Steven Bayar

Our existential moment

With the wisdom of youth, my granddaughter summed it up this way: “When we were demonstrating in front of the UN, we were chanting ‘Am Yisrael Chai!’ (Let the people of Israel live!). When ‘they’ were demonstrating, they were chanting ‘Kill the Jews!’”

Talking to congregants and acquaintances both past and present, one sentiment seemed consistent to several Jews by choice, “I always thought in the back of my mind that there was this Jewish persecution complex that hyperbolized the ‘hatred of the Jews.’ But I have come to realize that what I thought was fantasy is indeed reality. Jewish lives are cheap in the eyes of the world.”

We are living through what was just a short while ago unthinkable — a pogrom of epic proportions taking place in the land of Israel. And so many of us have been left powerless and impotent in the face of the antisemitic backlash. For the bubble has burst for those who retreated into the rationalization that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism.

Many in the Jewish community announced a communal fast and prayer, a traditional response to tragedy. Others derided them for this seemingly passive response. But I learned something important about prayer when I attended an interdenominational vigil in El Paso immediately after the Walmart massacre at the hands of a white supremacist. One of the ministers explained that prayer is a weapon, and sometimes the only weapon a powerless population has in the face of homicidal aggression. It announces that “we are still here” and more importantly “our values remain the same.”

Prayer is not my weapon of choice, but that doesn’t invalidate its efficacy.

And so, as I explained to my granddaughter, we have finally identified what many hoped was only an enemy, into Amalek — an implacable enemy of the Jewish people, an enemy sworn to destroy the Jews, and an enemy who must be eradicated.

And “innocent lives” will be lost in Gaza. But when you permit evil to flourish in your midst and refuse to take a stand in the face of such actions, you will sometimes suffer the consequences along with the perpetrator.

Remember, during the Seder, when we recite the ten plagues, we remove 10 drops of wine from the cup — to lessen the joy of victory. We must prevail and destroy this Amalek, but we cannot celebrate the victory, for it should never have come to this in the first place.

I have always taught that it is incorrect to state that, “We are one.” As a people, we have never been united, except when we had to be. We come together in the face of existential threats and join in common purpose.

Indeed. We are a people who embody the words of Thomas Jefferson: “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time. The hand of force may destroy but cannot disjoin them.”

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Bayar recently served as Interim Rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim in San Antonio, TX. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, NJ, where he served the pulpit for 30 years, and teaches at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ. He is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbis Without Borders, and has trained as a hospice chaplain, a Wise Aging facilitator, and a trainer for safe and respectful Jewish work spaces. He’s the co-author of “Teens & Trust: Building Bridges in Jewish Education,” “Rachel & Misha,” and “You Shall Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Transmitting Jewish Values from Generation to Generation.”
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