“Beyond the Pale:” 1st Day Rosh Hashanah 2017/5778 Sermon


In 2015 — you know, back in the good old days…when marriage equality became the law of the land…someone said to me, “what will you do now You’re so used to being an outsider…”

I remember the comment took me by surprise and I thought he was joking — and perhaps he was half joking — but no, mainly it was meant as a serious question, and I’ve been kind of grappling with it ever since, and more lately.

Mostly I grapple because in so many ways I don’t much feel like an outsider — I am a white person born in this country with, for the moment anyway, undisputed citizenship in what is still, also for the moment, one of the wealthiest, most powerful, most admired countries in the world, and I live in the most liberal state of that country, and, for the moment, I have affordable and excellent health care, and I live in a really nice house with a wife I love dearly, and if I go to bed hungry at night it’s by choice and I know there will be food to eat when I wake up, and I’m a rabbI ordained by one of the the largest “movements of Judaism,” and I’m a rabbI of a historic congregation where i’ve been doing work I love with people I love and admire for over 23 years, and where, at least once or twice a year, we can still get a bunch of you together to lend me an ear, or half an ear, anyway….and you let me talk about anything I want to talk about, and sometimes people tell me that i’ve been helpful to them in this way or that way, or that they remember something I said, or they thank me for doing what I do, and that always
feels nice. And that’s just a partial list of my privileges, so it’s really hard for me to say “I’m an outsider” or even that “I was an outsider until 2 years ago.”

And yet…nearly all of my identities could be labeled with outsider status: Jewish, lesbian, queer, woman, rabbi, older person.

Yet, oddly, in this particular room, all those labels make me very much an insider, rather than an outsider.

It’s worth noticing I think how our easily and frequently our status can change. Insider – outsider, privileged – oppressed, entitled – disenfranchised, winner – loser, rich – poor, healthy – ill, strong – weak, alive – dead.

We live in a country and a world where status can change (literally) on a dime or a whim, on a vote or an executive order, on a government appointment or a congressional caucus meeting. A country in which we’ve seen our status fall and rise and fall again, our situations in all kinds of ways threatened, where some of us who sit in this sanctuary today — relatively safe as a “sanctuary” ought to be — still aren’t sure which bathroom they can safely use when they leave this sanctuary (the bathrooms here are gender neutral, btw), and some of us don’t know what might happen when they walk out of this building (or come into this building for that matter) because of the color of their skin or because they are not documented or or are temporarily documented, because they are too young or too old or too unfamiliar with the “rules.” I can’t make an exhaustive list without exhausting us all, but you get my point. “MY! People [and rights] come and go so quickly here.” [Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz; Lisa added “and rights” ]

So if this insider – outsider flipping happens now to us, imagine what it was like for Abraham and Sarah and Hagar way back at the beginning of the formation of the Jewish people. We read key moments of their story in the Torah portions today and tomorrow – stories that our ancestors set aside for us to read on Rosh Hashanah each year. As we begin a new Jewish year, why are we asked to contemplate among the most challenging stories of our beginning as a people?

Perhaps to remind us of the challenges of starting anew — Abraham was 100 and Sarah 90 when Isaac was born to them. It did occur to me when I turned 65 earlier this year that perhaps those weren’t our ancestors real ages in those Torah stories, but rather how old they felt when God happened along and said to them, “hey, kids, I have an idea — I feel a new religion coming on, so change your comfortable lives completely. Just do exactly as I tell you and get out there and change the world.”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ancestors we read of this morning. This origin story of the long lasting conflict between Jews and Muslims (and Christians and Muslims) is really a story of complex family dynamics — hmm, complex family dynamics — anyone here know anything about those?

Whenever I read the story we read today, no matter what else I take note of, I am glad to be reminded that our ancestors come to us not as perfect human beings to be emulated every step along the way, but troubled people, sometimes annoying, very vulnerable, very HUMAN beings.
Message? You don’t have to be perfect to be good. You don’t have to be perfect to make a difference.

And I’m also reminded that God doesn’t really take sides here: Both Ishmael and Isaac, the sons of Abraham, are blessed by God. It reminds me of the words of a different Abraham, Abraham Lincoln, well along into the U.S. Civil War, and just a month before he was assassinated:
Both [sides] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes [God’s] His aid against the other. …The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. [from his 2nd Inagural Address March 4, 1865]

But also in these stories (and in life) I look for the moments when things might have gone differently, and by differently I mean better — not to live in moments of regret, but to be more alert to moments in the future when a “what if” is still possible.

This is a good time of year in general, and this is a good year in particular, to be alert to “what ifs,” to be alert to the way things and people and nations and laws can change “on a dime or a whim”…on a remark…or on a vote.

In this morning’s Torah story, there is a moment when things might have gone a different way. This is not meant as a criticism of Abraham, but a “what if” we read this a different way for our sakes, for our futures? Ever since our matriarch Sarah, long unable to conceive a child, had the idea of giving her maidservant Hagar to her husband Abraham, that they might conceive a child she could adopt, there’s been trouble at home. Families! They seldom go as planned. Jealousies abound, ending with a dramatic moment that God tries (unsuccessfully) to mediate.

Ask any mediator — mediation is not easy between people with grudges and complaints and feelings, however legitimate, certain that they are right and the other is wrong, certain that they know what the other person is thinking or feeling — consider what happens when Sara sees Hagar’s son, Ishmael, “laughing.”
We’re not even told what he was laughing at:

“Now Sara saw the Egyptian Hagar’s son — the one she bore to Abraham — laughing. And she said to Abraham: ‘Expel this servant-woman and her son, for the son of this servant-woman will not share the inheritance with my son, not with Isaac.’ In Abraham’s eyes this thing seemed very wrong, for it concerned his son.
And God said to Abraham [HERE’S GOD AS MEDIATOR]: “Do not see this as a wrong act against the boy and your servant-woman. Whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her voice [ שמע בקולה ] for through Isaac your seed shall go forth. I will make the servant-woman’s son a nation, as well, for he is your seed.” [Genesis 21:9-13]

Do you remember the rest of the story?
Abraham gets up early the next morning, takes a little bread and water to give Hagar and sends Hagar and Ishmael on their way. They wander in the wilderness until they nearly die of thirst. God hears Ishmael’s cry and sends an angel – a messenger – to rescue them both, saying to Hagar: “stand up. Lift the boy, and hold strongly onto him with your hand…”
At which point God opens her eyes, and she sees a well of water — and all is “well.” Their lives are saved.
Happy ending? not exactly. Though we don’t know whether Ishmael and Isaac got along or were even in each other’s lives after that — though we do see them come together to bury their father Abraham — each one fathers a religion — Islam and Judaism — that have been at odds with each other almost ever since, even though we have so much in common, including our shared ancestry, and many, many, many shared values and teachings and stories.

When God says to Abraham: Do not see this as a wrong act against the boy and your servant-woman. Whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her voice shema b’kolah [ שמע בקולה]…” the “what if?” I hear in this story is what if Abraham had taken God more literally?
שמע ב קולה maybe God did not mean obey her instruction, her plea to “Expel this servant-woman and her son”, but rather
שמע ב קולה
Shema b’kolah — shema – hear , b’ kolah – what’s IN her voice — grief, fear, worry, jealousy, pain, shame.

Afterall, God doesn’t actually tell Abraham what to do next, it’s Abraham who makes and carries out the plan: getting up early in the morning and sending Hagar and Ishmael on their way, with little nourishment or encouragement, turning them and their descendents into outsiders to the Jewish people when they might have become (or remained) true brothers.

Abraham could have made a different choice. In hearing from God that both his sons would be blessed. In hearing from God not to see Sarah’s plea as evil, but to listen to her voice, to what’s in her voice, perhaps Abraham could instead have comforted Sarah. Perhaps he could have found a different way of easing her distress. Perhaps he could have brought his two families together instead of assisting in tearing them apart, forever.

Friends, there’s been a lot of hearing of words lately (not necessarily a bad thing), and not enough listening — awareness — of what’s in each other’s voices/hearts/kishkes. Not enough looking to explore what’s behind the words spoken …or shouted.

By which of course I do not mean to say the words themselves aren’t important. Believe me, I know words are important. And so does Jewish tradition. Rather, I mean to say, let’s also be sensitive to what’s in our own and each other’s voices — what feelings unheard, unnoticed, unaddressed; what pain, what losses and absences, what shames, what griefs, what startlements, what hopes unfulfilled, dreams yet unrealized…perhaps most of all, what fears and doubts and worries might be detectable just below the surface for us to address, if we took note of them?

This Torah portion, that comes around to us — by design — each Rosh Hashanah, when we are trying to repair our mistakes and renew our commitments to be better people, invites us to empathize with a family in distress, a family that eventually grows into separate peoples…sadly, warring peoples. What if it went a different way?
For every shout down, there is someone whose feelings get shut down.
For every punch thrown, a bruised eye whose vision becomes blurred.
For every demand for an apology, a person on each side who doesn’t get heard, let alone understood.
For every satiric put down or public shaming, a person who seeks to get even.
For every “I’m right, you’re wrong,” or worse “I’m right, you’re an idiot,” a relationship gets severed or prevented.
For every agreement not to talk politics, there are understandings that never get reached.
For every person who storms away from the dinner table, a conversation that never happens, apologies that never get made.

This is tough stuff, to be sure. But I hope we won’t continue to go walling ourselves off from one another, from our neighbors who see things in a different light; from our loved ones who, for whatever reason, feel differently from how we feel. An us vs. them approach seldom succeeds, as our country’s current rehashing of the Civil War demonstrates.

Do you know the term “beyond the pale?” I’ve been hearing it a lot lately: Our President’s behavior is beyond the pale .
The actions of the protestors are beyond the pale.
Ironically, I’ve heard: Russia’s behavior during the U.S. election was beyond the pale. I say ironically about Russia’s behavior because the phrase itself, though it doesn’t originate in Russia, comes to us via Catherine II (“the Great”), the empress of Russia, who on December 23, 1791, authorized the creation of the Pale of Settlement, an area in the western part of the empire in which Jewish subjects would be required to reside. The borders of the Pale, which was abolished formally only in 1917, changed with time, as did the rules regarding Jews who were exempted from the requirement to live there (who could, in other words, live “beyond the Pale”), but at its peak, the Pale was home to approximately 40 percent of the world’s Jewish population, estimated to be about five million Jews at that time.

Catherine the Great originally “fenced in” the Jews because of the increased number of them that came under Russian rule in some border negotiations (beginning in 1772) with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which brought the eastern half of Poland under the control of the Russian Empire. This increase in the Jewish population in Russia brought with it an increased fear of the Jews because of what was described to Catherine as the “well-known fraud and lies” of the Jews. Catherine attempted to solve this problem with the creation of the Pale of Settlement for Jews. Not exactly “lock them up” or “throw them out,” but more of a “keep them in their place” and “encourage them to leave” approach that led to many years of horrific pogroms. The eventual result was mass emigration (think Fiddler on the Roof”) including my grandparents and probably some of yours too. Yes?

All of which is to say that the term “beyond the pale” applied so freely to the worst behaviors in our society today derives at least in part from a reference to Jews who managed to move outside their “assigned” place in the world. read more: http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/features/.premium-1.564905

The term “Pale of Settlement” itself comes from the now almost obsolete use of the word, pale, p-a-l-e, meaning a sharp stick, typically used to make a fence — a paling fence is like a picket fence, and the area enclosed by a paling fence keeps you safe — so “beyond the pale” was not a safe place to be. But for Jews in Catherine the Great’s Russia inside the Pale was not very safe either, since everyone knew where to find the Jews should they wish them harm (start a pogrom, for example).

That’s a thing about fences and walls — remember poet Robert Frost’s oft
misunderstood poem “Mending Wall”? His neighbor in that story poem says twice:

“Good fences make good neighbours.”
But the narrator thinks to himself:
“Why do they make good neighbours?

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.1

We do all of us build various walls and pales of settlement — in a way BCC is such a place — creating any “safe” space is such an action. We create a pale to live within, fearful that if we step outside it we will be in danger. That’s not an entirely wrong idea, of course. I often tell people that I live safely, protected in a queer Jewish bubble in liberal Los Angeles. But it’s not hard to see that that safe pale, as pleasant as BCC can be, is its own kind of danger. The way it can tempt us to isolate from others, the way it keeps us from seeing/hearing/listening to others, the way it invites us to believe we all think and feel the same way or should anyway. The way it can lull us into complacency and complicity to what is going wrong “out there” beyond the pale of our safe and friendly and nurturing settlement.

Remember that a pale also is a sharp stick — as in, sharp stick in the eye, as in the origin of the word “impale.”

Remember how Joshua fought the battle of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down? It was the constant sound of the rams horns, the shofar, unceasingly for seven? Days that brought the walls tumbling down. Something we often talk about here at BCC is that Jewish tradition speaks to other ways to understand the sound of the shofar — not only as a call to arms, not only as an alarm or a threat or a weapon — it’s also said to be the echo of laughter and of tears, even the laughter and tears of our mother Sarah whose story we’ll read this morning and tomorrow, who laughed when her long longed for child Isaac (whose name means laughter) was finally born from her own body, and who cried, some say died, upon hearing, as we’ll read tomorrow, that Abraham nearly gave up Isaac as an “offering” upon an altar set to burst into flame.
Is that story a metaphor for the ways we send our children – our most precious gifts – off to war? Or otherwise sacrifice them to our own whims or wants, our own beliefs or certainties? When we listen to the sound of the shofar this morning, can we listen for the tears and the laughter along with the call to alert ourselves? This morning let’s actually listen and try to hear all that is in the voice of the shofar, perhaps in the voice of the sounder too? Shema b’kolah — what do you hear in her voice?

In Deut. 22:8, amidst a long list of varied commandments, comes this one: When you build a new home ( bayit khadash ), you shall make a fence around your roof; that you not bring blood upon your house, lest someone fall from there. May no one be hurt due to my neglect. RabbI Heather spoke to this a bit last night — the rabbis of old did not let people off the hook just because there was no specific law in place. From this commandment, in a typically convoluted Jewish way, it’s said, comes the idea of “a fence around the Torah,” protecting the mitzvot – the commandments – by doing more than the minimum in order to prevent accidentally not doing all that is required.2 It gets complicated, but for our purposes right now suffice it to say that Judaism has long been interested in walls (consider a mehitza) and fences.

Whether an actual physical wall between the U.S. and Mexico ever gets built, our country is certainly engaged these days in a lot of wall building (or fence building) and very little fence-mending.3 It might be better to try the tactic of Tracy’s childhood friend who would draw an imaginary line on the ground and say, “I dare you to step over this line, I dare you!” And when you did, he’d smile and hug you and say, “Now you’re on my side!”

Whether building controversial walls (or arguing about them) or watching helplessly while earthquakes and hurricanes and bombs bring solidly built walls tumbling down, killing people in the process, we have much in this new year to keep watch over — and many voices we need to listen to, to hear what is in their voice (our voices too), to learn what feelings are behind the sounds we are all making in these most uncertain times.

I’d like to propose that we make a pact this year to work on learning to listen and to talk better together with those who agree with us and those who do not. I’m hoping to bring some mediation training to BCC this year (perhaps some of you mediators in the room will help me with this?). Or a training in productive conversation — in how (and why) to talk with people whose views are not your own. Workshops or trainings that will help us hear what is behind someone’s words, help us mediate conflicts, help us be a part of the change, turning from the path our country seems currently to be on. If you’d like to join me in working on this, or if you’d be interested in participating, please let me know over the Holy Days –no commitment, just an expression of interest. I’m looking for ways we can connect rather than disconnect, ways to hear what’s being said and the feelings behind what is said.

E.M. Forester in his novel, Howard’s End (chapter 22) , wrote: “Only connect the prose and the passion… and human love will be seen at its highest. Live in fragments no longer.” 4 If we can only connect the words to the feelings, we’ll be better able to connect to each other.

Speaking of connections, and pacts, and words…One last thing about the word “pale” — that sharp stick.
In studying the origins of the word I came across this:
Now, etymologists think Latin’s pālus is ultimately formed from the verb pangere , meaning “to fix,” as one fixes a pale into the ground. Incredibly, this verb also yields peace , rooted in the sense of a pact fastening two parties together .

So “peace” too comes from this word “pale” — think of the idyllic description of home — a picket fence (maybe so your dog with muddy feet doesn’t jump up on your neighbor) and a front porch so you can sit there in a rocking chair, and greet those neighbors as they walk by: “Hello, and how are you today? Nice weather we’re having, isn’t it?”

May this new year find us mending fences, taking down walls, and — in the process — maybe building a few bridges too.

Shana tova u’metuka a good year, a sweet year, to all.


1. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44266/mending-wall
2. [note: Khumra/makhmir – “strict” – gezeirah is a law added to prevent a violation, ex. About shofar on shabbat: Rabbah said: All are under obligated to blow the shofar, but not all are skilled in the blowing of the shofar. Therefore, there is a danger that one will take the shofar and go to an expert to learn [how to properly sound it], and he will carry it four cubits in the public domain [—an act that is
forbidden on the Shabbat].
3. What does the metaphor mending fences mean to you regarding the dispute you have in mind?
What part(s) do you want to mend most?
Why is your answer to the above question especially important to you?
When the fences are mended between you, what do you want to feel like about the other person that you
do not feel now?
What do you want the other person to feel about you?
When the fence is mended how do you want your relationship to be?
How may the other person describe fence-mending that is different from your description?
What may be the same?
What do you want to ensure does not happen in the mending process?
What connector tools will you use to ensure the fence is mended well and in a lasting way?
By the way, the word fence actually is a shortened version of the word defense
4. “Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest. Live in fragments no longer.” ― E.M. Forster, Howards End, chapter 22.

One Comment on ““Beyond the Pale:” 1st Day Rosh Hashanah 2017/5778 Sermon”

  • Jerry Nodiff October 1, 2017 pm31 1:37 pm . Reply

    Lisa, thanks for posting!
    This is one of my favorites of your High Holy Day sermons.
    Perhaps, one challenge is : How do we build the bridges?

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