Faces and Names

17 Jun

 

(Inspired by Shavuot 5776 sermon by Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt)

 

Last Sunday we celebrated Shavuot. Zman Matan Torateinu, the season of the giving of the Torah. The holiday completes 49 days of anticipation from Passover in which we count the days towards a great celebration. Yet, when we woke up on Sunday morning there was hardly a celebratory mood in our country at large. Less than 200 miles from here in Orlando, a terrorist infected with the ideology of Islamic fundamentalism massacred 49—49!—innocent men and women at Pulse, a popular gay bar. Our celebration of 49 became the mourning of 49. This was the worst terror attack on our shores since 9/11 and the worst gun massacre in American history.

 

The terrorist was the face of evil. Let’s reflect on that metaphor for a moment. What does it mean? It means that the terrorist was blind to the very humanity of his fellow human beings. The face of evil is one that is blind to the faces of other human beings.

 

Today’s Torah portion, Naso, presents the priestly blessing in which the kohen invokes and attempts to channel the face of God, as it were, onto the people. We all know this blessing:

 

Yevaraech’cha Adonai V’yishmerecha

Ya’eir Adonai Panav Eilecha Vichuneka

Yisa Adonai Panav Eilecha V’yasem l’kha Shalom

May Adonai bless you and guard you,

May Adonai shine favor upon you and be gracious unto you

May Adonai shine favor upon you and grant you peace.

 

Notice the repetition of the word panav, referring to God’s face. The repetition is no accident. The face of God is invoked to shine upon us and lift us up.

 

The human face is endowed with a great sense of power.  Let’s think about times in which we have experienced a sense of that positive energy. Perhaps we received a warm smile from someone we care about. Perhaps in a moment of distress, someone gave us a sympathetic glance. Of course there are times a face conveys power in a negative way. It conveys stress, pain, anger, sadness. Human beings are hard-wired to attune ourselves to another person’s face and adopt his or her expression of emotion.

 

The face is our gateway to our humanity, and the name is a marker of our identity. Every human being has a name.  Last week’s terror attack in Orlando and similar attacks in Israel and around the world remind all of us of the danger when one or more people becomes blind to the humanity of others. When we strip away people’s names, they become “other.” Tragically, in the long history of the Jewish people we know what it’s like when we are made “other.” One of Israel’s most popular and beloved poets, Zelda Schneurson Mishkovksy, known simply as Zelda, wrote a poem widely recited on Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron called, “L’chol Ish Yesh Shem, Everyone Has a Name.”

 

Having grown up in a traditional Jewish home, her poem was inspired by a famous midrash in Kohelet Rabbah which says that “A person is known by three names.  One that he is called by his father and mother.  One that people know him by, and one that he acquires for himself.”   She wrote:

לכל איש יש שם

שנתן לו אלהים

ונתנו לו אביו ואמו

Everyone has a name
given to him by God
and given to him by his father and his mother.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתנו לו קומתו ואופן חיוכו

ונתן לו האריג

Everyone has a name
given to him by his stature
and the way he smiles.
and given to him by the fabric he wears.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתנו לו ההרים

ונתנו לו כתליו

Everyone has a name
given to him by the mountains
and given to him by his walls.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתנו לו המזלות

ונתנו לו שכניו

Everyone has a name
given to him by the constellations of stars
and given to him by his neighbors.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתנו לו חטאיו

ונתנה לו כמיהתו

Everyone has a name
given to him by his sins
and given to him by his longings.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתנו לו שונאיו

ונתנה לו אהבתו

Everyone has a name
given to him by his enemies
and given to him by his love.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתנו לו חגיו

ונתנה לו מלאכתו

Everyone has a name
given to him by his celebrations
and given to him by his work.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתנו לו תקופות השנה

ונתן לו עיורונו

Everyone has a name
given to him by the seasons of the year
and given to him by his blindness.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתן לו הים

ונתן לו מותו.

Everyone has a name
given to him by the sea and
given to him
by his death.

 

As the poet teaches, each name represents a life, and that each life is precious. When we read the priestly blessing, we are reminded that the divine face as it were is open to all and that each one of us can channel a spark of that divine face. There were 49 sparks of the divine face that were snuffed out on Sunday morning. Each of them had a name.

 

Stanley Almodovar III, 23

Amanda Alvear, 25

Oscar A. Aracena-Montero, 26

Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33

Antonio Davon Brown, 29

Darryl Roman Burt II, 29

Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28

Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25

Luis Daniel Conde, 39

Cory James Connell, 21

Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25

Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32

Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, 31

Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25

Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26

Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22

Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22

Paul Terrell Henry, 41

Frank Hernandez, 27

Miguel Angel Honorato, 30

Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40

Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19

Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30

Anthony Luis Laureanodisla, 25

Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32

Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21

Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49

Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25

Kimberly Morris, 37

Akyra Monet Murray, 18

Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20

Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36

Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32

Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35

Enrique L. Rios, Jr., 25

Jean C. Nives Rodriguez, 27

Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24

Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35

Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34

Yilmary Rodriguez Sulivan, 24

Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33

Martin Benitez Torres, 33

Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 24

Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, 50

Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37

Luis S. Vielma, 22

Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37

Jerald Arthur Wright, 31

 

Know that each of them had a name, and more than that, each had a life.  In the words of the Talmud, each life was a world to their loved ones.  Each had hopes and dreams, aspirations and accomplishments, and loved ones.  As the poet Zelda reminds us each name had a life.

 

How to respond to the face of evil?

 

One response, modeled far too often by our brothers and sisters in Israel, is not to give in to terror.  The Sarona market in Tel Aviv where four Israelis were murdered last week was open for business the next day. In the wake of Orlando, our lives have gone on. We carried on our celebration of Shavuot. Baseball, hockey and basketball games were played. The Tony Awards ceremony continued as scheduled. That is exactly as it should have been. We will not forfeit our open, free society to terrorism.

 

Another response is to do whatever we can as citizens of this country to make sure that attacks like Orlando do not happen again. Our nation has become callously numb to the scourge of gun violence in our country. After Newtown, San Bernardino and now Orlando, our country needs more than our thoughts and prayers. We need sensible laws and vigilant enforcement of laws to keep guns out of hands of terrorists. The shooter in Orlando had been monitored by the FBI, yet he could still purchase assault rifles and ammunition. If individuals who are mentally ill or on terror watch lists can purchase assault rifles and we fail to act, the blood of the victims is partially on our hands.

 

The Rabbinical Assembly passed a resolution at our convention last month addressing the epidemic of gun violence in our nation. A portion reads:

 

Be it resolved that the Rabbinical Assembly encourage its members to lobby local, state and federal lawmakers to support required background checks on all public and private gun sales, bans on military style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and legislation making gun trafficking a federal crime with severe penalties; and

Be it further resolved that the Rabbinical Assembly commit to deepening our gun violence prevention advocacy effort; and

Be it further resolved that the Rabbinical Assembly urge the members of its affiliated communities to demand that their representatives and senators enact effective gun violence prevention legislation.

 

If the terrorist in Orlando was the face of hatred and evil, then another response that we must provide is love.   The LGBTQ community is reeling from this vicious assault. They need not just our sympathy but our love. Similarly, we need to love the Hispanic community and the Muslim community and anyone else who is regarded as “other” by segments of society. The terrorist masterminds seek to create division and hatred among segments of society, and we dare not provide them such a victory.

 

Finally, a classic Jewish response to evil is zakhor, remember, not to forget.  Honor their memories.  Remember each of their faces. Remember that each has a name. L’khol ish yesh shem. Every person has a name.
 

Shabbat Shalom.

 

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