The sermon I gave after the Mumbai tragedy 11 years ago… parshas Vayetze (last week’s…)
In today’s Parsha we read G-d’s promise to Jacob that “you shall spread out East, West, North and South, and through you all the families of the Earth shall be blessed”.
You can’t get too much further than Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India, a place which was sadly in the news in the past week. Amongst the many people murdered by terrorists were at least six Jews who died Al Kiddush Hashem – Sanctifying the Name of G-d, because they were tortured and murdered for the sole reason that they were Jewish.
As a teenager I visited Auschwitz with a group of Jewish high school children. Some of us didn’t really take it seriously enough and were perhaps a bit irreverent. However, the turning point came when we saw a glass case in the museum displaying a huge pile of suitcases belonging to camp inmates. The cases had names on them and many of the group recognised their own family names – Goldberg, Shapiro, Cohen, etc. Many of us broke down at this point and from then on it all became more relevant and ‘real’ to us.
As a human being, as a Jew, as a Rabbi and as a Chabad Rabbi, I was personally affected by the vicious murder of a Rabbi and Rebbetzen, and their guests last week.
Who can forget the pictures of a two-year-old Jewish yingele who will now be an orphan? I have a Rabbi friend whose 6-year-old boy had been praying for the hostages. When he saw the picture of the orphan, Moshele, my friend explained that Moshele is going to live with his Bubby and Zeidy. The 6-year-old, tears in his eyes, cried out “but a boy needs his Mummy and Tatty (Daddy)”. Even a child understands the need for parents. For a mother to be torn from her child, denied the opportunity to bring them up, is harder even than death itself.
The truth is, these things happen all too frequently in Israel. I personally do get affected by that too and it got to a point where I stopped listening to the Israeli news as it was so depressing.
Nonetheless something about Mumbai affected a large part of the Jewish world, to the extent that tens of thousands of people gathered to pray and say psalms for the hostages. I saw an amazing quote from an American Rabbi who was asked what the message was for the local community, replied “the message is that there is no local Jewish community.” How true. There is no difference between a Jew next door and a Jew on the other side of the world.
The target was a Chabad House which has put the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in the Spotlight. My wife and I belong to the Chabad Lubavitch movement. Let me explain a little bit about what Chabad is and what a Shaliach is and how a New York Jew ended up in India.
Chabad is an acronym for Chachma, Bina, Da’at – different facets of intellect. It means the intellectual pursuit of G-d and Torah through study, through mystical interpretation and through prayer and joy. These are the Chassidic goals as espoused by the founder of the Chassidic movement, the Baal Shem Tov. Also central to the Chassidic movement and the Chabad movement particularly under it’s last leader, or “Rebbe”, Rabbi M M Schneerson who passed away in 1994, is Ahavas Yisroel – loving and caring for another Jew. There is no difference between a Jew next door and one on the other side of the world, we are all connected. Some have even asked “Why are Jews in dangerous places like India? Stick to London, New York, Israel”! We all know only too well the dangers found in these places as well. If we are to avoid places dangerous to Jews, we have nowhere to go.
The Rebbe had lived through the Holocaust – and seen hate of huge magnitude. As Chief Rabbi said on Radio 4, the Rebbe’s antidote to the Nazis hunting people down in hate was to pursue people with unlimited love. The Rebbe saw this as the only answer to such an outpouring of hatred – an equal and opposite outpouring of love and kindness. In fact the name Lubavitch, interchangeable with Chabad – the town in Russia where the movement originated – means City of Love, an appropriate name for an ideal based on love of humanity and of fellow Jews.
In this spirit, his followers espoused the ideology of giving up the comforts of large, orthodox communities with schools, shuls, kosher restaurants etc. to spread out North, South, East and West – “Ufaratza” – spread out and help Jews wherever they may be. This was called Shlichus as a Shaliach means being a representative, representing the Rebbe and his ideals. Some Shluchim set up shop on their own, like in Mumbai; their centres became known as Chabad Houses, a home away from home. Others work as teachers or as shul Rabbis like myself. All have in common a belief in service to one’s community, self-sacrifice and the need to love and help a Jew wherever they may be. Our ideology is to stay in place as long as we are able and as long as we are useful, and to conquer any challenges head-on rather than giving up.
So what is a Chabad House? A place of peace, of spiritual solitude, where the seeker can find answers and a Jew can find a warm Yiddishe home. The exact opposite of what the Mumbai Chabad House became this week! It is unbelievable sacrilege to take such a place of love and turn it into such a place of hatred.
Rabbi Holtzberg a”h was the epitome of the perfect rabbi and the perfect Chabad Rabbi to boot, loving every Jew and putting others first. It was reported that the guest quarters in their home were of great opulence and five-star quality, whilst their own tiny living quarters were sparse and threadbare. In the ultimate ironic twist it was rumoured that they had hosted 2 of the killers who had posed as Malaysian students passing through.
Why was he taken? And the others – six people in total, one of whom was five months pregnant making seven, all mown down in cold blood simply because they were Jewish.
The image playing in my mind like an endless reel, again and again, is that of two year old Moshele Holzberg, at the memorial service in Mumbai screaming IMA IMA – MOMMY MOMMY and no one answering.
It is the oldest question in the book – on Yom Kippur we read the horrors of the Ten Martyrs, in our own time the Holocaust; even Moses himself asked Hashem why the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper and the L-rd turned aside and did not answer… there was no answer yet they didn’t give up then and we can’t now.
The story is told of a letter written by an inhabitant of the Kovno ghetto. In it he writes “Dear G-d, I know exactly what you are trying to do. With all the horrors and tragedy, you are trying to stop us from believing in You. You will never succeed. No matter what, our faith will remain intact, so you may as well give up now.”
We have no answers – there are no explanations. In the Torah portion of Acharei Mos, on the day of the dedication of the Tabernacle, on what should have been the happiest day of Aharon’s life two of his children had their lives snuffed out in fire and died
The Torah tells us Aron’s response was ‘Vayidom Aharon’ – and Aharon was silent.
He was silent but he wasn’t still. He continued on that very day, through the tears and through the heartbreak, to serve, to lead, to teach and to inspire. In fact there are many Halachot that we still live by today as a result of what Aharon taught.
Last week we saw the unmitigated evil and carnage that a group of young people could wreck. For almost three days a great and powerful city was under virtual siege, a brave and mighty army and police forces was held at bay. While the world watched in horror they unleashed death and destruction, horrors unimaginable, destroying lives maiming humans and transforming day and light into darkness and cold.
They were able to do it because the hate and evil that warped their minds and their hearts was so deep and so unlimited that nothing would stop them. With a passion and willingness to sacrifice themselves they turned a world on its head and scarred all of us forever.
We hear talk constantly about the war on terror – I’m not a military strategist – I’m not a political scientist, but it seems pretty clear to me that you can’t fight terror with guns and rockets. Terrorists maybe – but terror, terror ?
Terror you fight with kindness, Darkness you fight with light, Evil you fight with good.
And with every fibre of our being we believe that good is greater and more powerful then evil
If WE respond with at least as much commitment, as much passion, as much willingness to disregard every obstacle in our path, every excuse for why we can’t, and yes, with a willingness to sacrifice if we need to.
That isn’t a job for armies That isn’t the obligations of governments It isn’t the mandate of nations It is the responsibility of every single one of us
WE need to fight terror – with kindness – with goodness, with light – The symbol of our battle is not a gun or a tank – it’s a candle
To fight it with dedication, with passion and with a commitment not to give up.
As one commentator said, they picked the wrong people to mess with.
There are many many children of India this very night crying, AMMI AMMI for mothers and fathers brothers and sisters slaughtered for no reason other than that they were human beings created in the Image of G-d.
Last week as we watched the news about Mumbai 400 Nigerians were slaughtered because they were either Muslim when they should have been Christian or Christian when they should have been Muslim, did any one of us even shed a tear?
Would I have even known if I wasn’t glued to the Internet watching what was happening in Mumbai?
Each and every one of us needs to say loudly and clearly we will make this a good and warm world .
That is an obligation that we all share, all six billion of us as human beings created in G-d’s image and recipients of His guidance.
And yet we as a Jewish Community we also come together because we’re actually family – our grief is for our very own brothers and sisters. But is it really family? Is it shared DNA that ties us together? Is it simply a unique history shared over three millennia that makes us one?
What is it that really defines us as a nation distinct and special. What is it that gave us, for two thousand years, without a land of our own that we could call home, the ability to instil in all of mankind the principles of goodness and kindness, justice and morality, a belief that yes we must make this world a better place? A nonsensical notion of supposed intellectual superiority??!! No! There is really only one common denominator – Torah. Our heritage.
It’s really Torah that makes us unique – It’s Torah that makes us a people, a nation a family. And so when we as Jews go about the task of making this world – all of it – a better place – we need – if we are to be faithful to our obligation to the family of man as a whole – to do it proudly and unashamedly, as Jews, as Torah directs .
When we talk of candles it’s the Shabbos candles that Jewish women light each Friday night that lights up a world for every human being,
It is the Chanukah candles in EVERY SINGLE JEWISH home that shines the light of the message of the triumph of good over evil, of the righteous over the wicked to EVERYONE in our world.
When a Jew fulfils Torah’s mandate to put on Tefillin each weekday the world becomes a better place for all of us.
Mitzvah after mitzvah, person after person, one at a time but increasing exponentially until inevitably we change the world we have into one truly filled with light and warmth, a world where we never again will need to confront tragedy, a world, where as we say in the funeral service death is removed forever and sorrow ends. This is the Jewish response to tragedy.
Today we mark the birth of our daughter and celebrate her life. A child brings so much joy to so many. The terrorists picked the wrong people to mess with, because you cannot destroy the Jewish people. We have survived and we will continue to survive, we will never sink to their level, we will always seek to bring light and joy to our surroundings.
Yet still we wonder what our world is coming to?
I spoke last Rosh Hashanah about people’s fears for their children and grandchildren and the world they will inherit. Arnold Slyper spoke last week about the eschatological conflict with Islam and the deep-rooted issues which drive hatred and fear.
The Jewish belief about the End of Days is very benign – an era of peace and harmony; a return to the Land of Israel; the wolf shall lie with the lamb; swords into ploughshares.
The Talmud relates the following story about Rabbi Akiva. When his colleagues saw the joy of Rabbi Akiva as he gazed upon a fox running amongst the stones of the destruction on the Temple Mount, they asked in wonder “Akiva, why are you so happy?” He responded that the same prophets who spoke of foxes roaming the temple ruins, spoke of rebuilding and rejuvenation, of Jerusalem and Zion returned to their glory. Once Rabbi Akiva realised that the first part had indeed been fulfilled, he was confident that the next part would happen too – speedily in our days!
When we see the horror, the tragedy, the only possible answer has to be that there is a better tomorrow in store for humanity and we have to demand it from G-d today. There certainly cannot be a worse tomorrow. And at the same time we have to do our bit, by doing more, bringing more light, more mitzvot, and more holiness into our own lives and those of others. We say Kaddish not as a memorial prayer but as a praise of G-d’s greatness, to compensate for the damage done to the Image of G-d whenever a person dies. We can also compensate by resolving to do our own little bit to bring more light and holiness into our lives and those of others, out of respect for those we lost and out of hope for the future.