Thursday, December 18, 2014

Wicks and Oils: Chanukah

The Rabbis tell us that Chanukah recalls a miracle that occurred nearly 2,200 years ago:

On the 25th of Kislev begin the days of Chanukah, which are eight, during which lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils in it, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they [the Hasmoneans] searched and found only one cruse of oil which possessed the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient oil for only one day's lighting; yet a miracle occurred there and they lit [the lamp] for eight days. The following year these days were appointed a Festival with the recitation of Hallel and thanksgiving. (BT Shabbat 21b)

The story of the Maccabees victory over the army of Antiochus Epiphanies IV of Syria is well-known to school children. As Rabbi Daniel Gordis of Shalem College has written, Hanukah became a holiday about survival, about the spirit overpowering the sword, about good overcoming evil, and about the fewif their cause is justultimately vanquishing the many, and the possibility of survival for those who would seem to have no hope. This resonates well with Alan Gross release from five years of imprisonment in Cuba.

Historically, however, Chanukah emerged from a two-front war. The first front was a war against the Greeks who denied Jewish distinctiveness and national aspirations. The second front was a war within: a civil war between Jews who disagreed about what it meant to be Jewish, and how one ought to be Jewish in the second century B.C.E. In a sense, neither war has ended.

Torah promised it would not be this way. Torah asserts that if Israel keeps Gods covenant,  not only will they be showered with the blessings of fertility, prosperity, peace, health, and security:

וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם--וְשָׁמַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ.  וַאֲהֵבְךָ, וּבֵרַכְךָ וְהִרְבֶּךָ; וּבֵרַךְ פְּרִי-בִטְנְךָ וּפְרִי-אַדְמָתֶךָ דְּגָנְךָ וְתִירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ, שְׁגַר-אֲלָפֶיךָ וְעַשְׁתְּרֹת צֹאנֶךָ, עַל הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ לָתֶת לָךְ.  בָּרוּךְ תִּהְיֶה, מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים:  לֹא-יִהְיֶה בְךָ עָקָר וַעֲקָרָה, וּבִבְהֶמְתֶּךָ וְהֵסִיר יְהוָה מִמְּךָ, כָּל-חֹלִי;
And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that He made on oath with your ancestors: He will favor you and bless you multiple you; He will bless the issue of your womb and the produce of your soil, your new grain and wine and oil, the saving of your herd and the lambing of your flock, in the land that He swore o your ancestors to assign youThe Lord will ward off from you all sickness (Deuteronomy 7:12-13, 15)

It is far too facile and simplistic to say: Well, guess we didnt keep the covenant. If we have not kept Gods covenant, how is it that there are Jews throughout the world 2,500 years after these words were written? And more: other peoples will take note and recognize the wisdom of Torah. Moses tells the Israelites:

רְאֵה לִמַּדְתִּי אֶתְכֶם, חֻקִּים וּמִשְׁפָּטִים, כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוַּנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהָי:  לַעֲשׂוֹת כֵּן--בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם בָּאִים שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.  ו וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם--כִּי הִוא חָכְמַתְכֶם וּבִינַתְכֶם, לְעֵינֵי הָעַמִּים:  אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת כָּל-הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה, וְאָמְרוּ רַק עַם-חָכָם וְנָבוֹן, הַגּוֹי הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה.  ז כִּי מִי-גוֹי גָּדוֹל, אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ אֱלֹהִים קְרֹבִים אֵלָיו, כַּיהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ, בְּכָל-קָרְאֵנוּ אֵלָיו.  ח וּמִי גּוֹי גָּדוֹל, אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ חֻקִּים וּמִשְׁפָּטִים צַדִּיקִם, כְּכֹל הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם.
See, I have imparted to you laws and rules, as the Lord my God has commanded me, for you to abide by in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people. For what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is the Lord our God whenever we call upon Him? Or what great nation has laws and rules as perfect as all this Teaching that I set before you this day? (Deuteronomy 4:5-8)

Is Torah expressing no more than a remarkable fantasy that if we behave as Jews, each doing our part to keep Gods covenant, the nations of the world will see us as a  עַם-חָכָם וְנָבוֹן, a wise and discerning people, and thereby recognize the compassion of God and value the wisdom of Torah?

Needless to say, it hasnt worked out that way. We do not have peace, either from without, or within.

Anti-Semitism is on the rise around the globe. Jews have been physically assaulted in recent months in countries we thought had moved beyond such violence. Israels right to exist is denied on a regular basis by peoples who own cultures and political regimes are devoid of human rights and marked by violence.[1] As Phyllis Chesler[2] and others have noted, anti-Zionism is the modern socially and politically acceptable form of an ancient hatred.

Many years ago, Dennis Prager and Dennis Telushkin penned a book entitled Why the Jews? The Reason for Anti-Semitism. At the time I read it, their thesis sounded hubristic and self-serving. Prager and Telushkins primary two points were: (1) Hatred of Jews is displaced animosity toward one or more of the three pillars of Judaism: morality, law, and peoplehood. Judaism (this thinking goes) thrusts the voice of conscience into the center of the town square, never permitting people to exalt pagan hedonism, perpetually and adamantly reminding us of our individual and communal moral responsibilities, and asserting that, as a people, Israel enjoys a special relationship with God. One finds Jews at the forefront of virtually every human rights endeavor; and concerns for human dignity, social justice, and social welfare are paramount in most every (at least most every liberal) Jewish community. (2) There is a line of causality between Israels election and anti-Semitism. One might question this thesis in the light of Christianity and Islam, which also claim to be Gods elect (and with horrific consequences for those not chosen), but a reasonable response is that the claim of Jewish election so rankled others that they made the claim that they were elected in place of the Jews. Whatever the reasons, anti-Semitism continues unabated.

Chanukah emerged from a two-pronged war. One prong was a civil war. When we take a reading of our internal barometer, we hardly find harmonious brotherhood reigning among the communities of Israel. Thanks to the modern electronic communication at the speed of light we are more aware of one anothers ideas and beliefs than at any time in history, and perhaps more divided than ever. Any semblance of respect has all but evaporated in far too many quarters. How often do people distrust one anothers kashrut or hashgachah? How often do even liberal rabbis call into question the legitimacy of their colleagues conversions? How often does one group or another claim to be the bearer of authentic Judaism, the true expression of Torah values, and thereby devalue all other streams of our tradition?

My usual inclination is to share a commentary I find meaningful, in the hope that you, too, will find value in it. On this occasion, however, I share a drash that I find potentially problematic. It was written by the Sfat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (1847-1905), the second Gerer Rebbe, concerning Chanukah. The Sfat Emet shares a teaching he learned from his grandfather, Yitzhak Meir Alter, the first Gerer Rebbe, who raised him after he was orphaned at the age of eight.

My grandfather and teacher quoted the Gemara that says: Wicks and oils that the sages said not to use to light shabbat lamps may be used for the lights of Chanukah.[3] This, he explained, refers to the impure souls within Israel. The word נפש nefesh (soul) stands for  נר Ner/ פתילה Petilah/ שמן SHemen (lamp/wick/oil). Those that cannot rise up on shabbatbecause the light skips in them and [the wicks] are not drawn up”—can be brought up on Chanukah. Thus far my grandfathers teaching.

I have included the Gemara from the Babylonian Talmud that the Sfat Emets grandfather quoted in a footnote below, because it is too long and complex to delve into. In the Gemara, the Sages tell us that only fine quality wicks and oils may be used to light Shabbat lights, but lesser quality wicks and oils are sufficient for Chanukah lights. The Talmuds reasoning concerns what a person may be inclined to do, as well as what one is permitted to do, if the flame flickers and goes out because the inferior quality materials are unable to sustain a strong, steady flame. The Talmud is talking only of wicks and oils, but the Sfat Emets grandfather, invoking an acronym for the word נפש nefesh (soul) equates the inferior wicks and oils with inferior Jews: Jews that keep shabbat are superior Jews; Jews who do not keep shabbat—“the light skips in them and [the wicks] are not drawn up”—nonetheless may be inspired to celebrate Chanukah. The dichotomy between fine quality and inferior quality wicks and oils is one thing; to categorize people in this way is quite another.

The Sfat Emet continues by distinguishing between the festivals described in Torah, the Shalosh Regalim (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot), on the one hand, and Chanukah and Purim, which he labels in contrast oral Torah, on the other hand.

These holidays of Chanukah and Purim belong to the oral Torah. The three festivals God gave us [Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot] are commanded expressly in the written Torah. God gave us those holy times, sanctified since Creation, for all was created through the Torah. They עדות bear witness that the Holy One Blessed be God has chosen Israel and is close to them, giving them Gods holy testimony מועדות. The term מועד (festival)  is related to the language of עדות (testimony).

The two tiers of wicks and oils, which parallel two tiers of Jews, are reflected in two tiers of holidays. The pilgrimage festivals, because they derive from Scripture, are woven into the fabric of Creation itself. Chanukah and Purim, in contrast, come about because of historical[4] circumstances and are therefore not holy days[5].

But Chanukah and Purim are מועדות special times that Israel merited by their own deeds. These are called oral Torah; they are עדות witness that Israel chose the Holy One Blessed be God. Israel are joined to God and their deeds arouse God, for here they are capable of creating new sacred times by their deeds. And because these holidays are brought about by Israels own deeds, every Jewish soul can be restored through them. Every single Jew can find a way to belong and attach to them.

Yet Chanukah and Purim have a special character: The Sfat Emet tells us that while the pilgrimage festivals reflect Gods reaching out to Israel, Chanukah and Purim reflect Israels reaching out to God. By their courageous deeds and dedication, Israel sanctified these festivals and aroused Gods love. So far, so good. I appreciate the acknowledgement of human agency in the divine drama. But the Sfat Emet says more: Jews can be restored through them. Its not entirely clear how he means this, but I suspect that for Sfat Emet, this means more than that Chanukah and Purim can be access points for Jews to find meaning in their tradition. Rather, I suspect that he means that these two historical festivals can be portals for Jews who do not observe as the Gerer Rebbe does to arrive at the practice of Judaism he knows and affirms.[6]

I am wildly in favor of greater engagement with Jewish tradition and Jewish learning. But I also prize Jewish diversity as a sign of our strength and vitality. Walking in ritual lockstep and marching to the same theological drumbeat will weaken us. We are stronger when our searching and learning lead us to emergent ideas and diverse understandings of our tradition that we can share with one another. I would like to think that Torahs promise is real, if not yet realized. When we keep Gods covenantnot in the fashion of one or another particular halakhic imam invested with truth to the exclusion of all other expressions of Judaism, but rather because we are all engaged, learning, and seeking meaningthen the wisdom inherent in Torah will emerge to bless not only us, but others as well. I would like to think that there are enough good souls in the world ready to receive wisdom from the many sources Gods Creation provides, for indeed all wisdom comes from the Source.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] The very fact that the Israeli-Palestinian problem is so frequently ranked as the #1 problem in the Middle East is ample proof of the obsessive and pathological focus on Jews, Judaism, and Israel.
[2] The New Anti-Semitism (Gefen Publishing, 2014).
[3] BT Shabbat 21a,b: [OPINION #1] Rav Huna said: With regard to the wicks and oils which the Sages said, One must not use them to light shabbat lamps [because they are of inferior quality], one may not light Chanukah lamps with them, either on shabbat or on weekdays. Rava observed: What is R. Huna's reason? He holds that if [the Chanukah lamp] goes out, one must attend to it [i.e., to rekindle them because Chanukah lights must burn for a minimum amount of time equivalent to approximately 1/2 hour], and one may make use of its light [R. Huna says one may make use of Chanukah lamps for person purposes and is therefore concerned that if the inferior wicks or oil produce a flickering, insubstantial flame, a person might be tempted on shabbat do something to improve its flame that would be considered work].  [OPINION #2] Rav Chisda maintained: One may light with them [the inferior wicks and oil that are prohibited for shabbat] on weekdays, but not on shabbat. He reasons: If it goes out, [21b] it does not require attention [i.e., one is not obliged to rekindle it], and one may make use of its light [as R. Huna said above]. [OPINION #3] R. Zeira said in R. Matnah's name (others state, R. Zeira said in Rav's name): Regarding the wicks and oils which the Sages said, One must not light shabbat lamps with them, one may light Chanukah lamps with them either on weekdays or on shabbat. Said R. Yermiyahu, What is Rav's reason? He holds: If it goes out, it does not require attention [i.e., one is not obligated to rekindle it], and one may not make use of its light.
[4] Chanukah certainly derives from historical circumstances: the rebellion of the Maccabees against the Syrian overlords in the second century BCE. Purim, however, is a celebration of the story told in the Book of Esther, a witty and sardonic sophisticated sexual-political satire, which is a literary marvel, but not based on a particular historical event.
[5] Torah forbids work on the first and last days of the Shalosh Regalia (pilgrimage festivals)they are holy time. One may work, however, on throughout Chanukah and on Purim, which are not holy days.
[6] Rav Abraham Isaac Kook is famous for his appreciation of secular Israeli pioneers, seeing them as an instrument of messianic renewal. He also believed that in the end, with the advent of the messiah, they would affirm and practice Judaism as he did.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Conversations with the "man" about Race and Love

Protests  have sprung up around the country in response to the decision of the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri not to indict Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black youth, on August 9, 2014. How many times have we heard in recent days: We need a conversation on race? Could we even hold an open, honest conversation on race? I doubt it. First, there is no such thing as race; its a social construct without biological meaning. But even more: How many people claim to be color blind or race neutral and feel the conversation has nothing to do with them?

In a famous field experiment entitled, Are Emily and Brendan More Employable than Lakisha  and Jamal,  Marianne Bertrand of the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business and Sendhil Mullainathan of MIT measured and quantified job discrimination based on skin color. They submitted 5,000 fictitious resumes to 1,300 employers who advertised openings in the Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune. Comparable resumes were sent for a variety of positionswith one exception: the names at the top were  Emily Walsh or Brendan Baker, or Lakisha Washington or Jamal Jones. Here is the authors summary of the disturbing, but not surprising, results: The authors find that applicants with white-sounding names are 50 percent more likely to get called for an initial interview than applicants with African-American-sounding names. Applicants with white names need to send about 10 resumes to get one callback, whereas applicants with African-American names need to send about 15 resumes to achieve the same result.[

How many of uswithout a shred of evidence nor a reliable statistic to our nametalk about crime rates among people of color, and even cultural deficits among African Americans? I hear it all, again and again, from the mouths of people I otherwise like and respect, who believe themselves to be beyond racism. The truth is, we are not honest with ourselves about our own biases and bigotries. Albert Memmi wrote: There is a strange kind of enigma associated with the problem of racism. No one, or almost no one, wishes to see themselves as racist; still, racism persists, real and tenacious. When one asks about it, even those who have shown themselves to be racist will deny it and politely excuse themselves: Me, racist? Absolutely not! What an insult even to suggest such a thing! Well, if racists dont exist, racist attitudes and modes of behavior do; everyone can find them in someone else.[2] In Racism Without Racists, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva concludes: “…my answer to the strange enigma of racism without racists is as follows. The United States does not depend on Archie Bunkers to defend white supremacy Today there is a sanitized, color-blind way Today most whites justify keeping minorities from having the good things of life with the language of liberalism (I am all for equal opportunity; thats why I oppose affirmative action!). And today, as yesterday, whites do not feel guilty about the plight of minorities (blacks in particular). Whites believe minorities have the opportunities to succeed and that, if they do not, it is because they do not try hard.[3]

This weeks Torah portion, Vayishlach, begins:
וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו, אֶל-עֵשָׂו אָחִיו, אַרְצָה שֵׂעִיר, שְׂדֵה אֱדוֹם
Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau, his brother, to the land of Seir, the field of Edom. (Genesis 32:4)

It may be difficult to imagine that Jacobs reunion with his brother, Esau, is connected to the situation in Ferguson, the oft-heard call for a conversation on race, and the inability of so many of us to recognize our own biases and bigotries, but a commentary on parshat Vayishlach from an unexpected source sheds light on our situation.

Rabbi Elimelekh Weisblum of Lizhensk lived in Galicia in the 18th century. A disciple of Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezeritch, he views this seemingly straight-forward verse (Genesis 32:4, above) through a kabbalistichasidic lens. He weaves for us a complex tapestry. If we view the tapestry from behind, we see a veritable confusion of crossed threads and knots, a jumble of biblical verses (employed in masterful word plays) and several passages from Talmud woven together with the kabbalistic notion of the Supernal Letters that structure the universe and order reality, the controversial hasidic doctrine of the Tzaddik as leader and intercessory to God, and even a discussion of neo-Aristotelian metaphysics.

R. Elimelekh begins with the account of Jacobs wrestling match the night before meeting with his brother following a 22-year separation.
 וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּוֹ; וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר
Jacob was left alone; a man wrestled with him until the rising dawn. (Genesis 32:45)

He points out that the Babylonian Talmud[4] preserves a disagreement concerning who Jacob thought he was wrestling that night: Did Jacob believe the man to be a Gentile or a Torah scholar? If a Gentile, R. Elimelekh  tells us that we learn the importance of being a Tzaddik, as Jacob yearned to be:

a Tzaddiks prayer is answered when praying for a sick person or for others in need. This seems as if the Creator is subject to change, heaven forbid. But the root of the matter is as follows. The Holy One of Blessing created letters, which in their original state are pure potential. [Here, he is speaking about the Supernal Letters which with the godhead structures and creates the universe, a mystical concept found in the Zohar.] A Tzaddik can reconfigure the [supernal] letters so that they form whatever words are desired [i.e., prayers]. These configurations are what a Tzaddik does in prayermake new combinations. The Tzaddiks prayer does not cause change in the Creator, since the letters are always there. All the Tzaddik is doing is creating combinations [of letters].

While on the surface this sounds to the student of philosophy like an attempt to reconcile the neo-aristotelian concept of a perfect God who never changes with the Hasidic cult of the Tzaddik, it is far more, as I will point out shortly. In a masterful act of textual interpretation surrounding Psalm 119:40, R. Elimelekh further tells us that what distinguishes a Tzaddik as such is that he is someone who loves everyone; indeed, this is what constitutes his service to God. Jacob was such a Tzaddik, just as R. Yochanan b. Zakkai before him. Talmud says of R. Yochanan that his love included both non-Jews and Jews, both of whom he greeted in the marketplace before they greeted him. From the vantage point of America in the 21st century, this may not seem a momentous thing, but we must remember that R. Yochanan led the Jewish community during the height of the Roman siege of Jerusalem. The Temple and City were destroyed during his lifetime. To love a Roman was no small feat. R. Elimelekh was born 60 years after the Chmielnicki (also: Khmelnytsky) Massacres, a decade-long Cossack killing spree (1648-1657) during which tens of thousandsperhaps 100,000Jews were murdered.[5] Should not the challenge of loving someone different from us be far easier in America today? And certainly, R. Elimelekhs challenge relates to renewed calls for a conversation on race. R. Elimelekh describes how difficult is to love someone who seems other or different from ourselves:

In reality a person may not love all equallyJews and Gentiles. Ones love for a Jew could be complete, while the love for a Gentile might be lacking, still retaining the traces of foreignness. This is the Talmudic opinion [BT Hulling 91a, see footnote 4 for the passage he has in mind] that Jacob thought the person was not Jewish. That was the struggle: the traces still there [i.e., for Jacob to rid himself of negativity toward the traces of foreignness that were still there in the man].

Concerning the Talmudic opinion that Jacob thought the man he encountered was a Torah scholar:

The (second) Talmudic opinion was that Jacob thought the person was a scholar[and this is the case] even though Jacobs love for this person was not complete because Jacob understood that he, himself, is still has not perfected his personality traits. Jacob did love him, but this love was still incomplete because of these deficiencies. This is the meaning of the verse, A person wrestled with him until עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר the rising dawn (Genesis 32:45). He struggled to remove the darkness (shechorut) within him, so that he could love him perfectly. So the Talmudic debate is not so strange after all. Each position highlights a different aspect of Jacobs ability to achieve perfect love for every person.

Even when a person is presumably easy to identify with and love, nonetheless, our love is not complete because we are never complete. We are works in progress.

I have quoted only excerpts of R. Elimelekhs commentary. Its complex and involved. But I hope you can see that viewed from the front, the tapestry is an exquisite piece of art, inspiring these thoughts:
    R. Elimelekh says that it is only a Tzaddik who can affect healing. Why? Because his focus is on loving everyone: he treats everyone he encounters with respect and love. It is not that the Tzaddik is more spiritual, or has a divine connection the rest of us dont have, or is intellectually endowed beyond the rest of the community: it is because the Tzaddik approaches other peopleall of themwith love. The Tzaddik does what the rest of us could if only we had the commitment and made the effort, but few do.
    How does the Tzaddik manage to love everyone? He taps into the potential already inherent in reality (in psychological terms, we would call this reframing). We cannot change reality until we change our thinking. The Tzaddik understands this and has made the commitment to change his thinking. This includes honestly confronting his own biases and bigotries (as Albert Memmi and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva urge us to do) and working vociferously to expunge them.
    The Tzaddik never considers himself a perfected work. He knows that there are deficiencies in his personality traits (middot). This humility is what enables him to improve. He does not engage in the blame game (the attempt to delineate what is wrong with others) but rather in the struggle to remove the darkness (shechorut) within himself.

For us, reframing requires understanding one anothers perspective and narrative. After George Zimmerman was found not guilty by reason of self-defense in the murder of Trayvon Martin in July of 2013, the passions of many Americans were inflamed. Yet another white man who gunned down a young black man, was exonerated. Five days later, President Obama addressed the nation, reminding us all that our reality is not the only reality, as R. Elimelekh teaches us.

You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son.  Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.  And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, theres a lot of pain around what happened here, I think its important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesnt go away.

There are very few African American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store.  That includes me.  There are very few African American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars.  That happens to me -- at least before I was a senator.  There are very few African Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.  That happens often.

And I don't want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.  And its inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.  The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws -- everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.  And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.

I offer you another way to reframe: We humans are extraordinarily diverse. There are 6.5 billion people on planet Earth. We speak some 6,000 different languages, and have diverse cultures, appearances, beliefs, customs, values. Perhaps its no surprise that we have so much difficulty bridging our perceived differences. But heres a perspective that may help. We human beings are but one of millions of species that have existed. The first creatures we would identify as human beings walked the earth 200,000 years ago. On the scale of the history of the universe, which began with the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, if all time were to be condensed into a 24-hour day, as Carl Sagan cleverly conceived, the first anatomically modern humans appeared on December 31 at 11:52 pm in the last hour of the last day of the year. Our species has only been around for the past 200,000 years. We are far more like one another than we are different. How important are the things that separate us? Are they truly as insurmountable as we make them out to be?

Even more, Mitochondrial Eve lived in Africa 100,000200,000 years ago: every single human being now on earth is descended from her. There was a Y-chromosomal Adam who gave rise to all the Y-chromosome diversity on the planet. He is the male ancestor of all of us. Scientists variously estimate that he lived somewhere between 60,000 and 338,000 years ago. Our Sages knew this long agonot biologically, but morally and spiritually. The Talmud tells us that God created Adam, and Adam alone, in the beginning to prevent precisely the mess we have created:

For this reason one man was created alone, to teach you that whoever destroys a single soul, Scripture holds him responsible for destroying an entire world, and whoever saves a single soul, Scripture credits him with having saved an entire world. Furthermore, [one man was created alone] for the sake of peace among people, that one might not say to another, My father was greater than yours. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, 37b)

How do we extricate ourselves from the much and mire of bigotry and denial? How do we reach out to others in love, like the Tzaddik? One answer comes to us from Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezeritch, in a commentary to next weeks Torah portion Vayeshev. Jacob, R. Elimelekhs model of the Tzaddik, settles in the land where his father Isaac had sojourned. He brings Psalm 34:16, The eyes of Adonai are toward the righteous, and his ears are attentive to their cry to teach something very much akin to R. Elimelekhs comment about the Tzaddik whose prayer moves heaven by rearranging the Supernal Letters. He writes: the Blessed One thinks what [the righteous] are thinking. If [the righteous] think of love, they bring the blessed Holy One into the world of love. On the surface, this sounds like an audacious claim: the righteous control the thoughts of God?! But the Maggid is quick to explain that yes, the Mind [of God] is in the hands of the righteous. But how do they merit this rung? By thinking that they are dust and that they can do nothing without the power of God. Whatever they do, it is actually God doing it, for without the Blessed Holy One, they could accomplish nothing. Ultimately, it is a combination of deep humility and the attempt to align our thinking and goals with that which is higher than us that will bring us to where we need to be.

(The Faces of Color in his document are the work of Francois Nielly and can be viewed at

[2] Albert Memmi, Racism (1999), p. 3.
[3] Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America (2009), p. 305.
[4] R. Shmuel b. Nachmani said: He appeared to [Jacob] as a Gentile, and the Master has said: If an Israelite is joined by a Gentile on the way, he should let him walk on his right. R. Shmuel b. Acha said in the name of Raba b. Ulla, in the presence of R. Papa: Whoever walks at the right hand of his teacher is uncultured. And the Rabbis? [They said that the angel] came from behind and dislocated both [thighs]. And how do the Rabbis interpret the verse, As he wrestled with him (Genesis 32:45)? They interpret it in accordance with the other statement of R. Yehoshua b. Levi, for R. Yehoshua b. Levi said: This teaches that they threw up the dust of their feet to the Throne of Glory, for it is written here, וַיֵּאָבֵק As he wrestled with him (Genesis 32:45) and it is written there, And the clouds are the  אבק dust of his feet (Nachum 1:3). (BT Hullin 91a)
[5] Historians disagree about the number of Jews murdered.  Simon Dubnow and Edward Flannery estimated between 100,000 and 500,000. Martin Gilbert and Max Dimont set the minimum at 100,000. Shall Stampfer claims 18,000-20,000. Whether the minimalists or the maximalists are correct, the number is staggering.