Combatting Hate with Joy
As Jews, we are keenly aware of the role symbols play in the celebration of our calendar. Our symbols have withstood the test of time, and although they have been reinterpreted and reinvented for modern day relevancy, their core purpose remains.
Not all symbols avoid the wrath of those who bastardize and reinvent, creating new brands that connote hate, exclusivity, and shameful acts of violence.
Derived from the Sanskrit meaning “good to be making,” this once was a symbol of eternal life, emblematic of the element of earth- a seemingly appropriate symbol for our harvest festival. It was a symbol of good luck. That all changed when the swastika was adopted by the Nazi Party in 1920. And now, the symbol of hate permeates our news feeds. Swastika found painted on a concrete wall in an enclosed courtyard of a Spokane Washington synagogue. On the same night, Swastikas are found plastered to the entrance of an Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity House at Emory University. We cannot wash away the fear we feel when Graffiti is on our walls and hateful speech fills the streets.
A few weeks ago, my sister, living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, encountered a similar bout of hatred. Swastikas etched into the wall right outside her apartment door. The only Jewish person in her complex had been the victim of a hate crime. The Hate Crimes Division, of which there is only one in all of the five boroughs of New York, did their best to find the perpetrator to no avail. No cameras in her complex, no fingerprints on the etching meant no answers for the police or for my sister. Could it have been a delivery guy who got a bad tip? A disgruntled neighbor? Or was a deep hatred of Jews the real motivation? It is tough not knowing the circumstances surrounding the act. We are overwhelmed with what this symbol means given its associations for us as Jews.
Fear. Angst. These feelings are compounded.
We hear of rallies across the globe, acts of ignorant masses. Anti-Semitism is an object in our rearview mirror, much closer than it once appeared. Vandalism, and more specifically hate crimes, rob us of our choice to freely express our Judaism lovingly and outwardly. We are intimidated. We second-guess. We fear the unknown motivations. We shutter ourselves because these cowardly defaming acts etch themselves in our memory.
As Jews it is our obligation to erase the negative imagery of the swastika, to focus on all of the positive reminders we are instructed to use so that we may practice Judaism to the fullest extent- the reminders of tefillin, of tallit. The minhag of kippah. The reminder of mezuzah as we enter and leave a space. The mitzvah of Sukkah- reminding us that even in the darkest of moments, we can find shelter in each other and in the divine. We show our true selves in our response to the darkest of moments.
Here’s a first hand account to a Sukkot experience, some 70 years ago, at a time and place where Swastika reigned supreme:
“Hassag. It was called a labor camp, but it was a slaughterhouse- no more, no less. We were the remnants of the Chenstochover ghetto. Our families had been sent to their death. Only a few remained- like limbs torn from their bodies, writhing in pain, living a life without life…
Sukkot, the festival which brings farmers and city-apartment house dwellers alike into temporary huts, somehow found its way to Hassag. We discovered an unused corner between two factory buildings. Lumber was piled up, as if in storage, for the sukkah walls, and somewhat above these walls, branches were unobtrusively stacked for the sukkah. We slide in and out of this temporary dwelling with our treasured crusts of bread, thinking of the protective booths in the wilderness.
So we had our Sukkot in those stolen moments, for the experience of eating in the sukkah, no matter how makeshift it was, was a genuine experience…”[i]
Even in the ghettos of the Shoah, Jews felt an obligation and spiritual connection to Jewish practice. As we approach each day knowing that hate crimes and anti-semitism are rising up again, we cannot retreat to the ghettos of our inward selves, fearful of our outward Jewish expression. We may think IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY, the anti-semites, the haters, WILL COME. How do we combat this?
Ecclesiastes states, “lakol zman v’et lchol cheifetz, tachat hashamayim”-a season is set for everything, a time for ever purpose under heaven. A time to be born, a time to die. A time to laugh, and a time to cry.
Our poet, King Solomon, prescribes a formula to overcome adversity. We combat loss with a search for meaning. We combat hate by fostering love. We combat those who break down by building up. We battle hatred and ignorance, key ingredients meant to break us as proud individuals and communities, by building up…
To paraphrase the Modizbozer Rebbe:
On Rosh Hashana, Yom Hazikaron, our day of remembrance, we pray with our minds
On Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement, we pray with our hearts
On Sukkot, Chag Ha’asif, the in gathering festival, we pray with our hands
On Simchat Torah and its energized Hakafot, we pray with our feet
Zman Simchateinu, our time of happiness encompassing both Sukkot and Simchat Torah, is linked to our hands and our feet.
One way to combat outward expression of hate is by utilizing these outward actions that express our joy for Judaism. For the observance of Sukkot is the most outwardly expressed moment on the Jewish calendar. Whereas some holidays are reserved for synagogue or the home, by erecting a Sukkah, however temporary, we acknowledge God’s role in our lives and proclaim who we are as individuals by building a sukkah in public view. The sukkah symbolizes God granting us a sukkat shalom, a shelter of peace by protecting and providing. The pride we feel is coupled with an even deeper humility, knowing that the fragility of the sukkah mimics our own temporary place in this world. It is a sentiment expressed in our reading of Kohelet on this Shabbat Chol Hamoed:
Chapter 2 Verse 11:
“Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had labored to do; and, behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was no profit under the sun.”
We enter this world with empty hands. We leave this world with empty hands. But what we do with those hands while inhabiting this world is what matters. What we build for one another matters. We can raise our hands to give up. We can raise our pointed fingers to others. Or we can raise our hands to build a joyous experience for one another. Graffiti and slander may fill our minds with scary thoughts, but our hearts and our hands have an obligation, to ourselves and to the Jewish people, to continue expressing our Judaism outwardly- beyond this building, beyond the inside of our homes. It is not a moment of despair. It is not a moment for irrational behavior. It is a moment to show that pride and joy in Judaism can overwhelm those who wish to instill sadness and unrest in our lives.
Like the Sukkah, life is fragile. Life is temporary. And yet we still build a Sukkah knowing that in few days we will disassemble it. No matter how fragile and temporary life is, we still must live it. Fully. We must build a life filled with love of Judaism. We must continue to build a Jewish home with the openness of a sukkah, knowing that God is a shelter of piece.
If you build it, they- the informed neighbors, the future generations, will come. If you don’t build it, they- the hateful, will have won. As a people, our Sukkah has weathered storms far greater than the ones we see today. Even when the Sukkah falls, it has always been a mitzvah, an obligation, to put it back up. Let us continue to weather the storm. May God bring us peaceful skies in the year ahead and all the years to come.
[i] Goodman, Philip The Sukkot/Simhat Torah Anthology (Holiday Anthologies Series)