AFTER THE EARTHQUAKES
Rabbi Norman Patz
Erev Shabbat Vayehi
January 10,2020 – Tevet 14, 5780
Temple Beth Shalom, the Reform Congregation of Puerto Rico
[Preface: Our congregation’s custom is to follow the mi sheh-beirakh prayers for healing with an opportunity for congregants to share good news. When I asked what happy events there were to share, virtually everyone present shouted spontaneously and in unison: “We’re still here!” So at that point, I did what I had planned to do at the end of my sermon and led the congregation in reciting the gomel prayer expressing gratitude for surviving danger. After which, I began my sermon.]
This has been a hard week for Puerto Rico. The recovery from Hurricane Maria is still painfully slow. Much suffering continues more than two years later. And now this: it shakes the spirits of this normally resilient population. Some congregants have sustained structural damages to their homes. Our neighbors, particularly from Ponce westward, are being hit the hardest. The congregation has started a relief fund to help address the suffering.
At our home in New Jersey, Naomi and I have a large woodcut made by a Polish-Jewish artist named Joseph Budko, who was born in 1888. After his art studies in Vilna and Berlin, in 1933 he went to British Mandate Palestine. Budko is regarded as a pioneer in the 20th century revival of woodcuts as an important art medium. The Budko woodcut we have is one of his most well-known. It was used as the poster art for the Seventeenth Zionist Congress, held in Basel, Switzerland in 1931. It’s mostly black. In the foreground, in spare white outlines, is the image of an old man, serious, even grim in appearance. He is bearded and dressed in a robe, with a kippah on his head. This man, who represents traditional religious Judaism, is leaning heavily on a wooden cane. Behind him is Budko’s image of the “new Jew” – a much younger man, clean-shaven and gaunt, with a determined set to his jaw. This man is hatless. He wears an open-collared shirt. Behind and above the young man’s head is a four-word inscription in Hebrew: LO YIV’RAH ISH KAMONI – A man such as I does not flee. (The probable source for the text is Nehemiah 6:11 – Shall one such as I flee?)
It is not clear which of the men is saying this. Is it the older or the younger? Both are depicted as very determined. Perhaps it is both. Or is it the personification of Budko’s understanding of Zionism: a determination to return to the land of Israel without waiting passively (and defenselessly) for the coming of a messiah?
I started thinking about this woodcut and its meaning after I read the statement by Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, the rabbi of the synagogue in Poway, California after the shooting attack there last April. He said “I was attacked because I am a Jew. I will never back down!”
His statement is as sadly appropriate now, after the antisemitic events of recent weeks, as it was last spring – and has been again and again through our people’s history.
A person such as I does not flee. I will never back down. What should these proud, stubborn, defiant statements mean for us today in this land that for the most part has been for us Jews the goldene medinah – our “golden land” since the time of Asser Levy’s victory over Peter Stuyvesant in Niew Amsterdam?
You all know the three-part saying from Pirkei Avot, The Sayings of the Fathers: Im ein ani li, mi li? “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? That’s the first part of the message.
We must not hide. We must stand tall. We must not be afraid to wear our actual or metaphoric mezuzot and Jewish stars.
We must continue to stand up for the rights of others. U-k’sheh-ani l’atzmi, mah ani? If I am only for myself, what am I? That’s the second part of the message.
We must welcome and celebrate allies; friends, churches, government officials, the Bill of Rights… We are not alone in America.
We should stay Jewish and identify as Jews not because of our enemies or antisemitism but because of the beauty and humanity of our faith and the achievements of our people.
We must not be like the assimilated Jews of 1930’s Germany who had no inner strength to resist emotionally because they knew so very little about Judaism. I am reminded of the American soldiers who were taken prisoner in the Korean War and were subject to intense brainwashing by their Chinese captors. They broke down quickly because they were ignorant of American democracy and its values. Please understand that I am not blaming the victims with these examples.
We must understand who we are and know how to answer – to ourselves as well as to others. We must know why we are Jewish – for our own self-respect and because we have excellent reasons to be proud. When our enemies, whether on the left or on the right, attack us, we should ascribe their hatred to envy – and know why too!
Admittedly, this prescription is only one aspect of not backing down, of not fleeing. But it’s a vital and urgent dimension of our self-defense.
And the third part of the prescription in Pirkei Avot: V’im lo ahshav, ei-matai? And if not now, when? It’s where we need to start so we can stand tall. The problem is not what’s wrong with us, but what’s wrong with those who would attack us.
This Shabbat, we conclude the reading of Breishit/Genesis in our annual cycle of Torah reading. We say HAZAK HAZAK V’NIT-HAZEK – May we be strengthened by the lessons of the book of the Torah we have just completed reading. May we be strengthened and strengthen one another: that is the challenge for us in this time. People like us do not flee! Amen
Rabbi Norman Patz has been one of the visiting rabbis of Temple Beth Shalom since 2007.