I wrote this sermon after George Zimmerman was acquitted after Killing Trayvon Martin… and it’s still not enough this Rosh Hashanah
Seven is a significant number in Jewish tradition: Six days of creation give way, as the sun sets and the workaday week becomes the rest of Shabbat. This year, Rosh Hashanah, the new year, dubbed both “the birthday of the world” and the “day of judgment,” falls on Shabbat. It has been seven years since Florida’s heinous “stand your ground” law allowed George Zimmerman to go free after killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
Seven years later, the list of the acquitted killers of Black Americans grows longer and longer, and I find myself turning back to the sermon I gave back as the year 5774 dawned. What will 5781 bring? Here’s what I wrote then, adapted for the screen rather than the bima (or pulpit)…
Maybe you’ve seen the schmaltzy Cheerios commercial: A mom sits at the kitchen table eating her bowl of cereal when her daughter interrupts, asking “Are Cheerios really good for your heart?” “Sure!” mom answers, rattling off some facts about whole grains. Cut to the dad, just waking up from a nap on the couch… his chest completely covered in Cheerios.
Get it? They’re good… for your heart!
In one of those “kids-react” youtube-wormhole videos, a group of children talks about the commercial “Cute!” most of them declared. One deftly notes, “But I think she was thinking literally!”
And then the adults inform these children that this particular Cheerios commercial prompted a slew of negative press. In one online forum, people bitterly condemned the commercial’s producers and littered the Internet with epithets and insults until the forum had to be shut down. What was so offensive about a Cheerios commercial, the kids puzzled?
The answer: racial integration. The mother in the commercial is white; the father, black; the daughter, biracial.
One boy says that anyone who has a problem with the commercial is “racist,” and he advises such folks, “I think you should just, like, drop it.” What matters, says one impassioned little girl, is a person’s heart. But, more important than these children’s assertions of multicultural feel-good aphorisms like “we’re all the same underneath — same bones, same organs” — what is more important, I think, is their utter disbelief that anyone could have a problem with people of different racial backgrounds falling in love and making a family. When the interviewer asked, “Is there anything different about the parents?” none of the children had an answer. Until they were told the commercial was offensive, they didn’t see anything at which to take offense.
I wonder what these same children might see if they watched a scene from the traditional Rosh Hashanah morning Torah reading — the one we don’t read in Reform circles:
“It’s a party! Everyone is having fun. The little boy is having a birthday! Oh, and there’s his big brother, playing.”
It’s Isaac’s weaning festival, actually, and it was probably a huge feast: goat roast, wine, pita and hummus for everyone, the whole nine yards. But there was someone at the party who didn’t see celebration and joy and love:
And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham… playing (Bereshit/Genesis 21:9).
Ishmael, Abraham’s son by the maidservant Hagar, plays. And Sarah sees him. And in the very next verse, we read,
And she said to Abraham, “Banish that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave-woman will not inherit with my son, with Isaac!” (ibid. 10).
The rabbis of our tradition wonder, What exactly did Sarah see? Like many of us, they, too, could not imagine that all Sarah saw was an adolescent boy playing at the celebration of the weaning of his younger half-brother. If Ishmael were just playing, how could Sarah have demanded his expulsion from the family?
Looking for clues, the rabbis find other places where the word metzacheik — play, or laugh — appears in the Torah. And they find some things that aren’t very nice, to say the least. Rashi’s classic three interpretations: (One) Ishmael was “making merry” with idolatry, as the Israelites did during the incident of the Golden Calf. Not behavior a good Jewish boy ought to emulate. (Second possibility) Ishmael was engaged in sexual impropriety, “dallying” with Isaac — abusing him, and arousing Sarah’s justifiable wrath. Or, (third interpretation) Ishmael was “making sport” of his brother, deliberately aiming arrows dangerously close to his head and then laughing, “What, can’t you take a joke!?” (see Rashi to Bereshit 21:9–10). […]
Perhaps the Rabbis of our tradition were right: perhaps Ishmael was up to no good. But what if they were wrong? What about in our own lives? What happens when we judge quickly, based solely on appearances, and our judgments are wrong? […] We are instructed to be suspicious. Every few minutes on the subway, we are told, “If you see something, say something.” What do we see? And what do we say? … And what happens if we “see” sinister crime where there is only child’s-play?
Sarah saw Ishmael, the son of Hagar, playing. Sarah saw someone who was different — the son of an Egyptian, not the son of a woman of Abraham and Sarah’s own tribe — “playing,” but it seemed suspicious to her. Out of place. Possibly dangerous.
I think about Ishmael in this story and I just can’t help but think of Trayvon Martin — who was seen as out-of-place, suspicious, possibly dangerous… and who died because of that suspicion, that judgment based in a superficial kind of seeing. And so I wanted to know, what can this story from the Torah — this story of seeing and judging and condemning — teach us about the world in which we live — a world where difference is viewed with suspicion, a world where difference still puts some people in grave danger. A world in which young Black boys die in gated communities and gay men die on the streets of Greenwich Village and transwomen die, murdered in their own apartments.
Fear of the “Other” is a constant in human existence. We’re wired to be cautious about anything new, unexpected, or unfamiliar. In their book Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential — and Endangered, Bruce D. Perry and Maia Szalavitz outline the evolutionary biology and neurological theories behind the place of empathy in human psyche and society. They write that in early human history, “It was just safer to assume danger — to expect the worst — than to count on the kindness of strangers.” But, they argue, humanity needs empathy. Our bodies are wired for it. We learn, through early childhood experiences, about trusting another, relating to another, and this helps us survive. Our evolutionary ancestors needed one another to “reproduce and to keep our vulnerable infants alive” — they needed “to read other people’s intentions and to care about their plight” — in other words, our ancestors needed to empathize. And we need empathy, too.
And yet empathy is endangered.
Environmental and social factors can prevent us from developing our neurological capacity for empathy, and keep us from feeding our bodies’ need to see ourselves as both separate from and interdependent upon other human beings. For example, depression can actually prevent us from seeing the kindness directed at us: studies have shown that “people with depression actually fail to perceive smiles that are directed at them.” Loneliness and disconnection — increasingly markers of our everyday existence in this age when virtual interaction too often replaces face-to-face contact — loneliness and disconnection increase the likelihood that “people [will] misinterpret one another’s positive or neutral signs as negative.” Even our own evolutionary adaptation to fear the stranger can get in the way of our capacity for empathy, as the authors note: “one crucial factor that determines how much we empathize with someone is whether or not we feel we belong to the same social group. There are specific networks in the brain devoted to determining whether an individual is one of ‘us’ or one of ‘them’ — and if someone is categorized as ‘them,’ the faculty for empathy can be deeply reduced, even shut down entirely.”
Study after study suggests that people “are more likely to empathize with people who look like us.” The authors of Born to Love speculate that this results from empathy’s origins in something called mirror neurons. And this is sort of the good news: we’re all born with mirror neurons — cells in our brains that prompt babies to imitate facial expressions and cause us to feel a twinge of pain when we see another human being suffering. As the authors note, “The essence of empathy is the ability to stand in another’s shoes, to feel what it’s like there and to care about making it better if it hurts.” Jewish tradition expresses it through the words of Rabbi Hillel: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary; go and study it.”
We get into trouble — our capacity for empathy is endangered — when we too narrowly apply that crucial word: neighbor.
And perhaps it is neighborliness that we need right now, in this age of “If-you-see-something-say-something” and “stop and frisk” and “stand your ground.” The authors of Born to Love cites some studies that demonstrate that “familiarity” — sharing meaningful interactions — with people of different races “reduces unconscious racial biases” — that is, reduces biases of which we are not even aware — those split-second, beneath-the-surface reactions that can make us, like Sarah, see something sinister in a child’s play.
Indeed, Perry and Szalavitz note that play is central to the development of empathy: stories and imagination and role playing all give us opportunities to imagine the world from another’s perspective. To feel the joy of their triumphs and the agony of their defeats. Empathy requires us letzacheik — to play. […]
Earlier in the tale of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, it is Hagar who glimpses a different way of seeing and being seen: a servant fleeing from the home where her mistress torments her, Hagar has a vision of an angel of God. In a powerful moment of divine communication and recognition, Hagar dares to offer a name for God: El Roi — the God who sees me (Genesis 16:13). […]
The Torah tells us that Sarah saw, but it doesn’t seem to have been that divine kind of seeing that strengthens relationships and springs up from a place of Mercy and Compassion. Perhaps this should be our first caution: God may be the one who truly sees us all, but seeing might not be enough for us.
Look! isn’t the primary obligation we Jews remind ourselves of every single time we pray. No, it’s Sh’ma! …
And, in Ishmael’s story, listening is precisely what God does.
After Hagar and Ishmael are banished into the desert with just a small portion of food and water, after Hagar gives up in despair, convinced her child is about to die… at that precise moment, when Ishmael lies under a bush as his mother backs away from him, God listens:
“for God has heard the cry of the boy where he is” (Genesis 21:17).
God heard. God listened.
And not only that, but God heard Ishmael ba’asher hu sham — a strange phrase in the Hebrew, with an extra preposition. We might translate it as “in the place where he was”… or we might also translate it as “in that which he was” — God truly heard Ishmael, and God regarded Ishmael according to who he was at that precise moment. The here and now. A boy, dying of thirst, lying on the desert floor, and wailing for help.
God hears the boy Ishmael and responds with empathy and kindness: revealing a miraculous well that sustains both him and his mother, enabling Ishmael to fulfill his own destiny as father of a nation. […]
The sermon continued a few more paragraphs, encouraging empathy. Ultimately, I see now the inadequacy, and the necessity, of the call to empathy. As a recent study from the NYPD reported by NPR shows, implicit bias training can “change minds, not necessarily behaviors.” Knowing we are biased, as Sarah was biased, does not prevent us from advancing and upholding White supremacy, insidious and baked into our social, political, legal, and educational structures as it is. I don’t have a solution this year any more than I did seven years ago. But I do know this: seven years ago I was afraid to give this sermon, fearing that my community, and more importantly my supervisor, would tell me I was too political, too radical. That what people want to hear on Rosh Hashanah is something comforting.
But Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment.
It is the day when, according to our liturgy, “even the angels, in fear and trembling, are judged.” Let me hear and heed the call of the shofar in 5781. Let me listen. Let me act.