I had a remarkable conversation with Cherie Lawson, a staff member with the youth ministry at NBCC – the church that rents our building every Sunday.
Friday services at the Musalah Mosque in Mountain View began today at 1:30pm. I arrived late, to my chagrin, but I still found space to squeeze into the back. I was looking out on a room full of men, and scattered among them were quite a few wearing kippot. Around me were a few women in headscarves – none of whom I knew – and many Jewish women, most of whom I did know.
From the emails going back-and-forth between Peninsula rabbis, I understand that the main mosque in Santa Clara, and the Yaseen Foundation in Belmont, also felt a Jewish presence today.
I have a confession to make. I did not feel anything when I heard this morning about the killings in New Zealand. In fact, I rarely feel the horror that I should when headlines report acts of violence. But when the worshippers left the mosque and, one by one, approached me, looked me in the eye, shook my hand, some even hugged me, and each thanked me for being there – then I began to cry.
Tomorrow, in anticipation of Purim, Jews around the world will be reading the story of Amalek. Amalek was a warrior tribe that: “undeterred by fear of God…surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear” (Exodus 25:18). Our tradition always understood Amalek to be a metaphor for the forces that prey on the vulnerable. Haman was unadulterated Amalek. So was Hitler. The shootings at the Christchurch mosques in New Zealand can only be understood as a modern manifestation of Amalek.
Our tradition, however, does not let us off with identifying Amalek as a distant other. Every human being has a bit of Amalek lurking inside. It’s that whisper in your head that tells you the other guy is worse than you are. It the voice notices the other guy’s weaknesses, and wants to magnify them. It’s the impulse to divide between people, to isolate one from other. Most of all, Amalek is the voice of fear.
I had a remarkable conversation last year with Cherie Lawson, a staff member with the youth ministry at NBCC – the church that rents our building every Sunday. NBCC is an impressive community. They fill our building to capacity every week. Their youth education alone engages nearly 100 volunteers every Sunday, and their list of social groups is many pages long. But Cherie told me she’s not satisfied, and has even higher hopes for the future. She wants deeper engagement between generations, with every child in a real relationship with many adults. Her model comes from her own childhood — which she recalled with nostalgia — on the south side of Chicago.
I also grew up in Chicago, but on the north side, where the Jewish community has been based for the past 50 years. Kids in my community were taught to be afraid of the south side. We would never go there alone, or at night – or, honestly, almost at all.
But Cherie, who actually grew up on the south side, had a very different perspective. “I had so many adults in my life,” she said. “I could walk down the street, and I knew that if I did something wrong, in every single house there was someone who would call me out on it. They could do that because the parents trusted each other. They knew that my mother would want them to discipline me. And also, I knew they were looking out for me. It wasn’t a community with a lot of resources, but we took care of each other.”
And then, Cherie said an even more remarkable thing. “My friend’s older brother used to take us alone on the train to museums in the city. He was just 15 and we were even younger, and our parents were fine with it. I can’t imagine doing that now,” she said, “I’d never let my high schoolers go alone on the train to San Francisco with their younger brother.”
San Francisco in 2018 is certainly not more dangerous than Chicago in the 1980s. And Cherie recognized that. But fear is not based on reason.
Cherie’s perception, that close community relieves fear, is so true. In Hebrew, the pronoun “you” takes a different form for singular and plural. Rabbi Simchah Bunim of Peshischah – a chasidic master of the 18th century – wrote, “Look through this entire passage (in Exodus about Amalek), and you will find that it is all written in the singular. Amalek could only vanquish one who was by himself, who had separated from the community.” When we are isolated we have reason to be afraid, but, also, when we are afraid we tend to isolate ourselves. Repeatedly, the rabbis see Amalek as a force that separates us from faith, from trust, from each other and from God.
To quote journalist Kate Julian, “Among the contradictions of our time is this: We live in unprecedented physical safety, and yet something about modern life, very recent modern life, has triggered in many of us autonomic responses associated with danger.” Intuitively, I know Julian is right. Amalek has crept into our hearts. Across America, community has been breaking down, and we have been losing our trust in one another.
I don’t know why I did not feel devastated by the shootings at the Christchurch mosques, or at Tree of Life, or at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charelston. Maybe such open, raging Amalek feels so distant, I can’t connect with it. Or maybe the pain is so great, the senses are overwhelmed until a taste of the antidote clears a space for feeling to return.