Shared from the 11/18/2018 Houston Chronicle eEdition

REFLECTION

Always choose love when faced with division and hatred

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Love has the ability to unite us and bring us home when we are confronted by acts of hate.

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Rebecca saw the man approach with his camels. This is not exactly how the Torah describes it in Genesis 24:15, but these are the details I imagine filled in the story.

The man, Abraham’s trusty servant, was dusty and dirty, clearly parched from his long trek through the desert. Like the rest of the young women of her encampment, Rebecca had been making her daily visit to the local well, tasked with fetching water for the family. Unlike the rest of the young women, however, who saw the man approach but then turned their backs, back to their gossip or their chores, Rebecca did not turn away.

Instead, she approached the man. “Can I offer you water?” she asked. “Can I give your camels water, too?” Alone among all the women at the well, Rebecca stood out — not because she spent months planning how to respond. Not because she risked her life. Not because she spoke to God or was even particularly religious. Rebecca stood out because she made a choice in that moment — to turn away, or to turn toward. To choose to ignore, or to choose to be kind. To choose fear, or to choose love. Rebecca chose to turn toward the stranger, to be kind, and to choose love.

My cousin Seth was driving to work a couple of weeks ago in the Washington, D.C., area. He needed to change lanes, and so he put on his blinker to go as another driver, a woman in the lane he wanted to change into, wasn’t moving ahead. Suddenly, she started honking like crazy, and he could see her shouting, “No, no! You can’t do that!”

Then a block later, she needed to get into his lane. His immediate thought was that he was going to honk, shout, speed up and not let her in. But instead, he tapped on his brake, wove her in, and she was able to make her turn. A few blocks away, they pulled next to each other, and she looked at him, and he looked at her. She then started to yell again. He took a breath and said, “Be nice. Be nice, and breathe.” He is not sure if she heard him. What a terrible and poignant metaphor for our times.

This is indeed a terrible and poignant period of our time. Just a couple of weeks ago, on Shabbat — the day of peace, the day of rest, the day of renewal — a man who was filled with hate entered Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and shattered that peace and rest and renewal, just as he shattered 11 lives. Bernice Simon. Sylvan Simon. Melvin Wax. Daniel Stein. Irving Younger. Rose Mallinger. Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz. Joyce Feinberg. Richard Gottfried. Cecil Rosenthal. David Rosenthal.

These are people who most of us did not know personally, though some in our community, some from Temple Sinai, did — they grew up in Squirrel Hill, they were welcomed by David and Cecil, they became bat mitzvah there, they were married in that synagogue. At our temple, as around the Jewish world, there are not six degrees of separation between Tree of Life Or L’Simcha synagogue and Temple Sinai; there is just one small degree of separation.

And, too, even though we do not know these people, we know them. They are the people we see at temple every time we come. They are that one member, who sits in the back so that he can make sure every late-comer has a prayer book. They are the couple that comes nearly every week, and whenever we have one of our many students visiting for aclass, they sit with them, and welcome them, and answer any questions. These people are our people. Their temple is our temple. These murders, this attack, is not just an attack on one synagogue, one community — it is an attack on us all.

This attack has brought up so many reactions. It has brought up shock — I cannot believe such a thing could happen here, in America. We cannot afford to live in this state of denial any longer. Such a thing can happen here in America. The pernicious reach of anti-Semitism is inescapable and terrible, and the truth is that our temple families have been facing it for a long time. Every single year I receive a call from more than one family about an anti-Semitic incident that takes place in their child’s school. Every single one of our teens has been told that they are going to hell. This has been true since I have arrived at Sinai 10 years ago, and the local Anti-Defamation League reports that these kinds of incidents are only rising and intensifying.

This incident has brought up anger and finger-pointing. Many people are quick to place blame on one person or another, one leader or another. If blame for this man’s atrocity can be traced back to rhetoric, then every single one of us has some serious soul-searching to do, myself included, because every single one of us needs to think about what we are saying and how we are saying it. How are we talking about the president, with whom we may not agree? How are we talking about our friends and family members, our fellow Temple Sinai family members, who voted differently than we voted? If words matter, then that is true for our president and for every one of us. If you want things to change in this regard, they must change with you. If I want things to change in this regard, they must change with me.

This incident has brought up a deep well of sadness and soul searching. I spoke with our children in Sunday school, some of whom felt scared this incident had hit so close to home, and sadder still, some of whom felt like this was nothing new and not surprising. What kind of world have we created for our children, that they aren’t surprised that an anti-Semite entered a synagogue and started shooting to kill?

This incident has brought up a sense of powerlessness. What can we do in the face of political vitriol? What can we do when anti-Semitism, a millennial-old problem, comes to our front door? What can we do when it feels like there is nothing we can do to make this world a better place? This is when I recite the words of Anat Hoffman, the director of the Israeli Religious Action Center and a leader of Women of the Wall: You can’t wring your hands and roll up your sleeves at the same time. There is work to be done. We can make this world abetter place.

First, we do not give in to despair. On Tisha B’Av, which is the Jewish day of mourning for the destruction of both ancient Temples, a day of fasting and prayer, a day of reciting Lamentations, we Jews recite a blessing that quotes the prophet Zachariah. It says, “Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam, she-asanu asirei Tikvah.” “Blessed are You Adonai our God, Source of All that is, who has made us captives of hope.”

We are Jews. We have been through terror, and survived. We have been through Holocaust, and survived. The Syrio-Greeks tried to kill us. The Romans tried to kill us. The Cossacks tried to kill us. The Nazis tried to kill us. They are all gone, and we are still here. We are captives of hope. We gain strength from each other. We gain strength from our history. We gain strength from our faith. We gain strength from our future.

Second, we recognize that we are not alone. This shooting may be shocking to the Jewish community, but it should not be shocking to any community of faith. Tree of Life is not the first place of worship to be attacked. The Sikh Temple in Wisconsin. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. The Islamic Center of Victoria and the Islamic Center of Lake Travis that were both burned to the ground last year. Violence against minority religions, people of color, people who have different sexual orientations, or different gender identities than the dominant society’s — none of that is new.

But rather than this being a source of sorrow — which it certainly is — this also gives me hope. Because at Sinai, we already know we are not alone. That is why we welcome every single person who walks in this door, just as they are, in the fullness of the way that God created them uniquely to be — because we are not alone in being different and unique. That is why we welcomed Emmanuel Episcopal church to share our space when they were flooded —because we are not alone in knowing what it is like to be a wandering people.

That is why we have long participated in different interfaith outreach groups — because we know that there is more that unites us than divides us.

And that is why, when our congregation gathered for a Shabbat of Solidarity a week after the Pittsburgh shooting, we were affirmed that we are not alone. Emmanuel Episcopal Church emailed their members telling them of that Shabbat, and their rector, Andy Parker, and associate rector Brad Sullivan, were there that Friday night, along with members of the Diocese of Texas. They were showing their support for us, because we are not alone. A member of Covenant Lutheran Church contacted me, and some of their members were there that night as well, because we are not alone. The woman in charge of outreach at the Islamic Center in Katy called to wish me and the entire temple all of the prayers and best wishes of her community, because we are not alone.

Every time we make a choice to build bridges of understanding and connection, every time we reach out to someone else who experiences what we as a community are experiencing right now, we fight against every evil act and every word of hate. We have the power to build bridges of understanding, connection and love, if we remember that we are never alone.

And this brings me to the final thing that we can do in the face of this terrible act. When considering these words, I was overwhelmed about the possible message I could offer; what could I possibly say that could offer any comfort, hope or guidance? In the end, I realized that the message I give is the same message I try to give in every word I write and preach. It is the message that is found not only in that story of Genesis, when Rebecca shares her water with a stranger, who then makes a match between her and his servant’s son Isaac. Rebecca’s act of kindness leads to her falling head over heels in love with Isaac, and he with her — in fact, this is the first time love is used in a romantic sense in the entire Torah.

This is the message of my actual favorite Torah portion, Nitzavim, which says (Deuteronomy 30:19-20): “I have placed before you blessing and curse, life and death. Choose life … by loving Adonai your God.”

We choose life, we choose blessing, by choosing to love. We can choose to be kind. We can choose to love. And in times like these, when falling into fear and anger is so seductively easy, choosing kindness and love is a radical act of defiance and courage. When we are cut off on the road — literally or metaphorically — will we scream and rant and rave, or will we do what my cousin did, and think to ourselves, “Be kind, be kind, just breathe, and be kind”? When we are faced with someone new and different, will we do what Rebecca did and reach out an offer to help? When we hear words of division, lies of poison and verbiage of vitriol, will we choose to believe it, or will we opt, instead, to listen to kindness, openness and love?

The God I know, the God who has touched my life and changed it, the God I have morning cups of coffee with, is that source of love for all of us. The God Iknow is found in the acts of love that we create, that we choose. The God I know was there in that synagogue, in the police officers who risked their lives to save strangers and in the Jewish nurse who cared for the man who murdered her people. The God I know was with us in our Shabbat of Solidarity, because every single one of us, of all different faiths, chose to stand together against hate and to stand together in love. There are curses, to be sure. There is death, we know too well. But love brings us home. Love always will. This is the message I strive to live every single day, though God knows I fail. Do not become cynical. Do not become afraid. Remain captives of hope. Choose kindness. Breathe. And always, always, choose life through love.

Rabbi Annie Belford serves at Temple Sinai in Houston.

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