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Lech Lecha 5784 October 28, 2023

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom (Peace God, please God!)

Let me say this, right off the bat; I am not a military strategist. I am not a political junkie. I don’t spend my days looking into every detail of what is happening in the Middle East, not because I don’t care, but because I have a congregation that I am responsible for. I am just a rabbi and I teach people the difference between good and evil, right and wrong.

In our Parsha, Avram (eventually to be renamed Avraham) is commanded by God to get up and go. Leave his extended family, his country, and the land of his birth, and go to a place where he will always be known as a stranger. He leaves his comfort zone, he gets up and goes and as a result of his journey, a journey we are all still on, changed the course of Western civilization.

Ilana Kurshan, teacher, and poet in Jerusalem, writes poetry for each parsha. This is part of the poem she wrote for Parshat Lech Lecha:

“Number the stars,” God said. Abraham shielded his eyes. (it was still daylight!)

But then he heard God, and he thought, well, he couldn’t see God. 

He’d followed a voice that had sent him far off from his birthplace,

Far off from his land, from his father’s home, all that he knew.

He couldn’t see God, but he knew God was there. So too, stars—

He couldn’t see stars, but he knew they still hung in the sky.

And so too the son and the future he dared now to trust in—

From longing and laughter, we conjure forth radiant light.

We are not living in a time of radiant light. We are living in a world of darkness. On what should have been a joyful holiday, we got instead, murder, kidnapping, desecration of bodies and souls. I was at a workshop this week on the trauma we are facing, and I noted that there is no healing from a trauma that is still unfolding. Even as I write these words in the middle of the week, I know that what could happen tomorrow could force me to change everything I am writing now. This is not over; it is only the beginning, and our concern is that things will inevitably get worse. There was a vigil this week in West Hartford and one of the rabbis there compared Hamas to Haman, the paradigmatic enemy of the Jewish People. I thought to myself that what happened on October 7th, was not Persia; it was Kishinev, a pogrom in the early twentieth century made famous in a poem called “The City of Slaughter” by the great Hebrew poet, Hayyim Nachman Bialik. But Kishinev was only one city; October 7th was many cities, towns, and villages. Simchat Torah was not just one pogrom; it was every pogrom that has ever been perpetrated.

As Jews, we know this journey well. Dara Horn, the author of a book of essays called, “People Love Dead Jews” (which is, actually, a rather good book,) wrote an opinion essay in the New York Times this past week, under the headline: “Why Jews Cannot Stop Shaking Right Now” and she clarifies for Jews and those of other faiths, why this horrific slaughter recalls the memories of all the times Jews have been killed, murdered, and slaughtered throughout history, from the days of the Roman Empire until today. She writes, “We’ve held mass fasts, recited psalms and sung ancient prayers for the rescue of captives. And as we gather by the thousands despite our many contradictory opinions and despite the extra security required for our gatherings even here, we have returned to the words of our ancestors that have carried us through thousands of years: Be strong and courageous. Choose life.

Many of us were physically carrying those words during the weekend of the attack, celebrating Simchat Torah, a joyous holiday when congregations dance with Torah scrolls, read the Torah’s final words and then scroll back to the beginning to start the book again.

[She continues:] As a child, I found this baffling. Why read the same story over and over when we already know what happens? As an adult, I know that while the story doesn’t change, we do. What defines Jewish life is not history’s litany of horror but the Jewish people’s creative resilience in the face of it. In the wake of many catastrophes over millenniums, we have wrestled with God and one another, reinvented our traditions, revived our language, rebuilt our communities, and found new meanings in our old stories of freedom and responsibility, each story animated by the improbable and unwavering belief that people can change.

Right now, many of us feel trapped in this old, old story, doom-scrolling through images with terrible outcomes. But in our grief, I remind myself that each year as we finish the reading of the Torah, we immediately, at that very moment — and at the moment of this newest, oldest horror — scroll back to the story of creation and the invention of universal human dignity. We recall, once again, that every human is made in the divine image.

The story continues; we begin again.”

I think that Ms. Horn is correct. We never really get over a trauma, we just learn to live with it. We retake control of our lives and push the fear and pain into the basement in our minds and go on living our lives, trying to keep our focus on the good things in life. Life is full of ups and downs, and we keep on moving, like Abraham, knowing that there are stars in the sky even when you can’t see them and that there is a God in the world even if at times, it is hard to see God’s hand in the world.

But for most of our bad moments, they end. We learn our lessons and we move on with our lives. Trauma does not work like that. It never goes away; we sweep it under the rug and then something comes along that yanks the rug away and the pain and hurt and horror are all there again. There is nothing to really learn from trauma. There is no information that we can use to prevent another moment of horror. We have a long history of traumatic moments, from the Hadrianic persecutions to the Inquisition in Spain, to the Hep-Hep riots of Europe, to the Cossacks of Poland, to the pogroms of Ukraine, to the Kishinev pogrom, to Kristallnacht, to the Holocaust. Each trauma points to the entire long bloody history. On Yom Kippur we recall the ten sages tortured to death by the Roman Emperor. There are the cities destroyed during the first Crusade, there are the many Jews burned to death by the Spanish Inquisition and by those who blamed Jews for the Black Death plague in Europe. There is the Baillis case in Russia, the mass hangings in Teheran and the lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia, where pictures of his dead body were put on postcards and his coat cut up and sold as souvenirs. Now we can just add to the story the Simchat Torah Massacre and we have updated some of the worst moments in human history. It does not help that we in the United States are getting ready to celebrate Halloween, a day where blood and gore are glorified in movies and on the front yards of our neighbors. A horror movie is not the same as a massacre. One relies on special effects to frighten us. We have the burned and decapitated bodies of real people to return to their families and bury them in sacred cemeteries. This fear runs far deeper than a movie.

The difference between the murders of the past and the horror of today is that we are no longer helpless and defenseless. There might have been a massacre in Uganda in 1977 but Israel launched a raid to rescue the hostages and killed those who held them. The reason Iran does not have atomic weapons is because Israel has found many ways to sabotage their nuclear weapon facilities. Israel hunted down the killers from the Munich Olympics over many years, and it was a quite controversial program. But the killers were brought to justice. Some of the top leaders of Hamas were the victims of targeted killings, another controversial program but now Hamas leadership dares not live anywhere close to Gaza or within the ever-expanding reach of the IDF. Already, several of the leaders of the October murders have been killed by Israeli commandos or by Israeli bombs. Justice may be slow but now, at least, Jews can defend themselves when faced with the senseless slaughter.

Dara Horn asks why all Jews are shaken by this horrific tragedy? It is because we are such a small people that everyone knows someone affected by these events. Right here in this congregation there are members called up to fight the Hamas terrorists. Among us are families who have had a relative killed or captured in this raid. The missiles of Hamas and Islamic Jihad fly not just over the cities of Israel, but over friends and family who live in those cities and who now have to sleep in their “safe” rooms. What happens in Israel happens to all of us. What happened in the past is happening to all of us today. Other people may want to defuse a crisis, but this is a part of our thousand-year-old trauma that has once again exposed us to the worst that human beings can do to others. We are all still shaking, and until the hostages come home and the soldiers return to their bases, we will continue to live in fear. But the end game is still the same. We will continue to look to the future with strength and courage. We will continue to choose life and choose to make that life meaningful and hopeful. We will put the rug back over our trauma and start reading the Torah over again. The best way to confront death is to affirm life. We are, like Abraham, still being called to “Lech Lecha” to go out into the world and continue the journey to bring peace into the world. To bring God into the world. To teach others to live by the Torah, the Bible, the way we humans understand how God wants us to live. What other choices do we really have?

We pray for the day when we will no longer be strangers like Abraham but good friends and neighbors to all people. May God bring peace to Israel, to our people and to all humanity. As we say…..      Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Mon, February 26 2024 17 Adar I 5784