Rabbi Feldstein, our youth group leaders and I struggled to address the news of these tragedies with our students. While Paris and Washington are thousands of miles apart, we were facing a year where senseless, intolerant acts of violence seemed to know no boundaries. The thought of such an incident hitting close to home, perhaps at Harold’s, was not far from our minds.
With life seeming bleak, our teenagers and the title of their weekend program restored our hope. The L’taken Seminar takes its name from a phrase in the Aleinu prayer that instructs us l’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai, “to perfect the world under the sovereignty of God.” By spending Shabbat with three hundred other Jewish high school students from across the United States, by learning about the intersection of Jewish values and hotbed issues in our world, and by exercising their right to speak freely and practice their religion freely, our teenagers passionately committed themselves to perfecting the world under the sovereignty of God. At a time when we were wearing our hearts on our sleeves, our teenagers found a way to live their Jewish values meaningfully, and in so doing, they offered an exceptional tribute to the victims of the massacres in France.
But that doesn’t mean that our words came easily. How could they? As we toured the Holocaust Museum together, and we descended into the despairing pit of evil, witnessing the seemingly boundless depths of man’s inhumanity, our tears flowed freely. How could they not? Time and time again, the perfection of our world seems such a distant, unachievable goal. Understanding our people’s history, seeing a world torn to shreds in so many different ways, we feel frustrated, angry and powerless. Rightly so. How might we be assured that we are at least moving in the right direction? How might we hold on to hope? Can Judaism offer us any guidance?
In the wake of the French massacres, Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur was called upon to eulogize Elsa Cayat, one of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Horvilleur described Cayat saying:
She was…someone who cherishes freedom to the point of forever teaching it to others…someone who knows how to see into your depths and tell you exactly where it hurts, who knows where to place her words, who knows how to play with them so that the language heals you…This wordplay, this passion for language and debate, as you know, is very dear to Judaism and its sages. I think perhaps she could have made a very good rabbi—I hope she won’t be angry with me for telling her this, her, the secular Jew, the practicing atheist.
Touched by this apropos characterization, Cayat’s family and co-workers, each one ardently secular, also found meaning in Rabbi Horvilleur’s exposition of a passage from the Talmud.
In a dispute regarding an interpretation of Jewish law, Rabbi Eliezer tries desperately to get his colleagues to agree with his point of view. Not wanting to be defeated in his argument, Eliezer pulls out all the stops. He asks for a carob-tree to uproot itself, a stream of water to flow backwards, and the walls of the schoolhouse to move.
Yet even after such events transpire, Eliezer’s colleagues remain unconvinced. Seeking corroboration, Rabbi Eliezer asks for a Heavenly voice to advocate for him. But even a Heavenly voice is not good enough. Rabbi Joshua reminds Eliezer and other rabbis that “The Torah is not in heaven.” God has given us the Torah to argue, debate, and wrestle with, and we must be the ones to work out our differences of opinion, and advocate different perspectives. The Talmud records that in that hour, “God laughed with joy, saying ‘My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.”
Rabbi Horvilleur chose this story to honor Cayat because it was “’…the story of a deity who laughs and delights in cheeky humanity,’ a ‘God of freedom’ who has delegated to His charges the responsibility of their world and the agency to do with it as they please.” Consider just how refreshing and endearing an image of God laughing with joy can be. In a time when we are presented with horrifying, unpalatable, disgraceful images, and when certain people desire to annihilate us for our differences of appearance and belief, Talmud depicts God in a light-hearted way, loving a thought-provoking argument, and having a sense of humor. Amidst our differences, Talmud assures us that God delights in us when we take responsibility for our world.
Eight months after the massacres in France, and with other tragedies continually perpetrated throughout the world, we come into our sanctuary on this first night of the New Year, praying for an end to violence, hoping for a better year ahead. We seek sanctuary. We want solace and solutions even though it seems that neither is easy to come by.
And yet here we are on a Sunday night. The pennant races of baseball are heating up, it’s “Football Night in America,” we could have stayed a little longer at our dinner tables, but we have chosen to be here, to celebrate being Jewish, to come here seeking comfort and nurture, to remind one another, “that it will be okay,” to rally around one another, and to rededicate ourselves to the cause of caring for our world as best as we possibly can.
Facing such pain, illness, and inexplicable tragedy in our lives, it can be so easy to shut out God and shut out hope. But Judaism is there for us. In Judaism, we do not find easy answers to difficult questions. But we find the stories of others, who like ourselves, have wrestled with the very questions that we still ask today. In our search, our texts present us not only with the image of the light-hearted God we have already encountered, but also a God who brings us comfort, who accompanies us when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and who in our belief and faith acts us a shield for us against danger and harm.
But the author of Psalm 27 knew that this type of accepting, unflinching, resolute belief was downright hard. In the psalm, King David praises God as a stronghold, a source of salvation in his life. But even David has doubt. He says at the end, “If only I believed that I were seeing the goodness of God while I was alive.” Even David, whom God loved, could only bring himself to say, “If only.”
Our texts are filled with doubt. Our texts are filled with laughter and lively discussion, the very cornerstones of our lives. If Judaism isn’t the force that will carry us through our world, and help us to navigate life’s challenges, what will? We too say “if only.” We doubt. We question. We wrestle. We try to find some sense and some meaning in our world and our battle is hard-fought. But when the going gets tough, we don’t get going. We come back. We return en masse to our synagogues, to our sanctuaries. We come home again. We remind one another, that we are Jews, and to be Jewish, means to stand for something greater than ourselves, to hold onto an elusive vision of perfection, to work for a day when our world may become a better place.
Some of us describe ourselves as secular, atheist, agnostic, outspoken, doubting, questioning and irreverent. We are unified in our absence of uniformity. We are unwilling to live a life of conformity. We are broken, we have frailties, and we are human. And through all of this, when someone asks us what we are, we tell them proudly that we are Jewish. Je suis juif. And dare we say, je suis Charlie. Because we are. We are Charlie and we are Jewish too.
And neither Charlie nor Jews accept the status quo or remain complacent when addressing the needs of their world. In her recent book Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate, author Letty Cottin Pogrebin traces the life of Zac Levy. In one early scene, Rabbi Goldfarb addresses Zac at his bar mitzvah and says:
That’s my message to Zach Levy, our bar mitzvah boy, but also to all of you,” Goldfarb thundered. “Study it, whatever your ‘it’ happens to be. Ponder it deeply. Live life at a deeper level. Give it the time it deserves. Don’t make major decisions while standing on one leg. Ask yourself the big questions: ‘Why am I here?’ ‘What really matters?’ ‘What kind of Jew do I want to be?’”
We are already proudly and strongly Jewish. No one doubts that fact. But how will we continue to grow Jewishly? How will we go deeper into life? How will we use our Judaism to focus on rebuilding and repairing our world in the coming year? Will we dive into our sacred texts, be outspoken like our teenagers, introduce the lightheartedness and levity of God into the world, or simply bring comfort and solace through the words of our storied tradition? Will we seek to be present here, to respect the gift of sanctuary, and share that gift with others who are desperately in need?
The takeaway from this past year is not the bloody assault on Charlie Hebdo or the kosher supermarket in France. On Sunday, January 11, as our teenagers worked through the night, preparing to lobby their elected officials, two million people, including more than 40 world leaders, met in Paris for a rally of national unity, walking the streets arm-in-arm, holding hands in the aftermath of disaster. What do we take from such an image? That amidst our differences, the world is large enough to hold us all. That God invites us to join hands, to join in the conversation, to share our voice, and to defend those who would otherwise go voiceless. And that somehow, we will overcome, and we will continue walking forward, no matter how long the journey may take.
 Aleinu, 2nd paragraph.
 Deuteronomy 30:12.
 Babylonian Talmud Baba Metzia 59b
 Cf. Psalm 23.
 Cf. Morning Blessings.
 Cf. Psalm 27.
 Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate, Kindle Locations 504-507.