What can I say? What can anyone say after the cold-blooded murder of 4 innocent people – 3 of them rabbis – while they were in the midst of reciting the morning Amidah in their synagogue? What can one say about the heroic Israeli Druse police officer who gave his life trying to stop the assailants? There are no words…
And yet we cannot remain silent.
My mind keeps bringing me back to the tallis and tefillin worn by the men who were worshipping - soaked in blood around their lifeless bodies. It is an image that takes one back in time to the martyrs of our people in past generations who gave their lives, “al kiddush Ha’shem,” for the sanctification of the divine name. They died - not for anything they did - but simply because they were Jews.
But, it also makes us think about ourselves. “There but for the grace of God go I.” Granted, if it were me, I would not have been wearing tefillin - just my tallit. If it were you, perhaps you would not have been wearing any ritual garb while praying. As Reform Jews we see such observances as personal choices. And, yet, underneath these garments we are all the same, are we not? Underneath the ideological differences we are all members of the Jewish People – Am Yisrael. We are family and we take these deaths personally. This Shabbat at Temple Sinai we will recite Kaddish for all 5 of these men, who gave their lives, “al kiddush Ha’Shem.”
Beyond the Kaddish is there anything else that we can say?
Of course, volumes have already been written about the politics surrounding this tragedy: the escalating violence, the incitement, the Temple Mount and Haram Al Sharif; the allegedly new religious overtones of the old nationalist violence. I will leave the analysis to the many experts and pundits. I will share just the following three ethical points based on Jewish teaching. Apply them as you wish:
1. Words matter. – Rabbi Leon of Modena, a 16th century sage, taught, “Words are the guides to acts; the mouth makes the first move.” Violence does not erupt in a vacuum. It is fueled with words. In the same way as one should not light a match in the barn full of hay, if there is even the possibility that one’s statements might incite someone to commit murder wouldn’t it behoove one not to speak?
2. Vengeance is not a Jewish value; justice is. “Lo Tikom V’lo Titor” – “Do not seek vengeance nor bear a grudge…” (Leviticus ) “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” – “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (Deut. ) No one is immune to the desire for vengeance. The terror attack yesterday was likely an act of vengeance. After the murder of the three yeshivah students last June many calls for revenge were heard in Israel. Shortly thereafter a Palestinian teen was murdered by Jewish Israeli fanatics, a clear act of vengeance. Vengeance, simply put, is not the Jewish way. Justice is. Justice, however, is pursued through the magistrates and officials appointed to adjudicate cases according to the due process of law.
3. Good relationships between neighbors need to be cultivated. The most well- known commandment in the Torah is, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus ). It is a positive commandment, meaning it should be observed pro-actively. In Israel there are numerous groups that try to build such relationships. If you are interested in this work, Seeds of Peace and the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel are two that have visited our Temple and in which members of our congregation are actively involved. At the same time, here in the U.S. we often take peaceful and positive relationships with our neighbors for granted. We must not be so insouciant about them. We need to be deliberate in cultivating these relationships.
With that in mind I strongly urge you to come to this year’s Tenafly Interfaith Association Thanksgiving Service, which we are hosting at Temple Sinai this coming Tuesday, November 25, at Members of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities will join together in prayer and song. Together we should be grateful for the peaceful and positive relationships that we share. Let us be gracious hosts and show the other communities that as Jews we do not take our relationships with them for granted.
May you have a peaceful and happy Thanksgiving.
Rabbi Jordan Millstein