the holiday? Can someone with a terminal illness choose medication that will ease their pain, which is encouraged by our tradition, but might also hasten their death, which is prohibited by our tradition?

In the case of capital punishment, we see a commitment to justice. We see the desire to establish standards of law that can be applied across disparate cases. We see a need to preserve the integrity of social structures that ensure our safety and the safety of others by deterring future crimes. And we also find the assertion that all people are reflections of the divine image, our insistence on the sanctity of life, and the belief that everyone has the capacity to make better choices — if only given the opportunity. All of these are core values of our tradition. And when considering how we might render judgment for the murderer, the abuser, or the sociopath, they cannot all be fully realized at the same time.

This is precisely why we study text in chavruta, in partnership with one or more people. We need multiple perspectives to navigate moments when our core values come into conflict. What appears obvious to me is probably different from what seems self-evident to you. Judaism is not a plug-and-play system. Our core values are conceived of (in rabbinic terms) l’chathilah, literally “from the beginning” but meaning something along the lines of “optimally” or “done in the ideal way.” But we live in a world where they are executed b’dievad, meaning “after the fact” but also “within less than ideal circumstances.” Life is messy. It regularly presents us with difficult choices that call our ethical commitments into question — sometimes asking us to pick that which is most important from among all the things we find equally important.

Some of the cases we find in the Talmud might seem trivial. Honestly, who really cares if you disrupt Shabbat to save someone who is drowning or keep all your hametz in a cupboard instead of throwing it away for Passover? But in most moments of moral tension, the stakes are usually much higher. Is murder, sanctioned by the state, the appropriate response to murder? Can we safely reintegrate an abuser into society? What do we owe the sociopath, who suffers inside themselves perhaps as much as they have made others suffer — and what do we owe their victims?

How do we meet the moment we find ourselves in now? Tragedy continues to unfold in Gaza. This morning we woke up to the news and images of another refugee camp that was bombed.  Last week we saw the rescue of four hostages but the death of over 200 Palestinians in the process. Over one hundred hostages remain unaccounted for. Tens of thousands Palestinians have been killed, while tens of thousands more are on the brink of famine; tens of thousands Israelis are still displaced from their homes and under the threat of rocketfire. Hamas has not yet been brought to justice, and neither have the right-wing messianic ideologues in Israel who continue to beat the drums of war. This is a heart wrenching moment — and that feeling is not reserved for one side or the other.

As someone who exists in Zionist and anti-Zionist spaces, who is part of a community that contains both and more, I see how all of us are struggling to align our moral compass in a world that is spinning out of control. Because I sincerely believe that we (and when I say we, I mean Jews and those who love us, those who choose to be in community with us) are trying to make sense of a situation that calls our core values into conflict. Pursuing justice is a core value. Holding murderers and rapists accountable is a core value. Speaking out against mass murder, whether it meets the technical definition of genocide or not, is a core value. Breaking down systems of oppression is a core value. Liberation is a core value. The preservation of life is a core value. Protecting our people is a core value. Rescuing captives is a core value. Ensuring that Judaism survives is a core value. Preventing future harm is a core value. Healing the broken and brokenhearted is a core value – and so is tending to our own heartbreak. 

These are all equally important — but depending on which of these values you prioritize, others may have to fade into the background (at least for a while). It’s not that you don’t find each of them vital or necessary. It’s just that this moment b’dievad, in less than ideal circumstances, demands that we choose the most important among them.

And depending on which of these values you prioritize, you might find yourself disagreeing with people who otherwise share the same ethical system as you (even though it may not seem like it right now, but among reasonable people I believe this is a statement of fact). When the stakes are high – and they are so high right now – is it possible to stay in relationship with those who have chosen to prioritize their values differently? Because what we are witnessing is further entrenchment of moral polarization, as people choose sides — and in choosing sides, sever their ties to anyone who holds difference. Whether those differences are large or small, we seem to assume the worst of those with whom we disagree.

Our tradition actually elevates the relationship borne of disagreement. In the Talmud, there are several rabbinic pairs designated as bar plugta, literally “children of disagreement” but perhaps better translated as “scholarly opponents.” Perhaps the most famous are Hillel and Shammai, who can’t agree on anything (the Talmud contains over 350 of their disputes). Yet through their arguments, they contribute the most to our tradition because they test the pliability of our ethical system across scenarios that threaten to bend or break it — and in doing so, demonstrate the resilience of Judaism.

It is important to note that bar plugta were also relationships of incredible intimacy. They were adversarial, yes, but they were also shaped by curiosity, compassion, and a commitment to staying in proximity. They did not turn away from each other in disagreement, even when their disagreements touched on issues that put their core values – that which they held most important to them — into conflict. We’re told that Hillel and Shammai encouraged their children and grandchildren to marry each other. Compare this to a recent poll by YouGov which showed that Democrats and Republicans have only gotten unhappier at the prospect of their child marrying someone from the other party. In fact, the last Pew study showed that Jewish parents would be more upset about their child marrying someone from the opposite political party than they would be about them marrying someone outside the faith.

Staying in proximity to people you disagree with is not easy. This Pride Month marks 23 years since I came out. For myself and for other people in the LGBTQ+ community a lot has changed in that time, mostly for the better — marriage equality, workplace protections, better access to healthcare, to name a few things we’ve achieved (there is, of course, so much more that we still need to accomplish but that’s a different sermon). The world was a very different place then. It’s almost hard to remember how different it was then than it is now. Telling my family was hard. They were (and many continue to be) devoted Republicans. A large number attend conservative evangelical churches that have been incredibly hostile toward the LGBTQ+ community. I was very lucky to have a handful of supportive relatives, my mother among them – but for most the news of my coming out brought confusion, grief, or anger.

I’ve come out to my family a few more times since then: as a vegetarian, a liberal, a Jew. Yet even as we struggled to understand one another, we were committed to being in relationship with a loving kind of stubbornness that I’ve come to appreciate. This does not mean it wasn’t incredibly difficult. Sometimes staying in proximity led to arguments that left us emotionally raw, questioning what we thought we knew about ourselves and about each other. Sometimes staying in proximity meant tiptoeing around topics or avoiding the issue entirely.

When we are talking about the things that are most important to us, when we are talking about who we are or the values that shape us, and we are met with rejection: it can be tempting to turn away from the other person, if only for our own sense of safety and wellbeing. Or it can be tempting to stomp our feet and yell. Perhaps if we shout loud enough, we can change their mind. Perhaps if we shame them, they will realize the error of their ways. But having been yelled at (and we have all been yelled at, in some form, over the past few months) or shamed, we know how ineffective this approach usually is – at least on the level of friendships and families and neighbors. It usually just pushes people further away, entrenching our differences even more. Social media only amplifies this polarization, surrounding us with people who reaffirm our beliefs so that those who don’t align with us seem almost inhuman — how could they believe that? And therefore, we’re justified in denigrating them, in debasing them, in discarding their ideas and them as well.

But if we choose rupture over repair, we lose the possibility of what can happen when we stay in proximity: finding a new way forward, a way that we couldn’t find on our own. 23 years later, my family still sits at the table together. They always make sure there is something I can eat. And they have saved a seat for my partner. When I was married, they danced the hora at my very gay and very Jewish wedding — something I could not have imagined, something that felt impossible, when I first came out. And it would have been impossible, if we had chosen to turn away from each other those many years ago.

Of course, there are relationships that must end because they are not safe. But there is an important distinction between unsafe and uncomfortable. We cannot allow discomfort to become the driver for disconnection.

What if when we are in pain, or confused, or hurting, or frustrated at the condition of our hearts and the state of the world we turned to each other instead of walking away? On her podcast, the comedian Sarah Silverman recently challenged her listeners: “I dare you to cry. Instead of feeling a second of sadness and immediately converting it to outward rage and blame, what if you just cried?” By letting go of our insistence that we have to be right, or that others must meet us in our rightness, and instead choose to be honest with one another about the fact that these moments of moral tension make us feel like we’re being pulled apart from the inside, we can develop the kind of relationships that let us lay our core values on the table and say, this is a total mess, will you help me sort through it?

This is the remarkable thing about the witnesses described by the rabbis, the two individuals who confront the person preparing to commit a crime and tell them that what they intend to do is wrong. They see someone about to do something horrible. And remember, this is someone who is not their friend or family; they could be a total stranger, with no obligation to be in a relationship with them. And yet they look this person in the eye. And they speak clearly to them. And they say, hey, I see you. Do you want me to help you find another way? Come, be my bar plugta and let’s wrestle with the impossible to see how we might uncover a path forward. I have an opinion about where we need to go. And I know you do too. But I know we can find a different and a better way together.

I believe that’s how we change the world. Starting at the smallest unit of human society, our relationships with our friends, our families, and our neighbors. These are the spaces that are most vulnerable to the tug and pull of polarization, of choosing sides and “us versus them.” And these are also where we can begin to stand firmly against this tide.

So how do we do this? This week, the Torah gives us a hint. It’s found in the very last verse of our parashah.

We are told that when Moses spoke to God, the divine voice emanated from a point above the ark that contained the tablets he brought down from Mount Sinai. Let me describe it for you (and for those who have seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, you already have a good image to call on). The ark was made of hammered gold, all one piece. And on top of it were two cheruvim, angelic figures positioned at either end of the lid. They faced each other with their heads bowed, their wings stretched in front of them to cover the ark. And it is from this space, between them, that the divine voice spoke.

Rabbi Sharon Brous once taught that we can learn so much about how we should act toward one another from the posture of the cheruvim. And I believe this is especially true for how we should approach the people we disagree with. The cheruvim see that they stand on the same foundation – the ark containing the Ten Commandments, their shared moral tradition. They also see that they are made of one piece, that they are of a common origin. They turn toward one another – and in facing each other, wings open, they are able to perceive their companion in their wholeness of being: both their strengths and their growing edges, their hopes and their fears, their moral insight and the places where they are struggling to sort through their core values. The cheruvim bow their heads, having the humility to understand that they can only see things from their perspective – and that their companion has the ability to understand things that they cannot. And with their wings, they protect the space between them: recognizing that it is in relationship with one another that we are able to encounter a deeper truth, one that we would not be able to reach if we were on our own.

Now given all that is happening here and overseas, adopting this sort of angelic posture might seem like an impossible demand on us mortal beings. But it’s not. There are thousands of people working on the ground for a better future: Israelis and Palestinians who are turning toward each other, across division and distrust, as the vehicle for achieving peace. From local organizations like Standing Together and the Parents Circle Families Forum, to international coalitions like the Alliance for Middle East Peace — these are our modern bar plugta: intimate companions who see their differences as complementary tools for change, who prioritize different core values but recognize that the value set they are choosing from is shared, who push each other to think critically and dream courageously about the world we might build together.

I believe those of us in this room and in this community can do it too. Because I’ve seen it happen here. I’ve seen us cry with each other, even if our pain is different. I’ve seen us laugh with each other, even if our joy is not the same. We have sung together, prayed together, and bent our heads over our sacred texts, in chavruta, to learn together. I have seen us turn toward one another, in this moment of heartbreak, just like the cheruvim: with curiosity, compassion, and courage. May we continue to be witnesses for each other. To look each other in the eye. To speak clearly. To listen with open ears. To say, hey, I see you. Let’s figure this out together.