November 17, 2023 (4 Kislev 5784)
Parasha Toldoth - L'Dor VaDor
I pray that this correspondence finds you well and in good health. These days, I am mindful not to inquire regarding “good cheer,” as we continue to experience existential crises in Israel and the unprecedented eruption of antisemitism throughout these United States, Europe, and the rest of the world.
On Wednesday, my alarm clock sounded at the ridiculously early hour of 4:25 am. Blurry eyes accompanied me as I staggered towards the night table to shut off the ever-annoying persistent sound of the pre-dawn’s wake-up beacon. Making my way to the restroom, I fumbled for the light switch and then stared deliberately towards the mirror. Fatigue be darned, I knew that today would be a long, but significant, day.
I arrived at school in time to conduct our 5:40 am Shacharit Rosh Chodesh service. Astonishingly, there were already twenty folks anxiously surrounding the chapel entrance. An aura of reverence filled the room as Tefillin were deliberately donned, and men enveloped themselves in the warm ambiance of the Mitzvah of tallit. Some davened. Some sang Hallel. Some sipped coffee. Some simply stared into space, seeking guidance and strength. Today would be, in the best meaning of the term, a day of trepid awe. After all, who could predict the attendance and/or success of the day’s events?
On the bus, we were introduced to the armed security guards (one of whose names was, ironically, Muhammed) hired to ensure our collective safety. Quickly, What’s App subgroups were programmed into staff cell phones, so each chaperone could keep painstaking track of the day’s movements of a dozen students. Pin-location tracking was similarly downloaded and tested.
Arriving in D.C., we were surrounded by myriads of groups, schools, activists, and organizations. Disgracefully, across from the rally’s entrance, for everyone to see, was a counter-demonstration of Neture Karte Rabbis criticizing the modern State of Israel, calling it a fascist and apartheid entity. We chose purposefully, not to interact with these misguided individuals, whose Torah and morality is not reflective of anything we teach.
Navigating the security gates, we were blessed to stand in the presence of thousands of Jewish folks, bringing to mind a rarely invoked Talmudic blessing to be recited at such a large gathering, חכם הרזים. In fact, it was being in the multitude, more than anything else, which created the distinctiveness of the occasion.
The day was filled with speeches, and thank God, words of support from public officials. Students from various schools held up posters, interacted with peers and saw friends from around the country. Despite their youthful excitement, the tone of the day was not one of frivolity but of seriousness and reverence.
Towards the end of the program, my heart broke when the mother of one of the hostages, a boy who grew up on Long Island, spoke about the absence of her son and the constant endless flow of tears of despair. I could not imagine standing in her place.
Earlier in the week, I had found myself encouraging attendance at this event by explaining to our young people that this would be a “once-in-a-lifetime ask.” Despite the elegance of my plea, I knew the statement was not entirely accurate. Jews have always answered the call of Hinneni, the biblical command to be present.
We always stand up and show up for the legacy of Torah’s sacred values.
Sixty years ago, in 1963, large numbers of Jews, including my wife’s grandfather, Rabbi Harry Zwelling (of blessed memory), walked alongside MLK, in the iconic March on Washington for civil rights. In December 1987, we stood as a quarter-million strong, demanding that millions of Russian Jews be allowed to leave the former Soviet Union. (Parenthetically, I stood at the Kotel shortly thereafter when Natan Sharansky finally arrived in Jerusalem, our holiest city.)
Fifteen years later, in 2002, Jews gathered 100,000 strong to support Israel during a spate of suicide bombings marking the Second Intifada.
In recent years, our community of conscience has participated in marches demonstrating against genocide in Darfur, supporting the welfare of workers, buoying human rights, clamoring for climate action, and, of course, supporting women’s rights. Trust me, my wife and three daughters have logged thousands of steps on their Fitbits marching in support of various causes. This week, we came to Washington to express gratitude to our elected officials, to demonstrate our steadfast support for the IDF, to comfort mourners from afar, and to plead for the return of our hostages.
Finally, as you can see from this picture of me with several of my students, we also arrived at the rally in the spirit of Toldoth. Toldoth, this week’s Torah portion, teaches the primacy of passing down Torah values to our next generation. We teach love and not hate. We teach life and not death. We teach truth and not lies. We teach light and not darkness. We teach peace and not war.
We teach Am Echad B’Lev Echad, One People with One Heart.
Friends, our work is not done, but on Wednesday we inaugurated the next generation of tomorrow’s Jewish leaders. We implored them always to speak out and always to stand up. They rose to the challenge. May Hashem bless them and the Jewish people.
I deeply pray that this Shabbat will bring the end of war, the security of our homeland, the cessation of aggression, the return of hostages, and the gift of Shalom, to Israel and the Jewish people, as we yearn for an elusive and eternal peace.
Rabbi Eric L. Wasser, EdD, Hon.DM