Global soul: Zev Yaroslavsky

When Cain killed Abel, the Bible recorded it as the first murder in history.  But the rabbis commented, this is more than murder.  Abel’s murder opened the jaws of genocide. For when Cain killed Abel, it wasn’t Abel alone that died.  It was Abel’s posterity, his potential progeny  – those unborn, unlived, unrealized talents prematurely buried with Abel  –  poets, philosophers, artists, scientists. Therefore, our sages declared, “Who murders a single person, murders an entire world.”  To the lifeless skulls we see daily, add the unfulfilled promise of unborn infants and parent.

We live in a century of genocide.   No two holocausts are the same.  There are differences in their history, demography, geography, theology.  Many victims of mass murder are often different in their skin pigmentation, their language, their catechism. 

Well, if holocausts are so different, and the victims so different, what have I to do with Darfur, Sudan, Chad, and the Congo, and their sorrow?

Let me alone to mind my own tragedies
Let me cry my own tears
Let me lick my own wounds
And not of strangers.

Against this insular provincialism, the Jewish conscience of ethical monotheism confronts us with a penetrating question:

“Is your blood redder than theirs?  Is your pain deeper, your grief wider?  Is your compassion so small, your heart so narrow, that it cannot include the agony of other peoples, and the need to respond to their torture and their torment?” 

When my ancestors and yours gave civilization the Ten Commandments, did they mean to prohibit the murder or theft or false witness only against Jews?  Only against crimes committed against Judah or Israel or Jerusalem? Never before, and never again.

Never.  Such provincialism would only shatter the oneness of God into fragmented tribal deities.  Sh’ma Yisroel — the God of monotheism will not be segregated in Heaven.

The God of Genesis, which inspired the daughter religions of Christianity and Islam, created the whole universe, an entire humanity.  Thou shalt not murder – whom?  Every human being, male and female, every human being created in God’s image is to be protected, and cared for – the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the vulnerable, the suppressed communities, God’s children.

To avert my eyes from the torment of others, to stuff my ears from their shrieks, is to deny the kinship of human suffering and my own humanity.  

Am I created to be only a bystander, a passive voyeur gazing at the dying of human dignity? What defines my existence? 

The philosopher defined existence by declaring,  “I think, therefore I am.”
The existentialist wrote, “I feel, therefore I am.” 
The poet recited, “I imagine, therefore I am.” 

But our tradition declared, “Because you suffer, therefore I am.”   For if you suffer and I pretend deafness, muteness, or paralysis, I am reduced to a yawn, a breath, vanity of vanities, a cipher floating in the wind.  

Jewish World Watch was born out of the lash, scream, shouts, of human beings, out of the terror of children and of women raped, ravaged, and ruined.  We who have known genocide know that silence is lethal and muteness is complicity with evil.   We know to shed a tear is not to save a life, to sigh in sympathy is not to bind the hemorrhaging that drains life from terrorized human beings.

You friends – whom I have the privilege to address – during these last nine years have done more than express sympathy.  You helped build, and continue to help build, hospitals to repair ruptured fistulas and torn wombs of trembling girls and women.    You helped build, and continue to help build,  burn clinics to soothe the searing flames embedded in the flesh and the charred bones of innocents.  You have made our youth proud of the synagogue’s relevance and engagement with this world, here and now. 

Therefore, it is an honor for me, and my spiritually-restless cohort, colleague and co-founder Janice Kamenir Reznick, to be in your company, and especially this night, when we celebrate the vitality of human goodness and human Godliness.  Especially this night, when we honor our beloved friend Zev Yaroslavsky –  a serious person, a devoted civil servant, a feeling intelligence, that flows into his moral activism. 

When my wife Malkah and I came to this community in 1970, we heard about someone who stirred the moral sensibility of thousands, someone who heard the sobbing anger of dissidents and refusniks languishing in the grinding gulags of the Soviet Union, and who awakened the moral sensibility of thousands.  That person, who carried such a burden, with such responsibility and persistence, turned out to be all of 26 years.  Zev Yaroslavky:  an old head and a young heart, who taught with words and posture a post-Holocaust revelation:   We are not only a people of survivors, we are a people of rescuers.

Zev’s moral heroism was cultivated in a home of parents immersed in Jewish ethics.  At the table, at the school desks, from the pulpit, Zev had internalized the words of the last prophet in the Bible, Malachi.  To the question, “Why should we care about others?”  Malachi said,  “Have we not all one Father? Did not God create us all?  Why do we profane the covenant by breaking faith with one another?” 

Zev, you live your calling against the grain, raising up those kicked to the ground.  You have been in many battles in your life.  You have prayed and offered many petitions.  But all those causes and petitions are rooted in one cry for meaning and purpose:  “Make use of me. Make use of me.  For God’s sake, make use of me.” 

Zev, you are needed.  We need your leadership.  Help us use the best within us, for the sake of protecting the other children of God. 

For Zev and Barbara, and their supportive family, L’chaim, to life, to hope, to courage.

Them vs. Us

Was it Mort Sahl who said, “Just because I’m a paranoid, doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get me”?

In this week’s parsha, the narrative begins with the drama of Yaakov and his tender flock — two wives, two quasi-wives, 11 sons, a daughter — preparing to meet with an oncoming army, imposingly headed by his anything-but-fraternal “twin” brother, Esav. Yaakov fears the worst, and even as he prays to Hashem for protection and sends gifts to appease Esav, he prepares for war. The brothers meet ultimately, and Esav “ran to greet him, and hugged him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him” (Genesis 33:4).

Rashi, the paramount medieval commentator, notes the two midrashic traditions that discuss what actually happened during “The Kiss.” Because the Torah text is unusually punctuated, with six extraneous dots marking the word va-yishakehu (“and he kissed him”), the rabbis analyzed what happened.

One midrashic opinion is that the kiss was insincere — that Esav actually tried to bite Yaakov’s throat out after deceptively inducing his brother to relax his defenses. The other opinion is that after 20 years driven by relentless hate, Esav laid eyes on his brother, and it all came to him at once: He is my brother, for God’s sake, my brother. And he kissed him with all his love.

For many, that midrashic discussion historically has served as the narrative’s denouement and the ultimate launching pad for distrusting non-Jews, all of them. According to the opinion that Esav tried to bite the neck, not to kiss it, that animus reflects an immutable law of nature, comparable to gravity, only with metaphor attached: “It is a known law that Esav hates Yaakov.”

Metaphorically interpreted: All non-Jews are out to get us.

I was taught that law as a child being schooled in Brooklyn. They all are out to get us.

As for the second interpretation, which bears equal weight in the original midrashic discussion — that Esav kissed his brother lovingly — well, it never was taught to us as kids. We did not even have to know it for the test. I only discovered it years later, when on my initiative I looked at the original source discussion.

Certainly, ours is a history of being targeted by “them” for no reason other than our being “us.” The Christian, en route to liberate the Holy Land from the infidel Muslim Saracens, stopped along watering holes throughout Europe to massacre whole Jewish bystander communities.

Three centuries later, as a bubonic plague took hold throughout Europe, insane justification somehow was found to murder one-third of our people. Three centuries later, Bogdan Chmielnitzki and the Cossack massacres. Three centuries later, Hitler, the Nazis and their European confederates. Not to mention the Inquisition in Spain, the expulsions from lands as gentle as France and England, the persecutions of Mashad, the mellahs of Morocco and the ghettos of Italy and the June 1941 Iraqi Shavuot pogrom after the fall of the Golden Square.

So many times we got caught in the crossfire of other people, insane and crazy with one or another agenda of hate, who stopped by along the way to target us, too. As recently as Mumbai, where goons and thugs fighting over the Pakistan-India Kashmir dispute chose to perpetrate horrific evils against targeted Jewish bystanders while on a murder spree, we have been caught or targeted in their crossfire.

It is easy to see how persuasive the “known law of nature” seems to be: They all are out to get us. Just look at history. All of them are out to get us.

Only, that is not all of our history. From Righteous Gentiles who genuinely risked and sometimes gave their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust to centuries and millennia of next door neighbors who lent us milk or sugar or watered our plants and picked up our mail (yes, an anachronism) when we went on vacation, to non-Jewish employers who hired us and non-Jewish teachers who helped us learn to read and to count, a second law also exists: No, they are not all out to get us.

And despite this country’s shameful moments — Peter Stuyvesant’s governance, Ulysses Grant’s General Order No. 11, the Leo Frank lynching, the 1928 Massena Blood Libel, the years of Father Coughlin and Henry Ford and the 1991 Crown Heights Riots — we have flourished and built Torah institutions, gained huge support for Israel, including financial and military backing and the right to hold dual citizenship with her, and have been able to play a role in every aspect of this land’s culture and enterprise and civilization. We assuredly owe it to our kids to teach them that, no, all of them are not out to get us.

And because the playing field at this time and place in our history is essentially level, it is incumbent on us to conduct our affairs honestly and ethically and to expect and demand the same from those business enterprises that operate in our community or — even if they are out in the sticks of the Corn Belt — that operate to serve our community.

Rabbi Dov Fischer is adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School and is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County, a Modern Orthodox shul in Irvine. His Web site is

Have You But One Blessing?

It began with the first two human born into this world, the world’s first brothers.

In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil. Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The Lord paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell (Genesis 4:3-5).

How did Cain know? The offerings are placed upon the altar. As each is set aflame, the smoke rises. How can one possibly ascertain that God accepts one and rejects the other? No, here the Torah tells us something deeper — not how it really was, but how it appeared to Cain, the world’s first aggrieved brother. In my fantasy, Cain crosses the field to his brother. "Say Abel, show me how you did that." But alas, when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother, Abel, and killed him (Genesis 4:8). And so it began.

Sigmund Freud proposed that the dynamic of human personality is shaped in the Oedipal complex — the young boy’s adoration of his mother leading to conflict and ultimate identification with his father. The Torah, as well, locates the primal human drama within the family, but in a different relationship — in the struggle among brothers. The Torah itself is structured around a set of tense brother stories: Cain and Abel; Noah’s sons; Abraham and his brother’s son, Lot; Ishmael and Isaac; Jacob and Esau; Joseph and his brothers; Moses and Aaron. They struggle for position, power, priority, but most of all, they struggle for their father’s blessing.

When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see, he called his older son, Esau, and said to him, "My son."

Esau answered, "Here I am."

And Issac said, "I am old now, and I do not know how soon I may die. Take your gear, your quiver and bow, and go out into the open and hunt me some game. Then prepare a dish for me such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die" (Genesis 27:1-2).

Esau, faithful but thick, is supplanted by his trickster brother, Jacob, who hides his smooth skin beneath his smooth words to seduce the father into granting him the family blessing. Esau returns with the hard-won venison and prepares his father’s dish, only to discover that his blessing has been taken.

When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst into wild and bitter sobbing and said to his father, "Bless me, too, Father!"

But Issac answered, "Your brother came with guile and took away your blessing."

And Esau said to his father, "Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father!" And Esau wept aloud (Genesis 27:34-35, 38).

For the first time, we can feel sympathy for him. Crude, violent, impulsive, there is nevertheless something genuine and good in Esau’s ferocious loyalty to his father. And something moving in his vulnerability. So into his mouth is placed the Bible’s harshest critique of its own monotheism: Have you but one blessing, Father? Who told Father Isaac there was only one blessing to split between two sons? Must one God imply only one blessing, only one birthright, only one way, only one truth? Does God accept only one brother’s offering and reject the other’s? Is there room for only one brother in this land, in this world? If so, teaches the Torah, we are doomed to reiterate an endless cycle of fratricide, generation after generation.

The Messiah will not arrive, according to an old tradition, until Esau’s tears are exhausted. Redemption comes when Father Isaac and all his descendants find in the infinite heart of God a fitting blessing for Esau — a place for the other brother. Redemption comes when the ehad (oneness) of monotheism is read as the most inclusive of theologies. Only then will we fulfill the prayer of the Psalmist, "How good and how pleasant it is that brothers dwell together" (Psalms 133:1).