March 10, 2018 — 23 Adar 5778
The hallmark of a truly great sermon is that after you have heard it, you cannot get it out of your head. It stays with you. Months later, you still think about it. I heard such a sermon in early January.
Andy Stanley, a pastor in Atlanta, Georgia, gave a sermon the first Sunday of 2018 about New Year’s resolutions. People want to get more fit, more thin, more healthy. Gym memberships spike in January. But he points out that when we think about the people we truly admire, it is not because of their ideal weight or body mass. Is there something higher we might reach for?
He tells the Biblical story of Nehemia, who lives in Persia, modern day Iran, in the year 538 before the Common Era. Nehemia is Jewish. He is the chief cupbearer to the King of Persia, the most powerful person in the world at that time.
Some Jews from Jerusalem, who are trying to rebuild the Jewish presence after exile, come to see Nehemia. How is it going, he asks? Very badly, they tell him. We are really struggling. The walls are destroyed. The gates are destroyed. Morale is destroyed. The enemies of the Jews are powerful. The Jews are weak. The situation looks hopeless.
When he hears this, Nehemia does not say I am so sorry to hear that, I wish you well. Rather, when he hears this, it breaks his heart. He sits down to absorb it. He cries. And in his heartbroken state, he reaches out to God in prayer. God please help the Jewish people be worthy of returning to the land of Israel. Please help me do my part.
Now Nehemia has the cushiest job in the world. Here is his job: Would your Royal Highness tonight prefer chardonnay or pinot noire? He lived in the epicenter of power. But something within him stirred. Nehemia tells the King, my people are suffering. May I please take a leave of absence from my work as your cupbearer to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the city walls? The King says yes. Off Nehemia goes.
When he gets to Jerusalem, he has his work cut out for him. He has to mobilize a dispirited Jewish population. He has to resist enemies who do not want to see a Jewish renaissance. He has to rebuild walls. Rebuild gates. Rebuild confidence. When forces arrayed against him tell him to get off the wall, and stop the work, he famously says: melachah gedola ani oseh v’loh uchal laredet, I am doing a great work, and I cannot come down. Against all odds, he succeeds. He rebuilds the walls, the gates, the community.
2,500 years later, Andy Stanley tells his congregation that Nehemia has so much to teach us. Nehemia’s heart was broken not because he weighed too much, or exercised too little, or didn’t have enough money. Nehemia’s heart was broken for reasons that far transcended his own life. His heart was broken because of what was happening in Jerusalem thousands of miles away.
It cost Nehemia dearly to respond to his broken heart. He had to give up his cushy job, his prestigious position, his power, his ease of living. It cost him money. It cost him years of his life. It endangered his life. He now had enemies who wished him harm. But his heart was broken, and he had to do something about it.
Since hearing that sermon in January, I keep hearing Andy Stanley’s question: what breaks your heart? Not about you, but in the world around you?
What breaks my heart are the stories I keep reading about families that are broken up, parents rent from their children, children rent from their parents, and they are broken up by our government because of immigration issues. Consider this story, dated December 8, 2017:
A couple who came to New Jersey from Mexico 30 years ago have been deported, leaving their three children behind.
Oscar and Humberta Campos lived in Bridgeton, New Jersey, and own a landscaping company. They said goodbye to their children Friday morning at Newark’s airport before boarding a flight to Mexico City. The children, ages 16, 22 and 24, are all American citizens.
“There is no distance. I will always have them in my heart,” Oscar Campos told WCAU-TV.
Campos said he fled violence in his hometown, Tamaulipas, and crossed the border into Texas in 1989.
WCAU-TV reports that after a lengthy effort to obtain work visas, the couple were ordered by immigration officials to leave the country…
Just before the couple left, Oscar Campos gave his children some parting advice. “Fight for your dreams, because life continues and you will always find good people that support you,” he said. “There are a lot of good people. Don’t give your hopes up.”
This story breaks my heart. And it breaks my heart at so many levels. First for these parents forcibly separated from their children, and for these children forcibly separated from their parents. That is unimaginable. Can you imagine being forcibly separated from your children? The golden rule teaches us to treat others the way you would want to be treated. Hillel’s formulation is what is hateful to you do not do to another. We would hate being forcibly separated from our children. We would hate our children being forcibly separated from us. How then can we be silent when our country is doing that to others?
We are in the season of Passover, when generations come together. In a few weeks we will hear the prophet Malachi talk about parents returning to children and children returning to parents. When generations come together, Malachi says, that is a messianic day of the Lord. But when generations are pulled apart, there is something deeply wrong with that society. Nicholas Kristoff quotes Randy Capps of the Migration Policy Institute to the effect that 25,000 people deported in 2016 have children who are American citizens. That is a lot of broken families. That brokenness breaks my heart.
But the issue is deeper than the pain experienced by these broken families. If you are a
Jew, the odds are overwhelming that your parents, your grandparents, or your great grandparents came to America from a place in Europe where they killed Jews because they were Jews. And our families, our ancestors, us, we were vulnerable and we were taken in by this great land. I am davening every morning and every evening with a family whose late father and whose late husband was there during Kristallnacht. The Nazis smashed his glass when he was a child. But America took him in, and because it did, he got to live a long and beautiful life, and he has generations of posterity. That is our story. Literally, our story. Or to quote the Boston Globe from February 12, 2018. Here is the headline, page 1, above the fold–“Lawrence Bacow: A son of immigrants, a vibrant voice for colleges.” The first line of the story reads: “The next president of Harvard University is the son of an Eastern European refugee and an Auschwitz survivor.” My heart is broken because the America that made us possible, our lives, our hopes, our futures, does not seem to exist anymore.
But my heart is broken for one deeper reason as well. Because of the way America welcomed Jews and so many immigrants from so many places, I had always believed that America was the greatest nation in the history of the world. I would tell that to our children, with their mother’s milk. “Nat, Sam, Jordana, you are blessed to live in the greatest nation in the history of the world.” But what happens to that idea when parents are torn from their children, and children are torn from their parents, by the tens of thousands?
The answer is, it corrodes the soul, and it kills that idea. New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote a column about the time that he interviewed students from Harvard, Yale, the University of Chicago, and Davidson about what they think of our country. From these 18, 19, 20, 21 year olds he heard unrelieved negative energy. They had lost confidence in our nation. They lost faith in the American idea. Brooks was supposed to be listening to them, taking in their ideas. But after hearing so much negative energy, he could not help himself. He pushes back. He says to them that when he was their age, he felt gratitude. He says to them, and I quote: “Our ancestors left oppression, crossed a wilderness and are trying to build a promised land.” What happened next is so telling. What happened next is so sad. What happened next is where we are as a nation.
What happened next is: “They looked at me like I was from Mars. ‘That’s the way powerful white males talk about America.’”
There is a straight line from the deportation of Oscar and Humberta Campos, the forcible separation of them and their three children, and the tens of thousands of families like them, and the death of idealism in the next generation of Americans.
So my heart is broken. For the pain of families that are broken. For the fact that our nation is not treating others the way we would want to be treated and were treated. For what this more cruel and crimped reality does to the American idea and to a rising generation’s cynicism and loss of faith in our land.
What do we do about it? I keep coming back to Nehemia. Nehemia did not complain about what broke his heart. He did not ignore it. He did not blame others. He did not say what can I do? I’m only one person. He did something.
So here is what I am going to do. Immigrants in Massachusetts rounded up by ICE and waiting for deportation are held in a place called the South Bay Detention Center. I spoke with a woman who works in this field. She says when you drive by the South Bay Detention Center, it breaks your heart, because you see these men and women, their faces looking out the window, torn from their families, desperate for help, for love, for hope, and totally stuck there. She told me that they could use a rabbi, a pastor, a listening ear. I am going there this Monday to listen to and to be with them. I am not going to solve their immigration woes. But I hope that they will feel less alone.
Immigration may not be your issue. And I do recognize that there are those here today who for reasons of their own principle believe these deportations, while painful to the individuals involved, are appropriate for our nation at this time. I respectfully disagree with that position, but totally respect your right in our democracy to hold it.
Whatever you feel about the merits of this issue, what Nehemia calls us to do, what Passover calls us to do, is to have a broken heart for our broken world, and to do something for somebody about it.
So: What breaks your heart, and what, what will you do about it? Shabbat shalom.