That's My Bible
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It wasn’t a terribly deep thought, but it led me to my next, slightly deeper thought. “With the world on fire,” I wondered to myself, “what biblical verse, what chapter, what narrative does the nation need to hear at this moment? What passage could the president draw from for inspiration? Had I been standing there whispering into the president’s ear (socially distanced, of course), what would I have told the president to read?
Now, not everyone knows the Bible like rabbis do, but most everyone has heard the Creation story. So my first instinct might be to suggest starting at the very beginning (a very good place to start). Genesis Chapter 1, verse 27: “And God created humanity in the divine image, in the image of God humanity was created, male and female God created them.” It is arguably the first statement and founding principle of all of biblical theology: the belief that every human being contains the divine image within and is therefore to be accorded equal and infinite dignity. Young and old, rich and poor, whatever your gender, whatever your sexual orientation, certainly whatever the color of your skin – we are all equal and we all deserve respect. It this principle that binds us together in all our diversity – the thread, the connective tissue that runs from Genesis to the final chapters of the Prophets. As is written in Malachi: “Do we not all have one father? Did not one God create us?” (2:10) The second chapter of Genesis explains that when God created the first person, God blew the breath of life into him – the human neshamah, the divine human soul. When George Floyd was murdered, when he uttered those desperate words “I can’t breathe,” it was the last gasp of his breath of life, his divine soul being destroyed. The souls of George Floyd, of Ahmaud Arbery, of Breonna Taylor, of Eric Garner, of Amadou Diallo, and of countless other men and women of color. To hold the Bible is to hold human life sacred, and to destroy one life is to destroy an entire world. If I had to quote from scripture Monday night, Genesis chapter one would be the obvious, dare I say, easiest place to start.
Some may say the job of the president is not to be a theologian, but a Comforter-in-Chief. Fair enough. Maybe in this uncertain, unsettling, and grief-stricken time, our country needed the rhetoric of comfort. Think of President Reagan following the Challenger, President Bush following 9/11, and President Obama at the memorial site years later. “The Lord is our refuge and strength, our help in times of trouble.” It was understood that President Obama chose Psalm 46 as an allusion to 8:46 am, the time the hijacked jet hit the North Tower. Ironically the current president could have used the same psalm this past Monday, for the eight minutes and forty-six seconds that the police officer’s knee was on George Floyd’s neck. Psalms of comfort remind us that the Lord is near the broken-hearted. (Ps. 34) They give voice to the hope that though we may lie down at night with tears, joy will come in the morning. (Ps. 30) Biblical psalms also give expression to our rage, asking why the innocent suffer, why the wicked prosper, and why the world – good as it is – is so very far from perfect. “How long, O Lord, will you hide your face?” (Ps. 13) “How long will you show favor to the wicked? (Ps. 82) Reading a psalm of comfort or one of lament doesn’t lessen your pain. But it does make you feel less alone in your pain: Someone else has walked this dark path. The Psalms offer the sacred vocabulary for what we are feeling – a rod and a staff to hold us up. When in pain, when seeking comfort, reach for the book of Psalms. It is always a solid bet to read and if need be, to quote.
I have to imagine that on Monday night, the thought on many Americans’ minds, certainly on my mind, was the uncomfortable question of “How am I a contributor to racism, what is my responsibility, and what should be my response?” This is actually the very first question of the Bible: “Where are you?” God asks Adam. “Where is your brother?” God demands of Cain. “Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground.” A teacher of mine once taught that the entirety of Jewish ethics is a rejoinder to Cain’s question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” We are our brothers’ and our sisters’ keepers. We dare not shrug our shoulders. We dare not be complicit, well-meaning collaborators and enablers perpetuating a system of racial injustice. It is not enough just to be not-racist, we need to be anti-racist. Leviticus (19:18) teaches that we are obligated to love our neighbors as ourselves. And that obligation, that empathy for one another, has nothing to do with whether the other shares our neighborhood, nationality, or shade of skin. Moses himself, from the comfort of Pharaoh’s palace, witnessed a Hebrew slave being struck by the Egyptian taskmaster. He heard the cry, he looked here and there, and he realized two things. First, that he shared a bond of kinship with the man being beaten; and second, that if he didn’t take action, nobody would. This is the calling card of the Bible – to remember that you yourself were once a stranger in a strange land and so you must always heed the cry of the oppressed and respond. Whether that person looks like you, prays like you, or speaks like you, that person is your kin, and your empathy and action must be extended to that person.
Sometimes, the Bible is there to challenge us, and if nothing else, this week has been a challenging one to sort out. Monday night was a confusing night. Yes, there were peaceful protests, but you there was also looting on the streets of Manhattan. I couldn’t sleep Monday night – for many reasons, of which one was my concern whether the physical structure of the synagogue was safe. What is the difference between a just protestor and a hoodlum? What is the line between a good cop and a bad cop? To what degree is one generation obligated to right the wrongs of past generations? These questions demand tough conversations – conversations that must allow for texture, not soundbites or shame-facing shouting matches. Here, too, the Bible can help. Isaiah knew there was a difference between good and evil when he preached, “I the Lord love justice; I hate robbery and wrong.” (61:8) Proverbs made the same distinction: “Evil people do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand it completely.” (28:5) The book of Exodus states pretty clearly that children will be held accountable for the sins of their fathers. (20:5). The book of Ezekiel states the opposite just as clearly: “The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” (18:19-20). It would have been a little highbrow for Monday evening, but imagine if the president had announced a national conversation on the subject “What does the Bible have to say about intergenerational sin?” Heck, I would have been satisfied had the president simply made reference to this week’s Torah reading, which contains the fascinating question of the difference between sincere and insincere confession. The Bible understood that for any society to sustain itself, it has to make space for conversations about confession, accountability, forgiveness, and restorative justice. Come to think about it, this week’s Torah reading would have been as good a text as any to voice all the thorny conversations our country needs to have.
As to the question of how societies house dissent, make course corrections, bend the moral arc towards justice – this is the backbone of prophetic literature. Moses standing before Pharaoh, the daughters of Zelophehad seeking justice as women, the prophet Nathan calling out the excesses of the monarchy in the court of King David – the Bible well understood that a just society comes only by way of an active give and take, checks and balances between the offices of priest, prophet, and king. “Justice, justice thou shalt pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20) Why is the word “justice” repeated? Because justice must be pursued both when it is easy and when it is hard. “What is it that the Lord requires of you?” asks the prophet Micah. “To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before your God.” (6:8) “Let justice roll down like waters,” preached Amos, “and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (5:4) The words of the prophets were not spoken with the thought that one day they would be inscribed on marble memorials. They were spoken in the face of injustice, at great risk to the speaker, to be etched into the hearts of the listeners and acted upon. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Ezekiel – the entire second part of the Hebrew bible, its core section, devoted to the prophetic call for justice in the face of those who would have it otherwise. What could have been quoted on Monday night? Pretty much anything from the books of the prophets.
In answer to the question of what verse could have been cited Monday night, truth be told, there is no end. Want to talk about the need for leadership? Quote the book of Esther. Want to talk about building bridges between historic enemies? Quote the book of Ruth. Want to talk about the need for national unity? Do what Lincoln did, and speak of a “house divided.” Want to talk about the need for peace and civility? Remind us that “everyone shall sit under their vine and under their fig tree; and none shall make them afraid. (Micah 4:4) Courage? Take me to Daniel in the lion’s den. Contrition? Take me to Jonah in the belly of the whale. The consequence of a society that is all swagger and no substance? Teach me about Samson, the subject of today’s haftarah. There was so much that sacred scripture could have taught us on Monday evening – to heal us, to challenge us, to prompt dialogue and action.
Sadly, we know that is not what happened. On Monday evening, the Bible remained shut – our most sacred text, held literally upside-down, turned into a cheap prop for political gain.
I am a rabbi and I know that book. That book is my book; that book is our book; that book is God’s book. We dare not, we cannot, and I will not ever abdicate my right to speak in the name of our sacred texts, certainly not in a time of crisis and not when others are arrogating that right to themselves. That text is too sacred, the stakes are too high, and this country is too fragile to let people lay claim to a book who don’t even know how to open it and use its power to bring healing to our country and our souls in such desperate need of repair.