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Tragedy of Colleyville: Remaining a people of kindness in a world that often isn’t

This week, we averted one tragedy, but we experienced another. Thank God, that Colleyville did not end like Pittsburgh. We averted tragedy in that none of the hostages from Congregation Beth Israel of Colleyville were killed and all managed to escape from their eleven-hour nightmare in the synagogue this past Shabbat. At the same time, this latest antisemitic attack in a Jewish house of worship has only reinforced the fact that when we come to a synagogue to pray, whether on Shabbat or not, we are placing ourselves at a certain risk of harm. Some of us may have been lulled with the passage of time to think that we needn’t be so cautious anymore when coming to shul. Colleyville was a wake-up call to the ongoing need for security precautions, and we recognize how fortunate we were that this instance of terror did not cost the life of a single worshipper.

However, the tragedy of Colleyville is that it also forces synagogues to revisit a core mission, that of chesed, acts of kindness. Mr. Akram, the terrorist, was allowed into the synagogue as an act of kindness. Rabbi Cytron-Walker, the Rabbi of the synagogue, said that he had let the stranger in before Shabbat services that morning. It was an unusually cold day in North Texas, and the rabbi thought that he was just coming in to get warm. The tragedy of Colleyville is that we may not be able to do that anymore.

I remember that when I was studying in Yeshiva in Israel thirty years ago and I wanted to travel with a friend to France on the way back to the United States, we found a book that contained the names and contact information of families all over the world who were happy to host orthodox Jewish young adults like us for Shabbat.  There were no security precautions to get invited for Shabbat. We simply wrote a letter to a family in France and we received a favorable response a few weeks later and we stayed with this family for Shabbat. After all, that is the beauty of the Torah community throughout the world. We all extend ourselves to help the stranger, because he or she is not really a stranger. We all are related to each other. We all are one large family. We all are connected to each other even if we live on opposite corners of the world and even if we have never met.

The Talmud Yerushalmi in Masechet Nedarim develops this idea in explaining how we can fulfill the challenging command of “v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha,” of loving our friend like ourselves. Because in fact, doesn’t that seem like too high a standard to achieve? The Yerushalmi explains this requirement with the following parable. If someone is holding a knife with his right hand and accidentally cuts his left hand with the knife, will the left hand now pick up a knife and in an act of revenge, cut the right hand? Obviously not. They are part of the same person. That is the basis for the mitzvah of loving our friend. Why should we love our friend? Because “kamocha,” because he or she is really connected to us. We both are connected to the same entity, which is Am Yisrael, the nation of Israel. As an extension of this concept, we all come from a common ancestor. We care about every individual, imitating the description of God as being “rachamav al kol maasav,” merciful upon all of His works. The Gemara in Yevamot states that one of the distinguishing marks of the Jew is that he is merciful and another distinguishing mark is that he performs acts of kindness. This is who we are. Kindness is a value that lies right at our core.

But then what do we do if we are too scared to be ourselves anymore and to engage in certain acts of kindness anymore? What if security considerations do not permit us to simply open our doors to a stranger who needs a place to eat, to escape from the cold, or just to find a friendly face. I teach a “Mitzvot bein adam la’chavero” course to high school students and when we studied the topic of the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, of inviting guests, I provided my students with three scenarios and asked what they would do under the circumstances.  The first situation is that someone called you in the middle of the week and wanted to spend Shabbat in your community. What would you do? I think in that scenario we easily can ask the person to send references, like the Rabbi of the community where the person davens, if that’s possible, so that we can verify that it is safe to host the person. But what if someone calls you on Friday evening right before Shabbat begins and says that she is stuck on the road and your town is the nearest town because she can’t make it home for Shabbat. She wants to spend Shabbat in your community and there is no time to get references. What would you do then? We discussed that maybe we cannot host her because we can’t verify her credentials but we can direct her to a nearby hotel where she can stay without violating Shabbat and, if need be, provide funding for the hotel if the person can’t afford it. But what if someone shows up on Friday night in your community and there’s no hotel nearby. Do we offer the person a place to stay? How do we balance the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim with security considerations?

In 2014, Rabbi Akiva Males, then the Rabbi of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s orthodox shul, wrote an opinion piece in the OU’s Jewish Action magazine, when he reflected on this tension.  He cited a discussion in the Talmud that resonated with him in this context. The Mishnah in Yoma teaches us that prior to Yom Kippur, the elder Kohanim compelled the Kohen Gadol who would perform the Yom Kippur service to take an oath of allegiance, that he would not deviate from the traditional method of performing the service. The Mishna concludes that after the oath, both the elder Kohanim and the Kohen Gadol would weep. The Talmud explains that the Kohen Gadol would weep for having been suspected of possibly deviating from the Yom Kippur service and the elder Kohanim would weep for having suspected that a potentially innocent person would deviate from the Yom Kippur service.

This is the tension that Rabbi Males faced and this is the tension that we increasingly face in this world where there is a need for heightened security. If a needy individual comes to our synagogue asking for help, must we now ask for references every time before letting the person in? If so, we must cry for suspecting the individual and the needy individual must cry for being suspected. How somber we must be when we realize that practical and legitimate fears for our safety obstruct our ability to actualize our true nature as kind and giving people. Unfortunately, the near tragedy of this past Shabbat will further force us not just to re-evaluate our security for how to protect ourselves, but it will also force us to re-evaluate how we engage in a core value of our mission, which is a mission of chesed.  And that is a real tragedy.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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