Today we mark the first day of the Hebrew month of Sivan. Few first days of the month in the Hebrew calendar serve as milestones of significance as does this date. Since the second evening of Passover, over six weeks ago, we have been counting the Omer, marking the beginning of each Hebrew day (in the evening) with a blessing and a ritual counting of the day. Like marking off days on a calendar in anticipation of a great event, counting the Omer is our Jewish anticipation-builder . . . for at the end of the counting we will have arrived at the 6th of Sivan, Shavuot, the festival marking the paradigm-creating revelation of Torah at Sinai. From the moment that our Israelite ancestors looked back at the Sea of Reeds behind them and found their pursuers drowning in the waters that God had held back for them, until approaching the wilderness of Sin (please don't get caught up in the coincidence between the English word "sin" and the Hebrew geographic term, there is really and truly no connection save coincidence) the Israelites had already experienced some elevating and some challenging moments: They had faced the uncertainties of food and water in the wilderness and learned to rely on God to sustain them; they had been introduced to Shabbat as a day of rest for God (who did not produce manna on Shabbat) and for themselves (they did not collect manna on Shabbat); they withstood a fierce attack by Amalek and his troops and were defended by Joshua and the Israelite troops sustained and inspired by God; Moses, advised by his father-in-law, Jethro, established a system of self-governance and dispute resolution . . . all before arriving at Sinai.
Although the walk to Sinai was through uncharted territory, the wandering of our ancestors was not random. The Israelites arrived at the third new moon . . . today's date, the beginning of the month of Sivan . . . guided by God's pillar of cloud during the day and pillar of fire by night and there they prepared themselves for the most extraordinary event they could not possibly anticipate.
I took a look at the challenges our walk from Passover to this first day of Sivan has involved as we, too, prepare to re-experience the revelation of Torah on Shavuot this coming week. We have mourned the victims of the Holocaust and shuddered when notes bearing Nazi rhetoric were handed to Jews attending Passover services in the Ukraine. We have found compassion and the conviction to speak out on behalf of the abducted schoolgirls of Nigeria, a compelling contemporary parallel to our own slavery story. We have organized to lobby for poverty-alleviating legislation here in Rhode Island. We have mourned both the troops who gave their lives for the establishment and defense of the State of Israel and those who gave their lives for the establishment and defense of the United States of America in two Memorial Days. Even in these GPS-guided days, our wanderings take us through uncharted territory.
We know that something great is going to happen next week. We have the advantage over our wilderness-walking ancestors in knowing that the revelatory moment awaiting us can bring wisdom and guidance, inspiration and challenge. The Sinai revelation was not a one-time event . . . our tradition teaches us that revelatory moments happen throughout time. When we come together as a community on Shavuot this week, let us stand shoulder-to-shoulder ready to accept the renewal of covenant with God which is the glue that binds us together . . . binds us to God and binds us to each other.
Letting the eternal and eternally renewing teachings of Torah into our daily lives will guide our walking and provide us with goals and aspirations and the tools to navigate the complexities we encounter in life.
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 are times when the universe seems to conspire to challenge us: The week people around the world are mourning the quintessential man of integrity, peace, mature judgement and courage, Nelson Mandela, is the week millions of people around the United States are marking the 1st anniversary of the horrific Newtown school massacre.
As the senseless deaths of twenty six-year olds and their teachers sank in, we sensed that there might be a glimmer of hope. Cynically, we noted that at least twenty children of color from disadvantaged homes were victims of gun violence every year in the United States and those "incidents" made barely a ripple on the national stage . . . perhaps the deaths of these twenty white children from privileged Connecticut would shake our nation out of our complacency and spur some serious gun control legislation and enforcement.
In truth, it's a mixed bag: In a number of states, proactive and balanced gun legislation was passed (including in New York, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey and California). According to the New York Times (December 10, 2013), 109 new state gun bills became law in the year since the Newtown shootings. 39 of these new bills tighten gun restrictions. 70 of these new bills loosen gun restrictions. 14 of the 39 new bills relate to gun possession and mental health issues (including the creation of a task force here in Rhode Island mandated to review existing laws related to firearms and behavioral issues). 10 of the 39 new laws relate to strengthening or establishing background checks for the purchase of firearms. In Rhode Island, a bill became law in July making it illegal to receive, transport or possess any firearm whose identification has been altered.
The fact that more bills loosened gun restrictions than tightened them is an indication that we as a nation are struggling mightily with this issue. We need to conduct respectful and focussed and informed conversations about the place of firearms in our society.
We do not need fear tactics. We do not need polarizing rhetoric.
And yet, guns and public safety researcher, Timothy Johnson of MediaMatters.org reported today: As the one-year anniversary of the December 14, 2012, mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School approaches, National Rifle Association board member Ted Nugent is blaming "the self-inflicted scourge of political correctness" for the shooting that claimed the lives of 20 children and six educators in Newtown, Connecticut.
In his regular column for conspiracy website WND, Nugent wrote on December 11 that unless America followed a series of his policy recommendations -- including arming teachers, eliminating "gun-free zones," and getting "deranged people off the streets" -- "then those precious little 20 children and their six teachers and faculty members at Sandy Hook Elementary died for nothing."
In the week we are mourning the death of Nelson Mandela--a man who never let himself be swayed by the assumptions and biases of others-- it is anathema to evoke the Holocaust as a support for the loosening of gun control. In a January 24, 2013 press release, the ADL (Anti-Defamation League) reported:
As a self-determining people with our own sovereign country, language, cultural and religious heritage and economic resources, we can take part in any policy or cultural debate without "playing the Holocaust card." We don't need anyone's pity and it is not becoming to assume a pathetic posture.
We also acknowledge that the Jewish people do not hold exclusive rights as victims of Nazi genocide: there is just as solid documentation that the lives of gypsies, homosexuals, those suffering mental illness and political dissidents were just as callously discarded as were the lives of 6 million Jews.
Nonetheless, no one has the right to distort these truths to make political hay. Do you want to defend the status quo in gun possession? Speak with integrity and make your case, don't throw around emotional bombs like "Holocaust" and "Nazi." Do you have confidence that loosening gun restrictions is the responsible next step in our country's civic life? Speak with integrity and make your case with logic, accuracy and integrity: do not take the names and lives of the Newtown victims in vain.
Every year, within a week of emerging from Passover's journey from slavery to freedom, we gather together as a community to remember and to mourn on Yom HaShoah: Holocaust Memorial Day.
The proximity of these two days is thought-provoking: truly for neither our ancient Israelite ancestors in Egypt nor for our more immediate forebears in Nazi Europe did "Arbeit Macht Frei" . . . did work generate a state of freedom.
For much of the last half of the 20th century, Jews all over the world (although less so in Israel) suffered from a form of collective Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We were well and truly traumatized by the truths revealed about the Nazi campaign to create a Judenrein Europe . . . a Europe stripped of any Jewish presence. The truths revealed by the mountains of human hair and eyeglasses and suitcases . . . the emaciated prisoners liberated by Allied Forces . . . the testimony recorded at the Eichmann trial . . . it was all stunning, shocking, too much to take in.
In the Torah, in the books of Shmot/Exodus and Bamidbar/Numbers, we are witness to some dramatic expressions of faith, doubt, fear, backsliding and commitment coming from the released slaves following Moses through the wilderness. Considering all that they had been through, and no doubt suffering from some PTSD themselves, our ancestors who did not die at Egyptian hands had a lot of processing to do before they could formulate a new, coherent, positive Jewish identity and commitment to the Torah and the covenant with God.
Two thousand years later, there was a wide spectrum of reactions within the Jewish world as we emerged from World War II: some Jews found their faith reinforced . . . only a caring God could have succeeded in seeing any remnant of the targeted Jewish communities survive. Other Jews lost their faith . . . there could not be a God after all if a horror like Auschwitz could have come into existence. Yet others simply remained angry at God for the rest of their lives . . . how does the God described in Deuteronomy as אל רחום וחנון . . . as a merciful and caring God . . . remain silent and inactive as that God's covenantal partners, the Jews, are brutally enslaved, tortured, slaughtered, traumatized for life, marked for life . . .
As a Jewish kid in New Jersey growing up in the 50s and 60s, I was being educated as a Jew at a time when the adults in my community were still figuring it out: they were figuring out what really happened; they were figuring out how to take care of the survivors and their families; they were figuring out what this horrific attack meant for us as a people; they were figuring out what to tell us kids. I have a very vivid memory of sitting in the sanctuary of my New Jersey synagogue as an elementary school student, watching a film about the Holocaust that no Jewish educator today would be allowed to show to anyone under the age 16. Those images seared themselves on my brain . . . perhaps for better, perhaps for worse. I can't say I was traumatized by those images more than I was traumatized by other events in my life; but I did "get the message": being Jewish from now on was going to have to involve living with the shadow of the Holocaust.
It is 2013. World War II started almost 75 years ago. Like our ancient ancestors who came back home to Canaan after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, we are a generation informed by, but not directly touched by, our experiences of slavery. We are about to celebrate the 65 anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel. We are making history in East Greenwich opening up the town's first synagogue since the town was established in 1677. We are comfortable and safe here . . . more comfortable and more safe then our ancestors were when they followed Joshua into Canaan.
Our journey has led us into and out of Egypt, into and out of Auschwitz . . . and where will our journey take us next? What need we take with us from our history as we create our renewing identities as Jews today?
Twenty, thirty years ago, we were still talking about the importance of preserving Jewish tradition and community and observance in order not to hand Hitler a posthumous victory. It was a compelling image at the time, but I find that I need much more than the specter of Hitler to inspire me as a Jew. Hitler's dead, we're still here. Pharaoh is dead, we're still here. Titus is dead, we're still here. Stalin is dead, we're still here.
Surviving is great . . . but it is not enough. As we gather as a community to contemplate the incomprehensible chapter of Jewish history called the Shoah, let us also come together to integrate our past experiences into a positive Jewish identity that inspires us and infuses our lives with "kedushah" / holiness and "simchah" / joy.
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.