Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Rabbi Todd: Taking Responsibility Beyond Our Own

Rabbi Todd Markley
[The following is Rabbi Todd's drash from Friday, September 27, 2013]

I am standing in the kitchen of our home cleaning the dishes just following meal time when the yelling begins from the other room. They were playing together so nicely just five seconds ago…what on earth happened? Here come the 4 and 7-year old. They’re pointing at one another. Each is a prosecutor with case prepared about why it – whatever it was…I may never know – was entirely the other one’s fault.

And so it is at the outset of the Torah. As we begin our annual Torah reading cycle anew on this Shabbat we find two stories that bespeak the childlike state of humanity just following the stories of Creation. First, Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and then ashamed, try to hide from God.

Side note: This was a rookie parenting move on God’s part…you can have anything you want in all of the Garden, just don’t touch the fruit on this tree? Come on! Any parent knows that this is the tree they’re running for first!

Seemingly not yet self-reflective enough to recognize this, God asks Adam from on high, “Ayeka…Where are you?” Of course, the Divine Being who just made Creation happen knows where these two are…the question is a spiritual and psychological one. One I might ask of my own children from my stance at the kitchen sink…Who are you? Is this really how you want to behave? What did you do?!? How do Adam and Eve respond? Adam blames Eve. Eve blames the snake. Their children are, fittingly perhaps, fruit that does not fall far from the proverbial tree.

Their sons Cain and Abel each offer up their own sacrifices to God, and in yet another highly questionable parenting moment in God’s earliest days at this, God very publicly favors one child’s gift over the other’s. The result? Cain kills Abel out of jealousy and when confronted asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that there is a commonality between these two narratives: an unwillingness to take personal responsibility for one’s own actions. In the case of Adam and Eve, they were wrapped up in the blame game…it wasn’t me! In the case of Cain, he couldn’t fathom the possibility that he was responsible for anyone’s wellbeing beyond his own. Humanity has come a long way, and yet, sadly perhaps, we still know these behaviors all too well…in our children, in our co-workers, in our friends and neighbors, and in ourselves.

We can sometimes fall prey to our earliest forebears’ lines of thinking, not just as individuals but as communities. We experience what psychologists call “In group, Out Group” effect. We assume that our own cultural, ethnic, religious, geographic, or communal group must be better than the others. Sometimes this moves us to do good. As our Sages taught, Kol Yisrael Aravim Zeh b’Zeh…all the people of Israel areresponsible for one another, and this teaching has yielded countless examples of Jewstaking care of one another, insuring one another’s safety, well being, and peace.

On the other hand, whenever we begin dividing the world up into groups we run the risk of becoming Adam and Eve…blaming the other groups for our problems, or worse yet, of becoming Cain…not being able to imagine that we are actually responsible for the well being of others beyond our own group. Of course, throughout our history from Torah through the present day, great Jewish thinkers have sought to remind us that our people is no better than any other and that we have a unique responsibility to be a light to the entire world, not just to ourselves. Yet, we have not always been able to live up to this sacred task.

Recently, we were blessed to have a great model of such explicit and thoughtful reaching beyond faith boundaries in none other the new leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis. I have been loving much of what this Pope has shared so far, and his stock only rose with me when, earlier this week, I attended a meeting of our Needham Clergy Association. Muslim representative to the group, Abdul Cader Asmal, shared aloud this letter which Pope Francis wrote to the Muslim communities of the world to mark the end of their festival of Ramadan.

He wrote, “This year, the theme on which I would like to reflect with you and with all who will read this message is one that concerns both Muslims and Christians: Promoting Mutual Respect through Education.

“Respect” means an attitude of kindness towards people for whom we have consideration and esteem. “Mutual” means that this is not a one-way process, but something shared by both sides.

What we are called to respect in each person is first of all his life, his physical integrity, his dignity and the rights deriving from that dignity, his reputation, his property, his ethnic and cultural identity, his ideas and his political choices. We are therefore called to think, speak and write respectfully of the other, not only in his presence, but always and everywhere, avoiding unfair criticism or defamation. Families, schools, religious teaching and all forms of media have a role to play in achieving this goal.

…We are called to respect the religion of the other, its teachings, its symbols, its values.

…We have to bring up our young people to think and speak respectfully of other religions and their followers, and to avoid ridiculing or denigrating their convictions and practices.

We all know that mutual respect is fundamental in any human relationship, especially among people who profess religious belief. In this way,” concludes Pope Francis, “sincere and lasting friendship can grow.”*

Wow! Until only fifty years ago, the Catholic church embraced a supercetionist philosophy, meaning that – according to official church doctrine – the covenant between Catholics with God was superior to, and even came to replace, those of any other people in the world. Now the leader of that faith tradition is actively seeking to bridge those divides, not only for our generations, but for the children who will grow to represent our faith communities. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if his invitation was received by open hearts and open minds within the Muslim world? By his own followers in the Catholic church and their sister Christian denominations. Would it be incredible if we, as Jewish communities, could engage in this effort as well?

We are in the season of beginning our Torah anew with our stories of Creation…reminders that, according to our faith tradition, all of humanity is one large family which began with just a single person…the culmination of a Creation process which began with light. May this new year’s Torah cycle see us follow the Pope’s lead…recommitting ourselves not only to service of our own people but to knowledge of, understanding of, and service of the whole…reminding ourselves not only of our stories but those of our sister faith communities as well…taking responsibility not only for the physical, emotional, and spiritual well being of our own people but for all peoples. In so doing we can be more enlightened and can, individually and collectively, be a light to the world. Amen.

*  (MESSAGE OF POPE FRANCIS TO MUSLIMS THROUGHOUT THE WORLD FOR THE END OF RAMADAN ('ID AL-FITR): http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/messages/pont-messages/2013/documents/papa-francesco_20130710_musulmani-ramadan_en.html )

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