By Rabbi Harold J. Kravitz
If you had a moment to compare Chap 18 and 19 of Genesis, you saw a stark comparison of stories about hospitality. Abraham and Sara provide a model of what it means to welcome the strangers who arrive at their tent while Abraham is sitting by the eshel or terebinth, a kind of tree, communing with God. It is quite the dramatic contrast to the brutal way the same angels, taking the form of strangers, are received at the home of Lot.
This comparison of cultures, provided by the Torah, is a cautionary tale meant to focus our attention on a just society in contrast to one that is immersed in extreme hate and destined for destruction. This text pushes us to think about the question -- to what kind of society do we aspire? Is it one in which the stranger is welcomed and treated with the kind of dignity that Abraham and Sara displayed to their unknown visitors, or one in which strangers are suspected and even abused as they were in Sodom. The Sodom story presents an extreme depiction, but the Torah is quite clear. To use an archaic expression, to which I will return, we as the “stock of Abraham” have a very clear mandate to treat others, including the stranger and alien, with hospitality and graciousness.
In the aftermath of the election I have been thinking a lot about this. I would not presume to know how any of you are feeling in the week since the presidential election. There are many things to reflect on as we consider where we are as a nation. This campaign season revealed deep and bitter differences between Americans. We have witnessed unsettling examples of hatefulness being given free rein in our country and even in our state. Things were said and done that will require our heartfelt work of compassionate listening and repair.
Last week we sat after services, at the invitation of Rabbi Weininger and heard troubling stories from parents from here at Adath about what their kids were experiencing and asking about after the election.
Parents from Adath with kids in Maple Grove High School described their child’s revulsion of coming to school the day after the election to find a bathroom vandalized with spray paint with the vulgarities over the name Trump and words saying "Go back to Africa" with hashtags including #WhitesOnly and #WhiteAmerica. Thankfully the school responded immediately by organizing the next day to welcome students back to school with a loving embrace.
Another parent described a student in her daughter’s class at Armstrong High School who was proudly wearing a Trump T-Shirt calling this grandchild of Holocaust survivors a Femi-Nazi.
I spoke to Rabbi Brusso this week who told me about an incident of a kid in his community stepping onto a High school bus in his community, videotaping student, many of whom were Latino, and announcing, “You will soon be gone.”
In all of my years, regardless of which party or candidate won or lost, I have never seen an aftermath of an election anything like this. I was up much of the night watching the election returns until it became clear that Donald Trump had been successful in his pursuit of the presidency. Given the way the polls were being interpreted, I would venture a guess that even he was taken by surprise, if not shocked, by the outcome.
One of the first tasks I felt called to very early on Nov 9 was to reach out to several Muslims leaders in our community with whom I have developed relationships. I wrote:
I wanted to reach out to you on this very troubling night. I can only imagine the pain and concern that you and your community are feeling with this election result. There is good reason to worry about the hate and racism that was tapped into in order to arrive at this result.
Please know that I treasure the bonds we have been trying to forge for our Northwest suburban communities this past year, building on the efforts our congregation started a number of years ago with the Islamic Center of MN. We will need to stand together to do the work that is necessary going forward to guarantee that this country lives up to the promise of decency and equality for which it must stand. I look forward to being your partner in that sacred work. Let's talk soon about next steps.
Take care, Harold
I awoke later that morning to the following response expressing deep appreciation for my having reached out so early. Sadia, a female leader from the Northwest Islamic Community, wrote:
More than the new presidency, I'm more afraid of the racism and hate that was brought to the surface and emboldened continually. I've lived in Plymouth for decades but just in past few weeks the things that we have experienced shakes me to the core. Someone screaming at me at Cub Foods to leave the country and a couple days ago an older gentleman spit at my friend in the parking lot of Fresh Thyme while screaming slurs at her for wearing a hijab. Still trying to wrap my head around how things changed so fast or was I naive to think it didn't exist here?
As I have been reflecting on this modern email correspondence, it brought to mind another correspondence from a time long ago in this country. It is the correspondence transcribed from the original colonial style cursive, which I have highlighted to help us focus on its crucial message. It captures the unique role Jews in this country played in establishing the principles of freedom of religion and safety from harm.
First let me give you some background to this correspondence. It was written in 1790, the year after Washington was first elected President of the United States in 1789. Communications were a lot slower than then they are now.
Colonial Jews in the 18th century had experienced intolerance that prevented them in some places from serving as lawyers and required them to swear on a New Testament to enter public office, which was a significant block to their serving. Negative stereotypes of Jews were commonly found in newspapers, in popular culture, and even in the arts. After a long and difficult Revolutionary War, Jews harbored concerns about whether the new national government would finally allow them full political equality. It was in that spirit, on the occasion of Washington’s visit to Newport, that the Warden or President of the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, RI, which still operates, wrote a letter of congratulations in 1790 to the new President and received this now famous response.
The original letters themselves have a fascinating history. For decades until 2002 these letters were displayed in Washington, DC at the Klutznick Museum, located in the offices of B’nai Brith International, showing our people’s special contribution to freedom in the United States. When that organization downsized, the letters were put into storage in a facility in Maryland and no longer displayed. In fact, they belonged to a private foundation of a Morgenstern family, whose patriarch was deeply loyal to them. Scholars had lost track of them until 2011 when a reporter for the Forward investigated the matter and revealed their location. That launched a process by which they came to be exhibited at the National Museum of the American Jewish History, which faces Independence Square in Philadelphia. In order to properly conserve them, the original letters are only displayed at that Museum twice a year, while facsimiles are displayed in the Museum’s permanent core exhibit.
There are so many aspects of the letters that I find incredibly meaningful -- It is written by a synagogue leader in the aftermath of an election. I love the term it relies on to describe Jews as the “Stock of Abraham,” our patriarch whose life and story we continue to honor in this week’s parasha.
A comparison of the letters reveals that some of the most powerful language in President Washington’s famous letter is taken directly from Moses Seixas who coined the phrase “To bigotry… no sanction…to persecution no assistance.”
Washington made an important addition quoting the Biblical verse from the Prophet Micah 4:4 when he writes: May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig-tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.
That language brings us back to our parasha in which we compare the graciousness and hospitality of Abraham and Sara’s Tent by the Eshel, to the stark contrast of the nastiness faced, not only by the visitors to Sodom, but even by Lot, from those among whom he has long resided.
If you get to see the Broadway show Hamilton you will hear that Lin-Manuel Miranda incorporates those words of Washington “while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig-tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid” into the song in the second act Washington’s Farewell.
This Washington letter is among our countries greatest treasures. As the website of the US Library of Congress observes, “Seixas’s original formulation, “‘To bigotry… no sanction…to persecution no assistance,’ became through its use by President Washington a cherished expression of America’s abiding commitment to safeguard the rights and freedoms of all of its inhabitants.”
This week I called the National Museum American Jewish History where these precious letters are on display. You may recall my telling our congregation that this Museum houses items from my grandmother Eva Kravitz, as part of their telling the story of our people’s massive immigration to this country from Eastern Europe that began in the 1880s. I spoke to a young staff member named Lauren, who said she had guided groups through the display of grandmother’s items in Museum. She spoke with great enthusiasm about the core exhibit that features these letters, which teach the most fundamental American value of religious freedom and respect for all. We should be honored as a Jewish people that our community made such a contribution to expressing and fostering in our country this principle that “to bigotry no sanction… persecution no assistance.” I must confess that I was literally in tears by the end of the call thinking about the idea that so many people in this country have forgotten this correspondence and many of the other freedoms that this country promises in our Constitution.
As we anticipate Donald Trump becoming our country’s next president, I ask you to take very seriously the responsibility this country bears for these principles and to return to the message I delivered on Yom Kippur when I honored the memory and the work of Elie Wiesel, who taught us profound lessons about the sin of indifference. It was clear from the heartfelt response that I received from Sadia and others, that our Muslim neighbors are harboring deep fears about what this election means for their community and for our country. They are not alone in that feeling. The unrestrained expressions of bigotry that have been unleashed are an affront to Jewish and American principles. They call to mind the now famous message that George Washington, first President of our country, wrote in 1790 to the members of the synagogue community in Newport, RI who were concerned about whether the new national government would finally allow them full political equality. Washington assured them, “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.”
It is our special obligation as Jews, “the Stock of Abraham,” to make sure that President Washington’s promise continues to be fulfilled. This will require that we all strive to understand the pain and fear that the citizens of this country are feeling and the deep divides that exist. It will also require that we be willing to honestly confront continuing racism that exists in our country. Towards this latter end, I invite you to join the JCA Summit that will be hosted by Adath on Sunday, Dec 4 from 1:30-4:30 to set the agenda for the year on our work to eliminate racism and address mass incarceration.
We must also work to insure that no one is subjected to the kind of harassment and bigotry being directed against our Muslim neighbors. I am committed this year to building the relationships we have been developing as Northwest Suburban Congregations. In that spirit, I invite you to join us Dec. 17 at 6:30pm for an An Evening of Interfaith Prayers for Peace and Unity at St Edwards the Confessor Episcopal Church in Wayzata . Your presence will be an affirmation of our commitment to this cause.
None of us can ignore Elie Wiesel’s challenge and the Torah’s caution against “standing idly by.” I asked at Yom Kippur that each of us actively respond to Elie Wiesel's clarion call to “Do something, anything, start somewhere, anywhere.” I hope that individually and together we will advance this most important and sacred work.
See the text of the letters HERE
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