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Friday, April 19, 2013

Acharei Mot/Kedoshim: A Response to the Tragedy in Boston

I often procrastinate. But this week I waited until the very last minute to write this commentary (so if you find more typos or other errors, you will know why!). It was as if I believed that if I kept putting it off, the events unfolding this week in Boston would somehow disappear, become resolved or I would suddenly awaken from this nightmare. But, of course this is not the case.

Nor is it the case that I am at a loss for words. On the contrary. Words, thoughts and feelings have been flooding my mind all day today and for every day since the horrific events at the Boston Marathon occurred on Monday.

But what words shall I impart to others? How can I say anything meaningful in the face of such evil and tragedy? I know I've done it before. I remember the first sermon I ever gave on the face of evil in our world. The year was 1995 and I referenced an article about the existence of evil in our world that was in the NY Times magazine. That article focused on Susan Smith, the woman who strapped her children into their car seats, released the brake and let the car slide into a lake to drown her children.

Then I remember the Rosh Hashanah when, only a month after beginning at a new congregation, I needed to try to say something meaningful following the events of 9/11. And, of course, the most recent time was following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

I have had to address these issues too many times. We have all had to face these issues too many times. When will it stop?

And yet, any of us having to face these issues, or talk about them, cannot compare to the anguish of the families who lost their loved ones. The pain of those who have lost limbs or are in critical condition. Nor can it compare to what my friends and family in the Boston area are experiencing staying in their homes and wondering when it will end. Or, for those in the immediate vicinity or last night's firefight, when can I know that I terrorist is not lurking in my backyard?

I think we would all agree that we have no right to complain at this moment. But this is not about complaining. This is about trying to figure out how we can live in a world that is filled with uncertainty and violence. The uncertainty has always been there. It is an essential part of the human existence. And yes, violence and evil have also always been there as well. But it has never hit smack in the head so often as it has in recent years, especially since 9/11. Residents of Israel and elsewhere in the middle east have had to face terror and violence every day for decades, if not longer. But for us it is still new. And we hate the fact that we can no longer deny that it is a reality for us, even if we live deep in the Pocono mountains or on Cape Cod or up in the Rockies. The presence of violence and evil is now a part of the fabric of American life, just as it has been a part of life in so many countries. So how do we accept this, but still continue to live our lives as if it were not so. In other words, how can we use denial to keep us going, while still holding on to reality deep inside.

As it is Shabbat, I tried to see if I could glean anything from this week's Torah reading. This week is a double portion/parashah, Acharei Mot/Kedoshim. Acharei Mot means “after death”. It consists of ethical and ritual laws concerning, sacrifice, Yom Kippur rituals, dietary restrictions (aka, keeping kosher) and sexual prohibitions. These laws were given “after the death” of Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu, hence the name of the parashah.

The second parashah is Kedoshim. Kedoshim means holiness. The includes the Holiness Code of Leviticus/Vayikra Chapter 19. In this code we are given a series of commandments and laws. Each of them is given because we are to be holy, because God is holy. Some of these laws (actually the laws in both portions) make sense, others do not. But in the end it isn't supposed to matter. For in order to achieve a holy society we are commanded not to put a stumbling block before the blind, not to curse the deaf and to care for the stranger. We are also commanded not to mix meat and milk, not to mix linen and wool and we are told who we may or may not have sex with. Some, such as incestuous relationships, still make sense to us today. Others, such as the prohibition of male homosexuality, are seen as anachronistic and are no longer a part of our belief system. Or, if it is, hopefully we are evolving to the point where soon it will no longer be.

And so, between the two portions we have a series of laws and commandments, both logical and illogical, all aimed at creating a holy society. All with the goal of creating a nation of people who are not only dedicated to God, but who imitate God. A nation that cares for one another regardless of social status (fully realizing that today we find some of those laws to be anathema) and yet is also willing to obey laws that don't make sense simply because God says so. And we want to be like God.

Creating a society is always about doing certain things because we know they are for the greater good (ie, God) and other things because that's what the law says. If we don't like the law then we work to change it. But this week, and so many other times, we have been forced to face the reality that there are those who don't care about the greater good. Or whose view of the greater good is so warped and misguided that it is actually about the greater evil. These people see something that they don't like because it doesn't fit into their world view and so, rather than working for change, they simply take matters into their own hands. And thus evil acts occur. Yes, it is true that many of these incidents are perpetrated by those with mental illness. And that is an important issue which our society must address. But it is not in the scope of my remarks tonight.

However, we don't know what motivated these two brothers to commit such a heinous crime. Was it because of extremist religious or nationalistic beliefs? Was it because they simply wanted the infamy? Was it because they are simply sociopaths? We just do not know yet, though hopefully we will.

What we do know is that there is no way that their actions were about caring for others, promoting the greater good or glorifying God (even if they might have thought that they were).

What we also know is that the actions for the greater good of God and humanity, the actions that brought holiness and not profanity into our world were the actions of those who helped. The actions of the first responders. The actions of volunteers. The actions of other bystanders who helped in whatever way they could.

And yet how many times do we have to say: Remember! God is present in the hands, hearts and souls of those who are helping the victims. God is not present in the actions of the perpetrators. I am tired having to say that. Whether it's the Shoah, 9/11, Columbine, Sandy Hook or Boston. I just don't want to have to say it any more! And yet, I am saying it again, and I've no doubt this is not the last time.

But the question remains for me: what can we learn from the Torah this week? Yes, we can learn about how to create a holy world. We can learn about how ritual and tradition can bring us closer to God and humanity, but when it no longer reflects who we are, we can also change or discard it. But these are things we already know in our hearts. But I think there are two lessons that we can learn from these parashiot/portion, that are just a little bit different.

The first lesson comes from the strange original ritual for Yom Kippur found in Acharei Mot. In this ritual, two goats were chosen. They both needed to be without blemish and they needed to almost identical. Lots were cast by the Kohen, the High Priest. One goat was designated “for God” and was sacrificed by the Kohen on the altar. The other was designated for “Azazel” (we don't know exactly who or what that was). The Kohen would place his hands on the head of this goat and confess the sins of the people. The goat would then be sent out into the wilderness (or, as the Talmud suggests, it was thrown off a cliff so it could never return). This is the origin of the word scapegoat. This simple innocent goat took on the sins of the entire nation and then was sent away.

Today, of course, we must confess our own sins and ask for forgiveness from God, and from those whom we have harmed. We need to look inside ourselves to find the holiness and not simply let something else do the work for us, or blame all the problems on the other
And yet, our society does this so often. It is so easy to choose a scapegoat, to avoid taking responsibility for our own sins. We know this happened to us as Jews. But how often do we as individuals or as a society choose to blame evil or violence on “other forces” rather than look at what we as a society, or as individuals, can do ourselves to help stop violence in our world. Yes, the violence perpetrated is the responsibility of the perpetrator, but if we only focus on that rather than what we can do, then we relieve ourselves of the responsibility to make the world a holy place.

We no longer use a scapegoat to confess our sins on Yom Kippur. We must take responsibility for our actions. As a society let us do our best not to blame others, especially blaming whole groups for the actions of a few. Instead, let us focus on our responsibility not to seek revenge, but to bringing healing and wholeness.

The other lesson we can learn comes from simply reading the names of the portions as an independent phrase with it's own meaning: “After death, holiness.” This phrase could mean many things. But in this moment I read it as teaching us that, after the death of something or someone which we hold dear, it is essential that we react by reaching for holiness. After our sense of innocence an invulnerability is killed by terror or war, we must not simply sit back and say “there is nothing I can do.” Instead we must do what we can to bring holiness where there is desecration. We must focus on helping others, caring for others and loving others. Yes, we must mourn. Yes, we must feel the pain, anger and anguish that is all too real. But after that, after the death and the immediate aftermath, we must redouble our efforts to do to counteract terror and hate so that the death will not be in vain.

We must not respond to hate with more hate. We must not respond to violence with more violence. We must not respond to being scapegoated and blamed for the evils of the world by then blaming the other. For this allows us to view them as less than human, even and animals. And if we do this, then we risk losing our sense of holiness and creating a world dedicated to hatred and violence, rather than a world dedicated to love and understanding. We also risk going down the path of making ourselves less than human as well.

I know this is easier said than done. I realize that when we are attacked there are times when we must retaliate in kind. But the reason for doing this should not be because we hate or because we want to kill. It should be because we realize sometimes retaliation is necessary in order to stop the spread of hate and ultimately decrease violence in our would. In other words, sometimes we must act in unholy ways in order to restore holiness to our world. But we must do so cautiously. And we must do so only in response to being attacked or to be preemptive when we know violence is on its way.

Am I an idealist? Perhaps.

Perhaps the reality is that we are now living in an age of violence and terror where holiness and goodness need to take a back seat. But I refuse to believe that is how we must live. For I believe if each of us does our part to remember that we have been created to love and to be holy, not to hate, then we can change ourselves, our communities and our world.

As we stand here walking through the valley of the shadow of death, let us always remember not only that God is with us, but that it is our task to bring God into the world when it seems that God is missing. If that is ultimately the goal of our actions, we will bring holiness into our world and work, step by step, towards creating a world where, God and humanity willing, I will never have to write another sermon like this again.

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