Destiny In Our Own Hands

I’ve been thinking about the news out of Israel this week—specifically the UN resolution on Israeli settlements in the occupied territories and Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech yesterday—in the context of the celebration of Chanukkah.

The story of Chanukkah, in some broad ways, mirrors the story of the Jewish people’s return to the Land of Israel in the 20th century.  More than two millennia ago, against overwhelming odds, our people found its way back to sovereignty over the land where we came into being.  The rededication of the Temple in the Chanukkah story symbolizes our right to live freely and openly as Jews, without fear of violence and oppression.  In the aftermath of the victory of the Hasmoneans, a new state for the Jewish people came into being—called Judea back then—and our destiny as a people was once again in our own hands.

This is also the story of the rebirth of the modern State of Israel.  A beleaguered people, tired and wounded from centuries of wandering, and reeling from a nearly successful systematic attempt to eliminate us through genocide, found its way back to the land of our birth and once again took root there.  The modern-day State of Israel offers us the promise and hope, once again, that our destiny is in our own hands.

Chanukkah teaches us not only that our destiny is in our own hands, but that we need inspired and great leaders to help us fulfill that destiny.  While some Jews, relying on their faith, urged that their fate be left in God’s hands, the Maccabees were determined to act to secure their freedom.  We may derive our shared values from the Torah and our tradition, but it is up to us and our leaders to make good decisions and to act based on those values.

Whatever the impact may be (or perceived to be) of last week’s resolution of the United Nations Security Council, and whatever implications there may be of Secretary Kerry’s speech, this much is clear to me:  Peace, reconciliation and an end to the conflict with the Palestinians won’t happen unless and until leaders on both sides step forward willing to make courageous decisions about the fate and destiny of both Israelis and Palestinians, and impress their people with the sensibility and thoughtfulness of those decisions.  History has shown us that no progress has ever been made in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because of outside intervention.  Israelis and Palestinians must take destiny into their own hands.

In this week’s Haftarah, the prophet Zechariah, speaking to Jewish exiles in Babylonia on the verge of returning to Israel to begin the arduous process of rebuilding the Temple, famously declares: “Not by might and not by power but by spirit alone shall all people live in peace.”  His words were intended to assure his people that they need not fear the future because God would care for them.  We might understand Zechariah’s words as saying that reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians will not be achieved through harsh res0lutions imposed by outsiders who think they know what’s best for Israel and her neighbors.  Only through a true commitment to reconciliation that is articulated by our leaders and inspires people will we all live in peace.

I wish you a Shabbat Shalom and Chag Urim Sameach, a happy and fulfilling Chanukkah celebration.

Note:  Please set aside Wednesday, February 1 at 7:45 PM for an important presentation by Moshe Levi, Community Shaliach for the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey, entitled From Gush Emunim to Amona:  The Story and History of the Settler Movement.

Increase the Light

How should a person respond to hatred?  How should we react when we witness or experience an act of unbridled, unabashed hatred directed from one human being to another?  What should we do when we see someone treat another person with ugly, dehumanizing disrespect and encourage others to do the same?

Sadly, these are not abstract questions.  Hatred, rooted in ignorance and intolerance, thrives in every part of the world.  And in the past few days, we have witnessed anti-Semitic hatred in northwest Montana, in the town of Whitefish, a small, quiet and beautiful place to which my colleague Rabbi Francine Green Roston, former rabbi of Congregation Beth El here in South Orange, moved with her family three years ago.  The episode is worrisome and frightening and should summon every decent person to resist, to object and to overwhelm hatred, and those who embrace hate, with an outpouring of love, acceptance and tolerance.

This most recent episode of anti-Semitic hatred involves a man named Richard Spencer, head of a white nationalist organization called the National Policy Institute.  Just last month, Mr. Spencer was in the news for displaying a Nazi-like salute at a New York conference of White Supremacists and shouting “Hail Trump.”  He claims that his mother, who lives in Whitefish, is being “forced” to sell her business in the town because of Jewish influence.  He has targeted a certain Jewish family in Whitefish, photoshopping Nazi-era yellow stars on pictures of the members of the family, including a teenager, and labeling them with ugly, hurtful anti-Semitic epithets.  He has printed their home address, email addresses, phone numbers and Twitter handles, exhorting people to bombard them with intimidating phone calls and even visits to their home to “hit ‘em up” with a “troll storm,” a barrage of harassing emails, phone calls and visits on an alt-right, anti-Semitic website called The Daily Stormer.  In reality, Mr. Spencer is doing nothing more than using the tranquil town of Whitefish as a weapon of hate and anti-Semitism.

This Saturday night we the Festival of Chanukkah begins.  On the first night, we light the Chanukkiah (Menorah) with only one candle and we add one candle each night of the holiday.  The Talmudic sage Hillel urged that we follow this practice to increase holiness and light in our world rather than see it decreased.  Maybe it’s the case that we cannot eliminate hatred and the darkness it brings on us all.  But we can overwhelm it with love, tolerance and acceptance.  Where there is darkness, we can—and must– increase light.

A Jewish Mandate to Prevent Gun Violence

(In observance of National Gun Violence Shabbat Weekend)

There is a little-known custom of removing metal knives from the table just prior to reciting Birkat Hamazon (the blessings said after eating a meal).  The custom is based on a verse at the end of Parashat Yitro which relates that stones used to build an altar should not be cut with metal tools (Exodus 20:22).  Since the Talmudic sages created an analogy between the altar in the Temple and our dinner table, suggesting that the table upon which we eat is an altar of sorts from which we offer our gratitude to God, the custom developed to remove metal utensils before offering our prayers.  (Interestingly, the verse in Exodus gave rise to the legend of the “Shamir,” a worm that had the capability of cutting stone by inching along its surface.)

But why does the Torah prohibit the use of metal tools to cut stones for the altar?  One answer is that metal tools are easily converted to implements for conducting war and committing acts of violence.  The Torah seems to be teaching us that an object made from metal, one that could very well be used to kill someone, should not be used to build a temple where people gather to come into the presence of God.  While it’s true that we sometimes must defend ourselves using weapons, the dominant Jewish teaching is that we ought to distance ourselves from weapons and violence.  By removing knives from the table before reciting Birkat Hamazon, we symbolize the reluctance all people should feel to pick up and use weapons that can injure and kill others.

Teachings such as this help to form the foundation of a Jewish stance against gun violence.  Jews accept the need for self-defense.  We are taught that if someone comes to kill you, rise up and prevent him from doing so even if he has to be killed (of course, the rabbis debated how one would know with certainty that it was someone’s intent to kill).  But, even more strongly, Judaism teaches us to be concerned about the welfare, health and safety of others.  Numerous laws, such as the one requiring that a homeowner build a parapet around the perimeter of his roof to prevent people from falling off, guide us to safeguard the well-being of others.  The spirit of these laws translates into a strong Jewish stance that seeks to curtail gun violence through common sense legislation.

Lest anyone think that gun violence isn’t an epidemic in the United States, let’s consider some of the statistics.

  • Roughly 91 people are killed each day by guns. Of those, approximately 7 are children and teens. Approximately 33,000 people are killed each year by guns.
  • Data from the National Crime Victimization Survey indicates that between 2010 and 2014, there were an estimated 43,000 hate crimes committed in the United States that involved guns.
  • People on the terror watch lists legally purchased guns over 2,000 times over 11 years—because the FBI had no authority to block those sales.
  • Young black men, particularly those in impoverished, dense urban areas, are especially at risk of gun violence. Constituting just 6% of the US population, black men account for more than 50% of all gun homicides each year. Firearm homicide is the leading cause of death for black males ages 15–34.
  • Every 16 hours between 2006 and 2014, an American woman was fatally shot by a current or former romantic partner, totaling 544 deaths annually.
  • In 2015, on average, a toddler in America shot someone once a week. Between 2007 and 2011, an average of 62 children age 14 and under died each year in reported unintentional shootings. But strong evidence shows that the actual count is a shocking 61% higher.
  • Americans are 25 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than people in other developed countries.
  • Over the past 5 years, more Americans have been murdered with guns than with all other weapons combined.
  • Suicides account for about 2/3 of all gun deaths in the United States. Roughly 14 veterans kill themselves each day with a firearm. If the time between the often impulsive decision to commit suicide and access to a gun can be lengthened, then the chance of a suicide attempt can be greatly decreased. Limiting access to guns by keeping them unloaded, locked, or out of the house can save lives.

These statistics are alarming and should cause every reasonable person to pause and consider how to stop gun violence and how to pass laws that ensure that lives our saved without compromising our need for self-defense.  This is the essence of Jewish wisdom—to cherish and protect life.

This weekend has been designated as National Gun Violence Prevention Shabbat, to be observed by Jewish, Christian and Muslim Houses of Worship across the nation.  I urge you to visit Rabbis Against Gun Violence, where you can find resources and information about what you can do as an individual to prevent this terrible plague from taking innocent lives.  Of the many poems and readings in the resource packet on their website, I found this one stirring:

Weary  (By Rabbi Sara O’Donnell Adler) 

Weary of doling out comfort scattering sympathy like dandelion seed. It’s too much to look into the empty pool of a mother’s eyes not knowing what to name that blank stare knowing she will never again return to herself. 

So we look away. 

Widows, orphans, they get their own words but what of the mothers, the fathers of children gunned down? What word to describe that screaming and silent devastation?

Our tradition teaches that we are not permitted to refrain from trying to accomplish a worthy task solely because it requires a great deal of effort and attention.  No person should feel that they must accomplish such a task alone, but neither are we free to hesitate to get involved and help the cause along.

What task is more deserving of our time and attention than saving lives?


Bargaining With God

I was once asked by a Christian colleague what Jews pray for, a question I answered by saying that Jews don’t pray for as much as we pray with.  Jewish prayer is not about getting what we want from God by reciting the right formula of words with the right spirit or intention.  Rather, it’s about praying with others, creating a community of people who strengthen and inspire one another through our common aspirations and wishes for the world.  At its best, Jewish prayer is an elaborate meditation that expresses gratitude for our lives and hope for a better world.

If that’s true, then Jacob’s prayer, uttered after he woke up from a dream he had while fleeing his home to stay with his uncle Laban, seems puzzling.  Recorded in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, Jacob wakes up and says these words:

“Surely the Lord is present in this place and I did not know it!  Shaken, he said, How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven…If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house—the Lord shall be my God.  And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You.”  (Genesis 28:16-22)

Jacob’s words, characterized as a vow in verse 22 (not quoted in the passage above), is really a prayer that attempts to strike a bargain with God.  Boiled down to its essence, Jacob is proposing to exchange faith for material sustenance and protection.  His prayer seems to endorse the idea that we can expect to have our faith rewarded by having our tangible and intangible needs met.

Jacob is young and inexperienced in life at the time he recites these words (his prayer 20 years later, as he prepares to return home, is very different).  Somehow, he’s gotten the idea that there is a beneficent God who rewards genuine faith and good behavior.  He seems to think that God desperately needs his expression of faith and is willing to bargain with him to get it.  Whatever Jacob may think, whatever motivated his prayer/vow, his thinking is immature, like that of a child who has been taught that good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is punished.

But as human beings mature and transition from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, we discover that it’s not possible to bargain with God.  Our life experience tells us, sometimes quite starkly, that our good intentions and wishes are not always rewarded.  We might want to offer faith and moral behavior in exchange for material sustenance, but that exchange is never guaranteed and there is no actual reason to believe that God wants to make such a bargain.

Perhaps it’s better not to pray for something but instead to pray with others and draw strength from our community to face our lives with courage and to find the inspiration and motivation to make the world a better place.

The Voice of Jacob:  Judaism and Social Protest

In recent months and years, our nation has witnessed numerous protests, some against the killing of civilians by police officers and others against economic inequality.  Some of these protests have blocked streets and bridges, and some have become violent, causing destruction of property and even injury and loss of life.  It’s worth asking if social protest works.  If so, what purpose does it serve?  Do we have an obligation to protest events in society and decisions of our government?  What does Judaism teach us about the right and obligation to protest?

The Talmud teaches that we not only have an obligation to protest evil and corruption,  but that we are accomplices to those perpetrating that evil if we don’t.

“Rav, Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Yohanan taught…Whoever can protest to his household and does not is accountable for the sins of his household; if he could protest to his townspeople and does not, he is accountable for their sins; if he could protest to the whole world and does not, he is accountable for the whole world.”  (Shabbat 54b)

Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, known as the Maharal of Prague, taught that being a good person in the way we relate to others and in our own actions is admirable but insufficient when facing evil.

“While a person may be individually pious, such good pales in the face of the sin of not protesting against an emerging communal evil…such a pious person will be accountable for having been able to prevent it and did not.”

When witnessing evil and corruption, it is inadequate to claim to be a good person who doesn’t harm anybody.  “Passive goodness,” not being a part of the problem or an instigator, are desirable traits, but they’re not enough to overcome evil. Our tradition teaches that for goodness to prevail over evil, every person must rise up to voice their opposition and put pressure on those committing acts of evil to change their actions.

The importance of social protest can be found in this week’s Torah portion Toldot.  Isaac famously displays his doubts about whether it is Jacob or Esav sitting before him to receive the blessing of the firstborn by saying “Ha-kol kol Ya’akov v’hayadayim yedei Esav…I hear the voice of Jacob but I feel the hands of Esav.”  Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman, known as the Vilna Gaon, comments on that passage.

“An alternate translation is ‘If Jacob’s voice is faint, the hands will be the hands of Esav.’  Note that the word ‘ha-kol’ (the voice) is spelled in the Hebrew text without the vav, and may therefore be read as ‘ha-kal,’ meaning light or faint.  This is to teach us that whenever the voice of righteousness as symbolized by Jacob becomes faint, evil embodied by the hands of Esav will gain control.  But when the voice of Jacob gains full strength (when ‘kal’ becomes ‘kol’) the hands of Esav will no longer be in control.”

 Jews have a long history of social protest and of advocating for what is right in the public arena, all the while respecting the idea that social protest must be non-violent.  Strength in numbers is all that’s necessary to apply pressure to those who oppress others and send a message that acts of evil are not acceptable in a decent society.

Social protest brings together good people to advocate for important causes and unite in a desire to confront oppression and wrong.  As individuals our resolve to bring about change for the better is strengthened when we protest togethert.  As the Elie Wiesel z”l said, “there may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”