Friday, July 15, 2016

On Despair and Hope - Remarks from Shabbat services July 15, 2016

A few weeks ago, when our congregation came together after the Orlando attack, we named each murdered victim among with the names of our own community members before saying Kaddish. We did that because while news reports of 49 murdered people may have helped us to understand the sheer magnitude of the largest mass shooting in our country’s history, the number itself did not bring us closer to those who were murdered along with the countless families and futures forever altered that day -- each soul a doorway to the lives of so many others, each soul a whole world to itself. Our tradition affirms this when the Mishnah* instructs: whoever destroys a single life, it is considered that he destroyed the entire world itself.

And so what does it mean to consider this in terms of the condition of this world of ours, when we know that sadly, attacks like that happen regularly now. Our world is so fraught with fear, anger, and terror. Kazakhstan -7, The United States - 49, Israel - 6, France - 2, Turkey - 44, Bangladesh - 23, Iraq - 290 and still counting, Saudi Arabia - 7, and yesterday’s attack in Nice - 84, (and that is just since June). So many souls cruelly murdered by the hands of radicalized islamic terrorists and their equivalents.

Add to that the challenging times in our country, not just in Falcon Heights and Dallas, but everywhere. Friends, 3-word phrases like All Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter- these should not be in conflict with each other; the terms are not mutually exclusive, and the fact that they have been commodified and politicized, this is a shonda. Put that in the larger, slippery and pervasive proliferation, and seeming normalization of hate all seems too much to handle. I notice within myself a wavering between a growing anger and rage on the one-hand and I think worse on the other, an apathetic acceptance and settling that this is just the norm now. It is hard not to succumb to the pervasive despair that looms large these days.

But in moments like these, I remind myself of the chasidic teaching: "Gevalt Yidden, Seit ich nisht mayesh" - a phrase that the residents of the Bratslav Shtibel had inscribed on their entrance sign in the Warsaw Ghetto -- it means “Jews, You are forbidden to despair.”

Ours is a religion that under all circumstances comes to teach us that we choose life over death, blessing over curse, always. It is why in Jewish tradition, if a funeral procession and a wedding procession cross each other’s path, the wedding procession always has the right of way.**

It is why we are not just permitted but encouraged to override any commandment in order to save a life - because the rabbinic passage equating the destruction of one life to the destruction of the entire world continues: the one who saves a single life, he saves the world in full.

This is what Abraham Joshua Heschel was talking about when he instructed that the key to navigating life comes down to Radical Amazement. You see, Heschel understood that Judaism’s entire purpose was to keep us awake and sensitized to this existence of ours, in its fullest sense. He recognized that in the course of ordinary life, we tend to become numb to or acclimate to the conditions of the world - whether good or bad. And Heschel understood that this condition was the ultimate threat to our existence. On this he said:

“An individual dies when they cease to be surprised. I am surprised every morning that I see the sunshine again. And When I see an act of evil, I'm not accommodated. I don't accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere; I'm still surprised. That's why I'm against it, why I can hope against it. We must learn how to be surprised. Not to adjust ourselves.” ***

We cannot permit ourselves to be anesthetized to the darkness. And as such, we cannot permit ourselves to lose hope that we might yet bring light, even if we don’t know if our efforts will be successful.

As the former President of the Czech republic Vaclav Havel once said: "Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

Each and every time a child is called to Torah as Bnai Mitzvah, each and every time two individuals choose to bind their lives to one another under the chuppah, each and every time we give a child a Hebrew name, each and every time we give tzedakah, smile at our fellow human being, join together as a community in song and prayer, each and every time we come together on Shabbat for a taste of the World to Come, we defy the darkness; we make a profound statement as individuals and as a people: we will not let meaninglessness win. That we will not let fear and hate have the last word, because hope and goodness have that spot reserved.

Thirteen days ago, the world lost one of its great illuminating forces: Elie Weisel. But the light of his legacy will never be dimmed. The fact that this world was able to have and know this man, who not only survived the Holocaust when by all accounts he should not have, but went on to write 62 books, to teach and influence countless people across the world as a professor, activist, nobel peace prize winner, and humanitarian, well, this is an incomparable gift.

Last week, I attended Shabbat services at my home synagogue- Temple EmanuEl in Dallas - a day after the horrific attack that left police officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith, Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa dead and 7 more more officers and 2 civilians injured and the entire city, no less country reeling. The clergy shared words of mourning, consolation and a call to not give in to despair, and my rabbi David Stern shared the following story that Elie Wiesel often told of observing Simchat Torah in the camps:

It was Simchat Torah in the Barracks in Auschwitz - but there was no Sefer Torah to be found. A man looked over and saw a young boy and called him over.

“Do you remember anything from cheder?” - he asked.

“I remember the Shema” the boy responded.

“Recite it”

Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”

Shema Yisrael - It will be enough.”

And then the man lifted the boy up, as the Sefer Torah and in Auschwitz, on Simchat Torah, they danced.

Shabbat Shalom

* M. Sanhedrin 4:5

** TB Ketubot

*** From a 1971 interview