I learned about a new holiday this past week – Friendsgiving. Friendsgiving is Thanksgiving, but for friends. In the past five years, Friendsgiving has gone from a fringe holiday, celebrated by a few people who couldn’t make it home for the holiday, to a rather common in-addition-to-Thanksgiving event.
Instagram has about a million posts about Friendsgiving, and if you use this little neat tool called Google Trends – Google Trends tells you how often people Google certain words or phrases. You Google to know how people Google. It’s kind of like reading a book about reading books – Anyway, search for Friendsgiving on Google Trends and you will see a huge and growing spike over the past five or so years.
The way it works is that the week before Thanksgiving, people get together, friends get together, co-workers get together, for a meal, usually with a turkey, it’s usually a little more toned down than a Thanksgiving meal, which by the way, I don’t have any sympathy to all the people complaining about the amount of work and the cost of Thanksgiving meals. We Jews do this every week – twice! It’s called Shabbos!
Well, there’s a lot of discussion about how this new holiday came to be. Dr. Matthew Dennis, an expert in holiday history (and my parents think I don’t have a real job), claims that all holidays have gone from holidays to holiday seasons. Halloween is no longer a one-day thing, it’s a season, which includes a number of parties and events revolving around a Halloween theme. And the same, he suggests, is true for Thanksgiving. Friendsgiving is just another way of extending the season of Thanksgiving.
But as Professor Dennis points there is another reason that may contribute to the rise of Friendsgiving and that is our changing relationship to family. Whereas, ‘Home for Thanksgiving’ was a mantra in the past, encouraging people to travel from all over the country and to come back home for this special holiday, nowadays, for many people, non-relatives assume an even more important role than family, especially true for the younger generation. Later marriages, less, or no children, living far for home, for all these reasons and more, a gathering with friends, for so many, is more meaningful than a gathering with family. In a similar vein, I’ve recently learned a new word; framily, friends who are so close that they’re our family.
In ancient Greek philosophy friendship is elevated as one of the greatest virtues, but in Judaism, friendship does not play a very significant role. In fact, friendship is presented in the Torah, in a negative light. Although there is a famous and positive description of a very deep bond between King David and Yonatan, but the only time a Biblical character has a relationship described as a friendship, it’s describing how Yehuda was alienated from his family and instead befriended ish adulami, someone from outside of the faith. (Leon Kass’s observation, The Beginning of Wisdom)
The Torah almost sounds like it’s laying out two polarities; we are either a family-oriented people or a friend-oriented people, but we can’t be both. And if it really is a choice between the two, the Torah decisively comes down on the side of family. In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks,
“[In] Judaism, the home and the family became the central setting of the life of faith. In the only verse in the Hebrew Bible to explain why G-d chose Abraham, He says: “I have known him so that he will instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the L-rd by doing what is right and just.” Abraham was chosen not to rule an empire, command an army, perform miracles or deliver prophecies, but simply to be a parent.”
This emphasis on family is one of the most beautiful contributions that the Torah has had on civilization. The ongoing role of a mother on her son’s upbringing, an idea that is repeated over and over in the Torah, the sacred role that marriage has in one’s life, as exemplified by each of our forefathers, these are Jewish ideals which have impacted the world over. And it’s that sense of being one family that has kept us together in two thousand years of exile. Without a doubt, Judaism comes out strong on the elevation of family over friends, on the idea that our identity is defined by those with whom we share our blood.
It’s a beautiful ideal, but it also has tragic casualties. Because while the Torah paints a beautiful portrait of a father and mother, of a child, or a household filled with children, not everyone fits neatly into that picture. Not everyone has that perfect family, or any family at all. And in such an intensely family-driven society, where does that leave those people? Those of us that are single? Those of us that are childless? Those of us that are estranged?
In our parsha, we see this struggle come to a head. Rachel, Yakov’s beloved wife, watches with growing frustration as her sister, Leah, has child after child, while she remains childless. Eventually her frustration turns to despair and she turns to her husband and exclaims, “Hava li banim, give me children, v’im ayin, and if not, meisah anochi, I will die!”
Those are powerful words! If I don’t have children, I will die. Her words speak to the existential loneliness that a childless person experiences. And that loneliness, and emptiness is only amplified by the children of her sister, by the fact that she was living in a culture that elevates family to such a great extent. Without children, she was saying, my life is devoid of all meaning.
And although we don’t learn Jewish law from these biblical stories, Rav Moshe Feinstein, probably the greatest Halachic decisor of the 20th century, invoked Rachel’s pitiful cry in his most hotly debated legal ruling. Rav Moshe Feinstein allowed, under certain special circumstances, for a married woman, whose husband was incapable of impregnating her, to receive artificial insemination from a non-Jew. He permitted this based on an extensive analysis of Jewish law, but in his defense against his many critics, he invoked Rachels’ cry that ‘without children, I am as good as dead’ as a justification to seek out leniency, seeing in her words the depth of despair that her situation caused.
For those of us with that classic model of a family, it’s almost impossible to wrap our heads around the discomfort and pain. Pain that is only amplified every time another Jewish source speaks of the value of family. Those who cannot connect to that idea, whether it’s singlehood or a lack of children, or a lack of connection to one’s family, the words im ayin, if I don’t have this, meisa anochi, my life is devoid of meaning, rings loud.
And yet, as powerful and as impactful as these words are, inasmuch as the Jewish People have elevated the married, and child-filled life above all, the story of Rachel does not end there. Yaakov, her husband, the husband who loved her so much that he agreed to the most preposterous marriage proposal by his scheming father-in-law, the husband who loved so much that he showered love upon her child, Yosef, to the detriment, that same husband responds to her cry in the most shocking fashion. “Hatachat Elokim anochi, am I in the place of G-d?” asks Yaakov, “Asher mana mineich pri-vaten, who held back from you the ability to have children?!”
Now our Sages take him to task for responding so insensitively. “Is this the way to respond to someone in pain?” they ask. Yaakov was certainly mistaken in doing so. But at the same time, our tradition assumes that although the tone was wrong, the message was right. There was something substantial to Yaakov’s response. What was it? What was he trying to convey to his beloved wife in response to her desperate cries?
Some suggest that she wrongly assumed that Yaakov had the power of giving her children, and he was reminding her to turn to G-d and not to him. But Rav Yitzchak Arama, a 15th century Spanish scholar, suggests an alternative and most beautiful understanding of what Yaakov was trying to say. He was telling her, explains Rav Arama, that, “You, Rachel, are misunderstanding what it means to be alive. Your self-identity is somewhat skewed. You are making a mistake by limiting your entire existence to motherhood, when in truth, there is so much else you are able to contribute to society, so much else you are able to do, so much more you able to be! whether or not you have a child. It’s true, one aspect of womanhood is motherhood, but it’s not the full extent of your identity. You are so much more.”
It would seem that Yaakov is presenting the second side of the family argument. Yes, family is paramount in Judaism, and we should never allow that to change. Family is one of the great gifts of Judaism, one of its most beautiful institutions. But at the same time, the need to recognize each person for who they are, whether or not they are linked to a child, whether or not they are linked to a spouse.
I once shared with you a beautiful sermon given by a pastor, apologizing to his congregation for the many times that he elevated family to the detriment of others. I’ll share with you a couple of lines:
“I’m sorry for the ways we unintentionally distanced you from community; the times that we overlooked your deep needs and your unique challenges as we planned and prepared.
I’m sorry for the times you felt like an afterthought in our worship services.
I’m sorry for the times you felt unwelcome or extraneous in our small groups.
I’m sorry for the many times our sermon series lifted up Marriage and Family, and in the process ignored the awkwardness that might create for you.
I’m sorry for the way we so easily defaulted to lazy language that so often excluded you.
You need to know that this was never intentional, but even still I know it is incredibly painful.” (https://johnpavlovitz.com/2015/05/14/a-pastors-apology-to-the-single-community/)
And that is one part of Yaakov’s message, that we, those who are blessed with families, need to be so incredibly sensitive to how we speak and how we interact with those who aren’t. As one single mother recently told me, “I don’t need a meal because I’m single. If you want to invite me over because you want me at your table, let me know.” The words we use that unintentionally hurt, the conversations we have that unintentionally exclude. That’s on us.
And perhaps even more importantly, it is those who do not fit in that model who need to internalize Yaakov’s message. Yaakov, with perhaps the wrong tone, was reminding Rachel and all of us, that just because you do not fit in to this model, does not mean that you are in any way diminished.
I want to conclude by sharing a letter written by Rav Aharon Feldman, the dean of Ner Israel Rabbinical College. He was responding to someone who felt out of place in the Jewish community. This individual prayed every day, he kept the Torah, and he lived an observant lifestyle. So why then did this man not fit in? He was gay and attempting to live a celibate life. Talk about someone feeling left out of the Jewish community; no wife, no children, and gay.
Listen to what Rabbi Feldman writes this young man:
“[You are] beloved in God’s eyes as any other Jew, and [are] responsible as any Jew in all the mitzvos. [You are] obligated to achieve life’s goals by directing [your] life towards spiritual growth, sanctity and perfection of character—no less than … any other Jew. (And) [you] will merit the same share in the world to come which every Jew merits, minimally by being the descendant of Avraham Avinu and maximally by totally devoting [your] life towards the service of God.”
Yes, family is paramount in our worldview. But may we never lose sight, within ourselves and with others, of the significance and greatness that each and every individual possesses.
Happy Thanksgiving, Happy Friendsgiving, and a wonderful Shabbos.
Next week’s parsha begins with the words, vayeitzei Yaakov miBe’er Sheva, vayeilech Charana, and Yaakov left Be’er Sheva, and he went to Charan.
Rashi famously asks, why does the Torah mention where Yaakov was leaving from? If he went to Charan, he most certainly left Be’er Sheva? Why does the Torah emphasize that Yaakov left?
And Rashi answers,
אֶלָּא מַגִּיד שֶׁיְּצִיאַת צַדִּיק מִן הַמָּקוֹם עוֹשָׂה רֹשֶׁם
To teach us that when a tzaddik leaves a place, it makes an impact
, שֶׁבִּזְמַן שֶׁהַצַּדִּיק בָּעִיר, הוּא הוֹדָהּ הוּא זִיוָהּ הוּא הֲדָרָהּ;
When the tzadik is in that place, he is its glory, its splendor, its beauty
יָצָא מִשָּׁם, פָּנָה הוֹדָהּ פָּנָה זִיוָהּ פָּנָה הֲדָרָהּ.
When he departs from there, there depart also its glory, its splendor, and its beauty.
The Belzer Rebbe once said, that every Holocaust survivor is a tzaddik, a righteous one. And if that’s the case, then there are no words that can properly convey and capture the essence of this Holocaust survivor, Max Jacob. With the passing of Max Jacob, the world has lost its glory, its splendor, and its beauty and so much more. Allow me to mention just a few of the many things we lost.
We lost a mentor – The amount of people who would turn to Max for advice would make you think he was a rebbe in his own right. And if you wouldn’t ask, he would still give you advice. Not because he wanted to be heard, but because he truly cared.
We lost a friend – Watching Max make his way into shul every Shabbos was a sight to behold. Stopping to say hello to every person along the way. He knew them by name, he knew their life story, and he had just the right word to say to them; encouragement, a joke, or just a nod. And it wasn’t limited to ages, he was friends with everyone, from the old-timers to the young adults and even to the children.
I know my children and so many others will miss Max putting his hand deep into that never-ending pocket of his and pulling out a treat and wishing them a Good Shabbos.
We lost a father figure – Elliot, you were his only son, but we are all orphans today. Max was our rock.
There is an apocryphal story told about Max – and the fact that there are apocryphal stories about him speaks volumes to his legendary status – the story is told that someone once came running frantically over to Max telling him that the shul had a huge crisis. And Max, slowly and deliberately, rolled up his sleeve, showed this man the numbers tattooed on his arm, and looked him in the eye, and said, “This is a problem. Now what do you want to talk about?” (It’s apocryphal because Max, despite having survived numerous camps, did not have a number on his arm.)
We lost a connection to our past – Max told me this week that for his 95th birthday he would go to New York to watch Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish and that he would dance to the song, Tradition. Max was the bearer of tradition, not just for the shul, but for the broader community. He was a link to Europe and he was a link to Sinai. He knew what was pass nisht, what was appropriate and what was inappropriate, not because of any specific text, but because he lived and breathed the Yiddishkeit of the alte heim, the Judaism of old. It was in his kishkes, it was who he was.
He took such great pride in the fact that he was shomer Shabbos, that he kept kosher, that he would dedicate time to learn Torah whenever he could, and that he attended minyan up until this last week.
We lost a gentleman – There was a disagreement once at a board meeting, and Max shared a view that was outvoted. Some time later, it became clear that Max was right, and I told him so. I told him that everyone who voted against him realized that they were wrong, and they were sorry. I’ll never forget this – Max gave me this incredulous look, and said, “Who cares who’s right and who’s wrong?! We made a decision, as a shul, and now we’ll do our best to deal with it.”
We lost a leader – For decades, he served as president of Ner Tamid, for decades, he served as the shul’s executive director. But none of those titles do justice to what he really was. He was our prince. Naflah ateres rosheinu, we have lost our leader. He lived and he breathed Ner Tamid. The words indebted fall pathetically short in describing what Ner Tamid owes Max Jacob. Elliot jokingly said that if he’d have to guess what his father is doing right now, he’s probably fundraising and recruiting new members to Ner Tamid up in heaven.
There is now a void that is simply unfillable. It is not humanly possible to do all that he did, certainly not the way that Max Jacob did it.
And somehow, despite his all-consuming passion for his beloved shul, we also lost a true exemplar of what it means to be a family man –
The pride that he had for his son, Elliot, was second to none. I don’t know how often he said it to you, but I could tell you that every time he mentioned your name, Elliot, he would beam with such pride.
The absolute adoration he had for his daughter-in-law, Harriet, and for his granddaughters… the way his face lit up when he saw his great-grandchildren… there are no words to describe it.
But most of all, the love, the dedication, the exquisite sensitivity that he demonstrated to his beloved wife, Irene was unmatchable. Refusing to allow her to live away from home, despite all the difficulties, and it was hard for him, it was so very hard for him. But in his matter-of-fact, Max Jacob way, he would just say, “this is what we do.” And that’s what he did. Watching him care for Irene was the most humbling marriage lesson I have ever received.
But in thinking about all the adjectives and accolades that we could attribute to Max, I think, I know, that Max would have most preferred to be recalled as ‘a survivor’. And that’s one more thing that the world has lost; we lost another survivor.
But not just any survivor.
A survivor of six camps, a survivor of typhoid, a survivor of Communist rule in Romania, a survivor of starting from scratch in a new country, a survivor of losing a larger-than-life older brother, a survivor of losing his beloved wife, and a survivor of cancer.
Each time Max had a setback, he would tell me, not only tell me but reassure me, “Rabbi, I am a survivor. I survived six camps, I could survive this.” And he did.
And that’s exactly what he told me last week in the hospital. “Rabbi, I will survive this.”
And yesterday as I thought about those words, I realized that he was wrong this time. He did not survive…
And then I realized that no, Max was right, and I was wrong – as usual.
Because I remembered a Purim night a few years ago, in my home, how we were sitting together singing Jewish songs. There were tens of men, women and children, laughing and celebrating this great Jewish holiday together. And at one point, Max, who was visibly moved, got up, and he proclaimed, “Hitler, where are you? Where are you??”
“I know where you are,” Max said. “You are six feet under. And I am here.”
And I realized, Max wasn’t talking about himself. He was talking about his family. He was talking about Ner Tamid. He was talking about the Jewish People. Max did survive!
Because yes, with Max’s passing, the world’s glory, the world’s splendor, the world’s beauty, has all been diminished, but Max Jacob wasn’t just a person – Max was an icon, he represented to all of us what it means to be a Jew, what it means to live a committed and dedicated life, what it means to care for family no matter what, what it means to be a leader, what it means to be a mench, what it means to be a mentor, and what it means to be a friend. And those lessons are forever ours to cherish and to be inspired from.
The institutions that Max led and assisted with, the Council of Orthodox Presidents, the Montessori school which he helped establish, Etz Chaim, Rabbi Shlanger’s Yeshiva, and Derech Chaim, which he graciously housed in their early years, and of course, his beloved shul to which he dedicated his entire being – those institutions, they are all still here.
The family, the amazing family that he brought into this world; a family that is living by the ideals that he committed his life to, sitting right here.
Max was and IS a survivor because his legacy, his life work, will live on.
His soul is no doubt, right now, in the highest echelons of Heaven, a place reserved for true tzadikim. He is reunited with the many in his family who did not survive and to whom he dedicated his life, he is reunited with his wife, with his brother, and he is looking out at all of us, asking us to maintain the ideals and the values to which he lived his life, ensuring that Max Jacob, the survivor, survives yet again.
T’hei nishmoso tz’rura biTzror haChaim. May his soul be bound in the Eternal Bond of life.
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.
About a year ago, I delivered a sermon on the topic of abuse. There were two points I was trying to convey: The first being to make yourself, as a parent and as a friend, the type of person who your child, family member or friend would be comfortable speaking to if they are G-d forbid targeted by an abusive person. If we could become that type of person who everyone knows will not pass judgment, who will accept, who will love, and who will comfort, no matter what, we can’t even imagine how much pain and hardship we can prevent.
That point has been reinforced in my mind over the past year, reading about all the people who are coming forward with allegations of abuse, and there is clearly nothing more tragic than abuse. But even more tragic is the fact that for so many of these people this was the first time they shared their experience with anyone. That’s a tragedy we can prevent. Be that person who can be turned to.
The second point I shared then was the importance of going to a professional when there is even the slightest indication of abuse. Call CHANA, and together with their guidance and support, they will help you navigate if and when to involve the police, CPS, or whatever may be most appropriate.
Yes, the police are far from perfect in that they are limited in their ability to ascertain the facts, and yes, the judicial system, is far from perfect in that they are only there to judge whether there has been a violation of a law, not if it’s right or wrong. But it’s the best we have. They are the only ones who can even attempt to uncover the truth, the only ones who can even attempt to bring about justice. And so, we have a moral and religious duty to turn to the authorities in case of concern.
The identity or prestige of the perpetrator, the impact on his or her family, the effect on the community’s ‘good name’, none of that is relevant to our over-arching duty to report and to keep our children and adults safe.
I should warn you before I continue that this will be off-putting for some, and triggering for others, and I encourage you, if you need, to step outside at any point.
The question I want to deal with today is what happens next?
You see, even if a victim seeks professional help, and they decide to call the police, the police first have to decide if it’s a crime, and by the way, many abusive behaviors are not crimes. Then they have decide if it is true or false, and then they have to decide if they do or don’t press charges.
And there’s more to it – after you report something, there is often a lapse of time between the allegation and the charge, and during that time, the community must decide what to do in the interim. Additionally, CPS or the police, may ultimately decide not to pursue those charges for a whole host of reasons, and again, the community, recognizing the limitations of the judicial system, must decide once again what to do. Sometimes, a victim may choose not to press charges, for a wide variety of legitimate reasons. Or, what happens with someone who was punished or ‘rehabilitated’ by the system, and now that punishment is over. What happens next in all those cases? What happens after you tell the police? After time is served? Or when no one comes forward but there is still serious concern? What happens next?
I’d like to share this morning, two important lessons about justice from this week’s parsha. It’s relevant to the topic at hand, but it has ramifications well beyond this specific discussion.
In this week’s parsha, we find Avraham and G-d negotiating the future of the cities of Sedom. “Will you spare the cities for 50 righteous people?” “Yes, but there aren’t 50 righteous people.” “What about 45?” “40?” “Yes, but there aren’t.” “30?” “20?” “10?” And then Avraham stops. What about the 9 possible tzadikkim in those cities? It sounds like there may very well have been 9 righteous individuals in the city, but Avraham doesn’t pray for them. So what ends up happening to them?
Some suggest that G-d most certainly saved the individual tzadikim, just like G-d saved Lot. They argue that Avraham’s argument was not about the individuals but about saving the entire population for the sake of the few.
But the simple understanding of the text, is that those 9 righteous people, if they existed, would have been swept up in the punishment of the city. And Avraham understood this and accepted it as justice.
Writes Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Derech Hashem, 2), the justice system of G-d allows for people who are righteous to be punished with the group that they find themselves in. Not because they are guilty, they are not, but because there is at times a decree against a population, and everyone in that group will get punished even if there are a few who do not deserve it. Now of course, in the World to Come, this undeserved punishment will serve as a benefit to these people. But in this world, they will suffer even though they aren’t guilty.
What this speaks to is a crucial distinction that we need to make between being guilty and being punished. Sometimes, for the sake of public policy, people who are completely innocent still suffer, and that’s tragic, but sometimes that’s the way the world works. I’ll give you a silly example:
Let’s say I am driving home at 3 in the morning. I live on a pretty quiet block. The speed limit is 35 – I think. So it’s 3 AM, I am driving 50 miles an hour, no one’s around, everyone’s asleep, what’s the big deal? But let’s say there is a police officer who happens to be standing there with his radar gun, and he pulls me over. Now I would turn to the officer and politely argue that the 35 miles an hour speed limit is for regular hours, it’s really not unsafe for me to be driving 50 at this hour. And he would probably agree in theory. But he would have every right to give me a ticket because the law is made for the majority of situations. I am not a bad person, I am not unsafe, but what I did still broke the law.
I once heard this idea, attributed to a great medieval commentator, and applied to Mitzvos in general. Are there Mitzvos that hurt individuals? Sure. Is it fair to the child born out of an incestuous or adulterous relationship, that he or she is a mamzer, and is virtually incapable of marrying anyone? It’s not fair. But the greater good is that there is an incredible deterrent against incest. Is the Torah’s model of marriage, a heterosexual couple fair to every individual? I don’t think so. But I understand that it promotes the perpetuation of the Jewish People, and it promotes family, the bedrock of Judaism.
When Avraham acknowledged that 9 righteous people may get killed for the sins of the masses, he was in essence teaching us that not every time someone is punished is it because they’re guilty. The Mishna has a beautiful choice of words used when describing someone who is to receive a punishment. It does not say he or she is guilty. The Mishna writes chayav misah, or chayav malkus. The individual is obligated to received death or obligated to receive punishment. But we are not passing judgment on the moral character of the individual, we are following the rules meant for society at large.
The legal system, like the Torah, has rules, rules that are set up to try its best to create a functional society.
The Maharal of Prague (Nesivos) writes that although we have an obligation to emulate G-d, mah hu rachum, just like G-d is compassionate, af ata rachum, we too must be compassionate. But this obligation is limited, he points out, to acts of love. When it comes to justice, we have an obligation to judge. But we acknowledge that only G-d is the true judge, ki hamishpat leilokim hu, and we? We just follow the rules.
Now imagine if we, as a society and community would really accept this distinction between guilt and punishment. Imagine if we would accept the fact that sometimes there are policies that preclude a person from enjoying certain rights or positions not because they are guilty but because it’s against a policy. For example, Brett Kavanaugh had only two choices open to him – fight the allegations against him and claim innocence or resign and accept guilt. Nowhere in the public discourse (not nowhere, but not loud enough) was a serious discussion about the possibility of being innocent and yet, not being fit for the job because of a policy that would preclude a judge with allegations to sit on the Supreme Court. Now of course there is no such policy so he had no choice but to fight. But we can’t even discuss the creation of a policy when we’re stuck thinking in this binary fashion of innocence or guilt. Is there room, somewhere between believing every allegation on the one hand and saying someone is completely innocent on the other? Is there room in the middle to say, I don’t know, but… these are nonetheless the steps we have to take.
It’s a not about Kavanaugh, this happens all the time. A local shul just voted on whether they should keep their rabbi and the question was mistakenly limited to innocence or guilt, instead of being one of public policy that would preclude such a person from a position despite the fact that they may be entirely innocent. And this is not limited to rabbis or teachers, that’s just the stuff that makes the news – the same questions have to be dealt with for congregants, for members, for any and every position. Is there a middle ground where we say, I don’t know, but…? And what does that place look like?
It’s important to mention that exceptional and therefore newsworthy stories notwithstanding, the majority of allegations are true. Not all, but most. In light of that, I believe there is room between the craziness of believing every allegation on the one hand, and the hubris of dismissing every allegation on the other. Can we learn to say, I don’t know whether this man or woman is guilty, but precautions must be taken.
I believe it’s incumbent upon us, as a community to create such policies for every institution, and even more importantly, to train ourselves to think this way. One of the mots ridiculous parts of the Kavanaugh hearings was the fact that every person seemed to think they knew, by watching a few hours of interviews, whether he or she was lying. That’s ludicrous! We just don’t have the tools to distinguish the innocent from the guilty, and that’s okay, because that’s not our job. Our job is to create systems, policies, procedures, for the safety of the masses, and for us to acknowledge loud and clear, that we don’t have a clue as to whether someone is innocent or guilty. Nine righteous people died in Sedom and yet, justice was served.
Which brings me back to Sedom and to my next point. Who was Avraham praying for after all? Who were these people of Sedom?
You know, the word sodomize comes from this Biblical story because the men of Sedom wanted to forcefully sodomize Lot’s visitors. This is who we’re talking about. And yet, Avraham prays, “Save these people. Don’t destroy them.”
I know it’s uncomfortable to hear those words. It’s uncomfortable for me to say them. Yes, of course, our primary concern is how we are ensuring that everyone, and specifically, our children are safe. But we need to balance that with a few factors:
- We also have a responsibility to the accused, and even to the guilty. A very different responsibility but a responsibility nonetheless.
- As I have heard numerous times from many leading mental health professionals, it’s far safer for someone who is dangerous to have a support system than to not have one. The further we push a person away, the more dangerous such a person becomes.
- And I say this final point with trepidation, because I am sure I will be misunderstood but it must be said. As Jews we believe in teshuva, in change. We believe in new beginnings.
I know, I know, there is a well-established fact that recidivism rates with sexual offenders is through the roof. Once a sex offender, always a sex offender. This notion was popularized by Justice Kennedy of the Supreme Court, who quoted a study in an opinion piece, stating that recidivism rates with sex offenders are as high as 80%.
The only problem is that the study wasn’t a study. It was an article in a magazine, called, Psychology Today, not a scientific journal. The author of the article presented no evidence or data to prove his point, it was a theory and he has since gone on the record to decry the misuse of his article. (source)
To be clear, the recidivism rate, even in the most conservative studies, is still a reason to create every precaution possible to ensure that nothing happens again. I am not suggesting that teshuva means that we believe a person who says, I’ll never do it again. Not a chance.
What I am suggesting, is that when someone acknowledges that they did something wrong and regrets it, when they take concrete steps to change, and when [competent] professionals are involved, then that deserves to be taken into consideration. And we must find a way forward; a way that is safe, a way that is sensitive to the victims, and a way that is sensitive to all victims.
I share these thoughts not as solutions, but as questions. I grapple with the question that I began with all too often, sometimes theoretically, and sometimes practically, and I invite you to grapple with me. Because I think we need, as a community to answer the question of, What’s next? What do we do, descendants of Avraham, believers in the capacity for human change, champions of love and kindness, what do we do with someone who acknowledged wrongdoing, who is seeking treatment, whose therapist feel they’re safe, and wants to take part in the gift of community, do we eternally ban them from all of our institutions? And how do we balance that with victims, not their victims per se, but victims of other abuses who are triggered by the presence of such a perpetrator in their midst?
We have come a long way as a community in responding to abuse. And we still have a long way to go. But that change will only happen if we’re all on board, each and every one of us, on doing this right, to thinking about this thoughtfully and cautiously. We need to be vigilant in ensuring that people go to the professionals and to the authorities, whether the alleged abuser is a stranger or a family member – covering things up helps no one. We need to educate our children and ourselves on how to best respond if abuse is encountered. We need to be less judgmental, more accepting, so that if something does happen, our friends and family have us to turn to. And we need to recognize our limitations. Ki hamishpat leilokim hu, G-d is the only true judge. We must do what we can to protect our communities without passing judgment when we are unable, and yes, that means that innocent people will at times suffer. And lastly, we must believe in the capacity for change; change in ourselves and change in others.
May G-d see our efforts at being impartial, in being balanced, in being protective and in being loving, and in that merit, may we see the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words, tziyon b’mishpat tipodeh, that through our efforts to judge fairly, we will merit a time of true justice.
The symbolism of Tachanun