Parsha Naso 5776
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Parsha Naso 5776

Shabbat Shalom

So what can I possibly speak about?

You know as well as I do that there are Shabbatot when there is a world of Torah, and world events, that provide all sorts of options. And you know, as I do, that there are Shabbatot when it is difficult to determine what to speak about…and then there are weeks, weeks just like this, when there is only one thing to speak about.

On one hand, you may feel inundated with the tragic news of the massacre in Orlando. So often, I try to allow this place of sanctuary be our respite from the world “out there.” News outlets and politicians have been publicly reviewing the horrendous violence on that night of terror, trying to find motives and meaning, and almost gleefully pointing fingers. And in a disgraceful act of political showmanship, there is an accusation that our president has responsibility. He doesn’t. One man was ultimately responsible for the act, and we will deconstruct motives and meaning in time.

The massacre at Pulse, a nightclub in the LGBTQ community, was committed by a man born in New York, of Afghan descent, claiming to be acting on behalf of ISIS. We will find out soon if there were in fact accomplices, including his wife.

In the meanwhile, we as a nation again sat helpless, grief-stricken and angry in the face of another brutal attack on innocent victims. At a time when the nation should have come together, sadly, we have been pulled apart by the rhetoric that simplifies and creates more hate.

Immediately, there were fingers pointed at Muslims- all Muslims. No doubt the perpetrator claimed a connection to ISIS.  And later in the week we learned that this killer had many other issues- he was an abusive husband and a disgruntled employee with uncontrollable anger, he identified with a radical Islamic terrorist organization. He struggled with it for power.

I don’t need to repeat the news. What I want to do is look at how should we respond here, in the space of community, a holy space committed to the values of our Torah.

I mentioned in my letter this week that a special teacher of Torah, Avivah Zornberg, wrote about a facet of the Book of Numbers in her book “Bewilderments” that the counting of people is typically done for one of two reasons- we count when we want to know who is with us, and we count bodies, when we experience tragedies and want to know the number of deaths.

You see, in our tradition we don’t like the idea of counting people. Counting people objectify, treats people like things or animals. So when we count for a minyan for example, we say, “Not one, not two, not three,” etc., or we designate according to a ten word verse from the Bible, “Hoshiah et amecha, uvarech…”

But this week, we learned that 49 people were massacred, and we need to make sure that we don’t view them as numbers. They were human beings, out for a night of music and dance and fun. Each of the 49 has a name. They are listed in our brochure and we will read those names and honor their memories. We stand with their families.

And we know that there wasn’t a single reason for this. In this age of the sound bites, we saw how much people wanted to say that it was because of Islam or because of guns. In truth, there are a lot of factors involved and we must consider them all. There is so much dysfunction and hate in this world. Just two day ago, Jo Cox, a young voice in the British political world, was murdered for her ideas. We cannot allow haters or political ideologues with simple definitions define our conversation.

This heinous act was committed by a man identified with ISIS, radical Islam. We need to make sure that the war against these radical groups continues and, in fact, is strengthened. Military must join with homeland security, the FBI, and all arms of law enforcement, and they obviously need better coordination.

But let us not confuse these evil nihilistic terrorists- groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad- with all Muslims. The battle must be fought on the ground, with strength and wisdom. As we know, the war that is much more fluid is being fought on the ground, but also on the internet and in the hearts and minds of disenfranchised populations. We must take this fight further, with wisdom and with strength. We must work with political powers to stop the source of funding and educating, both here and with the nations in the Arab world that sustain these ideologies. From what I read, Oman and Saudi Arabia governments must be held accountable.

And the internet must be used not only for defense, but for education. At the same time, we must realize acts of terror are condemned by Islamic leaders and Muslims throughout the world. Wednesday night at the Islamic Center of Boca Raton, a local Mosque, local Muslim leaders loudly and clearly condemned violence and radicalization. For them, this is not a representation of their faith. It is a perversion, a perversion that comes from extremism. They speak a language of peace and show it in their behavior. I was out of town, but proudly will tell you that B’nai Torah was the most highly represented group at the Iftar which concludes the day of fasting. We thank our members for their effort.

This was repeated by mosques, Islamic leaders and imams across the country.  It’s simply not true that they don’t speak out.

We cannot fall into the trap that would lead to more radicalization and more hatred. We know the implications and results when the act of a single or a small group of Jews is associated with all Jews. Islamophobia will lead to more hatred. It is our responsibility as neighbors, as Jews and as Americans, to fight this and to grow the interfaith alliance. I am there, and B’nai Torah is there.

But there is more- the story of this guy buying 1,000 rounds of ammo for his automatic weapon is simply chilling, and it was legal. I claim, assert, and plea-we have to demand of our political leaders that there be greater restrictions on automatic weapons. The fact that weapons are sold to people on the watch lists, and to people who have criminal records or people with histories of mental illness- this is insanity!

Don’t forget- there have been massacres at schools and churches and movie theaters and women’s health centers and attempts at JCC’s- not by radical terrorists, but by white Christian Americans. This dimension of this problem is not about religion- it’s about hatred and extreme ideologies and criminals and people suffering from psychological disturbances.

It’s enough.

As Congressman Jim Himes said this week, “We’ve had enough moments of silence- it’s time for action.” It is.

And there is something else here. It is the hatred against people who are different. This was a crime against the LBGTQ community by an avowed homophobe. This was a crime against other minority communities. And therein lies another challenge of our open society.

People are simply too intolerant of each other. People are taught to fear and hate difference. We allow too much hate speech. We have become much too tolerant of the haters, too tolerant of the intolerant. Sadly, much of this comes from our religious traditions.

We need to expect our leaders to speak a different language. All teachers, religious leaders, and elected officials need training to advocate for tolerance and for the meaning of pluralism. This may not be the political conversation but the religious conversation.

The world is in need of a paradigmatic shift. Alongside the war on terror and a war against weapons of war in the hands of citizens, there must be a crusade for understanding- a movement for tolerance and pluralism. Call me naive, but love and understanding must enter our agenda. That’s the religious message.

We need more attention, more work in reaching out to others, understanding neighbors, and engagement in the work of interfaith conversations. Last year, we introduced a curriculum entitled “A World of Difference” into our ECC.  It’s produced by the ADL. All ECCs should do it.

Where there is hatred, we need not bring fear but strength, strength in our mission of understanding, and we need to bring appropriate love.

To help us understand, there are two items from this past week that I wish to share…

The first took place in Washington, D.C.

Written by Rabbi Shmuel Hertzfeld of Congregation Ohev Shalom in Washington, D.C., an Orthodox synagogue:
[blockquote name=”Rabbi Shmuel Hertzfeld”]

“When our synagogue heard about the horrific tragedy that took place at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, it was at the same time that we were celebrating our festival of Shavuot, which celebrates God’s giving of the Torah.

As Orthodox Jews, we don’t travel or use the internet on the Sabbath or on holidays, such as Shavuot. But on Sunday night, as we heard the news, I announced from the pulpit that as soon as the holiday ended at 9:17 p.m. Monday, we would travel from our synagogue in Northwest Washington to a gay bar, as an act of solidarity.

We just wanted to share the message that we were all in tremendous pain and that our lives were not going on as normal. Even though the holiday is a joyous occasion, I felt tears in my eyes as I recited our sacred prayers.

I had not been to a bar in more than 20 years. And I had never been to a gay bar. Someone in the congregation told me about a bar called the Fireplace, so I announced that as our destination. Afterward, I found out it was predominantly frequented by gay African Americans.

Approximately a dozen of us, wearing our kippot, or yarmulkes, went down as soon as the holiday ended. Some of the members of our group are gay, but most are not. We did not know what to expect. As we gathered outside, we saw one large, drunk man talking loudly and wildly. I wondered whether we were in the right place. Then my mother, who was with me, went up to a man who was standing on the side of the building. She told him why we were there. He broke down in tears and told us his cousin was killed at Pulse. He embraced us and invited us into the Fireplace.

We didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out that we had so much in common. We met everyone in the bar. One of the patrons told me that his stepchildren were actually bar-mitzvahed in our congregation. Another one asked for my card so that his church could come and visit. The bartender shut off all of the music in the room, and the crowd became silent as we offered words of prayer and healing. My co-clergy Maharat Ruth Friedman shared a blessing related to the holiday of Shavuot, and she lit memorial candles on the bar ledge. Then everyone in the bar put their hands around each other’s shoulders, and we sang soulful tunes. After that, one of our congregants bought a round of beer for the whole bar. Everyone in the bar embraced each other. It was powerful and moving and real and raw.

After that, we moved to the outdoor makeshift memorial service at Dupont Circle. There, too, we did not know what to expect. But as we gathered around the circle, people kept coming up to us and embracing us. One man we met there told us that his daughter sometimes prays with us. Others were visiting from Los Angeles but joined in full voice, clearly knowing the Hebrew words to the song we were singing.

As we were singing, I looked over at some gay members of our congregation and saw tears flowing down their faces. I felt the reality that we are living in a time of enormous pain. But I also felt that the night was a tremendous learning experience for me. I learned that when a rabbi and members of an Orthodox synagogue walk into a gay African American bar, it is not the opening line of a joke but an opportunity to connect; it is an opportunity to break down barriers and come together as one; it is an opportunity to learn that if we are going to survive, we all need each other.”


Are you as moved by this rabbi’s words as I am? I stand in awe of his courage, the courage of this rabbi’s conviction. And I know we must break down barriers… “WE ARE LIVING IN A TIME OF ENORMOUS PAIN.”

How do we respond?  Did you hear the beautiful words of Lin Manuel Miranda? His acceptance speech in the Tony Awards for Best Score in a Musical from the highly touted play “Hamilton” was not a speech but a poem. He wrote it to his wife. It is for the world… “A WORLD LIVING IN A TIME OF ENORMOUS PAIN!”

[blockquote name=”Lin Manuel Miranda”]

“My wife’s the reason anything gets done.

She nudges me towards promise by degrees.

She is a perfect symphony of one.

Our son is her most beautiful reprise.

We chase the melodies that seem to find us.

Until they’re finished songs…and start to play.

When senseless acts of tragedy remind us

That nothing here is promised, not one day

This show is proof that history remembers

We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger

We rise and fall and light from dying embers,

Remembrances that hope and love last longer.

And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love, cannot be killed or swept aside.

I sing Vanessa’s symphony, Eliza tells her story.

Now fill the world with music, love and pride.”



My friends, my response, like Miranda’s, is a response of the spirit, a response of the heart.

This is a response that people like you and me are capable of…these are words that we need to hear and sing and shout…Love is love is love, cannot be killed or swept aside.

We can become a partner in the dance of hatred and fear, or, we can be part of a paradigm shift changing this world- saying no to prejudices and intolerance and hatred.

It’s not without real efforts to defend, but it cannot neglect decency and respect and love…and love and love.

How do we respond with open eyes, open heart, with strength that comes from our truth? We are our brothers’ keepers.

Shabbat Shalom