Archive for November, 2014

This week has been framed by two shocking, tragic events. Late Wednesday evening, really Thursday morning, a shooting occurred in the Strozier library at FSU. By now all of us know the available details. Three victims were wounded, one in critical condition. We pray, of course that he has a full recovery. The shooter is dead from a showdown with campus police. From what we know so far, he is an attorney who suffered from severe mental illness. I believe I heard he had a vendetta against one of the victims. In any case it is clear this incident is the action of a single crazed individual.

Our community is rightfully in shock that this has occurred in our city. Those of us who live here and love this area believe there is something special about our community. Tallahassee has so many unique and wonderful characteristics. Even though none of the victims has died (at least so far), this incident wounds our souls. This blow to our home sends shivers through all of us. It is hard to accept that such violence can come to our doorsteps. Part of tonight is certainly dedicated to praying for peace and calm for our beloved community, as well as praying for the well being of the victims.

So what I say now is with no disrespect to the gravity of our local situation or the feelings we have for our community. But my focus is not going to be on the shooting at FSU, but on the horrifying tragedy that struck a synagogue in Jerusalem on Tuesday. During morning prayers, two Palestinians armed with guns and meat cleavers burst into an orthodox synagogue and murdered 4 worshippers, 3 of them rabbis. One of the rabbis was Moshe Twersky, son of the noted rabbi and scholar Isadore Twersky. Three of the victims held American citizenship. A Druze policeman who intervened to protect the worshippers was also killed before the two assailants were killed. The images, if you have not seen them, are horrifying.

The worshippers were engaged in morning prayers. That means they were wrapped in their tefillin and tallit. The pictures show a floor strewn with bloody tallit and walls spattered with blood. This was not just a shooting, it was a planned attack to generate terror. This was not a mentally deranged person in an isolated incident, but a politically motivated, planned massacre. Try to imagine the shock and horror of men wrapped in the symbols of prayer, in a moment in which they were beseeching God, to be attacked brutally and cold bloodedly by men with meat cleavers. The goal was not just death, but to strike fear, horror.

The reactions depended on where the speaker stood politically on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Hamas lauded the attackers as heroes – lest we have any delusions about the true nature of Hamas. Mahmoud Abbas condemned the killings, but Israeli officials beginning with Prime Minister Netanyahu charged that such a condemnation is just not sufficient, that Abbas has not done enough to defuse the politics. Israeli officials and much of the press point out that while Abbas might be condemning the action, this is for international public consumption, and that on the Palestinian street, few if any Palestinians are being given a message that such killings are outside the pale of human conduct.

Among the supporters of the Palestinians are those who try to place the murders in a larger context, even if they condemn the specific act. Tensions in Israel, in Jerusalem in particular, have been escalating in recent weeks. First, in the aftermath of the Gaza war this summer, Netanyahu announced an expansion of settlement building in the Jerusalem area. More recently, Jewish religious extremists have been insisting on greater access to the Temple Mount, where of course two mosques sacred to Moslems are located. Part of their agenda is an eventual destruction of those mosques and the reconstruction of a new Jerusalem Temple. The fact that the Netanyahu government has repeatedly denounced such plans and has begun to enforce once again who gets access to the Temple Mount; has not stopped many in the Palestinian and greater Moslem community from using the actions of these Jewish groups as a motivation for recent terrorist attacks. Again, this is even among some of those Moslems who condemn the attacks.

Further, everyone remembers the brutal attack of Baruch Goldstein in 1994 in which he entered a mosque in Hebron and slaughtered 29 worshippers during prayer. It seems in the Middle East we can never escape the mutual justification of tit for tat. It seems we can never stop letting the radical elements drive the conflict from both sides. We go round and round in political analysis, weighing if there is or is not moral equivalency in each side’s actions. As Jews, and as a people comprising only 13 million of a world population of over 7 billion, we are angry, hurt, and wonder how our tragedies are constantly turned in ways to make us the aggressors. We resent how much of the world turns our victimhood against us, condemning Israel as immoral or illegitimate. We are right to feel all of these things.

But the biggest tragedy is not political. The biggest tragedy is not because of an impact on a two state solution. The biggest tragedy is not how this is an expression of anti-Semitism or Palestinian brutality. The biggest tragedy is the loss of the basic human element of the deaths of the 5 victims. Rabbi Doniel Hartman of the Hartman institute in Jerusalem wrote beautifully on this yesterday. We are failing to see the humanness in these deaths. They are now symbols of a cause, not humans whose hopes, dreams, accomplishments and lives are now ended. I want us to see them as people devoted to God, not as tools in a political game. The deepest tragedy in this ongoing cycle of violence is the failure to see the humanness of the victims. It is the failure to see how each person, no matter their faith, no matter their ethnicity, is an expression of God.

Consider these words from Psalm 82: אנ’ אמרת’ אלוה’ם אתם ובנ’ על’ון כֻלכם “I have said you are Elohim, and the sons of the most High.” How can we be Elohim, often translated as God? It can also be translated as judge. Rashi comments on the verse by saying that we are neither gods or judges, but are really malachim, angels, messengers of God. We are divine messengers when we take the Torah given to us and use it in a way to ward off the angel of death. That is the task that falls to us, as Jews, as the receivers of Torah. We are charged with being messengers who see the humanity in everyone. It is as simple as heeding the directive to accept the stranger, as we were once strangers in Egypt. It is as simple as loving your neighbor as yourself. It is as simple as understanding Adonai echad, that God is one and we are all part of that oneness.

And it begins with the human connection we have to Jews who have suffered. It begins with understanding kol Yisra’el aravim zeh l’zeh – all of Israel is responsible for one another. We are part of one family. We are sometimes a dysfunctional family. We are a diverse family, but a family we surely are. For at least tonight we must see the 4 Jews who died praying as nothing other than members of the family who have died tragically. And we must see the policeman who died not as a Druze, but as a human who cared enough about his fellow humans that he sacrificed himself for their safety, for who knows how many more might have died had he not done so.

Tonight we will say prayers for peace. When we leave services we can access all kinds of political analysis about the tragedy and its impact on Israeli/Palestinian relations. But for now, let us just pray that the families of the 5 victims may find some measure of nechemta, of comfort. Let us take a moment of silence to grieve for members of our family, our Jewish family, our human family.


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