When the Light Is Hidden: Responding to Hate

On Monday, at 11:54 a.m., the temperature in Skokie will begin to drop. Winds will pick up. Strange shadows will emerge, and things will get darker, and darker. And then, by 1:19 p.m., the sun will go dark.

Eclipses, for millennia, have been mystifying, even terrifying events that caused all kinds of superstition and hysteria.

The Chippewa people used to shoot flaming arrows into the sky to try and relight the sun. King Richard of England blamed an eclipse for the death of his wife Anne.

And still today, based on Aztec superstition, some baby blogs advise pregnant woman to wear metal during an eclipse to protect the unborn from harm.

The approach of Rebbi Meir in Masechet Sukkah is an interesting response to these feelings of uncertainty and fear that the sun going dark engendered in people around the world.

תניא רבי מאיר אומר כל זמן שמאורות לוקין סימן רע לשונאיהם של ישראל מפני שמלומדין במכותיהן משל לסופר שבא לבית הספר ורצועה בידו מי דואג מי שרגיל ללקות בכל יום ויום הוא דואג

“When the luminaries are eclipsed, it is a bad sign for the Jewish people, for they are they are experienced in their beatings. It can be compared to a teacher who comes to the school with a strap in his hand. Who worries? The one who is accustomed to be beaten each and every day worries.”

When things get crazy, we worry.

It’s been a crazy summer. And we’ve been worrying.

A few months ago a Jewish star was banned in at an LGBT march. Last week Rasmeah Odeh, an unrepentant terrorist convicted of a grocery store bombing in Israel, was honored by 1000 chicago area left wing activists before she was deported. The horrific, ISIS terrorist attack Thursday in Barcelona that took place outside right outside a kosher restaurant.

And then, of course, we are deeply worried after what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia.

As some of you know my wife is from Charlottesville. I’ve spent many hours on the streets where the killing and violence took place. And I’ve been to the shul there, a lovely shul. My father in law is a former president. Built before the civil war, it was built so that there would be no visible Jewish symbols from the outside. I remember thinking of that as a curious historical footnote the first time I visited.

Then, my in-laws sent me the following message from the president of Congregation Beth Israel, Alan Zimmerman. These are his words about what happened there this past shabbat.

On Saturday morning, I stood outside our synagogue with the armed security guard we hired after the police department refused to provide us with an officer during morning services.

Forty congregants were inside. Here’s what I witnessed during that time.

For half an hour, three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from the temple. Had they tried to enter, I don’t know what I could have done to stop them,.

Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, “There’s the synagogue!” followed by chants of “Seig Heil” and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols.

When services ended, my heart broke as I advised congregants that it would be safer to leave the temple through the back entrance rather than through the front, and to please go in groups.

Soon, we learned that Nazi websites had posted a call to burn our synagogue. I sat with one of our rabbis and wondered whether we should go back to the temple to protect the building. What could I do if I were there? Fortunately, it was just talk – but we had already deemed such an attack within the realm of possibilities, taking the precautionary step of removing our Torahs, including a Holocaust scroll, from the premises.

This is in America in 2017.

Reading that, I felt a sense of darkness that I had not felt as an American Jew in my whole life.

And then, it got worse. Just hours after reading that letter, I heard our president’s press conference.

Now I want to make something very clear: Partisan politics have no place on the bimah.

I, as your rabbi, will do everything in my power to make this synagogue a welcoming place for people of diverse political perspectives and for the respectful discussion of ideas. It makes us stronger. That’s what a big tent is all about. I personally read and respect writers and thinkers on the left and the right side of the political spectrum.

And I want to be clear that I’ve spoken and written, and will continue to speak and write, about antisemitism in the UN, in the BDS movement, on campuses, and most recently manifesting in the Black Lives Matter movement. And I’ve gotten a lot of hate mail for it. The fact that there is antisemitism on the left does not excuse for a moment the hatred and antisemitism we saw at the march called “Unite the Right,” and nor does it excuse the president’s response.

If and when we speak about social issues from the pulpit, we must do so from the perspective of politics but about Torah values, Torah values like strong and healthy families, unwavering support for the right of our people to live safely in the State of Israel, compassion for those in need, effective justice in society – are not, and should not become partisan issues.

And from a Torah values perspective, the President’s response to these events was unacceptable.

In the words of the Rabbinical Council of America, not a liberal bunch, the President’s words were “a failure of moral leadership.”

Yes, we need to have conversations about statues and history and memory

Yes, there is violence on the left – violence that I as a student of Dr. King and my rebbe in activism, Avi Weiss, committed to non-violence.

But taking two days to condemn Nazis and white supremacists by name is a failure of moral leadership.

Saying that there are good people involved in marches that carry lit torches through public squares chanting “Jews will not replace us” and the nazi chant “blood and soil” is a failure of moral leadership.

And there are dangerous consequences to these kinds of failures of moral leadership.

Just listen David Duke’s tweet, former grand wizard of the KKK – “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about Charlottesville.” Failures of moral leadership from our president embolden the terrorists who have and will likely again hurt and kill.

That Tuesday afternoon, things felt really dark.

But when it gets dark, we don’t retreat. We light a candle. We take action. And there is a lot of light and action needed in this moment. Here are some steps we can all take:

1  – Demand better response from our government.

The police officers in Virginia are surely good people, but after hearing this account and watching footage of the violence, it is painfully clear completely unprepared.

When Nazi flags are flown, people chanting “Jews will not replace us” bearing torches, police protection, even military protection for Jewish synagogues, and all targets that White supremacists have attacked in the past – black churches and mosques, must be automatic.

We must take seriously the threats that these people pose. The white supremacist movement is stronger and more emboldened than in decades.

And we must demand that just as the government take serious, effective action to stop Radical, Islamist terror, that it take serious responsible action against radical white supremacist terror.

Government must reinstate millions of dollars of funding that was supposed to go towards countering white supremacist terror and federal government must make an inquiry into what went wrong with the policing in Charlottesvile.

And we must demand that all our leaders denounce, clearly and unequivocally, anti semitism.

The Jewish community raised a loud cry and held the Obama administration accountable when he stated that the terrorist attack against kosher supermarket attack in Paris was “random,” and after pressure, they apologized. So too, here.

2 – In times of distress and anxiety, we do teshuva.

This week begins Rosh Chodesh Elul, a time for introspection and teshuva, grounding ourselves in what is really important and returning to who and what we are meant to be.

Core actions:

Learning Torah.

Coming together as a community in tefillah

Teaching children good values.

Helping others.

Core teachings

Every single human being is made in the image of God.

Terrorism, white supremacist, islamist, leftist, rightist – is unacceptable

Jews have a right to live freely in this country and the Jewish state has a right to live freely in the community of nations

3 – Strengthen our community

Threats out there, from multiple sources, are real. Each of us can be vigilant in safeguarding and strengthening our bodies, our families, and our homes.

Here we are working to expand our security for our community. We will be announcing new initiatives and ways to get involved shortly. Stay tuned.

4 – Reach out

A few months ago, the great Professor Jonathan Sarna wrote an essay to help the Jewish community understand this moment in history.

He wrote that this moment is not comparable to Nazi Germany but to America in the 1920s. Then, Warren Harding, a pro-business candidate who was considered to have almost no chances of winning, shocked the world by winning on a campaign to break from the legacy of Woodrow Wilson, a liberal, cerebral, globally minded President.

  • The slogan “America First” originated in that campaign.
  • President Harding clamped down on immigration, instituting quotas that limited, among others, the amount of Jews that could enter the country.
  • During this time the previously dormant KKK flourished, reaching a record high nearly 5 million members.
  • One of Harding’s most famous and powerful supporters, the automaker Henry Ford, published 91 straight issues of his weekly newspaper devoted to the “International Jewish Conspiracy.”

But instead of shrinking, the Jewish community grew in strength during those difficult years, by developing stronger schools, communities, Yeshiva university, and more.

And we started to reach out.

Jews then realized that building a less bigoted, more just society reflected both our particular needs for safety and security and was a realization of some of our highest Torah values.

  • Relationships deepened between jews and the NAACP
  • Jews and Catholics worked together to fight discriminatory laws against religious minorities
  • Jews joined minorities of all kinds went on the attack against the KKK through legal and social means, and by the 1930s their membership had gone from millions to only in the thousands

We realized that our thriving in this country would not be because a particular leader liked us or didn’t like us. It didn’t really matter. We realized that we would only thrive, and other vulnerable minorities would only thrive, because of the protections of hard won freedoms, of religion, speech, press and more.

Those freedoms are our best defense against the forces of hatred and intolerance in this country. And now more than ever the world needs America to be a beacon of those freedoms, and those freedoms need us to be their defenders.

There is so much that each of us can do.

People used to think that the eclipse was the end of the world.

It wasn’t.

The shadow in front of the light eventually passes. And even when the shadow is at its most dark, there is light. There is light so bright that it if you look at what appears to be a darkened sun, it will burn your eyes, even though you can’t see it. And there is plenty of light today.

American is 2017 is not Germany in 1937. And even if it were, we live in a world where for the first time in 2000 years, any Jew, anywhere in the world, can get on a flight and be in a Jewish state within hours.

And though the media never reports it, there is so much goodness and kindness in the world. In Charlottesville, non-Jewish citizens risked their lives standing in front of the synagogue. And as many of you know, 300 people came to this shul on Monday night in a powerful statement against hatred, anti semitism, racism, and violence – less than 24 hours

Including Inga Rothchild, Paige Janko’s aunt. Inga survived the Nazis in the 1940s, Inga stood against nazis in Skokie in the 1970s, and Inga stood against them in 2017. Living, beautiful grey haired, proof, that hate can be defeated. Living proof that light can triumph over darkness, proof that ultimately, even when everything is totally upside down the the day turns to complete darkness, the light will shine again.

Sermon delivered at Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob by Rabbi Ari Hart on Shabbat Re’eh, August 19th, 2017.

About the Author
Rabbi Ari Hart is the spiritual leader of Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob, a modern orthodox synagogue in Skokie, Illinois.
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