On March 19, 2021, Parashat Vayikra, we welcomed Dr. Len Saxe to deliver the d'rash for Shabbat evening. The following are his remarks.
On Shabbat, April 15, 1865, at 7:22 AM, Abraham Lincoln succumbed to an assassin’s bullet. It was the Shabbat of the intermediate days of Passover. Jews – probably more than usual because of the holiday – were gathering at their synagogues, from Philadelphia and New York to San Francisco. Twitter had yet to be invented, but the telegraph had been, and word of the President’s death spread quickly among Shabbat congregants.
According to Jonathan Sarnai ‐‐ my colleague and distinguished historian of American Judaism ‐‐ in nearly every congregation, prayers were said for Lincoln and rabbis delivered quickly improvised homilies/divrei Torah about the tragedy. In the weeks following his death, as Lincoln’s casket made its way from Washington to New York to Springfield, Illinois, rabbis of all stripes offered hespedot eulogizing Lincoln the man, his character and his profound influence on America and American Jewry.
Lincoln was of course not Jewish, despite his Biblical namesake and the belief of some that he was of Jewish stock. He was, nevertheless, treated by many congregations as a Jew. Some, including New York’s Temple Emanu‐el – which became iconic symbol of American Reform Judaism ‐‐ said kaddish for Lincoln. At Shearith Israel, the oldest and largest synagogue in America, they recited the sephardic prayer for the dead – an honor never before accorded a non‐Jew.
Regardless of which shul Jews found themselves, it was a surreal Shabbat. As Sarna characterizes it, “fittingly,” the haftorah for that intermediate day of Pesach was Ezekiel’s prophesy of the Valley of Dry Bones. Suffused with violence and death, the prophesy is a story of rebirth and spiritual immortality. It was well‐known to Lincoln and it had eerie resonance with the events of the day.
Lincoln’s death was almost near‐universally regarded by Jews as a tragedy and as a community they mourned his. Even those prominent Jews who had been critical of Lincoln as president, spoke reverently about him in death. Thus, for example, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise ‐‐ founder of the Reform movement’s key institutions ‐‐ UAHC (now URJ), HUC and CCAR ‐‐ called Lincoln as “the greatest man that ever sprung from mortal loins.”
To appreciate Jewish reverence for Lincoln, we need to place ourselves at that moment in history. Lincoln’s assassination took place on a week that began with the surrender of Lee at Appomattox and the end of the Civil War and, was for Jews, the beginning of the celebration of Passover. It is not too difficult to imagine the relief and joy felt by Jews as they left their homes on Shabbat morning thinking about the end of war and the holiday and how devasting it was to then learn of Lincoln’s death. The end of the Civil War was not to be a time of peace and justice that the Passover celebration of our escape from slavery promises.
Over the last several weeks, as a faint light at the end of the COVID tunnel has become visible and our national political nightmare has begun to fade – thoughts of the Lincoln
assassination, the Civil War, Slavery and have been much on mind. The juxtaposition of these events with Pesach – and the role of our Jewish community ‐‐ has captured my thoughts.
Here we are, 165 years after Lincoln’s death and, yet again, we are in mired in a set of national tragedies: A pandemic, compounded by insurrection, still dealing with the mistreatment of African Americans and other minorities, and a flailing democracy that doesn’t seem up to challenges we face. As if this weren’t enough, we are faced with increasing instances of antisemitic violence – more like that of the 19th and 20th centuries – seemingly immune to hygiene and with no vaccine in sight to present it. What does our tradition teach us about how we Jews should respond in this time of travail? In the tradition of Pesach, some brief answers that I hope will stimulate discussion. Pesach is about “remembering that we were slaves in Israel.” We tell the story of our bondage and our mistreatment by the Egyptians, to teach our children – but, also, to remind ourselves – that is a privilege it is to be “free” and to be able to ask and answer questions. But Jewish freedom is not hofish – a vacation where we can do what we want. Freedom entails responsibility. Pesach, with its elaborate rituals that command our attention, is a reminder that becoming free is a process and that demands that move beyond on day‐to‐day concerns. Freedom is about appreciating our connection to one another, it’s about mindfulness not hedonism, and it’s about our responsibility to others. Freedom is not unbridled individualism.
What exactly are these responsibilities? Today, we begin reading Sefer V’yikra – the Book of Leviticus. It’s actually a manual for priests, but according to some scholars, made part of tanach to make clear that we share responsibility for being a holy people. Priests are not surrogates. Our parasha this Shabbat, pashut, seems to be about arcane issues of animal sacrifice. But it frames the issue of responsibility. B’nai Israel have been freed from bondage, but we are not free of obligations. When Adonai calls out to Moshe and gives elaborate instructions about the sanctification of daily life, one interpretation is that Moshe is surprised: He thought his work had been done (“mission accomplished”). He followed God’s instructions to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, he brought the tablets down the mountain and he oversaw construction of the Tabernacle. But Va’yikra makes clear that this is only the beginning – that being a Jew means being willing to “sacrifice” – not, perhaps in the literal sense of korbonot described in the text), but in terms of subsuming our personal needs for something larger – not a human being, not an idol, but an idea. We are challenged to rise above our animal desires — unbridled hedonism — and use our newfound freedom for a higher purpose.
Pesach, in the context of our history and our present crisis, raises for me a question about what does it mean to be a Jew, to be an American, to be a Jewish‐American. It was an issue for the Jews of Lincoln’s era and, despite our success as Jews in the contemporary world ‐‐ our integration and the admiration that non‐Jews feel toward us – our status in society seems still to be in question. In simple terms, we are particularists in a universal world. There’s a wonderful book by an American‐Israeli, Ze’ev Maghen, John Lennon and the Jews. We don’t believe in Lennon’s Imagine – a world in peace where there are no borders, no religion. Maghen says if you “love everyone, you love no one.” Judaism is about love – of one’s family, of community, of country. Love of particular people is the foundation for love of the world. We Jews are only 2.4% of the US population, but we punch above our weight in influence. I’d like to think it’s not nefarious or even accidental; rather, that to be a Jew is to prioritize responsibility or, in Hebrew, Achrayut. Although translated as “responsibility,” achrayut means more than one has to answer for your actions. Its root is “acher” – other and we should see it as one’s moral commitment to the other – to make another’s needs and concerns one’s own.
As we enter Pesach, it feels as though we are entering chag more like those who left shul after hearing the news about Lincoln than those who entered shul with thoughts of celebrating the holiday of freedom. Our modern predicament is yet another reminder than as Pirke Avot (R. Tarfon) teaches, it’s is not one’s responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either." The natural and man‐made plagues that afflict the world today may seem overwhelming, but freedom is accepting responsibility to confront these challenges. As we celebrate our freedom from slavery, I hope we can think together about what each need to do to make this a better world, free of deadly viruses and free of the hatred and violence that has been part of our society for far too long.
i See, in particular: Sarna, J.D. & Shapell, B. (2015). Lincoln and the Jews: A History. New York: St. Martin’s Press.