Dvar Torah for “Reckoning with Racism and Imagining a Path Forward” Weekend
Bet Am Shalom Reconstructionist Synagogue
This year I decided to try a new Jewish thing. Mussar. I’m participating in a year-long Mussar training program with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College faculty called, “Dismantling Racism from the Inside Out,” facilitated by my colleagues, Rabbis Sandra Lawson and Alex Weissman.
Mussar is a Jewish spiritual path to holiness that gives concrete instructions on how to live a meaningful and ethical life. In Mussar, we refine our behavior via focusing on middot, literally, “measures” but more helpfully translated as “soul-traits” – qualities such as anavah, (humility), savlanut, (patience), kavod, (respect), bitachon, (trust), and so on.
The course provides us with daily concrete Jewish spiritual tools of Mussar to confront, subvert, and heal implicit and internalized racism within ourselves and others, supporting the collective organizing, advocacy and service-work efforts to dismantle racism systemically.
The theory of change is as follows: To dismantle racism in our society at large and in each of us, we need to create personal and communal transformation in addition, to support the systemic change. I’m going to come back to this point when introducing our panel later this afternoon.
This is hard, vulnerable work that I know many of you are familiar with, and it is deeply rewarding. In the spirit of vulnerability, I’m going to try a new thing by offering a mussar reading of the middot exhibited by Avraham in this week’s parashah, as a entry point to the racial justice learning of this weekend.
The Alacrity of Avraham
In the essay on Parashat Vayeira in the book, The Mussar Torah Commentary Rabbi Alexandria Shuva-Weine writes that, “the middah of z’rizut, or [alacrity] constitute the core of Abraham’s spiritual DNA.” I will draw heavily from her mussar reading of the Parashah.
18th century scholar Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzatto defined the middah of z’rizut or, “alacrity” as, “the immediate engaging of mitzvot and their completion.” It is both acting without delay and exhibiting passion or fervor for a cause or service.
In Parashat Vayeira, we see Abraham acting with z’rizut in both laudable and not so laudable ways. This provides us the opportunity to learn from Abraham’s example in how to, and how not to, cultivate our own z’rizut.
At the beginning of the parashah we read, (Genesis 18:1)
וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ יְהֹוָ֔ה בְּאֵלֹנֵ֖י מַמְרֵ֑א וְה֛וּא יֹשֵׁ֥ב פֶּֽתַח־הָאֹ֖הֶל כְּחֹ֥ם הַיּֽוֹם
GOD appeared to him [Avraham] by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot.
וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּה֙ שְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה אֲנָשִׁ֔ים נִצָּבִ֖ים עָלָ֑יו וַיַּ֗רְא וַיָּ֤רץ לִקְרָאתָם֙ מִפֶּ֣תַח הָאֹ֔הֶל וַיִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ אָֽרְצָה׃
Looking up, he saw three figures standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran (yavar vayarotz) from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bows to the ground,
Avraham is depicted as rushing to fulfill the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests. Even though he is still actively healing from his recent covenantal “procedure” and is in a weakened and diminished emotional and physical state, Avraham harnesses all of his energy and rushes out to greet these strangers, attending first and foremost to their comfort and wellbeing. It is dangerous to travel through the Hebron Hills in the heat of the day, and Avraham makes sure to prioritize the traveler’s needs, as they are more vulnerable than he is. He provides them with water, food, and shelter from the blistering heat. This is archetypal, laudable z’rizut.
Afterward, Avraham learns of God’s plan to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah. He immediately intercedes with God on behalf of the community. His sense of moral justice is clear, and he is certain that the righteous merit salvation. Without hesitation, Avraham steps up with great alacrity. Great z’rizut. וַיִּגַּ֥שׁ אַבְרָהָ֖ם
He protests with a full voice:
הַאַ֣ף תִּסְפֶּ֔ה צַדִּ֖יק עִם־רָשָֽׁע׃
“Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?
With no hesitation, Avraham speaks truth to power, demanding justice for the innocent. Zrizut! Yasher koach Avraham. You remind me a lot of my friends at Bet Am Shalom.
The Z’rizut of Bet Am Shalom’s Racial Justice Work Over the past Three+ years
In my work with the Thriving Communities department at Reconstructing Judaism, I’ve had the honor to witness and support the inspiring racial justice work on this community. Here is a taste of what I’ve seen:
- You developed a strong Anti-Racism group in 2020 that eventually produced a brilliant racial justice resource guide that was over 100 pages long.
- You Got involved in racial justice work at the movement level, sending two different congregational representatives to the Tikkun Olam Commission over the past five years.
- You took on the movement’s call to consider a resolution on reparations. You studies the stolen beam series, and then went through some kind of values-based decision making congregational process, eventually voting in favor of the resolution. No small feat.
- When registration for Reckoning Together: A Reconstructionist Pilgrimage Towards Racial Justice opened, you rushed to grab as many spots as you could. No other congregation in the Reconstructionist movement had as many participants as Bet Am Shalom.
- And then you had the z’rizut to bring it all home. You organized a powerful racial justice share-back program for the community, with reflections and testimonials that brought tears to my eyes to read. And you kept going, asking the crucial questions- What do we do now? How do we make an impact? How do we get involved in racial justice work, right here, in Westchester County, where we live? Which let to the organizing of this very weekend.
These were not easy years to push and grow into the mitzvot of racial justice in new and challenging ways. We had a Pandemic. We couldn’t leave our homes. The fate of our Democracy was on the line, and it wasn’t clear which way it was going to fall. And, just like Avraham with all his burdens and challenges and bodily ailments, you rushed forth anyway with alacrity to respond to the call for racial reckoning and racial justice in our times today.
Yasher Koach Bet Am Shalom. I am deeply inspired by the racial justice work of your community. I regularly lift you up as an example of what is possible across the rest of the Reconstructionist Movement, and I am honored to be here today for this exciting and important weekend.
The other side of Z’rizut
Do you remember when I said that Abraham acts in this week’s parashah with z’rizut in both laudable and not so laudable ways? Let’s keep going with the story to get to the other side of the coin. The Akeidah. We are lucky to have received the gift of Phillip’s teaching, to help orient us to this difficult, morally complex part of this story.
After Sodom and Gomorrah, Avraham doesn’t slow down. He continues to be quick to act with deliberate intensity and promptness, as we see when God calls out to Avraham again:
קַח־נָ֠א אֶת־בִּנְךָ֨ אֶת־יְחִֽידְךָ֤ אֲשֶׁר־אָהַ֙בְתָּ֙ אֶת־יִצְחָ֔ק וְלֶ֨ךְ־לְךָ֔ אֶל־אֶ֖רֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּ֑ה וְהַעֲלֵ֤הוּ שָׁם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ה עַ֚ל אַחַ֣ד הֶֽהָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר אֹמַ֥ר אֵלֶֽיךָ׃
Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”
Avraham answers with Z’rizut: וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם אַבְרָהָ֜ם
Avraham rises early in the morning with z’rizut, hastening to do God’s command with alacrity, and with none of the compassionate moral pushback nor ethical questioning of God’s judgment he displayed with Sodom and Gomorrah.
The direction of Avraham’s z’rizut in the final chapters of the parashah sharply contrast to what we read earlier, leading us to moral consternation. Is it possible to become so meticulous in one’s commitment to z’rizut, that we lose sight of the things that are most important?
The Torah’s answer is a resounding, “yes”.
Even though Yitzkah is eventually saved at the last minute by the Ram in the bush, there are terrible relational consequences of the akeidah. God and Abraham never speak again. Nor does Abraham ever again speak with Sarah or Isaac. Avraham has been cut off from his closest people. The ruptures of his most cherished relationships jump off the pages of the Torah as a glaring critique of Avraham’s z’rizut at the akeidah.
I’m setting up this mussar framework of the merits and perils of z’rirut to help us talk about the war in Israel and Gaza, and the deep relational challenges it poses to our ongoing commitments to racial justice work as American Jews.
The stories from this week’s parashah are too painfully close to what we read in the headlines each day, and there is a lot of z’rizut happening all around us.
So many people are advocating without delay and with deep fervor and conviction for one unequivocal position on what should be happening right now in Israel and the Palestinian territories. And it’s not just Jews and Palestinians who are activated. A non-Jewish friend remarked to me the other night that he feels like we’re going through another post-George Floyd moment, where unprecedented numbers of people who had never thoughts much about systemic racism are fervently reading books and articles and starting discussion groups. But this time, people are trying to get up to speed about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. With z’rizut. The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is not something you can learn about in one week unless you willingly wish to learn an overly simplistic one-sided story with deep bias. And a lot of that bias, is not so favorable to Jews.
But many of us who are deeply literate in the history of the conflict are also acting with z’rizut.
Depending on who you talk to, one might characterize this type of zrirzut as laudable.
Coming from the far right (to be completely reductivist), Israel’s current military strategy in Gaza is a mitzvah. It’s self-defense. End of story. It’s akin to the paramount importance of hachnasat orchim, of welcoming guests, in the Avraham story. G’dolah hachnasat orchim mikabbalat p’nei haSchinah. “Hospitality is greater even than welcoming the divine presence.” So too, with supporting Israel in a time of war. It’s G’dolah. We should all be displaying z’rizut via unconditionally support Israel’s efforts in every way possible.
On the far left, Gaza is Sodom and Gomorrah and we should all be Avraham, doing everything in our power to stop the divine aerial bombardment from obliterating this town. We must embody Avraham’s z’rizut and do everything in our power to stop this current military campaign. It does not matter how many wicked people there are in Gaza, if there is any collective punishment for any of the innocent, the only acceptable moral answer is that it is unequivocally wrong and shouldn’t be done in our names. #CeaseFireNow. At any cost.
For American Jews living outside the land of Israel, I do not think zrizut is the most laudable middah to be cultivating right now in our relationship to this war. These are the wrong parts of the parashah to turn to, especially now, one-month in.
This war is the akeidah. It is being presented to us as an impossible choice between our love for the Jewish people and the state of Israel, and our love for life and shared humanity and the dignity and worth of all people. Between Particularism and Universalism, as if the two cannot co-exist. Between us and them. Between God and our beloved Child. No one should ever have to go through what Avraham did again, and yet here we find ourselves. Our friends and family and community members and racial justice organizing partners are yelling at us that the only acceptable way to respond to this crisis is by joining them in their urgent, relentless, dogmatic zrizut. As progressive Zionists committed to racial justice work, this is one of the greatest tests of our loyalties and ethical commitments we may ever have faced.
But we do not have to respond to this bechirah point, this decision point, in the same way as Avraham. Avraham responded to the impossible choice of the akeidah with zreizut and he paid a terrible price. As Reconstructionists, we are called to pave a different path. We do not have to compromise our core sense of integrity, of who we are, and what we know in the deepest inner parts of ourselves to be good and true to be a good Jew, or to be a good antiracist.
We do have to stay committed to learning and growing and evolving and changing. And we do have to get more comfortable being uncomfortable, even amid terrible grief, fear and uncertainty.
American Jews have many privileges Israeli Jews do not have right now that allow us to turn away from z’rizut. We are not in immediate danger. All aspects of our lives have not been upended by this war. We are unlikely to have as many points of immediate connection and traumatization from October 7th. We do not have to be soldiers fighting for our right to exist. These privileges grant us important opportunities and responsibilities. We must not let the heartbreak over the suffering of our people let us dehumanize Palestinians or turn away from the brutal and horrific consequences of this war. We must not let the suffering of Palestinians close our hearts to the Jewish people living in the land of Israel, reducing them to ahistorical one-dimensional caricatures of occupiers, colonizers, or anything other than full human beings. We must publicly represent this moment with all the nuance and complexity it deserves, preserving the long histories of oppression and international abandonment both these peoples have endured. We must teach our friends and family and co-workers and racial justice organizing partners about the nuances of antisemitism, islamophobia and racism and how they perniciously color the way we read and talk about this war. We should urge financial and volunteer support of organizations that build bridges between Israelis and Palestinians, provide humanitarian aid to all who need it, and work to advance a just, long-term solution for Israelis and Palestinians alike. And we do not have to abandon our love and hope and connection to the state of Israel and the Jewish people who reside there. As Reconstructionists committed to communitarianism, we can call one another in to the challenge of this moment and live into it together.
This racial justice weekend, here at Bet Am Shalom, is a demonstration that we can simultaneously live into many different ethical commitments at the same time, even in the darkest of times. The homepage of your website says, “Bet Am Shalom Stands with Israel” and you’ve devoted this entire weekend to engaging with local racial Justice issues in your surrounding communities. It is beautiful, and it is sorely needed. Thank you.
[the following two sections of this d’var Torah were not delivered in person for the sake of brevity]
I want to close by sharing two different middot that I think will be deeply important for Jews involved in racial justice work to practice in the days and weeks and months ahead.
#1 - M’nuchat HaNefesh – Equanimity. Calming the Soul Amid the Storms of Life.
The mussar teachers, Alan Morinas, points to anger, jealousy, grief and other strong inner states as the source of the turbulence that destroys the calmness of the soul. They advise us that the way to respond to these internal storms is to develop the capacity for inner distancing.
The rabbinic tradition teaches that this is what Yizhak did after the akeidah to heal from the trauma he had undergone. He studied, prayed, and spent time outside. He spent time alone. He wondered and he wandered. And he searched, so that he could come back into community with people who had caused him great pain, in a more grounded and calm manner.
This past week I made my first post on social media since the start of the war. It was titled, “101 Healthy and Productive Ways to Respond to the War in Israel and Palestine.” Here are a few ways to help cultivate m’nuchat hanefesh:
97. Take care of your body. Notice where you are holding tension and try to unclench. Do a few stretches or favorite yoga poses. Ask someone for a shoulder rub and offer one in return.
86. Cook dinner and bring it to a friend who is really going through it.
87. Spend time in nature. Take off your shoes and socks and grip the earth with your toes as strongly as you can.
50. Go to bed early three nights in a row.
11. Do not stop your daily spiritual practices that refill your well of rachamim (compassion). It is a renewable resource.
5. Sleep, eat and drink lots of water.
The other middah for us to lean into is Savlanut. Patience. The ability to endure or delay, trouble, pain or hardship.
So many people are hurting deeply right now. People are cutting off long-term relationships with friends and family members who agree to their unequivocally demands to join in one political position or another. Once beloved racial justice organizations are putting out statements about this war with language that shocks and terrifies many Jews, leaving us unsure if we are truly wanted as Jews in these coalitions. This is a terrible price to pay for a war that has already caused so much human suffering. We have the capacity to be patient. Some relationships we will be able to restore to their former health, and some we may need to let go of. But, whenever possible, it’s best to not make irrevocable relational decisions in the middle of a war. Our commitments to tikkun olam are strong and deep and will endure. Here are some practices to help us with savlanut:
25. Protect and invest in important relationships.
26. Learn what turns of phrase you are acculturated to say about Israel that cause pain to people you love and respect. Think strategically before you use them, or, develop different language for the same ideas.
61. When you name antisemitism, practice explaining why you are naming it, and why it’s antisemitic.
53. Take a social media break. Take another social media break.
54. Pause before posting. Ask yourself, “Is this post l’shem shamayim (for the sake of Ultimate Good)?”
6. Don’t go to marches or rallies that will hurt your soul.
7. Don’t take down your Black Lives Matter sign.
8. Don’t take down your mezuzah.
9. Study more Torah.
10. Do more mitzvahs.