We forget that the Torah actually ends in tears. Moses dies, leaving the people bereft. They grieve his loss deeply. And what the children of Israel do next is quintessentially Jewish: Still emotionally fragile, the community brings its mourning to an end. It is time, they resolve, to move forward.
They would always recall Moses. Without him, nothing would be the same. A precious part of them was gone.
But the point had come to set their sights on fulfilling the goal that had been at the core of Moses’ life: to reach the promised land. No sooner does the Torah conclude than God instructs them to prepare to cross the Jordan. Notwithstanding the fact that their world had been completely upended, God reassures them that they are neither weak nor vulnerable: “chazak v’ematz” — “be strong and of good courage,” God emphasizes as they advance.
So it has been throughout Jewish history. Repeatedly pummeled by savage blows that ought to have pulverized the Jewish spirit and left us a lifeless husk, we have never given in to despair. How to explain this remarkable reality? Simple: We know who we are, and we know what we are here to do. No generation of Jews has ever allowed shattering losses — no matter how horrendous — to deter us from our goals.
A year has passed since that life-changing October Shabbat of searing sirens, devastating pain, and agonizing loss — a year since a murderer stalked our streets declaring that “all Jews must die.” We will never forget that day or the weeks and months that followed. Together, we buried our beloved dead. United, we held each other and mourned. As best we could, we bound up the wounds. We pledged that we would remember all of it.
Now, a year on, we ask: Where do we go from here?
There are some who would have us focus our agenda on anti-Semitism. And, there can be no doubt that anti-Semitism must be watched diligently. But here’s the truth: Anti-Semitism will never be extinguished. It is a perennial symptom of society’s maladies. At some level it will be with us until the Messiah arrives.
And here’s the other truth: Vanquishing anti-Semitism is primarily the task of non-Jews, not Jews. Historically, Jews have had little impact on curbing anti-Semitism. Healthy societies expunge anti-Semitism from their midst. While Jews have a part to play, we are not central.
Anti-Semitism need not, should not and must not be our primary preoccupation. Monitoring and countering anti-Semitism is not Judaism. In fact, the opposite is the case: Making anti-Semitism a significant feature of our Jewish functioning grants anti-Semites a victory by turning us away from our own vision of the world and toward theirs.
There are some who urge that security ought to be our paramount concern. And, after the events of last year, who could deny that personnel, systems and training are indispensable? No responsible Jewish leadership can ignore its duties in this area. Nevertheless, just as regular citizens are not expected to guard the borders or manage troop levels, most Jews do not need to put security on their individual task lists.
Thankfully, we are blessed with an extraordinary cadre of professionals and leaders who are charged with the work of responding to anti-Semitism and ensuring the security of our community and its institutions. They deserve our full support.
If, though, we want the Jewishness that we cherish to be preserved and to flourish, we — you and I — have a different job to do. This job is more important, and a higher priority, than addressing anti-Semitism and ensuring competent security. And it is achievable.
Let me be very specific about what that job is: We need to be able to teach Judaism to our children; we need to be role models for the type of Judaism that we seek to preserve; we need to be able to speak about why it is that continuing Judaism is so important, and to act accordingly. I do not mean that we need rabbis and teachers to be able to do this. I mean that we each need to be capable personally.
Consider this: If we do not do this job, then, sooner or later, the security guards will have no one left to protect and the anti-Semites will revel in our weakness.
This much seems certain: No physical monument or memorial that we might build for those we lost last year will ever be as significant a tribute as our personal commitment to devote ourselves to perpetuating a vibrant Judaism — the very Judaism that meant so much to them.
Where do we go from here? Our texts show us the path: Mourning ends, and we move forward; not tentatively and not fearfully, but resolutely and proudly. Our goal is clear: to be exemplary bearers of a powerful tradition that has the capacity to transform lives and even civilization itself. Never forgetting our losses, we pledge ourselves to carry on the work of those who went before us in the same way that our ancestors did — chazak v’ematz, with unwavering strength and good courage. pjc
Rabbi Dr. Danny Schiff is the Foundation Scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and the founder and president of MOJI, the Museum of Jewish Ideas.