Last Wednesday, I was working out on an elliptical machine at the JCC when I received a text message. It was an EMERGENCY NOTIFICATION, in all caps, from the Jewish Federation Security Team. When I clicked on the included link, I landed at a page which screamed in red letters, “***This is a CRITICAL Notification***,” and explained that there was a BluePoint activation at Central Catholic, and that police were on the scene, and students were being evacuated to Rodef Shalom.
I figured that there was not much I could do, being there at the JCC in my workout clothes and all sweaty, so I went on with my workout. About a half-hour later, I received a notification that the event was a hoax, and as the day progressed, we all learned that a bunch of schools were targeted across Pennsylvania, and that they fell victim to a particular kind of terror attack known as “swatting.”
Of course, it was quite frightening for the students who were evacuated, or who were in lockdown in the building. The next day, I spoke to our friend Rev. Canon Natalie Hall, the rector at Church of the Redeemer on Forbes, and as it turns out, two of her kids were actually in locked-down classrooms. Her teenager was texting her from a closet, and as you can imagine, she was terrified. (A similar event happened at Beth Shalom a few years back when a 3-year-old accidentally hit the panic button and activated the system. Everybody in the building went into lockdown.)
I am grateful that we have systems that are designed to protect us. I am grateful that the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh has poured money into setting up these security systems; you should know that if you trigger one of the BluePoint alarm devices in the building, for Police, Medical, or Fire, not only do the emergency responders know where you are located within the building, but also everybody else who works in a Jewish institution knows that something is happening at Beth Shalom. I had no idea that we were also connected to the system at Central Catholic.
For the children who had to go into lockdown, what happened on Wednesday was completely real. They did not know, at least for a certain number of minutes, that this was a hoax. They were told that it was an active shooter.
In our zeal to prevent terrorists from actually (God forbid) attacking people, some bad actors have discovered that they do not need to actually attack anybody (God forbid) to cause very real fear and harm. The police were tied up for hours. (Even so, somewhat ironically, I still managed to get a parking ticket, because I forgot to pay for parking at the JCC lot that morning.)
And unfortunately, it seems like fears are multiplying upon each other these days. Parents are afraid of what ideas their kids might encounter, or not encounter, in schools. Religious groups are afraid of growing secularism. Everybody’s afraid that they may be called out online if they say something that contradicts contemporary orthodoxies. Great anxiety now surrounds any type of election. We are all afraid of the water and the air and what might be in it.
And, of course, here in Pittsburgh, some of us are quite anxious about the upcoming trial for the person who murdered 11 precious souls down the street from here on October 27, 2018. And not just for the details of the testimony, which, I am certain, will be quite unsettling.
I am personally concerned that one unpleasant sight to which we may be treated will be people from extremist groups protesting the trial outside the courthouse. I hope those people do not show up, but as detestable as they are, they of course have the right to parade their hatred and anti-Semitism before us all, and they may just do that.
Fear, persecution, anxiety, terrorism, hatred, violence, genocide. Sadly, none of these things are new to Jewish life. We acknowledge the many ways we have suffered throughout our history at multiple points on the Jewish calendar, and Pesaḥ is a time that is especially heavy in this regard. The fear, and ultimate triumph, of our people is found all over the haggadah. Just a few examples:
- In telling the story, the extended midrash on “Arami oved avi,” (“My father was a wandering Aramean,” Devarim / Deuteronomy 26:5-8) details the affliction, misery, and oppression which our ancestors suffered at the hands of the Egyptians. The midrash offers descriptions of the work as futile and the taskmasters as brutal oppressors who beat and terrorized and otherwise layered cruel punishments on our ancestors to maintain the level of fear and subjugation.
- Elsewhere in the haggadah, we sing of the “ḥad gadya,” the single baby goat, who symbolizes the poor, enslaved Jews, and suffers at the hands of various, ever-larger and more dangerous predators until finally redeemed by the Qadosh Barukh Hu / Holy, Blessed One.
- And then, of course, there is the moment when we “pour out our wrath” upon our oppressors, indulging in a rare, “Inglourious Basterds”-style fantasy of overpowering our tormentors, as we open our doors to beckon to Eliyahu haNavi, who will redeem us from all present and future harm.
For all the many centuries we have been telling this story, we have been subject to anti-Semitic persecution, and our current moment is no different. The Anti-Defamation League recently reported a significant jump in anti-Semitic incidents in 2022, nearly 3,700. That is a 36% increase over the year before, and a fourfold increase since 2014, when there were 912 incidents reported.
And put in that context, the seder tells the story of Jewish resilience. We have continued doing what we do, even after the Romans laid waste to Jerusalem, after medieval blood libel accusations, after the Expulsion from Spain, after the Shoah. We keep telling the story of overcoming our oppressors. We keep welcoming in all those who are hungry. We keep singing about the poor baby goat who is redeemed by God.
Resilience is to keep doing what we are doing, and to not be afraid.
My double colleague, Rabbi/Cantor Lilly Kaufman, wrote a piece about fear and the Exodus story in which she pointed out that some fear is normal, but of course it is possible to be overwhelmed or even paralyzed by fear, and our tradition has some guidance for that. Next Wednesday morning, on the seventh day of Pesaḥ, we chant from the Torah about the dramatic escape of the Israelites from Pharaoh’s armies as they cross the Sea of Reeds on dry land. As the Egyptian armies draw near, the Israelites cry out in fear, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us out to die in the wilderness?” (Shemot/Exodus 14:11). Moshe responds by saying, (vv. 13-14):
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֣ה אֶל־הָעָם֮ אַל־תִּירָ֒אוּ֒ הִֽתְיַצְּב֗וּ וּרְאוּ֙ אֶת־יְשׁוּעַ֣ת ה’ אֲשֶׁר־יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה לָכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם כִּ֗י אֲשֶׁ֨ר רְאִיתֶ֤ם אֶת־מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ הַיּ֔וֹם לֹ֥א תֹסִ֛פוּ לִרְאֹתָ֥ם ע֖וֹד עַד־עוֹלָֽם׃ה’ יִלָּחֵ֣ם לָכֶ֑ם וְאַתֶּ֖ם תַּחֲרִשֽׁוּן׃
… “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which God will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again. God will battle for you; you hold your peace!”
Rabbi Kaufman adds,
Moses speaks about fear without . . . fear. This is perhaps the most important thing he does: he names the overwhelming feeling and confronts it directly and succinctly. He is supportive, confident, and empathic. He speaks not only about what God will do, but about how the Israelites will experience it. Moses promises that they will see God’s redemption, and he predicts a defining shift in how they will see Egypt from now on.
As we face whatever forms of ugly Jew-hatred come our way in the near future, we must acknowledge the fear, as Moshe does, and also look to the future when we will be redeemed from this fear. We have come so far, over so many centuries, and left so many haters in the rear-view mirror. And we have, all along, drawn strength from the framework of our tradition, drawn strength from each other as a community, and drawn strength from the Qadosh Barukh Hu.
Regarding the trial, let me suggest the following: if you are concerned about hearing or seeing unsettling details or extremist protestors or anything that will upset you, try to avoid watching TV news or reading those articles in the paper or online. I myself do not want to hear/see/read that stuff. But also know that, whatever happens, we as a community will of course do our best to keep everybody safe and to keep the haters at bay, to look out for each other and to keep on praying to God for our spiritual well-being.
But something that you might also do, particularly if you are gathered around the seder table tonight with family and friends, is to have a discussion about fear and resilience. Ask the question: “What are we afraid of right now, and what steps are we taking to overcome that fear?” Our tradition wants us to name the fear, to listen to the fear, to address the fear, and to understand that we will ultimately prevail.
Our traditions, our textual framework are there to help us navigate what has always been a frightening world for the Jews. Take these opportunities, on this ḥag ha-ḥerut, this festival of freedom, to demonstrate to each other that we shall overcome. אל תיראו. Al tira-u, said Moshe. Have no fear.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, first day of Pesaḥ 5783, 4/6/2023. A version of this sermon appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on 4/9/2023.)