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Achrei Mot-Kedoshim

The Israeli author David Grossman writes in his recent collection of essays, Writing in the Dark, of his worries that Israel is letting go of its dream for peace, that decades of war have eroded its most cherished vision.  He writes:
If we ever achieve a state in which we have no enemies, perhaps we will be able to break free from the all-too-familiar Israeli tendency to approach reality with the mind-set of a sworn survivor, who is practically programmed—condemned—to define the situations he encounters primarily in terms of threat, danger, and entrapment, or daring rescue from all these….  The survivor thereby all but dooms himself to exist forever within this partial, distorted, suspicious, and frightened picture of reality, and is therefore tragically fated to make his anxieties and nightmares come true time and time again.
The most insidious danger of terrorism is that it erodes our dreams.  In its randomness it can never kill millions of people, but it can destroy a million souls.  It can prevent us from doing the ordinary things of life, a morning jog, catching a flight to see relatives, frequenting the movie theatre or a favorite outdoor cafĂ©.

One of the most remarkable things about our tradition is that it was magnified under duress.  While the Romans oppressed us we authored the Mishnah, while the Crusaders persecuted us we penned some of our most remarkable prayers and while the Arab armies attacked us we built a vibrant Jewish democracy.  We fought to maintain our most cherished beliefs and values despite the fact that we were attacked or tortured, persecuted or terrorized.

In this week’s Torah portion we are given a number of ethical mandates.  Only three times does the Torah command us to love.  In the Shema, appearing in Deuteronomy, we are commanded to love God.  The other two mitzvot appear this week.  Here in the Book of Leviticus we are commanded to love the neighbor and love the stranger.  “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him.  The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt…”  (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Here, in the Torah, we discover a people who recently escaped from 400 years of slavery.  It would have been understandable had they codified a law that said, “Never allow yourselves to become victimized or enslaved.”  Instead the Torah says that because we had such intimate knowledge of suffering we must be on guard never to allow others to be cast aside as other. 

In our new reality, where tests of endurance become instead testimonies to survival, many will be labeled stranger.  Foreigners will be pointed.  Others will be blamed.  In fact, only a small few are guilty.  In this country stranger and citizen are one.  And that belief is our best response to terror.  No one is ever cast outside.  That is the vision we must protect.

Since Monday’s bombing I have received a number of emails about security briefings.  I am certain that soon we will see new security protocols for marathons.  We might even see restrictions placed on the purchase of pressure cookers, as we have to come know the all too familiar removing of our shoes following the shoe bomber.  Some of these changes will be welcome.  Others not.  Some might provide a brief measure of comfort.  Others will soon become an annoyance.  No amount of additional security measures will prevent all future terrorist attacks.

There is only one response.  That is to focus on our values and beliefs.  Our answer is to forever hold on to our visions and dreams.

At morning services we sing a prayer authored millennia ago, and penned amidst the pains of sufferings and destructions.
Grant peace, goodness, and blessing to the world; grace, kindness, and mercy to us and to all Your people Israel.  Bless us all, O our Creator, with the Divine light of Your presence.  For by that Divine light You have revealed to us Your life-giving Torah, and taught us lovingkindness, righteousness, mercy and peace.  May it please You to bless Your people Israel, in every season and at every hour, with Your peace.  Praised are You, O Lord, Bestower of peace upon Your people Israel.
Such is the Sim Shalom prayer that we sing each and every morning, in each and every generation.  We began praying this prayer when peace was but a distant hope.  We sang its words not only to reach upward begging God for peace but also to reach inward so that our souls would never be hardened by the violence and terror our bodies experienced.

I believe it is possible to be vigilant about life while holding on to the dreams that nurture our souls.  In truth, we must come to recognize that we can never fully protect ourselves.   We can however guard our souls.  We can preserve our values.  I will not have it any other way.