My Father Is Not Better Than Your Father

7th Heshvan

by Rabbi Daria

You may have read about how we generously received a Torah scroll recently, just in time for Rosh HaShanah this year. (You can read about it here.) Well, this past Sunday I traveled to outside of Seattle, to the Treacy Levine Center, to speak to 200 people at the 50th anniversary of the center. It is also a time when they are transitioning from having owned about 200 acres of land to a new organization, Camp Korey, coming to take over the facilities. I was greatly humbled to receive a standing ovation. 


What an honor it is to be here at the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Treacy Levine Center, "TLC."

For half a century, people who came to TLC got extra TLC and it helped heal them. God willing, for the next more than 50 years, healing will continue here for children with severe illnesses and their families.

For healing on multiple levels can’t help but take place when one spends time connected to the natural world, and particularly when one shares these experiences with others.

How fitting, then, that a vision for healing of this kind found root in a man whose name means “God heals,” “Raphael.”

Rabbi Raphael Levine, or “The Rabbi,” as he was often referred to by the community here, most likely had various nicknames. I never knew him personally, but I was fortunate to know one of his nicknames: “Uncle Raif.”

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Raif, a nickname for Raphael, was my Grandma Muriel’s uncle, and my great-grandmother, Ida’s, “baby brother.” These two women played important roles in my life, and long before I imagined that I would myself enter the rabbinate, through their stories I was first introduced to Uncle Raif, a rabbi in the family who had been on TV and started an interfaith retreat center in distant Seattle.

Stories about him didn’t dominate my relationship with them, and growing up in greater Boston I only saw these relatives periodically. But I remember one particular visit to Minnesota to visit my grandparents there when I was in my late 20s. My grandmother pulled out her copy of The Wild Branch on the Olive Tree and shared a little more about her uncle and the work he had done. Never could I have imagined that I would be standing here today, a direct descendent of this powerful man, and myself now working in the rabbinate, as we mark 50 years of the work created by his vision, together with that of our dear Fr. Treacy.

What a journey so many of our lives take. Many of us find ourselves having experiences we wouldn’t have expected at many other times in our lives. And that is how I find myself here. After a winding journey that took me through 3 years of living in Japan, an EdM, living in Israel for 3 years, the rabbinate, many other surprises, and now living in northern CA with my own start-up community that connects people to the natural world for the sake of deep healing in relationship to ourselves, community, the Divine, and the natural world, I am struck by the placement of my journey in my greater family journey.

It was a handful of years ago now that the thought crossed my mind, “I know that I have rabbinic heritage, and an amazing retreat center was co-created by one of these individuals in partnership with a Catholic Priest. Is it still around? What’s the Priest doing now?” Fortunately, with the help of the internet, after just a little work I was able to find the center and connect with Father Treacy.

However, it wasn’t until one year ago August, after I has resettled to the west coast and begun building community there, that he and I were able to meet in person for the first time and I was able to see the product of this grand vision that had come to fruition through such an immense amount of hard work. The weekend that I came purposefully coincided with the visit of a group of children from Kids for Peace, an organization that brings together children from Israel, Palestine and Seattle- Jews, Moslems, and Christians. I was able to talk with the facilitators and some of the children about the life changing experiences afforded them because of the vision behind the Treacy Levine Center and this space here.

Kids for Peace will now need to find a new location for the youth to meet, and I am confident that they will be able to do so. But what I was so struck by, and continue to be struck by, is that powerful vision for healing and connection that not only is the raison d’etre for the Treacy Levine Center, but that finds its source in the fact that “the Rabbi,” growing up in a shtetl in Lithuania, and “the Priest, growing up in a small village in Ireland, had been able to build such a relationship together, and such a legacy, so that decades later this very same Priest can teach me about my own family’s stories, and introduce me to my great-great-great-grandfather, Lebl the inn keeper, who lived to be 104 years old. What worlds have been traversed in this drama! And by coming here today, all of us are part of it.

We live in a somewhat paradoxical time: from a Jewish perspective, the rate of intermarriage with those of different backgrounds is at an all-time high. It is more the norm for me personally and professionally to encounter families in which one parent comes from a Jewish lineage and the other from a different tradition. That is not to say that Jews are not at all marrying Jews, but rather that in the non-Orthodox Jewish world, no one blinks an eye in these situations. This is, of course, a far cry from the not-too distant history, in which one of my great-uncles married a Christian woman and my great grandfather, his father, disowned him for over a decade.

The Treacy Levine Center creates and supports opportunities for people to come together because in knowing one another our assumptions can be corrected and our fears can be assuaged.

Let me quote from Uncle Raif’s writing:

“I could see a great ecumenical, religious, educational, and cultural center for the Pacific Northwest... It would be a retreat for people seeking spiritual renewal to meet the challenges of a difficult world, and for families seeking to know each other better, away from th    e turbulence and distractions of city life. It would be a haven for those who wish a deeper understanding of themselves and their fellow beings, a center for conferences concerned with better human relations, a place where people could work and learn together, sharing their knowledge, experience, needs, hopes and dreams. It would be a camp for children and adults of all races and creeds to enjoy themselves, and in the process, to come to know one another as equals.

What an inspirational vision! And although it is as deeply relevant today as it was 50 years ago, life often unfolds in mysterious ways and the direct ownership of this land will no longer be part of the Treacy Levine Center’s responsibility. 

But what of the vision of the center, and the need for healing that it was responding to? If you had a chance to read some of the excerpts of Uncle Raif’s autobiography, you might have read about the incitement of violence by the Christian clergy and the government in Lithuania, and the fear it rightfully instilled among innocent people who were different- in particular, us Jews. Upon his resettling to Duluth, MN, Uncle Raif fortunately was gifted with a Christian teacher at his public school who was able to dispel his assumptions thanks to her kindness and care. That’s what the Treacy Levine Center is about: the healing that can come about when we can open our hearts to the humanity of the other.

In much of the Jewish community we can see how truly effective “meeting the other” is, and has been, in building relationships, and in fact so many marriages!

And so, perhaps the vision of the Treacy Levine Center is no longer needed? Alas, we unfortunately can still see far too many instances of deep pain and suffering created out of ignorance and fear. Perhaps the issue no longer is as present in many parts of direct Jewish-Christian interactions and relationships, but sadly it still looms large throughout our nation and the world.

Just last week, with arrival of the new moon, we moved on from the Jewish month of “high holydays”- a moon cycle full of calls to wake up, check in with our path, to open to vulnerability, and to rejoice deeply. Over the course of the holidays, ancient words and ideas keeps us focused on these various themes.

One part of the liturgical cycle, particularly on the holiday of Yom Kippur, focuses our attention even more exactingly on how we have used speech this past year, thereby giving us the opportunity to make changes this coming year in order to better align our reality with our aspirations.

But this theme doesn’t exist just in the holiday cycle. Every day, the liturgy reminds us that worlds are created, and therefore can also be destroyed, through speech. This of course lies in direct contrast to the childhood taunt: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”

Beyond the liturgy, rabbis over the centuries have explored the concept of “shmirat lashon,” “careful speech,” as well as “lashon ha’ra,” “evil speech,” and even “avak lashon,” “dust of the (evil) tongue.”

Just because we have these teachings about how to focus our speech and what kind of speech to avoid doesn’t mean, of course, that I believe Jews have always succeeded in all these various areas of speaking as carefully as possible. Humans are humans! And these teaching carry universal messages and practices, which is why I wanted you to know that a rich, ancient and present-day literature exists that is part of serious Jewish study for the explicit sake of helping individuals with this challenging task of “right speech.” Why do we need such help? Many of us know this intuitively, but another response comes from a Jewish teaching about the design of our bodies: we are given only one mouth, and yet two ears, so that we might listen more and speak less!

Well, we all know that we shouldn’t gossip. Is there really much more beyond that? The rabbis go far beyond the category of gossip and include insults, ridicule, jests, denigrating another’s craftsmanship or merchandise, commenting on someone’s physical attributes, mental status, financial situation, and medical history.

In fact, they teach that when you embarrass another, the red flush that comes to their face can remind us of blood – for embarrassing another in public compares to murder.

“Wow!” You might be thinking. “That’s pretty extreme!”

Yes. I agree completely. AND, I want us to also ask:

1)   What are the results of too many of our present modes of communication, especially in this election cycle?

2)   What might the world look like if we could all move ourselves a little more on the spectrum to align with our goals for right speech?

First, let’s look at the world that we live in. In our “business as usual” model, is there any space to respond to the divinity within another? Or if you’re a concrete kind of person- are we getting the results we want? Do we see people living in safety, and with enough of their basic needs met, even in this country of ours? Are we making the world a better place through discourse of the kind that is presently so carelessly thrown around?

Or does the language that we hear, even in such public venues as over the course of the presidential campaign, express derogatory views of Moslems, immigrants, refugees, and women, and include not too subtle suggestions that violence is actually a legitimate, and appropriate response to a candidate’s position on an issue?

Will the situation that Uncle Raif faced in Lithuania at the turn of the prior century, and that too many have experienced even in our own country and certainly in the Holocaust and throughout the world actually be something that becomes sanctioned by our government? How can it be acceptable to have a potential leader of our very powerful nation modeling this? Hate speech, expressions of superiority and inferiority, and objectification of other human beings is so very dangerous, and the results have been shown throughout history and around the world, as well as through present day reports in our very own country.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, and their hate map, we are fortunate that in this part of the country there are – as we may feel to be true- not a lot of hate groups. But do check out their map online.

Here are some statistics that can help you gain a clearer view of the “state of hate” in our nation. (These numbers do not include 2016 since the year is not yet complete).

However, by the end of 2015:

·        Increase in total number of hate groups up from 2014. 14%

·        Total number of antigovernment 'patriot' groups in 2015. 998

·        Total number of Ku Klux Klan groups in 2015 190

·        Increase in total number of anti-Muslim hate groups up from 2014. 42%

Is this consistent with our values, as both Americans and as supporters of the Treacy Levine Center?

At this time in history when there is so much hope for connection, and so many barriers to difference have already been brought down, our work is clearly not yet done.

The Treacy Levine Center will no longer responsible for hosting people at this facility, but their healing work will continue. And regardless of our relationship to the center beyond today, we each have the power to be “secret agents of healing” in our own lives.

Here are some opportunities for action:

1.   We are called upon to do be God’s hands, and that means that when we hear hurtful words or see hurtful actions, we speak up and do what we can to arrest these situations.

2.   We can bring increased attention to our own attitudes, behaviors, and actions.

3.   We can reach out to others to help bridge differences.

4.   We can get involved with organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, that fight hate, seek justice, and teach tolerance.

5.   And of course we can continue to stay involved with the Treacy Levine Center.

In closing, the late Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi , (whose youth was spent in Europe, in a Vichy internment camp, narrowly escaping the Holocaust), and who was one of the most influential Rabbis in the liberal Jewish world, would often speak about an “organismic model of religion.” He compared the myriad world religions to the various organs of the human body. We need right arms, we need left arms. We need legs, and a stomach, and a liver, heart, etc. Without each organ we cannot function optimally, and indeed, with each organ we can be a powerful, beautiful force in the world. So, too, can the various non-extremists segments of religious groups unite to be a powerful, beautiful force in the world.

In an ancient Jewish teaching from about 2000 years ago the rabbis asked, “Why, when creating the world did God just make one human being at the very beginning?” After all, God could have created the world in any number of ways, and certainly could have created several human beings from the start. (Regardless of how we understand the creation of this world, we, too, can be curious about this sacred story.) And how do the rabbis answer this question? God created the world with just one human being at the beginning so that no one can say that “my father is better than yours.”

Imagine- what could the world look like if we were all open-hearted and fearless enough to not have to put another down by lifting ourselves up. Imagine- what could the world look like if we could securely and with great love build strong bridges to those we know better as well as those that cause us to shrink back in fear, or to reach out in attack.

The actions we take as individuals and as a community can and do shift the great drama we are part of one way or another. So I extend to you the question that poet Mary Oliver asks: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild, and precious life?”

And so, I invite you to join me in this prayer for healing. It comes from the Torah, in the Book of Numbers, and the story in the Hebrew bible when Miriam is stricken with a disease and her brother, Moses calls out to God to heal her: Ana, El, Na – Rfa na la. Please God, heal her.

At this time of hope, when there is still such a need for healing, may we, too, call out to God, and call out to one another as instruments of the Divine- Please, let us heal her. Let us heal the collective “us.” For your father is not better than my father. Your father is my father.

Please join me in this chant for healing: Ana, El na, rfa na la!