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“It Takes More Than Thirty-Six,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

October 7, 2022 | 12 Tishrei 5783

Welcome again to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we move toward Shabbat and Sukkot, which begins Sunday evening. This week, I share with you my Yom Kippur sermon, entitled “It Takes More Than Thirty-Six” from Kol Nidre eve. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

Two thousand years ago, the great Rabbi Hillel posed three questions:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי

But when I am for myself alone, what am I?

 וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנ

And if not now, then when?

 וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתַי:

[Pirkei Avot 1:14]

Hillel lived when Jerusalem was occupied by Rome. It was a time of great disruption.

How could the Jewish world survive a hostile and gravely aggressive power?

Today, we might ask similar questions:

  1. Are Jews alone to defend ourselves?
  2. And if the answer is yes, then what becomes of us?
  3. Is it time to act now and bring others in?

Hillel witnessed hatred toward the Jews. We would call this antisemitism.

Yet, this is not a sermon about antisemitism.

It is about anti antisemitism.

When Deborah Lipstadt, the first appointed United States Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combatting Antisemitism, addressed the public she asserted: “I am here to depress you.”

Because: the exponential rise in antisemitism in the last 6 years is depressing.

We’ve seen blatant violence against Jews captured intentionally on social media as a proud and worthy act.

We’ve heard an overabundance of specious arguments attacking Israel with antisemitic rhetoric disguised as anti-Zionism that is rampant on college campuses where students are made to choose between their commitment to Israel and their opposition to oppression.

We’ve witnessed synagogues under siege by terrorists spewing slurs about Jewish power and control and white supremacists marching and chanting, “Jews will not replace us!”

Ken Burns sped up production of his powerful documentary on the Holocaust and America, pressing to show it sooner because our present history is too resonant with the past with all kinds of hate in full view.[i]

What happened to George Washington’s promise to “Give bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” when he wrote to the Jews of Newport Rhode Island?

When Jews arrived on these shores fleeing the persecution they had endured for centuries across the world, they found a country well practiced in othering and mistreatment. Slavery was already an unfortunate reality.

And If you ask people in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, their 60s, 50s, 40s, and so on, you will hear of bullying and bias, schoolyard torment, and exclusionary behaviors they endured simply because they are Jewish,

because hatred of Jews and so many others is unfortunately deeply embedded still in America, even and despite the success of many.

Not until the 19th century was the word, antisemitism “invented” to describe heinous treatment toward Jews. It was just baseless hate of scapegoating, violent othering, and destructive denigrations that placed Jews in peril. It still is.

But why? What was it about Judaism that made it so detestable, ripe to become the object of deleterious irrational conduct? What did Jews do to earn the heinous actions hoisted upon us.


Let me repeat that.


We are not guilty or responsible for antisemitism. Period.

Deborah Lipstadt declares it is time to get college courses on antisemitism out of Judaic studies departments and into the mainstream. Confining it creates an implicit expectation that the problem and the solution belongs to Jews. The roots of hatred should be probed everywhere.

We may think Hillel’s first question is the only way.

If I am not for me, who will be for me?

אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי

If we don’t defend ourselves as Jews, who will?

But why is it up to the Jewish community to eradicate antisemitism?

In ancient times, the Roman authorities, led by Pontius Pilate had a brutal remedy for messianic figures who threatened their dominance, causing great pain and suffering through crucifixion.

Jews did not engage in this practice; many were probable victims, yet the false association between Jews and the crucifixion travelled a straight line for almost two millennia.

Not until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s was the specious accusation that blamed Jews for the death of Jesus repudiated by the Catholic church. Yet, the seed that sowed that falsity grew into many vines that wrapped around the world and imprinted the minds of millions, making it very hard to uproot.

And it spread through societies, communities, and professions.

Moments in history are held like hot coals that become seared into the way people see the world. It is a persistent legacy in today’s world. Hate is hate is hate as much as love is love is love. We are not to blame. None of us. But what are we to do?

We can’t only react to antisemitism when it happens.

Because if we are alone in combatting hate, then what becomes of us?

וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי

What would be a proactive approach that brings others in?

At Yad Vashem, the heart wrenching Holocaust memorial exhibit in Jerusalem, you are greeted by a row of trees each representing a righteous gentile who saved the Jews. Their bravery and courageous legacies inspire our admiration. Many Jews survived because of them.

We are grateful knowing that when the world looked away they took action and risked their own lives.

Some who are honored there jumped into the fray not necessarily thinking rationally. Others may have given agonizing consideration recognizing that they were endangering themselves and their families.

And still others did it knowing it was a righteous act to save a life while others knew they were saving Jewish lives specifically.

All these are virtuous and moral reasons and share one fact: They are not Jewish.

When most of the world turned its back on the strategic and premeditated annihilation of the Jewish people, these brave souls felt compelled to turn toward us.

So many other people in every country the Nazis occupied were Hitler’s willing executioners that the conduct of those along that memorial avenue seems almost miraculous.[ii]

The rabbis of the Talmud understood hundreds of years ago that to save a life, saves the world. The opposite is true as well. Ending a life ends a whole world. These righteous individuals ensured that many worlds would endure.

What motivated them? What pushed them to stand up and to reach out with the greatest gift imaginable — to save a life?

Pirkei Avot again.

In a place where there is no humanity, strive to be human strive to be human[iii].

A midrash[iv] compares Noah and Abraham and asks whether both are righteous. Each lived in a time of wickedness. In Noah’s time, a kind of evil motivated callousness in the way people acted toward one another. When Abraham lived, there were Sodom and Gomorrah, cities filled with iniquity. When God informed each person about God’s plan for destruction Noah said nothing. He did what he was told. Abraham, to the contrary, not only questioned God but also challenged the assumption that there were no righteous among the inhabitants. It is for this reason that the midrash teaches that we descend from Abraham. Noah may have walked with God. But, Abraham walked before God as a light leading the way.

The way people respond matters. Stepping up and taking action counters indifference.

The Torah explains:

If you see your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your peer.[v]

Rabbi Donniel Hartman calls this the first act of decency:[vi] To have the obligation register that we must help one another. When Cain after killing his brother asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The evil was not just murder; it was not caring.[vii]

The Torah offers us a universal principle from within our community:
We are active participants in the struggle for humanity.

During the Holocaust, as individual Jews and Jewish organizations in the U.S. and elsewhere mobilized to save as many as possible, they welcomed many others who sought to help them.

Diplomats like Varian Fry and Chiune Sugihara, and Raoul Wallenberg saved thousands by using their positions to get Jews out.

Caring and righteous compassion transcend across time and space. The rabbis of the Talmud believed it, too. Jewish tradition holds that there are at least 36 righteous people in the world at any given time.[viii] —  Some say 18,000.

If we can believe that there are those righteous among us, including some of our own people, for sure, and amidst the diverse population of humanity then all is not lost.

What makes this profound is that their righteousness comes from their ability to see the sacred potential in each person. They projected the goodness away from themselves onto the souls they rescued and helped.

They showed by their lives that no one can be for themselves alone.

וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי

for when we are alone, how could we even exist?

We need the loving protection of others to ensure our lives.

Antisemitism is a universal problem, not a Jewish one, a moral failure that demands a call for decency.

And there is more. Hate cannot be fed because of the color of one’s skin, identity, status, ability, or faith, even though it does all the time. Together, we must remove the idea that as long as we are whom we are, then there will be hate. That’s unproductive pessimism.

Let’s put the hate back on the haters and let’s focus our attention on those who work to repair and to create environments of respect and decency, those who look straight into the eyes of a human being and believe in their humanity. They are the righteous ones. They are what sustains the world.

We need a Genesis prize for them. Or maybe it should be an Exodus Prize because these righteous ones exiled hate and antisemitism with kindness, audacity, and bravery — just like so many did in the Exodus story.

  • When our elected leaders speak out and enact legislation against antisemitism;
  • When 800 members of the clergy in the greater Boston area sign a petition pledging to eradicate hate against Jews;
  • When we meet people like Eric Ward who spoke to our congregation about his work demonstrating the intimate connection between white supremacy and antisemitism;
  • When our sister congregation Bethel AME in JP, teaches a course about antisemitism and Christianity;
  • When Beacon Academy resided in our building until they outgrew us had 16 years of classes of students call Temple Israel their home and studied antisemitism through the Facing History curriculum;
  • When ADL and JCRC develop and nurture relationships with the greater community;
  • When we at Temple Israel of Boston recognize and foster relationship in every direction with communities that surround us; then all of these exemplify the potential for righteous individuals and groups to embody the possibility that together we can rise up and eradicate antisemitism and all kinds of hate and bigotry.

All those we engage are independent agents of righteousness.

We need to name them, praise them, award them, and do everything possible to let them know how much it means to us in the Jewish community that they care enough.

We need to speak honestly, openly, and transparently with our friends, neighbors, and colleagues not only to share with them the harm of the experience of antisemitism, but also praise, encourage, and ask them to act and speak out to eliminate the insidious nature that emboldens antisemitism and the hate that underlies it.

Hatred of any kind is learned. Together we can help the world unlearn antisemitism and relearn tolerance, acceptance, love, and compassion.

Imagine what that would feel like.  We can make it so.

Around 2,000 years ago, the great rabbi Hillel asked

If not now, then when?

וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתַי

It is an urgency that includes every one of us.

Let’s get to work.

[i] Please view this documentary. It drives home the need to end hate before it grows in uncontrollable ways.

[ii] In Search of Memory, Eric R Kandel, 2006

[iii] Pirkei Avot 2:6

[iv] Rashi on Genesis 6:9

[v] Deuteronomy 22:1-3

[vi] From lecture at Hartman Summer Rabbinic Leadership Institute 2022 in Jerusalem

[vii] Genesis 4:9

[viii] Abaye says that in every generation there are 36 righteous people who see the Shekhinah every day. This is the source for the famous legend that there are thirty-six righteous people who sustain the world. —Daf Shevui to Sukkah 45.

Shabbat Shalom

  • If you are in town, come join us for Qabbalat Shabbat outdoors with plenty of singing, learning, praying, thinking, and some treats to eat and drink. If you’re unable to join onsite, please join on Zoom, on Facebook Live, or stream on our website. Let’s celebrate together.
  • Tot Rock Shabbat gathers online at 5:00 p.m.
  • A delightful Torah Study begins at 9:00 a.m. We begin with a short service and Torah reading and then jump into a provocative discussion. To join the conversation interactively, access Zoom. You can also watch on Temple Israel’s website or Facebook page.
  • Thank Goodness its Shabbat will gather onsite at 10:00 a.m.
  • Gather online for Havdalah at 8:00 p.m. Our weekly Havdalah ritual is a lay-led experience. Stop by, say hello, catch up from the week, and say goodbye to Shabbat together. Join on Zoom.
  • Our celebration of Sukkot begins Sunday evening with an onsite schmooze at 4:30, the Sukkah of Justice and Compassion service will be onsite and online at 5:30 p.m. and the lulav shake and festive meal with Jewish bluegrass band, Kol Kahol, will be at 6:30 p.m. onsite.
  • The community wide Sukkot festival service and Torah study will be at 10:00 a.m. on Monday, onsite and online. Oneg to follow onsite.
  • The Village Sukkot celebration will be onsite at 10:00 a.m.
  • As we celebrate Sukkot together, we also look towards Simchat Torah; which we will celebrate with consecration and the Immersive Torah Experience and Celebration on October 16 and the Festival Service with Yizkor on October 17.

Rabbi Elaine Zecher