Shaarei Shamayim

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ZACHOR 5777

ZACHOR 5777

The Midrash (Mishley 9:2) teaches that when the Messiah arrives all the festivals of the Jewish calendar will cease to exist with the exception of one. Which one do you think it is? When I 1st heard this teaching my guess was Yom Kippur because I reasoned that in the Messianic era we’d still be human and need forgiveness. But I was wrong. The answer is—Purim! And the Midrash bases this extraordinary statement upon this verse from Megilat Esther (9:28): “The memory of Purim will never cease from among their descendants.”

Wow! I would not have guessed that; would you? The only holiday we’ll observe in the Messianic era is Purim?? Why? There reason is shocking—even depressing. The reason we will still celebrate Purim in the Messianic era is that even when the Messiah comes there will still be anti-Semitism! 

What the Sages were saying is that anti-Semitism is the one constant, the one unshakable neurosis in the human DNA. Why? Because hatred of the Jew is hatred of “the other”—of the one who is different. It’s the hatred of a people that brought the Bible to the world which teaches that evil must be punished—as in the Flood of Noah…that slavery and dictatorship are evil and must be eradicated—as with Moses and Gd against Pharaoh. It is the Bible which demands justice, help for the poor, the widowed and the orphan. It is the Bible that says to the world—all human beings are an image of Gd and, therefore, you are not better than anyone else, you cannot rule over others, you cannot have corrupt governments and courts and slaughter innocents. A significant part of the world has never and will never forgive the Jew for bringing this message.

And so even when we thought everything is getting better—as I did just a few years ago—think again say the Sages. Anti-Semitism, Haman and his hatred of the Jewish people will always be there. In the 1930’s the most enlightened nation in the world—Germany—elected a man and a party that would become the most barbaric regime in history and within a decade 6 million Jews were dead.

Today is Shabbat Zachor—the Shabbat before Purim when we are commanded to remember Amalek, the ancestor of Haman—the villain of the Purim story. Amalek and Haman are the archetypes of the villains of the Jewish people—those who, in the words of the Megillah (3:13): “Desire to kill and obliterate all of the Jews, from young to old.” So this is the Shabbat that rabbis focus on anti-Semitism.

But as I look back in my files I see that this has not always been my focus. For what is there to say? There was anti-Semitism, there is anti-Semitism and there always will be anti-Semitism! We can’t stop it…it’s an irrational force! It has even occurred in times and countries when and where there were no Jews—like pre-WWII Japan or today’s Poland. What else can I say?

And yet something has to be said, for the problem of anti-Semitism is on the minds of American Jews today. So let me say this: Let’s not overdo it with our concern. Those who are writing that it’s time for American Jews to secure their safety by moving to Israel are deluding themselves. I hate to say it but the likelihood of a person being attacked because they’re Jewish is greater for a Jew living in Israel than for a Jew living in America! In fact, no country has ever been safer for a Jew than America is today.

It’s true! If—as a recent Pew Poll indicates—71% of non-Orthodox marriages involve a non-Jewish partner, then there’s got to be some non-Jews out there who like us! And there are more than you would think. Last month a Pew Survey asked which was the best liked religious group in America. Guess who came in 1st? Jews at almost 70%!? Unbelievable! And yet Jewish cemeteries are being vandalized while JCC’s are receiving bomb threats. There’s a problem, but the real problem is not what you might think.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech—professor at Yeshiva University and the author of 14 books on Jewish life, philosophy and mysticism—has been my most important mentor. You’ve heard his teachings in my sermons and lectures over the years. Recently I thought about an article he wrote more than 40 years ago sent to me by my colleague Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, also a student of his.

Rabbi Blech was then rabbi at the Young Israel of Oceanside in Long Island, NY. The Jewish community woke up on Yom Kippur morning to the horror that all synagogues in the community had been vandalized overnight, with curse words painted at each entrance. Rabbi Blech wrote a powerful essay called: “Only Words Upon a Wall?” pointing out that the real problem is not only words, but much more. His concluding words were most insightful:

For the first time I grasp the real problem. “A rash of anti-Semitic incidents struck Oceanside yesterday…” begins the announcer. Anti-Semitic? Wait a moment. Were Semites the victims of prejudice, or was it every member of society who respects democratic ideals, who recognizes inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Why single out one group as having been harmed when it is the collective fabric of a free and ethical society that has been torn asunder? Someone in town says to me, “I’m sorry you people had that unfortunate incident.” And I cry to myself at the lack of understanding. For even as he consoled me, he makes clear he does not recognize the extent of his personal loss. If only the announcer would have said: “A rash of anti-human incidents struck Oceanside yesterday.”

You might ask, why is Rabbi Blech universalizing the issue? It’s anti-Semitism—hatred of Jews. The perpetrators didn’t write curse words on churches. Why make this into, “an anti-human incident” when the attack was on the Jews?

What we have experienced in America recently has taught us how right Rabbi Blech was! It’s not so much that we Jews are in danger. It’s America that’s in danger! Those who are making the bomb threats at JCC’s and defacing Jewish cemeteries didn’t just recently become anti-Semites and didn’t just begin to hate Jews.

Take a look at the Sikh community. The Sikhs are a warm and peaceful people—mostly from India. Sikh men are typically identifiable by their long beards and turbans and are often been mistaken for Muslims or Arabs. Last Friday, Deep Rai was approached in his driveway in Seattle and told: “go back to your own country,” as he was shot (not fatally, thank Gd). This came 2 weeks after Srinivas Kuchibhotla was murdered in Kansas.

Do you think the killer of this Sikh in Kansas might have been just as content killing a Jew? Jews are the eternal “other.” It was Haman who gave the Jews that title when he told king Achashveyros: “There is one people scattered among the people in all the provinces of your realm, v’dateyhem shonot, and their laws are different.” And who wants to be around people who are different?

Rabbi Blech was right! What we are experiencing is not so much anti-Semitic incidents but anti-human incidents. Hatred of a Jew is irrational? And hating a person because of the color of his skin is rational? Or because of the country from which he comes? Or because of the religion he practices? Hating someone because he or she is different…does that make any sense?  

Jews have always been the canary in the mine. When Jews and Israel are under attack the free world had better take notice because it’s way of life, its institutions, its women, its gays its lovers of freedom will be next in the crosshairs of the Hamans of the world. Think about this: terrorism started in Israel. The world didn’t respond. So it spread to America, Russia, France, England, Brussels, Germany and too many more places to mention.

America has been for Jews as close to a Messianic experience as any Diaspora community in history…and so we’re in shock to see the anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism on college campuses. We’re deeply saddened that Black Lives Matter—a cause many Jews initially supported—has called Israel an apartheid state bent on genocide against Palestinians. We were caught by surprise that this could happen in America. But the good news is that despite it all, 75% of all Americans still see Israel’s cause as just and true. We take heart in the many victories against BDS and anti-Semitism throughout the university world and America.

In the 1950’s and 60’s a world embarrassed by the Holocaust and centuries of anti-Semitism made Israel the darling of the world. Anti-Semitism still existed in America but became socially unacceptable. It went underground and we thought it had vanished. The Soviet Union collapsed and a million Soviet Jews made it to Israel—the largest Exodus of Jews from persecution in all of Jewish history. The Catholic Church acknowledged its failures during the Holocaust and officially recognized the Jewish state. We thought the world had changed. It was almost a Messianic period—the rise of the new Jewish state, the end of anti-Semitism and a change in attitude in most of the world. But we forgot the Sages teaching that even when the Messiah comes we’ll need to observe Purim for surely there will be a Haman in every generation.

The good news is that in the end Esther was Queen and Mordechai was Viceroy and, as the Megillah (8:15) says: LaY’hudim hay’ta ora v’simcha (And to the Jews there was light and happiness). Maybe, in the end, this is what the Messianic age will be—anti-Semitism will still be—but we’ll come out victorious and secure in spite of it all. Bayamim haheym bazman hazeh (As in those days, may it happen speedily in our time). Amen!

                                                Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis

                                                3/11/17

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