We Will Long Endure

I once served as the summer education director at the URJ Camp Kalsman outside of Seattle, Washington. The camp was beginning its second summer and I was excited to experience the creation of rituals and traditions that accompany the birth of a camp. The previous summer they had commissioned a new Torah, and each camper was able to write a letter with the sofer, the scribe. As our summer began, the sofer returned with the almost-complete Torah and again invited us to each write a letter en route to completion. As I went for my turn, the sofer was beginning his day. He took out his quill and ink, unrolled the Torah. He dipped his quill into the ink, and on a scrap piece of parchment wrote the word Amalek. He then folded it over, blotting out the name, before inviting me to write a letter, guiding my hand to form a perfect mem.

Why did he first waste a piece of parchment?

We concluded last week’s Torah portion by learning about the battle with Amalek, who attacked the Israelites. Our sidra concludes with God telling Moses to write down as a reminder and tell it to Joshua, the next leader, that “I will utterly blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven.[1]” At this point in our Torah, the Israelites have been and will be attacked in the future, what insidious crime had Amalek committed to warrant this message from God?

Later in Deuteronomy we recall this attack and learn that Amalek attacked without warning as the Israelites had already turned away from their land. “He surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.[2]

Amalek killed those who could least defend themselves.

Again, in Deuteronomy we read, “You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget![3]” God wants us to erase the memory and to never forget at the same time. Anytime one prepares their quill to begin writing a Torah, they physically blot out the name of Amalek. But we? We all remember.

There are people in this world who will stop at nothing to hurt us. They will attack with words, with stones, with knives with guns, they will stop at nothing until we are no more. People who will blame us for anything bad that has ever happened to them, their family, their land. These people have existed since Amalek attacked us, since we became a people. Each time we add another memory to the name Amalek, and we blot out their memories.

This past weekend reminded us again that Amalek still exists, and that antisemitism remains strong regardless of race, religion or political affiliation. For the FBI to claim that this was “not specifically related to the Jewish community” is laughable. When someone walks into a synagogue spewing antisemitic rants and takes four Jews hostage including the rabbi it specifically related to the Jewish community. He didn’t walk into a grocery store, or a church, or a mosque or home, or office. He walked into a synagogue with the intention of getting his way or killing Jews. How much clearer of a connection do we need? The FBI has since walked back its remarks, but the initial sentiment still resonates.

Writing in the Atlantic this week, Yair Rosenberg notes that antisemitism is more than just a “social prejudice, it is a conspiracy theory about how the world operates.[4]” Apparently the assailant demanded to speak to the rabbi at Central Synagogue in New York, for he believed that, as Rabbi Citron-Walker has said, “this was somebody who literally thought that Jews control the world.” Spoiler alert: we do not. In 2019 our social action committee led a series of conversations about antisemitism during which we reminded ourselves that these tropes go back over one-thousand years and have been used for centuries as a reason to marginalize, subjugate or exterminate Jews.

The marginalization of Jews, especially social-activist Jews is perhaps what has astounded me most. I expect antisemitism from white-nationalists and the Nation of Islam, I don’t expect it from leftist friends or organizations. In the last several years we have witnessed growing antisemitism veiled in the ignorance of anti-Zionism. On social media, protests and student groups on college and high school campuses, people are using antisemitic tropes to exclude Jews from participating. They do not understand that their methods far predate the modern State of Israel or that by perpetuating antisemitism they embolden those who seek to attack and exterminate us like the terrorist in Texas last week.

We applaud the heroism of Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and the hostages and pray for their continued healing of mind and spirit. We express deep gratitude that no one was killed other than the perpetrator. We still are grateful for the immediate response from the FBI who remain important security partners for CMI and the Jewish community. Yet we all feel the collective trauma from another attack on the Jewish people.

In our trauma, as we have done for years, we respond by evaluating our security, as we always do. For the last several weeks we have engaged the services of Michael Shanbrom, the new Secure Communities Network advisor to the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven. This week he completed an assessment of the building and we look forward to his report. Already a training for MINS staff is on the calendar and we will have additional training for staff, lay-leadership and the rest of the congregation. This is essential training and safety, and security will always be a top priority, as we are commanded in Deuteronomy, “You shall guard yourselves very well.[5]” But preparing ourselves does not make for a better world nor a better existence for us as Jews. I don’t know many Christian colleagues who go through active shooter drills or run situational awareness trainings for their church.

I do know that through the relationships built by CMI clergy – Rabbi Goldberg, Rabbi Brockman, and now myself, we do have allies – people and communities who care about us. On Saturday afternoon the first text I received was from Omer Bajwa, the Muslim Chaplain at Yale. Later in the day and as the news outlets began promoting the story, I heard from some of the clergy who were in our sanctuary the night before, praying for our safety and emotional comfort. I wondered if any of them gave considerations to their security when they entered our building on Friday night, and if they would do so in the future.

I was reminded of a priest who prayed and cared for the Israelites and Moses in our Torah portion this week. Moses’s father-in-law Yitro. When he counseled Moses during the Exodus, en route from Egypt to Sinai, Yitro displayed both empathy and knowledge of Israelite traditions: “Baruch Adonai, blessed be Adonai,[6] Yitro begins, “who delivered you from the Egyptians.” Yitro then proceeds to make a sacrificial offering to God with Aaron and the elders of Israel. Yitro emerges as the anti-Amalek – the compassionate figurehead who embraces the Israelites instead of attacks us. The Yitro’s of our world today are giving me hope – the clergy and people of other faiths who embrace me at rallies, at interfaith worship, in the rooms of legislators and hospitals – those who speak out against antisemitism in all forms.

Fifteen minutes ago, while reciting the Amida, we said together:

בְּרַחֲמִים רַבִּים. סומֵךְ נופְלִים. וְרופֵא חולִים וּמַתִּיר אֲסוּרִים.

Through great  compassion, supporting the fallen, healing the sick, freeing the captive, keeping faith  with those who sleep in the dust.[7] God, you free the captive, we say three times a day. And each morning when we wake up we begin our morning prayers with the nisim b’chol yom, the blessings for our daily miralces, and each moring we chant:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם מַתִּיר אֲסוּרִים:

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe,  who frees the captive.

Our sages teach us that this relates to our ability to rise each morning, freed from the captivity of physical confinement to the bed, but it also has literal interpretation elsewhere in our texts. Our sages wrote extensively on our obligation to redeem anyone who is held captive.

In the Talmud, we learn of two Rabbis, R. Yochanan and R. Chanina. First R. Chanina falls ill and R. Yochanan heals him. Then Rabbi Yochanan falls ill, and waits for Rabbi Chanina to heal him. “The Talmud asks: Why did Rabbi Yoḥanan wait for Rabbi Chanina to restore him to health? If he was able to heal his student, let Rabbi Yoḥanan stand himself up. The Gemara answers, they say: A prisoner cannot generally free himself from prison, but depends on others to release him from his shackles.[8]

We, as the Jewish people, cannot eradicate antisemitism on our own, just as we do not place the burden of racism only on people of color. In order to break the shackles of antisemitism we need others to not only support but to lead the charge.

For now we place our trust in ourselves, through vigilance and action. We remember every time we blot out Amalek’s name that we are still here. We are still here and the Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Spanish Monarchy, Nazis, are no more. We blot out their memory but we never forget that we endured and will continue to endure and thrive.

The psalmist reminds us that God will protect us as a people in psalm 121:

יְֽהֹוָ֗ה יִשְׁמׇרְךָ֥ מִכׇּל־רָ֑ע יִ֝שְׁמֹ֗ר אֶת־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃ יְֽהֹוָ֗ה יִשְׁמׇר־צֵאתְךָ֥ וּבוֹאֶ֑ךָ מֵ֝עַתָּ֗ה וְעַד־עוֹלָֽם׃ {פ}

God will guard you from all harm;

God will guard your soul.

God will guard your going and coming now and forever.

May the Yitro’s far outnumber the Amalek’s in our world, may we long endure, and may we one day only know peace.

Ken yihi ratzon, may it be God’s will.

[1] Ex. 17:14

[2] Deut. 25:18

[3] Deut. 25:19

[4] Rosenberg, Yair. Why So Many People Still Don’t Understand Anti-Semitism https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/01/texas-synagogue-anti-semitism-conspiracy-theory/621286/?fbclid=IwAR16cU2yC2kYJyYubFyr5XVBNrrJsrQpssubNr6GJpoVRtbt41k6WnJYOYA

[5] Deut. 4:15

[6] Ex 18:10

[7] Amida Prayer, G’vurot. Translation from Mishkan T’filah: A Reform Siddur: Complete: Shabbat, Weekdays, and Festivals (Transliterated) (p. 168). CCAR Press. Kindle Edition.

[8] Brachot 5b