Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Thickening Around Your Hearts

The following is an adaptation of my d'var Torah from this past Shabbat.

Outside the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, last week
image found at
The Sikh Temple shooting has received so much less coverage, so much less outcry, than the mass shooting less than two weeks earlier in Colorado. Is it the Olympics? Compassion fatigue? Or is it plain old racism, or xenophobia?

Or, is it something less sinister but more insidious than that? Is it simply that average Americans can’t relate because, as Robert Wright wrote in The Atlantic, “They can imagine their friends and relatives—and themselves—being at a theater watching a batman movie; they can't imagine being in a Sikh temple.”

As a Jewish community, perhaps we can relate better. We are, after all, a minority people and religion in this nation and all others around the globe but one. And so we have stories like this from JTA, and this press release and blog entries such as this and this from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Still, I wonder how many of us followed the news of the Wisconsin temple shooting with the same level of interest as the Colorado theater shooting coverage.  After all, Jews are not Sikhs. We get top billing in the great “Judeo-Christian tradition” so many Americans are fond of claiming, and thus strike most Americans as not nearly as foreign as our Sikh brothers and sisters, with their turbans and their saris and their little-known eastern faith. The Sikh temple shooting is tragic, sobering, but I can imagine there were a few of us out there getting back to business as usual after breathing a secret prayer of thanks that it wasn’t one of our temples.

Except that, essentially, it was.

The day of the Sikh shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, I wrote a prayer that concluded, “We’re all in this together.”

When things like this happen in our country, a nation that we celebrate for its embrace of “liberty and justice for all,” we’re all implicated. And we’re all in danger. Because when one group in our society becomes the target of hateful acts for who they are, everyone’s rights are in danger. And all of us are responsible for speaking out against such persecution.

Several media outlets and commentators have observed that there has been an increase in attacks on Sikhs and Sikh communities since 9/11, because many people mistake Sikhs for Muslims. Does that mean this shooting would have been less tragic had the white supremacist gunman shot down innocent Muslims instead, the presumed “proper” target of his attack?  

We’re all in this together. On Monday, the day after the Sikh temple shooting, a mosque was burned to the ground in Joplin, Missouri. It hardly received any press. Since then, mosques and Muslim worshipers in California, Rhode Island, and Illinois have been targets of vandalism or violence. I had to search for these stories to find them. It is an outrage, a string of events that should cause us to feel shame—as Americans, but also as Jews. Not because as Jews we are in any way more responsible for these events than anyone else, but because as Jews we are particularly warned against this sort of unconcern and blindness.

This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, chronicles one of Moses’ final speeches to the Israelites as they muster on the east side of the Jordan River, preparing at last to enter the Promised Land. Moses exhorts the people to remember how much they have been given:

When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty...and you say to yourselves, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” (Dt. 8:12-14,17)

At one point in his discourse, Moses literally tells the people, “don’t think it is because of your virtue that you will possess this land” (Dt. 9:5) rather, he continues, it is because of the virtue of their ancestors, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and, moreover, it’s because of the wickedness of its current inhabitants. Try that on for size, and see how it feels. Did we choose our ancestors? Have we never behaved wickedly? Remember the Golden Calf, Moses reminds the people? See those people you are about to dispossess? See those people less prosperous than you? Poorly housed? Poorly fed? But for the grace of God, we are them. They are us.

Our Torah text continues: what does God want from us? God wants us to do the right thing. To remember that there is, essentially, no ethical difference between ourselves other people. Fortune? Misfortune? The luck of the draw. A turn of the wheel. God wants us to empathize with everyone:

Cut away, therefore, the thickening around your hearts, and stiffen your necks no more. For the Lord your God...shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.  You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Dt. 10:16-19)

And, as we should well know, we might easily become strangers again. Befriend the stranger.

Can this feel overwhelming? Yes, it can. Can we solve all the world’s problems? Not alone, and not all at once. As Rabbi Tarfon taught, “Yours is not to complete the task; neither are you free to desist from it.” We can send letters of solidarity, letters to the editor, material and monetary donations, to help those suffering all around us. We can ask questions, vote, march, organize. We can talk about things we usually avoid talking about. We can look at faces we usually avoid looking at. We can seek out the stories we might otherwise not hear.

“Cut away...the thickening around your hearts” is a loose translation of the Hebrew umaltem et orlat levavkhem—literally, "circumcise the foreskin of your hearts." Remove that protective layer. Make yourself vulnerable. What have you got to lose? We’re all in this together.

How will you circumcise your heart?

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