This week gives us a beautiful Torah portion, Terumah. It is one about beauty, in which the people are all instructed to contribute, each one bringing their gifts according to their abilities. They are asked to offer up raw materials: precious metals, stones, acacia wood, yarns. And they are asked to use their artisanry to bring to life a divinely inspired blueprint. Together they will create something of tremendous beauty and holiness. There will be a structure, and in it there will be an ark holding the Ten Commandments. There will be a table and a menorah and vessels and hardware and tapestries and garments for the priests and curtains all around. This is the mishkan, the holy place where the people will welcome and witness God's presence. Where they will, by the work of their hands and the love of their hearts, presence God. And there will be two golden sculptures of keruvim, of cherubs, wings tall and arched toward one another with a magnetic attraction, thesetwo cherubim symbolizing a kind of wholeness. Legend says that when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the Israelites carried off into exile, that wholeness was broken, and the two cherubs turned away from each other. And so they will remain until there is once again such a complete reunion of humanity and holiness.
I always look forward to this portion. It fills me with a vibe that has to do with something like hope and dedication, imagination and industry. But I felt a little in exile from that vision this week. I think it all hit for me on Tuesday. Super Tuesday.
Now, this is a synagogue, and I'm not going to go endorsing candidates. But I want to talk about the ethos, the mood - the particular ugliness that has been unleashed into our national conversation and into each of our souls over the long months of this presidential campaign. All around us we see Americans goaded into giving out their worst, being their worst, and together building a sort of anti-mishkan, a communal politico-spiritual structure quite obviously devoid of holiness.
Now politics is always ugly. It doesn't quite have to be, but we've already accepted a certain ugliness as our baseline. But what's new this year is a shamelessness, and yes, I'm talking about Donald Trump, because he is the one who has done this.
In Torah there is a special venom for the tribe of Amalek, because in the Wilderness many nations wanted to attack us. But it was Amalek who did it first and made it okay for everyone else to. Donald Trump exhibits that same quality. There is no healthy shame holding him back. He attacks first and makes it okay for others to follow. Whether or not he ends up being the Republican candidate, the way people speak in a presidential campaign has now been changed, maybe unalterably. He is the Amalek that has made other people's brutal hatred seem fine.
The particular shameless thing I want to talk about is not walling off Mexico or having second thoughts about whether the Ku Klux Klan is actually such a bad organization. I want to talk about what Trump's speech has done to the Muslim minority in this country. He has variably called for a complete ban on Muslims entering the US, even if they are refugees fleeing the same gunmen whom we fear; calling for the closing of mosques or government surveillance on them. He has spoken in ways that calculated to cast suspicion on the loyalty of Muslim Americans. His words have placed Muslims in real danger of the mob that he has whipped up. Periodically he softens his tone and apologizes for this or that. But it's too late. The genie is out of the bottle.
Now this may all be bluster on Trump's part. This may be a calculated persona, and doesn't reflect his actual beliefs. But if so, that's even worse. He has both unleashed a nightmare of fear and established a new level of public amoral behavior.
So American Muslims are now experiencing public questions about their loyalties, verbal harassment, threats of vandalism and violence, and proposals of special legislation directed at them. If this reminds you of the situation of Jews in 1930s Germany, it should. And if so, it then becomes our job, our duty as Jews, to intervene - to do now what we wish people had done then. To give our best and our holiest gifts to this task.
I know it is not always easy to do this. For one thing, we become paralyzed by complexity. We're not a culture encouraged to hold complexity. I know that I find myself measuring my words, stopping short. I don't know exactly how to stand up for Muslims in America when the radio is talking about San Bernardino and Chattanooga. Maybe I am just being naive, and should just shut up, I think. But then I realize that this is a trap that has been laid for me, for all of us, by those who dominate the conversation. Every time we pull back from speaking out for the safety our Muslim neighbors because we're not certain how to respond to questions about terrorism, we are giving in.
One way out of this trap is to imagine ourselves, even a little, even imperfectly, in the shoes of American Muslims today. To do this I began to think, what is it like to be a member of a religious minority in this country? What is it like to know that there are other members of my religion who engage in violence, and who do so in my name? What is it like to be seen as one with them?
That's when it occurred to me that I don't really need to imagine so hard. Because I am a member of religious minority. And I have had to live with the complexity of there being people who engage in violence that I don't agree with, and they do so ostensibly in my name. Don't get me wrong. The State of Israel has been a tremendous source of pride and identity for me. And sometimes Israel shames me also. It saddens me to say it, but it is my truth. I know that many on the far left paint us all with one brush; they see us all Jews as Israeli troops with guns and bulldozers. And Ican't easily respond to that without feeling like I'm breaking ranks with my people and our history and our survival. So I remain caught in the complexity and the heartbreak of my position.
Now of course I am projecting, but I imagine that American Muslims feel something similar. Pride at their traditions, history, religion, languages. Shame at what is being done by some in their name. Resentment that they are called upon to denounce other Muslims before they are allowed to speak as Muslims on any topic whatsoever.
A piece of this is the particular predicament of a minority. We are the subject of generalization in a way the majority never is. No one looks at an abortion clinic bomber and says, "What shall we do about Christians?" Or at Klansmen and says "Hey, let's close the borders to white people." Everyone knows that the Klan, that the bombers, don't represent the majority. But it is the historic curse of those on the margins that what one does reflects on the whole group. Why else our recurring chorus of "is it good for the Jews?"
So what do we do?
The first thing we do is resist simplification. Yes, the Muslim world is complex, global politics are complex, people are complex. No one is pretending they're not.
Then the next thing we do is speak up anyway. We say, "You may not treat people this way. We will not have it. Not on our watch. Not here. Not now. Not ever. Everyone deserves safety and kindness and we will do all we can to ensure it happens. We will not abandon our neighbors."
The third thing we do is more intimate. We offer kindness. We offer love. To each other. To the Muslims we meet in our neighborhoods and in our daily lives. To as many people as we can offer it to. The reason this is worth noting is that as we watch politics unfolding and terrible words coming across our televisions, it is easy to become angry. To brace for battle or shut down in despair. There is hard work ahead, no doubt. But when we approach it with anger, we have let the Donald win. We've let him bully not us, but our kindness, our humanity, into submission.
I recently asked poet Larry Robinson how he manages to continue to have hope in tough political times. He responded that what he has is not hope. It's faith. Faith in a larger story. And I get that now. Because while I might hope for one outcome or another in an election, I might not get it. But I can and do have faith that whatever happens, we will continue to pour love into this world. We will respond to hate with love. We will trust each other to bring our gifts, all of our best stuff. And we will do our best to restore the soul of this country and this world. And our starting point will be love.
Now careful of traps. People will tell you love is nothing. That it has no place in politics. That speaking of it, just like speaking kindly of Muslims, is a sign of idealistic naiveté. But love is powerful. It is healing. It is a bigger story than an election. And it is certainly no more naïve than campaigning on hatred is.
So it doesn't matter who will try to discount or dismiss us. Let us lead with love. Let us err always on the side of kindness. Let us bring our best gifts to this important moment. Our best raw materials, our greatest talents, our calm, our grit, our care, our deep hearts. And we will immunize this country with love so that hatred cannot stick. We will presence God in every moment of this great work. We will make -- no, we will be -- a mishkan, a holy place in what was almost a desert. And perhaps then the cherubim will face each other once more.