Yonatan Cohen

Survival, Resilience, and Faith

Last Sunday morning, while driving a few 3rd and 4th graders from my community, I was privy to listen in to their conversation. One of the children mentioned the tragic mass shooting in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Though I wanted to immediately interject, I remembered wise council from educators in our community, and I allowed for the conversation to carry on. One of the children in the car wanted to know how many people were killed. Another child responded that it was 11 people. A third child noted that this man was like Haman, to which another child responded that this man was worse than Haman, for Haman failed to kill anyone, and this person succeeded. Another child made a joke about the murderer and what he would do to him (humor too is a normal form of response!) and another child responded that this was “serious.” They then went on to speak about sports.

The children’s conversation transported me to an ancient Beit Midrash in which the rabbis argued that Lavan the Aramean was worse than Pharaoh, for Pharaoh wanted to kill the young boys whereas Lavan wanted to “uproot the whole Jewish nation.”  I was also reminded of R. Yossi of the Galilee, R. Eliezer and R. Akiva, who through midrashic interpretation expanded the vengeful plagues God had visited upon the Egyptians.  And sure enough, I heard the Seder’s melody for “Ve-hi she’amdah”, God’s promise to our ancestors and us that in every generation enemies will stand up against us to destroy us and yet God will deliver us from their hands.

At that moment, I was thankful for our children’s resilience and felt deeply appreciative of the depth and richness of our tradition that sadly provided the children a helpful narrative frame to make sense of a world that seems so senseless.

With great distress, I also realized that we were not in the midst of a Purim celebration, a Passover Seder, or a Beit Midrash (though certainly, the children engaged the issue as budding Torah scholars). Regrettably, our children were no longer speaking about our ancestors, but instead, they were speaking about ourselves (a subtle transition that also occurs in the Passover Haggadah itself).

Over this past week, like our community’s children, I drew a measure of strength and comfort from the Passover Haggadah.  In particular, I studied the section of “Ve-hi she’amdah” in the hope of discovering the source of Israel’s strength and ability to survive in times of darkness. Allow me to share three insights.

Rav Moshe Tzvi Neria zt”l, the educational founder of the Bnai Akiva youth movement in Israel, offers an astounding interpretation.

He writes: “These words [of “Ve-hi she’amdah”] in the Haggadah reflect a fundamental Jewish belief. This unequivocal determination [that we will be attacked again and again] stands in opposition to the spirit of a popular culture that seeks to declare that most always everything goes back to normal” meaning, that everything will eventually be okay.

According to Rav Neria, “Ve-hi she’amdah” captures the Jewish people’s rejection of any political naiveté or a laissez-faire attitude that replaces a cold and hard assessment of reality with false slogans of hope and optimism.  Our strength, argues Rav Neria, lies in the fact that we refuse to accept “everything will be okay” as a valid form of consolation.

Internalizing the message of “Ve-hi she’amdah” means that we prepare for these sort of catastrophic events, for horrible anti-Semitic attacks, be it through updating our security measures and or strengthening national Jewish organizations that combat all forms of hatred, day in and day out.

Ve-hi she’amdah” means that we speak up against the inflammatory and divisive rhetoric that currently reigns in this country. It means that we err on the side of sounding political, as well as err on the side of disturbing the peace and harmony of our own communities’ unity, and challenge the president’s willingness to stoke the flames of hatred for the sake of political gain, his dangerous ongoing flirtation with anti-Semitic groups and his use of hateful code words, such as “globalists” which we know means Jews.

Ve-hi she’amdah” also means that in our own town of Berkeley we refuse to accept a condolence message from an extreme-left councilmember in a nearby district that failed to mention the words “Jews” and “antisemitism” (a message that was subsequently deleted, without ever being updated or corrected). This is the very same councilmember who recently appointed a person to a Berkeley city commission, who on more than several occasions reverted to anti-Semitic rhetoric.  It means that we will commit to report to local authorities each and every time a person in Berkeley dares to yell “Free Palestine” at visibly affiliated Jews from a car passing by, as though any Jew living in Berkeley is fair game for political protest.

Ve-hi she’amdah” means that we recognize that an invisible string ties this anti-Semitic shooting to the shooting in Orlando two years ago and the shooting in Charleston three years ago.  Make no mistake about it, an attack on members of the LGBTQ community, an attack on an African American church, an attack on the Hispanic community, on refugees, on Muslims, or any other minority group in this country is an attack on the Jews.

Ve-hi she’amdah” means that when a hateful enemy begins shooting gay people or African Americans, simply because of who they are, it means Jews will eventually be shot as well.

Ve-hi she’amdah” is our strength because our inability to settle for false promises of hope means we’re going to be ready, we’ll stand vigilant, we’ll stand guard.

And yet, despite this powerful and somewhat bleak interpretation, we know that “Ve-hi she’amdah” primarily carries a message of hope.

In his commentary to this section of the Haggadah, the Arizal notes that Ve-hi she’amdah “refers to our innermost fountains of faith.”

According to the Arizal what saves us each time from our enemies is faith itself.  Whether God hears or responds to our prayers, is simply secondary.  Our very ability to conjure faith in the face of despair, to speak of light in the midst of darkness, and to boldly insist that change is still possible, even as it seems that history repeats itself – this very sort of audacious, chutzpadic, faith in itself is the reason for our survival and the very source of our salvation.

In his Haggadah, R. Yosef Zvi Rimon includes this story: “In a dark cellar, in the heart of Nazi Europe, the Ganz family lived, hiding from the Nazis.  The festival of Passover was coming close, but they did not have a Haggadah.  The father of the family, Dr. Menchem Mendl Ganz, sat down and wrote the Haggadah from memory, with startling accuracy, with very few errors.  This was a Jew who, even within a dark cellar, continued to be a free man! A Jew who, even within the darkness, produced light, and did not give in to the terrible and painful situation.”

I know that there are many in our community who are feeling scared, vulnerable, and hopeless.  These are normal and natural responses to our communal and national trauma.  At times such as these, “Ve-hi she’amdah” calls us to remember a distinguishing feature of our people.  We are the people who introduced the belief in the coming of Messiah and the mending of this world through Tikkun Olam.  We are the descendants of the world’s first prophets of hope and redemption.  Let us remember that in the Bible and in history books, our story and our resilience inspired prayers from other communities and helped keep members of those other communities alive.  Indeed, when the hardships of slavery and racism hit the heart of America, slaves told our story.  In our own time of challenge, dare we neglect telling that story ourselves?

As Jews who anticipate the coming of Messiah, let us also tune in to some of the messianic echoes that reverberated in America this week as well.

A simple message went out on social media stating: “MUSLIMS: Let us stand with our Jewish cousins against this senseless, anti-Semitic murder.”  As of Friday morning, the Muslim community raised close to a quarter million dollars.

Let us also remember Pittsburgh’s brave police officers who rushed to risk their own lives in the line of duty.  I am particularly grateful to our community’s personal connection to our local police department and for the significant support we received this week.

We must not take for granted the show of support exhibited by faith leaders and neighbors of synagogues’ throughout America, including our own neighbors, during these very trying times.

Ve-hi she’amdah” is our most stubborn insistence to see light in the face of darkness, to elevate the forces of goodness and healing instead of placing the messengers of hate center stage.

There is of course the very simple meaning of “Ve-hi she’amdah” that must serve as our guidepost at this time as well. “Ve-hi she’amdah” is simply our faith in the Holy One, in God.

I was named for my great-grandfather, Yona Weiner.  Before the break of the war, Yona was the town’s philanthropist.  According to family members, each Friday morning Yona would donate food to the town’s needy, drawing no distinction between Jew and gentile.  When the Nazis invaded Yona’s shtetel in Northern Romania, at some point a Nazi held a pistol to Yona’s head, threatening to murder him.  One of the town’s gentiles, a ggod and brave man, intervened and swore in the name of God that Yona was a gentile.  Yona’s life was saved and I stand here today due to this very story.

Yes, Yona’s spirit of generosity, and yes, the gentile man’s spirit of shared humanity and his sheer bravery, and yes, God’s timing – that this Nazi (yimach shemo), and my great-grandfather (z”l), and this brave gentile man (zt”l) all found themselves at that spot, at that time.  “Bayamim ha’hem ba’zman hazeh” (in those days, at this time).

Ve-hi she’amdah” means that we take matters into our own hands, as Rav Neria teaches.

Ve-hi she’amdah” means that we never lose our commitment to radical hope, as the Arizal teaches.

And yes, “Ve-hi she’amdah” means that we keep faith with God, that we recognize God’s presence in history, in the world, and in our lives.

Let us say this forcefully to any enemy that rises against us or against any other group that is vulnerable: The God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebecca, and of Jacob, Rachel and Leah has not abandoned us.  The God of our ancestors is with us.  And with God’s help, in every generation, we will always overcome.

May the memory of Pittsburgh’s 11 martyrs be for a blessing and may they be linked to the eternal chain of life.

About the Author
Yonatan Cohen serves as the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, a thriving Orthodox community in Berkeley, CA. He is a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and North America as well as a lecturer for the Wexner Foundation.