Vigilance, Not Vigils: Responding to the Tragedy in Poway

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The following is adapted from my remarks delivered on April 30 at the Boca Raton community gathering of prayer and unity in solidarity with the Chabad community of Poway, California

I want to thank Rabbi Bukiet and Chabad of West Boca for hosting tonight’s event.  Tonight, we are all members of Chabad.  I can’t tell you how proud I am to be with you tonight, an overflow crowd representing synagogues across our community from across denominations, together with our Federation, JNF, ADL and others, unified in our pain and united in our resolve.  The speed with which this was put together and the spirit of cooperation is a testament to our community.


I want to thank our law enforcement representatives who are here this evening. While we run away from danger, Captain Moss and his courageous force run towards it.  Thank you for always protecting us, for being so accessible and responsive to us and for all that you do.


We have just completed the “season of questions.”  We are only a few days removed from a holiday that encourages us to challenge and to inquire.  Pesach not only invites us to ask, but it provides answers as well.


But tonight, as we reflect on the murder of a precious soul, Lori Gilbert-Kaye, Leah bas Reuven, an extraordinary woman by all accounts, guilty only of being a Jew, we are reminded harshly that there are questions that don’t have satisfying answers.


Indeed, this week we mark Yom HaShoah, the observance of which elicits from us philosophical and theological questions that challenge the very fiber of our beings.  But while Pesach has textbook answers, these questions, why such painful things happen to good people and how such evil can be perpetrated in this world, remain vividly on our minds and go disturbingly unanswered.


When tragedy strikes, there is in fact one question that is critical to ask, a question to which only we provide an answer.  Rabbi Soloveitchik calls us not to ask, lamah, why, but le’mah, for what, how will we react, what will we do now, what will be different?


Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch says that the word aveil, mourner, comes from the word aval, however, because when tragedy strikes, when we suffer loss, we cannot help but say “however”: things are now different, they will never be the same.  Our world, the world of our children, our synagogue life, changed this past Shabbos.  We mourn the loss of life and we pray for those injured but we also grieve for the loss of innocence for our children who can no longer attend Shul without fear or worry, who have to practice lockdown drills and evacuations, because we live in a world of evil.  Aval, however, now everything is different.  But in that difference we don’t get stuck on lamah, why, rather we pivot to ask le’mah, for what.  How will we be different, how will we doing things differently?


Certainly, we pause to grieve, mourn and stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Poway and around the world. But that is not enough. This atrocity demands a greater response.


I want to briefly suggest three actions items for all of us to walk away with, three answers we can provide to le’mah, now what:


We will not be silent


Our Torah portion Acharei Mos begins with a reference to the death of Aharon’s two sons Nadav and Avihu. When they were struck down in their prime, abruptly, seemingly out of nowhere, how did their father Aharon react? “Vayidom aharon,” the Torah tells us. Aharon was silent.  He had no questions, no collapse of his faith.


Towards the Almighty, we, too, are silent. We accept that we don’t understand.  By contrast, we gather here tonight to declare that towards the world, towards antisemites, towards white supremacists, towards those who defend them, towards those who draw and publish antisemitic cartoons, towards those who practice or support BDS against Israel, towards those who promote antisemitic tropes or share antisemitic lyrics, we will absolutely not be silent.  We will speak up and we will speak out and we will do so as often as necessary and to whomever needs to hear it.  We will write letters and we will protest, we will shine a spotlight and we will hold accountable.  We don’t want to gather for vigils and so we pledge to be vigilant, to monitor closely what people say, tweet, publish, and do and we vow that we will not tolerate hatred towards our people or any towards any people.


We will practice Judaism more proudly, more passionately and more publicly than ever before


The ADL published statistics from 2018 showing us that antisemitism is very much on the rise. More than almost ever in this country there are people who hate us not because of anything we have done or believe but simply because we are Jewish.  Rabbi Goldstein of Poway has taught us that we must not become shy, embarrassed, ashamed, apologetic or reticent to practice our Judaism in public.


Antisemites, our enemies, want to extinguish Judaism. Our response is we are going to make it shine even brighter, have an even greater impact, be more driven to be mekadeish Hashem and repair His world in His image. Our response to evil is to share more light, to hatred is spread more love. Antisemites want us to be scared.  Terrorists want us to be terrorized, they want you to put your kippa in your pocket, to hide your Jewishness.  And so tonight we commit to literally and figuratively wear a bigger yarmulka, to display our Jewish practices publicly and proudly, to stand up for Jewish values and ideals unapologetically.  This evil madman wants us to be scared to go to shul.  Our response is to go to shul more often, more on time, for more davening, more learning, and more community events, now more than ever. The response is for shuls not to be emptier, but more packed, overflowing, active and vibrant.  Antisemites want Judaism to disappear.  Our response is to reach out to the unaffiliated or Jewishly uneducated and inspire more Jews to practice more Judaism and to make a uniquely Jewish difference in this world.


We Will Be United and Strong


The recent surge of antisemitism hasn't happened in a vacuum. It has grown in a climate of rhetoric, vitriol and demonization. We can point fingers at others, but we must all take extreme ownership over lowering the temperature, being more careful with our words, and holding those filled with hate, discrimination or racism—on all sides, left and right—accountable. It is easy to call out those on the other side, but we need to demand that those on “our” side speak measuredly and moderately, that we disagree agreeably, that we maintain dignity and make space for those with whom we disagree.


In the Hagaddah we declared, “b'chol dor va'dor omdim aleinu l'chaloseinu, in each generation they rise against us to exterminate us”. We emphasize, “she'lo echad bilvad amad aleiynu l'chaloseinu,” which we normally translate as, “it is not only one who stands against us.” The Sefas Emes suggests an alternative reading: She'lo echad bilvad, when we simply are not united, when we are divided ourselves, omdim aleinu, that is enough to fuel our enemies to stand against us and makes us vulnerable to their pernicious plans.  When we fight with one another, judge one another, marginalize, name call and promote venom, we are weak and vulnerable.  Just like God is one, unified, unique, distinct and singular – we, the Jewish people, are at our greatest strength, undefeatable and impenetrable, when we are one, when we practice unity and togetherness.


Tonight, we mourn and we grieve, but we also resolve to both fight hatred against our people and to purge hatred from within our people.


Look around, my friends – there is no doubt that our Jewish community is diverse, but when it comes to fighting antisemitism and hate, we have no differences, we are united and we are one.


Lori Gilbert-Kaye, Leah bas Reuven, died al Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying God’s name.  In her memory, let’s pledge to do more to live al Kiddush Hashem.  Tonight we commit that we will not be silent, that we will practice our Judaism more proudly, more passionately and more publicly than ever before and that we will be united together as one.