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12/19/2023 02:19:55 PM


Cantor Joanna Alexander


Our Torah this week takes Joseph on a journey from the depth of prison to the height of Egyptian power. After 2 years, the Pharoh’s cupbearer remembers him, and Joseph is called upon to interpret Pharoah’s dreams. Upon interpretation of 7 years of plenty followed by 7 years of famine, he adds a suggestion of a plan, that Egypt should create storehouses to collect excess grain during these years in order to better survive the famine. Pharoah then makes Joseph the second most powerful person in Egypt, in charge of this economic survival plan. As the famine hits the surrounding land Joseph's brothers travel from Canaan to Egypt hoping to purchase food stores for their survival, and here, Joseph has the opportunity to use his power for revenge on his family, the brothers who tried to kill him, and who did enslave him, or use the powers of forgiveness. Joseph chooses a middle path, he tests his brothers to ensure they have changed and learned from the intervening years, he must ensure they care from Benjamin, his only full-blood brother, he must ensure they have earned forgiveness.  

Joseph’s tricking of his brothers might be viewed cynically, he makes them travel back and forth to Canaan several times, once leaving a brother behind to ensure they will return with Benjamin, again hiding a gold cup in Benjamin’s sack of grain to ensure they will protect him against accusations of stealing, and then finally to bring Jacob to Egypt to be re-united with Joseph. From the outset this might seem like cruel manipulation, Joseph at the height of power is wielding it against the unknowing and completely at his mercy children of Israel. But I wonder if in fact, he is not giving them the benefit of the doubt. He could simply refuse them; he could charge them double and send them on their way. But instead, he chooses to be curious about them, he chooses to desire to reconnect with them but only cautiously. He gives them the benefit of the doubt that passing his tests is possible, and ultimately when they do, the family reunion is one that heals many wounds. 

Last night I had the honor and opportunity of being invited to speak at AMI to a group of about a dozen people about the war in Israel Gaza. The terrorist murders of October 7th followed by the devastating destruction in Gaza have caused many rifts within our community. I have heard from Temple Israel community members who are uncomfortable coming to our sanctuary because we feature photos of the hostages without space for the innocent dead in Gaza. I have heard from congregants that are unsure of the future of Tri-Faith and Temple Israel’s involvement with Tri-Faith when the statements shared have been unsatisfactorily against Hamas or in favor of Israel. I’ve heard from Jews in the Omaha community who do not wish a united Jewish statement to mention the deaths of innocent Palestinians, or a rise in Islamophobia—this is a Jewish statement, they say, we need to care for our own. I’ve heard people say they are scared to speak their opinions at work, or with their families, they are told they are self-hating Jews, or they must be ignorant of the fullness of context and history. 

We are in pain, and as people in pain we often turn inwards unwilling to risk being hurt by those who don’t see the world as we do. We in the Jewish community are in pain seeing the rage on college campuses, seeing Jewish students huddled in libraries as pro-Palestinians rally's bang on the doors. We wonder if we should wear our Jewish stars or kippot outside for fear of being attacked. And these attacks are happening. A Cantor friend of mine left an event for Hillel and continued to wear their kippa on route to the parking lot, they were shoved into a wall with the assailant yelling “dirty Jew.” I heard from a congregant who was nearly run off the road by a driver who yelled, (pardon my language this is a quote) “learn to drive you faggot kike.” And of course, we also know about at least 5 Muslims in America who were killed or hospitalized after anti-Palestinian attacks were made, including a 6-year-old boy in Chicago. Our communities are in pain. 

But we are failing to give each other the benefit of the doubt. When we put a litmus test on our friends, be they Jewish, Muslim or Christian, and we say we cannot be friends unless you…? Unless you condemn Hamas? Condemn Israel? Call for cease fire? Fail to see that a cease fire is capitulation? When we treat the world in a binary manner, with only right and wrong, my pain is the only pain that counts, we fail to find bridges of understanding and we fail to be part of a solution. 

Let me be clear: I cannot stop the war, I cannot stop terrorism, I cannot create peace. What I can do is build relationships with people who currently want to be in their own corner, who really have no way of understanding why I see the world the way I do.  

And you have the ability to do this too. You have the ability to be curious about your neighbors and family members who you disagree with, why does one assume ignorance instead of being curious why you see the world differently. I, Cantor Alexander, never considered that having the faces of the hostages would cause our sanctuary to feel unsafe and biased. We balance the faces of the hostages with prayers that state: “Rescue all of Your land, from the Jordan River to the sea, from the spilling of blood, and all residing and sojourning there, under every government, from haters without and hatred within. Grant peace and abundance and healing throughout the land, and secure calm to her defenders, lasting joy to all her inhabitants, and real hope for all her peoples.”  

When we create litmus tests of what you must believe or state in order for me to be in a relationship with you; we gain a win for self-righteousness. I am righteous, the terrorism of Hamas on October 7th was beyond words, beyond description and feels beyond humanity. But… what do we lose by only speaking with those who pass this litmus test? Giving someone the benefit of the doubt and having, maintaining or creating a relationship with someone who doesn’t explicitly pass my bar; it may make me uncomfortable, defensive, angry, or sad. But it also may bridge a gap that leads to understanding without agreement. It may lead me to strengthen and secure my argument, it may lead me to know the humanity of my neighbor more. It may lead me to gain a sense of peace and comfort even in a world filled with fear and pain. 

And last night I was able to both see the way our neighbors see the world differently and share answers to some of what has baffled them about Temple Israel and American Jewish response to this war.  

One person raised the issue of the word genocide, they stated ‘this is a word used for many historical circumstances: against Armenians, in Rwanda, in Serbia, it is simply a word that describes the mass death and destruction of a people, that is what we are seeing happening in Gaza, help me understand why it made the Jewish community so upset?’ Wow, to me this was enlightening, it wasn’t that AMI didn’t think about whether their statement would be hurtful in their relationship with Temple Israel, they could not even imagine or understand the hurt even after they were made aware of it. I explained that it feels like I as a Jewish person, and all my Jewish brothers and sisters in Israel, are being called genocide perpetrators. I explained that it feels like we are being called Nazis. I cannot say they understood this as a logical conclusion, and as I think about it, it is not a logical conclusion it is an emotional conclusion based on generations of Antisemitism. So, while understanding was not full; comprehension of what was unknown, and why this unknown was hurtful was gained and bridged. He gave me the benefit of the doubt that he could ask the question, I gave him the benefit of the doubt that he was truly curious and not defensive, and we spoke about it.  

Another person asked what it means to me, and the Jewish community if Israel were to not exist? As some context he was raising the challenge of countries ruled by religiously zealots such as the dangers of ISIS, or the dangers of the KKK; could it be that Israel is dangerous in the context? There are two segments to this question: as a reform and liberal Jew I believe he raises a very important question, Fundamentalist countries without separation of church and state can abuse their power especially over minority religions. I explained that this is a fear, and one reason there were 30+ weeks of civilian protests over the last year in Israel against the Netanyahu government was precisely the fear that fundamentalists would damage the democratic nature of Israel. So, is it possible? Yes. Has it happened yet? No.  

On the question of what it means to me, to us, for Israel to exist or not exist as a Jewish state, I shared the fear of the two ways of this happening. One, a war of destruction. Nearly half the Jewish population of the world live in Israel (approx. 7.1 million Jews), and a war which destroys Israel would be unfathomable to the Jewish world. The other way would be the creation of a bi-national state which would be democratic but not Jewish in nature. This, on the surface, seems very reasonable, however, the historical realities of antisemitism in which Jews who were well integrated into society regularly found themselves unsafe, persecuted and kicked out (these realities lead to the foundation of Zionist action in the first place). These fears which are part of Jewish identity, combined with the realities that the bad blood between the peoples sharing the land would be extremely difficult to overcome to create a working bi-national democracy, especially as population growth likely would lead to a Jewish minority population within a few generations. These very real fears are overlayed onto the idea that Israel might not exist. There are Jews all over the world, and we come from all places, but we are a religion and a people, and we are united by more than a faith tradition.  

It was truly an honor to learn from and answer questions with our neighbors from AMI, and I hope to be able to do so again in the future. I know, I did not convince anyone to change their opinion, but I do believe we had open dialogue especially around positions that were simply not understood. There were some people who raised what to me felt like conspiracy theories and I said, I think it comes down to the benefit of the doubt. I give Israel the benefit of the doubt and when I hear something like that, it feels like conspiracy, like a lie, it feels out of character with the Israel I know. But I must be honest if I heard the same thing about Hamas, I would not give them the benefit of the doubt; so, I can understand why you might not be willing to give Israel the benefit of the doubt given the realities of your Palestinian family’s experiences.  

But within the room, the conversation was respectful. There were questions, and answers, no one was trying to prove they were the only right ones. I walked away knowing a dozen more Muslims that I would trust, that I look forward to being in deeper relationship with, and that I know are committed to growing understanding even if we cannot agree one-hundred percent. And I know, as people asked for the conversation to continue again, that they gained understanding and perspective, trust and hope. We built peace within a small community because we were willing to put aside self-righteousness and litmus tests and come around a table to learn about one of the most difficult subjects…together.  


Watch the entirety of Friday’s service here.

Temple Talk is a recap of sermons given from the Bimah for those who missed a Sermon or who wanted to revisit the words spoken at a previous sermon.

Tue, March 5 2024 25 Adar I 5784