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Rabbinical Reflections - Parshat Acharei-Mot                          May 4, 2019 - 29 Nisan 5779

05/01/2019 02:35:17 PM


A Jewish man is sitting on a bench reading his newspaper when an anti-Semite approaches him and says, "You know, all the world's problems are because of the Jews."

The Jewish man looks up and replies, "And the bicycle riders."

The anti-Semite replies befuddled, "Why the bicycle riders?"

The Jewish man responds, "Why the Jews?"

It seems that anti-Semitism has risen its ugly head once again, and only 74 years after the Holocaust; within living memory of the most heinous attack on the Jews in the history of the world. Indeed, B’nai Brith Canada reports that anti-Semitic incidents doubled between last year and this.  The attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA six months ago and the attack on Chabad of Poway, CA this past week mark a new chapter in the history of anti-Semitism in the US. Pittsburgh, alone, was the largest single lethal attack against Jews in US history; and now linked with the attack in California, exactly six months later, leaves us devastated and wondering why and how this can happen in the 21st Century.

The title of this week’s Torah portion, coming from the opening words of the reading, is Acharei-Mot, literally, “after the death,” referring to the two sons of Aaron who died after bringing a strange fire to the altar of God in the Mishkan (the portable desert Temple).  Moses’ response upon hearing the news is silence. What could he say to comfort his brother after the death of his nephews?  But, in the aftermath of the terrible tragedies in the US and the many acts of anti-Semitism in Europe, we cannot be silent.  Silence is what led the world to complacency over the actions of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s that led to the Holocaust in the 1940s.  We cannot be silent; we must speak out.  We cannot be silent; we must hold governments and humanity to account.  It was Edmund Burke (1729-1797), the Anglo-Irish statesman most famous for his letter to Thomas Mercer, who notably stated in it:  “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  That is what enabled the Holocaust to happen and we cannot let such a thing happen again. 

In 2005, the European Union agency, the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC), published the non-legally binding Working Definition of Antisemitism adopted by the inter-governmental body the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), and governmental and non-governmental organizations worldwide.  The definition reads:  “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”  In other words, anti-Semitism is hostility to, prejudice, or discrimination against Jews.  Antisemitism is generally considered to be a form of racism, but has also been characterized as a political ideology which serves as an organizing principle and unites disparate groups, such as the far left and far right in Europe –and increasingly in North America—and jihadist Muslims that has led to the attacks on entire Jewish communities such as Pittsburgh and Poway.

Yet anti-Semitism is not new, or a product of the 20th and 21st centuries.  Although the term did not come into common usage until the 19th century, and now is also applied to historic anti-Jewish incidents, it has roots that go back to the anti-Judaism of early Christianity and the Holy Roman Empire. Notable instances of persecution include the Rhineland massacres preceding the First Crusade in 1096, the Edict of Expulsion from England in 1290, the expulsion of Jews from France in 1306, the massacres of Spanish Jews in 1391, the persecutions of the Spanish Inquisition, the expulsion from Spain in 1492, the Cossack massacres in Ukraine from 1648 to 1657, various anti-Jewish pogroms in the Russian Empire between 1821 and 1906, the 1894–1906 Dreyfus affair in France, the Holocaust in German-occupied Europe during World War II, Soviet anti-Jewish policies, and Arab and Muslim involvement in the Jewish exodus from Arab and Muslim countries post-1948. It is a sad tale of woe upon the Jewish people for no other reason than being Jews.

And now, as your spiritual leader, I am supposed to explain the inexplicable and to make sense of the nonsensical.  I am tasked to tell you that hatred will lose, we will win, the Jewish People will triumph, and this ongoing stream of terror will end.  As an eternal optimist, my cup feels empty in the wake of another tragedy on innocent worshippers in a synagogue near San Diego.  I am deputized to offer ‘thoughts and prayers’ again, when plain folk engaged in sacred prayer are gunned down.  Whether Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal or secular Jews—our differences seem trivial in moments like these.  Today, again, we are all one people draped under a tallit of grief. 

There is no denying that echoes of a darker time in Jewish history are ringing in our ears today.  Will this lead to an expulsion like in Spain?  Pogrom, like in Russia?  A Holocaust like in Europe? Or will it lead to resolve, strength and our rising up to stop history from repeating itself?  If we choose the latter, as I do, it requires each of us to do more than be pundits on the sidelines.  We must actively speak out against such horrors.  We must demand protection and security from our government, an accounting from our fellow citizens and the prosecution of the guilty.  As my colleague, Rabbi David Seth Kirshner writes:  Hate does not brew from thin-air.  It has a root.  Hate is fertilized and given sunlight to grow, like a cancerous weed.  Indifference only makes that cancerous weed metastasize.  Elie Wiesel said, “Indifference is the epitome of evil.”

In memory of every person that ever died or was persecuted expressing his or her religion, especially those this past Shabbat, let us commit at this moment to cutting down those weeds, arresting that metastasis, and drowning out hate with love, compassion, respect, understanding, tolerance and hope.  Let us all do our part and get off the sidelines to make our cup overflow with joy once again.

Shabbat Shalom!

Mon, July 13 2020 21 Tammuz 5780