Pirke Avot 2:6--“Hillel used to say, a boor cannot fear sin, nor can an unlearned person be pious. A bashful person cannot learn, nor can an impatient one teach. Those who are occupied excessively with business will not become wise in Torah. In a place where there are no men, endeavor to be a man.”
July 28, 2017
5 Av 5777
Shabbat Devarim Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22
Let me just say that my week at Marc Adams School of Woodworking was a blessing. I learned to make a sliding, tapered dovetail by hand which is something I would never try alone in my own workshop. Hopefully within a week or so I will have finished my Enfield Shaker Cabinet. Many thanks to an incredible teacher—Chris Gochnour—who showed patience with a bunch of students who had never used some of the hand planes he brought. And yet, while all of this peace and serenity is surrounding me, I continue to worry about the direction of our country and some very questionable decisions in Israel.
In my last Shabbat Shalom, I wrote about those decisions made by Prime Minister Netanyahu not to move forward with an expanded egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel and the move to solidify the conversion process in the hands of the ultra-right wing Orthodox rabbinate in Israel. This week, in just the last few days, we have witnessed our government’s move to roll back the rights of the LGBTQ community. While my stomach is turning over at these decisions, up pops a picture on my Facebook timeline from three years ago of the first (and only) same-sex wedding at which I have officiated. Why is our current administration so afraid of maintaining the rights gained by members of the LGBTQ community? After the recent tweet to say that transgender people weren’t going to be welcome in our armed forces, it was beautiful to see pictures posted by transgender people who volunteered to defend and fight for our country. An article about the Israel Defense Force’s (IDF) wonderful, welcoming attitude toward transgender people’s ability to defend Israel was inspiring.
As has happened so often, I am amazed that the right perek from Pirke Avot is next in line for me to put at the top of this writing. The very end of this saying became the text for one of my favorite songs sung at GUCI—“B’makom sh’ein anashim, Hillel omer hishtadel l’hiyot ish—In a place where there aren’t any men, Hillel said strive to be a man.” This saying is for us. As we witness the crumbling of the fabric of our society around us—kindness toward others, support, tolerance, love, respect—it is up to you and me to step forward and persevere towards a better day. We need to learn to respect winning and losing. We need to not call each other names. We need to respect religious and cultural differences. We need to find ways to work together. This doesn’t begin with the other person, we need to strive and be the one who takes the first step.
In less than two months, we will be celebrating our High Holy Days. I know, don’t rush the summer. I am not rushing the summer away, but encouraging you to begin the process of finding the path toward not only being the best person you can be, but using that attitude to restore this nation toward a community where newcomers, and all of our families were newcomers once, are welcome. We must not discriminate against those who have a gender identity different from our own. We must use language that is positive and uplifting and try not to bully or put people down. We can be kind to each other and, at the same time, stop trying to hurt each other.
There is a lot of pain right now in our country for any number of reasons and this pain is causing a huge rift in the social fabric of our society. Hillel nailed this 2,000 years ago by reminding us that each of us must strive to be the best person we can be even in a place where we can’t find this in others. If we are ever to continue moving toward the messianic age, then we must each take, as singer-songwriter Peri Smilow wrote, “one small step for freedom.” How we act, how we talk, how we behave, how we treat others are all part of this “one small step for freedom.” Strive to be the best you can be—each and every day.
When you light your Shabbat candles this evening, light one for the enduring wisdom and vision of Hillel. Light the other candle and may its flame guide us toward a better day.
Rabbi Jon Adland