Thoughts about Paris, violence, heroism, and peace

Many of us continue to be troubled and inspired by events in Paris this past week:  troubled by terrible acts of murder and violence, and inspired by great acts of kindness and self-sacrifice.

I wanted to share some of the thoughts that I shared with the community last shabbat, together with some more thoughts as the situation continues to unfold.

Paris may be far away from Hoboken, but this is an event that affects many people in our congregational family directly.This week I have spoken with many members of our community who are from Paris, or who have relatives in Paris, including many who have shopped at the Hyper Cacher supermarket and/or participated in the solidarity march on Sunday.  The terrible events in Paris this week could very easily have affected someone with close ties to our congregation.
The Charlie Hebdo murders were not random. The perpetrators were Muslim extremists who attacked those who were asserting their right to free speech, equal-opportunity lampooners who made fun of Christianity and Judaism and every other religion and ideology just as fiercely as they made fun of Islam.  And similarly, the kosher supermarket murders were also not random.  That same strain of Muslim extremism that cannot countenance anything they see as an attack on their religion is also viciously and murderously anti-Jewish. That anti-Jewish sentiment is not about Israel; it is about Jews.  This was one of numerous terrorist attacks against Jews in France this year; it has simply attracted more attention than the other incidents because of its connection to the murder of public figures.  We should be alarmed, but not at all surprised, that extremists make connections between Jews and everything they dislike about their society.  I am grateful that the French government is making it a special priority this week to step up its protection Jewish schools and communal institutions, as we pray for their safety and security.

At the beginning of the book of Exodus (Parashat Shemot), many Israelite slaves may have been inclined to assume the worst about every Egyptian, to regard each of them as an oppressor. So the Torah gives us the example of Pharaoh's daughter, and Shifra and Puah (according to those commentators who understand המילדות העבריות to mean 'midwives to the Hebrews' rather than 'Hebrew midwives'), to remind us that righteous people can be found in every people, every society and every culture, lest entire nations and peoples and groups be painted with the same brush. Were it not for 24-year-old Lassana Bathily, Muslim employee of Hypercacher market who helped more than a dozen hostages hide in the freezer on Friday, the carnage at the market would have been that much worse. He is a modern day analogue to Pharaoh's daughter and Shifra and Puah. (And because the police assumed the worst about him, he spent more than an hour in handcuffs on Friday until it was revealed that he was a life-saving hero.) I have faith that the world, and the Muslim world, have many many more Lassana Bathilys than murderous jihadists.  And it is terribly disheartening to read about random acts of violence against Muslims in France this week.  As we pray for comfort for the families of Yohan Cohen (age 22), Yoav Hattab (age 21), Philippe Braham (40s), and François-Michel Saada (age 55), who were buried yesterday in Israel, may we also pray for wisdom and discernment - to be vigilant, while also treating each person as an individual created in God's image.

This is one of those weeks when we are face to face with the world’s brokenness - seen in the murders in France, and also against the backdrop of horrific massacres of hundreds of civilians in Nigeria by Boko Haram; dozens murdered in terrorist bombings in Yemen, Pakistan, and Lebanon; ongoing violence in Syria; together with any number of tragedies in the United States and every country.  The Talmud teaches that each and every innocent life destroyed is equivalent to the destruction of the entire world (M. Sanhedrin 4:5). Building a world of peace has proven to be extraordinarily difficult in practice though it seems simple in theory.

But Jewish tradition recognizes that part of the key to peace is enabling disparate elements to coexist.  This is the meaning of the frequent refrain in our prayers:  “Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu.’  “May the One who establishes peace in the heavens, grant peace to us.”  But what peace exists “in the heavens”?  The eminent French Torah commentator Rashi remarks on these words in their original context in the Book of Job (25:2): The sky appears to us as if it were a pool of blue water, and the sun appears to us as if it were a ball of hot fire in the midst of that water.  What appear to be opposite substances do not neutralize each other or eliminate each other, but rather they co-exist.  Other religions may have visions of peace in which everyone is the same, or in which all blasphemers or enemies are neutralized.  But the Jewish vision of peace is different.  It’s a vision in which forces that appear to be opposed actually figure out how to live together.  This does NOT mean that we should capitulate to the demands of aggressors.  But it means that we should not be threatened by difference.  It means that we recognize that God’s plan for the world includes diversity within unity, and unity within diversity.  And whether we get closer to achieving such a world, or further away from it, is not only up to God:  it is up to every world leader, and it is up to every individual.


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