Monday, November 25, 2013

Vayeshev 5774: Making Sense of Defining Moments in History


    Today is an auspicious day to say the least.  For today we commemorated one of the most traumatic events in the modern history of our country.  It was a day where many have argued that innocence died.  Of course we have lost other presidents to similar forms of violence: Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley are also on the list.  Though one can argue that with better medical treatment, Garfield and McKinley would most likely have survived.  Be that as it may, the day Kennedy was shot, has never left the consciousness of most of those who were around to witness or recall the events of that tragic November day.
            For those who were lived through that time, you remember where and when you heard the news.  You remember what you were doing.  You remember who told you.  And they distinctly remember how you felt before and after.
            To paraphrase one of JFK’s nieces, I believe, “What we lost was his ability to galvanize the nation around the idea that we could rally around a common purpose on the right side of history.”  He was the one who told us, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”  JFK was also the same man who inspired the space race.  For there was a time when we aspired to break the earthly orbit and feel our feet touch soil not directly of this earth.  He gave us hope and inspiration, and I feel part of the reason why we are so focused on this date, is because that legacy was lost to us, just as it was beginning to take root.
            This is in part why I also feel why the conspiracy theories still linger.  How could one man take away the hope of a new future away from us so quickly and so violently?  There must have been others who were threatened by the Kennedy legacy.  It was they, not Oswald, who stole that from us.  I for one, am very reluctant to subscribe to such theories, for a variety of reasons.  Though I am sure the reason why so many do is because they are troubled by the notion that a single crazed individual can alter the course of history.
            Be that as it may, there are those who have also weaved this narrative into the works of fiction.  There was a famous episode of Quantum Leap where Sam was transported into the body of Lee Harvey Oswald.  And Stephen King, not to long ago, wrote an alternate history where in his book 11/22/63, the protagonist Jake Epping was able to travel back in time and change the events in Dallas on that fateful day.  Of course then he had to deal with all of the ramifications of changing history.  It is a fascinating book and I do recommend it. 
            As I started, today is an auspicious day.  For those of my generation, thankfully we do not have our JFK moment.  Though I would argue, our moment was January 28, 1986 with the Space Shuttle Challenger.  I too can remember where I was, what class I was in, and how I felt afterwards for days, weeks, months, and years later.
            And then there are those of the millennial generation who remember September 11, 2001. 
            What all of these events have in common is the profound impact they had on the people who were around to experience them.  But they do, to some degree, have diminishing effects on the generations that followed.  December 7, 1941, is now a historical date for most, and does not have the same emotional resonance for subsequent generations.  And yet, for those who lived through it, how could they ever dream of forgetting the attack on Pearl Harbor?
            I mention all of this because after each one of these pivotal events, the world changed.  Sometimes for the better, sometimes it has been worse for wear.  But in either case, the world was different before and after each of these seminal events.
            We too in our tradition have dates such as these.  But they are not as much a part of our collective Jewish memory because the times have passed, and time heals almost all wounds.  586 BCE saw the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians.  From that point on, we have always been a Diaspora community.  70 CE, the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans.  Since that time, we have lived under the auspices of Rabbinic Judaism.  Another pivotal event in our history.  And being that we are a tradition that is over 4,000 years old, there are many more major, and minor events that were just as transformative as the ones that I mentioned at the start of this drash.
            Not all of them were bad by the way.  For example, next week, everyone is excited about the combined observance of Chanukah and Thanksgiving.  The name that seems to have stuck is Thanksgivvukah.  Though there are others out there as well, to be sure.
            People have written songs.  There are YouTube videos (some more hilarious than others).  I personally like the one where a nice normative family is invaded by their Jewish relatives who are taking over Thanksgiving for all 8 days.
            But what is lost in this, is the transformative nature of what Chanukah represents.  We celebrate the miracle of the oil lasting 8 days.  It is a wonderful Rabbinic midrash.  The truth is, Chanukah really has nothing to do with a ‘magic’ jar of oil. 
            Instead it was all about a miraculous fight for religious freedom.  It all started around 175 BCE when the local Selucid ruler, Antiochus IV Epiphanes replaced the High Priest Onias III with his brother Jason.  This set off a series of laws and decrees by Antiochus, who basically was trying to eradicate Judaism and replace it with Hellenism.  He allowed gymnasiums to be built in Jerusalem.  He outlawed the public study of Torah under the penalty of death (this by the way is the reason why we play with the dreidel.  The students would gather together to study, and if soldiers came by, they would quickly hide their materials and act like all they were doing was gambling).  So the dreidel was not just a children’s toy, but really a life saver.
            Antiochus outlawed circumcision and he pilfered all the wealth that there was in the Temple.
            And to add insult to injury, then Antiochus tried to place a statue of Zeus in The Temple in Jerusalem.  If he had been successful in his campaign, there would have been no more Judaism.  All that we know and do today, simply would not have come into existence.
            But a priest by the name of Mattathias, along with his 5 sons including Judah (later nicknamed the Macabee), along with religious zealots called the Chasidim began a guerilla war against the Selucid Greeks.  Their tactics were later studied an adopted by none other than our very own General George Washington in his battles against the British.
            They succeeded and on the 25th of Kislev, 164 BCE, (3598) the Macabees and their followers were able to rededicate the Temple in Jerusalem.  Chanukah by the way means, “dedicate” or in this case, “rededicate.”  25 Kislev 3598, another auspicious date in our history.  I am sure it was memorable for those who were there and the celebrations that followed.
            For three years, it must have seemed like their way of life was over.  But, then with victory after victory, came a moment in time that has been a defining moment in our tradition ever since.
            We can talk another time about why Chanukah has become centered around the ideas of oil and gifts, around latkes and menorahs.  But we should know, that it is these pivotal moments in our lives and in the lives of our people that help to shape and define who we are, even if we weren’t there.
            Writers can speculate as to what the world may have been like if JFK had survived or had been riding in a car with a roof.  Would we have gotten out of Vietnam?  Would the Cold War have ended sooner?  Would Civil Rights have been much more at the forefront of the political discourse?  No one can say. 
            But what we do know is that without the courageous actions of our ancestors led first by Mattathias and later by Judah, we would not be sitting here this evening pondering these questions. 
            So just as we work to remember November 22, 1963, so too, we should incorporate into the essence of our being, our Jewish memory dates like 25 Kislev 3598, for that was an important date in history for us as well. 
            And in this case, unlike today’s date, it is a date we can celebrate.  For there are too few dates of celebration in our history.  I for one am planning on making a turbriskeh, an old Southern Jewish favorite: Turkey stuffed with brisket stuffed with latkes. 
            But not to make light of today’s 50th anniversary, I do ask that we use dates such as these to remind us that even in the face of tragedy, we all have the ability to bring greater goodness into the world.  Yes innocence was lost that day.  And we are all left with a feeling of, “what if?”  that can never be answered, only speculated.
            But what is important is that we are here to ask these questions.  We are here to try to, if not make sense out of tragedies, to at least give them lasting meaning, in our lives, in our country, and in the place of history.  For we are all defined by every event in our lives, both big and small.  But what we sometimes forget is that we are also defined by those events that came long before us.  And we should not forget that they had and still have meaning for us to this very day.
Shabbat Shalom

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