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Solidarity Shabbat After Pittsburgh Shootings, Part I

11/05/2018 09:12:03 AM


Rav Yosef Kanefsky

Rabb Yochanan ben Zakai lived through the greatest trauma the Jewish people had even know to that point in history. Over a million dead inside Jerusalem – from famine during the siege, and from the violence that followed it. The Temple was a charred ruin, the city laid waste. The furious hostility of the Roman Empire had been unleashed, and Roman soldiers now warily patrolled every village and town for any hint of remaining Jewish resistance. And Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai was now, suddenly charged with charting the path forward.

What did he do? He did a lot of things. One of the lesser known ones was this: (Brachot 17a)

אמרו עליו על רבן יוחנן בן זכאי שלא הקדימו אדם שלום מעולם ואפילו גוי בשוק

They said of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai that he extended greetings of “Shalom” to everyone he met, including to the non-Jewish person in the shuk.

In my imagination, in the aftermath of calamity, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai looked into the eyes of his people, and saw fear. Fear of what the Romans might do next. Fear of fellow Jews, remnants of the camp of the zealots. Fear of the non-Jew in the marketplace who could turn informer. Fear.

But as a great man who became a great leader, he knew that the only thing we actually had to fear was fear itself. A people that is afraid and which acts and reacts out of fear, is a people that will quickly abandon all of its higher principles, and its cherished ideals, and its transcendent dreams. The people itself may survive, but its soul will wither and die. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai knew that fear would bring out the very worst in the remnant of Israel, that it would animate our basest and most primal instincts, and would so disfigure us that we would become utterly unrecognizable to the ancestors who brought us forth to be courageous, creative, and noble.

And so Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai decided to not lock himself inside his Beit Midrash at Yavneh. He went out into the shuk. And there, he did not look about warily to see who looked safe and who did not. He sought eye contact, and said, “Shalom! Shalom – I seek your friendship and your partnership in imagining a situation better than the one we have right now, in marshalling - at this time of great uncertainty and anxiety – the very best and noblest in all of us. Let us not descend into the primal morass of mutual suspicion and distrust. Shalom!” Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai was no naïf, he was no idiot, he was not oblivious to the fact that there were real dangers out there. But as a great leader of his people, he knew that the biggest, realist threat came from fear itself. 

All over the country on this Shabbat, Jews - and non-Jews - are davka coming to synagogue. To say that we are not and will not be afraid. Not because we are naïve or idiotic or oblivious. But because we want to be part of the real story that is happening in this country today.  The real story is not the one being told by the cynical sowers of suspicion and conspiracy theories and hatred. It is rather being told by the Pittsburgh Penguins who affixed the words “Stronger than Hate” onto their uniforms, by the editors of the Pittsburg Gazette, who decided to headline yesterday’s paper with the words Yitgadal V’yitkadash Shemy Rabba - in Hebrew.  The real story in this country is being told by people like Mourad, who helped to found our Muslim-Jewish dialogue group years ago and who on Saturday night emailed, “know that you have strong support from those who espouse peace and brotherhood, including mine, my family's and that of the Muslim community here.” And by the Muslim friends with whom we had long ago scheduled a program for this past Sunday, who insisted that beyond our having opened our session with a perek of Tehillim in memory of the victims, that we also pray together for them. The real story is being told by the Rev Lynn Cheyney, pastor of Westwood Presbyterian Church  - someone whom I have never met - who sent us this card, signed by the members of her congregation, and which simply reads: To the B’nai David – Judea Congregation: Our hearts break with yours. We stand with you and the Jewish community in the unthinkable tragedy of Saturday’s abhorrent act of hate, taking so many innocent lives in Pittsburgh. With love, tears, and a deepened commitment to what is right and good. From your friends at Westwood Presbyterian Church.  The story of what is going on in this country is being told by the people who receive Ralph’s Cards from us after morning minyan who, this past Wednesday as a security precaution on our part, were asked to gather not inside our building as usual, rather across the street in the Wells Fargo lot, and who one after another, expressed only their love and sympathy and support.

Now, this week, today, is the time to go out in the shuk and to say Shalom, to see in everyone we meet not a potential threat, but a potential friend. This is not of time of shrinking and contracting, but a time of growing and expanding. Not a time of pessimism and fear but a time of optimism and confidence.

I extend a personal word of thanks this morning to Larry, and Duke, and Jon and Ivan, and Kira, and Tom and our entire security team. You embody the mitzvah ושמרתם מאד לנפשותיכם – take great care of our lives. It is your work that enables us to be unafraid, that will enable us to keep on being our highest and noblest selves, to continue being a place of welcome and of sanctuary, where we pursue our highest principles, our most cherished ideals, and our transcendent dreams.

Fear only makes us small. Courage will make us great.


Mon, December 4 2023 21 Kislev 5784