This morning, I was driving in the car with my daughter Gabby. Nothing unusual there. And she was asking me where we were going and why; again, nothing unusual there. The difference was, this morning, I didn’t know how to answer her question. She wanted to know where we were going as she always does and she was asking very appropriate questions for an 8-year-old to ask, and I didn’t know how to say that we were going to a unity vigil in Brighton hosted by CJP, the JCRC and the ADL after the stabbing of Rabbi Shlomo Noginsky.
How do I explain that to my 8-year-old daughter? What are the right words to tell her so that she understands where we’re going and why we’re going there, but at the same time so she’s not filled with fear about where we’re going and about what’s happening around us? I didn’t want to say there’s been an attack on the Jewish community because she knows she’s Jewish. She knows she’s a part of this community and that would feel personal. I didn’t want to say that a rabbi was stabbed because she knows that I, her father, am a rabbi and, again, that would feel too close to home. And so I stumbled and stuttered, without the right words to offer.
But she picked up on the details as I tried to give her enough information but not too much. She understood the words “attack,” “knife” and “stabbing.” As my wife, Micol, and I spoke, she picked up on the anxiety that we both felt and she became anxious, visibly so. She barely spoke as we approached Brighton and didn’t really begin speaking again properly until we were walking away from the vigil back to our car to return home.
That’s the world we are living in today: A world where we as Jews and as Jewish parents and grandparents or just concerned members of the community have to answer questions that our children are asking us about the antisemitism they are experiencing and witnessing, whether firsthand or at a distance.
We have to explain and give them some understanding of the fact that a rabbi was stabbed in Brighton. That a swastika was found in a bathroom in Sudbury. Or we have to explain to them all the hateful words they see on social media again and again and again.
It is clear that we are living in difficult times and I wish that I, as one of the rabbis of this community, had the answers to offer. I wish I knew what to say to my own daughter, let alone to others. But I don’t. But I’m trying.
It’s clear that we are living through difficult times and while antisemitism is definitely on the rise, I think it’s also important to recognize that we’re not living in Germany of the 1930s and we’re not living in Russia of the 1880s. It’s a different situation. Hard to describe, hard to pin down and in many ways hard to fully understand.
Five years ago, I remember listening to Rabbi Danny Freelander, who was then the president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, give a talk, and he essentially warned that extremes are never good for the Jews. Whenever society sees itself going toward extremes, be they left or right, generally we Jews suffer.
And in our world today, unfortunately, we are hearing and seeing those voices of hateful extremists on the right and on the left. And we are being attacked by both of them.
But it’s also important to note that while right now it feels very personal to us as a Jewish community after the attack on Rabbi Noginsky, we’re not the only group suffering from this increased hate that we’re seeing from extremist voices.
This week, I reached out to Rev. Lloyd of the Greater Framingham Community Church because I wanted to express my concerns, support and solidarity after what had happened in Winthrop with the hate crime and the murder of Ramona Cooper and David Green. Rev. Lloyd, as the lead pastor for the GFCC, “the largest African-American church in Metrowest,” as they describe themselves, is someone I felt I needed to speak to, to talk to. And as I offered my support, he offered his support. We shared in that moment; we shared something very profound and powerful in both feeling the experience of our communities being somewhat under attack. And something he said has stuck with me since that conversation. He said a number of times: “This is not who we are,” and “What are we going to do about it?”
And that’s the question for all of us, and it’s a very pointed question as we come to this July Fourth weekend when we celebrate American independence, when we celebrate all that is good and beautiful about this country in the shadow of some of the things that are bad and wrong and need to be changed.
I don’t think that the founding fathers had a vision of a country where a rabbi would be stabbed, where Black people would be shot, where Asian-Americans would be attacked, or where people would be tormented because of their gender and sexuality. As they wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights and amongst those are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Those words are being challenged by our world today. And we might look to our Torah in terms of how we might respond and the caution that we might get from it. One might imagine that having a Torah portion named for you is a great honor. The second Torah portion is Noach, then we have Yitro, who gets the 10 Commandments. But then in the Torah book of Bamidbar, of Numbers, we get Korach, the rebel, swallowed by the ground; we get Balaak, the king who tries to curse and kill the Jews; and then we get Pinchas, the zealot who stabbed an Israelite man and a Midianite woman. In many ways in the book of Bamidbar, if you get a Torah portion named for you, it probably isn’t a good thing and is worthy of attention.
I think the Torah is offering us a warning about what can happen in society. Parshah Korach warns us about what happens when people undermine the very institutions that are intended to protect people. When people oppose justice, Korach did that against Moses and Aaron and is a cautionary tale.
Then Parshah Balaak follows up with hateful words. What happens when people seek to use their words for hate rather than for good? To harm others rather than to build them up? And in some ways, perhaps undermining the institutions, hateful worlds culminate in Parshah Pinchas, where we see actual, physical violence with the murder of a Midianite woman and an Israelite man.
But the interesting thing in the Torah to note, as we’re trying to make sense of it, is that the Torah names the Midianite woman, Cozbi, and names the Israelite man, Zimri. So often in our Torah, these people are anonymous but here, the victims are named. And Pinchas, after this, is removed from the front lines; he’s tasked with the responsibility of peace, a covenant of shalom, removing him away from his zealotry endeavors, his zealotry urges. Bamidbar, the book of Numbers, warns us about what can go wrong in society. So what do we do about it? How do we make sense of it in our world?
When I was at the vigil this morning, Jeremy Burton, the head of the JCRC, stood up and said: “We want to send a clear message—the Jewish community is angry and the Jewish community is united. No one will stand alone.”
And that’s a good message, an important message; it’s a message that we need to hear and want to hear.
But more powerful to me was when Mayor Kim Janey stood up and said, to everyone gathered there: “An attack on any member of our community is an attack on all of us. We will not allow fear to divide us.”
That’s the statement, that’s the moment and that’s the reason this isn’t the 1930s or the 1880s—that unity across groups. We’re not the only ones suffering here. We’re not the only ones on the front lines, and we can come together, reminding ourselves that it is an attack on all of us when Rabbi Noginsky was stabbed. When Ramona Cooper and David Green were shot, and when countless other incidences take place, then we can respond.
I was looking over the Declaration of Independence for some inspiration for today, and while I know those first few lines because I think even I or you have come to know them as we all do, I looked further down as the Declaration gave the justifications and the reasoning for why we should declare independence from the British. And it said, “All experiences have shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing themselves to the faults they are accustomed.”
That’s what they were warning about. Sometimes, evils are sufferable. We tolerate a swastika here, an insult there, a post somewhere else, because they’re tolerable. They don’t feel as dangerous as a stabbing or a shooting. But I think the founding fathers were telling us no evil should be acceptable, no suffering should be acceptable. All of us have a responsibility to declare independence from those forces that seek to oppress us, to deny us our rights and to beat us down. That’s the message I think for this July Fourth weekend. Some people might fear that the golden age of American Jewry is coming to an end with the challenges that we’re facing. I don’t think so. It’s a bump along the road.
When we think back to the experiences of the Israelites in the Promised Land, it wasn’t smooth sailing from the moment that Joshua led them there. There were ups and downs. But what we know from our biblical experience is that when we come together, that’s when we succeed and flourish. When we allow others to divide us, that’s when we suffer. This is a moment for the Jewish community to come together in solidarity with one another, but it’s a moment for all of us to come together and remember that an attack on one of us is an attack, irrelevant of religious identity, racial identity, gender or sexuality, on all of us. And when we’re attacked, if we’ve learned nothing else from the founding fathers than this, it’s that we need to respond.
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