How many deaths…: Comments for Yom Kippur

The Day of Atonement looms, with words that are the same every year, but heard in new ways. At the same time, the crisis in Syria seems to change shape and form every day, yet the issues are as old as the hills.

As a rabbi I am struggling to address a moving topic, staying timely, and yet providing, at the same time, an eternal message.  The draft of my remarks for this coming Kol Nidrei, more than any other sermon I have ever given, has had to be redone every day this week.

And yet there are three things I want to share that have stayed, pretty much, the same. Looking at the situation in Syria this Yom Kippur, I think of the Kol Nidrei prayer itself, in a new way. And I think of Jonah, in a new way. And I appreciate, in a new way, the words of my own musical rabbi, a man who surely at least warrants the honorific “Reb.” But we’ll come back to him.

Kol Nidrei

A thought, about this coming Friday night, and this ancient ritual we hauntingly recite, but barely understand.  Should an oath taken in vain two years ago really determine what we have to do in the real world?  Should our own words force our hand?

I am not sure that, before now, I ever really understood this ritual.  “Kol Nidrei, v’esarai, v’ charamei, v’konamai, v’kinuyai, v’kinusai, u’shavuot…  Let all our vows and oaths, all the promises we made and the obligations we incurred… be null and void, should we, after honest effort, find ourselves unable to fulfill them.”  Is it possible, is it plausible that President Obama needs Kol Nidrei this year, to get out of his predicament?  To release him from a heart-felt but hasty promise, one which he never could enforce and cannot now seem to keep? As I think the Israelis say, “rainu et haseret hazeh, we have seen this movie before.”  (Or at least, one Israeli I know says this.)  The Cuban Missile Crisis, it seems, came about because of an off the cuff commitment made by President Kennedy, who then felt he could not back down.

I seem to recall, though, another promise, too, one which lifted this current President to the place he lives today.  “No more foreign wars.”  And the two promises, “red line” and “no more” stand in contrast, staring at each other.  With chemicals carried in the air, he cannot now keep both.  One must yield, to honor the other.  One vow, or another, must be foresworn.  Kol Nidrei, indeed.

The Book of Jonah

Jonah, whose tale we will hear on Saturday afternoon, Jonah, who fled, rather than bring to the enemies of Israel words which might have saved them, spared them from their fate.  He held back; saving them might mean they would one day harm us.

Yes, the Syrians are our enemies – on both sides.  But I look at those pictures, I see the bloated corpses, children, so many, so young… and I don’t care who they are.  They need someone to speak for them.  For too many of them… can no longer speak for themselves.  So we… we must look past tribal loyalty and narrow calculations of self-interest, and remember that these are human beings.  Sometimes basic decency demands that we must stand up and protect… even our enemies.

And Nineveh… that city to which Jonah was sent, poignantly, Nineveh was in… Assyria.  Well, alright, it is the part of Assyria that is modern-day Iraq, but the irony…  Centuries have come and gone, and still the same region simmers.

And finally…

Enter now the raspy voice of my very own rabbi, as it were, at least someone whose sound speaks straight to my soul, his words echoing in the background, returning to me from long ago. You know these words as well:

“Yes n’ how many deaths will it take ‘til we know…
that too many people have died.”

In visions and nightmares, what have I seen? I have seen those in clean clothes, whose lips just keep moving. I have seen a night sky, all lit up with fire. I have seen an empty road, all covered with powder. I have seen another mother, who holds a still child.

Or, to borrow words that fit too well:

“I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’.
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water.
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken.
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children.”

Dylan (Bob Dylan, of course, not Dylan Thomas) even goes on in a way which convinced people he was singing about weapons of mass destruction (before we called them that).  “A Hard Rain” goes on to refer to “pellets of poison are flooding their waters… and the executioner’s face is always well hidden.”  If this wasn’t about chemical weapons (and he denied that it was), it sure hits close to home anyway.

And there, in the dusty towns and villages, the far off places we never noticed and suburbs we can just barely see, there, in a land filled with enemies of ours and of each other, where we wish we could still turn away and not care, there, a new silence reigns amidst the explosions.  Death stalks young and old, innocent and guilty alike, while we wait, and we talk.  A bitter taste is in the air.  “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.  The answer is blowing in the wind.”

About the Author
Michael L. Feshbach serves 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. He also was, most recently, Senior Rabbi of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and had previously 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 live in St. Thomas, and have three children: Benjamin, Daniel and Talia.