בס"ד Gut Yontiff. A little less than two months ago, the sporting world and America were thrust into a political controversy. For sports fans, Colin Kaepernick was not a new name. He had risen to be one of the stars of the National Football League a few years ago before fading into the background like so many stars before him. However, now he is known throughout America for something other than his skills on the field. During the football preseason, Kaepernick was seen sitting during the national anthem before the game. After the second time that this was seen, he was asked about it by reporters. Kaepernick at this point in time decided to explain. "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder." I know that this is a provocative example and I can imagine that this lands differently on different people in this community. And that is ok. But, I want to step back from this particular example for a moment and I want us to ask ourselves: how do we react when we encounter a message that arrives in wrapping paper that is not easy on the eye? There is a series of stories in the Talmud, Masechet Hagiga. Our sages relate a story of our classic heretic, Elisha Ben Abuya. He is said to have been a top Torah Scholar that in midlife reversed course and left the fold of traditional Judaism. However, despite the fact that Elisha no longer remained in the community that followed Torah, he retained relationships from within that same community. His old disciple, Rabbi Meir, remained willing to spend time with his disenfranchised teacher. And more than that, he seemed willing to engage him on matters of Torah. The first story relates a time when Rabbi Meir was sitting in the house of study/the beit midrash. Elisha rides by the beit midrash on Shabbat on horseback (which is forbidden). Rabbi Meir’s colleagues call to him saying, “Your teacher is outside.” Rabbi Meir gets up from his learning and leaves the beit midrash. He encounters Elisha on the horse, and Elisha looks down and asks Rabbi Meir, “what Biblical verse were you expounding upon today?” And they went back and forth over the verse and a variety of interpretations. The second story relates Elisha merely asking Rabbi Meir about a biblical verse and then an exegetical back and forth that includes a field trip to many houses of study to see how they explain similar verses. Of these stories, it is said that it was as if Rabbi Meir ate a date, where he eats the fruit and throws away the pit. It is also said that that Rabbi Meir is like one that eats a pomegranate, where he removed the peel, threw it away and ate the fruit inside. These metaphors are fascinating. If Rabbis Meir is likened to eating a date, then he is able to take the fruit and enjoy it--take what is good and live by it, and when he encounters something hard or difficult, he can spit it out or throw it away. If Rabbi Meir is likened to eating a pomegranate, he first has to dismiss that which is difficult in order to discover what is good under the rind. The Ben Ish Hai, Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad, wonders how both of the metaphors can be true, since they are seemingly so opposite. He concludes that literarily, the fruits must apply to the different situations. When Rabbi Meir first comes into contact with Elisha by way of Elisha’s interest in Torah, this is when he is eating the date. He starts off with Torah learning, which is good, and he will later throw away the pit, which symbolizes Elisha’s heretical ways. Whereas when Rabbi Meir encounters Elisha on the horse on Shabbat, that is the pomegranate, since he encountered Elisha while he was subverting the tradition, and then later learned Torah from him. Meir was never seen acting in accordance with Elisha’s ways, thus Meir is seen as having thrown out the rind, while still being able to enjoy the Torah, the good parts. I was studying this with a friend the other day, and he asked me, “which one are you in the story?” I said, “I think I am the pomegranate.” He asked, “why?” I said, “Well, I often have a soft spot for the bad guy in the movie.” We laughed, and then I answered him for real. “I think people have often been put off by my exterior and only those who have stuck with me have felt that I had fruit to offer them.” I have been thought of as an extremist, a bearded frum fanatic, a heretic; I have been called bombastic, offensive and dangerous in my life. Some of that may be true. And I have personal work to do, for sure. But even so, is there something worth listening to in what I have to teach? We live in a pluralistic world. Our friends, family and those we encounter are fairly likely to say things that call profane what we call holy. It is in these instances that it becomes incredibly difficult to listen to the words and content that others are trying to share with us. How can we listen to others that send shocks through our bodies when their words first strike us? We are all flawed human beings. How do we take fruit from places we perceive as off putting or even dangerous? I pray that God and History will judge me for my whole self. I hope God and History accurately acknowledge and name my flaws, while seeing that there is something sweet inside. Those that know me know that I often listen to the podcast version of the Dan Le Betard Show. This is a sports show that rarely talks about sports. When discussing the Kaepernick protest weeks ago, Le Betard pushed listeners to heed to his friend and journalist, Bomani Jones--and I will paraphrase here--When we hear something difficult we can choose to yell at it, fight it, ignore it. Or we can choose to listen to it. Listening to it does not mean that you agree with all of it, but what do you have to lose? Without challenging our internal resistance to empathize with all those that we encounter, we are at risk of missing the essential fruit at the heart of those around us. As we enter into the next day of fasting; of depriving ourselves of all foods, let us remember the hunger we are about to endure. Once this fast is over, let us meet those we encounter with a great hunger for the fruit they have to offer. Even if the peel does not initially please us aesthetically. Remember, being hungry, does not mean you have to eat the fruit. But you do have to take it seriously. I wish you all a meaningful fast/tzom mashmauti and a Gut Yontiff.
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