Tag Archives: Un’tane Tokef

Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There! (And other ways to confront mortality)

9 Oct

Political activist Ady Barkan is fighting for social justice even as he fights ALS.

I will never forget those eyebrows. “Larry” (a pseudonym) had a piercing gaze and communicated by moving his eyebrows. Larry was a patient in the hospice program in which I serve as a chaplain. Larry was an advertising executive and a writer. He was a loving husband, father, son, and brother. And Larry had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is a terminal neurological illness. By the time I met Larry for the first time in his home in 2017 he already could not speak with with his natural voice. He used the Tobii Dyanvox device that allowed him to type words or select phrases by looking at a computer screen. A synthesized voice would then “say” the words from a speaker. He sat in a special wheelchair and required 24-hour care. Over the next two years I visited Larry many times and found we had much in common. He was a Jewish man about my age. Like me, he grew up in the Chicago area. We discovered we had several mutual friends. His arms and legs were emaciated and paralyzed, but those eyes and eyebrows! They were full of life. 

Larry fought to engage in this world and experience life to the fullest extent that he could. Over the next two years he published a children’s book as well as several articles in Jewish newspapers chronicling his experience with ALS. When I visited him, we talked about his recent works. He told me he had once played guitar in a rock band, something he missed terribly, and we listened to his favorite classic hard rock hits. We listened to Jewish songs. We prayed. We sat together in silence. Larry died in May, 2019. I felt the loss personally and was very sad. I lost not only a patient but a friend. 

Around the same time that I got to know Larry I became aware of another young Jewish man with ALS. His name is Ady Barkan, a 35-year-old lawyer and political activist. Ady graduated from Columbia University and Yale Law School. He clerked for a Federal Judge. His wife Rachael is a professor of English and they have a three-year-old son Carl and a baby on the way. Ady, who holds dual American and Israeli citizenship, was on last year’s Forward 50 list of the fifty most important Jews in America. He is a galvanizing political organizer. 

Ady was diagnosed with ALS in 2016. He has since lost use of his legs, arms and back muscles. Recordings of his public speaking over the last few years document the decline of his voice until he had to start using the computerized synthetic voice that he, like Larry, operates by typing words with his eyes. Last month he had a tracheostomy so that he could breathe with a ventilator. He now requires 24-hour care.  Comparing photos and video of Ady now with those at the start of his illness reveal substantial weight loss and physical decline. 

And yet, Ady still channels his razor-sharp mind, keen media savvy and iron-clad will to call for justice, particularly for universal health-care. Ady recently published a memoir, Eyes to the Wind: A Memoir of Love and Death, Hope and Resistance. He articulates his vision for many political issues; however, at the heart of his book is his confrontation with his mortality. 

While much of Ady’s progressive advocacy work resonates for me personally, my interest on Yom Kippur is to reflect on Ady’s courage in confronting his illness. He makes poignant expression of his existential crisis as his illness progressed and he developed one symptom, then another, then another. Ady describes the emotional trauma of the illness and the psychological and spiritual guidance that he sought. He started going to therapy and received guidance in meditation from different spiritual traditions. He writes that the wisdom he received for dealing with pain and tragedy is not to escape or ignore these difficulties. Rather, the goal is to become comfortable and accepting of them. Citing another author, Ady writes, “When the ground is pulled out from under your feet—when you find yourself in free fall—it is a mistake to flail wildly in search of a handhold; instead, you can find peace by accepting your velocity and the fundamental instability, unpredictability, and impermanence of our world. Everything falls apart. That is the nature of things. Enlightenment requires us to accept impermanence rather than rage against it.” Ady reflects further: “The key to enjoying the time that I had left would be to accept life’s impermanence, accept the tragedy, and find comfort even when there was no ground under my feet.”

The psycho-spiritual guidance that Ady received—to be in the present—posed for him a great dilemma. After all, he is a political activist. Everything he does is about not accepting the status quo and demanding change. Ady writes: “Activism and politics were precisely about not accepting the tragedies of the world, about insisting that we could reduce pain and prolong life. Social justice meant creating a stable floor beneath our feet and then putting a safety net under that, to catch us if it suddenly vanished: universal health insurance, affordable housing, unemployment benefits (or, even better, a guaranteed good job) . . . Being part of a progressive political movement was precisely about fighting back and building toward a better future. Accepting was not part of our vocabulary.” Ady’s memoir grows out of this basic tension between accepting the present and fighting for a better future. 

Sylvia Boorstein pithily encapsulates Ady’s tension in the title of her book, Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There. Boorstein is a Brooklyn-born Jewish writer and speaker who is credited with popularizing Buddhist wisdom in the West. In a light-hearted way, a cartoon expresses the existential tension of Ady Barkan through Boorstein’s clever turn of phrase. 

Boorstein comments: “What makes the cartoon funny is that that old guy IS doing something. He is fuming! He is mad! He is just holding it in rather than shouting it out, and clearly, it cannot be good for him. I think the phrase needs notation, like music, to let the reader know where the accent goes: Don’t JUST do something (i.e. impulsively respond) — Think It Over!…[I]t is valuable to be still for long enough to figure out what would be the most helpful thing to do.”

The wisdom expressed by Sylvia Boorstein and discovered by Ady Barkan has deep roots in Jewish tradition. In particular, Un’tane Tokef, a central prayer of the High Holidays, forces us to confront the tension between “sitting there” and acknowledging our mortality, on the one hand, and “doing something” to ease suffering of the other. 

Un’tane Tokef  lays bare our fragility and mortality. The poet writes: 

בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן, וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן. כַּמָּה יַעַבְרוּן, וְכַמָּה יִבָּרֵאוּן, מִי יִחְיֶה, וּמִי יָמוּת, מִי בְקִצּוֹ, וּמִי לֹא בְּקִצּוֹ, מִי בָאֵשׁ וּמִי בַמַּיִם,

On Rosh Hashanah the judgments will be written down And on Yom Kippur they will be sealed: How many will pass on and how many will be created, Who will live and who will die, Who at their end and who not at their end, Who by fire and who by water…

And on it goes through multiple scenarios of how we might meet our demise. 

Rabbi Sharon Brous  (Who by Fire, Who by Water: Un’taneh Tokef (Prayers of Awe)). Turner Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.) comments on the harrowing starkness of this poem. She writes: “Many of us struggle to overcome the terror of death through avoidance and repression…But our tradition compels us to recognize that afar anachnu, “All we are is dust” (Psalm 103:14)—the end is inescapable.”  Rabbi Brous reflects further: “The centrality of Un’taneh Tokef in the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur reflects the Rabbis’ understanding that an awareness of our deep vulnerability is the very essence of the religious and spiritual life. ‘Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant.’ There’s simply no time for denial or escapism.”

In other words, we’re called to “sit there” and reflect on our limitations as humans. 

However, once we accept our mortality, we are then able to look forward. As the prayer reaches its climax, it calls on us to recommit ourselves to living a certain kind of life, or to “just do something”:

וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה

But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severity of the decree.

Rabbi Brous teaches:  “Our tradition, in all its wisdom, demands that we obliterate the false protective shelter and, knowing that each moment might be our last, fight for a life of meaning today. The High Holy Days force us to shift from denial of death to purposeful engagement with life.” Rabbi Brous notes, “We can’t dictate our fate. We can’t hide from death. But there are three things that we can do to bring meaning into the radical uncertainty of our lives” (Brous, p. 143)

First is T’shuvah (repentance): Rabbi Brous writes: “You don’t have to be a static, stagnant being, dwelling perpetually in the mistakes of years past. You can choose to make t’shuvah, affirming that life is dynamic and people change. Find the courage to ask for forgiveness from the people you have hurt. Find the strength to forgive those who have hurt you and the audacity to forgive yourself. Open your heart and embrace the people around you—most importantly those you most often take for granted. Hug your kids (and others dear to you).”

Second is T’fillah (prayer): Rabbi Brous teaches, “You don’t have to be alone. You are part of a story that is bigger than you, where the critical currency is God and the soul, not money, power, or celebrity. Let the majesty of nature distract you. Open your heart to pain. Let the world take your breath away. Connect to something beyond the physical, the tangible, the utterly graspable. Allow yourself not to understand and yet to appreciate anyway. Live in mystery.” 

Finally, there’s Tz’dakah (charity):  Rabbi Brous says, “Stop digging yourself further and further into your own dramas, as if the privileges of freedom and prosperity come with no responsibility to others. Open your eyes and give a damn! Let your heart break over illness, poverty, loss, and violence. Affirm the power of love! Bring healing and comfort! Stake your claim in the world!”

Rabbi Brous concludes: ”The challenge of the High Holy Days is to confront the radically unpredictable trajectory of our lives and live as if every single day truly might be our last.”

During the High Holidays we not only confront our mortality during the Un’tane Tokef prayer, but also during Yizkor, the memorial prayers we say for our departed loved ones. Yizkor is a profound experience of “Don’t JUST do something, sit there!”  Technically, we stand during the prayer, but we are called upon to remember our departed. Through deep reflection, we take time out to engage with and validate the pain of their absence. We draw inspiration from the positive influence they had on us and pledge to ourselves to do our best to carry on their legacy. For some of us, we might also engage in the pain of broken relationships we had with our departed while they were alive and forgive ourselves for any repair that did not come about. 

Ady Barkan, in a recently released series of online video interviews with several leading presidential candidates, describes to each of the candidates his own reflections on his legacy in making a difference in our world. He asks each candidate to reflect on the legacy he or she hopes to leave by the time they exit  public life. In these tear-jerker conversations, Ady draws the candidates off of their talking points to reflect deeply on the meaning of life. He has them literally “sit there” in meaningful contemplation.  This series of public reflections on mortality and legacy is by itself a tremendous gift that Ady has given us all.  

Ady refers in his book to the “Serenity Prayer” by the great theologian Rheinhold Niebuhr, a friend and teacher of both Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. The Serenity Prayer reflects Un’tane Tokef and asks for the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what can be, and the wisdom to know the difference. Ady embodies the spirit of those words, as did my late friend Larry. 

During Yizkor, I plan to think about Larry and how in the grips of a devastating disease, he left behind a legacy of loving life. He stubbornly affirmed life to his last day through his books, his articles, his smiles and his eyebrow gestures. I will also reflect on how Ady Barkan, suffering from the same disease, is modeling a legacy that when we confront and accept our limited number of days, we increase our efforts to improve the world. 

As we enter Yizkor, don’t JUST do something, sit there. Let us reflect on the legacy of our loved ones. Let us reflect on the legacy we seek to leave for ourselves, and let us return to purposeful action. 

Love Is a Verb

2 Oct
The Torah's three commandments of love

The Torah’s three commandments of love

“Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!” These words echo in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit Broadway musical, “Hamilton,” the story of one of the least appreciated American founding fathers. The setting in which these words are sung is early in the Revolutionary War. The Americans are not faring well. Yet, the women who sing these words are brimming with optimism. War and bloodshed have engulfed the young nation, and still, there is a sense that better days are ahead.

Our Jewish tradition calls on us to cherish and affirm life, even when, or especially when, our world is rife with hatred, violence and fear. We gather on Rosh HaShanah for a communal wake up call to take careful note of the world around us and to commit ourselves to creating a better world. We take note of a sense of instability in our nation and around the world that has aroused fear, hatred, and even violence. The news is often overwhelming, and we may feel powerless in our ability to bring about change. Judaism demands otherwise.

Judaism demands that we not resign ourselves to fear, hatred and violence. Judaism demands love.  The Jewish concept of love is not random; it’s intentional. It’s not passive; it’s active. In the Torah, to love is a mitzvah, a commandment. On the surface, it seems ludicrous to legislate an emotion. In the Torah, love is a verb, ve’ahavta, you shall love. Love is an action. Love requires intention.

To illustrate this vital mission, I’d like to share three stories.  These stories are connected to commandments in the Torah on love, and, incredibly, each is connected to the climax of the High Holiday prayer Un’tane Tokef. The words u’teshuvah u’tefillah u’tzedakah maavirin et roa ha-gezeirah, “repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severity of the decree” provide a blueprint for us to fulfill the Torah’s commandment to love.

Story #1. A rabbinic colleague tells of receiving an urgent request to visit a patient who was very ill. The patient asked the rabbi to arrange for his sister to visit him. They had argued years earlier and then went their separate ways. When the rabbi phoned the sister, she accepted the invitation to see her brother at his bedside. The patient later told the rabbi, “Thank God I had the time to see my sister. You know, when I looked at her, I didn’t see the same person I had been angry with for so many years. I saw the young girl who had walked with me to school. I saw the young girl who brought me treats whenever she went to the store. I feel better now, but I am left asking myself the same question over and over, ‘Why did it take so long?’”(Klein, How to Forgive When You Can’t Forget, 60-61).

Three times the Torah instructs us to love. In Leviticus (19:18), we learn the familiar verse וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵֽעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ, love your neighbor as yourself. The Golden Rule! In the Hebrew, רֵֽע can mean more than just a neighbor, it is someone in your inner circle, someone close. We sometimes take these relationships for granted and allow anger, jealousy and spite to get in the way. However, like we saw with the sick man and his sister, there is path out of this place of “stuckness.” In Un’tane Tokef, teshuvah is one of the three pathways towards reconnection and renewal within our closest relationships.

In recent days, I’ve read many obituaries about President Shimon Peres z”l. On Yom Kippur I will reflect more on his legacy, but for today, one thing he said stands out for me. He once said, “[Reconciliation ] can’t be done if there is no forgiveness. Have you forgiven and can both [parties] move on? If you are focused on the past, you will not succeed. There will be no future.”

Teshuvah means return and reconnect, and that includes letting go the burdens of the past that hold us back so that we may move forward toward a renewed future. The High Holidays are our special time to reconnect. There are relationships in our lives that we need to renew. Someone needs to hear my apology, my gratitude, my appreciation. This is our time to make amends and rebuild love. Our future is at stake. The time for reconciliation is now.

Story #2. Just a few weeks ago, a Jewish artist in suburban Philadelphia, Esther Cohen-Eskin, woke up to find a swastika spray-painted on the garbage bin outside her home. Naturally, she was horrified by this vicious act of hatred as any of us would be. If this had happened to me I know I would try to erase all remnants of the swastika by either scrubbing it off, painting over it or buying a new garbage pail. That’s not what Esther did. She kept the swastika but painted over each of its legs a flower petal so that the end result was a beautiful flower. The story only began there. Esther’s neighbors were horrified, and with her encouragement, they painted swastikas on their garbage bins and then painted the same flower symbol over it as well as other symbols of love and caring. Soon Esther was receiving emails from total strangers in Canada, Germany and Ireland where people shared pictures of their own newly similarly decorated garbage bins. What started as the ugliest hate-filled antisemitism was transformed to solidarity and love.

The Torah expresses this kind of love as:  וַֽאֲהַבְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הַגֵּ֑ר (Deut. 10:19), you shall love the stranger. It’s not enough to love people close to you such as family and friends. We’re told to broaden the circle of love. Why? כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם, because YOU were strangers in the land of Egypt. We know what it’s like to be other. We know what it feels like to be hated. Therefore, it is our sacred duty to cultivate empathy and kindness, like that Esther received from total strangers.

The Un’tane Tokef prayer urges us to show love not only to those in our inner circle, but also to the broader world. Through tzedakah, we bring healing to those around us to alleviate their suffering. We must draw upon our experience to empathize with those less fortunate than ourselves. If others are in pain, we must do what we can to heal, because we know what it’s like. We’ve been there. Esther’s neighbors put themselves in Esther’s shoes, and whether or not they were Jewish they said we are with you.

When we deepen love in the world by repairing relationships with those closest to us and by expanding kindness and compassion to those outside of our immediate circle, we are then most likely to succeed at the third kind of love, love of God.

This takes me to Story #3. It’s a personal story about a time recently when I felt the presence of God. At the beginning of the summer, my brother Henry got married. His wife, Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann has created an independent Jewish community called Mishkan Chicago that caters to a population of predominantly Jewish millennials—young adult Jews mainly in their 20s and 30s. On the Friday night before the wedding, Mishkan held a service with at least 500 people present. It was an overwhelming, inspiring outpouring of singing, dancing and love that is still reverberating in my heart. The enthusiastic and spontaneous joy in that extraordinary community embodied for me love of God.

We encounter the mitzvah to love God every day when we say the Shema:   וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ, and you shall love Adonai your God” בְּכָל־לְבָֽבְךָ֥ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶֽךָ, “with all your heart with all your soul with all your might” (Deut. 6:7). To love God correlates with the third pillar of Un’taneh Tokef: Tefillah, prayer. Teshuvah and Tzedakah open our pathways to authentic prayer. When we care about people near us and those further out, prayer affirms our relationship to God that we cultivate through love of humanity. Furthermore, authentic prayer is more than saying words. It reminds us that all other human beings are created in the divine image and inspires us to love our neighbors and strangers more. The service that I experienced at Mishkan did just that. Prayer is our invitation to affirm our relationship to God that we cultivate through love of humanity. Furthermore, authentic prayer is more than saying words. It reminds us that all other human beings are created in the divine image and inspires us to love our neighbors and strangers more. While our synagogues provide us refuge from the hatred and pain in the broader world, they also provide a structure within which we can model love. Love of humanity leads us to meaningful prayer. And meaningful, authentic prayer provides a structure within which to further cultivate love and take it back out to the world.

With unprecedented fear, hatred, bigotry and violence in our society, our task in this new year is to bring love into our community with intentionality and purpose. Love is a verb. Love is not random; it is an intentional action. This Rosh HaShanah, we reflect on a year in which fear and hate have caused so much pain to so many. I pray that next Rosh HaShanah will be different. I pray that we will reflect on 5777 and notice that we turned a corner. I pray that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s words will come to fruition and we will say once again wholeheartedly “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.”

May God give us the strength to unlock love and bring healing to ourselves, our relationships and our world.

From Tears of Anguish to Tears of Joy (Rosh HaShanah Day 1)

13 Sep

Mets infielder Wilmer Flores wept publicly during a game upon hearing that he may have been traded. His emotion struck a chord for the common fear of vulnerability we all share. Mets infielder Wilmer Flores wept publicly during a game upon hearing that he may have been traded. His emotion struck a chord for the common fear of vulnerability we all share.

Shanah Tovah!

It is a joy to see everyone, and I wish you all a joyous and healthy year. We all love heroes, and I would like to share a story of a baseball player who became a great hero this summer.  As the July trading deadline was approaching, it was announced on the news that New York Mets infielder Wilmer Flores was going to be traded to the Milwaukee Brewers. The Mets were in the middle of a game against the Padres when the story broke. Flores came in from the infield in between innings as the Mets prepared to go to bat. Suddenly the fans were shouting to Flores the news that he would be traded. The shouts of the fans were the first that Flores heard about it. How did he react? He cried. TV cameras caught him shedding tears throughout the rest of the game. He was sad about leaving his teammates in the midst of a pennant race.  He was upset about the way he heard the news and his complete lack of control. In this raw moment of human vulnerability, Flores felt abandoned, flummoxed and shocked. I think this story shows that curve balls are often thrown at us. We know that often things happen that are beyond our control.


In another era, Wilmer Flores might have been ridiculed as a wimp or a sissy. Someone might have told him to suck it up like a man. Such a reaction might still occur in segments of our society. Wilmer Flores’s public weeping, however, struck a chord with many. His crying was a profound moment that resonated with the public for its genuine humanity. We all can identify with Wilmer Flores.  His tears remind us that no matter how much we try to order our lives, things unfold in ways beyond our control. In the end, the trade was called off, and Flores has been playing very well for the Mets. For one brief moment this summer, though, Flores reminded us that we are all vulnerable to fear and uncertainty when we lose our sense of control.


If we can empathize with Wilmer Flores over the mundane matter of playing baseball, then we also can and must empathize with those facing life and death decisions.  Imagine the the fear of hundreds of thousands of refugees from the war-torn Middle East and north Africa who are seeking asylum in the West. Imagine the impossible choice faced by most of these people. They could stay in their homeland dominated by rampaging murderous thugs who enslave and rape children. They could also try to leave and risk the lives of their family on an overcrowded boat in the Mediterranean bound for Europe. If the boat doesn’t sink, as many have, they then face great uncertainty as to what will happen to them in Europe. Will they be granted asylum or deported to their home countries?  The news media coverage of the plight of these refugees whose lives are in limbo underscores the fear of the unknown that these mothers, fathers and children must feel. The uncertainty of it all is enough to make any of us cry.


In today’s Torah reading, we read about Hagar, Abraham’s handmaiden and mother of Ishmael. After Sarah gives birth to Isaac, Ishmael is seen as a threat, and Sarah prevails upon Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael. It is a tragic tale of a mother and her son forced the leave their home with meager rations and left to face almost certain death in the wilderness. Our classical Jewish texts do not shy away from difficult situations in the lives of our ancestors that depict them as flawed human beings who don’t always make the best choices. Perhaps Abraham and Sarah might have found another solution to their household woes but the story that we have is that Hagar and Ishmael were banished into the desert. As Ishmael lay before his mother dying, the text describes Hagar’s moment of desperation: Va tisa et kolah va-tevk—she raised her voice and cried over the suffering of her son Ishmael. In the depths of her crisis, she is heard. God provides aide to Ishmael Baasher hu sham, right where he is.


In the other Torah and Haftarah readings during Rosh HaShanah we find other examples of our ancestors who out to God in anguish and are heard. God remembers those who cry out in despair and meets all of them Baasher hu sham—wherever they are. In case the selected Biblical texts are not clear enough that genuine cries of sadness and desperation are heard, the main ritual of this holiday hammers home the point. The sound of the shofar mimics different kinds of crying—cries of anguish, cries of brokenness and cries of hope. We blow the shofar to induce ourselves to awaken ourselves to be vulnerable and pour out that which troubles us. Our Biblical ancestors cried to God at their greatest vulnerability and were answered. In our moment of anguish and uncertainty we pray that God will be there for us.


Rosh HaShanah reminds us as we start the new year that so much in life is beyond our control. Our cries express that innate human acknowledgement of vulnerability.  We go through much of our lives thinking we’re in command of our own destiny. The truth is, we’re not. How can we function in this state of helplessness? Thankfully, we are able to turn once again to our High Holiday liturgy for some guidance.


Un’tane Tokef  is a climactic moment in the Musaf service in which we acknowledge our abject frailty in our world. In the coming year, we do not know who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water. This first section of Un’tane Tokef  is the ultimate expression of humility and powerlessness in a vast and complex universe. Umalakhim yehapeizun, even the angels are trembling from their sense of powerlessness and uncertainty. Then, in a stroke of genius, the payytan, the poet, shifts gears and says: ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזירה, repentance, prayer and righteousness can help the pain of the decree pass. In other words, through our actions, we can reclaim a measure of control. We can’t always change the decree, but we can make its effects less harsh so that we can live with a new normal and help others do the same.


We feel the tension between helplessness and assertive action in all aspects of our lives from the global scale to the communal scale to our  personal tragedies. The essence of this season is to transform our sense of helplessness into hope. Unfortunately, this is much easier said than done.


Let me return to the deep horrific refugee crisis that is gripping Europe as hundreds of thousands of people seek to rebuild their lives shattered by war, persecution and terror. The image of a toddler boy Aylan Kurdi lying dead on a beach in Turkey has churned stomachs and galvanized attention to this harrowing situation. Hundreds of drownings in the Mediterranean from overloaded capsized boats, scores of people found dead in a truck in Austria and the desperation in the Budapest train station compound the horror of this situation. The civil war in Syria and the savagery of ISIS have gone on for years. We’ve seen beheadings, chemical warfare, slaughter of Christians and Yazidis, and bloodshed of Muslim Shi’ites and Sunnis towards each other. All of this has gone on for at least four years, and the world has done virtually nothing. Va-tisa et kolah va-tevk. Thousands of people are crying out in despair.  With desperate throngs of asylum seekers landing on the shores and in the train stations of Europe, the world is finally beginning to hear the desperate cries of the suffering. The question is will we be there—Baasher hu shamfor them. The development of this crisis wasn’t in our control, but our response to it is. We all know reasons cited for not turning away Syrians and others. There is fear of radical Islamic inspired terrorism spreading to the West. Many Jews fear rising anti-Semitism in a European environment already hostile to Jews. There is the valid critique that the US and Europe should have done more years ago to prevent the explosion of violence and anarchy in the refugees’ countries of origin. The renowned Holocaust scholar Dr. Deborah Lipstadt expressed these concerns, even as she said she is still writing a check to refugee relief. In times such as these, we help first and ask questions later. After all, we know what it’s like. It wasn’t so long ago that the Jewish people were shunned in Europe and the United States. In the 1938 Evian Conference, 32 European countries effectively slammed the door on the Jews, refusing to offer them refuge from Hitler. Remember the “Voyage of the Damned”? The SS St. Louis  carried nearly 1000 Jews from Germany across the Atlantic. They were denied entry into Cuba and the United States and forced to return to Europe. Many of those passengers died in the Holocaust. Before Hitler enacted the Final Solution, the Nazis were willing to let Jews emigrate to British Mandate Palestine, but the British enforced strict quotas and denied Jews entry to their own homeland as European Jewry was about to go up in flames. Of course, we know that even after the Holocaust, the British prevented desperate survivors from entering Israel. Our communal memory knows what it’s like to be refugees as our homes and families are burning.


England’s former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “I used to think that the most important line in the Bible was ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. Then I realised that it is easy to love your neighbour because he or she is usually quite like yourself. What is hard is to love the stranger, one whose colour, culture or creed is different from yours. That is why the command, ‘Love the stranger because you were once strangers,’ resonates so often throughout the Bible. It is summoning us now.”


It is ironic that the destination of choice for many of the asylum seekers is Germany, 70 years after the world finally stopped the Nazi reign of terror. To its credit, Germany has welcomed close to a million refugees. Other nations have been less forthcoming. Rabbi Sacks has called on England to carry out the equivalent of the kindertransport that brought some 10,000 Jewish children to England and saved them from certain death in the Shoah. Rabbi Sacks notes that the Torah reminds us to love the stranger because we were once strangers. In this world gone mad, it is easy to feel helpless; yet, somewhere, there must be some measure of human decency that will bring shelter and peace to the asylum seekers. Other rabbis in England have organized efforts in their community to support refugees and aide their absorption. All of the major American-based or American supported Jewish defense organizations are leading the way in helping with resettlement of refugees in Europe. In particular, HIAS  and the JDC are working with Jewish communities throughout Europe to provide both financial and hands on support. These efforts are worthy of our support.


On the day that we read of the plight of Hagar and Ishamel, we note with pain and sorrow the anguish felt by many of the spiritual descendants of Hagar and Ishmael who are seeking lives of freedom and tranquility. Va-tisa et kolah va-tevk. Like Hagar, they are raising their voices and crying out in despair. God met them Baasher hu sham—right where they were and provided for them. The Jewish people, along with the entire Western world are pressed with the challenge to imitate God and be Baasher hu sham for these people. Furthermore, while the development of this crisis was beyond our control our response to it is not. We need to direct our teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah to respond to the harsh decrees of the past year. We’re called upon to stop the pain. This is our test of the moment.


The last year drew to a close with fear and cries of despair from across the ocean. My prayer is that this time next year that the tears we shed will be tears of joy as the children of Abraham come together to rejoice in a more peaceful world.