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Do Jewish lives matter less? — The anger we all feel

Anger at the world's message to Israel: your civilians are not civilians, expect no sympathy just condemnation

This has been weeks of heartbreak.

The news we learned this time last week about the carnage in France fills us with outrage and distress. It makes us feel sad, outraged and so very, very vulnerable.

And the news from Israel — the murder on Erev Shabbat a week ago of a rabbi and his son on his way to his son-in-law-to-be’s aufruf, and this past Thursday’s news, 5 victims of terror — fills us all with such pain.

People murdered while praying, people murdered on their way home from work, people murdered while going to do chesed.

Among them, the former Bnei Akiva shaliach in Toronto, Rabbi Yaakov Don, a beloved educator, and heartbreakingly, one of us, an 18-year-old boy, a Modern Orthodox teenager from Sharon, Massachusetts, studying in Israel for the year. Ezra Schwartz, Hashem yikom damam.

Emotions are always the most difficult things to put into words. There is grief, horror, numbness, a deep, deep pain for these lives lost, for the Schwartz family, and all the families. We can’t even comprehend the sheer emotional pain.

But more and more, and I say this because I don’t think I am alone, I have another feeling, another emotion, and that is anger.

Anger of course that these things can happen, anger at the evil, the monsters who do this kind of thing

But a different anger too, anger that this pain, these deaths, are different…are somehow okay.

This past week, correctly, the world united in grief over Paris. This week, correctly, the people of France were held in the collective embrace of people who felt their pain, their terror, and let them know that what happened to them was wrong. And not just ordinary people — in the media, among politicians, there was a sense of tragedy in the air.

When Prime Minister Hollande announced renewed military strikes against ISIS, yemach shemam, there was more than approval. The world blessed and rooted for such action. How could there not be consequences, the strongest reactions to this barbarity?

But that’s for France, for elsewhere in Europe. That’s for when victims of terror aren’t Jews. For us, it’s different.

And that is why I am angry. I am actually revolted. Because this hypocrisy, these double standards, in fact endanger not only Israel. They make the world vulnerable.

At the central point of the Pesach Haggadah, as we begin reciting the real story of coming out of Egypt, we make a seemingly simple assertion:

“Tze u-l’mad mah bikesh Lavan ha’Arami la’asot le Yaakov Avinu she-Pharaoh lo gazar elah al ha-z’charim ve-Lavan bikesh la’akor et ha-kol.”

“Go and learn what Lavan the Aramean wanted to do to Jacob. Because Pharaoh only decreed against the males, but Lavan wanted to uproot everything.”

And of course, it’s a famous question, but in what way exactly was Lavan so terrible?

Wherein lies not just the deceit of Lavan but his wickedness, his genocidal plans? The Torah nowhere tells that story.

I think the answer lies at the very end of the parsha. When Yaakov met Lavan he was a poor man. His own daughter had to shepherd the flock. As Yaakov works for him, he prospers. He initially recognizes this: “Hashem has blessed me because of you,” he tells Yaakov.

But, as time goes on, Lavan and his sons become more and more jealous, more and more hostile, until they accuse him of theft.

And so Yaakov leaves. He takes his wives, his family, his flocks and possessions, and steals off in the middle of the night.

And Lavan pursues him — aggressively harassing him, threatening him, seeking to force him to return with him.

And, eventually, Yaakov has had enough, and he turns to Lavan and denounces him for all his mistreatment. You have stolen from me, cheated me for 20 years, exploited me, and enslaved me. Were it not for Hashem’s protection, I would have nothing.

But Lavan replies:

“Ve-ya’an Lavan va-yomer el Yaakov ha-banot b’notai ve-ha-banim banai ve-ha-tzon tzoni, ve-khol asher atah roeh li hu.”

“And Lavan answered and said to Jacob, the daughters are my daughters, the sons are my sons, the flocks are my flocks, and all that you see is mine.”

What is Lavan saying?

He is saying what the world, it seems, always says to the Jewish people. Violence, theft, robbery deceit. Those are terrible things. Everyone can agree on that.

But not when it happens to you, Jacob. You see, you have nothing, you own nothing, you deserve nothing — the sheep — they’re mine  the children — they are mine too — there is nothing you own that you have any right to — because you have no rights, you are nothing.

And this is the audacity, the wickedness of Lavan

And we see it this week too. The world agrees — terror is an outrage! Who could possibly condone it, even seek to apologize for it?! And how could one possible object to military action to end it?

But Israel? Not Israel. There, it is not terror; it is a cycle of violence.

When Jews are stabbed at Mincha, the call is not, as the US government does, for drone raids and “cutting off the head of the snake” — for Israel, the call is the demand for “confidence building measures.”

When a Jewish teenager, an American Jewish teenager is shot to death, harming no one, the world is silent, the media is silent.

And all over the world, as anti-Semitism rears its ugly head, there is silence. As university students clamor for a so called safe space, where no idea remotely threatening should ever be encountered, why is it that the hostility to our children, our community on university campuses is growing unbearable? Where is our safe space?

There will be no candlelight vigils around the globe for Ezra Schwartz, no buildings lit up in blue and white for the thousands of Israeli victims of terror attacks — because, as Lavan said: “kol asher atah roeh li hu” Nothing you have belongs to you.

Your land is not your land, the roads, the streets the towns — none of it belongs to you. You are illegitimate. You belong nowhere and deserve no protection.

So how do you dare complain? It’s the occupation.

And that is as near to anti-Semitism as makes no difference — your civilians are not civilians, your lives do not matter expect no sympathy, no solidarity. Expect just condemnation.

And yet, despite the incitement, and the celebration of terror attacks by Hamas, and increasingly the Palestinian Authority, who even tried to blame Israel for the Paris attacks — the world, says to Israel, Make more concessions; put your safety in the hands of terrorists.

Every single person here in shul today, I imagine, supports 100% percent the right of France to use military means to destroy ISIS. Not to do so would be criminal.

I wonder about the French foreign minister, though. I wonder what he says. After all, during last summer’s Gaza war, he told the world media, apropos of Israel’s air strikes on Gaza, that nothing justifies continued attacks and massacres that do nothing, but only claim more victims and stoke tensions, hatred.”

So friends, I am angry. About the double standards, the hypocrisy. I am angry about the media, the government’s silence on the cold-blooded murder of an innocent American citizen, the implication that he only had himself to blame for being Jewish.

But it’s more than angry. It’s a sense of terrible foreboding.

Last year, after the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher attacks, as world outrage grew then, a member of our shul, Jeremy Berdugo, from Paris, reflected that attacks on Jews had been getting worse and worse in France for years — but as long as it was only Jews, the French authorities did not try hard enough to stop it. It was only a crisis when they went after the French, not the Jews.

Why is it, I always wondered, that the Haggadah insists, “bikesh Lavan la’akor et ha-kol?” That Lavan wanted to destroy everything? It should simply say Lavan wanted to destroy Jacob, the Jewish people. What “everything”?

The answer is clear, but chilling. Ha-Kol, “everything” means all of us.

Because, in the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the hatred that starts with the Jews never ends with the Jews.

When schoolchildren are shot in Toulouse and the world shrugs and says, It’s because of the occupation, two years later, 130 people die in the streets of Paris.

Once you start finding justifications for the worst behavior, you have empowered the most evil force on this planet. You have made it stronger, and now it threatens every one of us.

But friends, how does Yaakov react to this speech of Lavan — this attempt to undermine his own belief in himself, to sap his very will to exist?

He continues his journey to Israel. He takes a stone, marks a boundary, a border and says — you are not important to me, Lavan — my strength, my identity is in G-d’s hands, not yours. He crosses into the land of Israel, after 20 years, and declares, “machaneh Elokim zeh” — this is the camp of G-d.

Our strength comes from the land of Israel, from the blessing it gives us, from Hashem who protects it, and indeed from the malachim, the holy special people who live there.

That’s why I am going to Israel this week. Yes, maybe to encourage, treat, spoil a little the young men and women from our shul who are there this year, to encourage them, reassure their parents. And one of the kids is my own daughter.

But, in truth, I am going for the reason we all go to Israel. Not to give strength, but to take strength.

And, please G-d, on Thursday night, I will attend the wedding of Sarah Litman, whose father and brother were killed last week on the way to the aufruf.

Sarah and her chatan reissued their wedding invitation — they invited all of Klal Yisrael. They ask for a million people to come and celebrate their new life together, and they headed the invitation with a verse from Micah

“Al tismechi li ki nafalti kamti”

“Do not rejoice over me, my enemy, for I have fallen but I have gotten up” (Michah 7:8)

In our shul today, we celebrate too a very special aufruf. In happy times for the Jewish people and less happy times, there is nothing more appropriate than a wedding. Building a Jewish home is the perfect answer, the only answer to the horror of our days. May the sound of rejoicing in Israel blend with the sound of only rejoicing in Israel, and may we only ever rejoice, Amen.

Sermon Delivered at Lincoln Square Synagogue, Shabbat Parshat VaYetze, 11/21/15

About the Author
Born in Glasgow, Scotland. Holds a BA in Economics and an MBA. Former Rabbi of Cambridge University and Barnet Synagogue in London. Appointed Senior Rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan in 2005.
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