The book of Lamentations is the most difficult book in all of the Bible. Job may be more challenging theologically; Daniel may be hard to date. The “begats” of Genesis and the sacrifices of Leviticus may require attention and creativity to appreciate and the violent moments in Joshua and Judges may make us cringe. But for sheer gut wrenching, the five chapters of Eikha, of Lamentations, will do you in.
According to tradition, Jeremiah wrote this book as he witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem. Like many great works that emerged from tragedy, it has a quality of beauty that is saturated with horror. Human beings have always felt compelled to look upon the scenes of devastation. Lot’s wife looked upon Sodom and Gomorra. Shakespeare’s great Hamlet ends with everyone dead – save the witness Horatio who must tell the story. And we were glued to our televisions watching the Pentagon burn and the towers collapse.
Jeremiah presents images that make us gape in morbid curiosity even as we turn away. “All our enemies have opened their mouth wide against us,” he writes (3:46-47). “Terror and the pit are come upon us, desolation and destruction.” Or he writes, “Our skin is hot like an oven, because of the burning heat of famine.” (5:10) Or he writes, in the verse that shatters my soul whenever I read it, “The hands of women full of compassion have eaten their own children.” (4:10)
And in the midst of it all, the prophet mixes a metaphor and captures the depth of sadness in the soul of Jerusalem, in the souls of the children of Jerusalem. Shif’khi kamayim libeikh, nokhach p’nei H’ (2:19). “Pour out your heart like water before the face of the Lord.”
There are tears that flow from the reservoirs behind our eyes, and there are those that rise from the lump within our throats. And then there are tears that spring from the very source of our tears, when our hardened hearts are struck so sharply that the fountains of water deepest within rush forward like a raging river. It is then that we pour out our hearts like water.
Two years ago, Ken Labowitz snookered me into chaperoning the TC Williams all-night graduation party by calling my bluff when I said I would do it only if I got to carry a walkie-talkie. I had the early shift, so when I left at about 1:00 a.m., I missed witnessing one of the very few moments of true genius in human history. About three o’clock, the dirty dancing around the pool at Chinquapin Rec. Center had become a little bit too dirty. So John Porter, the best high school principal in the United States, sent some of the dads down to the pool to break it up. Ken was among them, carrying my walkie-talkie. Three middle-aged men are no match for a couple of hundred just-graduated seniors, and the situation continued unabated. Watching from the floor above, Mr. Porter relayed a single sentence of instruction through the walkie-talkie that ended the dancing immediately. This is all he said: Tell the DJ to put on a country song.
So when some stranger called me to chaperone again this year, I figured I would have another chance to catch a moment of genius, or at least to carry the walkie-talkie again. As I sat at my post, Ken Labowitz and Vic Glasberg walked over to me, dressed in identical Hawaiian print shirts. My hope for a moment of inspiration began to fade at the sight. And then they began to discuss a book they had each read, but I had not. It was written by a journalist for the New Yorker named Philip Gourevitch. He dedicated the book to his parents who, it is revealed in the book, are survivors of the Holocaust. It is a collection of true stories from Rwanda, primarily from 1994, when one million Rwandans were murdered by their countrymen. That fact taps into the tears behind your eyes. The victims were from the Tutsi tribe, and they were murdered mostly with machetes because, unlike their murderers, they were not descended from Hutu tribe. That fact looses the tears from the lump in your throat.
The name of the book was taken from a letter written by seven Adventist pastors, all of them Tutsis, who were being held for slaughter in a complex of churches and hospitals in Mugonero. They wrote to another pastor, a Hutu, who was later accused of mass murder. It was a polite and gentle plea for help, one paragraph long. The middle sentence of the paragraph was the only description of their plight, and it said, “We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families.” And then they were.
Shif’khi kamayim libeikh, nokhach p’nei H’.
Last year at this time, a lifetime ago for all of us, there was a campaign for the American Presidency underway. In one of the debates, then-candidate George W. Bush was asked about the disparity in aid between certain traditional recipients – Europe, the Mediterranean countries, Israel – and the African continent. Mr. Bush, aware that the legacy of neglect stretched back through multiple Republican and Democratic administrations, answered in words similar to these: We have to make decisions about where to put our foreign aid resources, and I don’t foresee a significant change in our policy toward Africa.
Not two years earlier, President Clinton and Secretary of State Albright surveyed the detritus of four years of bloodletting in Rwanda and issued regrets, but few indications of a change in US policy toward Africa.
Tonight is Yom Kippur, and probably the last thing you want to hear about is United States foreign policy in Africa. Tonight is not Tisha B’av, the fast of mourning; it is Yom Kippur, the fast of purification. Tonight we sit still brushing ourselves off from the ash and dust that fell from the sky on September 11, and Rwanda is a world away, a generation removed, an alien concept.
But this book I read, the one I discovered while eavesdropping on a conversation, struck my hardened heart and loosed the fountains of water beneath. We never stand closer to God than on Yom Kippur. And my heart pours out like water.
You will get no lecture from me tonight about racism. There isn’t a stupid person in this room, and even if there were, even he or she would know that if Europeans were being murdered by their countrymen for being the wrong nationality we would intervene. We did intervene. You give that sermon to yourself when you make your own confessions tomorrow.
My heart poured out like water because, my God, the papers reported bodies choking the rivers, hundreds and hundreds of men, women and children, and I did nothing. Tutsis were being killed at a faster rate than the Jews were murdered in the Holocaust and, my God, I did nothing. It does not matter that they were black, any more than it mattered that the victims of the Khmer Rouge were yellow. Genocide was underway and, my God, I did nothing. I didn’t even recognize it.
At whom shall I point a finger for the tragedy that befell our people?
And now, we face the potential of another genocidal war. Only this time, the intended victims are not a people defined by their race, not by their tribe, not even by their religion. This time, the intended victims are defined by their common ideology and nationality. And unless we get smart about the nature of this conflict, future generations will read the works of a modern Jeremiah. He will be writing about us.
Philip Gourevitch offers some breathtaking insights in his book about the nature of what he calls “us-against-them popular violence.” He notes that it is fashionable to cast the mob violence as a form of mass hatred. “But,” he says:
while hatred can be animating, it appeals to weakness. The “authors” of genocide, as the Rwandans call them, understood that in order to move a huge number of weak people to do wrong, it is necessary to appeal to their desire for strength – and the gray force really drives people is power. Hatred and power are both, in their different ways, passions. The difference is that hatred is purely negative, while power is essentially positive: you surrender to hatred, but you aspire to power. (128-129)
We Americans are a people comfortable with power. We feel a sense of entitlement to it. In fact, power is what defines us as Americans. When the disenfranchised in this country rise up, they do so not in hatred, but in aspiration. Black power, flower power, power to the people – these were the cries of a generation straining to take its place as the brokers of America’s destiny. Two years ago, I gave a sermon that many of you mention still – a description of Sammy Sosa and how he illustrates the power of one.
Our power as America is unmistakable. But the power of America is neither military nor economic in nature. Our military and our economy are extensions of our power. The power of America is an idea, one expressed in our laws, our culture, our founding documents. The power of America is in the notion of human rights and liberty. It is a seductive power, because it enfranchises the weak and gives them redress for their weakness. It takes to extreme a notion entirely Jewish.
When I auditioned for this pulpit a very long time ago, I delivered a sermon on my favorite section of the siddur. It occurs in p’sukei d’zimra, when most of you are never in shul, and it is part of Psalm 147, and it describes God as:
Ha-rofeh l’shivurei lev u’m’chabeish la’atz’votam
Moneh mispar lakokhavim, l’khulam sheimot yikra
The healer of broken hearts and binder of their wounds
Who counts the number of stars, calling each one by name.
It is the second verse that grabs my attention tonight. God counts the number of stars, calling each one by name. When I spoke about it last, I found comfort in the notion that God cares enough about each star – that is to say, of course, about each human being – to know us by name. But tonight I understand that verse as the greatest strength of the American idea and the greatest threat to those who reject it. We, created in God’s image, hold as our ideal the value of the individual.
By contrast, not by way of criticism, classical Christianity and classical Islam do not value the individual and Eastern religions the same. The goal of Christian faith is to give over life to the will of God. The goal of Islam is to submit to God’s will. The goal of much Eastern tradition is to erase the line between self and other. The teachings of those traditions are sometimes gentle, sometimes harsh. But only those denominations that have evolved to an appreciation of the individual – liberal Protestantism, Sufi tradition, American Buddhism – can open to the notion that power does not need to be centralized and hoarded.
The many Judaisms of our people have not all affirmed the value of the individual. The frightened fundamentalists seek uniformity and submission to outside authorities, calling it halakhah, or in some cases, sacred nationalism. The many Americas of our country have not all affirmed true liberty and human rights. But sooner or later, those who seek to hold down the weak are persuaded to relinquish that grip by the inevitable power of the idea.
Mishnah Sanhedrin affirms that one who destroys a single life destroys an entire world, while one who saves a single life saves and entire world. The Qur’an makes an identical statement, one that Muslims have been quoting a lot these days. Both teachings affirm what is too threatening to the insecure: God keeps track of every piece of creation and knows each of us by name. God does not call one guy Osama, another guy You-with-the-face and the rest of us y’all. America affirms that truth. Judaism affirms that truth. So when the enemies of individual empowerment mount their war, they proclaim it, as Al-Queda did yesterday, on Americans and Jews.
For the Jews, it is an old story. It is not just sixty years old; it goes back to the attempts of Pharaoh to enslave the Israelites and prove his power over them and their God. I have pointed out to you before that the slaves in Egypt had no names in the beginning of the book of Exodus. They came from tribes, but they were just “the Israelites.” For the Nazis, a Jew was a Jew. We have developed a vocabulary to deal with these tragedies. It has no lexicon; rather, it is a vocabulary of the soul, one that is taught by a broken heart and rehearsed by faith in the inevitable success of the pursuit of peace and justice. Among the many gifts we have offered to the world over the past 3000 years, this one many be the newest, but it is no less important.
It was articulated well by Philip Gourevitch, as he struggled with the difference between mass murder and genocide.
What distinguishes genocide from murder, and even from acts of political murder that claim as many victims, is intent. The crime is wanting to make a people extinct. The idea is the crime. No wonder it is so difficult to picture. To do so you must accept the principle of the exterminator, and see not people by a people. (201-202)
By accepting the definition of the purveyors of genocide, they are handed the victory. 6 deaths, 6000 deaths, 6 million deaths – how shall we seek justice against 1, 100, 1 million perpetrators? Can we imprison them for more than a lifetime? Can we take more than one life from them in return? Can we make them reimburse life to the incinerated body, the body hacked to pieces, the body unrecovered?
You may suspect that I speak against military action. I do not. To take no action, or to limit our action to symbolic response, is to invite future generations to build memorials to us. I am sick of memorials.
But the war is not only a conflict of men and machines. The war is primarily between the great ideas of human existence over what the nature of that existence is to be. Were we created to be replicas of a single template, or were we created to be known by name, by that which makes us unique? Are we people, or a people, human beings or the human race?
And here is the hard part: even when those who are our enemies in this great struggle see no difference among the religions, races, heritage, ages of the American people, we must not make the same mistake in return. To see our enemies as only a group, not as human beings, is to hand them a victory, even in defeat.
I once asked my father about his service to our country in World War II. I asked him if he ever thought about the fact that he was shooting some mother’s son when he fired at German soldiers. “I wasn’t shooting at some mother’s son,” he responded. “I was shooting Nazis.”
Our warriors may need that mentality to go into battle. But those of us on the home front – and that means most of us – must not abandon the great idea that is America, a gift from Jewish tradition: counting the number of the stars, calling each one by name.
I wish I were more confident of my ability to do so. The genocidal war against America commands my attention because it is close to home, because it began two weeks before I had to give this speech.
But I missed my chance in Rwanda because neither the victims nor the perpetrators were me in any part of my consciousness. How can I atone? Do I cry the tears I keep at the ready behind my eyes? Do I release the supply that forms the lump in my throat?
No. First, I must resolve to believe and to hope. It is not enough to give lip service to our values and the lessons of our history. In between the exercise of my personal power to affirm life and liberty, and the hours I spend in the pursuit of happiness, I must act in the ways that the values I cherish demand. First and foremost is the affirmation of the power of the individual to act, and the responsibility he or she – I – have for those choices.
And then I must hope. Rabbi Ben Hollander observed that large-scale catastrophes can radically shuffle the deck of history. The relative inertia of the previous balance of forces comes apart and an opportunity arises for a new course. Think of the catastrophe of the Plagues--and then the Exodus; the Shoah--and then the State. Perhaps it is that the "earthquake" of traumatic events opens an unexpected new crevice for God's hand in history to be felt--if we are there to embrace and partner it.
That is where my hope lies. For I surely know that the earthquake of traumatic events has opened an unexpected crevice in my hardened heart. Through it, if I listen, I can hear again the God who counts the numbers of the stars calling my name, calling me to the great idea in which I believe. But I need the next twenty-four hours before I can listen for that voice. For the sharp blows that have been struck upon my hardened heart – by a book and then by an airplane – have loosed the very fountains of my tears. Today, I must pour out my heart like water before the face of the Lord.