Thursday, August 12, 1999

Blinded By The Light:
Reflections on a week to remember

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
Williamsville, NY

Across Europe, over Asia, floating on boats or on faraway farms and fields, this past week millions of souls saw an awesome and frightening sight. It was dark in the middle of the day, a chill fell in the heart of the heat. As a shadow swept over the source of light, crossed its path and cut it out, a disk of darkness brought out the corona-reality that was there all along, but hidden from view.

It was the last total eclipse of the century. Even, in the common calendar, of the millennium. Across Europe, over Asia, it was a strange sight indeed.

Open your eyes and you will no longer see! Stare at the sky, look into the light and go blind.
The flames of the furnace, that were there all along. Look not across an ocean. For here, across America, the blinding fire flares.

And behold! Those who look into the heavens for easy answers go blind, and see in all the world but black and white. Struck blind they strike out blindly all around.




Sh'ma Rabah

Los Angeles
Our eyes and hearts go out to a California community now -- and to the family of a postal worker in the wrong place at the wrong time -- but the image burns and lingers, policeman leading children across an empty highway, holding hands in a chain of life, parents running to and fro. Such small children. Far away perhaps, but we watch at the speed of the heart, and distance disappears.

The monster emerges, and smiles. How he loves his moment in the sun.

For this he lived, for this he killed, for this he is willing to die.

Surely he has seen the light. So sure he is that he is right. That all the world makes sense, if only you know who the enemy is. If only you know how to hate.
Add to the names and headlines a small footnote. This past week, as the sun set in daytime, and as a man on the West Coast was loading up his van with weapons, someone drove into the parking lot of my own synagogue with a can of spray paint, and added their own version of venom. A swastika appeared, along with the informative message that "Jews are bad news."

The words are gone now, and the message quickly removed. Only a tiny trace is left behind. You can see it, if you squint, only in a certain light, with strong sunglasses at the right angle. The hatred is gone, in ordinary light. But the penumbra remains.
Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, we read in this week's Torah portion. "Justice, justice you shall pursue." Why the repetition, the rabbis asked? Why does the word "justice" appear twice?

For vigilance, we are told, to remind us to never rest in the pursuit of justice. More. To teach us that life is complex, that justice is hard, that if you think you know all the facts and reasons you are only just beginning. That those who think they know the truth and have the answers may only see the superficial side of the world around them.

More, again. For the verse goes on, the sentence continues. "Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, l'ma'an tichiyeh. Justice, justice you shall pursue -- that you might live..."

One "justice" is for courts and laws and what we do with criminals. What we think of as the judiciary, for the "specialists," for the "system." But the second one is for something else. It is for the ordinary and the everyday. It is for you, and for me. It is for roots, and causes, and living in such a way to reduce the risk, to make the world a safer, better place. With more care, and more tenderness, and more love. "L'ma'an tichiyeh. That you might live."
What, then, can we do? No act of ours can stop a madman. Nor can all the good will in the world put an end to hatred.

Three things we can do. We can build bridges. We can carry on. And we can remember who it is we are called upon to be.
First, we can build bridges. By delighting in differences, not despising them. For the fact remains: when a whole people remains an "other" to us, when we mention a group and they are merely a faceless mob, it is easy to project onto them the shadows of our own soul. All the images of fear and frustration we feel inside, writ large on the innocent screen of someone else. We Jews have been the paradigmatic other, the longest lasting victims of this kind of projection, but we are hardly alone. Blacks, women, gays, anyone who is different, anyone who is other, anyone we do not know well can serve as the anonymous repository of our own neuroses. Or worse.

But when we meet people, when we know them, often -- not always, but often, the fence falls, the anonymity fades, and then, when a group is mentioned, we think not of a mob but of an individual human being. Of a friend, perhaps. And in the sparkling eyes of two people meeting, the glare of hatred fades.

We can carry on. We cannot give in to fear.

Those were the words on the lips of the parents, who brought their children back, to the relocated camp in California. In the face of madness and hate, we are drawn together, determined to fulfill what philosopher Emil Fackenheim called the 614th commandment: "do not let Hitler have a posthumous victory."

Stay home, hide in fear, stop being Jews, stop being Jewish, stop doing Jewish things, stop going to Jewish places and two things happen. First, we descend into our own fantasy world. For this is no place that is safer than any other. And there is no way our enemies will think we are any less Jewish just because we act less Jewish. To a true Jew hater, our Yiddishkeit is not washed away by the baptismal font of assimilated American life.

Secondly, stay home, and the terror wins. It is what they want: that we not be seen, that we not be heard, that we huddle in darkness and shiver in fear. Tears may fall, but we walk tall still. For carrying on is its own answer.

And we can remember who it is we are called upon to be. We should do

more than merely carry on. We should, indeed, fan the flame of faith that glows still inside us. We should answer hatred not with mere persistence, but with an added intensity of commitment.

The other day, at the airport in Washington D.C, on my return from a quick trip to visit my parents on the occasion of my father's 70th birthday, I admit it. I bought that new magazine. You know, the one with Hillary spilling her guts.

Well, in the middle of the premiere issue of Talk magazine was a different article, by a British playwright, entitled (a la Madeline Albright) "On Discovering I Was Jewish." In the article, describing his mother, the author wrote what I found to be a chilling line:

"Being Jewish played no role in my mother's life until it interfered with it."

Sometimes it takes a prod from outside to stir up what is inside. Maybe it takes darkness to remind us to kindle our own light. But we are supposed to be more than bystanders in a benighted world. We have a task, we Jews, and a mission, to be "or lagoyim, a light unto the nations." Not better or even more holy than anyone else. But true to ourselves. As Jews. As partners with God, l'taken et haolam, to mend the world.

And in a place of darkness, to kindle light.

Wake up, America, indeed. Wake up, Jews! Shema, Yisrael. We are, for tomorrow as well as yesterday, in shadow and in light, keepers of a flame, and witnesses in the world.

Wednesday, August 04, 1999

Choices and Chances

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
Williamsville, New York

If God is everywhere then, in theory, we can draw lessons about God from every area of life. But doing theology through football has been a bit of a dubious proposition ever since Mark Bravaro of the New York Giants knelt and crossed himself in the end zone after catching a touch down pass in the Super Bowl against the Denver Broncos. What was he saying: that God made that poor Bronco defensive end fall flat on his face in front of millions of fans?

There are those who study every gyration and gesture of their home teams with an intensity once reserved for holy texts. And why not? It's generally harmless, it teaches some sort of cohesion and devotion, it only interferes with the rest of the life a few months out of the year. And football games take place on Sunday afternoon, so they can't possibly interfere with the religious life of ordinary Americans, right?

Um, well. For folks in my neck of the woods, have you had a look at the Buffalo Bills' schedule this year? Is that -- could it be? -- a Bills-Jets game... on Kol Nidrei night?  Now, for some time I have stated saying that if the Washington Redskins played the Buffalo Bills on Yom Kippur, we'd have to tape it.

Services, that is.

But I think there is something I should clarify at this point. When I have said this -- I was kidding! But living in Buffalo I now know that to some people, this sport is no joking matter.

So, seriously -- and I mean that -- perhaps there are lessons to be learned from the head-on conflict, the direct collision between a Bills-Jets game, and the single most important service of the Jewish year.

The first and most obvious is this: couldn't the NFL have shown some sensitivity? A 1 pm game, no overtime, and you've still got Kol Nidrei dinner on the table in time. (If someone else cooks it. An entirely separate subject we are not going to go into now.)

But there are other issues here as well. For perhaps the choice we will have to make, between something some of us want to do and something, I admit, that some of us feel we have to do, is really a chance to look into the depth of our lives, and understand one of the deepest messages of Yom Kippur.

"V'anitem et nafshoteichem!" The Biblical commandment calls us, on this day, to "afflict your souls." Tradition teaches that this means not to actually inflict harm or hurt upon ourselves, as would later be the custom in some Christian monastic communities, but to deny ourselves the sustaining forces of everyday life. To transcend the physical. To move beyond the body. To break through, if the process works, to a mystical plane of spirit and soul.

This is a holiday about self-sacrifice. About giving up, if only for a day, our needs and wants and desires. Doing this, while wanting that, is the classic starting position in the observance of Yom Kippur. There is a spiritual value in this longing look towards a stadium while on your way to a synagogue.

Finally, there is an existential value in the conflict as well. A reminder of who we are, and where we live, and the fact that our inner Jewish heart still beats at a slightly different pulse than the world around us. That we dwell, at one and the same time, as a part of, and apart from the landscape of America.

A conflict on a calendar? Or an opportunity to grow? It all depends on which way you look at it. And which tickets you choose to use, on a Sunday night in September.