Thursday, March 27, 2008

Derashah: Shemini 5768 - The Appeal of Jeremiah Wright

After a month of hearing about Jeremiah Wright this and Jeremiah Wright that, I finally gave in and watched the video of his famous sermons: the 9/11 sermon, the “Gd Darn America” sermon, the whole bit.

Honestly, I sometimes wish I had license to speak with that kind of animation and monochrome passion, that kind of shout-at-the-rafters anger… but it doesn’t work here. Our crowd tends to be sensitive to nuance and to loathe extremes; waxing passionately salivary about some potential evil yields responses like, “Well, that’s interesting,” “To each his own” and “Are you sure we need to be so harsh?”

For example, look at this potential dvar torah for Parshas Shemini:
I could condemn Nadav and Avihu, who enter the Mishkan disrespectfully while drunk and are struck down by Divine fire.

I could rant that to a person who owns no respect for the mishkan, for avodah, for HaShem, Judaism is just one snack at a lifelong party, just a step along our way to satisfying physical lusts. Partaking in a kiddush is chowing down at a buffet, the avodah of a korban is no different from bloodthirsty butchery, it’s all one big bacchanalia.

I could then fire it up and say that it is this bacchanalia which Gd punishes, which Gd must punish. These people who used religion, who turned their Divine essence toward physical satisfaction, they got what they deserved.

Or how about this tirade: We, today, live in a world of Nadav and Avihu. A world of empty religion, of empty prayer, of empty mitzvot. A world in which a Jew can get drunk on Kosher wine, can stuff himself with Kosher food, can take extravagant trips around the world for Pesach, can fill his den wall with a large-screen TV and kiss the mezuzah on his way into the room to show how pious he is, and all along not give a dime to tzedakah.

Then I could go all-out Jeremiah Wright, point a finger in the air and shout: Those people are Nadav and Avihu, and our parshah provides us a grave warning about what happens to those people, to Nadav and Avihu, with their fancy cars and stylish clothes. Nadav and Avihu burn in Divine fire!

And then I could really have fun: Those people who neglect their souls, people who think this world is about eating, drinking, and merriment, people whose concept of religion is that it’s a fun thing to do on Shabbos morning to make them feel better about what they do the rest of the week - they had better watch the skies, because what came for Nadav and Avihu is coming for them, too!

Now: Fast-forward to the kiddush conversations: Rabbi, that’s pretty strongly worded! Are you saying that we shouldn’t enjoy this world at all?

And fast-forward to the lunch table: Did you hear what the rabbi said? The rabbi said that people who go to hotels for Pesach are going to burn!

So it doesn’t play here - But we know there are places in the Jewish and non-Jewish world where these speeches do play well, and it’s important that we understand who responds to such speeches, and why.

That Nadav and Avihu dvar torah would play very well in a low-income church, or a run-down shtiebel or mosque for that matter, with people who bitterly resent a world of pleasure they cannot afford, and they therefore condemn.

That sort of dvar torah would resonate with cynically self-righteous people who think everyone else is guilty of gross impiety, and with teenagers in the throes of adolescent rebellion, who think they’ve discovered the true meaning of life.

That sort of dvar torah would even ring true among wealthy people who carry a burden of parents or grandparents who were oppressed, or people who find comfort in feeling that the world is against them.

Demagoguery works with people who are angry. Demagoguery works with people who want to be angry.

Our chachamim were wary of this; they called it איבה, enmity, and they proposed a solution for it: They instructed us to act in דרכי שלום, ways that would build peace with the nations around us, that would make us partners with the world instead of setting us in opposition.

We’ve discussed, on other occasions, avoding arousing jealousy in those around us. We don’t flaunt such success as we might have. But beyond that, we try to build up positive feelings with דרכי שלום. Therefore, the gemara says מבקרין חולי עכו"מ עם חולי ישראל, we should be certain to visit non-Jewish patients along with Jewish patients, מפרנסין עניי עכו"מ עם עניי ישראל, we support non-Jewish charities while supporting Jewish charities, and to take care of general communal social needs even as we take care of Jewish social needs.

Lest one think that דרכי שלום is some petty after-the-fact rationalization for assimilation, these are the words of the Gemara: “כל התורה כולה דרכי שלום היא, שנאמר "דרכיה דרכי נועם וכל נתיבותיה שלום" - The entire Torah is about paths of peace, as it is written, ‘Its ways are pleasant, and all of its paths are peace.’”

Of course, this isn’t about helping others at the expense of our own immediate family - but it is about building affordable bridges to the larger human community, a practical consideration for a Jew living in a very angry world, a world eager to assign blame for its ills.

Which brings me back to our reaction to Jeremiah Wright’s speeches. All the chain emails and newspaper columns and worries about Senator Barack Obama in the world won’t change the fact that Jeremiah Wright found a ready and welcoming audience for his venom in that Chicago church - just watch the video of the cheering crowd! There are an awful lot of angry people who are ready to blame you and me for their own suffering, or the suffering of their ancestors.

I believe that our response must be to embrace the gemara’s model of דרכי שלום, of community-wide initiatives which build bonds with the larger human world out there.

One such initiative is coming up on April 6th. I mentioned this project a few weeks ago, but not many people from our shul have signed up. It’s a community service day, involving Jews and non-Jews, for everyone. One project, which our own shul will be chairing, is for the Holocaust Resource Center at Lehigh. There are many more projects, such as work at shelters, Turning Point, housing construction sites and more.

I have known my own anti-Semitism, from being attacked in a mall by a couple of larger kids when I was all of five years old, to facing a group on a subway late one night when I was in college. I can’t say that our דרכי שלום would prevent attacks like those; there will always be angry people, and there will always be people who want to blame others for their problems, and so will be open to the Jeremiah Wrights.

Nonetheless, every step we can take will be positive, on April 6th and beyond, and can only help.

1. I still wish I could do the rant-and-rave thing every once in a while. It looks like a lot of fun.

2. I actually had much more in the Nadav/Avihu section, but the good Rebbetzin advised me to take it out. She thought people would think I was serious.... and who's to say I'm not?...


  1. What do you mean you still wish you could do the rant and rave thing? What was that? It was great, too.

  2. Passion can be a wonderful thing.

  3. LOl - you have to save the best rant and rave thing for the rebbetzin. Especially when she's up preparing Shabbos dinner late on Thursday night, and needs a laugh or two. ;)