Iron in the Shul (After Colleyville) – Yitro 5782

I had the opportunity to learn, earlier this week, from other Conservative Rabbis, which helped me process last week’s hostage taking at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. Some of what I am going to say this morning was inspired by what I learned from my colleagues.

One thing that I want to say from the outset is that there are a lot of really smart and insightful people who have a lot to say about these specific attack, as well as larger trends in antisemitism here in the United States and around the world. I am sure that you have read and heard a lot that you have found to be educational and meaningful.

I cannot hope to match the expertise of others in our Jewish community who specialize in these areas, nor is that my goal. All I can do is speak from my one particular vantage point as the Rabbi of Congregation Sinai.

A hostage crisis during Shabbat services is just about the scariest thing that I can imagine. It is a horrible scenario that has occupied my mind on many occasions over the years. To hear about it happening last weekend, especially with the prominent, courageous role played by Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, really hit home for me.

It makes me sad, scared, and angry that we have to deal with such things. I don’t think there are any faith groups in the United States that have had to institute such stringent security measures at their houses of worship. It is not something that we should have to do. Simply put, it is not fair, and the need to do so directly contradicts the purpose of a synagogue.

At the end of Parashat Yitro, God delivers a few more commandments to the Israelites through Moses. One stands out. Here is the translation from our Etz Hayim Chumash:

If you make for me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones;

כִּי חַרְבְּךָ הֵנַפְתָּ עָלֶיהָ וַתְּחַלְלֶהָ

for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them.

Exodus 20:22

The actual Hebrew word that has been translated “tool” is charb’kha, which actually means “your sword.”

The Mekhilta, an ancient midrash collection, quotes Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar.

The altar was created to lengthen a person’s years, but iron to shorten them. [Iron is the material of weaponry and killing.] It is not appropriate for that which shortens life to be wielded upon that which lengthens life!

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai then draws a connection between the altar and peace.   In a passage parallel to our verse, Deuteronomy instructs

אֲבָנִ֤ים שְׁלֵמוֹת֙ תִּבְנֶ֔ה אֶת־מִזְבַּ֖ח ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶ֑יךָ

With whole stones shall you build the altar of the Lord your God.

Deuteronomy 27:6

Noting the word sheleimot – “whole,” Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai states that these stones of the altar produce shalom – “peace.”  Then he takes it a step further. 

If these stones of the altar, which neither see, nor hear, nor speak, can create peace between the Jewish people and the Holy Blessed One, what about a person who fosters peace between a husband and wife, between one city and the next, between one nation and another, between one government and another government, between one family and another family – how much the more so will such a person not suffer adversity.

Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 20:22:1-2

It was during Yohanan ben Zakai’s lifetime that the synagogue replaced the altar as the central location for Jewish worship. But it retained the same essential function. The subject of all our prayers, at a fundamental level, is shalom – “peace,” or “wholeness.” It is what we gather in synagogue for, and it is what we should strive for in our personal lives.

The midrash recognizes that there is something symbolically perverse about mixing stone and iron. The altar, and its replacement, the synagogue, should not require the sword to perform its primary function of fostering peace.

But ideals meat reality. We have a security guard at the gate every Shabbat. Our synagogue courtyard is surrounded by black iron bars. We have a sophisticated CCTV system, panic buttons all over our campus, and fancy bulletproof films covering the windows. We hold an Emergency Preparedness Shabbat just about every year during which we actually evacuate the synagogue in the middle of services under the supervision of the San Jose Police Department.

Our synagogue, this house of peace, is not just figuratively hewn from iron, it is covered in it. To protect our sanctuary, we must profane it.

What a sad and unfortunate reality. This is not a subject in which I expected to gain expertise when I decided to become a Rabbi, nor is it one in which I received any training. But it is one which, by necessity, I —we all — have had to reluctantly embrace.  What a steep price we pay.  

Yes, there are financial costs, but the more significant price is spiritual. Nobody should have to fear for their physical safety when they come to shul to pray. Parents should not have to think twice about sending their children to Religious School.  

For years, when I come into this room, I think about escape routes. I look around and try to identify what I could use as a weapon. In a synagogue!

I am done with my harangue.

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker did two really important things last Shabbat: he served tea, and he threw a chair.

You have probably heard the story by now. A man, apparently homeless, showed up on Shabbat morning a few minutes before the start of services. It was cold outside, and he seemed to be seeking a place to warm up. The Rabbi welcomed him warmly, made him a cup of tea, and introduced him to the President of the congregation. At the time, there was no evidence that he posed a threat.

As soon as services began, however, the stranger pulled out a gun, and thus began an eleven hour hostage ordeal.

Towards the end, as he became increasingly agitated, Rabbi Cytron-Walker saw an opportunity.  He indicated to the two other congregants who were being held that they should be ready to attempt an escape. At a moment when the hostage taker seemed distracted, he threw a chair at him and the three of them quickly escaped.

An act of compassion and kindness, and an act of courage and, frankly, violence. Both acts should inspire us. We can look to two biblical women, both non-Israelites, whose stories model similar behaviors.

In the Book of Ruth, after her husband, brother-in-law, and father-in-law all die, Ruth binds herself and her fate to Naomi, her mother-in-law.  They return from Moab to Bethlehem, arriving destitute at the beginning of the barley harvest.

As chapter two opens, Ruth informs Naomi, “I would like to go to the fields and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone who may show me kindness.”  (Ruth 2:2)

What does this simple statement reveal? That Ruth, a Moabitess, knows that this place, where she has never set foot, is one in which a poor, foreign woman can go harvest for herself on a field belonging to another. The Book of Ruth does not mention the Torah’s obligation to leave the corners of the fields unharvested, among other mitzvot pertaining to tzedakah.

The details of the laws are beside the point. What matters is reputation. These people of Bethlehem are known to practice kindness, so when Ruth declares her intention, Naomi responds “Yes, daughter, go.”

Being compassionate, opening up our doors to let the stranger in, makes us vulnerable. Letting a stranger into our shul is a risk. That is why behaving with compassion is an act of faith, but would we prefer a Judaism which did not welcome the stranger? What would we be if we put up barriers that kept everyone else out?

Of course, evil exists. We cannot be so naive as to think that there are not those who hate us simply for being Jews.  Last weekend was the third violent attack in a synagogue on Shabbat in America in just over three years.  There have been six deadly antisemitic attacks in the United States since 2016.

According to FBI statistics, over the last several years Jews have been the targets of around 12% of all hate crimes.  Nearly two thirds of religion-based hate crimes have targeted Jews.  And we are less than two percent of the overall population.

Antisemitism is real and growing. It is not confined to a particular political ideology. Those who hate us for being Jewish do not care whether we are Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox, Democrats or Republicans. Our preparation and readiness are not misplaced.

This brings us to our second non-Israelite heroine.

Last Shabbat, while our fellow Jews were being held hostage, we read in the Haftarah about Yael. The Canaanite King Jabin had subjugated the Israelites for the past twenty years, with Sisera serving as the commander of his troops. Under the spiritual guidance and encouragement of the Chieftain Deborah, Barak leads the Israelites into victorious battle against Sisera with his nine hundred iron chariots. 

The Canaanite General flees, seeking refuge in the tent of Yael, wife of Heber the Kenite.  She offers him hospitality, feeds him, gives him milk to drink, and covers him with blankets so that he can fall asleep. Then she takes a tent peg and drives it with a hammer through his skull into the ground. In her victory song, Deborah praises this heroine.

Most blessed of women be Jael,
Wife of Heber the Kenite,
Most blessed of women in tents.

He asked for water, she offered milk;
In a princely bowl she brought him curds.

Her [left] hand reached for the tent pin,
Her right for the workmen’s hammer.
She struck Sisera, crushed his head,
Smashed and pierced his temple.

At her feet he sank, lay outstretched,
At her feet he sank, lay still;
Where he sank, there he lay—destroyed.

Judges 5:24:27

Ours is not a tradition that would have us be passive when threatened or attacked. Judaism recognizes that evil exists, and that we have a duty to fight it, that there are those who hate us, and that we must defend ourselves. Sometimes that means we must use force.

This is the uncomfortable place in which we find ourselves. How do we embrace a message of hope and peace, of compassion and openness, while also protecting ourselves from the very real threats that exist?

We cannot afford to simplistically think that there is a satisfying answer out there, if only we can find it.  The Jewish people knows that the world is messy, that human beings are imperfect and often unreliable. That our loftiest ideals have a tendency to slam into disappointing reality.

I come back to our name as a people, the name given to Jacob after he wrestles with the unnamed angel.  Yisrael – for you have striven with beings Divine and human and stayed in the game. That is who we are, and who we must continue to be.

We pray for a time when we can tear down all of the walls, remove the panic buttons and cancel the evacuation drills. In the meantime, we are Yisrael – the people who struggle. We remain committed to each other, to acting with compassion and kindness, to keeping each other safe, and to pursuing shalom in our prayers and our deeds.

Think for a moment: what are the last two words that we recite at the end of every Shabbat morning service?

At the end of Adon Olam, which we typically invite our children to lead, the final words are v’lo ira, words are aspirational and declarative: “I will not be afraid.”