Thursday, April 17, 2014


It would be easy to write off the whole Kansas City thing as nothing to take too seriously. The guy was an old coot. (Did you hear those clips of him sounding crazy on Howard Stern?) He was motivated by anti-Semitism, but his victims weren’t even Jewish. (That makes his crime no less heinous, obviously, but it does make it bizarre and random…thus slightly less terrifying than it might otherwise have been.) He must have been crazy. (Did you hear his homage to Hitler from the back of the police cruiser? What kind of person who is already possibly facing the death penalty should he be convicted on the state level of capital murder would invite federal hate crime charges that could lead to a lethal injection all on their own?)  And, of course, as these things go in America of the twenty-tens—he only murdered three people. And that, regretfully but honestly, is the truth—if he hadn’t shot up a Jewish Community Center and a Jewish assisted living facility, but had only killed three people while robbing a gas station or a convenience store somewhere…would the story really have ended up (as it did, at least eventually) on the front page of the New York Times?

But writing Kansas off as an aberration would be an error of judgment. That there are still people out there who hate Jews to the point of being willing to trade in the rest of their years and their personal liberty for the possibility of murdering some few innocents arbitrarily chosen for death by virtue of their mere presence in a Jewish place is not something to pass by too quickly. We never tire of asking how the Jews of Germany could possibly have not seen the writing on the wall once anti-Jewish violence was on the rise seriously in the years before Kristallnacht made it impossible not to see what was coming. But this was precisely how things started, with violence at first contained and illegal…and then slowly legitimatized, then made more normal (and thus concomitantly less noticeable or newsworthy), then eventually made fully acceptable…to the extent that it seemed strange, even disloyal and unpatriotic, for “regular” Germans to oppose violence directed against Jews.

Now is hardly then. We live in a country that has the eradication of senseless prejudice, the preservation of religious freedom, and the preservation of the civil rights of the individual as among the most foundational of its beliefs. But there are numbers worth noticing nevertheless. According to the FBI, 65% of religion-prompted hate crimes in the United States in 2012 were directed against Jews. That seems like a very high percentage for a group that constitutes, when the wind is at our backs, maybe 2% of the population. Even that sounds like something we can safely and reasonably ignore—we can soothingly tell ourselves that the FBI only analyzes hate crimes formally reported to the bureau, a mere 6,573 in 2012, and only a fifth of those were motivated by hatred directed against victims because of their religious affiliation—but when set against the background of ever-more-normative anti-Jewish legislative efforts in Europe aimed at outlawing circumcision or kosher slaughter, and the willingness of even normally decent people to look past anti-Semitism—and even to justify it as rational—when it comes cloaked in the politically-pious aura of anti-Israelism, the situation seems more worthy of our serious attention.

Maybe it’s just the wrong season for me to feel complacent about complacency. We had great s’darim this year, each featuring the traditional over-eating and over-drinking all too characteristic of Passover at its least healthy but also filled with interesting, provocative discussion.  Partially motivated by the events in Kansas, I chose to make a similar presentation to my table-mates each evening and invite them to respond. How old, I asked innocently, was Joseph when he was kidnapped into slavery? That one, everybody seemed to know—he was seventeen, a mere lad only older in his family setting than Benjamin, his only full brother.  And how old was he when Pharaoh sprung him from prison? That one too is easy—this was a fairly learned crowd we had gathered for our yontif meals—because the Torah gives the answer explicitly: “And Joseph was thirty years old when he stood before Pharaoh, king of Egypt.”  But then we have to move into the realm of conjecture. There were, so Scripture, seven years of plenty during which Joseph was personally responsible for storing up enough grain to feed the nation during the famine that would follow. So that would make him thirty-seven when those seven years ended.

Moving along, I asked my guests how old he was when his father and brothers came finally to Egypt. That too seemed simple to answer because the answer is right there in the text: Joseph specifically invites his brothers to notice that only two years of the famine have passed and that five are yet to come. So that would make Joseph thirty-nine years old when his family arrived and, presumably, forty-four when the famine ended.  Surely, the concept should have been for the Israelites to return home once their reason for being away from home no longer existed…but that’s specifically not what happens in the story as told. The next relevant number in fact, comes in contiguous chapters, one ending Genesis and one beginning Exodus. The first—which is the final verse of Genesis—notes that Joseph was 110 years old when he died. And the second, in the next chapter of Scripture, notes that the Israelites were eventually enslaved by a new Pharaoh, a “king over Egypt who knew not Joseph.”

So that would be more—probably well more—than sixty-six years later. (There is no specific reason to suppose that this new Pharaoh who knew not Joseph came to power immediately after the Pharaoh who welcomed the Israelites to Goshen. There could have been several Pharaohs who reigned between those two for many years, thus making the number of years between the end of the famine and the enslavement of the Israelites even greater.)  So the question I posed to my young audience was why they thought it was that the Israelites didn’t simply go home after the famine ended. The storm clouds must surely have begun to gather long before it was too late effectively to dissipate them! It seems hard to imagine that the Pharaoh who enslaved Israel simply woke up one morning and decided on the spot and totally out of the blue to deprive millions of their freedom. But if that was the case…then why exactly didn’t the Israelites just pick up and return to the land that was, after all, their eternal patrimony as per the divine promise to Abraham that even today rests at the heart of our Pesach narrative as liturgically presented in the Haggadah and of which it’s impossible to imagine that the Israelites in Egypt themselves were not fully aware?

The answer, I suppose, is that the situation didn’t seem serious at first, or at least not that serious. Yes, there were hooligans out there who didn’t like their Hebrew neighbors. And there was, I’m imagining, surely the occasional incident of violence directed against one of the Hebrews on his or her way home from work or out alone on a dark night for an ill-conceived walk through the wrong neighborhood. But, on the whole, things seemed reasonable…until they didn’t. And that was the scenario I invited my people to contemplate as we sat around our table and, as per the biblical command, told the story of our ancestors’ flight to freedom by focusing it through the triple prism of history, reality, and destiny.

We did a good job. Everybody ended up agitated, at least a little. (What better sign of a good discussion could there possibly be, and particularly at the seder?) I was the first to say clearly that I am not even slightly afraid to live in my own place. Just to the contrary, I feel secure and safe at home and in the street…but I’ve also got Kansas on my mind. I remembered aloud how in tenth grade biology class, our teacher showed us—this must surely be illegal now or at least not common practice—how she showed us that if you put a frog in a petri dish filled with water and then proceeded to heat the water slowly enough for the ever-mounting temperature to escape the frog’s notice, you could immobilize the frog, then eventually boil it alive, even though there was nothing at all keeping the frog from just hopping out of the dish and saving itself with almost no effort at all. I can remember almost nothing of my science classes in high school—and, for some reason, tenth grade biology least of all—but that experiment has stayed with me all these years. Some readers will have heard me reference it from the bimah, as I have occasionally over the years. And so, every single year, when we get to the second plague, the one involving frogs, in our retelling of the story, I have the very same thought: the frogs were the instruments of a plague directed against the Israelites’ masters, but that the Israelites themselves too were frogs…who could have saved themselves simply by hopping off to freedom before the water was finally too hot for them to do anything other than, as the text says, call out to God for rescue.

What is called for here is vigilance, not paranoia. In 2007, the Anti-Defamation League published a study that concluded that about 15% of the American population hold views that could reasonably be categorized as anti-Semitic. The good news was that that figure was down from 29%, a figure from a similar study in the early 1960s. The bad news was that 15% of our American population is about fifty million people.  The vast majority of those people, I suppose, are non-violent types from whom we have nothing specific to fear in terms of our physical wellbeing. But it also feels like too large a number to ignore or to slough off as a mere detail.

The Torah calls for the first night of Pesach to be a leil shimurim in every generation, a phrase usually translated as “a night of vigilance” or “a watchful night.” The Mekhilta, our oldest collection of rabbinic comments on Exodus, comments that the phrase is meant as a call to all Israelites to pledge on that first evening of Passover to be responsible for their own welfare rather than to look elsewhere, presumably even towards heaven, to secure their own security. That would have been a good plan for the Israelites in Egypt for all those many decades when they could have secured their own future simply and easily…and it remains a good plan for the House of Israel in our own day.  It seems doubtful that Thomas Jefferson actually commented that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. If he did say it—and it remains unrecorded among his essays and speeches if he did—he was probably cribbing the idea from an Irish lawyer and judge named John Curran (1750-1817), who wrote in a speech that “the condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.”  Those were the words that were ringing in my ears as I sat back at my seder table on the evening Scripture ordains be a leil shimurim in every generation and pondered Monday’s events in Kansas.

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