Friday, September 25, 2015

Harvey & Sheila, and Ben / Parshat Ha'zinu 2015/5776

Allen Shermans songs were a delightful staple of my childhood. Do you remember Harvey and Sheila? Harveys a CPA. / He works for IBM. /He went to MIT / and got his PhD. Sheila worked, At B.B.D.& O. / She works the PBX, / And makes out the checks. Harvey and Sheila met in an elevator, fell in love, married, and lived a modest, middle class life. She shopped at A & P /
He bought a used MG / They sat and watched TV / On their RCA. They had children, joined the PTA, and moved to West LA. As their fortunes increased, they bought a house with a swimming pool
            Traded their used MG
            For a new XKE.
            Switched to the GOP,
            That's the way things go
            Harvey's rich, they say that he's a
            This could be,
            Only in the USA!

Allen Sherman was reflecting on the sociological pattern many have observed: Young people of modest means often sport liberal politics. When they make and are more affluent, their politics grow conservative. Of course, the GOP of Shermans day did not have to contend with the rabid political polarization of our time and there was nothing like the raging right Tea Party of today that is pulling the GOP further and further to the right and transforming it into a party Ronald Reagan would not recognize.

I was reminded of Harvey and Sheila when I heard Ben Carsons now infamous declaration Sunday morning on NBCs Meet the Press. Chuck Todd asked him, "Do you believe that Islam is consistent with the Constitution? Carson replied, "No, I do not. I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that. The response was swift and outrage poured in from both Democrats and Republicans. Initially, on Monday morning, Carson doubled down, but by Monday evening he had backed down and said that he could support a Muslim president if they disavow Sharia law and declare their loyalty to the Constitution.

I was struck by this specter of the Harvey and Sheila phenomenon. For far too long, African Americans were viciously and violent prevented from entering the mainstream of American society, but things changed so that Ben Carson could attend medical school and rise to the highest ranks of his profession. What is more, there is no question that Carson could be elected president after all, there is an African American president in the White House. This is not to say racism has been erased sadly, far from it but Ben Carson, for one, is not encumbered. He has made it, and made it big. And having done so, it appears that he now turns around and would deny the same opportunities to the next group climbing the American ladder of opportunity and involvement. Apparently the memory of oppression and bigotry hasnt stopped him from savoring his success and stopping the line just behind himself.

This weeks parashah, Haazinu, consists of an ancient Hebrew poem[1] which is framed as one of Moses summary sermons to Israel. It opens grandly:
            Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
            Let the earth hear the words I utter!
            May my discourse come down as the rain,
            My speech distill as the dew,
            Like showers on young growth,
            Like droplets on the grass. (Deuteronomy 32:1, 2)
The poet exalts Gods magnificent generosity and kindness toward Israel, contrasting it with Israels stubborn ways and disloyalty to God. The poet reminds Israel that when God found them, they were anything but powerful and successful. Yet God nurtured and nourished them like a mother eagle caring for her young:
            [God] found [Israel] in a desert region,
            In an empty howling waste,
            [God] engirded him, watched over him,
            Guarded him as the pupil of [Gods] eye.
            Like an eagle who rouses his nestlings,
            Gliding down to his young,
            So did [God] spread His wings and take him,
            Bear him along on His pinions;
            Adonai alone did guide him,
            No alien god at [Gods] side. (Deuteronomy 32:10-12)
But Israel grew strong and independent:
            So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked
            You grew fat and gross and coarse
            He forsook the God who made him
            And spurned the Rock of his support.
            They incensed [God] with alien things,
            Vexed [God] with abominations.
            They sacrificed to demons, no-gods,
            Gods they had never known,
            New ones, who came but lately,
            Who stirred not your ancestors fears.
            You neglected the Rock that begot you,
            Forgot the God who brought you forth. (Deuteronomy 32:15-18)

Torah couches Israels disloyalty to God in terms of idolatry. God brought Israel out of servitude in Egypt, gave them freedom and Torah and love and protection in the Wilderness, brought them to the Land of Israel, yet they repay Gods gifts by spurning God and pursuing idols that are no-gods.

The no-gods of Israel are her success and affluence, which have blinded her to her humble beginnings and the moral values arising from that experience. No wonder Torah repeatedly reminds us repeated, You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:20); and The stranger residing among shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am Adonai your God (Leviticus 19:34); and You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 19:10). How soon we forget.

To be a Jew is to always beat least in our minds and soulsthe stranger, to know the plight of the stranger, to understand the experience of being other. It is a fundamental part of our history and collective memory. To be a Jew is also to un-Other them: to befriend the stranger and make them part of the community. God berates the Israelites in the words of the poet of Haazinu for forgetting this fundamental truth. The no-gods they worshipsuccess, affluence, power, influence, landednessthreaten the moral ground of Torah, which is predicted on protecting the have-nots and promoting inclusive community.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] One of the two oldest pieces of Hebrew poetry we have. The other is Shirat ha-Yam, Exodus chapter 15.

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