We all have hot buttons: words, phrases, images that evoke passionate visceral responses in our guts. A person whose beloved pet was hit by a car will feel a tightening and churning in their gut at the sight of any animal's body at the side of a road. A family that has lost their home in a fire will experience a physical reaction to the sound of sirens on a fire engine. An adult who was beaten as a child will involuntarily tighten up all over if they are near a mother hauling a child forcibly by the arm and screaming. For all that we may intellectually understand, and have moved past, events like these in our lives, we have no control when our memories rule our bodies for a split second and we're back at a worst moment. These are our individual hot button issues.
We have collective hot button issues as well: events and phrases and words and images that are indelibly written into our very beings. You'd think that the distance of time or geography would lessen the power of these memories, but when we identify fully with the collective that has weathered the trauma, the gut reaction to reminders of that trauma remains. At the moment when we perceive those evocative images or sounds we find out how deeply our identification with our group (whatever group that might be) really goes. You are likely to witness a micro-expression of pain or anger on the face of a black friend hearing the "N" word, of a gay friend seeing a photograph of Tyler Clementi*, or a Haitian friend hearing a report of an earthquake....and on the face of an American Jew reading that Jews in the Ukraine are going to have to register, list their assets and pay a fine.
A few members of my congregation e-mailed links to news articles about the incident of the flyers being handed out to Jews leaving synagogue on the eve of Passover in the Ukraine. I admit, my stomach wrenched at those very evocative phrases: registering, bring your passport and your id card, list your assets . . . . I read and re-read. Of course my mind's eye delivered a slideshow of images from Nazi Europe, the Holocaust, the concentration camps . . . all in seconds before I had a chance to think. After a few deep breathes and reading a few articles, it became clear that no one is rounding up Jews in the Ukraine this week. It seems doubtful whether there was ever a serious intention to round up Jews in the Ukraine at all, but rather a heavy-handed attempt to influence the internal struggles over the fate of Donetsk.
Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to reporters in Geneva after conducting talks with leaders from the Ukraine on the lowering of tensions there, said exactly what needed to be said: "In the year 2014, after all of the miles traveled and all of the journey of history, this is not just intolerable; it's grotesque. It is beyond unacceptable. And any of the people who engage in these kinds of activities, from whatever party or whatever ideology or whatever place they crawl out of, there is no place for that. "
Which doesn't mean, of course, that the situation should not be watched, or that anti-Semitism in Europe doesn't exist. But it does mean that the Jews of the Ukraine in 2014 are not in the same danger as their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents during World War II. For lots of reasons.
All this during the same week we are settling our stomachs over the murder of three people at two Jewish facilities in Overland Park, Kansas. By a person with a decades-long record of both racism and anti-Semitism. The horrible irony of the murders committed by this man is that two of the people he murdered were members of a United Methodist Church and one was the member of a Catholic church.
Anti-Semitism is most certainly a hot button: our guts, our hearts, our memories all kick into action immediately when we hear of violence or threat or attacks on Jews. And there is good reason for our visceral reactions; they don't come from nowhere.
On the other hand, as in the cases of both anti-Semitic episodes this week, things are not always what they seem in the moment and we need to step back and apply perspective and intelligence to our reactions. And be smart and aware. And not over-react. Not easy, but very important.
*Tyler Clementi was the gay Rutgers student who committed suicide in 2010 when his roommate posted videos of Tyler in acts of sex with a male partner.
There is so very much to be said about the religious significance of Passover: indeed, the event we mark during the festival, יציאת מצרים / y'tziyat mitzrayim / leaving Egypt, is such a core concept that we recall this moment of redemption at services every single day.
We pray that God will reach out and replicate that ultimate moment of redemption which saved us from Egyptian slavery and made possible the moment at Sinai during which we entered into the still in force covenant/brit that informs our daily relationship with God and with each other.
The seder experience reaches so deeply into the Jewish soul that everyone, secular, religious, affiliated and not affiliated, all seem to find themselves at the seder table. It is telling that the secular kibbutz movement has its own Haggadah, it's own source book for the seder night that reflects the significance of the journey from Egypt to the wilderness, from slavery to freedom, from the ideologically driven approach that there are Jews and there is no God. Search "haggadah" on Amazon and you'll find a bewildering variety of offerings: contemporary and traditional, feminist and interfaith and for kids and for scholars. Everyone has an investment in making the seder their own.
Jews who are far from their families, or who have lost their loved ones and are alone, find Passover particularly difficult, much more so than Hanukah or even Yom Kippur. We are all meant to be gathered around a table with the generations of our family to be sharing the story of who we are, how we came to be and hopefully, with children at the table, where we are going. It can be isolating to be a lone Jew on the eve of Passover.
Observant or not, the conclusion of Purim, a month before Passover, launches of flurry of seder placement activity: who is doing the inviting? who is being invited? who needs a seat at a table? It's like a game of musical chairs except that, God willing, there is a chair for everyone who needs one.
The principle of revisiting and re-experiencing that journey from slavery to freedom is compelling and the seder is brilliant because it is so experiential: we dab away the tears of slavery brought to our eyes by the bitter herb, we contemplate the cement-like charoset that, in its sweetness, hints at the promise of redemption, we chew the dry matzah and are humbled by the plenty that surrounds us and that little that so many others survive on.
But I think that what brings us to the seder table year after year is the need to touch base with who we are, to find that deeply-buried core of Jewish soul that needs nourishment once a year. I have attended and led seders in Israel and in the States, with family and with friends and as part of communal experiences, but if you say "seder" to me in a word association sort of exercise, the only place I will go is back to our family seder growing up. Listening to my grandfather sweetly chant the text of the Haggadah (which I try to replicate in at least one passage at every seder I go to), watching my grandmother toggle between the kitchen and my grandfather's side, the tiny little silver kiddush cups kept especially for my brother and me for the seder night . . . I need to revisit those seders to restore my soul.
Most of us have cherished seder recipes and aromas and melodies and stories that we bring to the table. And if we don't, then may we come together this year at seder to start creating them. The seder is a touchstone experience for us as Jews, a Jewish-soul-confirming journey that moves us to the core whether we are observant or affiliated or secular or engaged.
As many of you may be aware, There has been a troubling episode centered around Senator Joshua Miller over the last week or so . . . letting his guard down in the face of an overly-assertive NRA-aligned journalist, the Senator delivered an unfortunate explicative in public. Senator Miller has since apologized for his inappropriate language. The incident received national media attention (you can read what seems to be a balanced account in this Huffington Post article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lincoln-mitchell/gun-regulation-profanity_b_5079352.html
In the wake of this incident, as the HuffPost article indicates, Senator Miller became the target of internet attacks, threats against his home and family and very aggressive anti-semitic vitriol. I met with the Senator for a few minutes yesterday and confirmed all of this.
This is a complex issue made murkier through the senator's unfortunate utterance. Nonetheless, the intensity of the anti semitic rhetoric directed at the senator through voice mail and e-mail is very disturbing. The ugliest spewing you can imagine. Now, it may very well be that Senator Miller's support of gun control legislation would have been sufficient to turn him into a target of anti-semitic attacks . . . but it may also be that he drew this disproportionate, vile attention to himself because of that one very human moment when he did not "guard his tongue."
This week's Torah portion, Metzora, relates the steps to be taken by the kohein, the priest when a person presents with the affliction known as "Metzora." The traditional translation of this term has long been "leprosy," but there is much debate about the nature of this skin affliction: psoriasis? some other skin disease? Not clear.
There has been a clear link, in the rabbinic mind, between the affliction of metzora and the affliction of inappropriate speech. Rabbi Jordan Cohen explains (posted in myjewishlearning.com):
"The laws of the Metzora have long been the basis for numerous rabbinic homilies against the spread of lashon ha-ra--literally "evil speech" or gossip. Metzora, the rabbis conjectured, sounded just like motzi-ra--the bringing forth of evil with the mouth. Cause and effect: if one is guilty of lashon ha-ra, one will be afflicted by tzaraat and thus becomes a Metzora."
There is a tale the rabbis have long told about a person who chats around the village spreading false rumors. Ultimately, the offender is brought before the rabbi and apologizes for all the inappropriate things said to neighbors and friends. The rabbi instructs the offender to take a feather pillow out to the village square and tear it open, allowing the feathers to fly out. The person comes back a few moments later and reports that the pillow has been ruptured and the feathers are all over the square. "Good," says the rabbi, "now go collect all the feathers." An hour later, the person returns breathless and declares that the task cannot be done, the feathers have flown in all directions. "Yes," replied the rabbi, "that is the case with the inappropriate words you have let fly out of your mouth. Apologizing won't bring those words back, the damage cannot be undone."
And we thought it was only in the internet age that "postings" couldn't be retracted....
Senator Joshua Miller is going to regret his momentary slip for a long time and the video of his utterance on the internet is going to keep making the rounds for a long time, too. His words have flown off in all directions.
None of that, however, justifies the appalling response of hatred, vitriol, personal attack and threat that poured over the senator, his family and his faith in the wake of that moment.
For us in Rhode Island, it is disturbing to find anti-semitism so close to the surface. We need to ponder this reality and respond with maturity and perspective.
But let us resolve, right now, that measured debate on issues of public policy must never spill over into personal attacks. There is no way to govern with intelligence when vitriol is involved.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.