Karen James was 19-years-old when she competed as a swimmer for Canada in the 1972 Munich Olympics. An innocent teenager in a more innocent time than our own day, she was walking back to the Olympic village. Rather than walk all the way around to the main gate, she and a teammate climbed over the chain-link fence near her dormitory. Four decades later, she is now telling her story of bearing witness to one of the most horrific acts of terror the world has ever known, the murder of the 11 Israeli athletes.
I heard Karen James speak last Sunday at the BB & T Center in Sunrise during the opening ceremonies of the JCC Maccabi Games that brought together hundreds of Jewish teens from around the country for athletic competition and Jewish solidarity. Temple Torah’s own Sam Bernstein and Harlan Kagan participated and many of our members volunteered to make the games a success. Karen James, in her address, described that when she climbed the fence, she noticed a group of men hiding behind a bush who climbed the fence shortly after her. She only realized later, after her dorm was on lockdown, that those men were terrorists who were holding the Israelis hostage. After the athletes were murdered and the games continued as if nothing happened, Karen went home. She had worked her whole life to make it to the Olympics, but now she couldn’t wait to get home. Karen is Jewish but grew up secular and for many years did not speak about Munich. In recent years, she has been speaking publicly about her experiences. She said that doing so has brought her closer to her Jewish roots.
Karen James’s message on Sunday night was sobering in that the world does not seem to have gotten much more peaceful in the last 42 years. The world is still pathetically indifferent towards violence and terror and hostile towards Israel in its effort to combat terror. Nearly 200,000 Syrians have been murdered by the Assad regime. The brutality of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has been largely unchecked until America’s action last week to save the Yazidis from genocide. Israel’s recent operation in Gaza to protect its citizens from rockets from above and terror tunnels from below highlighted much of the world’s indifference to terrorism against Jews and their outrage at Israel’s response to defending itself from terrorism. There have been no mass demonstrations demanding the world fight genocide in Syria and Iraq. Yet, throngs have people have gathered in European capitals spouting vicious anti-Semitism that has also reared its ugly head in pockets of America, including Miami. In a world that seems so helplessly out of control, what are we to do? We find some guidance in today’s Torah portion.
In Parashat Ekev, we encounter the theme of reward and punishment that is especially prominent in Deuteronomy. Serve God well, and you’ll receive abundant blessings; fail to serve God, and you will suffer the consequences. In this context, Moses relates to the people: V’atah Yisrael, Mah Adonai Elohecha shoeil mei-imach, And now, Israel, what does God demand of you? Ki im l’yirah et Adonai Elohecha lalechet b’chol d’rachav—Only that you revere the Lord your God, to walk in His paths, to love Him, and to serve God with all your heart and soul.
The Midrash Sifre comments on the phrase lalechet bidrachav, to walk in all His ways. Quoting Exodus, the Midrash says, “These are the ways of the Holy One—“gracious and compassionate, patient, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, assuring love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and granting pardon (Ex. 34:6). Just as God is gracious and compassionate, you too must be gracious and compassionate…Just as the Holy One is faithful, you too must be faithful. As the Holy One is loving, you too must be loving.
In the face of helplessness and despair over a brutal, violent world, our sacred teachings remind us that it’s in our power to bring loving kindness into the world. The Talmud notes further “Hakol bidei shamayim hutz mi-yirat shamayim” Everything is in the power of heaven except for the fear of heaven. God can’t control how we feel and think, nor can God control the choices that we make. This is a good thing. Imagine if we were robots and every action was pre-programmed. It would be a boring world. We are free to choose between good and evil, between following God’s ways and rejecting them. We cannot be compelled to be good. The decision whether to love God and to follow the Torah’s teachings is totally under our control.
The Torah empowers us to engage in the world and demands that we not sit idly by. When people are hungry, we have the ability to feed them. When a friend is suffering, we have the ability to reach out and offer support. The tragic death of Robin Williams has awakened our society to the inner suffering of individual with depression and our duty to offer help. When our brothers and sisters in Israel and Jews around the world are under attack, we have the duty to bear witness to the truth, lobby our officials to support America’s democratic ally, Israel, and, if possible, to visit Israel and be there with our people in person.
Karen James told Jewish teenagers this week about when she witnessed first-hand horrific violence in the making. However, embedded in her message was great hope. The Maccabi Games themselves testified that despite all of the challenges in the world, hundreds of Jewish teens can gather proudly as Jews and engage in friendly, sportsmanlike competition. The Maccabi Games remind us that lalechet bidrachav, to walk in God’s ways, means that God expects us to engage in society and affirm life. Through our efforts in this endeavor, let us find the strength to bring about peace and loving kindness into our world.