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By Rabbi Gershom Barnard

Whenever I read this morning’s Torah portion, my attention is grabbed by a phrase in verse 17: “Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is”. The Hebrew phrase behind the end of that sentence is “ba-asher hu sham”.  In context in the Torah, the phrase probably refers to the fact that Hagar, thinking that Ishmael was going to die of thirst, moved away from him so that she would not see it happen. God heeded the cry of the boy “where he is,” while Hagar was not in exactly the same place. 

I find a particular traditional Jewish line of interpretation of the phrase to be very fruitful.  In various midrashim, and in Rashi’s Torah commentary,we read that the angels tried to persuade God to let Ishmael die. They said that, at the time of the destruction of the first Temple, as the Jews were going into exile, the descendants of Ishmael would perfidiously fed them salty food and then give them empty water skins, so that the Jews died of thirst. However, God said to the angels, “What is he [Ishmael] now – righteous or evil?” and God dealt with Ishmael as he was then and there. 

In part, the point of the midrash is to emphasize the possibility of teshuvah; the “predictions” of the future could not be certain predictions, because people can always change their ways. I learn from it that we deal with people as they are, and not in terms of our own stereotypes or preconceptions. I learn also that we should look at the real effects of what we do and not act only on the basis of theory. I plan to offer a very diverse set of examples of what I have in mind, and I hope that I shall be able to tie them together for you.

The first of them is a recent event, and it was from reflection on that event that this sermon grew. We remember the trial of George Zimmerman, who shot Trayvon Martin, who was a guest in the gated community where Zimmerman lived. I was probably the only rabbi in the country who didn’t speak about the case at least once while the trial was going on; I think that quick reactions to news stories make bad Torah. However, when we read Parashat Shof’tim, which contains the injunction “Justice, justice, shall you pursue,” I did speak about the case, and I emphasized the importance of due process of law.  Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman both clearly made some bad choices, but the question at the trial was whether or not George Zimmerman could be said, beyond a reasonable doubt, to have committed second-degree murder or manslaughter. Different people will evaluate differently Zimmerman’s claim that he was acting in self-defense, but I would think that most of us would agree that the claim introduced a reasonable doubt into the account of what happened. 

Now, let me take the issue to another level.  At that time, I interpreted “Justice, justice, shall you pursue” to mean that the judicial procedure used to establish justice must be itself just. Today, I want to interpret the expression to mean that we must recognize that legal systems do not function in a vacuum, that, while upholding fair judicial procedures, we must also look at questions of justice beyond the law.  While I emphasized the element of reasonable doubt in the trial, some people said that “reasonable doubt” is not color blind. They asked, “What would have happened if, in the struggle, Trayvon Martin had got George Zimmerman’s gun, shot him, and, in his trial, claimed self-defense. Would a jury have thought that there was a reasonable doubt about his guilt?

Of course, the question is hypothetical and has no real answer, but it made me think. While I would re-affirm the importance of due process of law, today I would add this: let us be aware of the assumptions and preconceptions which affect our thinking. We should not treat all African-American teenagers wearing hoodies with suspicion, and, equally, we should not assume that all neighborhood watchers, especially in the South, are trigger-happy racists.

A second example in the same vein is what supposedly happened to Oprah Winfrey in a store in Switzerland.  She wanted to look at an expensive purse, but, according to the story, the clerk kept directing her to cheaper items, thinking that a person of color would not be bale to afford the first purse. (I have qualified what I have said, because the store clerk has denied that she acted in that way. Sometimes, accusations of racism are false –remember Tawana Brawley. However, there are innumerable cases in which people clearly make assumptions about others based on their appearance, in particular if they have darker skin.)

Here is another example, involving a different assumption. Sherene Johnson is the wife of a colleague of mine, of a Conservative rabbi, and she is blonde.  Once, she was in a kosher butcher in New York and asked for some ground meat. Today, as far as I know, the kosher meat that we get has been kashered – soaked and salted – before it gets to us, probably before it gets to the retail store. In the past, however, not all butchers kashered meat, and you had to ask the butcher about each order of meat. Furthermore, meat must be kashered before it is ground. Sherene asked the butcher if her ground meat had been kashered, and he replied that it had not. My friend asked why he was ready to sell it to her like that, and the butcher replied that he didn’t think that it would make a difference to her. He assumed that a blonde woman named Johnson was not Jewish, but he was wrong. (By the way, Sherene Johnson is not a convert, either. Her family was Jewish as far back as one could trace it.)

Let me now give some examples of ignoring concrete reality. This summer, I read Anthony Beevor’s history of the Spanish Civil War, The Battle for Spain. Reading the book, I wondered how the Spanish Republic held out against the rebel generals for three years.  One of the things with which it had to contend were Soviet advisors, who committed their troops to poorly planned, futile, and suicidal offensives, so that they could publicize the heroic valor of the proletariat.  In the Soviet Union itself, the forced collectivization of agriculture provoked understandable resistance from peasants and small farmers, but the Soviet authorities persisted with the program, using increasingly harsh methods, and millions of people died. 

In 1958, Mao Dze Dong decreed the Great Leap Forward in China, involving – again – forced collectivization of agriculture, and also rural industrialization. The result was a disaster, a famine in which as many as 30 million people may have died, accompanied by coercion, terror, and systematic violence. It may have been the greatest human-made disaster in history. All the while, in China, as had been the case in Stalinist Russia, official glowing reports of the success of the campaigns were published.

There is also an entire genre of war literature and film, including All Quiet on the Western Front, Catch 22, and MASH, which condemns the indifference of high military and political leaders to the fate of the millions of soldiers whom they have sent to fight. Having given you so several examples of the failure to regard the people whom we deal as individuals, or to pay attention to their particular circumstances, let me now give some examples of people’s doing things right. 

We can start with another passage from our traditional literature. Earlier in Parashat Vayera, in Genesis 18, we read that, before He destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, God said, “I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry which has reached Me.”

Rashi, relying on a midrash from the Tanhuma on a similar expression concerning the Tower of Babel, asked why God had to go down to see. Didn’t he know what was going on? Rather, said the midrash and Rashi, God wanted to set a good example to judges, that they should make decisions based only on eyewitness testimony, not on hearsay or assumptions.

In contrast to the generals who didn’t pay attention to what their plans meant for their soldiers, the officers’ ethos in the IDF is, “Aharay!”, “Follow me!”  I’ll go first. There is also a story about a woman who asked Gandhi to tell her son not to eat so much candy. Gandhi said, “Come back to me with your son in two weeks.”  The woman came back in two weeks, and Gandhi gently but firmly told the boy that it would be better for him if he cut back on candy.  The woman thanked Gandhi but asked, why he couldn’t have said the same thing two weeks earlier. Gandhi replied that it took him two weeks to cut down on eating candy.  Finally, I remember hearing at a funeral here about someone who never gave his employees a task to do until he had done it himself, so that he would understand what it was like.

Now, before I conclude, let me offer my usual qualification. We could not live without assumptions, generalizations, stereotypes, prejudices, and theories. If we really regarded each person and each situation as totally new and totally different, we would be perpetually mystified, and we would have no idea of how to act. However, we should not lock ourselves into these stereotyped ways of thinking, but rather we should be ready to revise our theories and our preconceptions in the light of experience.

What we should do, friends, in this New Year, is stop, look, and listen.  We should stop acting always as we are used to doing. We should stop reacting as we have always reacted. I wrote, in our High Holiday greeting book, how the Holidays disrupt our lives. It is good that they disrupt our lives, because they give us a chance to stop and revisit what we have been doing.

We should look around us. What are we doing? What do our actions mean for other people? What is really going on, not in our heads, but in the world? We should listen to the voices of others. We should hear what they are saying to us, what they are trying to tell us. We should hear their voices where they are.



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