I’ve visited Christchurch numerous times, firstly as a New Zealand rabbi – helping dedicate its refurbished shule back in the 1990s – and then as a frequent visitor to the South Island. I was there last just a couple of months ago. It’s a place of quiet beauty with its meandering Avon River, boundless Hagley Park, genteel housing and gentle spirit. Its beauty and serenity (and its shule) have been shattered by two recent earthquakes, but its heart was intact; it was battered but proud, bruised but not broken. Despite the considerable damage to its iconic Cathedral in the square, it was rising from the rubble.
Until last Friday.
There’s a line out of Jewish tradition, that is as evocative as it is acute: Hatred, it says, knows no borders; it is as boundless as it is barbaric it is as negating and it is nihilistic.
Never before have I understood the chilling significance of this line as I did last Friday, as the face of the innocent cut down in prayer filled our screens our minds and our hearts with their pain and pathos, bewilderment and betrayal.
Hatred stops at no border post, it doesn’t care for the quiet beauty of a Christchurch, the tender soul of our Kiwi cousins. Hatred stops at no crossing; its calculus of evil disregards age and gender. It breaks down the security of certainty, the promise of calm and compassion. New Zealand is a refuge for so many who came from so far to seek its welcoming arms…
Hatred came stalking our Muslim cousins in their suburban mosques last Friday. It was on the eve of Shabbat of Zachor, a Shabbat on which we evoke the brutal memory of the very embodiment of evil, Amalek. When it arrived there was a sense of denial and disbelief. How could the serpent of evil dare to desecrate this beautiful garden? How could it strike a supplicant in their hour of prayer? How could he, like Amalek, go first for the old and frail, the weak and the vulnerable, those sitting so peacefully on their benches and prayer mats?
Presciently Rabbi Soloveichik declared that Purim reminds us that there are times when “man goes berserk, turns into monster and replaces his Divine personality with a satanic personality.” Make no mistake: this hatred isn’t indiscriminate; it’s targeted at the very differences of religion and race that make our world and our Australian & New Zealand societies so rich, resonant, and beautiful. Make no miscalculation: this type of evil is inherent in the human heart; it’s not an aberrant act of a madman. It is a capacity and choice of the individual.
It aims to divide and destroy, it chooses Charlottesville, pinpoints a synagogue in Pittsburg, Coptic church in Cairo, a mosque in Christchurch.
In +36 minutes it took the lives of 50 people locked in sacred prayer. 36 minutes of death and devastating destruction. We weep for the fallen, we weep for our Muslim brothers and sisters, knowing that, there but for grace, it could have been us. Ironically, 36 is a number of life in Jewish tradition (twice chai).
There’s a line out of Jewish tradition that is as evocative as it is acute: Love, it says, knows no borders, it is as boundless as it is breath-taking. Love celebrates our common humanity. Love demonstrates the dignity and joy of our differences.
We Jews know too well the callous force of hatred that it is a dark and dangerous current in the human heart, that it’s often directed at us first, and then it ripples and roars as it races to overwhelm all good and civil people regardless of race or faith.
You chose death. We choose life.
‘You,’ as PM Jacinda Ardern so eloquently testified, ‘you may have chosen us, but we utterly reject you.’
You chose death. We choose life.
Rabbi Ralph Genende