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Rabbi Lyon's Blog - 05_03_2013
05/02/2013 05:19 PM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
May 3, 2013

 

When a bomb threat reaches one’s front door as it did this past week at Congregation Beth Israel, I grow more deeply concerned about what I’m observing in our nation. The pace at which threats and acts of terror have been unleashed is quickening. Bigger, “badder” and bloodier seems to be the moniker of these brazen criminals. Their schemes are less predictable and their effects are more destructive. Thankfully, nothing happened at Beth Israel or anywhere on our campus.

                In every age, there have been zealots for causes. The prototypical zealot was the biblical Phineas (Pinchas), who slayed Zimri, the prince of Israel, and the Moabite woman with whom Zimri had relations in the presence of all the people (Numbers 25:1-15). On this verse, Talmud teaches, “Zealots slay one who has relations with a (foreign) woman, [but this is] a law that must not be taught.” Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs further taught that “If a man has to ask whether his fanaticism is lawful; if, that is, he has to weigh up his actions beforehand and is sufficiently calm to do this; then…he is to be blamed for his fanaticism.” He concludes, “The idea appears to be that fanaticism, especially when it flies in the teeth of Jewish values, is to be rejected.”

                Memory is short. Just one-hundred years ago, self-proclaimed anarchists, including Emma Goldman, aimed their sights and bombs on New York, Chicago, and cities in-between. In the 1960’s, fanatics used bombs to prevent integration in the south. At the same time, it was debated whether or not fanatics were at the root of protests against the war in Vietnam. Ultimately, some peace prevailed. For some 30 years, until Oklahoma City and then 9/11, America was a nation at peace within its own borders. Now, a new age of fanaticism has returned.

                In particular, religious fanaticism has reigned. In the wrong hands, the Bible has been used by perpetrators to feel power when they felt weak, and to feel relevant when they felt insignificant. Relatively normal people become tyrants who rail against their perception of what is wrong with their world; not the world, in general, but their world which they can’t master. Their fears are not always misplaced, but their resolutions are.

                If religious fanatics would read more of their Bible and not just the Five Books of Moses or the Gospels in the Christian Bible, they would come to Ecclesiastes, who, himself, raised the quintessential complaint, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity! What value is there for a man in all the gains he makes beneath the sun?” (Ecc. 1:1), and later surmised, “And, so I loathed life. For I was distressed by all that goes on under the sun, because everything is futile and pursuit of wind” (Ecc. 2:17). He hated life and proposed to destroy it. Yet against such fanatics and haters of life, Ecclesiastes also urged, “Be not righteous overmuch” (Ecc. 7:16). In other translations it is rendered, “So don’t overdo goodness and don’t act the wise man to excess, or you may be dumbfounded.”

                A 20th century old-fashioned industrialist once said to me, “Desperate people are dangerous; so, give them something.” Beyond Bibles, our nation’s leaders need to address a lack of safety nets to rescue desperate individuals long before they become threats to others and themselves. Desperate individuals need constructive means to be helped and heard, limited access to deadly devices and materials, and real personal power, not just hope, to build a viable economic future.

                Our best efforts built on what we know is right and good can turn irrational fears into reasonable challenges to be resolved through constructive solutions. The unintentional byproduct might also reclaim the Bible, both Hebrew and Christian, as a timeless source of wisdom, not vanity.

                May this Shabbat and the week to come be filled with greater peace. Shabbat Shalom.

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