Achrei Mot 5779
by Rabbi David Steinhardt
April 13, 2019
If you were with me at either the interfaith event on Thursday night or last night, permit me to repeat myself.
The event was a vigil for those murdered by ISIS terrorists less than two weeks ago. While we were planning the gathering there were two more shootings. We tragically learned about the shooting at the Chabad synagogue in Poway, California, North of San Diego. Another anti-Semitic incident, more lost life. Then – and it went without notice – the shooting in North Carolina.
There is a group of us at BRICA that gather to mourn, and in so doing bring honor to the lives of those brutally murdered. We gathered because we believe that each of these attacks is an attack against all of us. Although these killings may be motivated by anti-Semitism, religious hatred, or for the crazy political extreme machinations of radical elements from the far right or extremist religious groups … we have all become victims and we want to affirm the common humanity. The reality, as both the Imam and the Priest said Thursday, is that we are one.
Both the Imam and the Priest and I all brought texts to share. Father Sherman quoted from Corinthians and spoke about the need and power of love.
Imam Fahti spoke about texts that show an understanding of different paths, faiths, and ways to be in the world. They both spoke beautifully, and each quoted the texts we like to hear. I chose a different route.
As I prepared for the program, I was constantly interrupted by a voice that said we get together after these tragedies and we affirm the most important values and ideas of our traditions and our texts. But things haven’t changed. And things are getting worse.
Now I feel in the deepest recesses of my being that these common affirmations are important. Critical. But how far can we go?
At the end of the day, sermons are words. We all know that the sermons of religious leaders today are not free expressions as they were at one time. Don’t be political, my colleague is told.
Unlike the prophet who spoke the truth to power, today’s clergy seems to need a job in order to have a pulpit.
We know there are issues of government policy, the language of leaders, gun laws, treatment of psychological and mental issues, the Internet, hate speech, education…. All of these are concerns.
There is a spiritual notion that what happens “out there” has a source “in here.” And that there is inside of each of us a lot of goodness, but some darkness.
Today we reach Achrei Mot and we read about the offerings of the Kohein on Yom Kippur. What we see is that this holy man brought sin and guilt offerings, first for himself and his family. We don’t pretend that the Kohen was perfect, but we see that because he accepts responsibility for himself and his family he can then ask for forgiveness for his community.
Maybe part of that notion is found in the idea written about by Abraham Joshua Heschel: “In a free society a few are guilty, but all are responsible.”
At the BRICA gathering I asked several questions, starting with, what are our responsibilities? I understand and, you do too, that responsibility begins with physical safety. It is about the words we speak; it is about the people we interact with; it is about our engagement in the world.
What do we do to shape our culture?
I asked about the basic texts we use. How do we teach them? What do we learn from them? Therein I realize that we can find in those texts the fodder for extremism. And so we have a responsibility in interpretation and teaching.
I used three texts that presented questions:
- The first murder. Fratricide. A man kills his brother. Why? On the surface, it is jealousy. But the jealousy is evoked by a sense of God’s favoritism. If that leads to religious belief that God loves me more than you, a dangerous pattern may be set. This is even before there was religion, but there was a God receiving offerings.
- The second text was the binding of Isaac. Typically, you and I learned that it was narrative about faith. Abraham loved his God so much that he would sacrifice his son. Hartman refers to this as “God intoxication!” How often have we heard these criminal, terror-laden attacks being done in the name of faith? Muslim terrorists. Christian extremists. Even our own Baruch Goldstein or the man who killed Yitzchak Rabin. We don’t kill a human being in the name of God. No – God is in that human being.
- The third text I brought was Isaac, who, after being deceived by Jacob, is approached by Esau … and Isaac only had one blessing to give. The result has been enmity for millennia. Don’t you bless all of your children? If you do, can’t God?
Essentially, what I tried to do was challenge the different faiths and our own to begin to create new paradigms that respect others and teach this from the youngest age.
At our vigil in October, there were over 2,000 people in the room. After the incident in New Zealand at the Mosque, the local mosque was packed with mourners and worshippers. At Thursday night’s gathering there were barely 100 worshipers. And I think it is because of a few things. One is the status of being a minority. The second is the history of being “othered”. For us, certainly the history of anti-Semitism, and the shock of this happening in America. Are we immune to the violence and hatred?
Clearly, these are such troubled, broken and sad times. But I would add to that that these times need us more than ever.
So, if I think about “tikkun” – about how we work with others in fixing this world, even a little – I also look for my own, our own, spiritual healing.
How do we as Jews respond in the placed of our neshamot?
I want to focus on what we learned from our loss … the loss of an innocent Jew, praying like so many others, and turn to the words of Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein who wrote a beautiful op–ed piece this past week. He spoke with passion, vividly and in great detail describing the situation and paying tribute to the victim Lori Kay.
I want to quote a part of his article.
This terrorist was a teenager. He was standing there with a big rifle in his hands. And he was now aiming it at me. For one reason: I am a Jew.
He started shooting. My right index finger got blown off. Another bullet of his hit my left index finger, which started gushing blood.
After the massacre in Pittsburgh, we had community training. Now that training kicked in. Somehow my brain directed my body to the synagogue ballroom, where the children, including two of my grandchildren, were playing. I ran towards them screaming “Get out! Get out!” I grabbed as many as I could with my bloody hands and pushed them out of the building.
One of our congregants that day, Almog Peretz, a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces ran after me to help get the children to safety and took a bullet in the leg. His eight-year-old niece, Noya Dahan, took some shrapnel to hers. Then an amazing miracle occurred: The terrorist’s gun jammed. Two other heroic congregants – an Army veteran named Oscar Stewart and an off-duty border patrol agent named Jonathan Moreles – rushed toward him and he fled.
The ambulance had not yet arrived. We all gathered outside. I don’t remember all that I said to my community, but I do remember quoting a passage from the Passover Seder liturgy: “In every generation they rise against us to destroy us; and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand.” And I remember shouting the words, “Am Yisrael Chai! The people of Israel live!” I have said that line hundreds of times in my life. But I have never felt the truth of it more than I did then.
I am a religious man. I believe everything happens for a reason. I do not know why God spared my life. I do not know why I had to witness scenes of a pogrom in San Diego County like the ones my grandparents experienced in Poland. I don’t know why a part of my body was taken away from me. I don’t know why I had to see my good friend, a woman who embodied the Jewish value of chesed (kindness), hunted in her house of worship. I don’t know why I had to watch Lori’s beloved husband, a doctor, faint as he tried to resuscitate her. And then their only daughter, Hannah, sob in agony as she encountered both her parents collapsed on the floor.
I do not know God’s plan. All I can do is try to find meaning in what has happened. And to use this borrowed time to make my life matter more.
(What a magnificent and dignified response!)
I used to sing a song to my children, a song that my father sang to me when I was a child. “Hashem is here,” I would sing, using a Hebrew name for God, pointing with my right index finger to the sky. “Hashem is there,” I would sing, pointing to my right and left. “Hashem is truly everywhere.” That finger I would use to point out God’s omnipresence was taken from me.
I pray that my missing finger serves as a constant reminder to me. A reminder that every single human being is created in the image of God; a reminder that I am part of a people that has survived the worst destruction and will always endure; a reminder that my ancestors gave their lives so that I can live in freedom in America; and a reminder, most of all, to never, ever, not ever be afraid to be Jewish.
From here on in I am going to be more brazen. I am going to be even more proud about walking down the street wearing my tzitzit and kippah, acknowledging God’s presence. And I’m going to use my voice until I am hoarse to urge my fellow Jews to do Jewish. To light candles before Shabbat. To put up mezuzahs on their doorposts. To do acts of kindness. And to show up in synagogue – especially this coming Shabbat.
I am a proud emissary of Chabad-Lubavitch, a movement of Hasidic Judaism. Our leader, the great Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, famously taught that a little light expels a lot of darkness. That is why Chabad rabbis travel all over the world to set up Jewish communities: I have colleagues in Kathmandu, in Ghana, as well as in Paris and Sydney. We believe that helping any human being tap into their divine spark is a step toward fixing this broken world and bringing closer the redemption of humanity. It is why 33 years ago my wife and I came to this corner of California to build a house of light.
Because we are obviously Jewish, identifiable by our black hats and beards, it has also meant that some of us have been targets before. Eleven years ago, my colleagues Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Hotzberg, who ran the Chabad of Mumbai, India were murdered with four of their guests. They were targeted by the terrorist group Lshkar-e-Taiba because they were Jewish. And over the years people I know have been harassed and assaulted by thugs in the neighborhood where I grew up, Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in incidents that typically go unreported by the press.
In his vile manifesto, the terrorist who shot up my synagogue called my people, the Jewish people, a “squalid and parasitic race.” NO. We are a people divinely commanded to bring God’s light into the world.
This Shabbat let us remember that we will never give up trying to make the world betters. That’s our mission. That’s our hope.
We must be proud. We must stand with each other and with the good people of the world. And then, hopefully, one day, the leaders and good people of the world will be the change that we need.
We must be proud. We must do more Jewish by bringing God into the world. By bring people together. By being the change we need.
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