The Life of Sarah in a Time of Antisemitism

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, November 12, 2023 / 28 Cheshvan 5784

This column is the printed version of Rabbi Kosak’s comments from Shabbat.

Reading Time: Twenty one minutes

The Life of Sarah in a Time of Antisemitism:
What Trauma Takes From Us, What it Demands from Us

This talk has evolved from an initial focus on the Israel Gaza to emphasize instead the spiking levels of antisemitism here in America. Despite this shift in focus, the thematic content of this parshah, Chayei Sarah, could not be more pertinent while Israel buries its 1300 slain family members and continues its war against Hamas.

For at its heart, the central themes of our parshah center around Jewish continuity and peoplehood; the importance of memory and honoring the dead by ensuring a permanent resting place for them; and the enduring strength of family, which extends far beyond our nuclear family, touching upon the universal Jewish family that stretches across time, geography, and difference.

As simple as these ideas are to articulate, the reality is that for quite some time, these most basic tenets of family, unity, and continuity have been under fire. Israeli democracy was beset by months of pro-democracy protests. American Jews, meanwhile, have been at odds with one another. Before October 7th, the widening gap of understanding between Israeli and American Jews was at an all time disturbing high, just as it was between American Jews on the left and right and between the older and younger generations of Jews in our understanding of Israel.

While it is true that some of us still may not see eye to eye on either the causes of the October 7th slaughter by Hamas, or on the sorts of appropriate responses Israel should take, this has primarily been a time of remarkable unity. In a time of war, we discover again our commonality.

We have relearned that the life of the Jewish people is bound up one with the other, no matter what sort of Jew we are. Whether we live in Israel or the Diaspora, we are enmeshed in a brit goral, in a covenant of fate and destiny. We are fellow travelers; what history has shown is that precisely at the moment that Jews forget we are fellow travelers with one another, and find ourselves in bitter disagreements over religion or politics, our enemies arise and treat us uniformly the same.

That’s why a student at Cornell could threaten to slit the throats of Jewish students—because he held that a college freshman was somehow responsible for what is happening on the Gaza Strip? In the eyes of those who hate us, there is no difference between the most left-wing and right wing Jews. The slaughter of so many peace activists and innocents by Hamas is a dreadful reminder that we will always remain fellow travelers to those who hate us.

So let’s respond by loving one another or at the very least, offering one another tremendous forbearance. Let’s always remember that we are family and treat one another with love and respect. We may disagree with one another about safety and security, or how public we ought to be as Jews today, but let’s not allow those thoughts to interfere with our hearts. Kol yisrael areivin zeh b’zeh. We are mutually bound up in one another’s lives. There is responsibility, but also tremendous possibility in that fact. Let’s not be estranged family members.

We will need to nurture our brit goral, our covenant of destiny. Even before October 7th, the FBI hate crime data showed that in 2022, antisemitic hate crime incidents accounted for 9.6% of all hate crimes, despite the fact that we are only 2-3% of the population. To put that in perspective, if we Jews were as numerous as African Americans, who compose 13.4% of the population, and the hate crime ratio remained constant, the majority of all hate crimes would be directed at us. And that is before the 400% spike in antisemitic incidents since October 7th.

Those numbers are disturbing. Despite that, there are reasons to be optimistic about the opportunities this time presents, precisely because of our resuscitated sense of unity—and because the threatening rhetoric on college campuses against Jewish students is finally being taken serious and addressed. Just earlier today, Columbia University suspended some student groups whose actions were particularly hostile. Mr. Rogers was once watching disturbing news on television as a child and his mother told him, “look for the helpers. They are always there.” We have helpers and allies. That has not always been the case in Jewish history. There is good news if we look for it.

In a time of upheaval like this, both our optimism and our fear need to have a strong connection to the facts, otherwise they are just fantasies. This is our reality right now, and we best learn to adjust to it so that we can live as we always have—committed to joy, learning, engaging our values, and our capacity to be positive agents of change. Jews have spent countless years laboring on behalf of other groups and minorities—lord knows that my interfaith efforts stretch back decades. While I wouldn’t change that, and believe we still have a duty and responsibility to do so, what the numbers ask us to consider is that perhaps, just perhaps, we spent too much time protecting others and not sufficient time taking care of our own? It is not morally wrong to put our concerns first. Im ain ani li, mi li? If we are not for ourselves, who will be?

So I beseech each and every one of us to think about our parshah and its promise of Jewish continuity. Contained in the promise is an obligation.

In an era when Jewish legitimacy in the land of Israel is being challenged on the battlefield of Gaza and in the court of public opinion, it’s also necessary to reiterate what most of us here understand.

For our parshah also highlights Abraham’s acquisition of the Cave of Mahpelah—our first legal landholding in the land of Canaan. Only the most rabid, ill-informed, or ill-intentioned lier denies the millenia of Jewish presence in the land. This parshah reminds us that we have a justified, noble, and ancient place in the land that history has been unable to erase. Even the two times that nations have been successful at pushing us from the land have not been kind to them. The Babylonians and Romans? No more. The link between the Jewish people and the land of Israel is as irrevocable as any historical fact can be, while the usurpers fade away into the dustbin of history.

Hamas would be wise to recall this and to rethink their charter, which calls at best for the ethnic cleansing of Jews from the land, and at worst the complete extermination of Jews everywhere. Sometimes, the only way to oppose such a violent lie is through force of arms. Let us never forget that not all violence is equivalent. All life is sacred, yet not every death is equivalent. Sometimes the sanctity of life demands we take the lives of those who hold life as cheap. These are uncomfortable truths to utter, but that doesn’t mean they are untrue.

Brit Goral. The spiking levels of antisemitism remind us that our covenant of destiny is real. Simultaneously, a great many of us are frightened. Some handful of Jews have been removing their Jewish stars or taking down their mezuzot.

Given that, I want to reserve the remainder of my remarks to the trauma that we are all going through and how we can respond, for trauma is a great thief, stealing from us some of our most precious spiritual items. Despite that, there are lessons we can learn to move more quickly through our trauma. In other words, how we respond to trauma will determine if it is a blessing or a curse.

I became a student of trauma twenty years ago last summer. That was when Hamas bombed the Frank Sinatra Cafeteria at Hebrew University, where I was having lunch. They killed my friends, but I survived. I am a Hamas terror survivor, and because of that I know up close and personal what trauma can steal from us.

While not everyone processes trauma the same way, or has these same spiritual goods stolen from them, its worthwhile to outline the general rubric: trauma can shatter our world view, leave us feeling unsafe, and hyper-vigilant, imagining threats everywhere, even where they don’t exist. Trauma can erode our sense of trust in others and in the world itself. It can damage our beliefs, our relationships, even a healthy attachment to reality. It can cause us to suffer emotional dysregulation, and even lose hope in a positive future.

These insights were gleaned not only from book learning, but also by processing the trauma inflicted on me by a Hamas terror cell. One of the most salient features of trauma is expressed as a “shattered worldview.” Each of us builds an image of the world that allows us to feel relatively safe in our day to day life. But traumatic events often disrupt or overturn that sense of security.

As an example, Laura and I lived in Israel during the height of the Second Intifada when bus bombings and suicide bombers were common. We developed scripts and coping mechanisms, staying away from crowded markets, restaurants and buses. Once we purchased a little Daihatsu car, there were roads and areas we never ventured onto. In these ways, we thought we were being safe and managing our circumstances, and felt safe. That was the story we told ourselves.

What we did not expect was that Hebrew University, where we were both students, would ever be a target. It was one of the safest places in Israel, an oasis of tolerance with a high percentage of international students and Arab students. It was considered a shared space, and the university took its responsibilities seriously. Strong metal fences, at least 12 feet high, surrounded the entire campus. The fence was lined with cameras and security guards and metal detectors were stationed at every entrance; every single time, the contents of bags were checked and metal detector wands swept over our bodies.

None of that stopped the Hamas terror cell who blew up the Frank Sinatra Cafeteria, just as the technologically advanced barrier separating Gaza from the Negev border communities did not stop Hamas on October 7th. That might make you feel less safe, but ultimately, it made me feel safer, which clearly sounds counter-intuitive, so let me explain.

In the weeks after the bomb that changed my life, I immediately sought out both group and individual therapy. I let myself fall apart—really, I had no choice, because my psyche had been shattered. My community of rabbinical students surrounded me, and Laura was as steadfast a partner as anyone could wish for. Initially, any loud noise, like a door slamming, would make me jump, as my brain associated it with the sound of the bomb blast.

Yet over time, as I grieved and got the help I needed, I was able to develop a new world view to replace my shattered one. I came to accept that evil is real, and that sometimes, mutual understanding, dialogue, compromise, and respect are not sufficient to dispel it. I came to understand that even though no place can be made perfectly safe, I still could feel safe.

That change in world view left me at odds with many of my rabbinical school colleagues who felt more frightened after the bombing, but it makes sense, because I was forced to address many facets of my trauma directly, whereas when we don’t face our fears, they grow more powerful, which is what many of my classmates struggled with. In this period of growing antisemitism at home, we will all be best served if we can find a way to confront our fears.

Of course, my own trauma story is personal and idiosyncratic. While there are recognizable patterns to recovery—or to getting stuck in our PTSD—it may not be possible to predict which pattern we will fall into or where our personal roadblocks arise.

Because of that, it is very helpful to talk about what you are going through, as this tends to speed up the process of recovery. Our clergy team is committed to ongoing opportunities at the synagogue. I would also encourage you to process your feelings with a qualified therapist. Engage also in life-sustaining activities, such as taking walks in the forest, listening to music, or drinking tea with a friend. Proper self care is not only essential, it is also soul care. For many of us, this is the first time we have had to face such a hate-filled environment, and so we need to be patient with ourselves as we learn those skills needed to thrive in a hostile environment. Sometimes, like training wheels, we may also need to take protective actions initially as we adapt.

Which returns us to the subject of removing a mezuzah from our doors. I can’t advise you within a sermon whether removing your mezuzah will make you feel safer or more afraid, although I am happy to talk it through with you. What I can do here is provide some useful context by considering the Chanukiyah, or Chanukah menorah. It is strangely relevant to our situation.

The purpose of lighting the Chanukiyah is explicit—it is to publicize the miracle of Chanukah, to non-Jews as well as Jews. Thus the most proper place to light a menorah is outside by one’s front door, and only secondarily in a window facing the street. Yet within our halakhic codes, permission was given in a time of danger for people to move their Chanukiyah to an inner table where strangers would not see it.

This permission recognized that what works for one person may not work for another, and that some of us carry a more fearful stance to the world. Rather than stigmatizing those individuals, the halakhah sensitively provided a solution, while ensuring that a Jewish family would not forget the Chanukah story. Their Judaism would be celebrated, just more quietly.

Our ancestors have been where we now are; they have left us with solutions and a reminder, echoing across the centuries, that we are not alone. Similarly, a number of years ago when they were experiencing periodic attacks, the French Orthodox rabbis gave permission for the men in their communities to refrain from wearing a kippah in public. In our community, we are more likely to wear a magen David in public than a kippah, but the parallel is clear.

With these precedents in place, if keeping your mezuzah on the outside door feels too unsettling, I would suggest moving it to the inside door frame. Like moving the Chanukiyah inside, this preserves our connection to our values and traditions while recognizing that many of us are learning how to navigate this new moment.

Simultaneously, earlier I mentioned that we need to ground our optimism and our fear in reality. Even in today’s heightened environment, FBI data assures us there is still only a 1 in 52,252 chance of being assaulted for being Jewish. To put that in perspective, we are 3 times more likely to get struck by lightning than to be attacked. Most of us don’t live in fear of lighting, though it remains a good idea to leave a swimming pool during a thunderstorm.

Knowing this fact will not suddenly evaporate our fear, but it provides an important perspective. When our fears outstrip danger, its best to see them as an invitation to seek help. When we view them in this way, our fears can paradoxically become guides and teachers showing us how to live courageously.

That ultimately is the message I want to leave you with this evening. We are going through a very traumatic period. But that doesn’t mean we need to allow our trauma to transform into chronic PTSD. We can engage in the political realm and social sphere, improving what is within our power. Lord knows, we need all hands on deck right now. We can also limit how often we look at social media, which distorts reality, making it seem as though the lightning bolt of antisemitism might strike us at any moment. We can seek help and support. We can comfort our fears, as a parent comforts a child, acknowledging what we are feeling, even as we provide ourselves important perspective. In that way, we will best be poised to enjoy lives of purpose, joy, learning, and kedushah.

And we can be kind to one another, for we are fellow travelers, holders of an ancient brit goral, a covenant of destiny which has survived a thousand hatreds and enemies, just as we will outlast this challenge. Am Yisrael Chai.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav D

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