There’s a trick question that rabbis and religious school teachers sometimes like to ask in order to stump their congregants and their students.  But I bet there are plenty of you who will get the right answer even though it is sort of tricky.  Ready?

            What is the most important Jewish holiday?  (Everyone who thinks they know should just call out the response simultaneously)

            Yes, some of you got it – the answer is Shabbat. 

            So, yes, I want to congratulate you all for coming to Temple for the most important Jewish holiday --- Shabbat…

            Of course, Yom Kippur is very important too.  And, our little quiz notwithstanding, we all know very well that Yom Kippur --– and especially the Kol Nidre service that inaugurates it --- is when many synagogues will have their biggest attendance. 

            What is it that draws us here on this night of all nights?

The one night of the year when here at Temple we have no refreshments!  What ever happened to the supposedly hard and fast rule of “feed them and they will come?”

            My sense is that what draws us to shul for Yom Kippur is that this is the day each year when, as a Jewish community, we most powerfully confront our sense of mortality.          

Indeed, the language of the ritual confession or “vidui” that is recited at the bedside of a person who is near death is similar to the language of the vidui prayer of the minchah (afternoon service) for Erev Yom Kippur, which I personally recited just a few hours ago. 

            And the white kittel that I’m wearing to lead services is intended to remind us of a burial shroud.

            Kol Nidre night may pull us into shul because it reminds us that we have a limited time on this earth.  We can never know with absolute certainty what tomorrow will bring. 

So it is today/hayom that we must rededicate ourselves to being better partners with God in the healing and repair of our world; and in the healing and repair of ourselves.

            In Hebrew the same word “avodah” means both “worship” and “service.”  The two are inextricably linked.  Our worship – in prayer and song and public reading of scripture – should lead us to service.  That is the message of this awesome day. 

            I’m hoping we will pay particular attention this year to a verse from the Yom Kippur afternoon Torah portion, Leviticus 19:16 to be precise:  There we learn -- “lo ta’amod al dam reyekha”/ “do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood.” (Lev. 19:16).

            The Talmud explains that the commandment “do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood” means that we must not stand and watch a person die when we can do something to save them.

            This is a lesson that too few people understood as the Shoah unfolded in the 1930’s and 40’s.  This is a lesson that too few people understood as genocide took place in Rwanda in the 1990’s.  And nine years ago on Kol Nidre night I was speaking to the congregation in my former congregation in Plattsburgh, NY about not standing idly by while the people of Darfur in western Sudan were being massacred by the central government of their own country. 

            Growing up, and inculcated with the values I absorbed in my own Jewish upbringing, I accepted the notion that the Shoah was totally unique in world history.  I no longer agree with that idea.  Genocide is genocide, and it makes no difference that in the particular case of the Jewish people during the Nazi era it was the work of white Europeans….

            I feel I need to mention this because a congregant who I respect very much challenged me a couple of weeks ago when I first mentioned from the bima that I was opposed to President Obama’s plan to bomb Syria.  One of the offhand comments I had made at the time was that this was a Syrian civil war, and that Assad was not attacking or threatening to attack the United States (or Israel for that matter). 

            But then he said to me:  Well, if the Syrians who were being gassed were Jews would that be different?  My instinctive, even reflexive, response to him at that moment was that, yes, that would be different because we, as Jews, have a special responsibility to other Jews.  So, in that sense, it would be as if we ourselves were, in fact, being attacked so that this would no longer be just a Syrian internal civil conflict.  He then responded that our responsibility really should be to all of humanity.

            Okay, so let me clarify the reflexive answer I gave to him two weeks ago.  And that congregant – He told me I could identify him – was none other than our Temple president Tom Griggs --- who I do indeed respect very much.

            So I want to state, “for the record” that yes, I do believe that “lo ta’amod al dam reyekha”  / “do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” DOES apply to all of our neighbors on this planet of ours, and that includes the innocent dead of Syria. 

            Here’s what Elie Wiesel said in 2004 when the topic was the genocidal violence during the civil war in the Darfur region of Sudan.  His  words from back then still resonate now as we think about the situation in Syria:

“[…] Congressional delegations, special envoys and humanitarian agencies send back or bring back horror-filled reports from the scene. A million human beings, young and old, have been uprooted, deported. Scores of women are being raped every day, children are dying of disease hunger and violence.

“How can a citizen of a free country not pay attention? How can anyone, anywhere not feel outraged? How can a person, whether religious or secular, not be moved by compassion? And above all, how can anyone who remembers remain silent?

“As a Jew who does not compare any event to the Holocaust, I feel concerned and challenged by the Sudanese tragedy. We must be involved. How can we reproach the indifference of non-Jews to Jewish suffering if we remain indifferent to another people's plight?

“It happened in Cambodia, then in former Yugoslavia, and in Rwanda, now in Sudan. Asia, Europe, Africa: Three continents have become prisons, killing fields and cemeteries for countless innocent, defenseless populations. Will the plague be allowed to spread?

"Lo taamod al dam réakha" is a Biblical commandment. "Thou shall not stand idly by the shedding of the blood of thy fellow man." The word is not "akhikha," thy Jewish brother, but "réakha," thy fellow human being, be he or she Jewish or not. All are entitled to live with dignity and hope. All are entitled to live without fear and pain.

“Not to assist Sudan's victims today would for me be unworthy of what I have learned from my teachers, my ancestors and my friends, namely that God alone is alone: His creatures must not be.

“What pains and hurts me most now is the simultaneity of events. While we sit here and discuss how to behave morally, both individually and collectively, over there, in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan, human beings kill and die.

“Should the Sudanese victims feel abandoned and neglected, it would be our fault - and perhaps our guilt.

“That's why we must intervene.

“If we do, they and their children will be grateful for us. As will be, through them, our own.”


And yet:  That was 2004 and now this is 2013.  Between then and now we have the long drawn out legacy of the Iraq War, and the complicated new dynamics of the Arab Spring.  And here is the most recent statement I found on the internet this week from Elie Wiesel regarding the current situation in Syria:  In an interview with a reporter from the Los Angeles Times[i] in April of this year he was asked:

“How do you read the Arab Spring?”

And Wiesel responded:

“I think it began well, a kind of spiritual and political rebellion. It was hijacked and turned into something else. Take Syria. The problem with Syria is painful because the Syrian border with Israel is the only one that has never been violated. The Syrians are respecting the border with Israel. And yet their fanatics are fanatics. What to do? If I knew the answer to that!”


            The question that remains then is not --- do we have a moral obligation to respond to the atrocities taking place in Syria.  (The answer to that question is YES) but rather the question is --- “What sorts of responses would be productive?”

            The bloodshed has been going on in Syria for two years already --- or decades – if you want to think of the larger picture of the violent repressive nature of the State led now by Bashar Assad and formerly by his father Hafez Assad. 

            But even if we limit ourselves to the current civil conflict there, we are faced with the fact that atrocities are being committed on both sides, and great moral ambiguity exists regarding the pros and cons of any particular solutions to the conflict.  What we do know is that over 100,000 Syrians have died in the last two years of fighting, and that MILLIONS of Syrians have fled the country as refugees. 

            And the question remains:  What is to be done?


            There is a classic Jewish teaching that the designation -- Yom Ha-Kippurim [יום הכפורים] – which is how the Day of Atonement is referred to in the Torah – should be interpreted as if the letter kaf[כ]  were not part of the verbal root kaf-pey-resh [כפר] meaning “atone” but rather as if that letter kaf represented the prefix “ke” (meaning “like” or “as) so that we’d get “Yom ke-Purim,”  meaning “A Day Like Purim.”   I found a nice explanation of this in an article by Rabbi Shraga Simmons on the website.  Rabbi Simmons explains that the description of the Day of Atonement as a “day like Purim” refers to the idea that what we accomplish on Yom Kippur with spiritual pursuits, we accomplish on Purim with physical pursuits. These holidays are two sides of the same coin, two opposite halves of the same day.”

            But on this Yom Kippur 5774, I’m sensing other ways in which today feels like Yom Ke-Purim/ A Day Like Purim.  In Megillat Esther there are dizzying twists and turns of plot---- so too this High Holiday season.  We’ve gone from the brink of attacking Syria to a new attempt at diplomacy in ways we would not have anticipated less than a week ago.  And, depending on your interpretation of recent events, President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have been as inept as King Achashverosh or as astute as Mordechai in their handling of the situation.

            Assad we know is as despicable and murderous as Haman.  And as for Russian President Vladimir Putin, I prefer to think of him as a sort of Queen Esther ---   Esther breaks character to rescue her people, while Putin breaks character to rescue his client Bashar Assad.   Well, the parallels I guess aren’t exact, but, in light of Putin’s persecution of gay people in Russia, it does give me pleasure to imagine him as a drag queen…  

            But that’s the subject of another sermon….  

            In any event, all the Purimesque plot twists of the past couple of weeks have been particularly challenging for rabbis like me who have been trying to write our High Holiday sermons. 

            My first reaction when President Obama started pushing the idea of attacking Syria was impatience with him for getting tripped up in a “red line” of his own making.  But then again, I too find myself tripped up by my own self-imposed “red line” of wanting to do a current-events oriented talk from the bima tonight. 

            In truth, I often feel that way when trying to make connections between Jewish teachings, liturgy and scripture and political issues of the day.  From my perspective, Judaism is multi-voiced and the Jewish people are politically diverse.  And my general sense is that any of you can read the New York Times or listen to NPR just as well as I can.  And this week in particular, I’ve been dealing with data overload  –   TMI – too much information --- as I’ve been seizing onto every new blog post, news report and op-ed essay to try to help me understand what’s going on in Syria and what should be done about it. It has gotten to the point where I have so many news articles and listserve posts from colleagues weighing in on Syria that all these resources have just blurred together and have pretty much become useless to me.  So, I’ll just have to try to give you an impressionistic account of my thinking on the subject and see if I can try to couch it in some Jewish teaching appropriate for the holiday. 

            Viscerally, I’m reminded of the events of 9-11 and their aftermath.  We marked the anniversary of that awful day just yesterday.  Back then I found myself glued to media reports of the ongoing rush of new developments in the same way that I’ve been doing so in the last couple of weeks about the possibility of the US attacking Syria. 

            The attacks on New York City and Washington, DC and the plane crash in Shanksville, Pennsylvania that was headed to Washington --- took place 12 years ago, but we still, as a nation, carry within ourselves the trauma of that day.   If we are reluctant to confront Assad militarily over his use of chemical weapons, the reluctance comes in part from our knowing that Assad’s opponents include significant numbers of extremists allied to the terrorist group that targeted us on 9-11. 

            And our reluctance comes from remembering the costly and destabilizing legacy of the Iraq War that President George W. Bush instigated in large part by using the events of 9-11 as a phony pretext. 

            And our reluctance comes from remembering how that war was sold to us as a limited action and so we don’t trust the current administration when it says it too wants authorization only for a limited action.

            And we’re confused about what this supposedly limited action is supposed to entail --- more than a pinprick but less than a regime change --- with no real sense of what that actually would entail.

            And how can it not turn out to be a slippery slope to being fully mired in a civil war that is not our own?

            And our reluctance comes from knowing that there are so many “nation building” needs right here at home that compete for our attention and our dollars.


            What is there to say?  My first instinct has been the same as that of many others, both Republicans and Democrats:  that President Obama’s plan to attack Syria has been more about proving our toughness than about achieving cogent goals.   Assad is a brutal dictator, but a US attack on his forces would be an act of aggression against a nation that has neither attacked us nor threatened to attack us. 

            All for what?  To defend a “rule of warfare” not to use chemical weapons.  Yes, the President made a poignant case on national television and radio Wednesday night about the horrors of poison gas.  But to my mind he didn’t manage to make a sensible case for how this is qualitatively worse than the horrors of conventional warfare that has killed over 100 times as many Syrians.   And to my mind he didn’t make a convincing case as to how adding American attacks to the mix would increase the likelihood of peace or even how it would decrease the likelihood of Assad using chemical weapons if in fact we’re NOT looking to oust Assad altogether and we’re not attempting to destroy the chemical weapons themselves –  for we know that any such attempt would simply release them into the air and cause the very harms we’re trying to prevent.

            I’m very thankful that there is now a reasonable possibility that the current impasse over chemical weapons and red lines will be resolved without sending American bombs into the midst of the Syrian Civil War.    The Russians have given us a diplomatic way out.  I’m sure that President Putin’s motives include a general desire to increase Russian influence in the World in general and the Middle East in particular.  But, however Machiavellian his motives may be, my gut sense is that --- yes – he, with his Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are very much serving the cause of peace.

            And I give a lot of credit to both President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry for switching course to give the diplomatic effort the best possible shot at success. 

            Of course, a number of pundits have suggested that this course change suits President Obama just fine.  The resolution of support he was seeking in Congress was poised to fail, and there is that suspicion all around that he was backed into a corner by his own red lines. 

            As Maureen Dowd trenchantly opined in the NY Times on Wednesday:  “ Where the mindlessly certain W. adopted a fig leaf of diplomacy to use force in Iraq, the mindfully uncertain Obama is adopting a fig leaf of force to use diplomacy in Syria….” 

            Whatever the motivations, and whether all this was planned or serendipitous -- Let us hope and pray for the success of these diplomatic efforts.

            And further, let us hope and pray for the welfare of all of the innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.

            Meanwhile, there are various organizations working to assist Syrian refugees.  Many of us just a few months ago attended a fundraising dinner organized by the Islamic Center of the Twin Ports and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Duluth for Syrian refugee relief.

            Better than bombs, we can still contribute to such organizations as:  CARE, Unicef, Doctors Without Borders or other groups that are trying to address what the World Health Organization has called the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today.  I hope you will consider doing so as I have personally done earlier this week.

            Just remember that even if Syria signs on to the international convention of chemical weapons, and even if those weapons are put under international control and destroyed --- that doesn’t mean that the Syrian crisis will have been resolved.  Far from it.

            Psalm 34, one of the biblical passages that we often include in our Shabbat morning service charges us:בַּקֵּשׁ שָׁלוֹם וְרָדְפֵהוּ.  – Seek peace and chase after it.  May those who are pursuing peace be crowned with success in their efforts.

            And, in the meantime, amidst all the work that needs to be done in our own city, our own state, and our own country, may we nevertheless not stand idly by as the crisis that engulfs Syria continues to unfold.

            Gmar chatimah tovah v’tzom kal/  I wish you all a good sealing in the Book of Life, and an easy fast.

            Shabbat shalom.


(c) Rabbi David Steinberg 5774/2013


Posted on September 24, 2013 .