Einstein, Bratslav, Orlando and Us

On the day of Shavuot, in the midst of Ramadan, at the outset of Pride Weekend, the hand of “hate and terror” struck again at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida. And here we go again, with a familiar parade of finger-pointing and recrimination, in a nation so divided even our horror and mourning take place in separate corners from one another.

If ever there was a danger in oversimplification, it is, perhaps, here. For in this one event so many threads are twisted together, so many separate issues come to a deadly intersection with one another.

There is the identity of the victims, the where and when this massacre took place. In my mind this is a hate crime above all other acts, aimed squarely at the LGBT community, fanned by the teaching of contempt against homosexuality, and carried out by a man reportedly enraged by GPDA (Gay Public Displays of Affection). In this, ironically, he could well be united in hatred with some of the most extreme voices in the “religious right” of other religions. I am reminded of a scene which filled me with sadness several years ago. It was a gathering in Jerusalem of the heads of many of the ecclesiastical denominations: Orthodox Jews, traditional Christians and Muslim authorities. But this extraordinary conclave, what was it that brought them together? To what could we attribute this display of unity? It was in protest… of the Pride Parade coming to the holy city.

But then, of course, there is the identity of the perpetrator. And now, again, the crimes of the few are attributed to the character of the many.  There was a traffic accident outside of our synagogue last week. Let’s say the driver at fault was a Presbyterian. I think we should hold rallies outside the Motor Vehicle Administration protesting the granting of driver’s licenses to all Presbyterians, until “we figure out what is going on!” And, again, there is a focus on immigrants, after an act committed by someone born in this country. The not-so-subtle implications, of course, are firstly, that someone who is “other” (than a mainstream, presumably white Christian) is not “really” American, where there is no basis in law or decency or to make such a distinction and, secondly, that highly vetted and screened immigrants are a threat and a danger in ways which no one in the fact-based community has shown them to be.

And, of course there is the identity of the method of the delivery of death. How many more mass shootings will it take until we do something sensible about assault weapons and bullets designed to do what this ammunition did? How long will the canard of “they are coming to take your guns away” work to blur the distinction between preserving basic rights to gun ownership  and common sense restrictions supported by law enforcement, military and the vast majority of Americans alike? How many mass shootings have there been using assault weapons since the 2005 expiration of the ban on assault weapons? And has the possession of such weapons served a single positive purpose in any single incident since then?

With so many issues tangled together, I seek a spiritual message, a sense of trying to lift up my eyes to something that can give me hope, and help me move forward.  There may be much to say here, but what I have found, for now, comes from two places: Einstein, and Bratslav.

No, not that Einstein. The Israeli singer who passed away a few years ago, Arik Einstein.

Because first, I think, we need to acknowledge that fear is real.  We are all as if we are parents sending their children off to college or out into the world, learning to let go and wondering what will happen.  We are all families watching loved ones march in a pride parade or simply dance at a night club, wanting to have fun and, well, spread their wings.  And here, I think, a song by Arik Einstein called Uf Gozal (Fly My Fledging) captures this feeling as well as anything I have ever heard:

הגוזלים שלי עזבו את הקן
פרשו כנפיים ועפו
ואני ציפור זקנה נשארתי בקן
מקווה מאוד שהכל יהיה בסדר.

תמיד ידעתי שיבוא היום
שבו צריך להיפרד
אבל עכשיו זה ככה בא לי פתאום
אז מה הפלא שאני קצת דואג.

עוף גוזל
חתוך את השמיים
טוס לאן שבא לך
רק אל תשכח
יש נשר בשמיים
גור לך.

My little fledglings have left the nest,
Spread their wings and flown away.
And I am an old bird, remaining in the nest
Hoping against hope that everything will be alright.

I always knew the day would come
When we would need to part.
But now the moment comes it seems so sudden.  Is it any wonder that I worry?

Fly, little bird
Take off towards the heavens
(reach for the stars?).
Fly wherever you want.
But don’t forget…
There is an eagle in the sky.
Be careful.

So the fear is real, and, indeed, it is both appropriate and necessary, I believe, to acknowledge the role that radical and extreme religious teachings – against gays and lesbians, against moderation and tolerance and pluralism, against the entire Western world – plays in this violence.  It is just as important, though, to realize that this “eagle” is indiscriminate in its prey, that moderate Muslims are as much victims and targets and potential allies and need the love and support and embrace of those around them.  Fear is real but should be channeled, held careful, used with wisdom and caution and love.

So, finally, then, I come to another teaching, one which reminds us to keep that fear in check.  It is from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav.  These are the words I use to close many services.  I do so not as a “downer” after a joyful experience, but because I believe they are a consistent and important message with which to face the world.  These words, too, have been set to music (also with English subtitles, as was the previous link), and carry power in the melody even though the message stands alone:

כָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלוּ גֶשֶׁר צַר מְּאֹד וְהָעִיקָר לאֹ לְפַחֵד כְּלַל
Kol ha-o-lam ku-lo gesher tzar me’od
V’ha-i-kar lo l’fached klal

The whole world is a very narrow bridge;
the important thing is not to be afraid.
            -Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav

I want to add one other thing here.  I want to share with you a message I sent to Muslim colleagues and friends, on this sad and tragic Ramadan moment:

Ramadan Mubarak (A Blessed Ramadan).   I remember… I remember what it was like (or, occasionally, still is) to hear the raw and barely filtered reports of something that has gone horribly wrong, and thinking “Please, please let it not be a Jew who did this!” I can’t imagine how much more intense these feelings must be for many of you. But we will, together, somehow, find a way to not let the “all” in any subset of humanity get tainted by the acts of the very few. It will not be easy, and it will not be instant, but it will be done.  To do this we all, I think, have work to do. The more we are together, the more we work together, the more we are even seen together, the easier this message will be.  This is a time fraught with danger and anxiety. I hold out my hand and open my heart to every one of you!

My friends, we do not know what the coming days will bring.  But we know we will all have a part in reaching for the better angels of our nature.  Let us remember that we are all made in the image the high and holy One: male and female, gay and straight, white and black and yellow and brown, tall and short, thin and less thin… Jew and Christian and Hindu and Buddhist and Muslim alike.  And let us stand together.

About the Author
Michael L. Feshbach is the Rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, in Northfield, NJ. He came to New Jersey in 2022, after five years as Rabbi of the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands -- the second oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. He is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Previously he had been Senior Rabbi of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and had also served congregations in Buffalo, New York, Erie, Pennsylvania and Boca Raton, Florida. While in Erie, Rabbi Feshbach taught at Allegheny College and served as the summer rabbi for the Hebrew Congregation of Chautauqua, New York. Rabbi Feshbach is the author of several articles and book chapters. Born in Silver Spring, Maryland, he attended Haverford College and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he was ordained in 1989. He is married to Julie Novick. They have three grown children: Benjamin, Daniel and Talia.