Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Har Nof

We use the word “dumbstruck” in English colloquially to qualify the state of being amazed or astounded, but rarely literally to describe the state actually of feeling unable to speak, of having thoughts that simply resist being put adequately into words.  Yet that is exactly how I feel today as I try to find the language in which to express myself about the murders in Jerusalem on Tuesday morning. To qualify the attack against the B’nai Torah synagogue in the Har Nof neighborhood of West Jerusalem as bestial seems almost insulting to the animal kingdom. But merely to qualify the murder of innocent men at dawn’s first light, men wrapped in tallis and t’fillin as they stood in silent prayer before the Almighty and, reciting the silent Amidah, attempting to commune with the divine through the medium of contemplative prayer—merely to qualify an act like that as depraved or degenerate seems almost to say nothing at all. And so I, who pride myself on my vocabulary, for once find myself actually unable to find the right words to translate the emotions filling my heart into words that belong to “regular” language. And yet…since you are all my faithful readers and particularly because I am, by longstanding prior agreement, ceding the pulpit at Shelter Rock to our rabbinic intern Mitchell Berkowitz this Saturday morning, I feel that I somehow must find a way—some way—to put into words the feelings that have been steadily growing within my heart since I first heard the horrific news.

I probably shouldn’t have clicked on that link on my screen. But I felt ignoble, perhaps even cowardly, looking away—if this is what it means to be a member of the House of Israel in the twenty-first century, then how could someone such as myself choose not to look? And so I did look…as I’m sure did almost all of you also…and, suddenly, magically, there we all were: in the sanctuary of the Har Nof synagogue, looking with horror at the prayerbooks drenched in blood, at the floor of the sanctuary awash in the blood of men who had devoted their lives to the study of God’s word, to obedience to God’s commandments, and to the service of God’s people. And there too, in other photographs, were the bodies of the k’doshim themselves, the blood still oozing from their wounds easily visible through the flimsy fabric of the prayer shawls that had been pressed into service as temporary shrouds.

Echoing the ancient midrash, I heard myself as though from a great distance asking the plaintive, unanswerable question: zo torah v’zo s’kharah? Is it possible that this is the reward for a lifetime of good deeds and piety, that this is what you get for having spent a lifetime wholly devoted to God’s law? But from deep within came the answer to my own question, an answer I hadn’t ever heard before even though I must have asked that question aloud a thousand thousand times in the course of all these many years of trying to set pictures from the history of Israel into the frame of a theology rooted in God’s eternal watchfulness over Israel and innate goodness, and despite the fact that the answer was coming to me not from without but from deep within my own consciousness. And that answer was simply that the reward of piety is the gift of sharing the fate of the Jewish people with all that entails, the gift of being privileged to bear the brunt of what it means to be a Jew in the modern world, the gift—yes, the gift—of sharing the fate of millions upon millions of Jewish men, women, and children who died as martyrs for the sanctification of God’s name. May God save us and those we love from such rewards! And yet that voice from deep within said those things, and then fell silent as though daring me to repeat them to you.

In 2001, I was in my second year as editor of the quarterly journal, Conservative Judaism.  After 9/11, it felt strange to publish our fall issue without saying something about what had happened and it fell to me to decide what form that message should take. I remember feeling that I was in an impossible situation: saying nothing was out of the question, but saying something required having something to say. And dumbstruck was exactly how I felt: not merely inarticulate or ineloquent but actually unable to find the words to express what it meant to me personally to see carnage on that level visited on our nation by an enemy to whom the murder of innocents was a great accomplishment and not an act of total surrender to moral depravity. I had a month or so to think the matter through.  Different suggestions were made, but in the end I decided to follow no one’s advice but my own and to offer our readers a fresh translation of Psalm 11, an ancient ode to steadfastness in the face of violent aggression, and to accompany that translation with an explanation of how that poem struck me as possibly able to offer solace to a wounded nation just barely beginning to take in the breadth and depth of the tragedy that had struck our nation literally out of the blue.  And so I began my translation and ended up feeling that I had at least responded thoughtfully and possibly even helpfully. It was the most difficult page and a half I can recall ever writing. If you are reading this electronically and you’d like to see how it read, you can click here to see it.)  Only years later did it dawn on me that I may subconsciously have been struck by the way the number 11 looks a bit like the Twin Towers and thus been prompted to seek solace in that specific psalm. Or maybe not…even to me that sounds odd to say out loud after all this time has passed.

Even though a few days have passed since the events in Har Nof, I am still reeling. I, who for so long championed the concept of a two-state solution in the Middle East, suddenly see only ash and dust where that image once stood before me so appealingly: if there really is no bottom line, no level of barbarism or grotesquerie to which the foe will not stoop, then how could it ever be possible to live peacefully and securely with such people as neighbors and friends?  I hope I’m wrong. I pray that I am, actually. But I am, as you all know, what I read. And what I’ve been reading in the course of these last few days has not been encouraging. I read reports of officials handing out candy to children in the streets of Gaza to encourage them to celebrate the murder of the Jerusalem rabbis. I read the report of how John Kerry had to exert maximal pressure on Mahmoud Abbas before he agreed to issue a statement opposing the murder of innocents, as though this were a daring position for a statesman who wants to lead his people to statehood to take. And I read President Obama’s tasteless, tone-deaf remark equating the Israeli and Palestinian people in terms of their yearning for peace, a comment made on a day when the New York Times, which I’m guessing is delivered to the White House as well as to my house, featured a photograph of Arab men dancing in the street to celebrate their people’s great achievement in murdering innocents at prayer in a house of God.

In the spirit of my effort of 2001, I would like to offer you all a psalm, the 120th. It is a short poem, complete in just seven verses. And it is one of the so-called “songs of the steps,” one of the fifteen songs that the Levites are said to have sung as they stood on the fifteen rounded steps in the Temple that led down from the central courtyard to the easternmost one. So it is, to say the very least, a very old poem…and one that was once sung in ancient Jerusalem in the epicenter of Jewish spirituality that was our holy Temple.

The poet stands for peace. He is peace, he says…but he lives in a bad place and all his neighbors do is tell lies about him, threaten him, and attack him violently. But the poet’s response is neither violent nor political, but spiritual: assailed by relentless foes, he turns to God and prays for deliverance. He tries to reason with his enemies, observing that all his violent foes can hope to get for their efforts are stockpiles of weapons…but that violence only breeds more violence and almost never leads warring individuals to a peaceful resolution of their conflicts. And then, fortified by his refusal to abandon the ways of peace no matter how severely provoked, he makes a firm, personal commitment never to be unready for peace even if his enemies choose to go to war with him instead. He will defend himself. He will possibly even win. But he will never take pleasure in war, and will always consider war a tragedy ideally avoided, never a path joyfully taken. His most famous line is complete in just two words: ani shalom. I am peace. I am peace itself. My life is oriented around prayers for peace, around deeds of kindness and justice that lead to peace. I will respond to aggression if I must. But that will never alter who I am, or what I personally stand for. Ani shalom, he writes. Not I am for peace or I am in favor of peace. But I am peace itself…and no one will be able ever to force me to abandon that single one of my core values, the spiritual foundation upon which I stand and make my stand.

May the events of this last week strengthen, not weaken, our resolve to be forces for good—and particularly for peace—in the world. The State of Israel, as we all know, faces barbarism and enmity that knows no bottom line. The great hope of the foes of Israel is that they might eventually force us to become like them. That is one thing that I feel certain will never happen. And I will not stop saying that even if doing so provokes our foes to go to war against us.

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