This sermon was delivered at our virtual service on January 12th, 2024. You can watch it on YouTube or listen on the Contact Chai podcast.
The Talmud (TB Chagigah 4b) records a conversation between the rabbis about which verses of the Bible make them cry. They point to passages of uncertainty and loss, moments where we are forced to reckon with our mortality or acknowledge that what is required of us, by warrant of being alive, may be too much to bear. On the topic of death, Rav Yosef cites a verse from Proverbs: “V’yeish nispeh b’lo mishpat, But there are those swept away without justice” (Proverbs 13:23). This passage brings me to tears, Rav Yosef says, because it makes me ask: are there really people who die before their time and for no reason?
As we open the Torah this week, we read the chapters about our people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. This is a miraculous story of fragile hope surviving within and eventually overcoming a harsh reality. Our redemption (which we traditionally recall through prayer every single day) is a reminder that the world we live in is not the only one possible – and that the belief in a better future is not only our heritage as Jews, but our path forward as well.
Yet as much as the Exodus is a tale ofnew life, it is also a story shadowed by death. There is a tradition at the Passover Seder that, as we recount the ten plagues, we dip a finger into our cup and take out a drop of whatever we are drinking – one for each calamity – to remember the innocent people caught in the battle between divine justice and human cruelty. Even as we remember our liberation and celebrate the incredible freedoms we are blessed with today, we diminish our joy.
Whether they were slave masters or soldiers, our tradition teaches us to not sit comfortably with the death of the Egyptians. There is a midrash (one of my favorites, in fact) that as the Israelites celebrated their newfound freedom on the shore of the Reed Sea, Pharaoh’s army swept away by the water behind them, the assembled angels joined our ancestors singing and dancing. God silences the heavenly host, “My children are also drowning in the sea – and you would offer me song?” (TB Sanhedrin 39b).
Having been four hundred years a slave, it is understandable that the Israelites meet this moment of redemption with relief – even joy. Yet God admonishing the angels reminds us that we are called to a divine consciousness, one that transcends the narrowness of tribalism. The Torah, the foundational narrative of our people, begins with the creation of the entire world – not just the Jews – for a reason: to remind as that although the Jewish people may have been chosen for a particular path and purpose, we are also connected to and bound up with all of humankind.
The creation story also underscores the sanctity of every single human life. By giving us a common, mythic ancestor our tradition teaches that embedded within all of us is infinite potential. Just as Adam was the progenitor of humankind, the rabbis say, so too each of us contain an entire world – and so to save one life is to save this nascent world, and to take one life is to destroy it (TB Sanhedrin 37a).
Certainly, our tradition abhors murder. Lo tirtzah, do not kill is one of the Ten Commandments – rules which serve as the ethical core of Judaism. So appalling is the idea of intentional harm that the rabbis categorize murder as one of three transgressions that we should rather die than commit, in the theoretical scenario that someone is compelling you at gunpoint to take someone else’s life (TB Sanhedrin 74a).
Yet even when death is considered a necessity of justice, we are asked to be (at a minimum) deeply uncomfortable with its application. Throughout the Talmud, the rabbis avoid the death penalty – even when it has been prescribed by the Torah. They rule that a court which condemns more than one person to death in seven years is considered bloodthirsty, and therefore incapable of good judgment. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah chimes in, saying more than once in a span of seventy years should earn a court that terrible distinction (Mishnah Makkot 1:10).
Even when we are confronted with someone who intends to kill another, called a rodef or “pursuer” by the rabbis, our tradition tells us that we must first warn them that what they are doing is wrong. Only when the rodef acknowledges that they are aware of their transgression and its consequences are we allowed to stop them with lethal force. Yet even then, if there was another means of thwarting the rodef and we chose to kill them – we are held liable for murder (TB Sanhedrin 74a).
Our discomfort with the intentional taking of a life comes from the knowledge that violence cannot coexist with peace. When people die before their time and for no reason, as Rav Yosef laments, it delays the realization of the world we hope to live in – the messianic vision of a time where war and famine and illness are relics of the past. When King David, often held up as a hero of our people, was denied the right to build the First Temple (an honor that would be accorded to his son, Solomon) God tells him dam larov shafachta, your hands have spilled too much blood to be the same ones that will build my house (I Chronicles 22:8). The medieval scholar Radak explains that this admonition includes the death of innocents, the terrifying collateral of all the wars that David waged against his enemies – regardless if the reason for these conflicts was justified. If we are to choose life, as our tradition compels us, we cannot also choose death (Deuteronomy 30:19).
According to major news outlets, this week the death toll in Gaza surpassed 23,000 – or 1% of the total population of Palestinians living in that region. Almost all of these deaths are civilians, including children – innocents, in the words of our sacred text, swept away without justice. This is a terrible and terrifying number. How can our hearts, already broken by the brutal murder of hundreds of Israelis and strained by worry for those still in captivity, hold this pain as well?
Yet our tradition tells us that we cannot ignore it. The Torah teaches that we are not permitted to stand idly by as the blood of other human beings is shed (Leviticus 19:16). Killing – and especially the killing of innocents, whatever the reason or rationale – is something that the human heart and the Jewish soul cannot afford to become comfortable with lest we become partners to the brokenness that widens the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be.
Admittedly, I am not a military strategist (and thank God). I do not have to make decisions about how much collateral damage is tolerable in pursuit of safety and security. Nor am I a politician (and thank God). I do not have to make decisions about how we might sit at the negotiating table with people who wish us harm. But I am a rabbi – and my job is to remind us of our sacred inheritance, given to us by our ancestors when they broke the shackles of slavery: the uncompromising belief in a better future and the resolute refusal to consider this world, the world we live in, the only one possible.
As keepers of that vision, we cannot become inured to death. We must have the moral resolve to remind ourselves, each other, and all who will listen that the loss of a single life is intolerable – and the loss of tens of thousands of lives, unacceptable. Even when we are ignored. Even when we are shouted down. To courageously and unapologetically choose life, again and again and again.
And there will be some who ask: What about our pain? As a community, we are still mourning. Our children are dead or dying in a war we did not choose. Our siblings are in captivity. Rockets are being fired at our cities. Our voices are being silenced. Why do we have to be the ones with capacious empathy, enough to hold our grief and the grief of everyone else?
Because this is the path and purpose chosen for the Jewish people, whether by God or by the contours of our collective memory. Do not oppress the stranger, the Torah tells us, because you know the soul of the stranger – yadatem et nefesh ha-ger (Exodus 23:9). Our pain is a source of incredible power, one that calls us toward every broken heart no matter in whose chest it may be beating. And this empathic impulse is not contingent on how they treat us, or whether they are able to meet us in kind. Sometimes we will stand alone. And at various moments throughout history, Jews have been one of very few advocates for human dignity and worth. It was Hillel the Sage who taught that in any place or time that lacks humanity, it is upon us to be human – and for over two millennia since he spoke those words, we have kept that promise (Pirkei Avot 2:5).
And thank God that, in this moment, we do not stand alone. I am inspired by organizations like the Parents Circle-Families Forum and Standing Together, Israelis and Palestinians who are working on the ground – at great risk to themselves – for an immediate and peaceful resolution to this ongoing tragedy. As Alon-Lee Green, co-director of Standing Together, posted last week: there are seven million Palestinians and seven million Jews who call that land home, and none of them are going anywhere. Any viable plan for the future must accept that reality – or ultimately fail.
This is precisely why the current course of action and the destruction it brings with it, borne disproportionately by Palestinian civilians, will not secure Jewish safety. A few weeks ago Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of T’ruah, wrote: “A negotiated end to the war… might well be the most pro-Israel, and the most Jewish, position that one can take.” Violence is no partner to peace. If we are to choose life, a life lived in our ancestral homeland, death – especially the death of innocent people – is not an option.
And in the same way, Palestinian liberation cannot come by means of violating the wellbeing and livelihood of Israeli Jews. I have a friend who volunteers as a coach for Ultimate Palestine. It’s an organization with a simple but powerful mission: to use the sport of ultimate frisbee to create opportunities for community, connection, and joy for young Palestinians. His organization recently shared a letter sent to them by Jewish ultimate players in North America. They quote the Jewish feminist activist Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, who once said that solidarity is the political version of love. “Bearing our histories in mind,” they write, “we seek safety by opening our hearts. Jewish safety and Palestinian liberation are inextricably intertwined and we know that taking care of our communities requires working to ensure the safety and liberation of all peoples.”
We seek safety by opening our hearts. This is not an easy task – but it is a sacred one, embedded within our calling to be a people who are not just for our people, but individuals of divine consciousness who care and are concerned for the entire world. The Tosefta tells us to make for ourselves a heart of many rooms, with enough space to listen to and learn from each other (Tosefta Sotah 7:12). May these be rooms spacious and strong enough to hold the pain of people we know and people we don’t know, people who are like us and people who are nothing like us, people we call our friends and people we are told are our enemies. May the innumerable doors of our hearts be open to just as many stories, even ones that make us cry.
The rabbis have a conversation about which passages from the Bible bring them to tears. Here are some of the stories that make me cry:
The Palestinian woman with her child, gunned down as they waved a white flag.
The faces of four Israeli girls still in captivity, bloody and frightened.
The Palestinian man standing in the rubble of the Al-Shati refugee camp, desperately searching for survivors.
The parents mourning their children who served in the IDF and died in the line of duty.
The people waiting to hear about their loved ones, now 100 days in captivity, not sure if they are safe or even alive.
The people wondering if their friends and family in Gaza are safe or even alive.
The Palestinian mother living just outside of Chicago, who is still mourning her child killed at the hands of hate.
The families here, in this city, worried about sending their kids to school because they are bullied and threatened for being Jewish.
The people in our community who feel like they cannot speak to friends and loved ones, because the differences we hold in this moment have pulled us apart.
But above all, what makes me cry is the gap that exists between the world as it is and the world as it should be – because we know that this world is not the only one possible.