Wednesday, November 26, 2014
Jews, Christians, and Muslims – Looking at the Big Picture©
Parashat Toledot 2014/5775, Rabbi David Baum
Congregation Shaarei Kodesh
On Wednesday morning, I got off the subway stop at 116th Street and Broadway, as I had done hundreds of times in the past. It was a familiar walk, but now, I’m over five years removed from my time at JTS. But there was something that caught my eye that shocked me: a man holding a sign that said “Google it: Jews control Congress.”
As my friend Steve Laskowitz wisely said, “If we actually did, then things would get done!”
I don’t remember if I saw such blatant anti-Semitism that often when I used to get off on that subway stop, but after the events of this week, it stood out to me as a reminder that the hatred of the Jewish people is still alive and well in the world. The events of this week were horrific in so many ways, but I think for most of us, it was the idea that a Mikdash Me’at, a small holy place, a synagogue, was attacked during prayer and five men were brutally murdered, four of these men, Rabbis still wearing their talit and tefillin. For most of us, in conjured up scenes of the Holocaust, of Nazi soldiers murdering men in their talit and tefillin.
As Jews we might think – what’s new here? The pessimist in us says, “the world will never change – we will always be hated! We are a people that are destined to dwell apart – just accept it!” But sometimes, it’s important to look at the big picture – to zoom out, rather than focusing on the man with the sign, or the brutal attacks this week, what’s the big picture?
After seeing this sign, walking up to JTS, I realized that it was the sixth year anniversary of my senior sermon, where I talked about Parashat Toledot. During that year, I ran a teen interfaith program which brought together teens from synagogues, churches of various denominations, and mosques to explore their faiths together. I worked at the multi-faith center at Auburn Theological Seminary, and my time there, working with righteous Christians, Muslims, including an Israeli-Arab who worked and had a leadership position at the only Holocaust Museum in Israel outside of Jerusalem called the Ghetto Fighter’s House Museum, and the director of the Multi-Faith Center, the first Jew (and rabbi), hired for this position in the seminary’s history. My time there deeply affected how I viewed the religious other and it gave me hope for the future, even in the darkest of times.
I want to put things into perspective to how far we have come. On Monday evening, I’ll be participating at our annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service. If you told my grandfather when he was a young man that his grandson, a rabbi, would be speaking from the pulpit of a church, or that a Christian pastor would eat in our Sukkah with our community, and would publicly apologize on behalf of all Christians for thousands of years of persecution and abuse against the Jewish people, he would call the mental institution and have you committed! The times we are living in today are not the rule, but the exception. But it all began thousands of years ago, with the birth of two boys.
In this week’s parashah, we are introduced to two figures who become the leaders of their respective peoples – In Genesis 25:23, God tells Rebecca, "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will depart from your innards; and one nation shall grow stronger than the other nation, and the elder shall serve the younger." This is the beginning of Jacob and Esau, two men who are destined to be the representatives of their peoples, Jacob, the father of the Jews, and Esau, the father of the Edomites. Edom was a nation that bordered Israel, but the Rabbis looked at Edom as more than just Israel’s neighbor – Edom eventually become Rome, not just a people, but a religion, Christianity.
Before they were born, these two nations or faiths, were destined to be in conflict with one another. We all know the story of Jacob and Esau – how Jacob tricked Esau into selling the birthright, and how Jacob dressed like Esau to receive the blessing from Isaac. After this episode, we read: "Now Esau harbored a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing which his father had given him and Esau said to himself, Let the mourning period of my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob." (Genesis 27:41)
Our rabbis did not look kindly upon Esau. They viewed Esau as someone who could not control his animal instincts and therefore was more prone to evil.
Rabbinic tradition actually speaks of two kinds of evil actions by human beings. Rabbi Michael Gold recently wrote, “There are people who act l'teavon, because they cannot control their appetite. This includes someone who hurts someone else while drunk or steals because of out-of-control greed. There may be regret and room for repentance afterwards. Then there are people who act l'hakhis deliberately and wantonly. The act is motivated by pure hatred, with no regret. After the murders in Jerusalem, there was joyful dancing in the street to celebrate among many Palestinians.”
After this week’s events, we have to confront the fact that all humans are created in the image of God, but many humans also have evil within them. In fact, we read an ominous line from the book of Genesis (8:21), when God says, "the devisings of man's mind are evil from his youth."
The relationship between Christianity and Judaism has been a rocky one, just like the relationship between Esau and Jacob, but we have seen great changes in the last half of the century. Jews and Christians have learned to set aside their differences, respect one another and work together. Although there are pockets of hatred, it is nothing like the past. Jacob and Esau, the brothers who were forever fighting, have begun to get along.
We cannot take this for granted; rather, we must celebrate it.
In times like these, when we are attacked in our synagogues, our sacred and safe places, we are tempted to put up the walls, to turn inward. But what gives me hope is the scene from this week in Israel – the funeral Master Sergeant Zidan Saif. Sergeant Saif was one of the first responders to Har Nof this week who was shot in the head as he protected the Jews in the synagogue on that horrible day. He was part of the religious minority, the Druze, that are ethnically Arab, but serve both in the army and police forces of Israel unlike the Arab Israelis. Many Druze have paid the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives for the state of Israel.
What surprised me, in a good way, was to see who came to his funeral. The Haredi, or Ultra-Orthodox population, is surely not monolithic, but one of their defining characteristics is that they turn inward. Needless to say, Ultra-Orthodox Jews are not typically found at an interfaith Thanksgiving service. But this week, things were different. A call on social media went out to the Haredi population – come to the funeral of this brave Druze man. And they did – thousands of Haredi men and women attended, and the community even arranged free transportation to the funeral.
Risha Segal (28), a Haredi student and activist, who lives near the Har Nof neighborhood in Jerusalem, was one of the people who posted the online initiative calling for the Haredi sector to join the mourners. "We are calling for widespread solidarity throughout Israel, with an emphasis on gratitude," he said. "We will not be ungrateful and will show our thanks for those who sacrificed their lives for us. This is one of the most important principles in Judaism."
At his funeral, the President of the State of Israel said, in a choked voice. "To the Saif family - I stand in front of you shaken and pained. Terror has struck Jerusalem once more. Terror that does not distinguish between people. Terrorists turned a house of prayer into a house of slaughter. Your son did not hesitate or waver . . . He stood fearlessly against the terrorists and risked his life to protect the people of Jerusalem. He acted according to the values he was raised with - courage, heroism, and self-sacrifice." What will we tell a five-month-old baby who will never know her father, who has been orphaned? We will tell her that her father was a hero."
Master Sergeant Zidan Saif was a Druze man, but he was buried with the Israeli flag, with the Magen David on it, and although he wasn’t Jewish, he is a Jewish hero.
Jeff Jacoby, in an article he authored titled, “The Jewish state’s newest hero wasn’t Jewish” wrote - “For all the savagery of the terrorism that has sent so many innocents over the years to early graves, though, the funeral of Saif is poignant evidence that peaceful coexistence is not only possible in the Jewish state, it’s a daily reality, woven into the warp and woof of Israeli life.”
In the end, what gives me hope is that I believe there are more people who have come around to us, and that the guy holding the sign is looked at as an outlier, not the majority.
What gives me hope is that relationships can be repaired. In the coming weeks, we will read about how Esau and Jacob come together again, and mend their broken relationship, just like Christianity and Judaism have done.
In the Torah, we read how Ishmael, the father of the Muslim faith, and Isaac, the forefather of the Jews, had deep hatred between them. But we also see that they come together again when their father Abraham dies, and put aside their past conflicts.
I pray for a day when the children of Ishmael stop their hatred of the children of Isaac. I pray for the day when these two Abrahamic religions can learn to respect and even love one another. Yes, we must confront evil and defend ourselves. But also, we must pray for that day when evil will finally disappear from the earth. Let’s take the charge from the widows and orphans of the four rabbis who died this week to heart – to “come together so that we may merit mercy from Heaven, and let's accept upon ourselves to increase love and comradery, between each individual and each community. Let’s turn this Shabbat into a day of unconditional love, a day during which we will refrain from words of disagreement and division, from words of gossip and slander.
May God look down from the heavens, see our suffering, wipe away our tears and put an end to our tribulations.