The call came from the Federation. I had six hours to prepare. It wasn’t enough. It was too much.
Rabbi Perelman, the rabbi for New Light, had performed three funerals followed by three shivas, and then another night of shivas, and another. He could do no more. He needed the night off. Would I step in? Said the rabbi at the Federation. Of course, I said. How could I not? Because what else could I do? I can’t do much, but I can offer words, and I can give hugs, and I can be present.
And so it was that I found myself at the shiva house of one of the victims of the shooting at the Tree of Life building, called upon to lead Mincha Maariv and offer some words to frame things. I think the most natural question to ask might be ‘rabbi, what did you say?’ And I have to be honest, I have no idea what I said. I don’t remember it at all. I just know that it hurt like hell to be there.
It’s a terrible thing to die. It’s a terrible thing to die suddenly, before your time. But it is quite another thing to die, in fear, as a Jew, doing something Jewish and spiritual, something that you love, like going to shul. A shabbat at synagogue is supposed to be an island of respite at the end of a long week - a palace in space and time as Abraham Joshua Heschel would call it. Beyond the troubles of this world, and above it. But the troubles of this world invaded that palace and brought evil into that place of good. And in doing so, it brought that evil into the whole of the Jewish world. It was a shock.
It’s not that the evil of gun violence wasn’t already a prevalent and pervasive problem in America, and one that our society has failed to address in any meaningful way. The list of various mass-shooting locations in the past 10 years is varied and chaotic - college campuses and places of business; churches, mosques and synagogues; a country music concert in Las Vegas; a gay nightclub in orlando; a high school in Florida, and an elementary school in Connecticut. And so, on another level, it was not a shock. It was inevitable.
There are most certainly reasons for it. There is a coarsening of dialogue in America. There is hatred and division in the hearts of some. There are people with mental health problems and inadequate supervision and easy access to guns. There are people on the internet and in positions of leadership vilifying Jews, and blacks, and gays, and immigrants, and women. And there are guns, and guns, and guns, and so many guns in this country. Our country of 330 million people has 393 million guns. The country with the next largest amount of guns per capita is Yemen. Yemen, who have effectively been in a never-ending civil war since 1992. They have *half* as many guns as we do. And so we have guns, and we have no limits on our guns, and so people kill each other with guns. And we have free speech, and we have nearly no limit on free speech, and people speak hate, and then they take guns and they kill out of hate.
Clearly there is a problem, and clearly our society needs to do something about it. But this dvar torah is not meant to serve as a call to action or a solution to the epidemics of antisemitism and gun violence in our society. Honestly, the solutions are too obvious to be worthy of an extended talk - hate speech cannot be tolerated, and guns should only be the privilege of responsible Americans, and not a right freely granted to all, including lunatics and terrorists.
I’m focusing my thoughts today not on activism or solutions, which are really the responsibilities of somebody else, but rather on the harder thing - of just living in the scary world of today as a Jew.
Because we cannot wave a magic wand and make the world suddenly safe and peaceful. We must, instead, try and find peace in the world as it exists right now. We must come to peace with the universe rather than pretend that it will suddenly reshape itself.
A quick caveat - do not misunderstand me. Just because I want to devote time today to thinking about finding understanding in our chaotic and sometimes scary world does not mean I am fatalistic or reconciled to our fate. You that know me know that I am constantly committed to pressing for change, and that I will speak or protest or vote or write in order to create a better reality than the one we know of now.
But some things are larger than ourselves. Somethings are out of our control. We are not Gods, we are human. And so we must find understanding at times in a world that is chaotic and scary. We must move through the world in such a way that we can be wary of its dangers without internalizing the anxieties they create and subsequently becoming paralyzed with fear. We must also celebrate and revel in the wonders and the beauty of living without being blind to the suffering of the world.
Our tradition offers a path for both.
First, walking through a scary world without terror.
The story is told of the 6th Chabad Rebbe, Yosef Yitzhak Shneerson, known as the Freideiker Rebbe. In Russia after the Bolshevik revolution, he began to be harassed by the secret police for teaching Torah in the atheistic USSR. Late one night, a pair of government thugs arrived at his house. Sitting across the table and threatening the rebbe to stop teaching Torah, one of the men pulled out a gun, and placed it on the table. The Friediker glanced at it, and without changing his expression, said ‘This kind of thing might scare a man with no God, and only one world. But I have one God, and two worlds; this world and the world to come. So I will continue to teach Torah.’ The men promptly got up and left.
Essentially the Freidiker rebbe’s response here is about two things integral to the spiritual life of a Jew - faith in God, and the notion of Divine justice.
What I mean by faith here is a sense that we are not ultimately the only thing in control of our fate - that God is in charge. We have free will and we can make many substantive decisions in our lives that can improve or degrade our outcomes - how hard we work, whether we plan or save for the future, who we choose to associate with, and the things we choose to say or don’t say. But a tremendous amount of life is beyond our control. You can say it’s up to fate, or the universe, or God. Ultimately, though, it is beyond our control. גדול אדונינו ורב כוח , לתבונתו אין מספר - Great is our God and mighty in power, God’s understanding has no limits. לה׳ הערץ ומלואה תבל ויושבי בה - The earth is the Lord’s and all it contains, it’s inhabitants and everything that dwells on it.
The nihilist or the atheist who has no faith and no God says: everything is random and nothing matters - I will trust only in me, and live only for myself. The faithful one and the theist who believes and trusts in God says: the world hums with the vibrancy of the creator, with the intent of the original artisan. I will live in faith and gratitude for every day I get, living with joy while integrating myself into God’s plan as best I can through Torah and Mitzvot.
Moreover, Judaism believes that faith is a two-way street - just as we place our love and faith in God, God places God’s love and faith in us. In the Talmud in Berachot, we are taught that just as humans put on tefillin in the morning to pray, since we humans were created in the image of God, God too much wear Tefillin. But wait! If God wear’s tefillin, what would be written in them? Human tefillin include the shma and vehavta in them, in which we proclaim ‘and you shall love the Lord your God’. According to the Talmud, God’s tefillin say “Who is like Your people Israel, a unique nation in the world?” As the Jews have faith in God, God has reciprocal faith in the Jews.
God’s faith and love for us extends to God’s care for our wellbeing. In the Talmud we are taught “ Rabbi Meir said , when a human being is in distress, what expression does the Shechinah, the Divine Presence use? "My head is in pain, My arm is in pain." According to this, when human beings suffer, God godself suffers. We may not be in control of our fate, but God is present with us when our fate causes us suffering.
The second integral aspect to the spiritual life of the Jew demonstrated by the Freideker rebbe is a sense of Divine justice. It is the notion that God is good, that God hates evil and that the wicked, and unjust will ultimately be punished. It is a notion that I will admit is sometimes hard to hold onto, particularly when a guy in a shiny new lifted Ford F-150 pickup goes charging and weaving through traffic, cutting off drivers, running red lights, and going 45 miles an hour in 25 mile an hour zone. I have faith in moments like that, that a cop has his ticket book out just around the next corner, and if not today, then maybe tomorrow or the next day.
I make light a little, but ultimately, that’s my theology - that good is ultimately rewarded by God and the universe, and that evil is ultimately punished. People who put out negativity and unkindness and thoughtlessness - or on a higher level of evil - commit sin and hurt people and kill people, will ultimately get their comeuppance, in this life or the next. This idea of righteous punishment is well-founded and prevalent in the Jewish tradition. You all know of the stories in Exodus and Numbers of Divine punishment. The 10 plagues of Egypt, and the punishment for the sin of the Golden Calf, and the ground opening up beneath the feet of Korach and his followers are to name but a few. The Torah in Deuteronomy has God telling us “Vengeance is Mine, and recompense too.”
But the Psalms are where the Torah really proclaims that evil will be met with vengeance. My personal favorite is Psalm 94, which includes some of the following lines in part:
God of retribution, LORD, God of retribution, appear!
Rise up, judge of the earth, give the arrogant their desserts!
How long shall the wicked, O LORD, how long shall the wicked exult,
They crush Your people, O LORD, they afflict Your very own;
they kill the widow and the stranger; they murder the fatherless,
The LORD knows the designs of men to be futile.
Happy is the man whom You discipline, O LORD, the man You instruct in Your teaching,
to give him tranquillity in times of misfortune, until a pit be dug for the wicked.
Judgment shall again accord with justice and all the upright shall rally to it.
But the LORD is my haven; my God is my sheltering rock.
He will make their evil recoil upon them, annihilate them through their own wickedness; the LORD our God will annihilate them.
There are a number of reasons I love this psalm. For one, it provides a degree of fantasy wish fulfillment for me. The psalm tells me that the person that commits acts of hate and violence and cruelty will get their just desserts in the form of obliteration at the hands of the Divine judge. This is also the theology of the Yamim Noraim, the days of awesomeness, in which we famously proclaim that God is quote “the ultimate arbiter of justice” in the piyyut ‘bayom din’. It is also the overarching theology of the entire high holiday season, in which we examine our past actions and repent our misdeeds in the concern that our actions may have been displeasing to God.
We who are of little deeds, says the machzor.
Who shall live, and who shall die, says the machzor.
But repentance prayer and generous charitable giving will avert an evil decree, says the machzor.
The theology of the High Holidays is that good is rewarded with life and evil punished with death. The Torah reiterates this theology of instant gratification when it appends a reward of long life for the performance of certain mitzvot like honoring father and mother, and shoeing away the mother bird from a nest before one collects the eyes.
Going back to the time of the Talmud, though, our rabbis knew that this system of reward and punishment - the kind of ‘lightning from heaven’ - evildoers to the pit - winning lottery tickets results for the pious - was unrealistic. Sometimes the righteous are taken too soon, and sometimes the wicked live long and comfortable lives. They added the caveat that the rewards for long life or shortened life might be applicable not in this world, but in the world to come.
Me? I’d like to think it’s a little of both. The life of a selfish and materialistic person with little regard for others is inevitably going to lonely and shallow, and it terms of quality, that life will seem relatively brief. Moreover, their memory will not live on long. They will not have legions of children named after them, nor will their stories be recounted for generations, except perhaps as an instructive tale of what not to do. The person who lives a trite and meaningless life, or worse, a cruel and evil life, is remembered by all in the light of day for exactly who they were, sometimes in this life, sometimes in the next. The God of retribution indeed appears, and Judgment really does accord with justice.
So while we cannot ensure that the world will suddenly become safe from dangerous people, or that the rising tide of racism and hatred and antisemitism in America will suddenly and aggressively reverse course, we can walk through the world in peace, knowing that we live each day striving to our best, to live honestly and with faith, and to be compassionate and thoughtful individuals whose memories will endure for generations as paragons of goodness. The wicked get a pit, and nothing more.
When it comes to trying to emotionally and theologically deal with the question of walking through a world that contains great evil, and trying to remain hopeful, I turn often to the Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Piasetzna rebbe, also know as the Aish Kodesh or ‘Holy Fire’, the title of his most famous work. The Piasetzna lived in Poland from 1889 to 1943. He and his Chasidim were forced into the Warsaw Ghetto in 1939. While in the ghetto, he continued to teach Torah in secret at the end of every shabbat, and his words were scribbled onto scraps of whatever paper could be found, including envelopes and butchers paper and soiled garbage. Rabbi Shapira witnessed and endured great suffering, and it is documented in his divrei torah. When the Warsaw ghetto uprising broke out, the papers were collected in a metal bucket with a lid and buried in the ground, only to be dug up years later by accident during a construction project. The Piasetzna rebbe and his Chasidim were deported in the Spring or Summer of 1943 to the Trawniki work camp, and when the camp was liquidated in November, he and all his followers were shot to death.
There are many hassidic takes on the problem of evil, but there are not many Hassidic takes on the problem of evil that come from a person who experienced the worst evils and cruelties of the Nazis and the Holocaust. So when I learned this teaching from the Piasetzna rebbe, it truly took my breath away. The Piasetzna, commenting more broadly on a verse in Exodus regarding following God’s commandments and statutes, said this:
Of all the earth is the voice of the Torah heard, from the chirping of the birds and from the mooing of cows, and from the voices and noises of humans, from all are heard the voice of God that is in Torah. At the receiving of Torah, it is said - קול גדול ולא וסף - "with a great voice, and God added no more." (Devarim 5:19), and Rashi explains it as 'without cease', that this voice is ever-constant and all can hear it. It fills all evil and elevates it to good. All the evil things and fowl speeches that the haters of Israel speak about Israel are inverted to the voice of Torah. Since they too are part of the world God created, their lives are from the voice of God in Torah that have branched into evil speech. It is simply that their words are of the rebuke from Torah made corporeal into this hate of Israel, or this one speaks to strike or afflict Israel, God forbid. As all is a part of the unity of Torah, they all rise to the voice of Torah, and all evil will be erased.
Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman’s understanding of evil is that it is temporary, and part of an imperfect, non-Torah world, that has yet to come to the truth and unity of God and Torah. That evil will ultimately be absorbed like water to a sponge or like paper in a flame by the all-encompassing power of Torah, which is synonymous with good and with the Divine. The Piasetzna rebbe transcended evil by regarding it as a blip in comparison to good, a hiccup that was beneath him. The Nazis to him were simply part of the anti-Divine, but in the future, he was certain that their ultimate designs would be for naught, and that Torah would fill the whole world with the unity of justice and light.
This is a man who walked through the world without fear or anger or hatred - a spiritually elevated being who understood the justice that corrects evil not as a fire-and-brimstone-from-heaven pipedream, but as the natural order of a universe that is dictated by Torah, that emanates from Torah, that is infused at the molecular level with Torah.
To conclude, I learned a surprising thing a few weeks ago in Talmud study. There is a phrase we say in prayer three times a day, everyday, at the conclusion of the Amidah prayer, and another dozen times a day at the end of the kaddish - a thing we say so frequently we might very well forget the meaning of what we are saying - Oseh shalom bimromav who yaaseh shalom aleinu v’al kol yisrael v’imru amen. May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life, upon us and upon all Israel; and say, Amen.
I had never known where this line had come from before - I had assumed it was composed in the period before the talmudic rabbis by the authors of many of our central prayers, a group on men known as the Anshei HaKnesset Hagedolah, who maybe lived in the 2nd or 1st century BCE. But then I came across the likely origin of this text, a line from the book of Job, chapter 25:
הַמְשֵׁל וָפַחַד עִמּוֹ עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם בִּמְרוֹמָיו׃
Dominion and dread are God’s; God imposes peace in the heavens.
The original text from Job, a book about Divine punishment and judgment, imagines a world that God rules that is perilous, and intense, and fearful - dominion and dread are God’s - and those tools are the manner by which God rules the universe - God imposes peace in a tyrannical, iron-fisted manner, with authority and fear.
The composers of the Oseh Shalom prayer, though, flipped the script so to speak - they inverted the text, and subverted it too. They edited out the fear and dread, and made the prayer aspirational - may the one who makes peace in the heavens bring peace on us. They took the part where we walk through a world of fear, and turned it into a hope for a world of goodness, a world of peace, a world of justice, a world of God, a world of Torah. The way forward in a scary world is faith and justice - to fight like hell for justice to make the world a better place, but also to walk through the world in peace and faith. To do so honors the memory of those who died trying to life their lives as Jews, and is the true embodiment of what it means to believe with abiding faith in Torah, the tree of life.