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Author of Life. Man has turned violent. Crushing lives, upending dreams, attacking the heart of a democratic nation…
Rabbi Jordan Helfman – November 23, 2015
Sermon: November 21, 2015 - Rabbi Jordan Helfman
Man has turned violent,
Attacking the heart of a democratic nation
With vitriol and hatred
In coordinated acts of calculated terror.
Grant a perfect rest under your tabernacle of peace
To the victims of terror in Paris,
Innocents murdered and wounded,
Men and women whose lives were cut off by witless aggression.
Grant them shelter and solace,
Comfort and consolation,
Blessing and renewal.
Grant them endurance to survive,
Strength to rebuild,
Faith to mourn,
Courage to heal,
And devotion to each other.
Hand of love and shelter,
Grant the people of Paris Your protection,
Your wholeness and healing,
And Your peace.
Main d’amour et refuge,
Accorde aux peuple de Paris Ta protection,
Ta guérison et ton intégrité,
Et accorde-leur Ta paix.
This beautiful prayer, written by the liturgist, Aiden Solovy, draws our hearts back to last Shabbat, when instead of peace and harmony, so many found pain and suffering, or even death.
And, soon, we heard many types of responses to this tragedy. Some mournful, immersed in sorrow for a lost loved one, some relieved, those invited to the concert who have just left the restaurant, some triumphant at their group’s success, unfortunately, some forsaking hope, and others trying to move beyond the moment to make a different point.
I had a friend innocently ask me, “Rabbi – I posted something on Facebook saying, “Don’t just pray for Paris, also pray for Beirut” – referencing the terror attack that had happened just the day before in this former French colony, killing around 40 – why did people react so negatively to my post?”
“It is about connection,” I explained. “We all mourn based on our relationship, and many of us have a deep connection with Paris – which doesn’t mean that it is wrong to pray for Beirut as well – but simply that I don’t have personal connection with Beirut in the same way.”
“Think of it this way – If my great aunt passes away (God forbid) your saying, ‘Don’t forget to mourn for other people that have suffered losses as well’ isn’t what I’m looking to hear.”
Or in the language of our parasha – When I’m trying to express my relationship to one sister, don’t slip another one under the wedding veil.
Another way I saw this hiding the wrong bride under the wedding veil was in some pro-Israel hasbarah. Like the post: New York: 9/11. Paris 11/13. Israel 24/7.
Yes. This is true. But at the moment of mourning it is unhelpful. Yes “your great aunt passed away, and you may be sad… but don’t forget, my relatives pass away all the time.”
We pray for Paris. We pray for Beirut. We pray for Israel. We pray for Mali. But we don’t compare the tragedies or play suffering one-upmanship. In moments of tragedy, we let each connection of pain radiate for itself. Each bullet, each loss, each stabbing, each moment. This is the first step we keep in mind in moments of pain, as we make sure that we acknowledge that pain. We reflect on it for its own sake. Each tragedy is a tragedy. We are a people well acquainted with suffering and the valley of shadows. I attended Professor Marrus’s lecture this past Holocaust Education week. The theme this year – if I can paraphrase… When the Holocaust was over – many people think it was sunshine and happiness as people began their new lives… but, in France, in camps, as people returned to their home towns in Paris… the suffering continued.
This is a theme that also appears in this week’s parasha.
The midrash says that our matriarch Leah was to have been Esau’s wife, but when word of what kind of person he was came to her, she wept so much that when the biblical text describes her and her sister, it points out her sister is “Beautiful of form and of face.” And Leah… she “has weak eyes.”
And then, when Jacob wakes up after the wedding feast, and finds Laban in his bed, he shouts out, “Ma zot asitah li. .. WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME?!” Just what every girl wants to hear her husband right in front of her father just after the husband finishes consummating the marriage.
To show her mental state, as she tries to earn her husband’s love, but the text is unclear as to how that goes. Listen to the names of her first three sons, “Reuven.. The Eternal ra’ah saw my plight. And yes…now my husband will love me!” And then “Shimon The Eternal Shama heard that I am despised and has given me this one, too. And then Levi – And now, this time, my husband will be attached to me, yilave for I have borne to him three sons…This time he will be attached to me.
Three sons, through each one, she suffered yet Leah continued on. She moved from a place of despair over her relationship with her husband, into a place of love for her sons. She wa pregnant again, and then had a fourth son “This time, I give thanks – Odeh et Adonai” – give thanks to the Eternal.” And names her son Judah.
She moves from suffering – each son marking the terrible state of relationship with the man that she lets impregnate her over and over again – to a place of thanks.
“Strikingly, the name Leah gives her fourth son, Judah, meaning “I will praise” or “I will express gratitude,” becomes the name of the Jewish people as a whole (Jew—Yehudi, comes from the name Judah—Yehudah). Who is a Jew? One who discovers the possibility of gratitude even amidst heart break. That is why we are given the name that expresses Leah’s courage, and her achievement: a Jew is, ideally, a human being who, like Leah, can find her way to gratitude without having everything she wants or even needs. Disappointment need not preclude gratitude, and nor need gratitude crowd out the very real possibility of disappointment. Judaism does not ask us to choose one feeling or the other, but rather makes space—indeed, seeks to teach us to make space—for the sheer complexity and contradictoriness of human experience. Who better than Leah to teach us that a broken heart can also have moments of profound fullness.”
The rabbis even teach that Leah is the first to praise God. What does this mean, some ask – because there are others that praise God as well.. The rabbi’s respond that Leah, though, praised God even after suffering.
Now, I’m going to make a jump here – though we do praise God in moments of tragedy – upon hearing of a death, it is traditional to say “Baruch Dayan HaEmet” Praised is the True Judge” and the Kaddish prayer itself is an expression of this ethos… I am going to read Praise God in another way, which also mean to keep hope alive. And thus we find the second half of our response. First acknowledging the tragedy and giving it space before we interpret and spin it, and the second imperative, to thank God or turning thanks into action to retain our hope in God, hope in those created in God’s image, hope in our world.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his recent book Future Tense takes about the role of being of Judah – a Jew – and of keeping hope alive (now for our scholarly friends, I feel that I need to point out that Rabbi Sacks is giving a very romantic view of Jews in history, but we’re in shul, so if you’ll suspend your critical thought for poetry for the moment):
Rabbi Sacks teaches –
“It is no accident that in the modern world, many Jews became economists, fighting poverty, or doctors combating disease, or lawyers contesting injustice, or teachers battling ignorance, or psychotherapists, striving to defeat despair. The great Jewish thinkers even those who had abandoned Judaism were almost invariable utopians or revolutionaries, charting secular routes to hope….
Jews never accepted that war, violence, injustice, exploitation, the corruption of power and the seductions of success are written into the structure of the universe. They do not believe that tragedy is inevitable, that human aspiration is hubris to be punished by nemesis, that a blind fate governs all things, that the universe or the gods are at best indifferent, at worst activity hostile, to human kind. They do not believe that genetic determinism means that all our efforts to change are fruitless and unworthwhile. If God defines himself as “I will be what I will be,” Then he is telling us that, created in his image, we too can be what we will be…. To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope. Every ritual, every command, every syllable of the Jewish story is a protest against escapism, resignation and the blind acceptance of fate. Judaism, the religion of the free God, is a religion of freedom. Jewish faith is written in the future tense. It is believe in a future that is not yet but could be, if we heed God’s call, obey his will and act together as a covenantal community. The name of the Jewish future is hope.
Somehow, in a way I find mysterious and moving, the Jewish people wrote a story of hope that has the power to inspire all who dare to believe that injustice and brutality are not the final word about the human condition, that faith can be more powerful than empires, that love given is not given in vain, that ideals are not illusions to give us comfort but candles to light our way along a winding road in the dark night without giving way to fear or losing a sense of direction.
He concludes his book, “And the Jewish task remains, to be the voice of hope in an age of fear, the countervoice in the conversation of humankind, to be the voice of Hope in age of Fear.”
To conclude we let the tragedy resonate, we mourn, we ask why. We do our best to make sure that it never happens again, that our loved ones in Israel, in Paris, in all countries are safe.
We also have a religious calling as Jews to balance our mourning with praise of God’s name. In the face of fear of the other we stand forward and say that all are created in the image of God. In the face of fear of the other we step forward and say that all deserve to be treated as human beings, that all need safety, that we are all children of Abraham, that we, as Jews, are children of our once bitter matriarch Leah and in spite of this, or because of this we are the countervoice that cries out in a time of Fear to Trust.
We are the countervoice that cries out in a time of Fear that we must have Hope.