On this Shabbat of beginnings, we here in this room feel the endings. One week ago today, we woke to the news of bloodshed in Israel. Thirteen hundred human souls murdered, wiped out at the villainous hands of Hamas. Over 3,000 injured and over 150 men, women, children, and seniors taken hostage, their condition unknown, their fate in the hands of their vicious captors. We are all, appropriately, outraged and horrified by the news and the images of bloodshed coming out of Israel. Our Torah reading reminds us that shocking as the news may be, the fact of bloodshed is not new. It has been there all along, lives ending in bloodshed since the very beginning, ever since Cain killed his brother Abel.
When our community gathered last night for Kabbalat Shabbat, the evening that spoke to the head with analysis and to the heart with prayer and song. We heard a firsthand account of the atrocities, we heard from Mayor Eric Adams, and we bore witness to inspiring acts of tzedakah, charitable giving for those in need of relief. We have nearly reached our communal goal of eighteen million dollars for UJA’s Israel Emergency Campaign. Just a few more bold scans of the QR code on your “Shabbat Shalom” folder, and I am confident we will get there.
This morning, I want to take a different angle, to look at different battlefront. This morning we are deeply honored by a visit from Jonathan Greenblatt. Jonathan, the CEO of the ADL, is a hero to our people, a friend to our community, and a personal friend. Whether it is antisemitic physical assaults, stemming the spread of online hate, or as is the case this week, fighting the fight against antisemitism and anti-Zionism, Jonathan and his team at the ADL are working tirelessly on behalf of our people and all people to confront bigotry and discrimination wherever they rear their ugly head. Jonathan, this past week I have seen you at rallies, on television, in the paper – everywhere. You are busy. We are indeed honored by your presence.
If you read Genesis chapter four, verse eight, the passage in which Cain kills Abel, you will notice that the text is not just laconic, but curiously incomplete. It reads, va-yomer kayin el hevel . . . vay’hi b’heyotam ba-sadeh. And Cain said to Abel . . . and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother and killed him.” There are no words left out in this quotation; the ellipsis is in the text. The brothers apparently spoke to each other, but the text never says what they said. There is no record of the exchange that prompted Cain to rise up and commit murder.
Not surprisingly, biblical interpretation throughout history has had a field day on the lacuna in the text. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Bible, fills in the missing dialogue, as does the Samaritan Pentateuch. Some commentators imagine an exchange filled with enmity; others, fraternal jealousy; and still others suggest a dispute between the brothers over their inheritance from their parents. There are dozens of answers given by rabbis over the ages. And while I understand the impulse – the need to explain, to try to justify what Cain did, to give his heinous deed a context – with all due respect to my rabbinic predecessors, I think they all have it wrong. It is the fragmented nature of the verse that provides its moral clarity, the ellipsis within the verse its very point.
There is nothing that could have happened, nothing that could have been said that could have justified Cain murdering his brother. The Bible refuses to enter any attempts at moral equivocation, to say that Abel had it coming, that Cain’s actions were somehow warranted. There is nothing that could rationalize Cain’s crime. So the Torah refrains from doing so. The message is consistent with that of the earlier scene – the eating of the fruit of the Garden – in which humanity learned the difference between good and evil, right and wrong. If there is a point to these first chapters of the Torah, it is to remind us that we have agency over our decisions, that in this world, there is right and there is wrong, and there is no world in which Cain’s murderous deeds could find justification.
The stories we have heard this week, the images to which we have all been subjected, from which we must protect our children – they are important if only because they reveal the truth about Hamas. Our eyes are filled with tears, but they are tears that provide moral clarity. We see Hamas for who they really are. Having seen their acts of barbarism and depravity, we reject any moral equivalency. This is not a land dispute; this is not about competing aspirations for national sovereignty; this is not about a he said/she said “roots of conflict” or dueling narratives of historians. This is the face of evil revealed. This is a fascist, violent, and genocidal Islamist ideology that would kill Jews for being Jews and murder for sport. This is an ideology that that represents neither the Muslim faith, the national interests of the Palestinian people nor any vision of future coexistence.
In addition to providing comfort, raising money, and going to rallies, I have spent an overwhelming amount of my time in the last few days hearing moral equivalencies being shared in response to the heinous deeds of Hamas. Not just in the cesspool of social media or on news sites that choose to call a terrorist a militant rather than the murderer they really are or from the usual suspects fiddling at the lines between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, but in the places that shape the minds of our young people and lead cultural conversations – our universities, our high schools, and sometimes schools for even younger children – there are people in positions of intellectual authority who are unable or unwilling to perform the simple act of calling evil – evil, of condemning targeted violence against civilians. School administrations will weigh in on anything, speak out and take action against microaggressions against any subset of humanity, except when that subset of humanity are the Jews. Leaders would create safe spaces for every people, but not my people. Would invoke free speech when they should be calling out antisemitism. Would cancel you for your misuse of pronouns even as the banner of their Facebook pages bears a Hamas paraglider. Those very leaders entrusted to teach a generation the difference between good and evil are now holding their tongue in moral cowardice.
This is not hard. Rape is not a form of protest. Killing babies is not an expression of one’s conscience. Taking hostages is not the tool of a freedom fighter. Evil is evil. And yet in their silence, in their mealymouthed statements, there are those who are finding it hard to say so. Were it to be any other people - the response would be clear, quick, and unforgiving. The fact that when it comes to Jewish lives their response is what it is – is cause for serious soul searching by them, their institutions, and anyone who supports them.
Of all the emotions I have experienced this past week – shock, horror, outrage, and anger – the emotion that I did not expect to affect me as it has is sadness. Sadness at the lives lost and a world in pain, of course. But as the parent of four college students and as a rabbi who has had more than one parent crying in my office over what is taking place in our children’s schools, I am also feeling sadness at the loneliness and fear of our children who find themselves without allies, without a voice, without moral leadership.
This is, at its core, the work of the ADL. To create a world without hate – hate against Jews, yes, but really against anyone. To throw a flag on the field when need be, to cut off the roots and fruits of hatred, to build alternative visions of dialogue based on respect and engagement, and most of all, to provide moral clarity – calling out good and evil – when others would have you see shades of gray.
It is the work of the ADL, and it is the work of us all. As many of you know, I have no shortage of nieces and nephews. I love them all and I am proud of them all, but two in particular have been especially in my heart this week. The first is my nephew in the IDF, presently with his tank unit in Gaza. The second is a college student, a fun-loving scholar-athlete, a baseball-playing mensch enrolled in a college in the northeast that I will not name. In response to the terror, the president of his university wrote a letter to the community. I will not read you the full letter, only the first and last lines, enough to give you a taste:
“Dear Students, During a long weekend meant for rest and rejuvenation—and continued reflection on the importance of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging on Indigenous Peoples’ Day—a number of tragic events from around the world leave many in our community shaken.”
The letter concluded:
“Let’s remember to be mindful of the different ways that world events can impact our community, and let’s take care of one another as we look ahead to the remainder of the semester.”
My nephew would have none of it. With the ferocity that a runner is picked off first base, he shot out a letter to the university president. I will read you just two sentences of my nephew’s letter:
“While the situation between Israelis and Palestinians is complicated, the condemnation of terrorism should not be. . . . This should not be looked at as an issue between Israelis and Palestinians but about humanity versus terrorism.”
My nephew requested that the president release a revised statement condemning Hamas’s acts of terror, and guess what happened? He did. Who knows how many people – students and funders – responded to that initial letter. But in my nephew’s mind and in my nephew’s uncle’s mind, it was his letter that prompted the course correction. I am so very proud of my nephew for what he did, but most of all for reminding all of us that if a college student can speak up to the president of his university, then how much more so we in this room should stand up to the pernicious moral equivalencies of the hour. We all have a role to play in the work of the ADL by supporting the ADL. But our support comes not only from our pocketbooks. Each one of us – in our workplaces, in our board positions, on our campuses, on our school boards – must find our voice and work to empower and educate those who need help finding their voices.
There is good and there is evil. Sometimes it is not hard to see. There is nothing that justifies the evil we have witnessed this week. It is up to each of us and to all of us to make that crystal clear to the world.