I offered this sermon the night before a 19 year-old man entered a Chabad Congregation in Poway, California, killed an Eishet Chayil, Lori Kaye z"l, and injured Rabbi Goldstein and two others.
Dvar Torah on Sri Lanka Attacks
April 26, 2019
Last weekend, on Easter morning in Sri Lanka, a series of explosions at Churches and at upscale hotels sent the overwhelmingly Buddhist country into panic. Over 250 people were killed in the terrorist attacks carried out by a Muslim Ethno-Nationalist terrorist group that had affiliated itself with Da’esh, the Caliphatist Terrorist group often commonly called “ISIS.”
Da’esh claimed that this attack was carried out in response to the attacks against mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. In that attack, of course, a Christian Ethno-Nationalist attacked worshippers at mosques. Following on the heels of a Christian Ethno-Nationalist attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, we have been increasingly concerned about rising violence based in religious conflict.
Christians generally respond differently to these kinds of attacks than we Jews do. To an extent, this is based on collective memory. We know well that when hatred of Jews becomes violence against Jews, it can spread quickly if we do not assert ourselves and have allies join us. We cherish our allies. When we have lacked them or they have failed to stand with us in generations past, our meager number has been overwhelmed time and again. Jews represent 0.2% of the world’s population. Two-tenths of one percent.
And we respond as a people, not as a diverse faith community as Christians do. We connect to members of Jewish communities everywhere, no matter what kind of Judaism they practice or if they practice Judaism at all. We feel their joy and their pain. We know the struggles of persecuted minorities.
It has been our role in many nations, to lead the fight to defend minority rights, to not only stand at the forefront of the cause of immigrants, but to walk into the waters of hatred, like the midrash tells us that Nachshon did when the sea split, demonstrating faith and courage. We walk into the waters of hatred with faith and courage that we will make those waters split too. We will part the waters of hatred and march ever forward toward the promised land in which our house will be the house of all peoples, welcoming, embracing. Not all of our brethren, of course, are similarly welcoming, but the vast majority are, around the world.
Others do not share this vision. Ethno-nationalists who believe that people who are like them are the only ones who should be able to live among them and who are willing to engage in violence to make that happen are among the greatest of threats to peace wherever they are.
There are certainly very fine people who are devoutly religious Christians, Muslims, and Jews. We know that. But there are no fine Ethno-Nationalist advocates for violence against anyone not of their in-group. It is not acceptable to allow political correctness or concern about harm done to the image of the broader group to avoid both severe condemnation of and taking action against Ethno-Nationists.
We condemn Kahanists. Those who preach Meir Kahane’s hatred were banned from the K’nesset for decades. A party that is somewhat related to it rose up and was again condemned even though it did not take close to the same position. Israelis and American Jews alike are concerned to even have one representative of that political party in the Knesset, as a member of the United Right party, and attention will be paid not to allow hateful views to impact how Israel treats its minority populations. Just as we will all pay attention to how confrontational rhetoric that at times may have crossed the bounds into overt bigotry will or will not result in changes in policy.
We also perceive the threats coming against Jewish communities from Christians and from Muslims in different parts of the world. We cannot understand attacking innocents. The lone example that people can name, Baruch Goldstein, stands out in glaring uniqueness in our people’s long history.
Never have we as a people believed that sacrificing ourselves to harm others will benefit us in the world to come. We’ve never had a tradition in which Jews would willingly sacrifice their own lives to harm members of other religious or ethnic communities. It didn’t even happen before or during the Holocaust when such extreme action under duress may have made some sense. Instead, our tradition repeatedly stressed, even then, “Whoever saves a single life, it is as if they saved the entire world.”
So it is all the more difficult for us to look at what happened in Sri Lanka and understand, how wealthy and successful educated people could, based on their religious views, calmly walk into the midst of innocents and commit atrocities. How a pregnant mother could do so, ending the lives of her two children as well in order to harm police officers. In our tradition, there is no question that we would rather die ourselves. That much has been proven by our history.
We respond to that level of evil, evil that we have seen in generation after generation, so often affecting our community—we respond to that evil with a commitment to not follow it with our own hatred as pained as we have been at many of those times.
Having just come through the holiday of Passover, we easily recall the story to mind. “Let my people go,” we said. “We cried out time and again.” “We walked away.” “When horse and chariot came against us,” we did not turn. “We walked on.” “When Amalek attacked the weak and vulnerable,” we pledged to remember. Only once from the time we entered Egypt to the time we left and wandered the wilderness did any Israelite lift a hand, and Moses fled for having done so. God fought our battles for us.
This Wednesday is Yom HaShoah, the day on which we remember and mourn. We do not do so with pledges of retaliation and vengeance, nor with anger and hatred. We remember to remind ourselves that it is our duty to never let it happen again, to never again allow that kind of hatred that could result in the slaughter of innocents to occur. This year, we not only mark the day amid a time of rising Antisemitism, but at a time when the world mourns the effects of irrational hatred.
It reminds us, as we look back into the darkness of the past and out into the darkness of the world around us, that our mission as a people has long been, “To be a light unto the nations,” a beacon in the darkness. And as Hillel said, “At a time when there is no humanity around you, be a human being.” That is our challenge. Let us be lights of caring and love amid the darkness of indifference and hatred.