Parashat Vayikra – Shabbat Zachor 2019 after NZ shooting

What Purim almost was

Tonight was going to be a festive Purim-leaning Shabbat, but after the events in New Zealand, it isn’t right.

It is important to remember that Purim itself is a holiday about a narrow escape from a massacre, a genocide. Purim celebrates that rare moment when such tragedy is avoided, but it reminds us how close we come to such events. Especially in Jewish history, we know that the good ending is clung to, but the tragic ending is all too common.

After the tragic shooting in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life Synagogue, the President of the Islamic Society of Vermont came to our service and offered these beautiful words, and I wanted to honor his gift by offering them again tonight –
He began by quoting Oscar Wilde, who said:

Where there is sorrow, there is holy ground.

Mr. Al Khatib went on to say that we stand on holy ground. Our country, and I would tonight add, our world, has too much sorry to bear. We must stand together on our holy ground.

And then he quoted the Koran, with a quote very similar to one in the Talmud:

“God decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever kills a soul it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one – it is as if he had saved mankind entirely.

Today I went to the mosque for Friday afternoon prayers, because we know that at this point in history, both Jews and Muslims are the target of so much hate, and the people who did this horrible crime, these white supremacists, they want the same fate for us. And so while there is much that divides our two communities, we must stand together against this hate, and in our faith that God is One.

Here in Vermont, there have been multiple banner drops and posters from White Supremacist groups, but even among those committed to peace and justice, it is very difficult to come together across our differences.

And it is easy to point fingers, as is so popular now. Just the recent fights at among Jews at UVM make the challenge clear.

Some say that if the college accepts money from Sheldon Adelson, they are white supremacists. Others say that if Hillel doesn’t denounce Israeli actions, it is guilty of participation in genocide. Others say that those on the left are guilty of wanting to destroy the Jewish people. The finger pointing is out of all proportion, and more and more, each group says it can’t sit and talk to the other side because that would make them complicit.

Well, when we are 20, many of us are a bit all-or-nothing in our thinking, but if we are honest, while we mellow some, we are each guilty of dividing the world into us and them, with us or against us, good or evil.

As I said in my email, the truth is usually more complex than that, but it is harder to sit with complexity, and our own complicity in dividing the world into camps.

So tonight, I just want us to sit a bit in silence, and reflect on how we are, in our own lives, guilty of creating divides, instead of trying to reach across them.

When have each of us given into to our own need to see an issue, and other people, as either right or wrong?

When have viewed another group of people as the enemy?

Of course, this is Shabbat Zachor, in which we are told by the Torah to never forget what Amalek did to us, and to wipe their memory from the face of the earth. While I like the crazy noisy groggers of Purim, I have never been comfortable with this commandment to destroy Amalek, because I don’t believe that the descendants of people who committed a terrible act are guilty of their ancestors actions. I think that while we must hold onto to commitment to fight against such actions ‘ “never again”, we must balance that with an impulse also to forgive, to reach out, to make peace. We are commanded to do both, and it is that complexity, that holding of two impulses in creative tension that makes our tradition so rich. We must learn to balance competing goods, not give into simplistic truths and feel-good slogans.

So as we go through our week, and we inevitably see more hate coming from many sides, let us try to be among the disciples of Aaron, seeking peace, pursuing peace. Let us learn to fight against our need to be right, and to see others as wrong, and instead work on seeing the dizzying complexity of the world, of humanity, of what it means to be good.

Ken Y’hi Ratzon