Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, May 4, 2019
Rabbi Michael Friedland
Our Torah portion begins this morning, Va Yidaber Hashem el Moshe Aharei Mot shnai b’nai Aharon b’korvatam lifnei Hashem vayamutu God spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of God. We begin this Shabbat acharei mot Lori Gilbert Kaye v’hevrei Bet Knesset Tree of Life, after the death of Lori Gilbert Kaye at Chabad of Poway CA and the members of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh back in August who were drawn to the presence of God coming to worship in their communities on Shabbat.
And just as Aaron their father must have realized that the world was to be perceived differently after the traumatic loss of his sons, we too feel that something is different about our place in America. We’ve known that something was different about our nation ever since this President was elected in 2016 but maybe we felt it wasn’t going to effect us. Many of us were secure to some extent professionally or financially. America has always had a violent culture but one was mostly protected if you lived in the right areas and took proper precautions. Jew hatred was a feature of society, but not like what our grandparents or great grandparents experienced in Europe, not even what our parents may have experienced from bigotry on the streets. But now something is very wrong and frightening and it has seeped into our most holy spaces. The pathological hatred of Jews that hid in dark corners and the margins of our society are now being activated in open rallies and murderous rage and we are being told to build stronger walls and higher gates because society has no other solutions.
The Baal Shem Tov commenting on the opening verse of our Torah portion Va Yidaber Hashem el Moshe Aharei Mot shnai b’nai Aharon b’korvatam lifnei Hashem vayamutu (God spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of God) noted that the word mot death appears twice in the verse. He explained that it is a midrashic principle in explicating Torah verses, that the word acharei implies distance. The shock of Nadav and Avihu’s death was that the fear of death was always far away from them. For in their capacity as priests working in the Tabernacle where God’s presence was most keenly felt, and aware that God’s presence could be comforting but also terrifying, they did not think that the danger they lived with would actually strike them. They were aware that death lurked nearby but assumed it would not happen to them. They were too protected.
We too live during an age when in fact for most people death is distant. Compared to generations before us, when life expectancies were much less than today we expect to live longer. In fact when certain community’s life expectancies are worsening, we acknowledge that these are social policy issues not health issues. The opioid crisis and access to good prenatal care are two reasons why life expectancy is worse for some demographic groups. But these losses are not due to lack of medical knowledge or medicines to battle disease, it’s healthcare policy decisions that are not being made or made for the wrong reasons.
Rather the reason why previous generations, though life expectancies may have been shorter, may have felt safer and less anxious than we do today is because we live in a world where weapons that can kill multifolds easily and rapidly are plentiful. Whether it is bombs and IEDs that blow up churches with hundreds of worshippers or semi automatic weapons that shoot dozens of bullets in seconds, death is closer than it should be in our advanced society. And of course it is not only places of worship. Days after the attack in Poway, a young man opened fire and killed two classmates at the University of North Carolina.
And neither of the killers in Poway or UNC had a record that revealed them to be of concern to police or even friends and family.
On Thursday, the local ABC station asked me and four other clergy to come together for a discussion on violence against religion. You can watch the short program via a link we sent out on our webpage. One of the questions posed was what can our congregations do to effect change and stop or at least limit such violence? And there were two kinds of responses. One, offered by Reverend Jean Hope was for our people to work for legislation that limits easy access to powerful guns. The other from Father Kohrman was to work to change people’s hearts. I could not help myself -- I suggested, first let’s change the gun laws and see if that helps, while working on changing hearts. I guess as the Jew in the group I was being practical. Because Father Kohrman’s suggestion was beautiful and would ultimately lead to a better, kinder society. But it’s a lot harder.
At the URC prayer breakfast earlier that day, the featured speaker David Carlson, a professor at Franklin college, offered a vision of how to change hearts. He said that in his studies of how different religious communities live together in multifaith societies he identified four levels of interaction. The lowest level is isolation. The religious community retreats into safe, self contained spaces and refuses to interact with others. The next level is toleration. We used to speak about the importance of tolerance of others who are different. But he pointed out, tolerance may be more respectful towards the other than isolation, but it is still putting distance between you and the other. We tolerate a cold but we don’t want one.
A level above toleration is understanding. Here the individual seeks to understand and appreciate the other’s religious traditions and culture. This is most admirable. The weakness of this level of interaction with other religions, however, is that we still can achieve understanding of the other at a distance. I can read a book about Islam to understand it, to know its major features and holidays, its history, and never have a conversation with a Muslim.
The highest level of interaction is spiritual friendship. Spiritual friendship is more than knowing about another religion or even knowing a person who practices another faith. It is about sustaining a relationship with someone who practices another faith and caring that they be able to live out their creed to the best of their ability. We have moved beyond knowing the other so that I can better understand to a transitive expression of concern for the other so that they be able to live their faith.
He shared a few examples of groups engaged in such friendships. One is the trifaith initiative in Omaha NE. The Reform synagogue, led by my former Olin Sang Ruby counselor Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, was gifted a parcel of land of about 40 acres to build a new Temple. The community realized they did not need all of the land and decided to reach out to the local mosque and later a protestant church offering the land to them to build their houses of worship. Soon all three will be completed and a fourth structure will be built, a communal gathering for all three which will be called The Tent of Abraham.
This is a real life example of the image we heard from Isaiah in the haftarah for the last day of Pesah, a future time when harmony would reign among natural enemies – the wolf and the lamb, the cow and the bear lying together with their children grazing together. It is beautiful -- and it is a much harder vision to produce. Not only that but those motivated by such a vision are not likely to be the ones walking into populated areas and opening fire on innocent people. The causes that lead a person, even one filled with hate, to act on it are numerous and often unfathomable. Mental illness, isolation and loneliness, susceptibility to internet conspiracy theories, social upheaval in which blaming scapegoats for one’s turmoil are reassuring, all these and more are reasons that some express themselves through violence. Can we make enough spiritual friendships to correct this?
Perhaps, perhaps not. But one must start somewhere.
Once the Tiferet Shlomo, Rabbi Shlomo Rabinowitz of Radomsk stopped in the city of Krakow. He was asked by the people of the city to preach. In his preaching he taught that for a righteous person to be worthy of merit, they must bring blessing down from the heavens on to the Jewish people. This was the deficiency of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons who died. For the verse we recited earlier stated that they died “in drawing near to God”. That was the problem, taught the Tiferet Shlomo, they were too comfortable being near God, in isolating themselves and focusing on their own spirituality. The goal of a righteous person is to bring blessing and goodness on others.
The same is true for us, who want to be good and want to be righteous. We can’t isolate ourselves and only seek to protect our interests. We need to seek out spiritual friendships and make sure that all religious people are safe and whole and able to follow their path.
Let’s work together with others – it can be through connections with other Jewish congregations in town, it can be connections with other faiths as our synagogue team that works with other congregations through the Faith in Indiana initiatives, or connecting through United Religious Communities. And we can also follow through on Pastor Hope’s suggestion to work for safer and smarter gun laws so that no religious sanctuary need fear a shooter can enter and shoot 100 rounds of ammunition in seconds. And in so doing, like the tzadik, we will bring down divine blessing and goodness on us and all of our society.