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.
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.