Sermon given at Kol Chai Hatch End Reform Jewish Community 22 November 2014
This shabbat our hearts go out to the families of those so brutally murdered on Monday in Har Nof Jerusalem, killed at prayer in a synagogue as we are praying now. This gives us a special bond with them, which is compounded by the knowledge that the rabbis who died were very special people. One of them Moshe Twersky comes had an unusually distinguished rabbinic line. Rabbi Twersky was the grandson of a Hasidic grand rebbe, who rather unusually sent his son to university: Moshe Twersky’s father, Rabbi Isadore Twersky was head of Judaic studies at Harvard University from 1978 until 1993. He was also an authority on the great medieval thinker, Maimonides, known in Hebrew as Rambam. Moshe’s mother was Atarah Soloveitchik, daughter of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, considered by many the greatest rabbinic scholar of the late 20th century and a longtime teacher at Yeshiva University, regarded as the fountainhead institution of modern Orthodoxy. Reb Joseph’s grandfather, Chaim Soloveitchik, head of the Brisk yeshiva was the inventor and pioneer of the famous Brisker method of studying Talmud, a Maimonidean approach demanding great attention to the detail of the text. If that all seems too much to follow, let me put it like this: it is crucially important that Orthodoxy today follow logic and rationality, not just sentiment and personality. To the extent that it does so, the Soloveitchik family’s influence has been huge. Reb Moshe himself ran a Litvish yeshiva, keeping alive the Lithunian tradition of study which was so opposed to Hasidism. Rabbi Twersky and his colleagues who died in the attack on Monday will be sadly missed not just by their families but by their students and those who value Jewish learning and study. Zeker tzadikim livrakha: the memory of the righteous is a blessing.
The Palestinian murderers would not have known that on Monday morning in the Kehilat Bnei Torah Synagogue they would have read the first section of Sedra Toldot, the seed story for all Torah thinking about Jews and their enemies. (The enemies in the sedra are twin brothers, Esau and Jacob.) From the moment of their birth there is a sign of what is to come as Jacob is born holding on to his brother’s heel, as if struggling to be born first. As a young man, Jacob persuades his brother to sell his birthright for a dish of lentils, and when their father is old and unable to see clearly, Jacob dresses up as his brother, steals their father’s blessing, and is forced to flee the land for his own safety. Yet it is not the tricky and manipulative Jacob that the rabbis condemned but the simpler Esau, the man of the fields. When Esau discovers that his brother has cheated him, he cries a loud and bitter cry. For the rabbis, that bitter cry has an echo in anyone who has ever hated a Jew, from Romans to medieval Christians through to Nazis and this week’s murderers. Those stabbed on Tuesday did not live to read of Esau’s cry this shabbat morning, but they sure heard his cry in the shouts of their attackers. And if that seems a very harsh way of looking at this morning’s reading, remember that so much of our history has been taken up with working out how to escape those who have hated us.
This week’s reading is but part of a longer story. In the end, Jacob and Esau come to an uneasy but peaceful reconciliation. Will Israelis and Palestinians, two peoples who claim the same land, ever have peace, however uneasy? This week, we can but pray that the reaction must be measured and calm, for a vendetta can openly make matters far worse. But sadly once again Jerusalem, whose name means city of peace, stands on the brink. Which brings me back to those rabbis who died. They come from a world of learning which takes a different path from that of militancy and extremism: Orthodox they certainly are, but their Orthodoxy is a faith that says that everything that happens is God’s will, even when we cannot understand it. These are the words of a Har Nof neighbour, Rebbetzin Chaya Tavin:
One thing was clear. It appeared random, but it is only random in the eyes of the world. We have to know that it is exacting in the eyes of Hashem, and that while we cannot possibly understand the equation we know it is the Truth. To us, it is clear that the world is run with exactitude, and that this brutal butchering of innocent souls had purpose and meaning. We must focus inward, avoiding politics and rage. We must focus our energy inward by asking what each of us can do better than before. That is the Jewish response.
There are lots of nuances in the Jewish world: because of the media picture we fail to realise that for every militant who calls for revenge and death to the Arabs, there are ten others in Jerusalem whose deep faith may well be very different from our Reform theology, but there is no doubt that it is a faith which walks a path of peace. The Psalmist said (Psalms 11:3) “When the foundations are undermined, what can the righteous do?” The answer repeatedly given by the Scriptures is the building of trust.