Parashat Va-et’hanan

Friday, July 27, 2018 /15 Av, 5778
Parashat Va-et’hanan Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11

Dear Friends,

36 years ago I was sitting on a bus in Jerusalem, likely returning from the market, when a very orthodox Jewish man sat down next to me. I was early in my first year at HUC, our Reform Movement’s rabbinic school, and I was learning exponentially every day and was excited about my burgeoning knowledge. So, I began talking with the man to my right, a barrel-chested, long-bearded, warm-eyed man with a white shirt and a black jacket, sweating as the bus lurched through Jerusalem’s crowded streets.

He asked where I was studying, and I told him. He vaguely had heard of HUC and Progressive Judaism (our movement’s name in Israel). He asked if we studied Torah, and I responded with a verse from this week’s parasha, from which we read that week, “Lo tasuru yamin u’smol – Do not turn aside to the right or to the left.” He became excited and explained that the verse meant that we must fastidiously observe the commandments, without swerving in any direction. I chose to agree with him and to share his excitement, but I added that in the Reform Movement we experiment with other options.

“What is ‘experiment’?” he asked.

And, that is where our conversation became more interesting. I tried to explain the virtue in Judaism of engaging in modernity, and he disagreed, trying to disabuse this young student of his folly. It was a congenial conversation, in my then-halting Hebrew, but I recall the conversation to this day; I learned that we mustn’t fear variance and conflict, but rather engage in discussing differences, or else we will ossify like dinosaurs or shrivel like raisins on the vine.

Today, this never has been more true nor more necessary. I fear that we have forgotten how to listen to others, or how to engage another with divergent ideas without endeavoring to transform or even vilify the other. Whether it is political discourse, or synagogue re-imagining, or even talk across the kitchen table, discussion of differences should be as compelling as conversation over agreements.

Several years ago, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin published her Pulitzer Prize winning study, Team of Rivals. Goodwin recounted how President Lincoln built his cabinet with his political opponents, not his supporters, to insure he’d have varied ideas and complex thinking, thus modeling the genius which is harnessed when divergent ideas come together.

Especially in this period of Temple Beth El’s transition, it’s likely we’ll have our share of disagreements and agreements. And, we may fear turning to the right or to the left. Let’s fear not; rather, let’s go somewhere, and take the turns which come.

Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Doug Kohn