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Erev Rosh Hashanah 5784: My Day in DC – Or What It Means to See Each Other as B’tzelem Elohim

Rabbi Robin Nafshi

On July 19 of this past summer, I flew down to Washington, DC, at the invitation of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, to be present at Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s address to a joint session of Congress. The pomp and ceremony were remarkable. My seating was fantastic – behind the CSPAN camera. The people with me in the gallery seats had done wonderous things in the name of and on behalf of the Jewish people. President Herzog could have been more critical of the Netanhayu government, but still, it was a historic moment. It was a day that will live with me for the rest of my life, and I could probably offer multiple sermons on the experience.

While hearing President Herzog and being amongst highly accomplished Jews filled me with what I needed at that moment, those turned out to be only a part of what made the day so memorable. In addition, I had encounter after encounter that made me truly contemplate the idea that everyone, not just the people whom I find it easy to be around, but everyone, is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. This concept is found early in Torah, in the creation story which we will read on Sunday. I have used the expression when I have heard people attack LGBTQI folks – I always respond that each one of us is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and that God does not create in error.

On that July day, at way too early in the morning, about 5:15 am, I boarded my flight to DC. The man in the seat next to me had a need to talk the entire 95 minutes of the flight, as well as before we took off and after we landed. It turned out he was formerly in the military and lived outside of D.C. His name was Ivan. Did I want to know what he was doing in New Hampshire? Ivan didn’t need to wait for my answer – he simply continued talking.

It seems that he was the head of an organization that attempts to expose corrupt politicians. He reminded me of a story involving our governor and a person whom the governor cut off from speaking during an Executive Council meeting. From there, Ivan regaled me with his theories about why our governor is not running for re-election or for president, election machines and their manufacturers, state legislative organizations, why Pence will get the Republican nomination, why Trump might be assassinated, and much more.

It didn’t take me long to realize that Ivan was a conspiracy theorist, mostly focused around First Amendment issues, but not exclusively.

In a “can’t move my eyes from seeing the train wreck” sort of way, I found him fascinating. And frightening. And sad. I thought “What if he used this same energy and passion to address climate change or the rising hate in our world?” And then I wondered why I was judging him. I remembered a day back in my first year of rabbinical school when the dean reminded us that one of the titles we would earn upon ordination was that of “Judge.” “Yes,” he said, “Rabbis have historically been judges; it will be your job to judge others.” My classmates and I openly struggled with this notion – “who am I to judge another person,” we each asked. But he pressed us. And we stood our ground.

In the collection of Jewish sayings known as Pirkei Avot, we read in Avot 1:6, “Judge every person favorably.” Avot 2:4 adds, “Do not judge your fellow until you have stood in his place.” About these passages, Rabbi Yona Matusof writes, “On the most elementary level, both mean that if you discern a [bothersome] trait in your fellow or you see them commit a [questionable] act, do not judge them guilty in your heart. You have no way of truly appreciating the manner in which their inborn nature, background, or circumstances hold sway over their lives and have influenced their character and behavior.” So maybe our dean was wrong, after all. I tried hard to let go of my judgment of Ivan.

After deplaning, I made my way to Capitol Hill. Taking teens there virtually every year since 2008 has made me familiar with the Hill. An aide to Sen. Shaheen escorted me to the Capitol on the Senate tram. Eventually, I was sitting in the gallery in the Capitol listening to President Herzog. He mostly celebrated Israel’s 75th anniversary as well as the unbreakable relationship between Israel and the United States. He received 16 standing ovations, but one of them left me cold.

He was describing the diversity of Israel, and particularly Jerusalem. He said, “On a recent Friday afternoon, you heard the Muslim call to worship, the siren sounding the start of the Jewish Sabbath, and it was all during a Pride Parade.” We stood once more, applauding loudly. Well, most of us did. A very clear swath of three rows of white male members of Congress – maybe 50 or 60 in all – sat with their arms crossed over their chests. B’tzelem Elohim? Really? This time I wasn’t sad or fascinated. I was angry.

One of the most remarkable modern Israeli poets was Yehuda Amichai. In perhaps my favorite Amichai poem, entitled Tourists, he wrote:

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower,

I placed my two heavy baskets at my side.

A group of tourists was standing around their guide

and I became their target marker.

“You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch

from the Roman period. Just right of his head.”

“But he’s moving, he’s moving!”

I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them,

“You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it,

left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

Dara Steinberg, commenting on this poem writes, “Yehuda Amichai reflects on the importance of recognizing the humanity – and I would add the sanctity ¬– of every individual, and how the ‘tourists’ might miss the opportunity to do that.” She asks, “Can you think of a time in your life when you … missed an opportunity to recognize the narrative of another person?” So I ask, what were the stories of the Reps who refused to stand? Would I be willing to hear them, even if they caused me pain? I must be. For they, too, were created b’tzelem Elohim.

Cantor Shira challenged me on this one. She said, “Yes, we are all created in God’s image, but we choose how we want to act. B’tzelem Elohim means we are all worthy of being treated with dignity and respect, that we all have a place on this earth, and a reason for being here. But it does not exempt us from being judged because of how we act. We should not be judged for who we are, but we absolutely should be judged for how we treat others.”

I let go of my judgment of Ivan. But in truth, I could not let go of my judgment of the 50 or 60 white men who refused to celebrate Israel’s diversity at the mention of a Pride Parade. Even Representative Annie Kuster, with whom I met after lunch, stated with horror and disgust her embarrassment at the action of those men. Maybe if I met 50 or 60 random white men who opposed LGBTQ rights, I would not care. But these men were lawmakers and policymakers, elected to uphold the constitution and rights of all Americans.

This includes, whether they like it or not, the approximately 24 million American adults who identify as part of the LGBTQI community. So, what do we do with this? For one, we can learn from Bruriah, one of the few female teachers in the Talmud. According to one story, she once found her husband, Rabbi Meir, praying that violent men in their neighborhood would die. Appalled by this, she responded to him by pointing out that the verse in Psalms her husband thought he was fulfilling does not say “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and the wicked shall be no more,” but rather states: “Let sin be consumed from the earth,” with the result that “the wicked shall be no more” because they have repented. Our job is to help rid the Congress of the sins of those who would deny rights, dignity, livelihoods, and so much more to other citizens and residents, who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, gender nonconforming, or nonbinary. We can campaign against their re-election, donate money to their opponents, and vote against the ones who live in our own districts.

After the speech was over, I headed to the Longworth Congressional Building’s cafeteria for lunch. The place was packed, and I found one empty seat at a long table where all kinds of people were having all kinds of conversations. To my left was a young, probably college-aged, African American woman. She was sitting across from and talking with a similarly aged Hispanic man. She was telling him about her summer internship on the Hill. He was listening intently and asking questions. As I overheard them, it was clear they did not know one another and they had very different backgrounds, yet they found it easy to talk – and more importantly – to hear one another. I wondered if being a part of minority and marginalized communities made them more open and sensitive to those who may be different from themselves.

The gentleness of their conversation was in great contrast to the one between the woman across from me and the woman to my right. The woman across from me was there with some friends from her home district in Pennsylvania to visit with their Congressional Rep, someone they mostly saw every two years when they campaigned together for her re-election. They had no other reason for coming to D.C. The woman to my right was from Mississippi and was part of a group of corn farmers who were in D.C. to lobby in favor of the federal farm bill.

For a reason I didn’t quite fathom, Pennsylvania woman and corn woman were suddenly talking about abortion and reproductive rights. Corn woman was firmly anti-abortion and cited the Bible as her source – her reading of the commandment not to murder. Pennsylvania woman was just as firmly pro-choice and vehemently anti-religion. She was nearly screaming at corn woman, who looked like she was about to boil over. But Pennsylvania woman would not let up. In that moment, I was embarrassed to share Pennsylvania woman’s views and only hoped and prayed that she would leave. Thankfully, she did.

I turned to corn woman and said, “I am really sorry about the way that woman just treated you. It was uncalled for. I am a rabbi, and I am intrigued that you cited the Bible as your reason for your views on abortion. Would you like to hear the Jewish perspective?” While she seemed to appreciate my opening words, she hesitated, I think afraid that I would attack her. But to her credit, she said, “Yes, I would. I have often wondered how Jewish people think about this.”

I said to her, “It’s based on our reading of the biblical story in which a pregnant woman is injured and her fetus dies. Her husband is entitled to compensation for her injuries, but not for the death of the fetus. The ancient rabbis concluded thus that life begins at birth, not sooner.” So, she asked, “You’re in favor of abortion?” And I answered, “I am opposed to the government making any laws that would stand in the way of a woman being able to terminate her pregnancy when she felt it was necessary to do so for physical, spiritual, emotional, financial, or other reasons. If this means I am pro-abortion, then so be it.” She thanked me added, “You have not changed my mind.” And I said, “I’m not trying to. I just thought that since you cited the Hebrew Bible as your reason for opposing abortion, you should know how the Jewish people interpret the Bible on the issue. I truly respect your right to hold your views.”

She thanked me again and said, “It’s ironic. That other woman attacked me not only for my view on abortion, but she claimed I didn’t care anything about unwanted or poor children once they were born. Yet here I am going off to lobby on the Farm Bill, which contains the provisions for SNAP benefits, which provide exactly the benefits she accused me of not supporting.” I nodded my head, wished her luck, and realized that seeing another as b’tzelem Elohim involves acts of kindness. Screaming at another person is not kind.

Returning for a moment to Pirkei Avot, we read in Avot 3:14, “[Rabbi Akiva] would say: Beloved is man, since he is created in the image [of God]. A deeper love – it is revealed to him that he is created in the image, as it says (in Genesis 9:6): ‘for in God’s image [God] made man.’”

Natan Sharansky, just before he was imprisoned in the former Soviet Union, was given a book of Psalms in Hebrew by his wife. He struggled to read the text, his Hebrew being minimal. But he studied and eventually grasped many of the concepts, especially the idea from Genesis that humanity was created in the Divine Image. He found deep awe in this idea and wrote, “This required me to go forward in an honest and direct way, without compromising principles. This … was what I was most afraid of in my interrogations with the KGB. I was afraid to lose the world of inner freedom I had found, to fail to stay true to my inner self, to no longer conduct myself in a way that was worthy of the divine image.” This is what I admired about corn woman … and abhorred in Pennsylvania woman. The latter’s behavior was bullying, and not worthy of the divine image.

I had much time on my hands after lunch before my return flight. I visited with Representative Kuster, walked around Congress for a bit, and finally called for a Lyft. My driver was named Zaid. I asked him if liked being a Lyft driver and he said, “No, I don’t. I left Afghanistan where I had a good life running a café and making music. But I couldn’t do that under the Taliban. I’d like to make enough money to do that here, but to rent a little place for a café is out of my reach.”

We made small talk about coffee and music, and he asked me what I did and why I was in D.C. I told him that I was a rabbi and I had come down to hear the president of Israel speak to a joint session of Congress. He said, “Muslim, Jewish, Christian – it’s the same God, why can’t we all get along?”

Karen Bass, the current mayor of Los Angeles, asked a similar question: She says, “The year I was elected to Congress, I was one of only nine incoming freshman Democrats along with 65 Republicans. I was determined to make vital changes to the framework that governs child welfare systems across the country, and getting anything done would require working across the aisle. But with whom? I didn’t have much else in common with Rep. Michele Bachmann (of Minnesota), but I discovered that she had had 23 foster kids and knew well the limitations of the system.”

We formed a caucus, launched Foster Youth Shadow Day to highlight the stories of young people affected by the system, and helped pass important legislation. I stay focused on the needs of real people.

Returning to Zaid, I told him about the work our Social Action Committee does with a local church to help an Afghani family that had moved to Concord, focusing on the needs of real people. He was awed that a Jewish community would work to resettle an Afghani family. I said to him, “like you said, it’s the same God.” He nodded his head and asked for my card. I smiled and handed it to him thinking, b’tzelem Elohim. Sometimes a challenge and sometimes a blessing.

Shabbat shalom and shanah tovah.

Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyar 5784