Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein of Chabad of Poway
Shabbat Acharei Mot 5779
Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona
Life is often said to be about perspective, seeing things better when we pull back a little bit. For example, after downing half of his glass of milk, a ten year old boy declared, "I am an optimist: 'The glass is half empty!'"
"Looking at the glass as half empty is a sign of pessimism son," his father said.
The boy smiled and corrected his father. "Not if you don't like milk!"
Or another example of perspective: the sinking of the Titanic was a miracle to the lobsters in the ship's kitchen.
It’s all in your frame of reference, the way you look at a problem or issue or subject. Judaism specializes in that, by the way: trying to take the long, expansive look at a situation so that we can understand it better and appreciates its meaning properly.
In diplomacy they use the French phrase, a tour d’horizon, a survey of the whole horizon, to gain appropriate perspective. And that can provide real insights into how to proceed positively.
Unfortunately, perspective is not always a helpful thing. Usually it’s very valuable to take some time to look back at the past and consider the future, to examine our world as it was and then gaze forward to what we think it will become. As a fan of studying history, I have often found that understanding what happened before gives us a much more grounded and rounded comprehension of what we are facing now. I am usually much more optimistic after such a survey than I was beforehand.
But sometimes that look backward and about contributes not optimism but something much darker.
I have been thinking seriously about the events of these past seven days, the brutal synagogue attack in Poway, California north of San Diego, the security meetings and calls and emails and texts and the local vigil and the many procedures and processes necessitated by formulating and implementing a responsible approach. And that brought me to look at the kinds of responses that previous terrorist attacks had provoked, both emotionally and pragmatically.
First, I must note that this Shabbat is called Acharei Mot, which seems oddly appropriate. It means “after the death,” describing the way that the Israelites responded, under God’s commands, to the shocking deaths of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness. In other words, it is a sedrah that begins with words that exactly describe our own situation in the Jewish community of America this week, following the murder of a woman named Lori Gilbert Kaye in the Poway Chabad shul last Saturday. We are very much “after the death,” Acharei Mot. That attack would have caused many more fatalities if the 19 year-old terrorist’s AR-15 had not jammed. After the death, indeed.
This, of course, was the second such synagogue attack on a Saturday morning Shabbat service in six months, coming exactly on the half year anniversary of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life massacre on October 27, 2018. It also followed, by six weeks, the Christchurch mosque massacre of March 15, 2019, which was in turn followed by the Easter Sunday slaughter in churches and hotels in Sri Lanka on April 21st.
When I began to look back, I realized Shabbat Acharei Mot was also the Sabbath that followed the Boston Marathon massacre in 2013, when terrorists placed IED bombs filled with ball bearings near the finish of the most famous road race in the world, killing and maiming many. And that ironic coincidence—if coincidence it actually is—brought us more fully to awareness that in America we have been in a long and slowly developing process of understanding that terrorism has now become part and parcel of our consciousness in ways we do not like to admit and cannot really fully fathom. Really, ever since 9/11, and locally Gabby Giffords’ shooting in that Safeway near here back in 2011, we have had to know that such attacks were no longer restricted to distant continents or remote regions. They have happened here, and pretty frequently ever since, and we have to know that our own lives can be affected by them at any time.
This is called terrorism, and people all over the world are very familiar with it, whether they live in Israel, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Istanbul, Paris, London, Rome, Cairo, Indonesia, Amsterdam, Malaysia, South Africa, Nigeria, Venezuela, Argentina, Pakistan, India, and so on. And now we are familiar with it here, too, in Jewish America.
To be honest, though, the actual odds of being killed, injured or even involved in any kind of terror attack in America are incredibly small. The insurance industry, which looks unsparingly at how we die much more openly than any of us can possibly be comfortable with, calculates exactly this every day to the fourth or fifth decimal place. It may come as no surprise that we are each far more likely to be killed or injured in a car accident—by a factor of about 100—than to be involved in a terrorist incident. We are way more likely to be shot by someone we know well than to be shot by a stranger, and still more likely to shoot ourselves, again by a factor in the dozens. In a country of 350 million people, more or less, with perhaps 4,500 active synagogues—and it’s not true that most of those are called Chabad—the chances of any one synagogue being targeted for a terrorist attack are still fantastically small. You have approximately the same statistical chance of winning a $100 million Powerball lottery as you do of being involved in a synagogue attack.
In fact, until last fall, there had essentially never been such an attack in all of American history. For all the heated rhetoric, and the rise in Anti-Semitic verbiage and internet postings and rallies, there hadn’t been any violent Anti-Semitic acts in many years. And now, in just six months, we have had two.
Still, this remains what mathematicians call statistically insignificant. You literally cannot accurately calculate the individual odds of being in such a situation, let alone the chance of being shot or killed. That does not mean, however, that it is morally or psychologically insignificant to us as American Jews. Not at all.
We no longer have any reason to feel truly safe from the kinds of attacks that have occurred for many years in other countries, the synagogue and Jewish community terror attacks that have taken place in Istanbul, Buenos Aires, Paris and other cities. We are now part of the larger Jewish world in a new way—in our shared insecurity. And so we increase our preparedness, and establish greater security, and learn how to respond in case of terrible attack.
Mind you, this is not the first time that Jews in synagogues have felt the need to intensify security precautions. I worked as a cantor in Los Angeles in the 1980s in a large Conservative congregation in the city. In order to reach my own small, dungeon-like office I had to clear a security gate, be buzzed in by a guard with a camera, and then use two keys to unlock the various heavy doors that kept out potentially dangerous strangers. Moving from one side of the complex to the other was similarly challenging, and we had pretty close to military base security around the clock. The concern then was that there would be Palestinian terrorist attacks, which was not at all an unreasonable expectation; in fact, one of my most memorable Yom Kippur experiences growing up was a bomb threat at our large congregation in Beverly Hills, California where my dad was the cantor, Temple Emanuel, which occurred on the same day the Yom Kippur War started in 1973. We spent a couple of hours outside the building while they made certain it was a bogus threat. That has happened in Tucson, too, back in 1998, the year before I arrived.
And if you have attended services at synagogues in Europe or South America or other regions in the past thirty years you know that there is almost always an elaborate security process in order to be admitted. Most functioning Italian synagogues have Carabinieri stationed outside in armored cars with machine guns. In Cuzco, Peru I saw entire SWAT teams surrounding the synagogue in case somebody tried something on Passover a few years ago. In Paris or London you must clear several layers of security screening to enter Shabbat services; in Turkey and Greece you must let them know in advance that you are coming to services; in Japan you must provide your passport, and so on.
It shouldn’t surprise us, really. We have joined the greater Jewish world in our move from naivete to defensiveness. We can no longer be naïve about this.
Without belaboring the point, it has now become standard issue in America for mentally unhinged people to attack schools filled with children and houses of prayer filled with people of all ages. Occasionally they also attack nightclubs and holiday parties and even sporting events, but for the most part they are focused on killing as many innocents as possible. This insanity is not actually new. It has been a very real part of the American scene for more years than we like to admit.
Eighteen moths ago I drove from Tucson to Nashville, Tennessee to visit my son Boaz, who was then a senior at Vanderbilt University. I had to stop somewhere between a friend’s home in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Tennessee, and on the map Oklahoma City was right in the middle. So I spent a night in Oklahoma City.
The principal tourist attraction in Oklahoma City turns out to be the memorial museum dedicate to the victims of the horrific terrorist attack perpetrated there in 1995—in April 1995, around this time of year. I visited the museum out of a sense of duty and some boredom. I mean, it’s a long, long drive, and there’s not a lot to do in between Tennessee and Arizona, and frankly Oklahoma City is not the most exciting place I’ve ever been.
But the museum turned out to be truly outstanding, an incredibly well created and constructed explanation and monument to those who died and those who worked so hard to save them. It is worth a trip to Oklahoma City just to see it and experience it. It also includes a searching examination of the perpetrators, who were white supremacists who hated the government, which sounds a little too familiar now. It is a powerful and moving experience, and it is important to realize that the Oklahoma City bombing took place 24 years ago, a full generation. We have had a long time to get used to the idea terrorist attacks indeed do take place in America, that they are perpetrated by purveyors of hatred and can be directed at anyone.
Perhaps we can learn from Israel a bit here. We can learn, for example, to be realistic, hard-headed even, about the potential for awful attacks like this. We can learn to lose some of our last measures of naivete and come to realize that we are all in this dangerous world together, and that we must learn to work together. For only together can we survive such attacks, and only together can we succeed in preventing any more attacks like this, or even any more attacks that are unlike this.
Mostly, Israelis know that the current terror attack is not the last one. They know that that even when the perpetrator is caught, or he or she is dead, another such incident, different in style or character, but still terror by any other name, will occur in the future. Israelis have no illusion of permanent immunity from terror attacks, whether suicide bombers or rocket attacks.
We Americans, however, are quite persistent in our belief in our own invulnerability, in the face of great evidence to the contrary. You might think that after Oklahoma City, and certainly after 9/11, and after Gabby Giffords’ shooting just down Ina Road from right here we would have lost our American innocence about terrorism once and for all.
Perhaps now we, at least in the Jewish community, finally have come to realize that we must be hard-headed and well-prepared.
But, of course, that’s just the means to an end, not an end in and of itself. We will prepare ourselves, and we will take the appropriate measures to be as secure as we can be in our synagogue.
And then we will focus on what really matters. For what really matters is what we do inside here, how we pray, study, do religious action, affirm our wonderful new community of respect, participation and commitment. We know how to do this better than any people or religious community on earth, from long and painful experience of loss and persecution, yes, but from affirming immediately afterwards our dedication to our vital, magnificent Jewish tradition. We Jews have survived the Holocaust—Yom HaShoah was yesterday—and we chose after the worst had truly happened to nonetheless embrace life and rebuild our people. “After the death” we chose life.
And that’s the greatest lesson of Acharei Mot, and this challenging week: to be realistic, to protect ourselves and our children and elders, and most of all to affirm our Judaism with energy, commitment and love. To live proudly as Jews, and to build a congregation and community that makes affirming a dynamic, positive Jewish life our highest priority every day.