Let It Rain
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And strange as it may be, this year I want suggest that it is more important than ever, but not for the reasons you may think. In order to explain, I need to take a step back.
Yesterday I had a piece in the New York Daily News on the events of this past week in Borough Park. We have been reading all week about how a small group of Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews have brought shame to themselves and the Jewish people by assembling en masse, in defiance of the law, burning masks on the streets, and assaulting a journalist. From what I have read, there is no shortage of reasons to point fingers at the city and state government. It is clear that everybody could have and should have handled this situation differently. It is just as clear – as you, I, and every schoolchild knows – that two wrongs do not make a right. There is never a justification for violence.
You can read my article for yourself. In it I explained that my concerns are not just about the week gone by, but about the evening ahead. Tonight is Simchat Torah, our annual festival celebrating our love of Torah. Jewish New York hits the streets to dance with the Torah, our joy signaling our love and commitment to our most sacred text. For me, tonight has both communal and personal significance. I can trace the love story of my wife Debbie and me to a Simchat Torah sighting of her dancing on West End Avenue decades ago. My third daughter was born the day after Simchat Torah; I am convinced that it was Simchat Torah dancing that induced Debbie’s labor. The decision to turn all our Simchat Torah celebrations from in-person to online has been one of the most difficult decisions of this entire holiday season.
My fear is about what is about to happen. In light of the events of the past week, how will Ultra-Orthodox Jews observe tonight’s festival? How will they choose to show their commitment to Torah?
Will they consider the opening verses of Genesis, remembering that every human being is created in the image of God and that, by extension, saving a single life is tantamount to saving a universe? Or will they choose to dance with abandon and spread illness?
Will our Jewish brothers and sisters pay heed to the Rabbinic principle of pikuah nefesh, the legal teaching that the preservation of human life overrides virtually every other religious obligation? Or will they, I fear, choose death over life?
Will they see this evening as an opportunity to fulfill the biblical commandment to “love thy neighbor,” remembering that their actions affect not just themselves, but the entire community? Or will they be guilty of hillul Hashem, the desecration of God’s name, bringing shame on themselves and on Jews around the world.
Finally, will they act in accord with the inviolable Rabbinic principle of dina d’makhuta dina, the law of the land is law? Or will they prove unable to restrain themselves even with the safety of so many at stake?
There is ample precedent for choosing restraint. In 1848, the cholera epidemic so ravaged Lithuanian Jewry that it was understood that fasting on Yom Kippur would incur loss of life. The saintly communal leader Rabbi Israel Salanter not only issued a decree granting permission for Jews not to fast and to abridge their prayers, but according to some accounts, he himself ate publicly in order to impress upon his followers the urgency of the hour.
Commitment to Torah is signaled not just by dancing with it. Commitment to Torah is demonstrated by living by it, so that its life-giving teaching can be passed on from generation to generation.
I hope that our religious compatriots choose life tonight. I really do. But I ask your forgiveness if I am skeptical. We are a long way from Rabbi Salanter; our fellow Jews in Borough Park are taking their cues from unseemly leaders locally and nationally. Besides, it is not as if they are livestreaming PAS services. As a congregant wrote in response to my article, “I agree with everything you say, Rabbi, but I don’t think your intended audience is reading the New York Daily News and I certainly don’t think that even if they are, they care what a Conservative rabbi thinks they should or shouldn’t do.”
I think, sadly, that congregant is right. I am filled with concern regarding what will happen in a few hours, a foreboding akin to watching a car accident unfold in slow motion. Potentially a disastrous evening that could have consequences not only in Borough Park tonight, but ripple into other Jewish communities, our own included, in the future.
I have written the article. I have signed a communal joint statement. I have spoken to city officials. I have done just about everything in my power to do.
So now let’s all do the one thing left to do. Let’s pray for cooler heads to prevail tonight. Let’s pray that our Jewish brothers and sisters be filled with wisdom and concern for others. Let’s pray for the safety and well-being of our city and state officials and law enforcement officers.
And most of all, let’s pray for what we need most tonight: Rain. Not a drizzle, not a light rain. I am praying for a torrential downpour in all five boroughs. I am praying for the kind of wind-sweeping cold rain that leaves you bone-soaked and shivering miserable. A rain so powerful no Jew would dare risk exposing a Torah scroll to it. I want a rain that will keep everyone isolated inside tonight, safely, securely, and at peace. I pray that tonight be remembered as the great Simchat Torah washout of 2020. God, as you have done for our ancestors of old, do for us this evening. Let it rain. It may just be the difference between life and death.