In the early 18th century, one of the great Polish poskim, Halachic authorities, was a man by the name of Rabbi Dovid HaLevi Segal, otherwise known as the Taz, an abbreviation of his seminal work on Jewish Law, the Turei Zahav. The Taz was married to the daughter of Rav Yoel Sirkis, another leading Halachic authority and leader of the Jewish People. Tragically, the Taz’s wife died at a rather young age.
A while later, when the period of mourning was over, the Taz turned to his father-in-law and asked if he could marry his younger daughter, to which Rav Sirkis said, absolutely not. And he explained why. He said,
“The eulogy you gave to my daughter was the most moving, poetic, brilliant eulogy I have ever heard, and I appreciated it. But what it also told me, was that you most probably had been thinking about this eulogy for quite some time. Not only when she passed, but presumably while she was ill. And that,” said Rav Sirkis, “is not the Jewish way.”
The Jewish way is to mourn, lispod l’Sarah v’livkosah, to eulogize, to cry, to be real to the emotions that the moment demands. And so, when there are people who this past Saturday night were pumping out articles about politics, gun control, or even the importance of moving to Israel, to them I say, “it is not the Jewish way.” It’s not how we do things around here.
After someone loses a loved one, there is a period called aninus, where the mourner is an onen. It’s a period so intense that it doesn’t even warrant any mourning, it’s a time of raw emotion. To use this moment as a way of advancing an agenda of any sort, is not being true to the moment, and it trivializes the death of these holy Jews.
And so, I hesitate speaking today with such raw emotions still at the surface; fear, sadness, anger, and so many other intense feelings. So instead of speaking of the particulars, I’d like to spend some time speaking in a more general sense on the topic of anti-Semitism.
Now I have to tell you I really don’t like talking about anti-Semitism. The amount of Jews who associate Judaism with death and dying, with Holocausts and pogroms, is a stain on the Jewish education model of the 70’s, 80’s, and early 90’s. We are not defined by our enemies, nor are we defined by those who tried to kill us. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once said, in context of Holocaust education, “our children will learn about the Greeks and how they lived, the Romans and how they lived, and the Jews and how they died.”
For this exact reason, in recent years, the Holocaust has been taught less and less, or at least the focus has been on the heroes, on the living heroes, as opposed to the martyrs.
However, the pendulum, it seems, has swung too far. Because today, when people speak of anti-Semitism, they speak of global hatred. They lump anti-Semitism with all the other bigoted hatreds; racism, xenophobia, homophobia, you name it. “A rise in anti-Semitism is a rise in hatred to all minorities.” But it simply isn’t true.
Historian, Robert Wistrich famously noted, that anti-Semitism is the longest hatred. We have been hated for being rich and poor, Communist and Capitalist, controlling and parasitic, reactionary and revolutionary, and in the 21st century for being both globalists and nationalists.
So to lump this together with other bigotries is first of all, ahistorical and second, unhelpful in actually combatting anti-Semitism. If you don’t know who you’re fighting, there’s no way you’re ever going to win that battle. Anti-Semitism is not limited to the white nationalists on the right, nor to the Free-Palestiners on the left, just like the anti-Semitism of the 20th century wasn’t limited to the socialists or the communists. Unfortunately, no one group seems to have a monopoly on this unique type of hate.
Anti-Semitism is a cancer; it mutates whenever it needs to, and if we can’t acknowledge that it exists in more than one form, then we have no chance of ever combatting it properly.
There have been books, tons and tons of books written on the topic, attempting to find one over-arching theory to explain it all. Every theory seems to be debunked by the next one, so I don’t know if there is an all-encompassing theory of anti-Semitism. What I do know is that it’s real, and it’s unique, and wherever it rears its head, left or right, we have to fight it.
But, it’s also important to put things into context. In this week’s parsha, Avraham Avinu, who at the time was living among a tribe called the Chittites, said of himself that he is a “Ger v’toshav anochi b’sochichem. I am a stranger and a resident among you.”
The commentators all question this seeming contradiction; if you are a stranger, you’re not a citizen, and if you’re a citizen you’re not a stranger.
Rav Yosef Solovetchik famously interpreted Avraham to be saying he is both. I am both a stranger, in that I don’t fully belong here, and yet, I am a full-fledged citizen of this place. And those words resonate today like they’ve never resonated before.
Because, yes, anti-Semitism is on the rise here in America. According to the ADL, anti-Semitic incidents surged by 60% in 2017. Like Avraham, we are strangers in this land. There is a sense that no matter how hard we try, we do not belong. And by the way, it’s not only in this land that we feel like strangers, it’s true even in our own land. It may be a Jewish State but having a bomb shelter in every house, security personnel outside every store, does not speak of comfort. That speaks of terror.
We are strangers. Whatever the reason may be, we just don’t fit in.
Yes, we are strangers, and yet, so many people have told me about how they were approached by non-Jewish strangers, on the street and in stores, who upon noticing that they were Jewish said, “I am so sorry for what happened to your people this past week.”
Yes, we are strangers, and yet we live in a country that at every level of government, officials have denounced in the strongest words possible what took place last week.
Yes, we are strangers, and yet the Pittsburgh Penguins wore patches this past week stating, Stronger than Hate, demonstrating their solidarity with a group of Jews.
As Max Jacob (a Holocaust survivor) told me this past week, “This is NOT 1940.” And it’s important to make that clear. Yes, we are strangers, but we are also toshavim, we are welcomed into this country with open-arms.
Yesterday, I participated in an interfaith Oneg Shabbos, it was attended by clergy of all stripes. And I was very moved by the gathering. I was thinking of the blood libels and the pogroms, and the many other times we were massacred – they started in churches. And here were priests sharing their condolences, denouncing the hatred of Jews, in the strongest of terms.
Every politician in the region participated at this gathering. And yes, I know it’s election season and we could choose to be cynical, but I prefer to be innocent at a time like this, and instead to contrast these politicians, or the police officers working for them, who risked their lives last Shabbos, with the complicity of local authorities in our not so distant past.
“Ger v’toshav anochi b’sochichem.” We are both strangers and residents in this land. And what that means is that we could combat anti-Semitism as citizens of this country, it means that we should combat anti-Semitism as citizens of this country using every legal tool at our disposal, to denounce and to call out, to legislate an end to hatred, Jewish hatred in particular, global hatred in general. We could do all this because after all, we are toshavim, this is our country.
But being a stranger means that I’m not sure if we’ll ever actually win. Because being a stranger, and perhaps this is the one unifying theme behind all forms of anti-Semitism –
Being a stranger is a reflection of an imperfect world. Anti-Semitism is a reality that we must deal with as long as we are in galut, in exile. And exile is not only geographical, it’s a state of being. As Jews we believe that until the Messianic Era, until that time of pure justice, hatred, baseless hatred will exist, and we, G-d’s suffering servant, will bear the brunt of its force.
And with that in mind, I’d like to conclude with prayer. It is Shabbos Mevorchim today, a day that is seen as an especially joyous Shabbos and because of that we normally omit Av Harachamim on such a Shabbos. Av Harachamim is a prayer that was composed in the 11th century in the aftermath of the First Crusade. Peter the Hermit, y’s, and his followers, on their way to fight the Turks in Jerusalem, decimated entire communities in the Rhineland. And this moving, rather evocative prayer was composed. It’s a prayer that asks G-d to remember the kedoshim, the holy ones who were murdered simply because they were Jews. The prayer also begs G-d to bring justice into this world, to exact vengeance, and to bring about the Messianic Era so that this suffering, this seemingly never-ending suffering will finally come to an end.
When it was composed the prayer was only said in the spring time, corresponding to the time that the Crusaders marched through the Jewish cities. However, in the mid-17th century, the Jews of Poland were brutally attacked by Bogdan Chmielnicki y’s and his followers in the Cossack uprisings. Nearly 30% of the Jewish Polish population, an estimated 300,000 Jewish men, women, and children were wiped out. And from them on, this prayer was said every Shabbos of the year, with few exceptions.
The tune of Av Harachamim that we’re going to be using is a rather personal one. It was composed by my father in 1982. In 1982, my father was sitting shiva for his younger brother, Avreimi, a soldier in the IDF, attempting to bring peace and security to the land of Israel, but instead being killed by Lebanese soldiers.
And so with this prayer, we will remember, and ask G-d to remember the martyrs of the Crusades, the murdered of the Cossacks, the six million men, women, and children, and the young, brave soldiers of the IDF, and today we will add to this list the eleven souls who were taken this past Shabbos. And we will say to G-d, enough is enough. Please see our tears, please hear our prayers, and may we merit an era of true peace and true justice, bimheira v’yomeinu, speedily in our days, and let us say, Amen.