The Two Facebook Friends I Lost This Summer: Balancing the Universal and the Particular
(The following blog posting is adapted from a Rosh Hashanah sermon I gave this year)
I lost two friends this summer. Let me just make something clear – these two guys are very much alive and healthy, and may they both be written in the book of life! I lost these friends on Facebook, they both De-Friended me over the summer.
My first friend is named Shmuel. We were friends in high school and connected through our synagogue youth group, USY. Shmuel was the head of the social action/Tikkun Olam committee and it was his passion. He organized food baggings for our local Jewish Family Services, volunteering opportunities at nursing homes, and other projects – he was a real blessing for us. We kept in touch after high school, but we drifted apart. Six years ago, I ran into Shmuel in New York, but he looked a lot different. He wasn’t wearing a kippah anymore, nor was he keeping kosher. When I greeted him, he told me to call him Sam, because Shmuel was a little too Jewish for him. Sam took his passion for social justice to the next level, working for a non-profit that deals with conflict resolution in the African American community. Sam is doing amazing work in the world and living his dream. At the time, I was a rabbinical student, following a different path, but with the same goal in mind – to leave the world better off than it was before. We became Facebook friends and kept in touch that way, that is, until this summer.
When the war in Gaza broke out, I posted my support for the state of Israel against Hamas, posting images and videos of Israeli civilians hiding in bomb shelters, but his posts were different – he posted scenes from Gaza with the hashtag #freegaza. Then, I saw a video of Sam marching in a demonstration in the diamond district of New York. He had a sign, #FreeGaza, and he was chanting along with his fellow protestors, Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea. I couldn’t hold my tongue any longer, what happened to my friend Shmuel from USY? I messaged him. After some pleasantries, I had to ask him the question – “Sam, how could you march chanting, Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea? Don’t you know that this means an end to the State of Israel?
He wrote me back, “let me ask you something Rabbi Dave – as a so called religious Jew, how can you support Israel, a state that does not accept anyone who isn’t Jewish? If we are all made in the image of God, B’tezlem Elohim, how can you not mourn the dead of Gaza along with the dead of Israel? How can the people of Never Again perpetuate a genocide in Gaza?!?
My answer: “Sam, I feel terrible for the innocent Gazans dying, especially the children, and in fact, I posted about it, but at the same time, I don’t blame Israel for these terrible losses – I blame Hamas who used its own people as human shields, who teaches their people hate of not only Israel, but all Jews. Don’t take my word for it, read Hamas’s charter. In the face of rocket attacks and terror tunnels, Israel has to defend herself, and Israel used every possible way to warn civilians to leave areas which Hamas was using to fire rockets.”
He answered me, “What about Rabbi Hillel’s teaching – “U’ksheani le’atzmi, mah ani?” – If I am only for myself, what am I? Don’t you remember that class from Hebrew school, when the Israelites were freed from Egpyt, it wasn’t just them, but a mixed multitude. Rabbi, you are stuck in the Jewish ghetto – but I am free. We don’t have to worry about anti-Semitism anymore, it’s not the 1930’s. The only reason why people hate Jews is because of your precious Israel. To be honest Rabbi, I can’t be friends with you anymore – goodbye.”
Following that conversation, he ‘de-friended’ me.
Shmuel, or as he calls himself, Sam, was not with me on Rosh Hashanah, but I wish he was. I want to talk to him and really understand where he’s coming from, but I know that you have a Sam in your life, and maybe we can begin to understand him today.
I have another friend who I once knew a while ago with named Mitchell. We went to college together, and I was always trying to get him to come to Hillel with me, but he never would. He was never really into Judaism until our senior year when something in him cliqued. Mitch started going to the Orthodox minyan at our Hillel, and then, he started dressing differently. He put on tzitzit and a kippah and wore them everyday, and then, he made aliyah. He went to a Yeshivah for a year, met a nice young woman, and after three weeks of seeing each other, they married. His name was no longer Mitch, but now, he goes by his Hebrew name, Mordechai. Mordechai and his wife Rivka live in a settlement in the West Bank, or as he calls it, Judea, with their seven children. Although Mordechai isn’t wealthy, he gives tzedakah to many Jewish causes that help Jews not just in Israel, but around the world. Mordechai and I kept in touch over the years as we both share a deep love of both our people, and the land of Israel.
This summer, I posted my anger at the vicious murder of Muhammed Al Khdeir by Jewish terrorists on my Facebook wall. He messaged me, and told me that he no longer wants to read any of my posts and told me he is going to de-friend me. He asked me, “How can you mourn over the death of an Arab – aren’t they all guilty? How can you place them above your own people?!? Didn’t Rabbi Hillel say, Im Ein Ani Li, Mi Li – I am not for myself, who will be for me? Don’t you remember the teaching from the Torah of Amalek – we must blot out their memory, men, women and children! I for one refuse to mourn for the death of a child who will become a terrorist one-day! I can’t be friends with anyone who disagrees with this core belief of Judaism.” And then, Mitch, or Mordechai, de-friended me.
Mordechai, was not with me on Rosh Hashanah, but I wish he was. I want to talk to him and really understand where he’s coming from, but I know that you have a Mordechai in your life, and maybe we can begin to understand him today.
That feeling, torn between being Jewish and being a part of the larger world is the condition of the Jew in the modern age. Both Sam and Morderchai, when it comes down to it, want the same thing – to make the world a better place after they have left it. Sam and Morderchai represent two types of people in a phrase coined by the author Yossi Klein Ha-Levi – Pesach Jews, and Purim Jews.
He writes: “Jewish history speaks to our generation in the voice of two biblical commands to remember. The first voice commands us to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and the message of that command is: “Don’t be brutal.” The second voice commands us to remember how the tribe of Amalek attacked us without provocation while we were wandering in the desert, and the message of that command is: ‘Don’t be naive.’”
The question is – can both types of Jews be members of the same tribe?
My answer – yes, and more than that, these Jews live in the same person – there are very few of us who are pure Sams, pure Pesach Jews, and few Mordechais, pure Purim Jews – but there’s a bit of Sam, or Pesach in me, and Mordechai, Purim, in me, and I bet there might be a bit of them in you as well.
Let me first talk to the Sam in us, the universalist, the one who took takes the idea of Btzelem Elohim, that all humans are created in God’s image, very seriously. And since Rosh Hashanah is Yom Harat HaOlam, the day that humanity was created, this might be a great place to start. It’s true, we learn in the book of Genesis, that God created Human in God’s own image, and the midrash expands on it, telling us that God makes each person unique, and every person must say that the world was created for my sake…but, we don’t read this section from the Torah on Rosh Hashanah. We actually read about the first Jewish family – Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac. Sure, they may be imperfect, but it’s the story of the first Jewish family, which was how we started – as a people. We don’t exist in a vacuum. We are surrounded by other nations, but we are unique, just as they are unique. In the Zichronot service which we will shortly read, we tell how God remembered Noah with love, remembered Lot, both of whom aren’t Jewish, but we say with pride – God remembered God’s covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob – the message is clear – God has a covenant with the Jewish people, and it is special.
Avraham Infeld, the former international director of Hillel, has devoted his life to the idea of Jewish people hood.
He often says, we have been taught that Judaism is a religion, but before it is a religion, we are a people.
Ruth, the first convert to Judaism, the great-grandmother of King David, the forerunner to the messiah for both Jews and Christians once said, “Your people shall be my people and your God is my God. The order is not accidental. If I want to become Christian I would say, “Your God is my God,” but when it comes to Judaism, I cannot first say, “Your God is my God” until I say, “Your people is my people.”
Rachel Fraenkel, the mother of Naftali Fraenkel, one of the three boys murdered by Hamas terrorists this summer said this about her ordeal: “People from all over were saying these are not just your boys, these are our children. Sometimes I ask myself was this just an illusion? I have this image of a person walking in the dark and it’s raining and their stumbling and they’re figuring out their way. They don’t see anything and then for a second there’s lightning and in that lightning they see the reality of their surroundings. It helps them guide their way. We had days and days of lightning. It’s no illusion what we saw there, ourselves. We’re part of something huge. We’re part of a people, of a true family that’s for real.”
So to Sam, I say, yes, you are correct, if I am only for myself what am I, but I cannot get to that point of being for others, if I am not for myself at all. That’s why Hillel starts the quote, Im Ein Ani Li – If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
Sam – that’s part of my job – to be here for you. You might have a lot of places where you hang your hat, but you have only one home, only one place where you can be yourself, and loved unconditionally. The Jewish people are your collective home, and we will be here for you whenever you are ready to come home.
To the Mordechai in us, who only focuses on Im Ein ani li, mi li, if I am not for myself, who will be for me. I have to say that you are missing a big part of Judaism.
Rosh Hashanah is not Yom Harat HaAm – the Day the Nation Was Created, It’s Yom Harat HaOlam! Sure, we read about the story of Abraham, the first Jew, but our prayers are about standing with all the nations of the world being judged by God.
There is a big difference between Noah and Abraham –
Noah cared only for his family, he never questions God before the flood, before the destruction of humanity.
Abraham cared for all – when God says he’s going to destroy Sodom and Gemorrah, Abraham argues with God – Ironically, Abraham the father of the Jewish people, stands up for those who are not part of his tribe, and Noah, the new Adam, stands up only for his relatives. You are a son of Abraham – who stood up for other peoples – and Abraham is not just our father, but the father of other people’s, the Christians and the Muslims.
In the book of Isaiah, we read about a time when the Temple will be turned into a Beit Tefillah, a house of prayer, for all peoples, not just us.
It’s not just in the Bible, but even in our law codes. We read very specific text telling us that we must visit the non-Jewish sick along with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead we find, just as we bury the Jewish dead – for the sake of the ways of peace.
The Alenu prayer was written just for the high holidays, but it became so popular that it was added at the end of the every service. In Alenu, we say that one day, the world will be perfected, healed, and all humanity will call on Your name. God is melech al kol ha’aretz – God who rules over all lands, and all the peoples, not just us. In the Zichronot service, we learn that God remembers God’s covenant with us, but also with other peoples.
Even Zionism, which began as a secular movement, was an attempt to create a country for the Jewish people, was an attempt for our people to re-enter history and to stand along side the nations of the world.
After 2000 years, we finally have a place at the world’s table again.
We are a nation apart from others, but we are to be a light unto the nations, an Or LaGoyim.
Jews don’t hide their light – we share it with the world.
We believe in Tikkun Olam – healing the world, not just ourselves.
We have something beautiful to share with the world – we can’t be scared to share it.
To Mordechai, I ask, do you criticize Israel when she helps feed Gazan civilians? Did you criticize Israel when she sent hospital units to Japan following the earthquake and nuclear fall out, or to Haiti following the earthquake, or to any number of areas of disaster? Do you criticize Israel when it comes up with ways to help the entire world – like clean energy, security, and technological innovations?
As Jews living in the modern world, we have to hold the universalism of Sam, and the particularism of Mordechai in the same hand.
We have to celebrate both Pesach, a celebration of freedom for all the oppressed of the world, and Purim, the warning of Jewish vulnerability.
I want to end by telling you the story of Steven Solloff, a reporter beheaded by ISIS terrorists this summer. When he was being held captive, it was unclear as to who Steven really was, which was intentional – you see, Steven was from Miami, Florida, and he was a Jew. His grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and he attended Jewish day school at Temple Beth Am in Miami. His parents feared that Steven would meet the same fate as Daniel Pearl, another journalist who was kidnapped and beheaded in Pakistan because he was Jewish. So they tried to remove any references to his Jewish background from the internet. In the end, it was all for naught, but I found his life, short as it was, to be inspiring.
At his memorial service, his rabbi, Terry Bookman, said: “Steven believed deeply that all people were created in the image of God, the One God of all humanity. We may call him Adonai, while others call upon him as Jesus or Allah. But Steven knew we all have one Father, which makes us one family on earth.”
But his rabbi also added, “Steven was a proud and committed Jew, a loyal American and a citizen of Israel.”
While in college, Steven went on Birthright, and he moved to Israel, studying counter terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. He kept in touch with his Jewish friends and I’m told cared deeply about his Jewish identity.
In his short life, Steven Sotloff found the balance – between being a Jew who cared about his people, and human being who cared about all peoples. May we all find that balance – of being a citizen of Israel, and a citizen of the world.
On this holiday, we stand on the peak of the world – looking out at the year ahead. We see each unique person and the contributions they give to the world, but we see our own people a little more brightly. We see a beautiful tapestry of humanity. Each thread representing a person, each patch a people, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Rosh Hashanah is a time to balance each other out – to focus – are we moving too much towards being only a Pesach Jew, or only a Purim Jew?
Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman asked a very basic question – Why be Jewish? His answer: We Jews are a people who stand not only for ourselves and our own destiny but also for the greater purpose of humankind as a whole…We have a mission to the world, not to convert it but to better it; to help it remember the God whom we discovered at Sinai but who, we believe, is available in one form or another to all humankind. This is our reason for being.”
When you see yourself only fighting for others, while ignoring your people, I want you to think about Hillel’s line – If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
When you see yourself only caring about Jews – I want you to think of Hillel’s next line – if I am only for myself, what am I?
And when you get an email asking you to bag food for Jewish families in need, and another email asking you to too feed all families in need, regardless of their background – don’t say you do not have the time to support others – I want you to ask yourself, if not now, when?
Being a Jew also means that we hold all of these ideas in our hands and hearts.
After the seriousness of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we experience the pure joy of Sukkot when we open our homes to different guests and welcome them into our temporary homes, our Sukkot. We stand in the middle, holding our hands out to the Sam’s and Mordechai’s in our lives; bringing them closer to us, to their home.
 Isaiah 56:7