The holiday of Passover is quickly approaching. Jewish families throughout the world spend the weeks leading up to this holiday cleaning our homes, and ridding ourselves of the chametz, the leaven products that we spend most days eating. Parashat Vayikra, which we read this past Shabbat reminds us that we are taught to avoid chametz more than just on the festival of Pesach.
Leviticus 2:4 teaches us that the grain offerings that we offer in the Mishkan, in the tabernacle, should be of choice flour, but should be unleavened cakes as well. Sefer HaChinuch, a 13th century text which many attribute to Rabbi Aharon HaLevi of Barcelona suggests that we avoid chametz because leaven puffs itself up – hence leaven was rejected to imply that haughtiness was rejected. No one should see himself or herself as better or more important than the other. Furthermore, no life, should be placed above another. If we are all made B’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image, then each life is of equal importance. Each life is equally precious. Each loss, each death, and each murder is also equally tragic, heartbreaking, and sickening.
Sefer HaChinuch has an additional explanation for the prohibition of leavened products in the Mishkan, in the traveling sanctuary in the desert: leavened products take a significant amount of time to rise and that significant amount of time it takes to rise represents idleness, sitting around and refusing to act. The prohibition of such products in the Tabernacle suggests that they aren’t sacred, that idleness isn’t sacred. A refusal and resistance to act, to stand up against hate, murder, and violence isn’t sacred. It is the opposite of sacred! For standing idly by and refusing to change our ways in a society in which night after night, individuals made in God’s image are murdered is a Chillul Hashem, a desecration of God.
Jews around the world mourned this past week as Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, his sons Aryeh and Gavriel Sandler, and ten year old Miriam Monsonego were murdered by twenty-four year old terrorist Mohamed Merah when Merah stopped his motorcycle outside the Ozar Hatorah Jewish Day School in Toulouse, France and began spraying bullets. The Jewish community mourned, but vowed to not stand idly by and in the end, French police and intelligence found the murderer and pursued justice.
Yet, such violence has occurred in our own backyard and we have remained silent. Four weeks ago, the death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, just a short drive from Jacksonville was put under the microscope. The shooter, George Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood watchman, claimed under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law that it was self-defense. As many are aware, because the newspapers remind us, Travyon Martin was shot and killed, not carrying a gun, but instead carrying an iced tea and a bag of candy. Mr. Zimmerman claimed that Travyon Martin, a seventeen year old boy, looked suspicious because he was wearing a hoodie.
When a terrorist specifically targets students and teachers of a Jewish communal institution, then we can qualify it as an act of hate. When an armed man shoots an unarmed boy in cold blood, deeming him suspicious because of the hood on his head and the color of his skin, we too must call this hate!
Shaima Al Awadi, a thirty-two year old mother of five children who immigrated to the United States from Iraq in the early 1990’s, was murdered this past week in her San Diego home when she was struck in the head and severely beaten with a tire iron. A letter next to her head read: “Go back to your country, you terrorist.” The reason: Shaima Al Awadi was an observant Muslim woman who wore a hijab. Here too, an innocent woman was murdered because of hate, bigotry, ignorance, and Islamophobia.
I mourn all of these devastating losses and offer comfort and consolation to the Sandler and Monsonego families, the Martin family and the Al-Awadi family. May their memories be for a blessing. I am shocked though by how surprisingly silent the Jewish community has been with regards to each of these murders that have taken place in our own backyard. Trayvon Martin was shot and killed because he was wearing a hoodie. Shaima Al Awadi was beaten to death because she was wearing a hijab. If either of these individuals were wearing a kippah, the Jewish community would understandably be up in arms and take action. So let us not remain silent!
I am reminded of the famous charge given to the Jewish people by Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” (Pirkei Avot 1:14). We have an obligation to “be for ourselves” first – to look out and protect ourselves and our communities. It makes sense that the Jewish community was sick to our stomachs following the murderous acts on Toulouse, France. However, Hillel reminds us that we cannot only be for ourselves. We must protect every sacred life, every individual made in God’s image, and stand up to each and every injustice because any injustice directly impacts each of us. We cannot stand idly by while such acts of hate and violence continue in our country. If not now, when?
I pray that we will one day live in a world without hate – a world without racism, Islamophobia, anti-semitism, or bigotry. We cannot sit around and expect that to happen. We must work to end hate. We must combat hate with love. Sometimes staying on the sidelines of life seems like a safer choice, but that does not make it the right choice. After all, Tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud teaches us that to save a life is to save the world. It reminds us though that the opposite is also true: to destroy a life is as if we’ve destroyed the world. We’ve stood idly by, content with the leavening process, and stood on the sidelines for too long. Too many worlds have been destroyed. It is up to us, each individual, to rid this world of hate, violence, and murder – to save a life, to save the world.
-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky