An extremely difficult sermon to write this week...
In my private life, I've been publicly anti-Trump. I authored three articles outlining my critiques from a Jewish perspective:
"Why I'm a Jew Against Trump"
"Trump is Another False Messiah"
"The Damnable Flip-Flops That Prove Donald Trump is Bad for Israel"
And I designed and maintained jewsagainsttrump.us.
In preparing a sermon the week after he was elected, I am still reeling from the news and struggling to make sense of it. I honestly don't know what the right message is. A message of healing? Of hope? Of opposition? Of introspection?
I settled on telling two stories of the election, both true and both in contradiction to one another. It seems clear to me that there are vast chasms of understanding in our country, and it's important to me to dwell compassionately with fellows on "my side" while also trying to find a way to the "other side" to dwell compassionately with people there. This is hard, and I'm still struggling with the idea. So below is my moment-in-time reflection a few days after the election. I had to say something, and though I'm not sure this was the "right" thing to say, this is where I am today.
A Palace Lit Up: The World We See Upon the Election of Donald Trump
“The Eternal said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing’” (Gen. 12:1-2).
And just like that, Abram’s life changes forever. He steps into a new world—a world of covenant and consequence, of determination and despair, of success and sacrifice.
Abraham stands for each of us and all of us. He is at once the prototypical Jew and the symbol of our entire people, representing the sometimes-tranquil and sometimes-turbulent experiences we face together and alone.
Thus, as we read of the first stages of Abraham’s uncertain journey, we can see ourselves—individually and as a community—walking in his shoes. Following the election this week of Donald Trump as President, our entire nation stands at the edge of uncharted territory. And like Abraham before us, we have no choice but to step sight-unseen into the unknown, trusting that God is behind us.
A midrash on the opening lines of this week’s parashah is among our tradition’s most important and well-known stories about Abraham. The midrash reads:
The Eternal said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land…”
Rabbi Isaac said: This may be compared to one who was traveling from place to place when he saw a palace lit up.
The man says, “Is it possible that there is no one who cares for the palace?” The owner of the palace looked out at him and said, “I am the master of this palace.”
And so it was with Abraham our Father, who said, “Is it possible that there is no one who cares for the world?” The Holy One of Blessing looked out at him and said, “I am the master of this world.”
Usually, this midrash is used to explain why God chose Abraham to be the founder of the Jewish people. Abraham observes the world and concludes that there must be a single Creator responsible for Creation. After Abraham comes to that realization on his own, God reveals the divine truth to him.
But what’s puzzling about the midrash is the so-called “palace lit up.” The Hebrew birah doleket is unclear, with two distinct and opposite possible meanings. The interpretation we choose reflects how we read the midrash and, indeed, how we see the world. And these two interpretations also reflect two very different views of what happened on November 8.
The first translation of birah doleket is “a palace on fire.” In this interpretation, Abraham sees a world aflame, burning before his eyes. Abraham challenges the justice of this apparent chaos: “Is there no one who cares?” God replies from the midst of the flames: I am here, I care … and yet the world burns.
This is how many feel following this week’s election: we are watching the world go up in flames. Regardless of differences in party affiliation or policy preference, Americans of conscience are horrified by the raging verbal and physical violence that Donald Trump’s election has inspired. Throughout his campaign, rhetoric targeted at minorities—particularly Muslims and immigrants and including women, queer people, and Jews—inflamed the passions of self-described white nationalists and neo-Nazis around the country. For months, people who have called for the lynching of blacks, the extermination of Jews, the deportation of Latinos, and the raping of Muslims have expressed enthusiastic and vocal support of Donald Trump. And on occasion, Trump has promoted misinformation and propaganda distributed by this so-called “alt-right” on his Twitter account and in his public appearances.
Not all Trump supporters are racist--far from it--, but it seems like all the racists are Trump supporters. And Trump has done little to quiet their enthusiasm.
In the days since Trump’s election, these sentiments have boiled over into vandalism, abuse, and assault. Scores of personal stories have been shared on social media and in print recounting acts of violence pinned to Trump’s victory. A few examples:
[Image] The word “Trump!” is written on the door of New York University’s Muslim Student Association’s prayer room.
[Image] A Muslim woman at San Diego State University is robbed by two men gloating about Trump’s electoral win.
[Image] A high school girl addresses a bus full of black and Hispanic people, “Aren’t you supposed to be sitting in the back of the bus now? Like, Trump is President!”
[Image.] Kindergartners tease a Mexican-American classmate, telling him that now that Trump has been elected, he has to leave America.
[Image] A gay couple receives a note on their car: “Can’t wait until your ‘marriage’ is overturned by a real president. Gay families = burn in hell! #Trump2016 #REPENT #GODBLESS.”
It’s easy to see why people are afraid. It’s easy to see why children are crying, why adults are protesting, and why minorities across the country feel physically unsafe in their home towns. After all, the Ku Klux Klan is planning a rally in North Carolina to celebrate Trump’s victory, [Image] and he is prominently featured on their official website.
A blaze of hatred, which until recently burned quietly and at the margins of society, has been unleashed by and associated with the President-elect. This is a birah doleket, a palace on fire.
At the same time, there is another birah doleket in America today. The other way to translate this phrase is “a palace full of light.” In this version of the midrash, Abraham witnesses a miraculous and awe-inspiring wonder, a vision of unexpected splendor that transports him to a new plane of spiritual awareness. This time, when Abraham rhetorically asks, “Is there no one who cares for the palace?” he expresses his certainty that such elevating beauty must emerge from a universal power of creative order.
For millions of Americans, Trump’s election is just such a “palace full of light.” Not only does Trump support the general Republican social agenda of lowering taxes, repealing Obamacare, and cracking down on immigration, but he also represents a much more profound shift in American government.
For the first time in history, a man independent from the political establishment, an authentic outsider, has been elected President. [Image] For many, this is a tremendous—perhaps miraculous—achievement. Trump has promised to “drain the swamp” of Washington, ejecting the political elite and championing instead the common citizen. He has vowed to end America’s lopsided trade agreements and international commitments in favor of policies that prioritize American interests. And he has demonstrated with stunning force that a populist leader can defy mainstream expectations, empowering a forgotten population that once saw itself as central to American industry and society.
[Image] Actor Stephen Baldwin, a Trump supporter from day one, invoked Senator Rand Paul last night, saying, “You got your East Coast with the Wall Street, your West Coast with the Hollywood folks and now you got a whole lot of people in between all that, that just demonstrated how they're feeling.” And even Senator Bernie Sanders concedes that “Donald Trump tapped into the anger of a declining middle class.”
[Image] These average Americans by and large reject the verbal and physical violence perpetrated by the extreme right. The acts of a few do not represent the will of the many, and for these supporters, Trump’s presidency will be a stunning and unprecedented advancement of goals and values too long absent from the halls of American government.
Trump’s election is a triumph of populism and a vindication of traditional conservative values. This is a birah doleket, a “palace full of light.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:
There are those who sense the ultimate question in moments of wonder, in moments of joy; there are those who sense the ultimate question in moments of horror, in moments of despair. It is both the grandeur and the misery of living that makes [us] sensitive to the ultimate question. Indeed, [our] misery is as great as [our] grandeur.
Heschel teaches that each of us, like Abraham, sees wonder or woe in the birah doleket. For some, the world is on fire; for others, it’s radiant. For all of us, it arouses questions of meaning and purpose.
In both readings of the midrash, God is both present and passive. God assures us that we are not alone, but God also tell us that God is not going to step in to make a change that we can effect ourselves. If we want to douse the fire or spread the light, it’s up to us. God encourages us, as God encouraged Abraham, to “go forth,” to make the nation great through the work of our hands. Through our conviction of purpose and commitment of resolve, we can, like Abraham, be a blessing.
I need to be honest. I can’t yet reconcile the two views of the birah doleket. Like many of you, I am firmly fixed on one of them nearly to the exclusion of the other. But in constant, nearly obsessive, reflection over the past couple of days, I have tried to open myself to the teaching of our tradition.
I’m struggling, and I believe I will continue to struggle for a long time. For all of us who are struggling, let us strive to express our fears and aspirations openly and honestly with those we love and trust and especially with those who disagree with us. And feel free, as always, to share your struggle with us here at B’nai Jehudah, to lean on us and to lend support in turn. Our society, our community, even our families are deeply divided, and it is our fervent prayer that we may come together to heal still-bleeding wounds.
In 1848 Rabbi Max Lilenthal composed a new prayer for the government. Republished in 1856, on the eve of the Civil War, Lilenthal’s prayer expresses a fervent hope for peace even when we are tearing apart.
Master of the Universe, Lord of all Works. Who extends peace like a river, and like a rapid stream the glory of nations (Isaiah 66:12). Look down from Your holy dwelling (Deuteronomy 26:15) and bless this land, the United States of America, whereon we dwell. Let not violence be heard in their land, wasting and destruction within their boundaries, but You shall call its walls “Salvation” and its gates “Praise” (Isaiah 60:18). …
Our good Father, also answer us Your people the house of Israel at a favorable time, and be of assistance each and every day. Guide us continually in your great goodness and satisfy our soul in times of famine. And we shall be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters do not fail (Isaiah 58:11), and go from strength to strength (Psalm 84:8) until the redeemer shall come unto Zion. O that this may be [Your] will, and let us say,
 Genesis Rabbah 39:1.
 For a detailed investigation, see Sarah Posner and David Neiwert’s “How Trump Took Hate Groups Mainstream” (Oct. 14, 2016) on Mother Jones: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/10/donald-trump-hate-groups-neo-nazi-white-supremacist-racism.
 Taken from “Day 1 in Trump’s America” (https://twitter.com/i/moments/796417517157830656). For more on this collection, see http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/day-1-in-trumps-america-highlights-racist-acts-violent-threats-w449787.
 God in Search of Man (1955), 367.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”