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We Will Not Be Afraid: A Response to the Paris Attacks

01/11/2015 02:08:39 PM


Our thoughts and prayers are with the Jews of France, and the nation of France, after this week’s atrocities.

Since this week’s attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, our minds have all been focused on France. But Friday's terrible news, the taking of hostages, storming a kosher supermarket, the killing of innocent people buying food for Shabbos is eerily familiar. 

After the deadly terror attacks in India a few years ago – I remember reading a headline – “But why did they shoot the Rabbi?”  As well as terrorism directed at the infrastructure, the leadership, the prominent targets of a city, in ways we can never understand  Jews are also the target: the Chabad house, a kosher supermarket – and in the last months – a Jewish museum, a school in Toulouse. 

That’s the reality of this world, that when terror (without implying all Muslims are terrorists) when Islamic terror, picks its targets, it chooses governments, armies, police, infrastructure, those it perceives as blasphemers, and it chooses us, Jews in schools and shuls and museums and kosher shops.

Friday on Facebook, a former student of mine from Cambridge, someone who has built an amazing career in the UK, a well-known public figure, posted:

“At what point do our chats with friends about getting the hell out of Europe/UK become more than a chat? Do we wait for this to happen in the kosher shops at the bottom of our road, or do we admit the tide is turning against our control, and flee?

At the start of the week I was worrying about where my daughter is going to school next year. Now I'm worrying where I should actually bring her up.”

We are watching the world change before our eyes, and I’ve got to say as we open up the book of Shemot, Exodus, it’s a story of how persecution descends on the Jews of Egypt so that within the shortest time their reality had utterly and completely changed, and their only option, their only hope, was Hashem’s message

וּלְהַעֲלֹתוֹ מִן-הָאָרֶץ הַהִוא, אֶל-אֶרֶץ טוֹבָה וּרְחָבָה, אֶל-אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ

And I will take them up…to the land flowing with milk and honey.

Even before Friday's attack on Hypercacher, I was thinking – what can be done? How can we avoid this terror, these attacks? Are there thing we can do – perhaps to appease, to apologize, to change our behavior or values in an effort to avoid the terror directed against the western world.

A huge part – some subtle, some more explicit – of commentary on the Charlie Hebdo attack has asked if they were somehow responsible for what happened. 

From what I can see, this was not a magazine I would subscribe too. It took delight in lampooning, mocking, through cartoons in the main, all religions. Ten years ago the Muslim world erupted at the portrayal in a Danish magazine of cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. This magazine was one of the few brave – or perhaps foolish – enough to republish them, and regularly went further, using obscene images to make fun of Jews, Christians and Muslims, and their religions. 

Now to their credit they weren’t quite as cowardly or hypocritical as most western media organizations, who unhesitatingly post vile and critical images of other religions, just not Islam. For example, the controversial and sickening so-called piece of art, showing Jesus in a jar of urine, was pictured in almost every single newspaper in Europe and north America, the vast majority of whom were too frightened to display the Mohammed cartoons.

Charlie Hebdo did not discriminate – they were willing to offend everyone. But perhaps they should have. Perhaps they would still be alive – maybe the policy of our media, the newspapers every one of us reads, is quite correct – why antagonize, why make things difficult? Perhaps that’s just the way it’s going to have to be. We have created this monster, terror on our doorsteps, but if we keep our heads down maybe they won't come after us. That is a calculation we all need to think about. Was Charlie Hebdo, a hero or a fool?

I think the answer is in this week’s parsha. Look at Parshat Shemot – it’s a parsha of tragedy – of, as I said, persecution, slavery, terror, suffering that descends out of the blue. Labor, slavery, shrieks, cries, pain, beatings, blood, death. But it’s also a parsha of courage. There are the miyaldot – the midwives, who feared G-d, and resisted. There is Miriam, who riskedeverything to save her brother. Moshe himself – leaves the royal palace – has to give up his privilege and life of luxury, for a cause. The message is: without courage, without people who do not give into fear, there can be no freedom. 

But let’s go on – because there is a mystery at the heart of our parsha. Remember the burning bush – Moshe is told to go and tell the Jewish people that redemption is at hand. And he demurs, he refuses.  More than 25 verses – a huge narrative  – describes Moshe’s refusal to go, his back and forth with Hashem. Hashem tells Moshe that Pharaoh will refuse, but miracles will happen, and the people will be freed.

Moshe refuses. Not because he doesn’t believe that Hashem can defeat Pharaoh, but because he thinks the people of Israel will lack faith, they won’t believe in Moshe, they will refuse to leave.  Yet, when Moshe embarks on his mission, a strange thing happens – in just two verses, Aaron speaks – Moshe performs Hashem’s signs – we don’t know if the people even asked him to do them - but he does them and they believe. The people are desperate for redemption. They believe, and they are ready.  

Then things go wrong. Because Moshe goes into the palace - he had spent all his time arguing with Hashem about the Jewish people, Pharaoh’s persuasion was almost taken for granted. But Pharaoh says no – refuses the very idea of freedom, and then increases the workload of the Jews, bricks without straw, and Moshe is thrown out of the palace.

What happens next is the last thing Moshe expects. He expects plagues, miracles, the Yad Chazakah, the mighty Hand that Hashem promised to bring against Pharaoh. Instead – there is silence. G-d doesn’t speak any more. The Midrash says for 6 months Hashem did not utter another word – Moshe in fact went back to Midian – defeated. And the Jews are left suffering, under conditions so much worse than before. Slavery had gone from being terrible but endurable to literally unbearable. Here too there are heroes – Jewish officers, rather than beating the Jewish slaves to work harder than physically possible, instead receive the lashes from the wicked Egyptians.  Eventually Moshe is so broken he turns to Hashem and says why are you making the people suffer so much? 

But friends reading the parsha it seem so very clear – freedom will not come unless people are willing to suffer for it. A freedom that was granted at the first request would not last. Freedom is only safe, when people are willing to sacrifice for freedom, willing to suffer for freedom – because everywhere there are people who want to take away our freedom. Our freedom is a threat to those who want to make us slaves. Be it empires, foreign powers – then and now. Islamic fundamentalists believe that all must submit to Islam, our freedom is a heresy to them.

Hashem is teaching us at the beginning of the struggle – you can't just ask for freedom, and expect it to happen – freedom means courage, means strength, means taking risks, means living in defiance - a freedom that you won't suffer for will never ever last.

To answer the question – what should Charlie Hebdo have done – what should every newspaper do? Publish these offensive cartoons or not?

Jewish law says that sometimes we are commanded to rock the boat. The law is clear – pikuach nefesh – saving a life takes precedence over any every mitzvah – with 3 exceptions – sexual Immorality, murder and idolatry. If a person is commanded to break any other law of the Torah or be killed, they break the law, and save their life. But when is that true? When the gentile holds a gun to your head and says eat pork, break Shabbos, for their own amusement or benefit. But the Talmud says, b’shaat hashmad – at a time when they are trying to wipe out or way of life, then even for the smallest commandment or custom, you have to resist, you have to be prepared to die rather than surrender.  

The Gemara says – even “arkesa d'mesana” – shoe laces. They come to you and say – we demand you stop tying your shoes the way Jews do, we demand you change, you acknowledge our power. Then the Halacha is yehareg ve’al yaavor – even for such a minor thing, you must risk your life.  A shoe lace? Wouldn’t we say – phew – we got off lucky – why rock the boat – why antagonize them? We’ll do what they ask. But the Halacha says no – because when they come to take away your freedom – you cannot give it to them – you either stand up and resist, or limitless suffering, a slavery , a dark age of humanity, will be the result. 

The Charlie Hebdo cartoons were often repulsive. But that’s not the issue. When radical, fundamentalist Islam turns to those for whom freedom of expression is there very raison d’etre and says we forbid you to criticize us, you may not offend us, or we will kill, then there can only be one response. The editor of the magazine, Stephane Charb who was among those murdered this week, told Le Monde newspaper “I'd rather die standing than live on my knees.” As Simon Schama the historian wrote “irreverence is the lifeblood of freedom” and Charlie Hebdo understood – if we don’t publish because we are afraid, we are no longer free. 

This is the world we find ourselves in. Not just as journalists, as cartoonist - but as Jews. We all have to be heroes. We have to. We have no other choice. Being here today in shul, wearing a yarmulke – walking into a kosher store or restaurant – that is now the heroism of our day and age. To live as a Jew means that we have to be strong, we have to be heroes – we have no choice – whether it’s here in America, Europe or even in Israel – being a Jew means to have courage.

An evil unseen since the days of Hitler is stalking our planet, once again it is coming after us – it doesn’t matter what we do or say, we cannot, we dare not appease it. We have to stand up to it. I want to ask all of us, no matter how scared we may be, in every day in everything we do, when we go to work when we come home, when we go out to eat and when we go to the store – let each of us show the world – we are Jews, we are free, we are not afraid and we will never surrender

Am Yisrael Chai.



Sun, February 25 2024 16 Adar I 5784