Just about every Friday night, and often on Saturday mornings, we gather as a congregation to pray, to sing, to study, to share stories, and support one another both in celebration and in loss. We join our voices in prayer, hoping that God will hear the power of our unified voice. We discuss how we can make sense of the ancient narratives and mitzvot of Torah. And often we discuss how Torah can help us make sense of our world today.
But tonight, we seem to be at a loss. How do make sense of something that seems so insane? How do we comprehend what we would have considered unthinkable – if it hadn’t actually taken place?
Wednesday night, a 21-year-old white man sporting racist patches on his t-shirt walked into the historic Emanuel AME African-American Church in Charleston, South Carolina. For nearly an hour, Dylann Roof sat in the Bible study group led by the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, a revered and respected leader of his church and his community. Then he stood up, took out a gun, and started shooting. He reloaded time and again while his intended victims begged him to stop. You don’t have to do this, they pleaded with him. I have to do this, he reportedly told them. You rape our women. You took away our country. You must go. By the time he fled into the night, eight people were dead, and a ninth died later at the hospital.
“There is no greater coward than a criminal who enters a house of God and slaughters innocent people engaged in the study of scripture,” said NAACP president Cornell William Brooks. He is right about that.
Roof, if everything is true that we have heard, is a coward and a criminal and a terrorist. His friends describe him as a loner with a serious drug problem and a very serious anger problem. In recent weeks, he had taken to ranting to his friends about the need for racial segregation, about black people taking over the world, about having to do something for the sake of the white race. I don’t know where he got these ideas – whether at home or at school or from friends or from the internet. But this notion of defending White America clearly had taken over his every thought and action. And into this already-toxic mix, his father – in a grand gesture of fine parenting – reportedly decided to gift him a gun for his 21st birthday. A 45-caliber Glock that he reportedly reloaded five times while the people in that Bible study group pleaded for their lives.
Just about every Friday night, and often on Saturday mornings, we gather as a congregation in this beautiful historic building. Only on the High Holy Days, when there are many of us, do we think to arrange for police and security. But this past Wednesday night was like any other Wednesday night at the church lovingly called Mother Emanuel, a bible-study night for just a handful of the faithful. Asked one woman, “If you’re not safe in a house of worship, where are you safe?” And we have to the wonder the same thing.
We keep our doors open because, in the words of the prophet Isaiah that adorn the front of our building: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” But that makes us too easy a target. There have now been 13 mass murders at a house of worship since the Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing in 1963 – including a Buddhist Temple near Phoenix in 1991 and, most recently, a Sikh temple outside Milwaukee in 2012.
“The fact that this took place in a black church obviously also raises questions about a dark part of our history,” President Obama said. “This is not the first time that black churches have been attacked, and we know the hatred across races and faiths poses a particular threat to our democracy and our ideals.”
He’s right. The massacre in Charleston is not just attack on a black church. It is an attack on America – on its loftiest ideals and greatest strengths. The unique power of our diversity is obviously pretty scary to some people who have been taught to hate others for having a different skin color, or a different language, or a different religion. It is a threat to those who believe that, in their “real” America, everybody should look like them, talk like them, dress like them, and pray like them.
This troubled young man, seething with hatred for people he didn’t even know, walked into the Mother AME Church with a gun and a plan. And the saddest thing about all this is – he almost didn’t do it. He told the arresting officers that the people in that Bible study circle were just so nice, and so welcoming. But when his indoctrination into white supremacy – that blacks are evil, that blacks are subhuman, that blacks do not deserve to live – when all that came up against reality, reality lost.
With all the media attention earlier this week on Rachel Dolezal, the Seattle head of the NAACP who is white and lied about being black, let’s remember that we cannot – none of us – know the vicious hatred with which blacks continue to be treated in this country.
Her spouting off about how she’s so immersed in the black experience because she’s got black adopted siblings or black children – just proves how clueless and delusional she really is. She can stop the tanning and take the braids out of her hair, and slip easily back into the white world whenever she wants to. Blacks do not have that option.
I suppose that we Jews are the closest thing to American blacks, as an oppressed and threatened minority. The recent rise in hate crimes against Jews in America – some of it violent and even deadly – reminds us that we are not as safe as we’d like to think we are. But even at that, many of the Jews who have been targeted over the years are those who had aligned themselves with Black America and the civil rights movement. The Freedom Riders murdered. The Temple in Atlanta bombed. The rabbis and their families throughout the south threatened, crosses burned on their lawns, for speaking the truth about Jim Crow and segregation. All because we as Jews saw equality, in law and in life, as a moral imperative established in our scripture and founded in our own historic experience of slavery and oppression, pogroms and lynchings.
Just as white supremacists do not live in reality, neither do those who advocate for easy availability of guns. And the fact that it is still way too easy for people like this — who are angry, or feel ignore, or carry a grudge — to obtain a gun, is not something we can ignore. President Obama did not, as he spoke to the nation after yet another mass murder:
“I don’t need to be constrained about the emotions tragedies like this raise,” the president said. “I’ve had to make comments like this too many times. Communities like this have had to endure tragedies like this too many times. We don’t have all the facts, but we do know that, once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun.”
We know there is almost no political will in Washington to pass federal laws for public safety – even for something as simple and widely supported as closing loopholes on criminal background checks for gun purchases. If it didn’t happen after Sandy Hook, I don’t see it happening now. Fortunately, some states are taking action – but not enough of them, and not soon enough.
So what do we do?
Within our congregation, we have to be vigilant about the people who approach our building and our people. I don’t like to say that, but that’s the way it is. Follow the old adage: If you see, you say. If you think someone’s hanging around who’s suspicious, we can let the police find out who they are.
Within our community, we have to unite. Yesterday, we were at our regular, monthly women’s clergy lunch – about a dozen of us from across the religious spectrum. Being clergy, we said, “We have to do something.” Being women, we collaborated on what to do and got it organized in about ten minutes.
On Friday night, July 3rd, at 7:00, we will hold a community-wide interfaith prayer service on the grounds of Simpson Temple United Parish on 6th Avenue.
We will share prayers and music from all of our faith traditions. It’s a night when we don’t have a scheduled Shabbat service here, so please go there. It’s important that we physically be together, pray together, hold hands, and support one another. We will show that, in our community, the religious imperative to love one’s neighbor as we love ourselves trumps all differences and distinctions in race or religion. The truth is that what happened in Charleston can happen anywhere. But we can do our part to make it less likely to happen here.
And on a bigger scale – we MUST unite to demand changes in our gun laws that will make our communities safer. Universal background checks. Waiting periods. A ban on large magazines and assault weapons, which have no use and no place in civilian life. As individuals, as congregations, we need to demand it. Only when we are as big and powerful and noisy as the gun lobby will politicians finally listen.
It is simply not true that more guns make us more safe. What IS true is that gun violence, and gun deaths, grow in proportion with the proliferation of guns. Approximately 88 people die every day in America from gun violence – accidents, murders, irresponsibility, in addition to suicides. The United States has less than five percent of the world’s population – but we own anywhere from 35 to 50 percent of the civilian guns. Our obsession with guns sets us apart from every other developed nation. And it is not a distinction to be proud of.
I understand and appreciate the hunting culture of our area. But it’s time to separate the hunting culture from the gun culture. The right to own a gun must not over-ride the other rights that we should enjoy as Americans. And that includes the right to be safe at home, at work, and in our houses of worship.
There are a lot of groups to join. Everytown for Gun Safety. Moms Demand Action. Ceasefire Pa. Say something. Do something. We are commanded not to stand idly by the blood of our neighbors. This is a way each of us can take responsibility to fulfill God’s mitzvah.
In this week’s Haftarah, the prophet Samuel says to the people: Do not turn to “no-things” that cannot help or save you, because they are nothing. He’s referring to idolatry, the worship of manmade figures of wood or gold. In our own day, in our own nation, there are those who worship at the altar of racial hatred, and those who cling to idols that kill. We must stand together, as a community of faith, and with our brothers and sisters in faith, and reject both of these idolatrous evils.
It is simply unthinkable for us to do otherwise.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2015 Audrey R. Korotkin
I had an amazing, inspiring experience in Washington DC this week – and not for the reason I thought I would.
The reason for the trip was to take our Confirmation class to the Holocaust Museum. We were invited to join students of the Celebrate Diversity program, which works with public and private schools all over the area to promote tolerance, understanding, and open communication.
After several hours in the museum, we needed to be outside, to unwind and get some fresh air. So we went down to the Tidal Basin, where many of the national monuments are located. It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day, and not very crowded, so we had a lot of time to go through several of the monuments I hadn’t been to before.
The memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt is stunning – not in its grandeur but in its simplicity. It’s more of a park, with broad, winding paths. It’s very organic, like it’s part of the natural landscape. Facing the Tidal Basin is a series of rough-cut low limestone walls with trees above and inspiring quotes from President Roosevelt chiseled into them.
Whoever planned this park did something really interesting. You know, there are plenty of moments in the area dedicated to war – World war two, Korea, Viet Nam. But the FDR memorial is not about victory in battle. It focuses on the economic recovery of the 30’s, the immense hardships that so many Americans felt, and Roosevelt’s hallmark achievements in improving the lives of Americans of every background, class, and race. It’s about the inherent value and dignity of every human being. And almost everything is presented on a very human scale.
As you walk in, you’re greeted by a life-sized bronze statue of Roosevelt in the one pose he would never be seen in during his life – seated in his wheelchair. It’s a bold statement, I think, about what people with disabilities can achieve if given the chance. Tourists were sitting on the president’s lap, getting their picture taken with him. And that’s great. It humanizes a man who’s almost become a myth, and reminds us of his immense power despite his physical frailty.
Moving into the next section there’s a sculpture of an ordinary working-class man plying his trade, and another of a group of people standing in a bread-line. They represent the millions of Americans who struggled for years with hunger, with joblessness, with homelessness, with hopelessness – and they represent the millions of Americans who face the same challenges today. The sculptures might have been inspired by real people who suffered 75 years ago – but they might well remind us of people we know, people in our own communities.
Juxtaposed with the quotes from Roosevelt, they are also a reminder that government can, and has, played a powerful and necessary role in putting millions of people back to work so that they can feed and clothe and house their families. Roosevelt’s words still apply today, “Among American citizens, there should be no forgotten men, and no forgotten races.”
The only larger-than-life depiction of Roosevelt is at the very end of the park, a bronze statue of him seated, wrapped in his cape, with his beloved dog Fala at his side. But even here, we get a sense of his humanity, and his compassion for all of God’s creatures.
The human factor is at the heart of this week’s Torah portion, which begins with the laws of the Sabbatical year, proclaimed every seventh year, and the Jubilee year, every fiftieth year.
The Torah demands we recognize the needs of the people and the land itself to rest in order to be fruitful and productive.
At the Jubilee, we are commanded to release all indentured servants and forgive their debts, using the language inscribed on the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof.”
The land, too, must be redeemed – and can never be sold so that it beyond reclamation by its original owners. Thus, every person in our community is granted a second chance to return to home and family, without the specter of crushing debts hanging over their children.
But the Torah goes farther in its concern for human dignity. The Torah not only allows for the redemption of impoverished and enslaved Israelites – it actually requires family members to pay what it takes to bring them home by the Jubilee year. And as for those who keep indentured servants who owe them money, the Torah states, “the other shall not rule ruthlessly in your sight.”
Kindness and compassion are required – because of the inherent dignity and value of each human being regardless of status. As the rabbis teach, we are all descended from a single human being, so that no one of us can say that our blood is redder – that is, that our life has more worth than another.
That’s what Celebrate Diversity is designed to do, too. Let’s face it: our children grow up around here in a relatively safe, and fairly homogenous, environment. This program challenges some basic presumptions they might make about the world, just because they’ve seen so little of it. One workshop requires kids to be segregated out by hair color, or eye color – not a far cry from segregating people by the color of their skin, and just as pointless and hurtful.
Exposing students of all backgrounds to the horror of the Holocaust – and to the human potential for evil and death and even genocide – forces them to look more closely at how other people are treated, on the basis of race and religion, even here at home. And how they might be perpetuating denigration of the “other” without even realizing it.
The reason I think that the FDR Memorial and the US Holocaust Museum are so effective in delivering the message about the inherent value of every human being, is that they present our past on a human scale. At the monument, it’s bringing the scale of both FDR’s challenges and his achievements down to dimensions we can comprehend.
The Holocaust museum puts names and faces to a tragedy that sometimes defies comprehension. Each person entering the museum is given a card with the name and photo and story of someone swept up in the Holocaust. That person becomes your alter-ego, through whose eyes you view the horror as it unfolds – the anti-Jewish laws, the ghettos, the starvation, the work camps, the death camps. You don’t find out until the end of the story what happened to them. Did they survive? Escape? Die in the camps?
In both cases, these memorials move us beyond the tragedy of faceless and nameless millions that can overwhelm us and makes individual action seem pointless, if not impossible. We learn the stories of righteous gentiles who saved thousands of Jews – and also the names of those who refused to help. We see the images of working-class Americans bent over from hunger, and we are still inspired by the words of a disabled man who, more or less single-handedly, mobilized the power of an entire national bureaucracy by appealing to the moral imperative that we must not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor.
Okay, so FDR did it on a grand scale, because he was a great man who was in the right place, at the right time, for the right purpose. But God doesn’t expect us to be FDR. God does expect us to do what we can, one day at a time, one person at a time. Or as the rabbis say, “one who saves a single life, it is as though he has saved the entire world.” We are not commanded to complete the task – but neither are we free to abstain from it.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. And let us say together: Amen.
I was alerted to the sad news on Tuesday that an HUC schoolmate of mine had died after a valiant battle with cancer. Rabbi Vicki Sackser Tuckman was sort of the epitome of the modern Reform Rabbi. She was someone who grew up in the movement, where she was inspired to make her career in the rabbinate. She was young, energetic, and engaging. I’ve never seen a photo of her where she didn’t have a big smile on her face – whether it was with kids at Camp Harlam, at home with her husband and kids, on the bimah for a Bat Mitzvah, or even in her room at Sloan Kettering Hospital. It was telling that, in her dignity and openness about her illness, she even posted on Facebook pictures of the x-rays showing off what she called her “new hip.” The bone, eaten away by the cancer, had been replaced by rods and screws.
Her death, coming in the middle of Passover, resonated with me for another reason: It was at this season 17 years ago that I received my own cancer diagnosis, at probably about the same age Vicki would be now. It was during my junior year at seminary, and I had to return to HUC the following week and tell everyone at our class meeting that I had no idea what the future held as we all began our preparations for senior year and ordination.
You all know generally what did happen, because I’m here to talk about it. Apparently I had what they called an old-lady cancer, one that grew very slowly – so with aggressive treatment (surgery, chemo, radiation), I’m now both a survivor and a thriver. People look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them that I’m one of the lucky ones, and that I feel blessed. But when I hear news like I did this week, I know that it’s true.
I also know that it would seem unfair to people who loved Vicki. Why should one person’s cancer grow so slowly, and another’s spread so aggressively? Why should doctors at Sloan Kettering – one of the top treatment centers in the world – be unable to stem the tide of the disease? Why should tragedy befall a family where children are left behind to grieve?
The truth is that it happens because it happens. Because, as Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote more than three decades ago in When Bad Things Happen To Good People, “God does not cause our misfortunes. Some are caused by bad luck, some are caused by bad people, and some are simply an inevitable consequence of our being human and being mortal, living in a world of inflexible natural laws.”
But when a young person dies like this, there seem to be no words for the grief, much less for an explanation.
We see this on display in this week’s Torah portion. The title, Shemini, refers to the eight-day consecration ceremony of the high priests, Aaron and his elder sons, Nadav and Avihu, to serve God in the tabernacle. Aaron performs his duties as God commands – burnt offerings and sacrifices from the people to purge their transgressions.
The flames come forth from God to consume the sacrifice on the altar, and all the people fall on their faces, awestruck at God’s power.
Nadav and Avihu think it’s a pretty awesome sight. So they decide to do it themselves. They copy what their father did and offer up what the Torah describes as “aish zarah,” alien fire, which God did not request. The flames come forth from God, seemingly to once again consume the sacrifice on the altar – but it consumes the two men instead. All Aaron can do is look on in grief and horror. “Vayidom Aharon,” says the text. And Aaron was silent.
The old JPS translation reads “And Aaron held his peace” – that is, he knew he should not speak out against God’s judgment. But the word just means silence. The 15th-century Portuguese Torah scholar Isaac Abravanel suggested that Aaron was simply inconsolable.
Life went on for Aaron and for his family. They were forbidden by God from showing any outward signs of grief. His younger sons, Elazar and Itamar, stepped in to take their brothers’ places. And the Torah simply resumes its narration of the litany of offerings to be made at the consecration of the priests and the sanctuary.
Once – just once – Aaron opens up about his feelings, and only to his brother. At the very end of the chapter, Moses rebukes him for refusing to partake of the peoples’ sin offering. Aaron replies, “This day, they have brought their sin offering and burnt offering before God – but such things have befallen me! Had I eaten it, would God have approved?”
The Rashbam, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, interprets Aaron’s words to say: “How could I possibly have sat and eaten the standard offerings, when our celebration has been tarnished by this tragedy?” Moses silently acknowledges Aaron’s grief and approves of the way he expresses it.
The death of the young does indeed stun us into silence. Our lives will go on, just as Aaron’s did. Our confusion, or our anger, or our frustration, may manifest itself in all kinds of places, in all kinds of ways, as we work through our grief. All we can do is hope that our friends and neighbors and co-workers have the insight and compassion of Moses, to accept our sometimes-bizarre behavior for what it is.
Kein yehi ratson. May we learn to treat others with the compassion we would wish for ourselves. As we say together: Amen.
©2015 Audrey R. Korotkin