Delivered on Rosh Hashanah 5783, September 26, 2022.
Before I dive into my remarks this morning, I want to offer a reflection on the role of the sermon, especially the High Holiday sermon. Some describe the High Holy Days as the rabbis’ Super Bowl, and that the sermon is the rabbi’s fourth and goal. It’s the biggest sermon in the biggest moment of the year with the biggest crowd.
Still, it’s just another sermon. More importantly, it is a chance to connect with you on a topic of interest.
I believe you and I—we—are in a prayerful relationship with one another. You afford me a sacred trust as your rabbi, which I take with seriousness. And I, as I pray will become clear in what I share today, care deeply for each of you.
This morning, I am tackling a subject that may be disquieting. I’m going to be speaking about violence, and what happens when violence touches our lives. I have been praying on this topic for some time, and feel moved to share. I hope that you will receive these reflections with love and care, as a sort of sympathetic vibration, and as an invitation into further conversation. (By the way, that is how I imagine any sermon delivered over the course of the year.) If we are to take this moment seriously, then we can understand the sermon too as a prayer that invites engagement among us as a congregation.
And so, let’s begin with a prayer for the delivery and receiving of a sermon.
As we read in the Talmud:
פְּתַח לִבִּי בְּתוֹרָתֶךָ, וּבְמִצְוֹתֶיךָ תִּרְדּוֹף נַפְשִׁי.
May we open our hearts to Torah, and may our souls chase after mitzvot. May the words of our mouths be received as meditations from the heart. Amen.
In the summer of 2005, I moved to Jerusalem to begin Rabbinical School. Having graduated college a few weeks prior, jet-lagged, I arrived at a mostly furnished apartment in Jerusalem. It still needed the personal touch. So, I took a cab over to the Malkah Mall, to shop at HomeCenter, the Israeli equivalent of Bed Bath & Beyond. At the entrance to the mall, I saw something then unfamiliar but what in short order became standard: a security checkpoint. The guards asked us to open bags and to go through a metal detector. The same would be true each time we went into a café, when I would go to shul, or at the gym. Now, you might expect an Israeli security guard to first say “Shalom! Ma nishmah? Hello! How are you?” But no, they first ask “Do you have a gun?” Opening my bag, I would say no. The guard would pass a hand-held metal detector over me, waving me past.
Keep in mind, this was mid-2005. The height of the Second Intifada had passed, and Israel had recently established the security barrier between Israel and the West Bank, yet Israelis were still saying that the Intifada was not over. The wall had demonstrably lowered the rate of terror attacks within Israel, but there were still bombings and other violence in the territories and in Israeli cities. I still avoided public buses, and I mailed a map of Israel to my grandmother back in the States, so that when she got word of an incident somewhere within Israel, she could visualize my proximate safety better.
The first bomb that went off after I moved to Jerusalem was in the coastal city of Natanya. I was in a Hebrew class that afternoon in Jerusalem, over an hour away by car, as word of the bombing spread around the country. Before my classmates and I headed out for the end of the day, the seminary’s administrators gathered us in the school’s courtyard to tell us what had happened and what to do next. They advised us to call family back in the States before the news of the bombing got to them, and then they advised that we go about our day as scheduled. The message was to be as follows: “Hi Mom and Dad, first I want to let you know that I am safe and okay. Next, you’re going to hear about a bombing. It was in Natanya. I’m in Jerusalem. Everything is fine.”
The call was always the same: Establish my safety, tell what happened, and share a game plan from there.
I became an expert in making that call, despite the paradox of fear and ease I felt. Ease, because my day remained unchanged. I went to the shuk that afternoon and out with friends that evening. And I felt fear, being fiercely aware of the randomness of both location and timing of these terror attacks.
Walking into a café, coming to school, going to shul—each could be a fearful thing to do. An Israeli friend told me that during the height of the Intifada, 2001-2003, she was so overtaken with fright she could not go out. She would beg her teenage children not to meet up with friends in public places. Yet, she—and I to a lesser degree—learned to live with the regular beat of anxiety.
Learning to make that phone call has been helpful over the years. I was living in Boston when the Marathon there was bombed. I made similar calls after Pittsburgh, Poway, and Colleyville. There have been both natural and unnatural disasters that have prompted me to pick up the phone to call Liz, my parents, or someone else to say “I am okay, and I want to let you know some news…” I imagine I am not alone in having done that.
Because we—here in America—have come to know a similar sense of fear to which Israelis have long been accustomed. Being a congregational rabbi is not a safe career, since synagogues are targets. After Pittsburg, a colleague told me his security committee fitted him for a kevlar vest, instructing him to keep it on the Bima at all times. Going to the grocery store, I could be caught in the crosshairs of some extremist. And I have a small flash of worry each time I put my child on the school bus. This is American today. The Intifada-like fear has come back to the top of my mind. Again, I imagine I am not alone in that.
I felt that fear most this past May, when I heard about the shooting in Uvalde. I first heard what had happened while I was driving over to my son’s elementary school for an open house. From Columbine, to Sandy Hook, from Parkland, and now to Uvalde, our children are not safe, nor are we.
Hearing about extremist violence in American communities feels familiar to those times I would hear about a bombing while living in Israel at the end of the Intifada. Violence can happen anywhere, at any time. I did not always feel safe then, and I do not feel safe, today. It breaks my heart to say it, but I cannot shake the feeling that with these regular instances of American terror, we are living in the midst of our own American Intifada. … God forbid.
That awareness that we are living in a dangerous environment then gives us as regular folks the permission to consider: what can we do in the face of domestic terror?
There are at least three possibilities in how we respond to violence.
For one, we can do nothing; offer thoughts and prayers. And then, things then remain the same.
Though, pulling the cover over our heads only eclipses the scary stuff from our view. So, another possibility is to advocate for a different reality, to focus on policy changes. We can get busy setting laws, establishing norms, hardening the security in schools, synagogues, and community centers. Lock out the violence, like Israel put up a fence. Yet, as has happened there over the past twenty years, violence finds a way around walls. Policy work needs to be done to take tools of destruction out of the hands of the extremists. This work is critical, and I have plenty to say about it, and knowing that many of you feel passionately about this, I will save that fuller sermon for another occasion.
Because better policy does not answer the question of how to heal from extremist violence when it touches the lives of regular community members. There is a spiritual dimension needed to heal the fractures that the fright of an Intifada prompts.
And it is the spiritual reaction to the fear that gun violence generates that I want to emphasize.
Fear needs a spiritual counterbalance.
The opposite of violence is not peace, or even non-violent resistance. Rather, the opposite of violence is Willful Empathy. The erosion of social cohesion, the fact that we spend more and more time isolated from one another, shows that what we really need to counter violence is to find common ground with one another.
The late Rabbi Emanuel Rackman called this Empathic Justice. Thirty-six times throughout Torah, we are commanded to care for the soul of the stranger, “Because Jews have known the distress of slaves and the loneliness of strangers,” Rackman writes, “Empathic justice seeks to make people identify themselves with each other – with each other’s needs, with each other’s hopes and aspirations, with each other’s defeats and frustrations.”
Accelerated by the isolation during the pandemic, coupled with increased political polarization, our connections to one another have thinned. Consider the work environment: With many of us spending all day on Slack and Zoom, it becomes harder to claim a strong connection with workmates. Today, on the whole, we do not join clubs or civic associations as our parents and grandparents once did. It is difficult to care for one another empathically, to connect with one another’s hopes and aspirations, defeats and frustrations when we are strangers rather than neighbors.
Writing back in 2001, sociologist Robert Putnam captured this trend in his book Bowling Alone. It is not the fault of the internet, “Voting, giving, trusting, meeting, visiting, and so on had all begun to decline while Bill Gates was still in grade school,” he writes. Social cohesion has been on the decline for some time. “Serendipitous connections become less likely,” and we end up more and more alone. More scarily, the erosion of social cohesion is a factor in the rise in extremism, “People divorced from community, occupation, and association are first and foremost among the supporters of extremism.”
Last week, I presented at a conference on securing houses of worship. The day-long program was coordinated by the US Attorney’s Office and the FBI, as continuing education for local law enforcement, to train on how to respond to violent, hate-based attacks on churches, synagogues, and mosques. I was a part of a panel of clergy who explored the ways we partner with local law enforcement and other leaders when hate shows up.
The keynote speaker for the day was a man named Pardeep Singh Kaleka.
In 2012, a white supremacist killed seven and wounded many others in a shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where Kaleka and his family worshiped. Kaleka’s father was one of the victims.
As Kaleka told his family’s story, he described gun violence as an act of domestic terror, and as a “spiritual disease that is eating the heart of our nation.” You could hear the sentiment resonate through the room.
Conspiracy theories, racism, antisemitism, and hate breed in isolation. To fight against that tendency, one of the most effective remedies is connection. We so desperately need a strong dose of empathic justice to be able to heal.
Kaleka didn’t just preach this, he lived it. Shortly after the shooting, Kaleka decided he needed to understand what motivated his father’s killer. He reached out to someone who could better explain, a man named Arno Michaelis, who is a de-radicalized skinhead and now an educator on extremism. The two met to hear each other’s stories, and in the process really connected. And through their conversations, each began to heal from the harm they experienced prior.
While an extraordinary story, Kaleka’s is illustrative. I’m not suggesting we need to find a skinhead and give him a hug. But to find healing at a most basic level, we must talk to others with whom we disagree. Willful empathy emerges when we accept a sense of care and love upon ourselves for others. I know of no other path to healing the fractures throughout our body politic. We have to take the hand of another, helping one another heal.
This has long been a Jewish view.
A story is told of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. He had a profound ability to heal those who suffered. One day, his student Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba fell ill. Rabbi Yochanan came to visit him.
“Do you delight in your afflictions?” He asked his ill student.
“No, I welcome neither suffering nor its reward.” his student replied.
“Then give me your hand,” Rabbi Yochanan commanded him.
Rabbi Hiyya gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yochanan restored him to health.
Sometime later, the healer Rabbi Yochanan fell ill, and then Rabbi Hanania came to visit him.
“Do you delight in your afflictions?” Rabbi Hanania asked Rabbi Yochanan.
“Neither the suffering nor its rewards,” Rabbi Yochanan replied.
“Then give me your hand,” said the other.
Rabbi Yochanan did so, and Rabbi Hanania restored him to health.
Why did Rabbi Yochanan simply not heal himself? “Because one cannot free himself from prison,” we read in the Talmud.
Empathic justice heals suffering. When we take one another’s hands, we address the harm we do to one another. We cannot go it alone. Willful empathy unlocks that which spiritually oppresses us. We are trapped in a community without social cohesion, that celebrates violence and fear. So, we are called to be countercultural, to get back into relationship with one another.
Some Israelis and Palestinians have embraced the power of Empathic Justice, and what they model is helpful. I have a friend who lives in Jerusalem who takes part in a group called Runners Without Borders. The group brings Arab and Jewish runners together, to rebuild trust and dialogue between the two groups. We have our differences, they say, but we can run together.
When they run together, they talk. They learn about one another’s families, their stories, their shared experiences, and their differences. There are many other groups doing similar work—groups like Seeds of Peace, Combatants for Peace, and the Parent Circles. On Hevreh’s last trip to Israel, we met with many who had taken part in these groups, and what we saw then was that over time, relationships led to caring and even to love. These groups have proven what we read in Proverbs, “A modest meal with love is better than a fattened ox in hate.”
I wonder what would happen if we followed the lead of projects like these in Israel-Palestine, and followed the lead of people like Kaleka, fostering circles of peace and reconciliation here. I fear, given the state of American politics, we are not ready for this, that we have more difficult times ahead before the work of spiritual healing can begin. Yet, if you like me are determined to not enter into 5783 as a year of fear and dread, then what small steps are you prepared to take today?
Who can you reach out to, to be in relationship with? What small divides need to be healed? To be forthright, I feel the gravity and momentum of a downward spiral, and that fear I felt living in Israel is right there present today. But we have to do something. With forthright hope, let us believe that healing is possible, taking steps to unify behind that hope, to act with love in our heart, and to help unlock one another from the spiritual prisons that confine us. Let us better understand those with whom we disagree, and support the work of de-radicalization of those who would do us harm.
May we be energized by a call for Empathic Justice, so that prayers for a sweet, happy, and healthy new year applies to all. May we be blessed for goodness and peace in this coming year. Amen.
: BT Berakhot 17a.
: Quoted in https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/115643.1?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en (https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/115643.1?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en)
: BT Berakhot 5b.
: Berakhot 5b.
: Proverbs 15:17.