The first, foundational, and final word of my faith can be found in the opening chapter of this week’s Torah reading: “And God created the first human being in the divine image; in the image of God, God created humanity.”
It is the north star of our community, at the core of our being. Every human being – male and female, old and young, straight and gay, rich and poor, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or nationality – each of us and all of us, created with equal dignity and with infinite dignity. Every individual a unique contribution to Creation, the spark of the divine embedded in every soul. “Whosoever saves a single life,” teaches the Talmud, “it is as if they have saved the entire world. Whosoever destroys a single soul, it is as if they have destroyed an entire universe.”
One week ago this Shabbat, over 1,300 irreplaceable human souls were destroyed, murdered at the villainous hands of Hamas terrorists. Families massacred, children and babies slaughtered. Women raped, people bound and burnt alive. Acts of depravity and barbarism beyond comprehension. Over 3,000 Israelis wounded and over 150 – men, women, children, seniors, and babies – taken hostage, their condition and fate unknown, now in the hands of their vicious captors.
A cottage industry has sprung up to measure the tragedy. Was it a pogrom? Was it genocide? Was it the worst day of Jewish history since the Yom Kippur War? Since the Holocaust? I understand the impulse, the need to give the horror a name, to give it context, measure it somehow, to put into words that which is beyond words. Here in this room, we need look no further than our Torah reading to know the root of our grief and outrage. Thirteen hundred irreplaceable souls – created in the image of God and butchered in cold blood. We mourn each precious soul, and we pray for their families to be comforted.
At one of the rallies the other day, a colleague said to me that they wished they could wake up from this nightmare. I turned to her and replied, “I only wish I could sleep.” 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. 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 about 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. An ideology that represents neither the Muslim faith nor the national interests of the Palestinian people nor any vision of future coexistence.
Our pain is suffocating, our eyes are filled with tears. But through those tears, we see clarity. We see our enemy for who they really are. We reject any moral equivalency. We support Israel in their efforts to rescue those lives that hang in the balance and we know that there can be and must never be a return to the status quo ante. This is not the worst day since the Shoah, because today we have the IDF. We have Rabbi Zuckerman’s son in a tank unit defending Israel in the north; we have my nephew in a tank in the south. We have the IDF to tell the world and show the world that dam yehudi lo hefker, the blood of Jews is not free for the taking.
I mourn the loss of every life – of my people and yes, of my enemies. In the days ahead we will need both to steel our resolve and to grieve over every life lost. But I will not seek forgiveness for my people’s right to self-defense or for my people’s right to rescue the abducted. That is, at its core, what Zionism is. The right of the Jewish people to self-determination, to self-defense. L’hiyot am hofshi b’artzeinu, to be a free people in our land. Good people can disagree on policy – within Israel, throughout the Middle East, and across the globe. Deny my right to exist? I have nothing to say to you. The IDF speaks for me and for all of Israel. May every soldier be strengthened and blessed in their defense of Israel and come home soon, together with the captives.
And today the blood of my brother cries out to me from the ground. We are traumatized, but we are not paralyzed. In discussing Abel’s murder by his brother Cain, recounted in today’s Torah reading, the rabbis of old noted that the entire Torah, the entire system of Jewish ethics is a response to Cain’s impertinent question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” We here in this room are our brother’s keeper! We will not stand idly by the blood of our brother and sister. We will also not allow ourselves to be reduced to the level of our enemies. Our community responds not with days of rage, but with days of hesed – every day, hour and minute filled with acts of compassion. We must ask ourselves, and every American Jewish community must ask itself, what we can do to help those in need. Collections, donations, rallies – critically important unto themselves and as gestures that let our Israeli brothers and sisters know they are not alone. Every one of us must ask what we can do in this dark hour.
In an earlier chapter of Israel’s history, when Israel’s fate hung in the balance in 1967, the then Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, called for a massive rally at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Among the thousands who turned out, my father, a newly minted doctor, was present that day. The Chief Rabbi demanded that everyone do something; the judgment of history was upon them. “Do one of three things,” he said. “First: If you can go to Israel, go. Help the State of Israel defend itself.” My father was one of the many volunteers who spent that summer in Israeli hospitals tending to the wounded. “Second: If you can’t go, then look after the interests of a person who is going. Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, all of Israel is responsible for one another. Make sure their business or job or place in school is there when they return. And third: if you are not positioned to do either #1 or #2, then give. Give money to support those who are positioned to save Jewish lives hanging in the balance. Every person, every person, is obligated, commanded by God, by history, and by the bonds of God of Jewish peoplehood to do whatever they can to stem Jewish suffering in the darkest of hours.”
Friends, last week, for the first time in my rabbinate, I sent you an email on Shabbat, a break with Jewish law in obedience to a higher law of mobilizing our community to action. Pikuach nefesh, saving a life, taking precedence over all else. For my deeds last Shabbat, for what I am about to ask of you this Shabbat, I have a clear conscience. If God calls me to account, rest assured I will have some pointed questions to ask regarding the souls of innocents in the week just ended.
Every act of tzedakah, of charitable giving, is good. In this past week, I have seen acts of giving that speak to our highest values – some publicly in hopes of inspiring others, some privately – because giving at all times, but especially at this time, is not about us. Some of you are engaged in political work, in public relations, in countering media bias. There is a short game, there is a long game. Many of you have already given. I thank you.
It should not be lost on any of us that the Hebrew word for blood, damim, is the same as the Hebrew word for money. Jewish damim has been spilled, more Jewish blood will be spilled, and our community is uniquely positioned to give by way of our damim.
Park Avenue Synagogue has a unique, historic, and trusted relationship with UJA-Federation of New York, the primary social service agency for the Jewish people here in New York and in Israel. We give to this central agency because of our long-standing relationship and our trust in their good works and because none of us have either the time or the expertise to prioritize among the acute needs of identifying the dead, the life-giving work of hospitals, mobilizing volunteers, trauma counseling, resettling families, rebuilding communities, or any of the other endless needs. The professionals of UJA-Federation both here in New York and on the ground in Israel are positioned to identify and prioritize those needs, and most of all, to allocate our tzedakah to address the most urgent needs, now and in the future. It is your support – your money – that will fund this campaign of hesed in the face of hate.
I have two goals for this moment – both audacious, both doable. First: I want one hundred percent participation. Second: I want eighteen million dollars. If last Shabbat was the day that the streets of Israel flowed with damim, with blood, let this Shabbat be the day that our river of damim, of money, flows freely. We can do this, and I am not unprepared. We are – thank God – sixteen million in. Sixteen million dollars raised for the UJA Israel Emergency Campaign. These are commitments beyond people’s annual commitments to UJA, beyond their annual commitments to Park Avenue Synagogue. I have been humbled by people’s generosity and we are close to our goal. Thank God, what we still need is in this room. All we need to do is to move what we need from your pocket to the campaign.
So here we go – a little bit old school, a little bit new school. Everybody, take out your phones. Right now. And now, take out the “Shabbat Shalom” folder. There is a QR code on it. If you are watching from home, there is a QR code on your screen. Scan it, and you will be taken to a landing page. If you have already given to another worthwhile organization, thank you. God bless you. Take out your phone now, and even it is just a gift of chai, eighteen dollars, please make yourself counted. As Jews we say, l’chaim, to life! Chai, corresponding to the number eighteen. No different than in 1948, 1967, or 1973, I want people to remember this hour as the moment when the Jewish people stood together. The clergy have made a triple chai donation of $54,000 in addition to our annual UJA pledge and the annual Passover campaign. The Cosgrove family has made a $36,000 pledge on top of our annual gift.
The eyes of history are upon us. What we do right now will be remembered by our children and our children’s children as the time that we were called on to step up for the Jewish people. Let it be remembered as a time when we responded with a life-giving pledge.