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Purim: A Spiritual Response to Colleyville

01/25/2022 09:32:58 AM


Rabbi Ezray

Around 2500 years ago, the Jews in Shushan faced a terrible moment. King Ahasueros, manipulated by his evil advisor Haman, issued an edict giving permission to kill the Jews. What would happen? What could they possibly do in the face this danger? The text captures the anxiety of the moment: ha’ir Shushan nevucha  the city of Shushan was dumfounded.

Last Saturday felt eerily like that moment in Shushan. Facing a synagogue being attacked, Jews being threatened and held hostage, we too were dumfounded. The situation was so upsetting! This hit so close to home; I have opened doors in strangers in need of kindness. Picturing people coming to services under attack is terrifying. We are shaken and pained. And it brought up past trauma; this has happened too many times throughout ancient and recent history. We feel vulnerable and exhausted. Last Shabbat felt so real and painful. Nevucha – dumfounded does not capture the intensity of the emotions.

And then relief. Thank God the hostages escaped. Our gratitude was visceral; captured in Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker’s eloquent words:
I am thankful and filled with appreciation for
All of the vigils and prayers and love and support,
All of the law enforcement and first responders who cared for us,
All of the security training that helped save us.
I am grateful for my family. 
I am grateful for the CBI Community, the Jewish Community, the Human Community.  
I am grateful that we made it out.  
I am grateful to be alive.

As we reflect on this last week, hold onto to gratitude and let it guide and inspire you. Embrace and practice gratitude.

I also ask you to think of a line in the Havdalah prayer that we recite when Shabbat is over, bringing us from Shabbat to the regular week. The line says: La’yehudim hayta ora v’simcha – the Jews knew light and joy. We bring the light and joy of Shabbat into the week. Do you know where this line comes from?  It is from the Book of Esther. In its original context it expresses the relief and joy the Jews felt upon escaping terror as the magnitude of what almost happened began to dawn. As we prepare for the coming week holding on to the promise of light and joy; the origin of the line which also reminds us of the shadowy side of life; that it can be dangerous and scary. Knowing the context of the story referenced in the line asking for joy creates a deeper meaning. We both acknowledge darkness at the same times as we affirm the joy and light. In fact, life’s precarious existence may, in fact, make the joy even more powerful. We feel an even stronger need to bring light, compassion, love, and connection into the world.

Juxtaposing light and joy with the shadowy truth of danger means that our eyes are wide open to that danger. The Book of Esther and Colleyville remind us that antisemitism is all too real. Statistics show that antisemitism has been on the rise in the U.S. and globally in recent years. A recent poll found that 1 in 4 American Jews have experienced antisemitism in the last year. I imagine that number does not surprise you. According to data released last year by the FBI, Jews are the target of 58% of all religiously motivated hate crimes in the U.S., despite constituting a mere 2% of the population. The man who burst into the synagogue sought to free a terrorist driven by delusional antisemitic theories and statements. The terrorist believed the common antisemitic trope that Jews possess undue power and influence. Rabbi Cytron Walker shared: “This was somebody who literally thought that Jews control the world.  He thought he could come into a synagogue, and we could get on the phone with the ‘Chief Rabbi of America,’ and he would get what he needed.” Antisemitism in the past and now builds on a story of highlighting the conspiracy of Jewish power and control. We are demonized and associated with every wrong that exists in our times. This manifestation of antisemitism continues to rear its ugly head over and over in different guises. 

Professor Deborah Lipstadt, who has been nominated by President Biden to be the State Department special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism reminds us that antisemitism is a virus that does not go away. It morphs and changes, shifting as it manifests itself in different ways at different times. Each variant must be responded to. In our times it comes from right-wing extremists who embrace racist hate, left-wing extremists whose antisemitism wears the clothing of anti-Zionism and Islamic extremists, whose followers are rejected by the mainstream Muslim community, but who manipulate religion to manifest hate. David Harris of the American Jewish Committee calls on our heads to swivel to these different manifestations of antisemitism and respond to each one strategically and thoughtfully. This is the call of the moment.

The story of Purim and Colleyville reminds us that salvation will not come through Divine miracle, but through our own actions. Mordechai came up with a thoughtful plan; we too need to plan. He convinces Queen Esther to go to the King. Esther finds the courage to face danger amidst uncertainty and advocate for her people. The Purim message of human agency played out in Colleyville. Because they were prepared and had done live shooter training, the Rabbi and other hostages knew to move toward an exit door. They were calm and stayed engaged with the terrorist. Rabbi Cytron-Walker said: “We listened to him, we answered his questions, we shared a little about ourselves.” In a moment the terrorist was distracted the Rabbi threw a chair and everyone escaped. Stories of heroes inspire.  They remind us of our strength and resilience to respond. Remind yourself of that legacy when fear creeps in. Hold on to our sacred lessons to the strength these stories provide.

We will continue to make safety a paramount priority. We will train and reassess. We will partner with extraordinary organizations and people of good will in fighting antisemitism. Let’s remember that we are not alone. That is a piece of the Purim story that is often overlooked. In the time between deciding to approach the King, and when she went, Esther asked the people to fast. It was an act of solidarity and connection. We too have so many who stand in solidarity with us. In this past week, I have been comforted as our neighbors reached out with care. One neighbor wrote: “I walk past your synagogue every day and want to help. Please let me know what I can do.” Redwood City’s mayor Giselle Hale reached out with care and action. The Redwood City Chief of Police Dan Mullholland leapt to respond. As I drove into CBJ, there was a patrol car. I introduced myself to the officer who said, “Rabbi, I’m so sorry this is happening. We are here for you and your community.”

Other people of faith let us know they stand with us and want to help. I hope you read the beautiful letter sent to us by the Congregational Church of San Mateo in the Shabbat Shalom. Responses like that give me strength and hope. Here are excerpts of what Reverend Penny Nixon wrote: 

“We are heartbroken and outraged with you that your places of worship, your sanctuaries, do not feel safe…We ask along with you, what has our world come to that rabbis, and teachers, need active shooter training and that synagogues can no longer offer a welcome through the front doors of their sanctuary, and that their general budgets must now include armed guards and security services?...There are few words to console at a time like this, so we simply want you to know that we are in complete solidarity with you…We see your trauma. When you hurt, we hurt. We will stand with you, cry with you, pray with you and work for justice with you as we seek together to create a world of peace and belonging for all.” Hold on to that care. Know that there are many people of good will who not only stand with us but join us in this fight.

And as I mention this, I know that for some there is disappointment in people who didn’t reach out, media sources and leadership who minimized what happened. Let’s speak up. Let’s share our truth that it is painful and wrong for antisemitism to be overlooked.

And finally, and in my opinion most important, let’s affirm who we are. We stand proud. We live a meaningful and beautiful Judaism. We allow our religion to define our ethics and our activism. We will come to synagogue and affirm who we are. In the Purim story, Mordechai refused to bow down to Haman or any human being. He teaches us the courage to proudly affirm our identity. The moment of refusing to bow down also happened in Colleyville. As the ordeal continued for many hours, the terrorist began to lose his cool and ordered the hostages to get down on their knees.  In assessing the situation, Jacob Cohen decided for the first time to defy the terrorist. “I was not going to die that way,” he said. He leaned forward, locked eyes with terrorist and slowly mouthed the word, “No.”  Let’s learn from him and Mordechai. We too hold on to our Jewish essence. We never deny who we are. We stand tall and straight.

A piece of standing tall is finding our own voice of response. It will be different for each of you. For some, it will be political activism. For others it will be supporting organizations which thoughtfully fight this fight. They know what to do and how to make an impact. It may be the simple act of encouraging and listening to someone who is overcome with fear. Please do join us to learn about what is going on and what we can do in the series that we will offer in March. It is in our hands to respond.

Tonight, say the words of Havdalah, La’yehudim hayta ora v’simcha – the Jews knew light and joy. In places of darkness, let’s bring light. In places of pain, let’s bring healing so that light cracks through the darkness. In places of hate, let’s stand up for ourselves, knowing that so many others stand with us to conquer the darkness. Courage, connection, and love bring light and joy; let’s hold on to the belief that it is in our grasp.

Sat, May 21 2022 20 Iyyar 5782