The United States Holocaust Museum calls anti-Semitism “the longest hatred.” The celebration of Passover last week was a reminder of why: The story of the ancient Pharaoh’s enslavement of the Israelites is one of the oldest examples of vilifying and persecuting a people simply for being different.
For Jews living in diaspora, Passover ended last Saturday, which was also Shabbat, the weekly day of rest and reinvigoration of body and spirit. Once again, as in Pittsburgh six months earlier, that sacred day of prayer and community was disrupted by gunfire in a synagogue.
It was the culmination of Judaism’s Festival of Freedom, marking our ancient ancestors’ salvation from oppression and fear. The previous day, in synagogues around the world, Jews read the harrowing story of Pharaoh’s military pursuit of the just-freed Israelites, their sheer terror at being trapped between the approaching army and the Sea of Reeds, and the miraculous splitting of the water that saved them.
With the memory of that miracle fresh in their minds, the congregation in Poway, Calif., was faced with the deadly reality of hatred in our modern world.
When the Israelites stood on the shore of the Sea of Reeds, panicking that they would be re-enslaved or worse, Moses called on them to wait for God to act. God, however, had another idea, and replied: “Why do you shout at Me? Speak to the Children of Israel and go forward!”
The message is clear: Prayer will not stop the next Poway. Or the next Tree of Life. Or the next Christchurch. Or the next Sri Lanka. Not prayer alone, anyway.
There will always be disagreements on theology or politics. There will always be different perspectives on the degree of regulation of firearms. There will always be contrasting opinions on the delicate balance between safety and freedom. We’re never going to reach conclusions on any of those that will satisfy everyone. Rather than focus on where we diverge, then, people of goodwill can rally around the common ground of our humanity. Whatever your theology or politics, perspectives or opinions, nobody wants there to be another horror like this.
From his hospital bed in Poway, Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, wounded in the attack, called for Jews everywhere to go to the synagogue of their choice this Shabbat to welcome the Sabbath in solidarity and without fear. Building on that message, here’s a way forward out of our sense of feeling trapped between the chariots of violence and the sea of hatred in our society: get to know your neighbors; learn about people and cultures and faiths that are different from you and yours; don’t give in to fear or yield to those who use it to divide us.
We are none of us powerless to effect change. We can insist that our leaders put into action the lesson Moses was taught on the shore of the Sea of Reeds: Unify the people and move forward.
The author is the rabbi of Congregation Ohev Shalom in Maitland. [Rabbi Kay is a [member of the Executive Committee of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.]