Welcome! I am Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Madison, Wisconsin. "Pulpit Perspectives: My Observations as a Congregational Rabbi" is published every two weeks to reflect my observations about life in my congregation and with my members. The opinions expressed here are solely my own. I invite you to join the dialogue!

Friday, November 27, 2015

Jacob the Heel becomes Israel the God-Wrestler: Transformations in Action

(These remarks are excerpted from the D’var Torah I delivered to my congregation on Friday evening November 27, 2015.  After this service, four worshipers asked me to post this sermon online, so here it is.  Some may consider these remarks to cross the line between the pulpit and electoral politics.  I disagree.  But I further believe that irrespective of the political personalities that one may hear referenced in my comments, people of good will must call out the recent remarks of those running for the highest office of our land for what they are: racism, xenophobia, and prejudice.  And the sooner we provide them with their proper labels, the healthier a society we will have created.)

In this week’s Torah portion of Vayishlach, we witness a unique kind of transformation, as Jacob our Patriarch emerges from his birth-heritage of competition, trickery, and deceit, to the world of human relationship.  And in return for acknowledging his human frailty and for making an act of repentance, our tradition records that his name and persona are changed to reflect his new status.

In the initial part of this parashah, Jacob returns to Israel after a 20-year stay with his father-in-law Laban, and sends emissaries to Esau in hope of reconciliation.  But Jacob’s messengers return and report that his brother is marching toward him with 400 men, presumably armed. Jacob prepares for confrontation, worships, and sends Esau a gift of livestock to appease him.

That night, Jacob ferries his family and possessions across the Yabok River; he, however, remains behind and encounters a mysterious man with whom he wrestles until daybreak.  Jacob suffers a dislocated hip but still vanquishes the supernatural creature, who bestows on him the name Israel, which means “he who struggles with creatures human and divine - and is successful.”

Eventually, Jacob and Esau meet, embrace, and kiss, and go their separate ways.  Yet each one is changed; each one is transformed.  Each one expected something different from this confrontation, and each one received a sincere blessing for his future.

For Jacob – and for us – Yisrael becomes not only a place designation or a simple given name.  Yisrael becomes our identity as people who strive for meaningful purposes – and even with God – and prevail.  As we hope and pray for transformation in our own day, we too should, at the same time, anticipate a struggle: We know that nothing comes easy.  And indeed we may have to face a struggle against those who would divide our country along racial or ethnic lines.

I say this because there are some who wish to transform our nation back into a chauvinistic and xenophobic society that supports paranoia and bigotry.  These are the politicians and pundits sullying the reputation of our nation as a compassionate haven for political refugees, as they advocate for identification cards for Muslims, or the monitoring of what transpires in mosques.

Such ideas degrade our nation’s history and tradition of compassion, justice, and freedom of speech and fairness.  Nothing could be farther from what our nation stands for.

The New Colossus, our “Mother of Exiles”, which is the nickname of our Statue of Liberty, is bowing her head in shame; her torch is extinguished, for she, as a ‘mother of exiles’, knows that parents who treat their children in the manner in which candidates such as Donald Trump and Ben Carson suggest should lose their credentials as mothers and fathers.

We Jews know well the bitter sting of bigotry, and we should be in pain and despair over their outrageous proposals to establish a national registry for Muslims, or to have them carry special identification papers, establish a religious test for elected office, or to turn our backs to the refugees who desire nothing more than to come to our shores and find freedom.

The suggestion that Muslims require special documentation echoes pre-World War II Germany, when Jews were compelled to wear yellow stars, to have their genealogy noted on their identity cards, and to suffer the boycotts of their businesses.  Such proposals also sadly imitate the American paranoia of World War II, when we placed Japanese-American citizens into prisoner and work camps in this country.

Politicians attempting to score political points through the fears of our era are engaged in an obscene pastime, and we need to say “Dayeinu” to that kind of pornography.  And Americans – and other politicians – who are able to call out the bigots for their odious remarks must speak out loudly and identify the hatred for what it is.

To remain silent would mean that we have neither learned the lessons of history nor understood the message of compassion for which our country is famous, which our nation has – admittedly – not always practiced, but toward which we strive in each generation.

It is understandable for us to be fearful of terror, of being injured or killed in a battle that is not of our own making.  But when society's values are threatened, we must stand up and fight back regardless of the price.  As Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Great Britain, has said, "The victims of terror are not only the dead and injured, but the very values on which a free society is built: trust, security, civil liberty, tolerance, the willingness of countries to open their doors to asylum seekers, the gracious safety of public places."

These are casualties that we must prevent.

I hold out the promise that someone – that many someone’s – will stand up to the Trump’s and the Carson’s of the world, and tell them that ‘enough is enough’, that their attitudes and comments are unwelcome.  Perhaps this is my struggle, and that of my clergy colleagues, and that of every person in America who believes in fairness and right.  It is our task to transform our national attitude, to a time when we think well, and not ill, of another person.

Similar to the Jacob story in this week’s Torah parashah, Jacob came to see in his brother not a threat, but as part of his own flesh and blood, someone who needed compassion and caring.  Jacob was able to transform his anger and fear into constructive ways of living.

Our challenge is to wonder whether we can do the same in our day and era.

[1] This is an incident reported by Rivkah Lambert on http://jewishvaluescenter.org/jvoblog/a-little-hat-story

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


Children of previous and current generations have imagined a world that John Lennon envisioned in his song “Imagine”: No heaven or hell, no national boundaries, no religion, no desire for possessions.  The message of his visionary words and lilting melody is that eliminating the primal, distinguishing desires of humanity will yield a more peaceful world.

Perhaps it was quite natural, then, that in the wake of the IS terrorist attacks of the last few weeks, residents of Paris used John Lennon’s song as a prayer, a paean that longs for a world with no religiously-inspired violence, meaning no religion.  In makeshift shrines and informal gathering places around the city, Parisians offered Lennon’s tune and words, swaying and praying for a better future.

John Lennon was correct in one aspect: As religious believers become radicalized, they come forth with hubris, threats, and eventually lethal violence against non-believers to achieve their distorted visions.  Sadly, you can find these ideas among the philosophies of some of our religious texts, which the radicals deform and misrepresent.

And further, sadly, each of the three Abrahamic faiths of Christianity, Islam and Judaism – these are the ones with which I am most familiar – can ‘boast’ its radical fringe of adherents and activists.  Fanatics who claim faithful Abraham and Sarah as their ancestral parents have used those holy scriptures to justify xenophobia, usurpation of territory, and destructive violence.

One solution would be to flee from religion altogether, as in Lennon’s vision.  Taking no risk means receiving no potential bad results.  In this view, eliminating religion means taking away motivation for aggrandizement and radicalization.

But we must not throw the baby out with the baptismal font.  Let us examine and NOT overlook the core human values of these religions' ideas.  Each one contains seeds of peace and love and humanity which can be sown and nurtured in the soil of the mind and heart.  Let us not blindly and completely abandon the wisdom of ages.

Rather, let us discover, in each faith, the statement that directs us to ‘love our neighbor as ourselves’.  Let us direct our kavannah (Hebrew for ‘intention’ or ‘devotion’) toward the preservation of life and the potential of progress for humanity.  When we can accomplish these difficult but important tasks, we will have prevailed over the radicals.  Not only that, we will have actually moved closer to John Lennon’s vision of a world “as one.”