7 Steps to Meeting Each Other
Sermon Delivered by Rabbi Matthew Soffer on Erev Rosh Hashanah 5774
Temple Israel of Boston / The Riverway Project
For Jacob, it is his homecoming, his first time returning to the land
of Canaan, the land where he was born and raised, the land from which he fled
for his life. And this moment, his homecoming, is, I imagine, the
scariest moment of his life. He is
preparing to encounter his brother Esau, for the first time since he stole Esau’s
birthright and their father's innermost blessing.
prepares. He sends messengers ahead. They tell Esau that Jacob had
been staying with Laban for 20 years, that he accrued some wealth, and that he
wants - limtzo chein b'einecha - to seek favor or forgiveness from
to receive chein. The
word “chein” in the
Torah is a word that translates literally to mean grace, and it
connotes getting something when you don't deserve it. Jacob didn't
deserve it. He wronged his brother Esau. And if it weren't for the
dominant bias within Rabbinic Judaism against the character Esau we might see
that more clearly. The Rabbis who read this had an agenda: vilify Esau. Exculpate
our patriarch Jacob, who becomes Israel. And it was an easy enough endeavor:
Esau is the extreme Other in the text itself. Genesis tells us they were
opposites from the time of the womb where they first quarreled. When they
were born, Esau who came out first was hairier and reddish. Esau was a hunter,
Jacob a "homespun man--yeishev olahim, hanging out in the tents.”
And it’s not like the parents didn't take sides: Isaac favored Esau, and Rebecca
Jacob. God’s behind the scenes setting it all up. And to the writers of
the Hebrew Bible, Esau is the progenitor of the Edomites, enemies of Israel.
Rabbis’ othering of Esau wasn't unfounded. But the Rabbis, they just piled
it on. No doubt for important reasons in their own day, their own
historical need to differentiate themselves, to empower themselves in an era of
powerlessness. Since Esau is the extreme Other to our father Jacob, they
thought, let's read our lives into this text and render him the perennial Other.
Let's distance ourselves from him. From them. And surround
ourselves, in midrash as in life, with likeminded people, our kind of people.
Othering of Esau, like it or not, is a part of the tradition that we have
inherited. We still, in countless ways, sort ourselves, drawing near to
those who are likeminded, moving away from those who are different.
Journalist Bill Bishop makes the case that when it comes to meeting
people who are different, today our culture in the United States makes
that extraordinary difficult, in new and alarming ways. In his book The
Big Sort, Bishop and sociologist Robert Cushing present a thorough
study of self-segregation among Americans in recent years. They look at a
variety of data, from voting trends to IRS income reports, to advertising
research, in order to understand how Americans have moved around over
the last few decades. And they notice something unusual. Looking across time they discovered that fewer and
fewer of us today live near people who vote differently from us; more and more
of us live near people who vote exactly the way that we do. "In 1976,
less than a quarter of Americans lived in places where the presidential
election was a landslide. By 2004, nearly half of all voters lived in landslide
counties." They call this trend "the Big Sort," after the way we're
sorting ourselves. And it’s not just
about political affiliations but also about our values, how we worship, and
what we want out of life. We are further away from those who value differently,
no longer interacting, no longer engaging with the other the way we once did.
So Bishop and Cushing conclude with a scathing reading of this
state of affairs: They write, "as people seek out the social settings they
prefer—as they choose the group that makes them feel the most comfortable—the
nation grows more politically segregated—and the benefit that ought to come
with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the
special entitlement of homogeneous groups. [We live in] balkanized communities
whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible."
Jacob sends his message to his
incomprehensible other, and he waits in fear. Esau receives Jacob's message, and replies with a message of his
own. The messengers return to Jacob and say: "banu el achicha el Esav-- we went to
your brother Esau, and he too is marching to meet you—along with four hundred
men." 400 is a loaded number. We find it repeatedly in the Book of
Samuel, always connoting a militant group—400 means war. Jacob's reaction
is clear: vayira Yaakov m'od, Jacob is terrified. So he
divides his people up, preparing for the worst.
Anytime the Other becomes
"incomprehensible," we have a problem. A climate of fear consumes us, we
imagine the other in the worst light, as the enemy. A steady flow of messengers
goes back and forth between oneself and the other saying, “the other is incomprehensible,"
too far away to understand, let alone to embrace. Vayir’a Yaakov m’od—be
fearful, be distant, be incomprehensible to the other.
early childhood I could count on one hand the number of non-Jews who were my
friends. On that same hand, I could add to it the number of non-whites who were
in my social group. I'd need the other hand but not much more to add
those who were not middle or upper-middle class, and it wouldn’t take another
finger to add those who were openly gay. Over time, I wrestled to put myself in
a position to encounter others.
when I was 15, and my brother was home from college. He told me he
needed to talk to me about something. “What did I do this time,” I
(Usually when Geoff would say, “we need to talk,” it meant he knew about
kind of trouble I was stirring up and wasn’t gonna tell mom and dad. I
that’s an older brother thing.). He
knocked on my door that night, and with more courage than I’d ever
a conversation, he told me he was gay. I remember my reaction. I was
recently introduced to civil
rights politics, so before even telling him “I love you, I accept you,” I
jumped right to solution: “Geoff you should lobby for the Employment
Non-Discrimination Act! Let’s
fight against this other crazy bill that’s gaining traction—it’s called
Defense of Marriage Act! Did you
know that these bills are trying to make your life better or worse!”
“Yeah, Matt, I know—this is my life,
this is who I am.” Oh. This is you. You are … different from me… and
in a way that I never
really knew. The world in that
moment changed. The other in that
moment changed. Because the other
was really my brother.
remember the experience of going back to school, back to the dominant
of ostensible sameness, but now knowing that we are not the same. None
of us. Maybe it shouldn’t have taken a family member coming out for
me to see that no matter how much we sort ourselves, we are always a
of others, always in need of re-sorting.
you saw the movie Avatar. In
Avatar, the way that the people in the distant world of Pandora greet each
other is not by saying “hi,” or the polite “how are ya”—they say “I see you.” Don’t
we all have our moments when we cross or are thrown beyond our comfort zone and
say to each other, “I see you”?
To be a
community means to say “I see you,” to meet each other, each and every other—because the Other is
ubiquitous: the religious other, the ethnic or
racial other, the gender or sexual orientation other, the elder or younger
other; the Jewish other. We meet
we recover from tragedy by seeking our brothers and sisters who are different
but share in our pain.
a group of our lifelong learners invites equality activists to teach them about
transgenderism, or when on National Coming Out Day someone feels safe enough to
tell another about that part of who he or she is: we meet each other.
meet each other within this extraordinary, sacred tool that is the Greater
Boston Interfaith Organization, which tries to help us meet the religious other—and
pool our power to make things better. For each other.
meet each other when we begin with the assumption that we don’t know each
other, whether it’s the Muslim or Christian sitting next you at the MLK Shabbat
Gathering in January, or your colleague who lives, socializes, and maybe votes
differently than you do.
we meet each other through our everyday actions, what we call mitzvot:
o When we invite an unlikely guest to our
o When we realize we don't need all the
clothes in our closet, or food in our pantry, and that others do.
o When we are asked to help out and
regardless of how tired or busy we are we open our hearts and hands and answer:
YES, I will give, I will make time… to meet each other. o When
we “mix things up” with mitzvot like this, we RE-SORT ourselves and RE-ORIENT
ourselves. When we practice this kind of relational engagement work: We
transcend our fear.
Vayira Yaakov M'od. Jacob is so afraid. He prepares
for the worst, assuming that the story that sorted his life, that defined the
last two decades of his being would explode in a clash of fatal consequence.
That night, Jacob finds himself all alone. And he encounteres
someone, a so-called "ISH," this mysterious divine
other being who find elsewhere in Genesis. Jacob and the ish wrestle all night, the other demands
to be let go, and Jacob says, "not until you bless me."
The ish says, "what's your name?"
"It's Jacob." The ish replies, "no
longer is Jacob, but now it's Israel. Your name is Israel,” he says, “ki
sarita im Elohim - because you wrestled with God - V'IM ANASHIM - and with
receives a name that sanctifies encountering the other. And what happens in the very next moment?
Vayisa Yaakov einav vayar v'hinei Eisav,
Jacob lifts up his eyes and – behold - he SEES Esau. Jacob approaches him
by bowing down to the ground 7 times. 7 times! Imagine that, amid all the fear
that overwhelms him from a distance: 7 times he stops on his way to the
Other. 7, the holiest number, the number that recalls the story of the Creation
of the Universe itself, with the 7th day being where mankind and God
Hashanah in our tradition is referred to as HaYom Harat Olam, the Day of the
Creation of the World. Each year,
on Rosh Hashanah, we, who now identify as Israel the people, we task ourselves
on this day to re-enter creation, to re-create, to re-sort the universe with
God. That’s what this Holy Day is
all about. Jacob in our story
teaches us that to become Israel, to partner with God, means to see, to
approach, to meet the Other. On Rosh Hashanah we imagine ourselves approaching
each other with the courage of Israel in this moment.
enough to bow down 7 times to his lifelong Other, Israel arrives and stands
before his brother. “Vayaratz
Eisav likrato, and Esau runs to greet him. They embrace. They kiss.” And
Jacob says to his brother, “Ra'iti fanecha kir'ot p'nei Elohim: Seeing
your face is like seeing the face of God."