The ‘Glasses’ of Blessing© - Parashat Re’eh and a Response to #Charlottesville

The ‘Glasses’ of Blessing©
Parashat Re’eh and a Response to Charlottesville
Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh

There’s a big event coming up in just a couple of days, the solar eclipse.  But the aspect of this once in a century natural phenomena that interests me the most might surprise you:  the eclipse glasses.

By now, you probably know it's not ok to stare directly into the sun. Although it feels less intuitive, the same rule applies during an eclipse. By looking directly at the sun, you are essentially cooking your eyes but because your retina doesn’t have pain sensors therefore you won’t feel your eyes being irreparably damaged. 

I thought I could just pick the exclusive glasses up at the library, but they’ve been gone for months!  I didn’t have any luck in any stores either – in fact, one store began by saying we don’t have eclipse glasses before I even said one word!

I finally got my pair – in fact, I had to buy 25 just to get 4, and if you’re wondering, I sold the rest of them within 10 minutes of posting them for sale!    

But it got me thinking of the significance of Monday – a day when everyone will looking up at the same thing, opening our eyes to an image. 

And so I thought about the pain the past week, when most of us opened our eyes and saw things that we thought were relegated to the past.

We saw the videos of white supremacist carrying Tikki torches repeating the phrase, "Jews will not replace us."

I’ll never forget SEEING the videos of those men, men who in the past would be wearing hoods but now were wearing khakis and white polos, waving flags with swastikas and carrying tikki torches.  I looked at my son and realized, I never had to see this as a child, but my grandparents, Holocaust survivors, did. And of course, the lack of response by our president, then the both sides debacle.  I thought to myself, what the heck is happening, is the world is upside down? I received messages from congregants:  tell me what to think, what should we do? 

So today, I want to offer two responses to last weekend’s events: 

1.    I want to find the black and white in a world that is filled with shades of grey

2.   Where do we go from here? 

It started as a protest to protect history from their point of view – they were protesting the taking down of a monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee.  But the march that we saw on Friday night, in the now infamous video, showed the truth.  They marched with fire in their hands, saying in unison, You will not replace us…Jews will not replace us.  

They marched with red swastikas.  If it were in black and white and in German, you would have thought it was 1930’s Germany.  The sheer number of people dwarfed the previous Nazi rally that was made famous in 1977.  Skokie, a northern Chicago suburb, had a population of about 70,00o, 40,000 of whom were Jewish, and approximately 5,000 of the Jewish residents were survivors of the Holocaust.

The Nazis wanted to march down the streets, dressed in Nazi uniforms, and waving swastika flags.  The debate became about free speech, not dissimilar to today’s debate.  After a court battle, the Nazis won, they marched – but only about 20 Nazis came out to march.[1]  In the end, it was a non-event, and in fact, there were more counter protesters that day, who were looked at as heroes.  President Carter at the time said, “If such views must be expressed, I am pleased they will not go unanswered. That is why I want to voice my complete solidarity with those citizens of Skokie and Chicago who will gather Sunday in a peaceful demonstration of their abhorrence of Nazism.”

And now, well, we know what happened.  Not only was this rally stronger, but it seems even more mainstream, and depending on which news channels you watch, it seems a lot more nuanced.    

We live in a truly wondrous time – the information age, but with the ease of information flow comes an almost paralyzing effect on us.  There’s too much – and sometimes, they are too many sides.  The deeper we go down the rabbit hole of articles and opinions, we become paralyzed.

Looking at this case – we hear the justifications – it’s about preserving history; it’s about free speech; it’s about our rights; not everyone who marched with the Nazis were actually Nazis; and so on. 

I often times love living in the gray, the messiness of life, but sometimes, there is right, and there is wrong, and we see a clear choice in this week’s parashah, Re’eh. (Deuteronomy 11:26-28)  

26 See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: 27 blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; 28 and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced.

“One of the gifts of great leaders, and one from which each of us can learn, is that they frame reality for the group. They define its situation. They specify its aims. They articulate its choices. They tell us where we are and where we are going in a way no satellite navigation system could. They show us the map and the destination, and help us see why we should choose this route not that.”[2] 

Moses gives us a clear choice when there is so much information that he is giving to his people.  Remember, there are 613 mitzvoth, each with its own subset of rules. 

So what is the choice?  What do we stand for and what do the idolaters stand for? 

In essence, I think one of the great innovations of the Torah is the concept that each person is created in the image of God.  And if we are, that means that each person is also deserving of life.  The Torah essentially outlaws perpetual slavery – only God owns us.  The idolatry that we witnessed, not just in Charlottesville, but in Rome, in Nazi Germany, in the Southern States during slavery[3], is that not all people are created equally – there can be whole nations that are necessarily born as animals, and like animals, they can be slaughtered without remorse. 

Rashi comments on verse 28 – you learn that one who commits idolatry turns completely away from the path that Israel was commanded to follow.  This is why the Sages said, “One who acknowledges an idol denies the entire Torah.” 

What do we do when we are confronted by the idolatry of our time?  We must stand up to it.  As Elie Wiesel said in his speech upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, “And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever, wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must - at that moment - become the center of the universe.”

I mentioned a fact before:  if we stare at the eclipse without glasses, we will not notice our eyes cooking because we cannot feel the pain.  It reminds me of the story of the frog in the pot – if you throw him in when it is boiling, he’ll jump out right away.  If you put him in cold and slowly turn up the heat, he’ll die before he discovers he’s cooking.  As a grandson of four Holocaust survivors, I know the price of complacency and silence. 

There are times for nuance, but in these times, we need to put our glasses on, the glasses of blessing and curse – when we can filter through the distractions. 

The answer is clear – the Swastika, the Confederate Flag and the philosophies of hate are wrong and they are a curse.  We cannot be distracted by why we think people feel this way, and we cannot let our neighbors become distracted.  It’s as simple as blessing and curse. 

Good leadership means calling out evil where it is – not making excuses for it or rationalizing it – there are not two sides.  There are no good Nazis or KKK members, and if you march with people who say Jews will not replace us and with a swastika, well, let’s just say, you made your choice. 

The next thing I want to talk about is where we go from here.  I want to return to the eclipse.  During the brightest part of the day, it will literally become dark. 

The Akeidat Yitzchak explains that solar eclipse really refers to the death of the righteous, the lights of our community who are extinguished.  Our world is darkened from the loss of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, who was killed in a car ramming by a Domestic Terrorist, 42-year-old State Trooper H. Jay Cullen and 40-year-old Trooper-Pilot Berke Bates who died in a tragic helicopter accident.  Our world is darkened by the victims of terror in Spain killed by ISIS terrorists. 

It seems like our bright days are becoming darker after each passing year and month. 

But we can do something about it…

There is an old Jewish folklore about the town of Chelm, the home of the world’s wisest fools or the world’s most foolish wise people – no one really knows which one is correct.  Anyway, they had a problem – they didn’t really have enough money for street lamps, so at night, they depended on the moon to light up the dark sky.  When the moon was full, everything was brighter – people were happier….lovers would stroll in the streets holding hands, children would listen their parents, even cats and dogs got along.  But when the moon went away, and the darkness overtook everyone, everyone became sad.  So, the wise leaders came up with a solution – let’s capture the moon!  Then, when it goes away, we can just bring it back!  One of the genius leaders came up with an idea:  he told them about his favorite thing to do – eating soup under the moon light.  Every full moon, he would go out and eat a big bowl of soup, and when he would stare down at it, he would see the moon.  If only we could create a huge soup bowl, all of our problems would be answered!  We could capture the moon and the light – it will be ours forever!  So they did just that – they built a huge bowl of soup and everyone added a little soup to the mix.  And they waited for the moon to come out, and when it did, they put the bowl in the town square, they saw the beautiful reflection, and the elders of the town snuck up on the moon with a huge cover, and boom, just like that, they captured moon!  They went to bed that night, and the next night came, they took the cover off, and – and the moon was gone.  They questioned each person – until someone confessed – it was the rabbi of the town.   Why would he do this?!?  His answer – there are things we enjoy while we have them, and we can enjoy them.  And the people asked, “like a shirt or shoes?”  Yes.  “like love and hugs.”  Yes.  Like Joy?  Yes.  And the moon!  Yes, the moon as well, but only when we share it can we really enjoy its light.  That’s why I had to let it go.”  The people asked, “Rabbi, what will we do now on these dark and sad nights?”  And the wise rabbi went on, “here’s the thing, sadness comes to us all, that’s life, but we cannot capture the moon – we can share the moon, and other things.  And so they all came up with an idea, whenever they were sad, the people would share soup – because soup may not make the whole town happy like the moon, but it helps make things a little better if you share it together. 

We have two choices – hatred and loneliness, and love and community.  Let’s choose love. 

It’s really easy to give a sermon that Nazis and KKK members are evil, although it would probably be a worthwhile sermon in the National Cathedral tomorrow.  But for us, Jews living in Boca Raton, we have seen a number of groups being called out over the last year, like immigrants and refugees, and the question is, where are we? 

In our parashah, we learn about the prohibition of eating certain birds, among them, the Chasida, or the stork, and according to Maimonides, every impure bird has a cruel nature.  Now, Rashi says that stork is called Chasida or righteous one, because it distributes food to its friends. So why then, would the stork be classified among the impure birds, [considering that it is so generous to other storks]?  But, R. Isaac Meir Rothenberg One must, however, act with loving kindness and generosity not just with one’s friends, but with all of creation.  And the one who deals generously only with his friends has a cruel nature -- and this is why [the stork] is impure.

Let’s not fall into the stork’s trap – a true Chasid also cares for others who aren’t like him.

And on Monday night, after you’ve put your eclipse glasses away, come light up the night with our interfaith community as part of our vigil.  Let’s gather together to show the world that diversity is our true strength. 

I’ve been asked all week, rabbi, what do we do, where do we go?  I don’t know what the future will hold – I hope it doesn’t get worse, but I can’t tell you if things will get brighter or darker.  But if we make the right choices, if we choose blessing and put the right glasses on, then at least we can bring more light to the world no matter how dark it gets.


[2] “Defining Reality” -
[3] Excerpt from Alexander H. Stephens “Corner Stone” Speech in Savannah, Georgia - March 21, 1861, “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”


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