Shabbat Inspiration –  Acharei Mot

by Reb Jamie Hyams, Rabbinic Student, Congregation P’nai Tikvah, May 3, 2019

Shabbat shalom,

It has been quite a couple of weeks…. My head is swirling with the sense that anti-Semitism is on the rise; the shooting at the Chabad in Poway near San Diego; the observance of Yom haShoah/Holocaust Remembrance Day yesterday; the controversial cartoon in the NY Times depicting a blind President Trump being led by a guide-dog with the face of Bibi Netanyahu wearing a Jewish star collar; the shooting at the University of North Carolina…. How are we to make sense out of all of this?  Is there sense to be made?

We react differently to these stresses.  My father, though born in this country, is the son of immigrant mother who as a young woman experienced the pogroms in Russia while hiding in her basement, and who never spoke another word of Russian again once she landed in America.  All she wanted to do was forget.  My grandfather was conscripted against his choice into the Austrian army.   They came to this country separately, as a poor tailor who barely read English, she as a seamstress who worked for my grandfather.  They saw their fortunes grow in this “promised land” and watched their son, my father, rise to the peak of academic and professional success.  Now my dad is afraid to go to shul in Idaho for fear something will happen there, or something will happen to any of us here.  He really gave it to me over the weekend after Poway…. Why isn’t anyone doing anything about this?  Why aren’t the rabbis speaking out?~!

I tried to tell him that I AM speaking out but is there more we/I could and should be doing?   How do I as an individual, and we as a Jewish community, and all of us as citizens of a vibrant, precious and treasured democracy make a difference?

Should we be afraid to come to shul like my father?   It is little comfort to say that senseless acts of violence occur and are outside of our control.   But no, unlike my father’s shul, which has chosen to remain in the same office complex with no security changes, we have taken all the necessary steps to ensure that all of us will be safe when we come together as a community.   For this , for the things that we can control, we have taken action.

I gave my father two responses and our Torah portion gives us a third.

The first response, which has been said before, but can’t be said enough is to VOTE.  This isn’t what my father wanted to hear…. Somehow voting wasn’t a strong enough response but it is our most powerful tool.  We at P’nai Tikvah are a particularly politically active and vocal community.  In my time here I have been so impressed by your efforts in the public sphere, as citizens of a vibrant democracy to stand up for what you believe in, to speak out against injustice wherever you find it.  We follow the call of the prophets to be our best selves and to build a better world, the world that we want to come.

Secondly, thought it often feels that the world is going crazy, we can’t forget that for every small group of people who espouse hate or perpetrate acts of insanity or terror, those people are outnumbered many times over by people of good faith who stand with us and others.   I am not downplaying the seriousness of everything that is happening, but after the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh, several thousand people of good conscience came together to stand with the Jewish community here in Las Vegas, and with Jewish communities all across the country.   After the shooting in New Zealand, I stood with hundreds of my neighbors in solidarity with the Muslim community.   The truth is there are a lot more people of good faith and tolerance than not.  But the few terrorize the many…. The question is how to mobilize this majority so that their actions outweigh the actions of others?  I believe we must continue to STAND UP WITH OTHER PEOPLE OF GOOD FAITH, with PEOPLE OF TOLERANCE and together to build the world we want to come.

The third response to recent events is hinted at in this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot It begins after the death of Aarons sons as a result of “drawing too close to God”, continues through an overview of expiation from sin and the scapegoat, blood as the source of a beings’ life……… and then it says:

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:  Speak to the Israelite people and say to them:  I the LORD am your God.  You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or the land of the Canaan to which I am taking you:  nor shall you follow their laws.  My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws:  I the Lord am your God.  You shall keep My law and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live, I am the LORD.

What does this mean, “You shall keep My law and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live…?”    Yesterday was Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.   Never Forget is the oft-repeated theme of the day.   We hold community observances to which some attend, many do not… People post on Facebook pictures of the gates of Auschwitz to Never Forget, and yet the rest of the year, their Jewish connection is more nebulous.  “NEVER FORGET”… isn’t enough for me…

Emil Fackenheim, born 1916 in Germany, died 2003 in Jerusalem, was a noted Jewish philosopher and Reform rabbi. He wrote that after the Holocaust, there is a moral imperative, a 614th commandment that the Jewish people must survive because to not do so “would be to hand Hitler a posthumous victory…”  For Fackenheim, in light of the Holocaust and all the questions about faith, and “where was God in Auschwitz?”, a tikkun/ a repair must come that allows us as a people to move forward.  For him, that repair is the State of Israel.

Yes, but for me, statehood is not enough.  The lives of Jews today must be filled with content and with meaning.  The pre-Holocaust European world which easily produced bounded Jewish culture, a world in which choice wasn’t necessary because Jewish practice was the majority culture, no longer exists.  Our world of today is filled with choice about every aspect of life.  The reason to choose something must be compelling, no?   Jewish practice for the sake of not handing Hitler a posthumous victory is not enough for me.  Jewish practice needs to stand on its own as a meaningful way of life. The past genetic, geographic or ethic affiliations of my ancestors do not compel me to empty practice.   And so when this week’s Torah portion says You shall keep My law and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live, I am the LORD it is teaching us that it is the task of those of us who do find meaning in Jewish practice to bring that meaning into the new world in which we find ourselves and to create and build communities of meaning, that are so compelling, that people will choose to be a part of them, by the pursuit of which man shall live.

And so as we go out from here tonight, into an often confusing world, let us not forget that we have the power to build the world we want to come through our involvement in the broader community by voting and being politically active; by standing with other people of good faith and tolerance; and through building communities of meaning, that are so compelling, that people will choose to be a part of them, by the pursuit of which man shall live.

Shabbat shalom.