Erev Rosh HaShanah 5776
Good yontif! You know it’s hard to believe that an entire year has passed since we last gathered as a community in this magnificent sanctuary. Yet, it is very clear that our world is not the same. One year ago how many of us were thinking about a nuclear agreement with Iran, or rising anti-Semitism in Europe, or a tsunami of human suffering in a rapidly expanding refugee and migration crisis? One year ago how many of us thought that the Supreme Court would legalize gay marriage, or that the clear Republican front runner for president of the United States would be Donald Trump?
Today is Tu B’Av, a day for lovers in Jewish tradition, a day filled with weddings! Tomorrow morning for Shabbat we will chant the Shema and V’ahavta from parashat Va’Etchanan, the quintessential passage from Torah about our love for God.
It makes sense that both of these happen soon after Tisha B’Av, our painful commemoration of many of the worst tragedies that our people have faced throughout our history, and survived. We must acknowledge our pain, and let ourselves grieve, but then we must pick ourselves up and embrace life. Grief, anger and pain cannot be the building blocks of our lives, or of our civilization. Rather, light should follow darkness, and our response to our suffering should be love. For us, that is the purpose of this time, the cultivation of love for each other and for our God.
We were heartbroken by the news from our beloved Israel this morning of several heinous acts of hatred and murder committed by extremists who are also Jews. Yesterday, an ultra-Orthodox man stabbed six people at a Gay Pride march in Jerusalem. This very same man attacked marchers at the 2005 Pride parade, and was just released from prison.
Then, at four o’clock the next morning, two Palestinian homes were firebombed in the West Bank village of Douma. The words “Long live Messiah the King” and “Revenge” were painted on the walls. An 18-month old baby was burned to death, and its 4-year old brother and both parents are fighting for their lives in the hospital, burns covering most of their bodies. The language on the wall makes it clear that people who claim to be religious also committed these crimes.
We condemn these senseless acts of violence, and repudiate their perpetrators. They have cultivated hatred in place of love, and have chosen destruction, assault and murder as a result. We are outraged by their twisted acts, mourn for the dead, and sit in solidarity with the victims. They DO NOT represent Judaism or the Jewish people, and in committing these crimes they have violated us all.
In this week’s Torah portion, we are commanded to love God, but just before that we are commanded to listen, with the Shema. Love begins with listening, with allowing room for another (whether it is God or a person or group of people) in our lives. We cannot commit violence against anyone we love; violence requires disassociation, the separation of ourselves from the other. We all have been suffering for far too long, and the cycle of hate and violence is only repeating and intensifying. And it is not just in Israel – racial tensions continue to grow here in the United States.
Without listening to each other, we will never be able to heal. Without healing, we will never be able to love. Without love, we will have no future.
Shema Yisrael! Listen O Israel! Let us love God with all of our hearts, our strength and our souls! And let us begin today – not tomorrow – with love for each other.
Here is a downloadable version if you prefer to read offline
Yesterday was the first of Av. Av is a unique month in the Hebrew calendar, in that it is a time for focused sadness, it is a month for wailing. In just over a week Jews all over the world will commemorate Tisha B’Av, a day in which we remember and mourn some of our most tragic historical low points. On Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av) in 587 BCE the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple and on the same day in the year 70 CE the Romans destroyed the Second – effectively beginning 2000 years of Jewish exile. Several other collective tragedies also occurred later in time on this date, such as the expulsions of the Jews from several European countries over the centuries and the adoption of the Final Solution by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Yet, while we have experienced triumphs and great loss wherever we have lived, Tisha B’Av focuses our attention on Jerusalem.
Reform Jews do not want to pray for the re-establishment of a Third Temple, run by a hereditary priesthood that revives the ancient Jewish sacrificial cult. We do, however, mourn the loss of life and the destruction. Just two weeks ago I stood with members of our Buffalo Jewish Community in Jerusalem right over the ruins of the city wall destroyed by the Babylonians; and at the base of the Temple Mount I touched the only walls remaining from the Roman destruction.
Yes, Av is a month for wailing, and for the past few days, you should know that I have been wailing. I have been wailing not about the past, but about the future. I have been wailing about the proposed Nuclear Agreement with Iran. Now, a great many people, really intelligent people, have been hailing the agreement as a triumph of diplomacy in the avoidance of war. I vastly prefer successful diplomacy to war, so I want to applaud the Obama administration for using diplomacy in the pursuit of peace. In Deuteronomy, we are taught that before attacking a city we are required to first offer peace, and if our enemies accept our terms then we must grant that peace. (Deut. 20:10-12) The administration has said that this agreement has likely prevented a war, and that now we have the ability to prevent Iran from nuclear breakout to a bomb for ten years or more. They remind us that ten years is a long time in the Middle East, and that much can change in that time. This is certainly true, for the Middle East has changed dramatically over the past ten years.
The supporters of this deal also observe that an influx of economic support may bring Iran more into the community of nations, because even if the mullahs do not moderate their own plans for regional and global Islamist hegemony, the people on the street will be less likely to follow because of their own self interest. To be fair, there is evidence that this is already working on a smaller scale with Palestinians living in the West Bank, who seem much less interested in pursuing acts of terrorism than their brothers living in Gaza under Hamas. I hope and I pray that this assessment turns out to be true and lasting. I really do. But I think it will not, and because of this deal, I think the world has just become a much more dangerous place.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras