By Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky
Editor’s note: This sermon was delivered at Shabbat morning services Jan. 22.
My colleague and friend Rabbi David Wolkenfeld of Chicago said it best in a tweet. “Being a rabbi means knowing when to pour a cup of tea, and when to throw a chair.” I’ve been thinking about that a great deal as I reflect on this past week’s events. By now, all of us are familiar with the heroism, bravery and intelligence Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker displayed during his 11-hour traumatic ordeal. After a week in which we have been inundated with news, with opinions, with phone calls, with security briefings — how should we respond?
Parashat Yitro begins by telling us that Yitro heard what God did for the Jewish people, and joined them. “Jethro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the LORD had brought Israel out from Egypt.”
What did Yitro hear? Rashi offers two explanations: the splitting of the sea, and the battle against Amalek. The miracles performed for the Jewish people would be enough, I would think, to cause anyone to want to affiliate with us.
But what was it about the battle against the Amalekites that made Yitro want to join us? I’d like to suggest that it was his understanding of what the Amalekites were about — pure and unbridled hatred, especially directed against Jews — that sent him in our direction. Yitro was the first non-Jew to fight antisemitism. He understood how irrational, dangerous and contagious the oldest hatred is, and he was committed to combat it, even as the rest of the world refused to name it and fight it.
The events of the Jan. 15 weekend left many of us, I think, feeling both very supported and extremely alone. The expressions of support and prayer from non-Jews across the political spectrum and spanning all religious traditions were truly touching.
But as heartening as it was that so many joined with us in praying for a positive outcome, it was equally infuriating that so many refused to identify what it was: an act of antisemitism at the hands of an Islamic terrorist. Even saying this sentence can cause someone to be labeled an Islamophobe, so let me be clear that I do not consider all Muslims to be terrorists, God forbid. But this was an act of terror with a distinct Islamic motivation, as the terrorist attempted to use it secure the release of one of his most infamous colleagues, Dr. Aafia Siddiqui. As I’m sure everyone knows, Dr. Siddiqi — “Lady Al Qaeda” — is the subject of an aggressive campaign to secure her freedom, and the organization that is at the forefront of this effort is the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
It must be said that CAIR did condemn the events of Jan. 15, and that not all Muslims consider CAIR to be their representative organization. But CAIR spokespersons have called Zionist Jews the enemies of human rights, and have said, “We need to pay attention to the Zionist synagogues.”
Rabbi Cytron-Walker said that the terrorist repeatedly expressed his belief that Jews control the world, yet another iteration of that conspiracy theory that regularly rears its ugly head, as dangerous as it is irrational. So when the FBI said that the demands of the terrorist had “nothing to do with the Jewish community,” it was false. To say that this had nothing to do with antisemitism is an act of antisemitism itself. And yet, we continue to allow ourselves to be gaslit by government officials and in media coverage of this incident.
We have been told that the FBI freed the hostages, when they freed themselves. Media coverage has called Malik Faisal Akram “the hostage taker,” a euphemism reserved only for those who attack Jews — as if taking hostages is like taking your temperature or taking a census; attacking an Asian salon or a church or a mosque would justifiably label one a racist terrorist, but somehow that appellation is not granted to those who attack Jews.
Yitro joined the Jewish people because he knew which side of history he wanted to be on. It should not be the job of Jews to fight antisemitism; we shouldn’t have to educate others on what is and what isn’t antisemitic. The sad reality, though, is that we have to, because it is part of our daily lives yet no one really cares all that much about the fear and defiance with which we live. The message of Yitro is that the least we can do is welcome allies of any faith and all political persuasions who will fight with us and for us without trying to change us, in good faith and without ulterior motives.
So I’ve been thinking about how the world reacted to this incident — but I’ve also been thinking about how we reacted to this incident. In his Torah commentary titled Ktav Sofer, Rav Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer of Pressburg offers a fascinating insight. We think of the revelation at Sinai as a moment of mass unity; as our sages tell us, “And there Israel encamped as one man and with one mind — but all their other encampments were made in a murmuring spirit and in a spirit of dissension” (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 19:2:10).
The Ktav Sofer pointed out that it defies belief that every Jew wanted to accept the Torah. No doubt at least several weren’t on board. But they recognized that it was the right thing to do, so they suppressed their misgivings or negativity for the sake of unity — an example I wish some of us had followed. First, it was the report on The Yeshiva World News accusing Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker of a lack of faith and belief because he didn’t mention God in his Facebook post right after he escaped (though he did repeatedly in the service his community ran on Monday night). Then, it was the extensive discussion about Rabbi Charlie in the aftermath — the news reports that his congregation had voted not to renew his contract and the anonymous congregant who said that the event of Shabbos had “changed nothing.” There were the repeated references to Rabbi Cytron-Walker’s views on Israel that so many people sent me, as if he therefore deserved to be taken hostage, or was less deserving of his subsequent freedom.
Rabbi Cytron-Walker has since then asserted his strong support for Israel, and has denied, on record, stating that Israel is an apartheid state. But even if he did think that, it would be irrelevant. It didn’t matter to the terrorist, that’s for sure — political and religious viewpoints never do, not in Colleyville or any of the other locations that were the sites of recent terror attacks. They didn’t care that Tree of Life is a Conservative congregation, that Chabad of Poway is a Hasidic community and that Congregation Beth Israel is a Reform temple. Rabbi Cytron-Walker was taken hostage for one reason, and one reason only: He is a Jew, and that’s reason enough to identify with him, to empathize with him, to pray for his family and his community, to praise his heroism and to thank God without qualification and with no asterisk that he emerged safely.
Yes, we may have religious differences with our heterodox brethren, and we may have political differences with plenty of other Jews, but the lesson of the unity of receiving the Torah is that if you are thinking something wrong or divisive, it might not be the most opportune time to express it — now, and maybe not ever. This kind of negativity is not who we should be! I am deeply proud of the way this community responded on Saturday night, Jan. 15, as 210 screens and many more people from our broader community participated, with just minutes’ notice and a mid-course change of channels, in the recitation of Tehillim — and again on Thursday night, in a display of unity, support and solidarity. This is who we are. There are times when we need to make tea, and times when we need to throw chairs — and this was a time to make tea.
Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky serves Congregation Shaare Tefilla.