Hearing and Seeing the Isaacs and the Ishmaels In Our Lives© Rosh Hashanah Day 2

Hearing and Seeing the Isaacs and the Ishmaels In Our Lives©
Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh

I have two stories that I want to share with you today – both are going to sound unbelievable, I know, but trust me, they are real, they happened.

The first story many people in this room can attest to: 

It was 3:45 pm on Sunday, September 18, I was already out the door on the way to Logger's Run park for our annual membership barbecue, and my pocket started buzzing. 

Carol:  “Rabbi it's Carol – not an emergency, but I just wanted your input on something.  So...as you know, we booked the Logger's Run park for our annual barbecue...but there was a clerical error and a local Islamic Center, who were given a park in Logger's Run in Jupiter accidentally received our park.  Their barbecue is supposed to end at 4 pm, when ours begins.  The county said we can have another park, but it would create confusion – we could also force them to leave...rabbi, what should we do? 
Me:  “Ummm...”
Carol:  “One more thing, they have a bounce house.  I know you like to put a lot of thought into each one of your decisions, but I need an answer in two minutes.” 

I took a deep breath and said, “Carol, you had me at bounce house - let them stay, and we will stay, we can co-exist for a couple of minutes can't we?”

But what I didn’t know was that one of our young congregants, a teenager named Eitan, actually knew one of the teens from the mosque, Mohammed.  Mohammed was texting Eitan, asking him where are you.  Eitan said, “I’m at Logger’s Run– where are you?”  Mohammed said: “I’m at Logger’s Run too!  In Jupiter.”  True story. 

But here’s the thing - Eitan and Mohammed were not such great friends last year, in fact, I would say they were the opposite of friends.    

So how did two teens, a Jew named Eitan, and a Muslim named Mohammed, go from being enemies to texting about picnics? 

And so we return to that time - 4:00 pm on Sunday, twilight between two programs, between two congregations, between two religions, between two teenagers.

God works in mysterious ways – and sometimes, God can work through the Palm Beach County Parks Department!  So what would we do in that in between time?  What would we create?

Here is a truth: every interaction we have has the potential to be wondrous, a miracle, or it can be tragic, and lead to destruction – it’s up to us to make that choice. 

I know that not everyone here may have agreed with our decision – I respect your opinion.  But I want to share some lessons I learned at the barbecue, and some lessons our tradition teaches us about how we relate to the other, to the Eitan's Mohammed's or the Isaacs and the Ishmael's in our lives. 

It's been a divisive election cycle, and it seems like I say this every four years from this bimah, but this year seems different.  There is so much hate out there:  citizens are pitted against each other – Clinton supporters versus Trump supporters and all the individual groups they represent.  But can we put the blame entirely on this election, on these two candidates?

The other day, I was teaching our religious school kids about the famous prayer, Avinu Malkenu, Our Father Our King.  One of the kids stopped me, and asked, “Rabbi don’t you mean president.”  Yes, it’s true, titles have changed, and a president isn’t quite a king or queen.  And yet, we treat them like they are – we give them immense power and worship them– we even blame them for how we talk and act.  

We are fond of blaming one candidate or another for forcing us to treat the other in abhorrent ways, but ultimately, what these holidays teach us is that we are masters over ourselves, we are responsible for what we hear, see and say. 

Our rabbis ask a question – Who is strong?  Who is a hero?  The answer: one who can control his or her impulses.[1] 

With that in mind, I think we must do two things in the months ahead – we have to open our ears so we can better open our mouths.

·      We have to start using our ears to truly listen, not just hear what we want to hear.

·      We have to start using our eyes to see the people who we most disagree with in different ways. 

Listening isn’t easy – Have you heard the story of the two psychologists who met at their 20th college reunion? One was vibrant and enthusiastic. He looked younger than his years. The other appeared withered and fatigued and walked hunched over with the weight of thousands of people on his back.

The tired looking psychologist asked his friend, "Listening to other people's problems every day, all day long, for years on end, has made an old man of me.  So what's your secret?"

The younger-looking one replied, "You actually listen, who listens?"

Truly listening to others requires is not easy.  Listening means you have to look at each person as if they are a complex world of their own, as if they might have mountains of wisdom and goodness waiting to come out, and that yes, they can teach you something. 

The mishnah teaches that whoever destroys a single soul, it is as if he/she has destroyed an entire world, and whoever saves a life its as if they’ve saved an entire world.  Each person is a universe. 

Listening to others is an exercise in humility. 

We learn this lesson from Abraham – when God calls out to Abraham before the Akeidah, Abraham answers with one word – Hineni – here I am.  Our rabbis teach us that this word was said as an expression of humility – Abraham was ready to listen and act because he made himself humble. 

Making ourselves humble means that, perhaps, we are not correct all of the time.  That maybe, just maybe, the person with whom we are speaking might have a point.

Thousands of years ago, there was a dispute between the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel where each side claimed victory, but one side won - Hillel.  God’s voice came down and proclaimed:  “Your words and your words are the words of the living God, BUT…the law is according to the school of Hillel.”
The Talmud states that the reason that Hillel’s victory had nothing to do with the strength of their argument, rather it was HOW they argued.  The Talmud states:  “(Hillel won) Because they were kindly and humble…”
Hillel would actually teach Shammai’s teachings before their own teachings!  The Talmud ends the story by stating, “This should teach you that he who humbles himself is exalted by the Holy One, and he who exalts himself is humbled by the Holy One.” (BT Eruvin 13b)

Hillel made himself a little smaller as if to say, I need to learn my opponent’s point of view, to see where they are coming from, because I need to challenge myself.  And only after that could he open his mouth and speak. 

It’s so easy to surround yourself with self-affirmation.  Facebook was recently accused of only showing articles that support a certain point of view to each person – a Conservative only gets Conservative articles, Progressive only gets progressive articles.  Facebook’s answer was simple:  don't blame us – it’s an algorithm – people get what they want.  It’s so easy to get caught in the echo chamber, but then we stop growing. We can only grow by truly listening, even if it makes us more tired.

Let me ask you something – which psychologist would you want listening to you? 

This world we live in requires that we not only listen to one another, but we must truly open our eyes to see the world as to how others see the world. 

It’s not easy.  Last year, our two teenagers, Eitan and Muhammed, were seated next to each other in almost every class.  The first blow up happened when Israel became a topic of conversation.  Eitan, who has had family who have served in the IDF, said that the IDF is the most moral army in the world.  Muhammed said an IDF soldier killed my cousin.  They fought about the history.  Eitan said that 1948, the War of Independence, was a miracle!  Mohammed said it was the Nakba, the catastrophe.  For months they loathed each other, Eitan was all Israelis, Mohammed was all Palestinians. 

But they learned something sitting next to each other day after day– they started looking at each other with open eyes, they started listening to each other instead of just talking at each other.  They started learning about their families – their faiths – their stories – even their food.  When Eitan brought Humus in for snack, Mohammed’s face lit up, with delight – you eat hummus!  And the next day, Muhammed brought in Zatar for Eitan.  

They realized, they are more complicated than their labels.

The Mishnah teaches us that one human being was created for the sake of peace among humanity, that one human might not say to his fellow, “my ancestor was greater than yours.”  But the Mishnah goes on to say that God is so great, that if a person strikes many coins from one mold, they all look the same, but the Holy Blessed One stamped every human in the stamp of the first human, and yet not one of them is like another. 

This is what Eitan and Mohammed learned. 

Hours before our picnic, we heard about the terrorist attacks in New York, and I’m sure that some of us looked across the picnic tables at the congregants of the mosque with a look of suspicion.  And they may have looked at us, Jews, with negative eyes as well.

But it isn’t right.  I wish we could see each other like Eitan and Mohammed; to see that each person is a unique universe. 

I can tell you this, the two boys who once hated each other, who were so different, were able to see themselves in a different way. 

I’d like to read you excerpts from a poem that Muhammed wrote to his friend Eitan, and I promise, he actually wrote this poem: 

This conflict has been going on for nearly a century
So why on earth would you listen to me
At first I was like you
Thought I knew it all
I believed myself insightful
But most of all
I was full of anger
I was angry beyond comprehension
But then rose the sun
And shone the light
Upon the son
Of an Israelite
My friend
From Israel
And I
A boy from Palestine
And I saw the other side for the first time
You see when you get down to it
We're all people
One and the same
Our emotions don't function differently
We have the same brains
But I was not yet convinced
I needed more clearance
But then after a while we grew closer
And now we're as close as friends can be
I love and support my country till the very end
But I will also stand by my friend
I just think we should go about this whole thing a better way
Not as enemies but rather as friends

I want to let you in on a little secret – this sermon is not about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – let me repeat that - this sermon is not about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This sermon, this poem, is about anyone that you cannot bring yourself to see, hear, or talk to in your life here in America – at work, at school, at shul, social media, and at the Rosh Hashanah lunch that you are about to have.  This sermon is about us. 

On Rosh Hashanah, we read the story of two boys who represent two peoples – two sides:  Isaac and Ishmael.  Perhaps the most famous piece of Torah we read on these high holidays is the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, our Torah reading from today.  But did you know that Muslims also read the same story:  in their version, it isn't Isaac who is bound to the altar, but Ishmael, Abraham's other son. 

But in both accounts, the Quron and the Torah, the son of Abraham is saved by an angel.  In our story, Abraham looks up, and his eyes fall upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horn.  Abraham opens his eyes to a new possibility, to seeing his future as radically different than what it could have been had he sacrificed Isaac. 

One of the mitzvoth of today is to begin is to see that every person is a universe of their own, that even those we disagree with have the potential to be good.  

The mitzvah for Rosh Hashanah is not to see the shofar, and it is not to blow the shofar, but to hear the shofar, to listen to it.  So we too are reminded of the importance of listening to the other with an open ear. 

After the Akeidah, Abraham and Isaac never speak again.  But, Isaac and Ishmael meet once again to bury their father Abraham.  The book of Genesis is the story of brothers:  it begins with Cain and Abel, one kills the other, and it continues – every generation gets a little better.  Isaac and Ishmael are separated, but eventually, they come together and reconcile. 

You might be wondering what happened during those in between moments of the picnic. I am proud to report that there wasn’t a holy war.  I introduced myself to the organizer of the Eid picnic, we had some quick words of peace, some of our people introduced themselves, but most did not – and that's ok – they did their thing, we did ours. 

But what gave me hope were our children – we stayed at our tables, but you know what they did – they played in the bounce house together.  The Muslim children gave our kids Icees, and the Jewish children gave them cake. 

Little Isaac and Ishmaels, Sarahs and Hagars, bouncing and laughing – eating and dreaming. 

And what gives me hope is my student, Eitan, and his friend Muhammed - and the poetry of their lives together. 

In English, peace means tranquility, but the word for peace in Hebrew is Shalom.  Shalom means being whole – it means yin and yang struggling with each other, and yet, living together, seeing one another, listening to one another. 

And so my blessing for us this year is that we listen more, and not just hear; my blessing is that we can start opening our eyes to see that each person is a universe of their own, just like we are – my blessing is that we learn lessons from our children, the Isaac and the Ishmael’s, the Eitan’s and Muhammed’s, in our lives who bounce in bounce houses, and who share icees, and who write each other poems where they say:

I hear you Isaac, I see you Ishmael.  

[1] The Ethics of Our Fathers 4:1


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