FRIDAY, June 22

This week, KI joined with the Orthodox Union and dozens of other synagogues and Jewish communal organizations in signing a letter condemning the separation of children from their parents at the US border. Thanks to God, and to the pressure exerted by individuals and organizations across the political spectrum, the President agreed to cease separating children from their parents, though much remains to be done, both to reunite families that have already been split apart, as well as to develop and implement immigration policy which is both just and humane.

Kenesset Israel Torah Center has been a member congregation of the OU, the Orthodox Union for many years. We proudly display the OU logo on our letterhead and our shul website, as a symbol of the OU’s commitment to promoting Jewish education and Torah values and advocating on behalf of the Orthodox Jewish community. Recently, the OU came under fire for its decision to host Attorney General Jeff Sessions at its annual Leadership Mission to Washington. In the days leading up the meeting, the OU heard from a number of Jewish leaders and concerned members, myself included, urging them to use their meeting with the Attorney General to address the so-called “Zero Tolerance” policy on immigration under which US government officers have forcibly separated thousands of children from their parents, ostensibly to deter future asylum seekers and immigrants.

The OU, like right-thinking people and organizations across the political spectrum, opposes /> this brutal policy, and the leaders who met with the Attorney General, to their credit, privately used that opportunity to voice their opposition to the policy. However, they chose not to raise the issue publicly during the Attorney General’s address to the organization, a choice for which they have faced much condemnation.

They also presented the Attorney General with a plaque bearing the biblical injunction “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof (justice, justice you shall pursue),” which, as OU president Moshe Bane explained in the presentation, is understood by the Sages to mean that justice must be pursued through means which are themselves just. In other words, ends do not justify means. The choice of this verse was intended as a subtle critique of policies implemented by the AG in the name of justice which are not themselves just (such as the Zero Tolerance Policy). However, the subtlety of this rebuke was lost as the image of the presentation spread on social media, with many mischaracterizing the plaque as a “justice award.”

Surely, as we advocate for justice for ourselves and for others, there is room for divergent strategies. We can choose to meet and lobby powerful people who are doing injustice in order to influence them to change their policies, as the OU chose to do with the Attorney General. We can also protest and decry those policies in the streets and various media in the hopes of shaming their authors into changing or, barring that, influencing the outcome of future elections.

Each of these strategies has value, but each carries risks. When we pursue a strategy of lobbying and negotiating, we risk legitimizing the very policies we are opposing by giving kavod to those who implement them. This is what happened when the OU initially made their public critique so subtle that it was perceived by many as praise, creating the misleading and deeply damaging impression that the OU approved or at least accepted what was happening at the border.

The opposite strategy also carries risks. When we protest against not only policies but the people behind them, we risk demonizing our opponents. When we make our opponents out to be monsters, with whom any dialogue or negotiation is impossible, then we close the doors to very real opportunities to make change. This is what happened when certain commentators called the OU leadership “morally bankrupt” (and worse) for even being willing to meet with the Attorney General.

Whatever our political ideology or affiliation, I encourage all of us to continue working to build a just world, where children are not separated from their parents and where all can grow up in freedom and security. As we pursue that goal, whether we do so by lobbying inside the corridors of power or protesting in the street, let us engage in the rhetoric of constructive critique and shun the rhetoric of insult. Let us also exercise judgment by avoiding well-intentioned actions that might look like something inappropriate (maris ayin) when viewed from the outside. And when we see others doing something that doesn’t look right, instead of reacting with instant outrage, let us take the time to investigate further.

When we do all of this, we will be fulfilling the verse Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof, pursuing justice through means which are themselves just.


FRIDAY, June 15th

This week, I heard UC Davis Chancellor Gary May interviewed by Capital Public Radio’s Beth Ruyak, about the statement he released following the shooting of Stephon Clark, which opened “I was walking in the backyard last night, wondering what it would feel like to not feel safe there.”

Often, in the wake of an event as painful as that of Stephon Clark’s shootings, the questions we ask divide the world into good guys and bad guys. Depending on our political orientation we will ask questions like “do you support the men and women of law enforcement who put their lives at risk every day?”   “Are you against the racism and injustice experienced by people of color in this country?”  In the wake of a school shooting, the questions become “Do you care about children’s lives?”  “Do you care about our constitutional freedoms?”  All of these questions boil down to “are you with us or against us?”  Thus, tragic events which ought to bring our community together across various political ideologies and other identities, in the end only further divide us.

What I love about Chancellor May’s question is that it cuts through questions of political ideology and policy, and even the questions of whether the officers should have done anything differently, to ask a basic, human question about what the world feels like for others. It is a question of the heart, not of the head.

Earlier this week, I was in my own back yard, weeding my garden, when I heard a police helicopter circling overhead. My first thought was, “if they’re looking for someone, I hope they won’t mistake me for him.” Then I thought, “I probably look to them like I belong here.” But if circumstances were different, if the color of my skin were different, especially in the wake of the Stephon Clark shooting, would I have felt that confident that the police would think I belonged there? What would it feel like to not feel safe in my own back yard?

Chancellor May’s question is fundamentally about cultivating empathy, about trying to imagine what the world looks like through someone else’s eyes. Too often, we dismiss other people, because from where we sit, their views or actions don’t make any sense. But as Hillel reminds us (Avot 2:4), we cannot not judge another until we have arrived in their place. Perhaps if I’d had their experiences and lived in their circumstances, I would think or feel as they do. By trying to imagine someone else’s experiences, I can perhaps begin to understand why they might think or act in ways that otherwise seem incomprehensible or wrong to me.

Later in Avot (5:17), the same Hillel who made this plea for empathy, is cited, together with his rival, Shammai, as the model of machlokes lesheym shamayim (conflict for the sake of heaven).   Empathy is the necessary ingredient that makes it possible for even our conflicts and disagreements to serve God.  Without empathy, we cannot serve God even together with those with whom we seem to agree.  The mishnah also brings an example of “conflict that is not for the sake of heaven: Korach and all of his congregation.”  Noting that the Mishnah says “Korach and all of his congregation,” instead of saying, as we might have expected, “Korach and Moshe,” the Chasam Sofer explains that even Korach’s allies were not united among themselves, each member of the conspiracy pursuing their own selfish agenda.  I would suggest that just as empathy is what allowed Hillel and Shammai to dispute for the sake of heaven, it was lack of empathy that prevented Korach and his followers from being truly united with one another.  After all, without empathy, I see the world only from my own point of view, and any points of agreement I may have with someone else, are arbitrary accidents of the fact that our two completely independent and isolated worldviews happen to overlap.  Should either of our circumstances or feelings change, causing us to alter our views, we will immediately cease to be allies and  become enemies.  However, when I practice empathy, trying to see the world though someone else’s eyes, I can be united, and partner with even those with whom I disagree.

Thank God, we live in a community with a diversity of religious and political points of view.  When we feel challenged by that diversity, I encourage us to try to imagine what the world might look like from where the other person sits.  The more we can ask ourselves questions that begin with “what would it feel like…” the more we can cultivate empathy, and the more even our conflicts can come to serve divine ends.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein


FRIDAY, June 8th

The central drama of Parshat Sh’lach is the (in)famous story of the sending of a delegation of 12 princes to scout out the land of Israel.  Upon their return, ten of these princes ominously warn of the powerful giants  and fortified cities that will confront the Israelites upon their entry into the land, stating flatly that it is impossible to go up to this land where such a people dwells.

Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman Shapira, the Piazetzna Rebbe, in his commentary on the parsha Eish Kodesh, points out that when Kalev responds to the warnings of the other princes, he doesn’t argue with them about the facts—he doesn’t say “oh, those Anakites aren’t that strong.” He doesn’t say “the people dwelling there aren’t going to fight us.”  He simply says,  “עָלֹ֤ה נַעֲלֶה֙ וְיָרַ֣שְׁנוּ אֹתָ֔הּ כִּֽי־יָכ֥וֹל נוּכַ֖ל לָֽהּ׃ Let us go up and we will surely inherit it, for we surely can attain it.” He doesn’t offer rational reasons. He doesn’t attempt to minimize the obstacles or the challenge.  He simply says, in essence “we can do it.”  The Piazetzna writes that sometimes when we are faced with overwhelming challenges, the appropriate response is not to go around looking for a natural path to overcoming them, for when no natural means of overcoming can be found, this will only cause us to lose faith.  Rather, the Piazetzna writes, the correct response when no natural means of victory presents itself is simply to trust in God, and do as much as we can do, trusting that God will take care of the rest.

When I think about the elusive prospects for peace in Eretz Yisrael, it is easy to become disheartened. It is hard to imagine what policies America or Israel could adopt that would bring about peace, when Hamas remains explicitly committed to Israel’s destruction, and the leadership of Fatah continues to find pretext after pretext not to sit down at the negotiating table. The search for a path towards peace within the bounds of nature can easily lead to loss of hope, loss of faith that peace is possible. That loss of hope is perceptible in the pessimism we hear from every corner of the Israeli political spectrum.

However, when I take the words of the Eish Kodesh to heart, I remember that while you and I might be limited to what is possible in nature, God is not.  If no natural path to peace is available, we must trust that when we do everything in our power for the sake of peace and security, when we do so in faithfulness and righteousness, then God will open up a path through means natural or supernatural, and peace will prevail in the land.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein


FRIDAY, June 1st

This week we read two verses that we say every time we read from the Torah.  Bemidbar 10:35-26.  When we remove the Sefer Torah from the ark we recite “Vayehi Binsoa` Ha’aron…When the Ark set out, Moshe would say ‘Arise Lord! May your enemies be scattered and may those who hate You flee before you.’”  And after the Torah reading when we return the Torah to the ark, we read “Uvenucho yomar…When the ark came to rest, he would say ‘Return, Lord, the thousands of myriads of Israel.”

Thus, there’s a certain parallel symmetry—we pray for God’s enemies to be dispersed, scattered, and we ask God return to us as a single people of thousands of myriads, gathered together.

The Hebrew root Asaph אספ, meaning to gather together, is a motif in the parsha, appearing a number of times.  We read about the people gathering quail, the gathering of 70 elders, the mysterious group of people called the Asaphsuph, Miriam being gathered back into the people after having been cloistered while she suffered from Tzoraat.  Throughout the parsha, there are gatherings for good and gatherings for evil.

When people gather together in a group, our power to do good increases exponentially–a community is greater than the sum of its parts.  Unfortunately, that’s also true when a people gather together to do evil.  This is why we plead with God to disperse His enemies.  A single wicked person is much less dangerous than an army of wicked people.  At the same time, this is also why we form congregations- because when we gather together to serve God, that power to do good is also amplified.  Prayer in a community, we are told, is preferable to prayer as an individual.

It’s also true that we are influenced by the people around us.  Any behavior I see in the people around me becomes normalized for me, so if the people around me are in the habit of speakingLashon Hara, even though I know it’s wrong to gossip, I’ll wind up joining in, and I won’t even see it as that bad.  On the other hand, if I surround myself with people who engage in positive behaviors, engaging in hospitality to the stranger, praying together as a community, these behaviors that I might not have been inclined to engage in on my own, will begin to become my new normal.

This, I think is the root of the idea at the root of Moshe’s plea with God, which has become a part of our liturgy.  We ask God to disperse the wicked and to return to the myriads of Israel.  When we say “Kumah Hashem v’yafutzu oyvekha–Arise Hashem and scatter Your enemies” we are asking God to please disperse those who would do evil so that they may not gather together and create a culture that normalizes wickedness. And when we say Shuva Hashem Riv’vot Alphei Yisrael, we are asking God to be present in our gatherings, that they may be gatherings that promote goodness and God-consciousness.

May the bonds of our community, this holy gathering of Jews be strong, may God’s presence rest upon us, and may our gathering be one of holiness and humility, kindness and justice.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein