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Grieving with Nice

nice-louison

One of many expressions of sorrow, dismay, and support on social media, this one by Louison.

Our hearts go out to the people of Nice, and to people of good will everywhere. We pray that God will comfort the families of those who were so mercilessly cut down in this barbaric disregard for the value of human life. We pray for a Refuah Shleimah for that those who have been injured. And we pray for the strength and determination to uphold the values of peace, kindness, and humanitarianism, even in the face of hatred, extremism, and violence.

On The Attack in Orlando

President Obama Speaking about the Tragic Shooting in Orlando FL

President Obama Speaking about the Tragic Shooting in Orlando FL

There are no words to sufficiently express the depth of our shock and sadness at the horrifying massacre in Orlando, FL, early Sunday morning. This was a hate crime of unimaginable magnitude, deliberately perpetrated upon the LGBT community, resulting in the senseless death and serious injury of over 100 innocent young men and women. The Pulse night club was built as a safe place for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, and straight people as well, particularly young people, to gather together for music and dancing, relaxing and socializing, in an atmosphere of celebration. There was no judgment at Pulse, only acceptance and friendship, openness and celebration of life. We extend our embrace of sympathy and support to the LGBT community, in Orlando, and around our country and our world

This is a complicated case. It will take a long time to sort out the involvements and activities of the seriously disturbed individual who perpetrated this crime. There is, however, some indication of “lone wolf” sympathies with ISIS and Islamic extremism. On this count, as American Jews we must extend the hand of peace and solidarity to our fellow Americans who are Muslim, as they struggle against the stereotypes about all Muslims and mainstream Islamic faith that would prejudice our society against them.

My heart sank as I listened to President Obama’s statement to the nation, realizing that since he first took office, this is the 16th time he has had to deliver such a statement to the American people. And yet, the NRA continues to hold the entire nation hostage, as significant gun legislation in the halls of Congress cannot find the light of day. It absolutely defies reason as to how it is possible for any of us as Americans to be able to walk into a gun shop and purchase assault weapons and ammunition that are designed to kill as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time. This is an ongoing fight for us as Americans and we cannot afford to relent.

Terrorism is exactly what it says it is – the intent to terrorize – people, communities and nations. Its purpose is to get into our heads and make us afraid. Obviously, it could have been any of our kids in that club, or that school, or that movie theater. It could have been any of us in that house of worship, or community center. It’s true – our sense of vulnerability in the randomness of these acts is chilling. But we simply can’t shut ourselves up in our homes and delude ourselves into thinking that we are impervious. We have to be able to live our lives, and go about our business within our communities and within our world. And most critical, we have to continue to embrace and promote the values of democracy, humanitarianism and peace.

We pray that those who have been wounded will be restored to health and strength, and that the memories of those who have been murdered will be for a blessing. May God comfort their families and friends, especially now, in the hour of their grief.

Groggers, Not Guns!

purim-dress-ball

Academy of Music Purim Association, Fancy Dress Ball, March 15, 1881. New York: Mayer, Merkel, & Ottman Lithograph, 1881. Color lithograph. Courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society and Newton Centre, Massachusetts (206)

We were horrified this morning as we awoke to the news that two blasts had rocked the Belgian capital of Brussels. With dozens of people dead and wounded, we grieve with the Belgian people, with all those visiting who were victimized, and with their families. Only four months after the deadly attacks in Paris, the citizens of the region are still reeling from pillar to post. The sophistication of both these European capitals stands in stark contrast to the wanton violence that has been inflicted upon them. Unfortunately, we in New York are well acquainted with this contrast. So are the people of Israel and throughout the Middle East. So are the people of San Bernadino, and Washington, and cities throughout the world. We have seen the underbelly of human capacity; the potential for evil that exists within human beings.

This Wednesday night and Thursday we in the Jewish community will celebrate one of the most joyous festivals of our year, the Festival of Purim. It is a time of costumes and shpiels, silliness and laughter, eating and drinking – drinking, in fact, to excess (as long as we don’t have to drive!). We should revel in this cathartic release of tension that is, in so many ways, a gift from the architects of Jewish tradition.

This being said, we do acknowledge, however, that our celebration of Purim is in large measure a denial of the very text around which the festival is built – Megillat Ester, the Scroll of Esther. Known popularly as “The Megillah,” the story is in many ways a completely ridiculous fantasy, filled with palace intrigue, absurd stereotypes, and linguistic acrobatics that are designed to tie our tongues. But it is also the story of a cruel Persian governor who hatched a plan to annihilate the Jewish people en masse. And in turn, it is the story of the Jews’ turning the tables, and hanging him on the very gallows he had built for Mordecai the Jew. The Megillah is filled with violence and hatred, men who treat women like chattel, women who use sex to manipulate men, and murderous impulses within all of us.

There have been all too many times, even in recent history, in which the themes of Purim have been played out in real life. Hitler, for instance, banned the Jews from observing Purim. On November 10, 1938, the Nazi journalist Julius Streicher claimed in a speech that just as “the Jew butchered 75,000 Persians” in one night, the same fate would have befallen the German people as the Jews would have instituted a new Purim festival in Germany. Numerous additional massacres were carried out throughout Poland and Germany during the following years by the Nazis on the day of Purim.

More recently, the Dizengoff Center Suicide Bombing in Tel Aviv took place on the eve of Purim (March 4, 1996), killing 13 people.

And sadly, there have been those within our own community who have used this festival as an excuse to unleash the demons within themselves. Witness the massacre perpetrated by Baruch Goldstein, a Jew originally from Brooklyn, in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hevron in 1994, upon a mosque filled with men at prayer. He killed 29 souls and wounded 125.

As we all understand, this is never what Purim was meant to be. Purim is meant as a catharsis for us; to yell, and scream, and laugh, and make noise, so that we release the tensions that surround us, both individually and communally. Purim is not a festival that calls us to violence. It is meant as a vehicle through which we can sublimate our frustrations. Haman is the villain of the Megillah. So what does our tradition teach us to do? Eat triangle-shaped pastries filled with jam, in memory of the hat he wore. Blow horns and swing groggers. Go nuts, and enjoy it for a few hours.

And above all, we dare not forget the ethical values of Jewish tradition: kindness, respect, charity, and the pursuit of peace. Remember that after all the goings-on in the Megillah, at the very end we are urged to bring gifts of food to the needy. That is what Judaism teaches, and that is why we celebrate Purim.

And so, even in the midst of such overwhelming sadness and global tension, I encourage us all to celebrate this festival with joy, even as we remember the abiding values of our faith. And I wish one and all a Chag Sameach and a Freiliche Purim.

A Shelter of Peace

eiffel-tower-tricolor-2-Yann-Caradec

The Eiffel Tower lit with the French tricolor after the Paris terrorist attack on November 13, 2015. Courtesy Yann Caradec CC.

This past Friday night and Saturday, the peace of our Shabbat was pierced by the unspeakable violence and brutality of the coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris. Our hearts go out to those who are mourning loved ones, and our prayers for healing go out to those who were wounded. It is as though this wanton attack on the City of Lights has driven a dagger into the heart of the world. And, as many world leaders and local police chiefs have observed, it is, in many ways, a game changer for all of us.

In light of the vicious attacks upon the people of Paris, we need to acknowledge as well that which has been all too conspicuously absent from the headlines. That is the spate of terrorist attacks that have killed innocent people elsewhere as well. And to this I say “mea culpa.” My attention as well has been focused on Paris, far more than anywhere else in recent days. But here are the facts that we dare not forget as compassionate members of the human race. The following is just a sampling of terrorist attacks that have taken place just in this calendar year of 2015, not including those in Israel:

January 3-7: Boko Haram militants attacked in Baga, Nigeria. Death toll ranged from 150 to 2,000 people. It was the worst death toll for an attack carried out by Boko Haram, which has claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks with deaths ranging from just a few to hundreds of people over several years.

January 7: Two al-Qaeda-linked gunmen killed 11 people at the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris and killed a police officer outside. A total of 17 people and three gunmen died in bloodshed, including an attack on a kosher market.

April 3: 147 people, mostly students, at Garissa University in Kenya are killed in an attack; al-Shabaab claims responsibility.

October 10: Suicide bombers detonated devices in Ankara and killed about 100 people in the Turkish capital. Investigators suspected Islamic State-linked perpetrators.

November 12: A pair of suicide bombings struck southern Beirut on Thursday, killing 43 people and leaving shattered glass and blood on the streets, Lebanese authorities said. At least 239 others were wounded, according to the state-run National News Agency.

These and similar attacks remind us that it is almost as though we take for granted the atmosphere of violence and brutality in Asia and Africa, and the Middle East, to the point where we and our media take scant notice of it. It is not my intent to point fingers, or speak with a “holier than thou” attitude. I have no business doing that, and admittedly my own more immediate attention has indeed been focused on Israel and Paris, even as I worry as well about our safety here in New York and elsewhere in the United States. Yet, if we are going to engage in a war on terrorism that has any hope of succeeding, we can’t afford to insulate ourselves from terrorism that targets innocent people, no matter where they live.

In our Torah portion we read: Jacob awoke from his slumber and exclaimed: Surely God is in this place and I – I did not know it!

As a society, and as peace-loving people, we cannot afford to forget about our fellow human beings who are suffering. The following is an excerpt from a posting last Saturday night by the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism:

Fighting evil, and that which is done supposedly in the name of God, is a great moral and religious duty. It must take place harshly and without compromise. At the same time, it is imperative that in every location, we work toward a better social, economic, cultural and political world order, which promotes hope and partnership between all of humanity. It is crucial that we fight not only the murderers and their senders, but also despair, hatred, and idol worship.

We pray that a Sukkat Shalom – a shelter of peace – be spread speedily upon the City of Lights and that it soon see again love, freedom, equality and fraternity.

“And I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid; and I will cause evil beasts to cease out of the land, neither shall the sword go through your land.” (Leviticus 26.6)

Remembering Barry Oved on Tishah B’av

Barry Oved memorial

Barry Oved memorial

He shall be like a tree planted by waters,
Sending forth its roots by a stream:
It does not sense the coming of heat,
Its leaves are ever fresh;
It has no care in a year of drought,
It does not cease to yield fruit.
– Jeremiah 17.8

Thus the prophet Jeremiah speaks of the one whose trust is in God.

On a quiet hilltop in the heights of Rosh Pina in northern Israel, overlooking the Hula Valley and the Golan, there is a small stone monument carved with the beginning of this verse from Jeremiah. It stands within a lovely little park at the scenic overlook, as if in silent watch over the hamlets and villages in the valley below. There is a tree and a few brightly colored benches, which offer visitors a quiet place to sit and think for a few minutes, as they take in the exquisite expanse.

Written on the monument is the following, with the caveat that I have rendered the two last lines not literally, but in a way that makes the most sense to me in English.

THE BE’ERI LOOKOUT
(followed by the verse from Jeremiah)

In memory of BE’ERI (BARRY) OVED, zichrono liv’rachah
Born 19 Sivan, 5742 – June 10, 1982
Killed in a terrorist attack on the #37 bus
on Moriah Boulevard, Haifa,
1 Adar II, 5762 – March 5, 2003
Age 21

BARRY, you were a well of fresh water for us;
Your beaming smile of grace will remain with us forever. . . .

Throughout Israel, there are quiet monuments similar to this one, though in its simplicity and quietude, this one is particularly moving. At his funeral, Barry’s sister Limor said: “He was modest and shy, and gave all he had to everything he did.” A Staff Sergeant in the Army, Barry was in Haifa to visit his grandparents, when he boarded the No. 37 bus, along with Christians, Druze, and Jews. 15 people were killed on that bus, 8 of them children under the age of 18. There was also another soldier killed with Barry, who was 20. Barry was laid to rest in the Rosh Pina Military Cemetery.

It seemed particularly meaningful that we happened by this overlook on this past Sunday, as the country marked the observance of the 9th of Av – Tishah B’av. It is the day that memorializes the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and then, became the assigned date as well for numerous other disasters that followed. Tishah B’av is traditionally observed as a day of fasting and mourning. Reform Jews have never observed this fast, by and large, because at least ideologically, we have not considered ourselves to be “in mourning” for the Temple, and don’t particularly hope to see it rebuilt anytime soon. . . . Nevertheless, Reform Jews as well, over recent years, have developed a keener sense of historical identification with these events, and the observance of Tishah B’av, at least in some form, has come into the Reform consciousness much more palpably. In addition, it is virtually impossible to be here in Israel, particularly in Jerusalem where the Temple once stood in all its splendor, and not be aware of the terrible destruction that took place here, plunging our people into a state of exile and depression. Certainly we New Yorkers can relate, when we remember what we went through on 9/11. As the ruins of the Twin Towers covered the streets of Lower Manhattan, so did the huge stones of the Temple and its precincts cover the broken streets of Jerusalem. And certainly, Tishah B’av as a day of commemoration of disasters that have befallen our people is a day for us to take into our hearts, regardless of the fine points of our modes of observance.

The quiet little park dedicated to the memory of Barry Oved reminds us of all the victims of hatred and fanaticism whose lives have been so wastefully cut short in the name of – – something-or-other. . . . Whether Jew, or Muslim, or Christian or Druze, or the appropriate counterparts elsewhere in the world, humanitarians and peace-loving people everywhere have been hurt and brutalized. Yet, the quietude of this park can also remind us of our capacity for good – our aspiration not to tear down but to build; not to hurt, but to comfort; not to dominate, but to live in peaceful coexistence.

This coming Shabbat is Shabbat Nachamu – the Sabbath of Comfort. “Comfort, O comfort, My people. . .” says Isaiah. Perhaps the overriding message of Tishah B’av is to reject destruction and brutality and instead work to build a just and peaceful society.

Nachamu, nachamu ami, yomar Eloheichem. . .
Comfort, O comfort, My people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. . .
A voice rings out:
“Clear in the desert
A road for the Eternal!
Level in the wilderness
A highway for our God!
Let every valley be raised,
Every hill and mount made low.
Let the rugged ground become level
And the ridges become a plain.
The Presence of the Eternal shall appear,
And all flesh, as one, shall behold –
For the Eternal God has spoken.”
– from Isaiah 40.1-5