[Editor's note: the following is a sermon written and delivered by Atlanta Rabbi Schlomo Lewis on the First Day of Rosh Hashanah, 2010. It is titled in Yiddish, Ehr Kumt, "He is Coming."]
Many years ago, a Chasid used to travel from shtetl to shtetl selling holy books. On one occasion he came to a wealthy land owner and asked if he would like to purchase a book of Torah teachings. The banker agreed and not only purchased the book, but paid for it with a hundred ruble note. He then began to chat with the Chassid and offered him a cigar, taking one also for himself. The Chassid noticed that the banker proceeded to rip a page from the holy book he had just bought and, holding it to the open flame on the stove, used the page to light his cigar. The Chassid said not a word but simply drew out from his pocket the 100 ruble note he had just received from the banker, held it over the stove as well and used it to light his cigar.
This simple, little tale reflects a profound divergence of values. Our sympathy clearly and instinctively is not with the banker but with the pious Chassid. None of us would come to the defense of the banker. None of us would claim moral supremacy for the banker. None of us would justify his boorish deed. As the sages of the Talmud would say – “Pshita – It is so obvious.” Sadly though our planet is immersed in perversity where morality is not so manifest – where the book burner is a hero and the pious one, a villain.
I thought long and I thought hard on whether to deliver the sermon I am about to share. We all wish to bounce happily out of shul on the High Holidays, filled with warm fuzzies, ready to gobble up our brisket, our honey cakes and our kugel. We want to be shaken and stirred – but not too much. We want to be guilt-schlepped – but not too much. We want to be provoked but not too much. We want to be transformed but not too much.
I get it, but as a rabbi I have a compelling obligation, a responsibility to articulate what is in my heart and what I passionately believe must be said and must be heard. And so, I am guided not by what is easy to say but by what is painful to express. I am guided not by the frivolous but by the serious. I am guided not by delicacy but by urgency.
We are at war. We are at war with an enemy as savage, as voracious, as heartless as the Nazis but one wouldn’t know it from our behavior. During WWII we didn’t refer to storm troopers as freedom fighters. We didn’t call the Gestapo, militants. We didn’t see the attacks on our Merchant Marine as acts by rogue sailors. We did not justify the Nazis rise to power as our fault. We did not grovel before the Nazis, thumping our hearts and confessing to abusing and mistreating and humiliating the German people. We did not apologize for Dresden, nor for The Battle of the Bulge, nor for El Alamein, nor for D-Day.
Evil – ultimate, irreconcilable, evil threatened us and Roosevelt and Churchill had moral clarity and an exquisite understanding of what was at stake. It was not just the Sudetenland, not just Tubruk, not just Vienna, not just Casablanca. It was the entire planet. Read history and be shocked at how frighteningly close Hitler came to creating a Pax Germana on every continent.
Not all Germans were Nazis – most were decent, most were revolted by the Third Reich, most were good citizens hoisting a beer, earning a living and tucking in their children at night. But, too many looked away, too many cried out in lame defense – “I didn’t know.” Too many were silent. Guilt absolutely falls upon those who committed the atrocities, but responsibility and guilt falls upon those who did nothing as well. Fault was not just with the goose steppers but with those who pulled the curtains shut, said and did nothing.
In WWII we won because we got it. We understood who the enemy was and we knew that the end had to be unconditional and absolute. We did not stumble around worrying about offending the Nazis. We did not measure every word so as not to upset our foe. We built planes and tanks and battleships and went to war to win….. to rid the world of malevolence.
We are at war… yet too many stubbornly and foolishly don’t put the pieces together and refuse to identify the evil doers. We are circumspect and disgracefully politically correct.
Let me mince no words in saying that from Fort Hood to Bali, from Times Square to London, from Madrid to Mumbai, from 9/11 to Gaza, the murderers, the barbarians are radical Islamists.
To camouflage their identity is sedition. To excuse their deeds is contemptible. To mask their intentions is unconscionable.
A few years ago I visited Lithuania on a Jewish genealogical tour. It was a stunning journey and a very personal, spiritual pilgrimage. When we visited Kovno we davened Maariv at the only remaining shul in the city. Before the war there were thirty-seven shuls for 38,000 Jews. Now only one, a shrinking, gray congregation. We made minyon for the handful of aged worshippers in the Choral Synagogue, a once majestic, jewel in Kovno.
After my return home I visited Cherry Hill for Shabbos. At the oneg an elderly family friend, Joe Magun, came over to me.
“Shalom,” he said. “Your abba told me you just came back from Lithuania.” “Yes,” I replied. “It was quite a powerful experience.” “Did you visit the Choral Synagogue in Kovno? The one with the big arch in the courtyard?” “Yes, I did. In fact, we helped them make minyon.” His eyes opened wide in joy at our shared memory. For a moment he gazed into the distance and then, he returned. “Shalom, I grew up only a few feet away from the arch. The Choral Synagogue was where I davened as a child.”
He paused for a moment and once again was lost in the past. His smile faded. Pain filled his wrinkled face. “I remember one Shabbos in 1938 when Vladimir Jabotinsky came to the shul” (Jabotinsky was Menachim Begin’s mentor – he was a fiery orator, an unflinching Zionist radical, whose politics were to the far right.) Joe continued “When Jabotinsky came, he delivered the drash on Shabbos morning and I can still hear his words burning in my ears. He climbed up to the shtender, stared at us from the bima, glared at us with eyes full of fire and cried out. ‘Ehr Kumt. Yidn Farlawst ayer shtetl – He’s coming. Jews abandon your city.’ ”
We thought we were safe in Lithuania from the Nazis, from Hitler. We had lived there, thrived for a thousand years but Jabotinsky was right — his warning prophetic. We got out but most did not.”
We are not in Lithuania. It is not the 1930s. There is no Luftwaffe overhead. No U-boats off the coast of Long Island. No Panzer divisions on our borders. But make no mistake; we are under attack – our values, our tolerance, our freedom, our virtue, our land.
Now before some folks roll their eyes and glance at their watches let me state emphatically, unmistakably – I have no pathology of hate, nor am I a manic Paul Revere, galloping through the countryside. I am not a pessimist, nor prone to panic attacks. I am a lover of humanity, all humanity. Whether they worship in a synagogue, a church, a mosque, a temple or don’t worship at all. I have no bone of bigotry in my body, but what I do have is hatred for those who hate, intolerance for those who are intolerant, and a guiltless, unstoppable obsession to see evil eradicated.
Today the enemy is radical Islam but it must be said sadly and reluctantly that there are unwitting, co-conspirators who strengthen the hands of the evil doers. Let me state that the overwhelming number of Muslims are good Muslims, fine human beings who want nothing more than a Jeep Cherokee in their driveway, a flat screen TV on their wall and a good education for their children, but these good Muslims have an obligation to destiny, to decency that thus far for the most part they have avoided. The Kulturkampf is not only external but internal as well. The good Muslims must sponsor rallies in Times Square, in Trafalgar Square, in the UN Plaza, on the Champs Elysee, in Mecca condemning terrorism, denouncing unequivocally the slaughter of the innocent. Thus far, they have not. The good Muslims must place ads in the NY Times. They must buy time on network TV, on cable stations, in the Jerusalem Post, in Le Monde, in Al Watan, on Al Jazeera condemning terrorism, denouncing unequivocally the slaughter of the innocent – thus far, they have not. Their silence allows the vicious to tarnish Islam and define it.
Brutal acts of commission and yawning acts of omission both strengthen the hand of the devil.
I recall a conversation with my father shortly before he died that helped me understand how perilous and how broken is our world; that we are living on the narrow seam of civilization and moral oblivion. Knowing he had little time left he shared the following – “Shal. I am ready to leave this earth. Sure I’d like to live a little longer, see a few more sunrises, but truthfully, I’ve had it. I’m done. Finished. I hope the Good Lord takes me soon because I am unable to live in this world knowing what it has become.”
This startling admission of moral exhaustion from a man who witnessed and lived through the Depression, the Holocaust, WWII, Communist Triumphalism, McCarthyism, Strontium 90 and polio. – Yet his twilight observation was – “The worst is yet to come.” And he wanted out.
I share my father’s angst and fear that too many do not see the authentic, existential threat we face nor confront the source of our peril. We must wake up and smell the hookah.
“Lighten up, Lewis. Take a chill pill, some of you are quietly thinking. You’re sounding like Glenn Beck. It’s not that bad. It’s not that real.” But I am here to tell you – It is. Ask the member of our shul whose sister was vaporized in the Twin Towers and identified finally by her charred teeth, if this is real or not. Ask the members of our shul who fled a bus in downtown Paris, fearing for their safety from a gang of Muslim thugs, if this is an exaggeration. Ask the member of our shul whose son tracks Arab terrorist infiltrators who target – pizza parlors, nursery schools, Pesach seders, city buses and play grounds, if this is dramatic, paranoid hyperbole.
Ask them, ask all of them – ask the American GI’s we sit next to on planes who are here for a brief respite while we fly off on our Delta vacation package. Ask them if it’s bad. Ask them if it’s real.
Did anyone imagine in the 1920’s what Europe would look like in the 1940’s. Did anyone presume to know in the coffee houses of Berlin or in the opera halls of Vienna that genocide would soon become the celebrated culture? Did anyone think that a goofy-looking painter named Shickelgruber would go from the beer halls of Munich and jail, to the Reichstag as Feuhrer in less than a decade? Did Jews pack their bags and leave Warsaw, Vilna, Athens, Paris, Bialystok, Minsk, knowing that soon their new address would be Treblinka, Sobibor, Dachau and Auschwitz?
The sages teach – “Aizehu chacham – haroeh et hanolad – Who is a wise person – he who sees into the future.” We dare not wallow in complacency, in a misguided tolerance and naïve sense of security.
We must be diligent students of history and not sit in ash cloth at the waters of Babylon weeping. We cannot be hypnotized by eloquent-sounding rhetoric that soothes our heart but endangers our soul. We cannot be lulled into inaction for fear of offending the offenders. Radical Islam is the scourge and this must be cried out from every mountain top. From sea to shining sea, we must stand tall, prideful of our stunning decency and moral resilience. Immediately after 9/11 how many mosques were destroyed in America? None. After 9/11, how many Muslims were killed in America? None. After 9/11, how many anti-Muslim rallies were held in America? None. And yet, we apologize. We grovel. We beg forgiveness.
The mystifying litany of our foolishness continues. Should there be a shul in Hebron on the site where Baruch Goldstein gunned down twenty-seven Arabs at noonday prayers? Should there be a museum praising the U.S. Calvary on the site of Wounded Knee? Should there be a German cultural center in Auschwitz? Should a church be built in the Syrian town of Ma’arra where Crusaders slaughtered over 100,000 Muslims? Should there be a thirteen story mosque and Islamic Center only a few steps from Ground Zero?
Despite all the rhetoric, the essence of the matter can be distilled quite easily. The Muslim community has the absolute, constitutional right to build their building wherever they wish. I don’t buy the argument – “When we can build a church or a synagogue in Mecca they can build a mosque here.” America is greater than Saudi Arabia. And New York is greater than Mecca. Democracy and freedom must prevail.
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