Rebbe Yitzhak Kalish of Vorka, known as the Vorker Rebbe, believed foremost in patience and peace, and he was known as a goodly and kindly teacher. The other, the Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, was most concerned with the pursuit of truth and he sought it out at the expense of all else. Though their paths were vastly different, they were nonetheless the closest of friends. So much so that even death would not keep them apart.
So, when the Vorker Rebbe passed away, and a full month went by without his appearance in a vision or a dream, the Kotzker Rebbe decided to ascend to heaven in order to search for his friend in all the palaces of Torah study. At every place he stopped, they told him that his beloved friend, the Vorker, had been there but he had gone away.
In growing despair, the Kotzker Rebbe asked the angels, "Where is my dear friend Rebbe Yitzhak?" And the angels sent him in the direction of a dark, dark forest. It was the most fearsome and foreboding forest he had ever been to, but he pushed on, anxious to discover the whereabouts of his friend. As he travelled deeper into the forest he began to hear the sound of gentle waves lapping upon the shore. He reached the edge of the forest and before him lay a great and endless sea, stretching in every direction. But then the Kotzker Rebbe noticed a strange sound. Every wave as it swelled high would cry out a soft, but heart-breaking sob. The sound was terrifying and he turned to run away, but just then he saw, standing at the edge of this wailing sea, staring at its melancholy waters, his holy friend Rebbe Yitzhak.
"I've been looking for you,” said the Kotzker, “why have you not come back to visit me?" Instead of answering his friend, Rebbe Yitzhak asked him a question, "Do you know what sea this is?" The Kotzker replied that he did not, and so Rebbe Yithak explained, "It is the sea of tears. It is the sea which collects all the tears of God's holy people," he said, "and when I saw it I swore in God's name that I would not leave its side until God dried up all these tears."
We are, once again, in a place of great grief. Our community is a community is a community traumatized by gun violence, and so every new tragedy - every Buffalo, every El Paso, Every Newtown and Sandy Hook, every Las Vegas or Orlando is just a variation on 10-27-2018 for us. We spend the week doomscrolling social media and being short with our friends and coworkers and hugging our children or our parents or our loved ones just a little bit more - a little bit longer.
We come to synagogue seeking solace. We come seeking meaning, and reason, and answers. We arrive and discover that synagogue is a lake of tears with a rebbe sitting beside it, asking God to dry it up. And thus we become of people grieving - sitting by the lake, hugging our children. And this is a form of Schrodingers Cat grief therapy - both comforting and not comforting at the safe time. We all come here to sing and pray and cry a little with other people who’s response to trauma is to sing and pray and cry, and things are better. But also, they are not, because the cycle of awful mass shootings in America is never-ending.
The Jewish spiritual tradition towards firearms is unequivocal. We are opposed to violence. We are opposed to weaponry. We believe the ideal state of humankind is to move towards peace, and we believe we must be part of the effort to make that so. To wit:
- In Isaiah we are taught that we should beat swords into plowshares.
- In Pirkei Avot we learn that Hillel used to say: be like the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving humankind and drawing them close to the Torah.
- In Exodus 14, we learn the Israelites went up from Israel armed, but later on, we learn that the weapons there are never used. A hassidic teaching by The Seer of Lublin, Jacob Issac, (1745-1815) says the following:
- Why did the Israelites need weapons? When would they have used them? They simply end up saying “And the children of Israel cried out to God” [and God saves them]. And one can say that there is a parallel in another verse “which I wrested from the Amorites with my sword and bow” (Genesis 48:22) that the commentator Onkelos translates as “with my prayer and my supplication”. Prayers and supplications are weapons for us, and by these armaments we defeated Egypt.
- And most recently, the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement in part said the following:
- “It is high time that United States politicians, currently obsessed with reelection campaigns, put aside partisanship in order literally to save lives. They must firmly and immediately enact meaningful gun reform legislation. The same with mental health reform.
- “The Rabbinical Assembly has spoken out many times against gun violence in the United States. We unequivocally call upon lawmakers to immediately take all available measures to ensure the safety of the public and to limit the availability of guns. As our tradition reminds us, 'Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor' (Leviticus 19:16).”
These are our values.
But of course, we are but a small minority in a very violent America. The Jewish moral view that we strive to live in peace, without firearms or swords or bloodshed, is at odds with the path America is on. It is a bad path.
Our haftorah alludes in part to the fate of a nation that treads down the wrong path. As Michael Fishbane wrote eloquently in his commentary on page 762, “The sinners folly lies in the flagrant disregard of the divine way. They act with deception and stealth, hoping to increase unjust gain.” Jeremiah says the following of a nation who are driven by greed and power and forget the way of God - a path we refer to as a path to peace. The text says this: “I will make your rampart a heap in the field, and all your treasures a spoil. You will forfeit, by your own act, the inheritance I have given you. I will make you a slave to your enemies in a land you have never known.”
But of course, all is not lost. The prophets message is not eternal doom, but hope emerging from darkness. And America is not a lost cause, a slave to our worst impulses, or a nation that persists in evil against all else. America has emerged from great moral crisis time and time again. And so, if we want to, we can shift the narrative from the doom and gloom in verse 4 to the promise and hope of verse 7 and 8 ; “blessed are they that trust in the Lord; whose trust is in God alone. They shall be like a tree planted by waters; its leaves are ever fresh. It has no care in a year of drought, it does not cease to yield its fruit.”
In parshat bechukotai we learn the following:
אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ וְאֶת־מִצְותַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם׃
If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments,
וְנָתַתִּי גִשְׁמֵיכֶם בְּעִתָּם וְנָתְנָה הָאָרֶץ יְבוּלָהּ וְעֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה יִתֵּן פִּרְיוֹ׃
I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit.
This idea in that second sentence, of reward for obedience to mitzvot is one we mention twice daily, in the second paragraph of the amidah. In the first sentence, Rashi notices the redundancy of ‘follow my laws’ and ‘obey my commandments’ and says that it’s not enough to just observe torah, but to be amelim beTorah - to toil laboriously at it.
We will work hard to make a peaceful world with less violence and bloodshed. But we also need our rest and solace and comfort from that violent world. And in this the Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, comments on that second line, I will grant your rains in their season.
He says “There is nothing in this world that a person can simply achieve by toil and labor alone. Even if a person crafts something for endless days in the making of some item, there’s no guarantee they’ll be paid appropriately for the work, or perhaps the work will never be finished adequately. No so with the study of Torah. Even if one does not complete the task, yet there is still a reward.”
We come here to be comforted at the end of a traumatic week. We come to be made whole. And even if the work is only partly done, the work of prayer and study of Torah is rewarded. We walk in the way of our tradition, and the rain will fall. As the work of learning Torah fills our souls it recharges us to do the work of actualizing Torah, and building a world of peace, so that we may beat swords into plowshares. Because the lake filled with tears does not dry up on its own. We must, like the Vorker Rebbe in the story that I began with, sit with God and move the Kadosh Baruch Hu and the world to dry the lake of tears.
Yehi shalom b’chelech shalva bearmonotayich