Rabbinic Reflections: Fragile bravery

“It’s okay to be scared. You can only be brave if you are scared first.” These words rolled easily off my tongue in counseling a kindergartener as she contemplated going down the pole on the playground. The stakes were low, she wanted to be brave, and I knew the words to be true. What I didn’t realize is how important bravery might be in this historical moment.

On Yom Kippur, perhaps the holiest day of the Jewish year, a gunman attacked a synagogue in Halle, Germany. Despite his use of explosives, he could not gain entry inside where as many as 70 were worshipping. Two people were killed in his attack. What did the Jews who were gathered there do after barring the doors and waiting? They prayed. Even at the hospital where they were checked for signs of shock or trauma, they concluded Yom Kippur with the special evening service known as Neilah (the “locking” of the gates of Heaven) and a final blast of the shofar right there in the hospital cafeteria.

A simple sukkah.

Around the time of the events in Germany, I was encouraging students and community members at the University of Delaware’s Hillel Yom Kippur service not to be afraid of antisemitism. When I first heard the news, my instinct was to wish I could take it all back. I had acknowledged the very real danger of antisemitism, particularly in light of the shootings in synagogues in Pittsburgh, and in Poway, Calif. in the past year. I suggested that Jewish tradition recognizes anti-semitism in every age; we have a Martyrology service on Yom Kippur that recounts persecutions by Romans, Spanish Inquisitors, Crusaders, pogroms, and the Holocaust. We read a prayer-poem adapted from an ages-old version, Eleh Ezkerah (“These I Do Remember”) that brought the 11 killed in Pittsburgh into that same tradition. Could I really have said, “Don’t be afraid of antisemitism,”?

Yes. Yes, I did, and upon further reflection, yes I would again. The Jews in Halle, Germany continued to pray; they kept faith or at least tradition. If their faith faltered, that makes them all the braver. We all need to be brave in the face of naked hatred. Hate needs to be countered. We cannot give in to our fear. Yes, we must take action to be as secure as we can, and we must also take action. We must carry on, knowing the dangers; we must build bridges in our communities, knowing we will need each other; and we must breakdown the sense of otherness that drives hate, favoring an ideology of being equal in God’s eyes.

Sunday night begins the Jewish holiday of Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles). For eight days, Jews eat their meals and sometimes dwell in temporary outdoor structures with bamboo mats or tree branches for a roof. We purposely leave the security of our homes and synagogues to be outside, in a fragile space, to celebrate being in a relationship with God. That willingness to step outside, to be fragile, reminds us to be brave. It may be a fragile bravery this year, and yet I can think of no better way to remember and to honor those who were killed or terrorized for practicing their Judaism. May God spread over us a sukkah (a tabernacle) of peace, especially at this fragile time.

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