On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: Raising Our Voices - Parashat D'varim

Often, we think about what actions we might've taken during trying moments in history -- but what are we doing right now? It’s not always easy to step forward. As Moses teaches us in this week’s ParashatD'varim, and Rabbi Rick Jacobs reminds us by relating his experience at the Texas/Mexico border last week, learning to be a strong, yet fair leader may be challenging and even alienating at times, but it’s always worth it.

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[URJ INTRO] Welcome back to On the Other Hand, Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by reformjudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a new spin on a weekly Torah portion, in just about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about parashat D'varim, and he asks us to think about what it means to raise your voice for what you believe in.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week, we begin a new book of the Torah in our annual study. We begin with the parshat called D'varim. It is the first parshah of the book, and it is actually the name of the entire book in Hebrew. We call it Deuteronomy, but in Hebrew, it is D'varim. Amazingly, in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, Moses is generally referred to in the third person. While in D'varim, the entire book Moses almost always speaks in the first person.

In the first four books of the Torah, God addresses the community, while in the book of D'varim, it is Moses who is addressing them. It's a career that's worth reflecting on. You know, you remember this story, of course, Moses starts out saying, I'm not the guy. I can't do this. I'm really not very articulate. He says the actual words, "I'm not an ish d'varim." I'm not a person who has the right words. I'm not eloquent. Oh, but it turns out that our Moses, he acquires that eloquence, and it is found throughout the book of D'varim, especially.

Now, what is it that changed? Did he take a class in rhetoric? Did he take homiletics? No, the teaching is that he became so completely enmeshed in the passion of his leadership and his work that that's what led to the eloquence. Now, there is a midrash in Deuteronomy, Rabbah, that takes the sound of D'varim, the name of our portion and the book, and it correlates it with d'vorim, which means bees, those things that fly around in the summer and sting you.

Well, it seems that, sometimes, leaders have to speak strong words to be true to our demanding Jewish tradition. I think all of us who are rabbis know that, and those on the podcast, who listen to rabbis, at least occasionally, probably know that's part of the drill. Well, last week I joined the Reverend William Barber II, one of the most inspiring faith leaders on the planet. And he leads a group called Repairers of the Breach, and also the Poor People's Campaign that he led and has animated, which really was a campaign that the Dr. King intended to carry out in his lifetime, but only began.

Well, last week, I traveled with Reverend Barber and a group of faith leaders down to the Texas-Mexico border, because we just had to raise our voices. We had to raise our voices against the immoral and inhumane conditions, that infants, and children, their parents, are being held. It's just overwhelming to anyone with a heart. They're overcrowded cages like facilities, and the babies without diapers and forced to sleep on concrete floors and go without soap or showers for weeks. It's overwhelming, and it's disgraceful. And we went to speak up.

Now, I also would say that I went to El Paso, because I, and I'm guessing a whole lot of you on the podcasts, we worship a god who is impatient with injustice. Our God demands that migrants must not be wronged. But the obligation, it's actually much greater. In Leviticus, were commanded that the migrant who sojourns with you shall be to you as your citizens. You can't make distinctions. A migrant citizen have to be treated with decency.

And even more, we're commanded, at the end of that teaching, from Leviticus 19: 33-34, we're commanded to love the migrant as you love yourself. 36 times, the Hebrew Bible repeats this obligation. It's interesting to note that loving our neighbor is only mentioned once. Why is that? Why do you have to say 36 times to love the migrant, the immigrant, the asylum seeker? Why? Because that's not as obvious as love your neighbor. And loving the migrant, the one who doesn't look like you, speak your language, or pray as you do is still loved by God.

And we must love them, as well. So a couple of years ago, I was debating a candidate who was trying to be the Chief Rabbi of Israel, and the debate was actually held in the Israeli Knesset. And the debate went back and forth and, finally, the candidate for Chief Rabbinate, and Orthodox Rabbinate, accused me and the Reform Movement of having invented tikkun olam. I said, really? And then, at first, I got this idea, maybe he should just call my mom. My mom would be really impressed that, you know, I might have invented tikkun olam

But, of course, there's no way that I invented tikkun olam or social justice. All you've got to do is open any page of the Hebrew Bible. And if you pull out social justice, or tikkun olam, all of Judaism unravels like a cloth that you took out the key strand. Now, the haftorah for this parshah, this opening parshah, this opening portion of the book of Deuteronomy is from Isaiah, the opening chapter. And it's just so powerful.

And I think of Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his book, The Prophets, gives a wonderful frame for what I'm about to read. His frame, of course, is a book that he wrote, that was his doctoral thesis. And Heschel says, "It is an act of evil to accept the state of evil as either inevitable or final." He's telling us that we know we have to act, and when we do, we can change everything. My rabbi, the amazing rabbi who mentored me, and I was a privilege to follow him at Westchester Reform Temple, Rabbi Jack Stern.

At the end of his rabbinate at WRT, he gave all these wonderful talks and remembered having marched in the Civil Rights Movement, having spoken up against the war in Vietnam. And at the end of his career, everybody was so proud, and so, you know, just delighted. And he corrected the record. He said, you know, "When I was actually doing those things, everybody wasn't so supportive. The pride has come now." And he said that, because he said, "Make sure not to be too quick to judge my successors who may speak up in ways that you don't agree.

But that over time, it may feel as you feel about me. So the actual passage is from-- the haftorah is from Isaiah 1, beginning with verse 14. And Isaiah just laces into our ancestors. He said, "Your new moons and fixed seasons." Your holy days, that's another way to say it. "God says, fill me with loathing. They are become a burden to me, God says. I cannot endure them. And when you lift up your hands in prayer, I will turn my eyes away from you. Though you pray at length, I will not listen. Your hands are stained with crime. Wash yourselves clean. Put your evil doings away from my sight."

And here it is, in the simplest, most direct terms you can imagine. "Cease to do evil. Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice. Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan. Defend the cause of the widow." Well, I'm sorry, candidate for Chief Rabbinate of Israel, I didn't make this stuff up. I mean, it's just singing and screaming out of our biblical text, and it couldn't be said more eloquently or more directly. "Cease to do evil. Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice. Aid the wronged. "

That's core to what it means to be Jewish. Yes, it's important to light Shabbat candles. It's important to observe holidays, of course. And it's important to study texts, like Isaiah, that wake us up to the responsibilities of being people of faith in this 21st century. That's why I went to El Paso. That's why, along with Rabbi Ron Siegel, the president of the CCAR, and a whole group of rabbis, and canters, and lay leaders, that's why we went to stand up and be counted, and to raise our voices, like a shofar, to cry out against the injustice.

Now, can be from the more conservative, the more liberal, but it's really impossible to view the treatment of these children and these separated families as anything other than an affront to the values of this great country, the United States of America. And we are there last week, and this week and going forward, to raise our voices for responsible and compassionate immigrant justice and immigrant policies. This is not about opening the borders and just, you know, not worrying about securing our country.

Of course, we need to do that. But we need to do it the way our country would expect and the way that we would. Rabbi Heschel had some pretty memorable things that he said. And I'm going to conclude this podcast with a couple of his great teachings. He said, perhaps most famously, "In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible." That's a quote you could wake up every day to and get busy doing the work of justice.

But I love especially what he says about what has become of religion. He says, "It is customary to blame secular science and anti religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society." He goes on to say, "It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defects. " Here it is. He says, "Religion declined, not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid." Well, that's not going to happen, friends, to our religion, to our faith.

It's going to be relevant. It's going to be urgent. It's going to be nourishing. It's also going to be joyful and loving. Those are all those qualities. And if anyone stops you on the street and tells you that tikkun olam, or social justice, that's some political import to the Jewish tradition, you just slow them down, them him a hug, too. Say, "I love you, and I'd like you to open up Isaiah, chapter one, and just read a couple of verses here with me, and see if that sounding authentic to us. Or maybe, "We'll open up to Leviticus 19 and read about our commandment not to wrong the stranger, the migrant, the asylum seeker, the immigrant, and to treat them as citizens alike, and to love them." Now, that's core to being Jewish. So here we are, new book of the Torah. Teachings for, not just today and tomorrow, teachings for a life of purpose.


Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand, 10 Minutes of Torah. You want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts, or Google Play, or Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write is a review or share the podcast with a friend. For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events and more, visit ReformJudaism.org, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter at @URJPresident. On the Other Hand, Ten Minutes of Torah, is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. And until next week, when he tore out