Rabbi Arnowitz’s Sermon for Bereshit 2023 ~ The Difficult Conversations Ahead

Sermon for Bereshit – 2023 – The Difficult Conversations Ahead – Transcript:

All right, so we’ve spent a lot of time this week. This week has been awful. I compared last night, and I’ll say it again this week, to the first week of A New World. It was like the first day Sunday was turmoil. Lightness and dark, trying to figure out how to hold them together last Sunday and then Monday maybe, the convulsions of the land forming and then on Tuesday, sparks of light and sparks of darkness and growth and thoughts about the future and Wednesday and Thursday and Friday and finally, there’s a first day, a second day, a third day, a fourth day, and I cannot tell you how grateful I am for Shabbat.

It’s like Shabbat came in and I could breathe partly because I took my eyes off of screens. It’s been such a great gift of Shabbat because I just was constantly inundated and working and to be at peace and to know that showing up here today for Shabbat is for people who cannot in Israel who want to be for various reasons, whether because they are on.

Had to put on a uniform and are standing down on the border, or because they are at home. I have no idea what’s going on at this moment, but I assume rockets continue to fly, and people are still staying within steps of their shelters and their safe rooms. For us to show up, especially with the bar mitzvah going on, there were, as I mentioned in my email, this this friend, one of my professors and colleagues in Katamonim who was telling about the three B’nai Mitzvah they’re supposed to have at their shul this week, and how they, they weren’t sure, I only talked to them early in the week, I don’t know what they did in the end, if they would be able to celebrate them.

And for us to be in shul representing what’s important, what makes it all worthwhile, what makes Judaism special and important, is very valuable. So I thank you all for being here. I’m glad I am here. The conversation that I’d like to have this morning is a hard one. And it’s one that you might not be ready for.

And I actually am not sure I’m ready to talk about it. But it is a conversation that’s starting whether we like it or not. And it is one that I’m hearing from my friends in Israel that they are having as well. What I want to talk today is morality. Sometimes morality is very clear. For example, the complete and utter amorality of what happened last Saturday is crystal clear.

That was evil. Evil needs to be blotted out wherever it is found. That’s clear. It’s easy to make a clear moral message about that. However, from there it gets murkier. And over the next several weeks, it is going to get murkier still. And we are all going to be faced with a lot of moral questions. Many of us are having them already, and for sure our brothers and sisters in Israel are having them.

And that’s okay. It’s hard and it’s difficult because morals are hard and difficult. But we wrestle with them because that’s what makes us different from our attackers. So I want to bring you today is an example from three verses in our Torah portion. They seem like appropriate verses to study this morning. I know many of my colleagues around the country and world will be studying the same three verses.

But I want to study them today, not only to show. To explore what they tell us that’s obvious about morality, but also to note that they contradict each other, and that when it comes to morality, it’s not always so easy. That morals can, in and of themselves, contradict, and when they do, it is incumbent upon us, and our leaders, to make decisions about the right way forward.

Enough introduction. Let’s take a look at the text. So a lot of things are discovered, are invented, in in our Torah portion. Bereishit. It’s creation after all. And among all the things that man and God, that God creates and man, humanity invents, is murder. It’s really sad when you think about it.

The second generation of humankind. Which is the first generation of humankind when a murder could take place. That’s when it takes place. We get right to it. And the verses that tell us about the first murder. Read the following er.

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר קַ֖יִן אֶל־הֶ֣בֶל אָחִ֑יו וַֽיְהִי֙ בִּהְיוֹתָ֣ם בַּשָּׂדֶ֔ה וַיָּ֥קׇם קַ֛יִן אֶל־הֶ֥בֶל אָחִ֖יו וַיַּהַרְגֵֽהוּ׃

8) Kayin said [something] to his brother Hevel, and it happened when they were in the field, that Kayin rose up against his brother, Hevel, and killed him.

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־קַ֔יִן אֵ֖י הֶ֣בֶל אָחִ֑יךָ וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ לֹ֣א יָדַ֔עְתִּי הֲשֹׁמֵ֥ר אָחִ֖י אָנֹֽכִי׃

9) Adonoy then said to Kayin, Where is your brother, Hevel? [Kayin] said, I know not, am I my brother’s keeper?

וַיֹּ֖אמֶר מֶ֣ה עָשִׂ֑יתָ ק֚וֹל דְּמֵ֣י אָחִ֔יךָ צֹעֲקִ֥ים אֵלַ֖י מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃

10) He said [to Kayin], What have you done? The voice of your brother’s bloods cries out to Me from the ground.

It is, I think in the text metaphorical but horrifically over the last week, we saw it as a reality – blood of the innocent crying out from the ground of the Promised Land.

There’s a lot of commentary about these verses. I want to bring two moral lessons that the rabbis draw from this, from two midrashim. The first one, I think, comes with great moral clarity, and I find chizuk from it in this moment, strengthening from it in this moment. Now remember, when you read a midrash, when a rabbi of the Talmud or the Mishnah It’s not meant to be literal. It’s not, they’re not telling you this is how it happened, necessarily. The rabbis of that age gave stories instead of sermons. And these stories were told to, to transmit values and ideas. So don’t worry about the truth of this, with the capital ‘T,’ that this is exactly how it happened. We’re listening for the moral ‘truths’ that these rabbis were trying to communicate.

So the first one is on the first verse. It said:

Kayin said [something] to his brother Hevel, and it happened when they were in the field, that Kayin rose up against his brother, Hevel, and killed him.

There’s a lot of Midrash on the missing, what did Cain say to Abel? Cain said to Abel…, and it happened to him on the field, he got up and he killed him. What did he say?

What did Cain say to Abel? And so this Midrash comes along from Rabbi Yochanan, and he says:

אמר רבי יוחנן: הבל היה גבור [=חזק] מקין, שאין תלמוד לומר ‘ויקם’, אלא מלמד שהיה [קין] נתון תחתיו. אמר לו [=קין להבל]: שנינו בעולם, מה את הולך ואומר לאבא? נתמלא עליו רחמים. מיד עמד עליו והרגו.

Bereshit Rabbah 22:8

Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Abel was stronger than Cain, as the verse need not have stated: “rose up.” Rather, it teaches that he had been situated underneath him. He [Cain] said to him: ‘There are the two of us in the world, what will you go and say to Father?’ He [Abel] became filled with mercy for him [and released him]. Immediately, he [Cain] rose up against him and killed him. From there they say: Do not do a favor for a wicked person, and evil will not befall you.

Abel was stronger! By the way, good is stronger than evil every time. So what happened? If Abel is stronger, they were wrestling, they were fighting, Abel felt threatened, by Cain, and he had Cain pinned down.

But then the text says, “Vayakam Cain.” Cain got up. So what does it mean? Why does he use that word? It’s a strange word. Why does he say he got up upon Abel? Because Abel had him pinned down.

Cain said to Hevel, “Hey, there’s only the two of us in the world here. Right?” “What are you going to go and tell dad if you kill me here?” This is Cain to Abel who has him pinned down under Abel’s weight, completely helpless. And he says, “Come on, brother. We’re brothers here. What are you going to go and tell Abba?

Abel was filled with compassion. He had upon him mercy, and immediately, Cain got up and killed him.

From here, the rabbis learn the aphorism, “Do not hold favor for a wicked person, or evil will befall you.”

I learned this midrash when I was in Israel years ago, and I found it stuck with me. I found it troubling. It was so sad to me, this idea, how could there be something so evil that it didn’t deserve compassion, that it didn’t deserve mercy. Over the years since I was learning it, a lot has happened in the last 25 or so years, where I have realized what the rabbis had in mind and come to understand what this midrash is trying to teach us.

That in fact, there is such a thing in the world as evil, complete and pure evil without explanation, Evil without cause, evil without purpose, evil without morality, that does not recognize the basic ideas and laws of humanity. And when that evil is encountered, it must be destroyed. And evil is manipulative.

And evil will try and create situations to make good people merciful. Because you are good, and you cannot let it up off the mat. That if you do, it is at your own peril. This is one of those times where I believe that this Midrash applies. That what we saw take place last Saturday was an incarnation of evil on earth.

If you’re interested in the question, by the way, I could be wrong about this, but this is how I see it, feel free to tell me otherwise. There is, I understand that it is a question, because the question is, how do you know true evil when you see it? Yossi Khan Alevi and Danil Hartman in their in their podcast  – for Heaven’s Sake – I think day five of the war you gotta listen to these two brilliant men debate, tying themselves in knots to know, to understand what is really what’s an evil act and what’s a, an incarnation of evil. And I think this is, but someone else might say something else is, and yeah, only rabbis and like authors could have that kind of conversation. But the incidents that took place, the captives, I think this all makes this different. We have seen true evil.

And I this Midrash at least can be applied to this situation. And should be applied to this situation. If you wonder why the Israelis are about to do what they’re about to do, presumably, everything they can to utterly destroy Hamas, the reason is likely because of this. When evil shows itself, you cannot show mercy to that evil.

Okay, but not so fast. What if there are innocents involved? There’s the other side of the of the coin. From Mishnah in Sanhedrin…

Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5:

שֶׁכֵּן מָצִינוּ בְקַיִן שֶׁהָרַג אֶת אָחִיו, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (בראשית ד) דְּמֵי אָחִיךָ צֹעֲקִים, אֵינוֹ אוֹמֵר דַּם אָחִיךָ אֶלָּא דְּמֵי אָחִיךָ, דָּמוֹ וְדַם זַרְעִיּוֹתָיו. דָּבָר אַחֵר, דְּמֵי אָחִיךָ, שֶׁהָיָה דָמוֹ מֻשְׁלָךְ עַל הָעֵצִים וְעַל הָאֲבָנִים.

For so have we found it with Cain that murdered his brother, for it says, “The bloods of your brother cry out” (Gen. 4:10). It doesn’t say, “The blood of your brother”, but rather “The bloods of your brother” meaning his blood and the blood of his descendants. Another saying is, “The bloods of your brother” that his blood was cast over trees and stones.

לְפִיכָךְ נִבְרָא אָדָם יְחִידִי, לְלַמֶּדְךָ, שֶׁכָּל הַמְאַבֵּד נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ אִבֵּד עוֹלָם מָלֵא. וְכָל הַמְקַיֵּם נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ קִיֵּם עוֹלָם מָלֵא.

Therefore but a single person was created in the world, to teach that if any man has caused a single life to perish, he is deemed by Scripture as if he had caused a whole world to perish; and anyone who saves a single soul, he is deemed by Scripture as if he had saved a whole world.

In other words, it says, this is why we say, when you kill a single person, it is as if you have destroyed a whole world. And why, when you save a life, it’s as if you’ve saved an entire world. Because the infinite, infinitude of people, through the infinitude of time that could be born to them, have also all been destroyed.

And the next thing it says, is and this is why, sorry, let me collect my thoughts. The next thing it says, is, and this is why all people came from one parent. So no one could say to somebody else, My father was more important than yours.

My ancestors were more important than yours. In other words, when someone’s on the stand in a capital case, these very same verses are being brought to say that ALL human life is of value, is valuable, and all human life is equally valuable. Now, yes, that applies to those who were killed last Saturday, 100%, and justice must be brought for them.

That’s what the first Midrash told us. But this also applies to all of the people, the innocent people, who are suffering and are going to suffer much worse, and lives that are going to be cost in Gaza. And before anyone says to me, I don’t believe there are any innocent people in Gaza, at minimum there are children involved there, as well as presumably people not involved with Hamas just trying to live their lives.

What we have before us now is a moral conundrum. These two moral necessities, 1) that justice must be served upon those who bring evil and absolute evil into the world. And 2) all human life, especially innocent human life, must be held up as sacred, are now in conflict for us. And it’s going, because of that, these weeks ahead are going to be weeks, who knows how long, weeks, months, I don’t even know, are going to be really hard and really terrible.

And those around us are going to be having a difficult moral conversations. The world is going to be having a difficult moral conversation. This moment of clear moral clarity – even the President of the United States was able to get up and say look, this is how it is. This is evil and it must be blotted out.

That is clear. That is moral clarity and it’s great that exists. But that is going to get murky. And it is going to fall on us, both to process And our leaders to process all of this and to continue to stand strongly with our brothers and sisters in Israel, even as doubts creep in and our enemies say, “What are you going to tell Abba?” “What are you going to tell God Jewish people?” How are you going to justify what’s about to happen? I think we can. I think we have to. I think we have a moral obligation to.We should struggle with the moral questions and understand the moral compromises with other morals, because that’s what makes us who we are.

But let’s not pretend like it’s going to be easy. Friends, we have not yet healed. I have not yet healed from last Saturday. Like I said, I don’t know if I’m ready to have this conversation.

But I have already heard this conversation being thrust upon us. From all different corners, and it’s going to get louder. I believe that the Israeli military does everything it can to protect innocent life. But the situation has been created when it is not possible, not least of which is because as easy as it seems to have been for these evil, wicked people of Hamas to kill our children, they really don’t seem to care about protecting their children either. The opposite, in fact. They’re just fine using them as human shields, as moral bargaining chips. Despicable.

There’s one more thing I want to say about this conversation before I wrap up, which is that this conversation is particularly hard for us now because we are so emotionally broken. I have spoken to some of the most gentle people I know in the world, people have dedicated their lives to peace and unity of all humankind, filled with rage. Filled with anger. I get it. I have heard some of the strongest people I’ve ever known in my life, soldiers, leaders, people of tremendous strength, I’ve seen them cry, weep like children, from the brokenness of their hearts, and being faced with an evil like they have never seen, or rarely seen. It has rarely reared its head. In our lifetimes.

It is at moments like this. It is when we are broken. It is when our emotions are uncontrollable. It is when maybe we can’t always trust our own judgment. That is when we need Torah. I taught this morning at our 8:30 class that, the first thing that the king is supposed to do, the first responsibility of the king is to fight wars on behalf of the Jewish people. That’s what Maimonides says. And the first thing the king is supposed to do when the king assumes the throne is write a Torah scroll.

And that Torah scroll is supposed to be with them all the time. When they march into war, it says the scroll should always be in front of them. Why do you think that is? Because to be on the right side of morality. It’s to make decisions based on rules of law, the rules of morality, the rules of humanity that God has given us, especially when it’s hardest to do that.

Some awful numbers have been coming out of Gaza, I don’t really believe them necessarily and they’re like hard to understand. If someone tells you 3, 000 people have died in Gaza, could you tell me how many of them are Hamas terrorists? It’s just all lumped together and it’s very hard to understand what’s going on.

But we know, let’s not kid ourselves, we know some of those people are civilians. If that’s the case I read the numbers – I’m not a military strategist, So what I’m about to say, you come tell me, maybe it makes no sense. But I heard there’s been over 600 bombing strikes by Israel. This is all before Shabbat started, I don’t know what happened last night.

I haven’t heard different. Over 600 bombing strikes in Gaza by the Israeli military. And something like 3, 000 people have been killed. Lots more injured. Okay? All I’ve ever been told my whole life about Gaza is people are packed in there like sardines, that people there’s no place to go. So, what those numbers tell me… And by the way, I’m not trying to be glib every innocent life that is lost is a tragedy. But it is Hamas, who right now are refusing to let people leave the area of combat, who are causing this tragedy. It’s not Israel’s choice, it is the one that is being forced on them. Israel has not created this situation. There is no moral equivalency. And the death of innocence is always terrible and should trouble us.

We have to be able to say that. And, the numbers… It seems to me like if Israel was going in with vengeance, if Israel was going in trying to kill as many people as possible, there would be a lot more people on that list. Because even now, the Israeli army has, and I heard, I’ve heard stories from Palestinians on the news.

We heard the bomb go off, that’s, they call it the knock. And so we fled our home, or we fled our area, and that’s why we’re still alive. Even now, in a war that is just and necessary, Israel is trying to wage it in the most moral way possible. That is important. That is the answer to these moral conundrums that we find ourselves in, at least for now.

It is going to be hard. over time to keep making this argument. And fewer people are going to be willing to make it with us. We know how this works. Today the world stands with us. Who knows how long that will last. But the track record is pretty grim. So what can we do? We can support our brothers and sisters in Israel.

We can be willing to have these conversations among ourselves so that when we are challenged, we can answer. We can continue to send aid and support. It is going to take years of rebuilding. Right now, communities are taking care of themselves, housing, without mostly government support. Taking in refugees from the South, housing them, feeding them, schooling their children, while schooling, homeschooling their own children.

Supporting their children, and often the fathers of these families who have been called up to put on uniforms and go to war. They need our help. They need to know we’re out here standing with them. I put on Facebook a couple of videos of our whole community, Larchmont-Mamroeneck, it was beautiful singing Hatikvah, and saying, Am Yisrael Chai.

I had several Israelis come back to me and write me, and said, Todah, or, wow, that was really amazing, that was really nice. Family, friends, keep putting those messages out there. They’re seeing them. They need to know they’re not alone. They feel so alone right now.

Write letters, whatever, talk to, call your elected officials offices, because as these moral questions get harder, the politics here in America are going to get harder, and if we want the Iron Dome to continue to protect lives in Israel as well as in Gaza, then it’s going to need to be replenished and it’s going to need to be replenished soon.

If we want Israelis to feel protected to know that Israel, that America’s with them bills are going to have to be passed, that are gonna say that America stands with Israel. It is. It is worth it now to make sure every one of our leaders, including political leaders, understand the morality of the situation and understand our support.

Pray we need to pray together. Prayers matter. Prayers make a difference. And so we’re going to pray together in just a second. Oh, there’s one more thing that I think needs to be said – very important. Here’s an act I think of moral courage. I want to put it out there. I read in the New York Times yesterday, Rabbi Josh Davidson of Temple Emanuel in New York put this letter to the editor, and it says, basically there’s been this call for jihad, so we’re all nervous, but what makes me more nervous is how we are going to look at the overwhelming number of American Muslims here who are good, who are also mortified by what has happened in the name of their faith, which is, has no place in their faith.

And by the way, we’ve gotten calls from local faith leaders, calls of sympathy, And he says don’t let them take our unity as Americans, as good people, away. There are people in our community who wear with headscarves. Don’t look at them with suspicion.

Don’t assume that what the evil people did… represents anyone who looks like they do.

We need to be able to see the difference between good and evil. And it’s not in the name of a religion, and it’s not in the way a people dresses, and it’s not in a way anybody looks. But it’s really easy to get confused at times like this. Let’s make sure we don’t get confused. Let’s help each other to stay on the side of moral good where we find ourselves.

And let’s pray together. For the State of Israel…

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