Rabbi Steve Cohen: Two Abrahams

Shabbat Shalom!

This evening I am thinking of our two great Abrahams.

First, Abraham the father of the Jewish people, who lived about 4,000 years ago and whom we meet once again in this week’s Torah portion. And also Abraham Lincoln, who 150 years ago led the United States through the greatest crisis in this country’s history. In addition to being towering giants of human history, our two Abrahams share at least two things with each other. First, they both spoke eloquently, comfortably and convincingly, about the reality of God. And second, both Abrahams were completely self-educated.

Abraham Lincoln never went to school, of any kind. He was born in poverty, in a log-cabin on the American frontier in 1809, and he taught himself from books, everything he ever knew. He even taught himself law, and mastered it well enough to argue over fifty cases in court, thirty one of which he won. Our father Abraham four thousand years ago, was also entirely self-taught. He is the only Jew who ever came to awareness of the God of the universe with no parent or teacher to instruct him. Both Abrahams were blessed with the mysterious gift of being able to think for themselves.

I will return to Abraham the father of the Jews at the end of my remarks, but want to turn first to Abraham Lincoln, twelfth President of the United States, and to focus on a particular moment in Lincoln’s presidency. On March 4, 1865, the United States had been at war with itself for 4 brutal years. The Civil War remains the deadliest war in American history, and is now estimated to have claimed about 750,000 lives. 10% of all men of military age in the North, and 30% of all men of military age in the South died in that conflict. On March 4th, 1865, the war was coming to an end, and Lincoln had just been re-elected for a second term. In his second inaugural address, which is carved in stone on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial, Lincoln spoke to an exhausted and grief-stricken nation with these immortal words: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the rightas God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in: to bind up the nation’s wounds,  to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan. To do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Many Americans have been recalling Lincoln’s words, and that moment of leadership, in these days leading up to the November 2020 presidential election. In fact, there is a national organization called “Braver Angels” which is sponsoring a nation-wide effort called “With Malice Toward None,” (quoting Lincoln’s address) whose goal is to prepare us for the moment after the election. Under the leadership of Judy Karin and Monica Steiner and Marina Stephens, our congregation is participating in the “With Malice Toward None” initiative.

We all know that our country is passing through a moment of supreme anxiety, fear, bitterness and polarization. And we know that even once the results become clear, which may take quite some time, a large portion of our country will be emotionally devastated, while another large portion of the country will be celebrating.

How would Abraham Lincoln have guided us? How will we bind up our nation’s wounds? The “With Malice Toward None” program urges everyone, on both sides of the political divide, to commit to respecting the humanity of those who differ from us. Can we do that? We know….we can all agree….that hatred and bitterness serve no good purpose. We may disagree, we do disagree, passionately about which candidate is better suited to lead our country through this dangerous time in history. We may not have even a little understanding of each other. But we must not allow hatred to poison and corrode our hearts. Let us decide now to take a stand. Tonight, and through this weekend, and next Wednesday morning, and every day thereafter, to stand united against hate.

How does one do that? What is the antidote to hate?

I believe that the antidote to hate is hope. I find myself falling into hate when I feel despair, when I feel hopeless. But hope strengthens my heart. How does hope happen?

Let me tell you about one hour this morning that filled me with hope. I’d like to share my experience with you; perhaps it will give you hope too, or it may inspire you to consider where you find hope yourself.

As some of you know, about three years ago we began an effort to lower fear and distrust in our community. It came in response to the Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, VA, as something positive we could do to stand up against hate. We reached out to our Muslim neighbors, to evangelical Christians, to Catholics, blacks and Latinos, and to the Greek orthodox church up the street, seeking to learn more about them and to invite them to learn about us. We called it The Human Family Project, and we began to have fun! Coming together to ask, to learn about each other, to share and to eat…

Then Covid came, and we could no longer bring people together. So we began to re-conceive The Human Family Project. We began to ask what The Human Family Project might look like using Facebook, using Twitter and Instagram, and TikTok and Zoom. The Coronavirus pandemic has been such a disaster, on so many levels, but in the midst of this disaster, we have learned how to Zoom. Through Zoom and Social Media, we can communicate instantly with people all over the world. Slowly, we have been reaching out to young people all over the globe, to create a different kind of Human Family Project, an on-line community of young people committed to advancing the idea that, in spite of all of our many differences….of language, culture, religion, and politics….we are one Human Family.

We reached out to our friends at the Ubumwe Center in Gisenyi Rwanda, and to our friends at the Givat Haviva International School in Israel, and to other friends in Mexico City and Buenos Aires Argentina. Allison Lewis Towbes, a dynamic young person from our own community has stepped forward to serve as the group facilitator and CBB member Professor Debra Lieberman, a national expert on digital media has been my guide into this brave new world.

This morning (today!) after months of groundwork, we held the first Zoom meeting of our Human Family Project Board of Creators with twelve young people: Cina from China, and Sylvie and Joshua from Rwanda, and Basak from Turkey and Grigor from Armenia and Lila from Honduras and Sara from Mexico City and Jake and Clare and Georgia from the UK, and Charlie from Santa Barbara. Just coping with the multiple time zones and clock changes was a minor miracle. But when the meeting began, and these young people saw who else was on the screen, and the discussion began about what might be possible…..the joy and excitement were palpable. And I felt something awakening inside me that I have not felt recently. I felt hope. And hope is the antidote to hate.

Who are these young people, the new Board of Creators of the Human Family Project? They share one thing in common: all of them, in one way or another, have ventured forth…have left the security of their homes, to open themselves to a vast world of possibilities. Basak from Turkey and Grigor from Armenia and Lila from Honduras are all students at the remarkable Givat Haviva International school in Israel. Cina from China is studying at St. George’s College in Buenos Aires. Sylvie from Gisenyi Rwanda is a student at Amherst College in Massachusetts. These extraordinary young people are the modern day equivalents of the first Abraham, our father Abraham, to whom God calls out in this week’s portion saying “Lech lecha, mei-artzcha, mi-moladtcha, mi-beit avicha, el haaretz asher areka.” Go forth, from your land, from the place of your birth, from your father’s house, and go to the land that I will show you.”

Our father Abraham was the first Hebrew, which means literally “boundary-crosser.” In the Torah this week, we read once again of a single individual with the courage, the faith, and the independence of mind to go forth….without even knowing where he was headed…and in his going forth, he gave birth to a new world, and three great world religions. Abraham’s journey inspires us even today, four thousand years later.

I believe that our world is being re-born, as we speak. The young Abrahams of the Human Family Project…and many other young boundary crossers all around the world….give us great reason to believe in the future. Great reason to hope.

When we have hope, there is no reason to hate. Let us prepare ourselves to begin again….after this bitter and hard-fought election. “With malice toward none….may we bind up the wounds of our nation…. And achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Steve Cohen gave this sermon this past Friday, October 30.