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August 8, 2016

Defeating a Growing Plague
Massei, 5776
Shmuel Herzfeld

I recently saw the news that David Duke – a man whose very core is evil -- is again running for public office.

That got my attention. And not in a good way.

I have a history with Duke. I take it as a point of great pride that Duke has taken the time to attack me personally on his website and also to attack our shul.

In March 2014, he criticized us for celebrating the holiday of Purim. In doing so he joined a long list of anti-Semites who have criticized Jews for celebrating our own holidays and military victories. And he recently criticized me again. After I protested at Donald Trump’s speech in March he reposted his original article and offered new criticism.

One of the things I am most proud of in my rabbinate is that I, along with our shul, have been singled out for criticism by this horrible human being.

We should recognize that his reappearance in the political scene of our country is extraordinarily serious and scary.

I remember thinking when he first wrote about me in 2014 that this man is a has-been, a relic from 20 years ago hiding out with other bigots in Austria in order to get closer to the birthplace of oto ha-ish.

And now to our great sorrow and extraordinary pain we see that this caricature of a bigot has reemerged as a voice in the American media and is once again clamoring for a voice in American politics.

It is not just about Duke. It is about a phenomenon that we see around us in this country. We are witnessing in front of our eyes a growing racism, bigotry, and anti-Semitism. I never imagined that I would see the growth of such evil and hatred in this beautiful country. But we are now seeing something that I have never before seen in my lifetime – the emergence of bigots from the shadows.

These past few months as we have been seeing this phenomenon unfold I have constantly been thinking to myself: how can wemake a difference and stem this angry wave of hatred that is around us.

Earlier this week we came across a sentence in the daf yomi and one particular teaching resonated with me.

The Talmud was discussing the idea that when a plague comes to a town the angel of death is given free reign to kill. Normally the angel of death needs his tools in order to kill–i.e. his special angel of death knife (see Ketubot 67b), but the Talmud tells us that when it is a time of plague he no longer needs that, as he is able to kill with greater ease. Since he no longer needs his knife, he needs to deposit his knife somewhere, and according to the Talmud he places it in the synagogue. The traditional commentaries explain that this is because the synagogue is the largest communal building in the town. “Malakh hamavet mafkid keilav bebeit hakenesset” (Bava Kamma 60b).

By depositing the knife in the synagogue it is more than just a practical place to store his baggage while he goes around killing people. It is also a taunt of sorts to all the people in the town.

By placing his knife in the synagogue he is daring us to try and thwart his efforts.

According to the Talmud there is a way to thwart his efforts as there are two things that can prevent the Angel of Death from making himself at home in our synagogue: if the synagogue is occupied with the Torah study of children or with the prayers of a minyan.

The Torah study of children and a community gathering for prayer are the forces necessary to defeat the horrors of a plague in our midst.

The Torah study of children represents educating our children in the proper path. The prayer of a minyan represents a gathering for good. These two forces of good can make the Angel of Death’s job more difficult and prevent a plague from dwelling in our midst.

A modern application of this homily is that when we see a spiritual plague such as the rise of bigotry and hatred, our response must be to redouble our efforts towards education, and especially the education of our children.

Education and communal gatherings of good are the most important forces in the world. The spiritual is in the long run even more important than the most powerful army!

This is a fundamental lesson of our Torah portion.

The tribes of Reuven and Gad approach Moshe and ask if they can settle on the other side of the Jordan instead of in the land of Canaan. They promise to be the vanguard and help their brothers in their military fight for the land of Canaan. The verse says that they would leave their possessions behind on the other side of the Jordan while they fought their battle:

“Vayigshu eilav vayomru gidrot tzon nivneh lemikneinu poh ve-arim letapeinu, they came close to [Moshe] and they said, we will build corrals for our flock that are here and cities for our children.” (32:16).

Rashi writes: “They cared about their money more than their children for they mentioned their cattle before their children. Chasu al memonam yoter mi-beineihem shehikdimu mikneihem letapam. Moshe said to them, you have misplaced priorities. Reverse your priorities. Amar moshe lo kein asu haikar ikar vehatafel tafel.”

Indeed, a few verses later when Moshe responds to these two tribes he reverses the order and says, “Benu lakhem arim le-tapeichem u-gederot le-tzoneichem, build cities for your children and corrals for your cattle” (v. 24).

Building cities for our children is the ikar.

While it is certainly necessary for Reuven and Gad to be the vanguard in the military struggle against Canaan, more important than the military commitment is the necessity to provide for their children. It is not enough just to keep their children safe. They need to build arim, cities, for the children. They need to build a spiritual infrastructure of education for their children while they fight the Canaanites.

When it comes to defeating evil and wickedness the most important answer is education—educating our children as to what is right and what is wrong.

I had the good fortune of spending this week camping out with the kids from our shul as part of our Camp Kibbutz. (It was organized and supervised by our Camp Director, Michelle Kerball, who did an incredible job this whole summer leading our camp. We all spent an amazing few days in the woods together. For many of the kids the highlight was when we got to go to the County Fair and watch a Demolition Derby. I tried to enter my taxi in the Derby, but they said I was too late for that night!)

For me, the highlight was that I had the good fortune of studying the daf yomi with the campers every day. I would ask them modern day hypotheticals questions about damages to someone’s property and based upon the principles from the daily daf we would discuss their answers.

Their answers were mostly brilliant and often matched the suggestions of our greatest commentaries.

One homily that we discussed was based upon a homily in the daf yomi for Thursday (Bava Kamma, 65).

The Talmud teaches that even a one-day old calf is called a shor, and a one day old lamb is still called an ayil. Shor ben yomo nikra shor ayil ben yomo nikra ayil.

The baalei hamusar ask a question in relation to this concept.

A human being is the greatest of all animals on earth. It is the smartest and most capable. Yet, a human baby is unable to survive on its own after it is born. If the adult human is the most capable of all the creatures, it seems that the human baby is the least capable of all the creatures. We know that a snake, for example, can hunt, as soon as it comes out of the egg. As the Talmud says, a baby ox is still called an ox, and a baby ram is still called a ram.

Why did Hashem create the human baby to be the least capable of all the creatures?

We discussed three answers to this question.

The Chovot Halevavot (11th c, Spain) of R Bachya Ibn Pakuda suggests that if the baby would have adult comprehension then the baby would die of anxiety. The baby wouldn’t be able to handle its physical inabilities and its total reliance on someone else. So Hashem matched the physical growth with the intellectual growth and caused them to grow together.

The Ktav Hakabbalah of R. Yaakov Zvi Mecklenberg (19th c. Konigsberg) suggests that it is to teach us the lessons that humans are a work in progress. This is why we are called the children of Yaakov whose name connotes growth, as opposed to Esav whose name connotes completion. We are born with the most to learn in order to remind us of the need for human growth.

But our favorite answer was the suggestion of R. Shlomo Wolbe (d. 2005) in his work, alei shor, a classic work on education and self-improvement.

Rav Wolbe suggests that what we see as a problem is really an opportunity. The infant’s lack of intellectual ability is specifically created by Hashem in order to give us time and space to educate the baby properly. Just imagine if the babies were born with full intellectual capabilities. We wouldn’t have the opportunity to teach them the path of the Torah—the path of righteousness and good.

We are seeing the growth of hatred and bigotry in our country and we are reminded by our Torah portion and by our daf yomi that the way to combat such wickedness around us is by gathering for good and by accepting our responsibility to educate our children in the proper path.

In this context I want to invite our congregation to join me in an upcoming trip that we are in the process of planning.

I want to travel with a group from our shul to spend a Shabbat together in one of the most important places of the civil rights movement, Selma, Alabama. We will go down for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. weekend and spend Friday and Shabbat in Selma (January 13-14, 2017). We will learn about the heroism and courage of those who marched for the civil rights movement on March 7, 1965 and were confronted on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

This week I spoke to Joanne Bland about our idea and she loved it. Joanne has lived in Selma her whole life and she was on that bridge on March 7. By the time she was 11 she had been arrested 13 times. She offered to take us on a walking tour of Selma on Shabbat and show us where she was arrested and teach us about the history of the civil rights movement from her personal perspective.

One of the most important ways to defeat Duke is by teaching our children about who he is and who we are and who we are not.

I called my friend, Rabbi Eytan Yammer, who is a rabbi in Birmingham, Alabama. He is very enthusiastic about this concept and he has promised to bring his congregation to join us in Selma that Shabbat. He also offered for his family to cook the food for our Shabbat in Selma.

There is a beautiful shul in Selma, named Temple Mishkan Israel. The shul is barely in use today as most of the Jews have moved out of Selma. But we have a plan to hold services in that shul on Shabbat. We have reached out to the shul and local community leaders so that our voices of prayer can merit to fill the halls of this shul.

Shabbat in Selma presents us with an opportunity to defeat the growing spiritual plague of hatred that surrounds us in our country. It is an opportunity to gather for prayer and educate our children and learn about heroic people who fought with dignity to overcome the forces of oppression that surrounded them.

If we are quiet now then we will sadly be facing those same voices of hatred again in the future.

My own family is excited for this trip. We will fly down to Atlanta on a Friday and drive down to spend an educational Friday afternoon and Shabbat in Selma, and then return on Sunday. I invite you all to join us for this Shabbat and in doing so take a spiritual step to defeat the evil Duke, and the growing number of Duke’s in the world!

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