They Came for the Jews – Shabbat Noach

October 28, 2022 – 4 Cheshvan 5783

Congregation Bet Ha’am

Rabbi Jared H. Saks

            I was in second or third grade the first time I learned about antisemitism. On school days when my school was closed, but my mother’s wasn’t, I would often spend the day in her classroom. She had a freestanding, two-sided blackboard in her room and I would draw or play on one side of it while my mother used the other side in teaching her students. I always knew that whatever I’d created could be erased if my mother needed the other side of the board. On occasion, she would slide the board away from the wall, erase my side, and turn it around, especially if what she had on the other side she needed to keep for some reason.

            On one of these days, as my mother pulled the board away from the wall, she saw my work and quickly pushed the board back up against the wall, leaving my side untouched. I knew immediately that something was wrong, but I didn’t know what it was. At the end of the hour or the end of the day – I can’t recall now when it was – my mom pulled the board away from the wall and pointed at my drawing and asked, “Where did you learn to draw that?” I told her that I had seen it on our way into her school that morning. It was painted, or perhaps made by clapping erasers, on the side of the school building. What I had replicated on my mother’s blackboard was a swastika. I didn’t know what it was, but at the age of 7 or 8, right about how old Zak is now, my mother had to tell me about the Holocaust.

            I grew up in rural, northwestern New Jersey where there weren’t many Jews. In my high school of 1200, I was one of only ten or so, and maybe the only one actively engaged in Jewish life. I encountered antisemitism throughout my childhood, from a bully on the bus showing me pictures of burning crosses to kids in the lunchroom tossing pennies at me from across the room. Going to college in the deep south, I was met with more ignorance than hatred. Honestly, I rarely felt personally threatened by antisemitism. Until recently, I think I would say that antisemitism had only made me feel unsafe two or three times:  At the age of 7 or 8 when I learned about the symbol I’d replicated, four years ago yesterday when a gunman murdered 11 Jews at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, and perhaps 9 months ago when a gunman held my colleague Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and 4 of his congregants hostage for upwards of 11 hours on a Shabbat last January. That is, up until now.

            The rise in antisemitism over recent years hadn’t gripped me with fear until the past couple of weeks, when a celebrity who doesn’t deserve to have his name said from this bimah made vitriolic antisemitic statements, even calling for the death of Jews. It wasn’t his words that scared me, but rather the silence of so many in the wake of those words. While some companies dropped professional ties with him quickly, others, like Adidas, only did so after succumbing to societal pressure. There will always be antisemites in the world, unfortunately, and while they are scary, I’m more scared, to paraphrase Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, not by evil, but by indifference to it.

            While I have felt a virtual bear hug from folks like MRC Entertainment, who scrapped a project with the celebrity, declaring that he, “is a producer and sampler of music. Last week he sampled and remixed a classic tune that has charted for over 3000 years – the lie that Jews are evil and conspire to control the world for their own gain. This song was performed acapella in the time of the Pharaohs, Babylon and Rome, went acoustic with The Spanish Inquisition and Russia’s Pale of Settlement, and Hitler took the song electric. [He] has now helped mainstream it in the modern era. Lies are an important part of all discrimination, and this one is no different,” the silence of many is still deafening.

            So, what do we do about it? Let me begin to answer that with a story. There was a teacher who gave every student in her school a balloon. She asked the students to inflate their balloons, write their names on them, and toss them into the hall. Soon, the school hallways were packed with colorful balloons, almost waist deep. The teacher then instructed the students to go out into the hall and find their own balloon. While some were able to do so, most students couldn’t locate their balloons. The more they moved, it seemed, the farther they got from them. Then, the teacher stopped them. “Okay, everyone,” she began, “I want you to pick up a balloon that’s close to you. Read the name and go give it back to that person.” Within minutes, each student had their balloon back.

            The same thing is true when we are fighting hatred and injustice. If we only pursue our own safety and security, if we only look out for ourselves, it’s going to be a very long road and a very long time before we feel safe. When we work for the safety and security of others, we make the whole world safer and we bolster our own well-being. In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Noach, when the rain ceases, Noah sends out a dove to scout out his safety. The dove returns not having a safe place to land. Noah waits seven days and sends the dove a second time. This time, it returns with an olive branch in its beak, a sign that the waters are receding and the world is once again safe. What changed between these two events?

            In the first, the text tells us, וַיְשַׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־הַיּוֹנָ֖ה מֵאִתּ֑וֹ, Noah sent the dove from himself, mei-ito. The second time, however, we read, שַׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־הַיּוֹנָ֖ה מִן־הַתֵּבָֽה, he sent the dove from the ark. Our parashah teaches us that when we act only for ourselves, we are less likely to succeed. But, when we act not only for ourselves, but for others, as well, we are more likely to triumph.

            My colleague and teacher, Rabbi Sharon Brous, taught this week, “James Carroll once described antisemitism as ‘the bug in the software of the West,’ an insidious, ever-present glitch in the system that excludes Jews from moral concern and too often paves the way for terrible violence. The conspiracy theory of Jewish power is a dangerous lie, one that has fueled pogroms, expulsions and ultimately genocide.

“Antisemitism is a bellwether for the health of a society. When antisemitism thrives, racism thrives. When antisemitic language proliferates, no one is safe. When violence against Jews is normalized, there is an increase in violence generally, and especially against other minority communities. The antisemitic lie endangers not only Jews, it endangers our very democracy.

“Many Jews feel alone right now. But we must know that we are not alone. Elected officials and advocates, multifaith and multiracial partners and friends are standing with our community, and I’m grateful for every one of them.

“What are we to do now? The only way the discourse changes is if we change it. We must remember that antisemitism, as Eric Ward teaches, is integral to the architecture of American racism. There is no way to eradicate anti-Black racism while giving a quiet pass to antisemitism, and vice versa. Essential to white supremacy is a wedge between Black and Jewish communities.”

If you’re feeling scared, overwhelmed, or alone, if it’s crossed your mind, “Who would hide me? Where would I go?” then do something for someone else. There is someone else asking those same questions and you may be the answer to their questions.  There are 11 days until the midterm elections. It’s not too late to volunteer for a campaign that reflects your Jewish values. Donate to causes fighting oppression and injustice. Remind yourself of the words of Pastor Martin Niemöller:  “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Don’t wait until there’s no one left to speak up. You have someone else’s balloon in your hands and they are waiting for you to show up.

Shabbat Shalom.

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