Rabbi's message about the murders in the Jerusalem synagogue

The horror of the killing in a Jerusalem synagogue on Tuesday continues to occupy my heart and mind, as I’m sure you may be feeling it as well. As I mull over the brutal attack I keep coming back to the message I shared on Rosh Hashanah:  it is important for us to hold the complexity of this situation in Israel and Palestine, and to feel compassion for its victims.

Many in Boston are in mourning for the loss of their teacher, colleague and friend, Rabbi Mordecai Twersky. I am in mourning for another of the victims, Rabbi Kalman Levine, who I knew as Cary Levine. He grew up in the same synagogue in Kansas City that I did, and I knew his sister and parents as well. It feels like a personal loss to me and my hometown community. But we do not need to know any of the victims personally to be mourners.

We can mourn with the families and friends of the victims, living with shock and terror. We can mourn with the people of Har Nof and in Jerusalem, brutally assaulted by this invasion of their sacred space and holy community.

We can mourn the senseless violence perpetrated against people in the midst of prayer. I was living in Jerusalem when Baruch Goldstein massacred Muslim in prayer in Hebron. I mourn the dead in Jerusalem this week as I mourned those victims.

We can mourn the desecration of our religious traditions by those who murder innocents in the name of those traditions, and by those who celebrate those murders.

We can mourn with the vast majority of people of goodwill, Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Arabs, whose voices are drowned out by extremist acts.

There is a moment in this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, which reminds us that feeling pain can be an opening to compassion. As we read of Jacob and Esau embarking on separate life paths, we watch their mutual animosity grow. Beginning with their pre-natal struggles in their mother’s womb, to the exchange of a birthright for a bowl of lentil stew, to Jacob tricking Esau out of a blessing. When Esau threatens to kill his brother, Jacob escapes to Haran, to find a wife and to leave his brother behind.

While we might imagine that the Torah takes sides, giving justification for our ancestor Jacob while condemning the coarse Esau, the text is not so biased. In fact, when Esau returns from hunting game to bring his father the meal he has requested, the Torah sheds light on Esau’s softer side.

When Esau learns that his father has already given a blessing to Jacob, Esau “burst into wild and bitter sobbing, and said to his father, ‘Bless me too, Father!’” (Gen. 27:35)

In that moment, we feel compassion as we recognize Esau’s humanity. His heart is broken. He is vulnerable. And he asks again, “Do you have but one blessing, my father? Bless me too, Father.” (Gen. 27:38)

Of course there is a second blessing for Esau, including a promise of prosperity and the promise of reconciliation to come in time.

Jacob is not an Israeli and Esau is not a Palestinian. They are not the progenitors of today’s conflict. However, their story does provide a paradigm for history’s recurring internecine battles. Their story also provides the antidote and the path to reconciliation. It is essential that, as we remain aware of the complexity of this and other violence-ridden parts of the world, we feel both the emotions of tragedy and the emotions of hope. We cannot succumb to hate, anger and fear, because they will ultimately destroy us all. Likewise, we cannot simply cling to hope, as if there are no victims and no dangers. Like Esau, we need to feel the pain alongside hope, praying that there is another blessing awaiting us.

When we get up from our mourning, it will be time, once again, to work toward peaceful solutions, toward honest listening, and toward building bridges across increasingly cavernous divides. No one guarantees that it will be easy to settle the complex issues, but we can guarantee that inaction will lead to further violence. As a colleague wrote from Jerusalem, “nevertheless risks must be taken simply to live here and also to try to make it better no matter what unfolds.”

Until then, I recommend that we use the life-giving tools of Jewish tradition:

o   prayer: praying that the violence does not lead to more violence and praying to open our hearts and help us discern the best path to take,

o   tsedaka: giving to organizations that we believe foster peaceful solutions*,

o   and, above all, gemilut hasadim: performing acts of kindness to remember the dead and to sanctify the names of Moshe Twersky, Kalman Levine, Aryeh Kopinsky, Avraham Shmuel Goldberg, and Zidan Saif.

* I would be happy to offer suggestions to those who would like names and urls of organizations promoting coexistence and bridge-building among Israelis and Palestinians.

Posted on November 20, 2014 .