Friday, April 29, 2016

Parashat Acharet-Mot/Passover/Yom HaShoa

 Shabbat Shalom. Tonight marks the conclusion of Passover for those of us in the Reform world and for many in the State of Israel. For the last week we have celebrated our liberation from Egypt, and hopefully we have enjoyed time with family, in song, with festive meals and wine. But in so many ways, liberation is not just a noun or something that happened to our ancestors in Egypt. It is also an act in motion, a constant state of being, something to be actively worked on in every generation. We say at our Passover tables, “B'-chol dor va-dor, cha-yav a-dam lir-ot, lir-ot et atz-mo k'-i-lu hu, ya-tza mi-mitz-ra-yim; In every generation, each person must regard himself or herself as if he or she had come out of Egypt,” but for many this is figurative. And when it is, we must remind ourselves that it is our duty as Jews to be a part of the liberation of others who still struggle to escape Mitzrayim. The narrow places of narrow minds, the oppression of laws that restrict movements and identities and loves and societies that discriminate against those that are different. We work for freedom and equality and justice for the sake of our Jewish brothers and sisters who are also queer or trans or black or homeless and who also fear racism and homophobia and transphobia and classism in addition to antisemitism and who still feel the weight of Pharaoh's slavery today. And we do this for the sake of our non-Jewish neighbors who also deserve liberation because we were slaves and now we are free, because we know the bitterness of oppression and we know that we would not wish it on anybody.
This coming week is Yom HaShoa, the Jewish day of memorial for the 6 million lost in the Holocaust. As you may know, I studied genocide and terrorism in college. The Holocaust was a watershed moment in history. Before it, we had no international laws to safeguard against such actions. The word “genocide” and the legal concept of “crimes against humanity” stem from this atrocity our people faced. But in sociological terms, the Holocaust is not unique. We know as Jews, that it was certainly not the first time our people were nearly wiped out. Our tradition is full of stories that may or may not be true: the Pharaoh in Egypt, Haman in Shushan, Antiochus in the Hellenistic-controlled land of Israel. Nearly every holiday we joke, “This story is the same as all the others: they tried to kill us, we won, let's eat.” But our history, documented and very real, also tells these stories. Pogroms and expulsions, forced conversions, the Inquisition, and ethnic cleansings that remained smaller than the Holocaust only because the governments carrying them out didn't bother to occupy other countries first to ensure their ethnic cleansings would be coordinated.
And of course, it hasn't just been the Jews either. Before the Holocaust, the Turks carried out genocide against the Armenians, who still have not received official acknowledgment or reparations. Every inch of our country is soaked in the blood of the Native Americans. In my lifetime, I've witnessed from afar the genocides of Bosnians, Albanian Kosovars, and Rwandans, and learned about the dirty wars of Central and South America, where people were simply disappeared by their governments. And there are countless more such stories from nearly every culture around the world. Next week is Yom HaShoa, a day of commemoration for Jews, but back in January we also had International Holocaust Remembrance Day, where the world mourned with us. Do you know the day that the Bosnians commemorate the seige of Sarajevo? That the Rwandans celebrate the end to their quick and bloody conflict? Any of the dates that the Kosovars have tried to declare independence from Serbia? I don't even know those dates off the top of my head, and I have actively studied those dates. We don't have an International End Genocide Day, and we as a Jewish community often don't do enough to stand in solidarity with those whose pain we know so well or work alongside them for their liberation.
This week's Torah portion, Acherei Mot, contains the description of the ritual for atonement, which becomes the Yom Kippur ritual in the time of the Temple. In the ritual, the High Priest “effects atonement onto it,” which Rashi explains means the priest confesses upon the goat, and then the goat is sent off into the wilderness to carry away the sins of the people, and die away from the camp. This is the origin of the “scapegoat,” a term well known by those who have studied political violence, and understood by any who have experienced it. It manifests in different ways, but the outcome is the same. In the story of the Passover, the Pharaoh was worried about losing control of his Kingdom, so rather than confront his insecurities as a ruler or contemplate different modes of governance that might incorporate the growing Hebrew population, he scapegoated them and attempted to halve their population through infanticide and attempted to break their spirits with slavery (which, by the way, is not unlike the tactics of the cultural genocide the Chinese impose on Tibet, for example). Hitler want to rise in power and saw the scapegoat of the Jews an easy way to direct the fear and angry the poor German population was feeling in the aftermath of World War I in order to gain their trust and support. Milosevic felt his people were entitled to more land after the break up of Yugoslavia, so he scapegoated the Bosnians for being the first to secede. And the Hebrews, and the Jews of Europe, and the Bosnians, and so many others, were trapped like goats, forced out of their camps, forced to carry burdens that were not rightly theirs, forced to their deaths. Like goats shoved off carrying the sins of others, but not like sheep to the slaughter, a metaphor that was once often repeated about Holocaust victims, erasing the memories of the Resistance movement, and the Partisan fighters, and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. I don't know of all the similar stories of resistance from the other scapegoated cultures, but I am certain they exist.

Over the course of the next year, we will all find ourselves faced with opportunities to help others achieve their liberation. We will hear about injustices around the world or in our backyards. We will learn about the scapegoating of a new population and the unfair rules meant to police their identities, a policing that is almost always tied to a body count, even if those death tolls are in suicides and hate crimes rather than purposeful government sponsored terrorism. I implore you, and Jews all over, to be a part of the solution. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “In a world where terrible crimes are committed, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” If the Egyptians had refused to act as slave-masters, how might our story have turned out? If more righteous gentiles had stepped forward and spoken out against the early signs of the Nazi regime, what might our population be today? If the UN had allowed their Peacekeeping troops to actually interfere in Rwanda, how different might April 1994 have been for the million Tutsis whose stories we will never know now? Let us refuse to buy into scapegoating, let us stand in solidarity with those whose pain we understand too well, let us work toward a liberated world for all people. And may we find next year a world a little closer to the messianic age. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

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