Camp Coleman is located in Cleveland, GA. It is the Union for Reform Judaism camp that services the communities in the Southeast region of the United States. It is the equivalent of Camps Eisner, Crane Lake, and Six Points, which are our URJ camps here in the Northeast.
Alyssa Alhadeff was a camper at URJ Camp Coleman. She was looking forward to returning there this summer. The staff at Coleman describes Alyssa as being “like an angel,” and “always happy to help out and quick to adjust to a new environment.”
Alyssa was 15 years old. On Wednesday, she was brutally and mercilessly shot to death as she sat in her classroom at the Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. Sixteen other children and teachers were also killed in the rampage of a mentally unstable 19-year-old who was able to walk into a store and purchase an AR-15 assault rifle.
They were all innocents, looking forward to school dismissal time on Valentine’s Day. I mention Alyssa specifically only because of the URJ Coleman connection—because she was a member of our URJ family. Like my son, who attended Camp Eisner for six years. Like many of your kids, who have gone to Eisner, or Crane Lake, or Six Points. Like those of us who have worked and taught at these camps.Like thousands upon thousands of other kids, who are part of the URJ camp community all over the country. In this way, Alyssa was part of our family. Yesterday, her mother had to arrange for her funeral. And our hearts are broken for her in her grief.
There is an interesting area in the Old City of Jerusalem, deep down into the lowest level of craggy earth and hard rock—a ravine known as Gei Ben Hinnom—The Valley of the son of Hinnom—or more commonly, just Gei Hinnom—the Valley of Hinnom. Hinnom was probably the name of the family who either once held title to the area, or who at least had enough authority over it to establish a shrine there, at least 3 millennia ago. Down in this valley, Canaanite sacrificial rites included ecstatic rituals of passing children through fire to a statue of Molech—the underling of the chief Canaanite god, Baal. Those of us with even a smattering of Yiddish have probably heard the expression, Gei in gehenna. It means go to hell. It is a combination of the Yiddish gehen—go—and Hebrew Gei Hinnom—the Valley of Hinnom. So of all the possible imaginings of what Hell must be like, one of the most prominent is Gei Hinnom—the Valley of Hinnom—the place of greatest abomination—the ritual of child sacrifice.
Our society seems to be locked in an ongoing cycle of child sacrifice. Does this mean that we are in Hell? I’m willing to leave that question to you. But I’m not willing to leave it to our national leaders who have sold their souls to the devil, and are more concerned with their support from the NRA than with rescuing our country from Hell.
After a mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, OR in 2015, President Barack Obama spoke to the nation, as he had had to do all too many times before, including after the massacre at Sandy Hook. In part, he said:
“America will wrap everyone who’s grieving with our prayers and our love. But as I said just a few months ago, and I said a few months before that, and I said each time we see one of these mass shootings, our thoughts and prayers are not enough. It’s not enough. It does not capture the heartache and grief and anger that we should feel. And it does nothing to prevent this carnage from being inflicted someplace else in America—next week, or a couple of months from now.
“We don’t yet know why this individual did what he did. And it’s fair to say that anybody who does this has a sickness in their minds, regardless of what they think their motivations may be. But we are not the only country on Earth that has people with mental illnesses or want to do harm to other people. We are the only advanced country on Earth that sees these kinds of mass shootings every few months…
“And, of course, what’s also routine is that somebody, somewhere will comment and say, Obama politicized this issue. Well, this is something we should politicize. It is relevant to our common life together, to the body politic.
“This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America. We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction.”
As Americans, we owe it to our children to unlock the gates of hell and free ourselves from the tyranny of the NRA and its supporters. As Reform Jewish Americans, we remember Alyssa Alhadeff, and all the innocents who were sacrificed to gun violence in this latest national abomination. On this Shabbat we will need to pray that God may comfort their families and friends, and that they may somehow find the strength to go on from this devastation, that now has changed their lives forever. And after Shabbat, we must find the power we have to take back our country from the depths of hell.
Zecher Tzaddikim Livrachah—May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing.
We open the Book of Exodus this week upon the cruel and despotic king of Egypt, who abuses his title of “Pharaoh” in all the worst ways. He is self-absorbed, power-hungry, narcissistic and paranoid. He has enslaved an entire people to build cities for his own glorification, and then he fears that their baby boys will someday grow up to overpower and defeat him. In his mind, of course, the world, and everything that happens in it, revolves around him.
I needn’t belabor the comparison. We have a president in the White House who has shown sure signs of narcissistic, paranoid, power-hungry self-absorption. The difference, of course, as we have been reminded often, is that Mr. Trump is not a king, he is President of the United States. His powers are limited, and he was, theoretically, at least, elected in a democratic election by the people of our country, albeit given the now painfully obvious flaws in our electoral system. But he does not seem to understand that distinction. He has referred to the Department of Justice as “his” Department of Justice. But it is not his; it is a government agency, belonging to the people of the United States—not to him. He has referred to the military as “his” military, and its leadership as “his generals.” But he is wrong. In an attempt to create as many distractions as possible from the work of Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team, he has continuously thrown accusations and threats at Secretary Clinton and many members of her team. But this is not our way in the United States. Dictators may be in the habit of incarcerating their political opponents and exacting vengeance, but not United States presidents. That is one of the things that is supposed to distinguish democracies from dictatorships and oligarchies.
From the latest bombshell excerpts from Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury, it is apparent that the erratic and narcissistic behavior that we have come to expect from Donald Trump after all these years, has now become the overriding characteristic of the White House environment over which he ostensibly presides. It is a common characteristic that a disturbed person within an organization will tend to generate a maelstrom of craziness around him/herself, throwing the entire organization into disarray. Nevertheless, what we need to remember during this new calendar year and beyond, is that we are not the ones who are disturbed and dysfunctional—he is. And, in fact, our governmental structure is strong enough in principle to help us maintain our democracy and prevent it from being usurped by a narcissistic individual who doesn’t understand the nature of that democracy, or the arms of the government designed to protect it.
As Jews we remember the terrible enslavement imposed upon us by a cruel and despotic king. As Jewish Americans we always have risen up in defense of our country to protect our democracy. I have full confidence that our community will uphold that historical record. This is our country, sure as it is anyone else’s, and we will not allow the likes of Donald Trump to trample upon it.
Our Torah portion recounts the birth of Isaac and Rebecca’s twin sons, Jacob and Esau.
Genesis, Chapter 25
25 The first one emerged red, like a hairy mantle all over; so they named him Esau. 26 Then his brother emerged, holding on to the heel of Esau; so they named him Jacob. . . 27 When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man, who stayed in camp. 28 Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game; but Rebecca favored Jacob. 29 Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished. 30 And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished”— which is why he was named Edom. 31 Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” 32And Esau said, “I am at the point of death, so of what use is by birthright to me?” 33 But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; and he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright.
Though these two are twins, albeit fraternal, ostensibly, they are different as night and day—polar opposites. We always have tended to see these two as extremes of the human personality—one smart and calculating, thinking of the future; the other, impulsive and crude, thinking only of immediate gratification for his own physical needs.
I have addressed the plague of sexual harassment and improper behavior before, and we will be addressing it again, no doubt. What I would prefer to look at for this particular moment is the more global issue of human nature. On the High Holy Days, we remind ourselves that we are created with two y’tzirot—two inclinations: the yeitzer tov and the yeitzer ra—the good inclination and the evil inclination. No one is inherently all good, or all evil. We all have the capacity for both. But the Holidays also remind us that we are created with the ability to control the yeitzer ra and steer ourselves in the direction of the yeitzer tov. Self-control: that seems to be the operative issue here.
For too long, there has been an assumption in our society that “boys will be boys,” and later on, “men will be men,” as it were. And thus, the sexual drive of men is beyond their control, and improper behavior—and that includes verbal behavior—is just part of their nature. Baloney! This is precisely the mentality that led to separation of men and women in synagogues, on buses, at the Western Wall, and so on. And as a liberal Jewish community, we flatly rejected that thinking. I know too many wonderful, accomplished men who are fully in control of their impulses, and do have the ability to control themselves, and behave appropriately around women: whether in the workplace, or in synagogue, or in social settings, or what-have-you. But as a society, for way too long, we have winked and nodded, as it were, in the full knowledge that there are men who have transgressed boundaries, from a little, to a lot. As a teenager, a college student, a graduate student, and a professional in two different professional worlds, I have seen it; and without any doubt in my mind, virtually every woman I know can say the same thing. But I believe that we, as a society, have allowed it. We have not adequately insisted that men, and yes, a small minority of women as well, must be held to the standard of self-control of which we are capable as human beings. That is what our tradition teaches us, and if our religious affiliation demands nothing else of us, it demands this.
As I said, this conversation will have to continue; but for now, I wish us all a little peace on this Shabbat.