In the midst of a whole bunch of stuff about different kinds of ritual impurity, this week’s Torah reading has a commandment which stands out like a beacon from amongst all the descriptions of emissions and skin disease: “And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.”
That’s all it says on the subject in this section of the Torah. Elsewhere, however, we are told that the circumcision represents a covenant between God and the Jewish people. A covenant going back to the first Jew, all the way back to Abraham.
What is a covenant? It is a reciprocal promise. You do something for me, I do something for you. The covenant between God and Abraham was simple: we circumcise our sons, and God will be our God.
Is that covenant between the Jewish people and God still in force? Last week we observed Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day on which we remember and honor the six million Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis. In my talk last week, I spoke of the theological challenges of Shoah – the question of how can we possibly make sense out of the unspeakable. There are those whose response was to give up on God, to say if God didn’t protect us in those times there either is no God, or God doesn’t care and there is no longer any covenant between us and God.
The Torah says that Jews are a stiff-necked people. In this situation, that’s a good thing. Most of us have stubbornly refused to give up on God. We don’t see the Holocaust as something God did – we see at as something that people did.
There is a remarkable story told how in one of the concentration camps during the Shoah, the Jews decided to convene a beit din, a rabbinic court, and judge God – to judge whether he had violated the terms of the covenant he made with the Jewish people. After hearing testimony and arguments on both sides, the court found God guilty of violating the covenant.
And what did they do with that judgment? Right after they concluded their judgment, right after finding God guilty of violating the covenant, one of the judges called out “Mincha!!” and they said the afternoon prayers.
Even in the face of overwhelming evidence that God had violated the terms of the covenant, those righteous Jews upheld the covenant. Almost as if they were telling God, “You don’t get rid of us that easily, Lord!!” They reaffirmed the covenant. They said even if God has not fully lived up to his part of the deal, and we don’t understand why, the deal is still in place.
As important as it is for us to remember the people—Jews and others—who were killed by the Nazis, I believe there is an even more important purpose to Yom Hashoah.
The more important purpose to Yom Hashoah is to remind us every year, to reaffirm a new covenant that Jewish people have made in the wake of the Holocaust.
The new covenant is not a covenant with God. It is, rather, a covenant with future generations.
The Jewish people’s response to the tragedy of the Shoah was to say “Never Again!” Never again should such a horror occur. We promised ourselves, we promised our children, we promised our children’s children.
It’s one reason that Jews all over the world provide such strong support to the State of Israel. As long as we have Israel to go to, we will never again have a time when Jews are being killed and no one will give them asylum. As long as we have a credible military force, people will think twice before trying to kill Jews.
But “never again” needs to be about more than just the Jewish people.
Never again needs to mean NEVER AGAIN to genocide – regardless of the ethnicity or religious background of the victims. It means we must be diligent in preventing any other people from experiencing what we experienced.
The Torah over and over tells us “be kind to the stranger, for you know what it is like to be a stranger.” The Torah teaches we must learn from our experience of being slaves in Egypt to create a world in which no one is treated badly. Even though the Torah did not abolish slavery, it DID abolish mistreatment of slaves: knock your slave’s tooth out, and he goes free. The Torah tells us that even slaves are to be treated with dignity, are not to be abused, and we know that we must treat them this way because we have been there.
We must take the same lesson from the Holocaust. We know what it is like to be the victim of senseless hatred for no reason other than religion or ethnic group. We have cried and we still cry and mourn for the innocent people—1.5 million Jewish children among them—who were shot and gassed and burned in the Hell of the Shoah. We know that pain, and we know we must do everything we can to prevent other people from ever having to experience that pain themselves.
Unfortunately, we have not been doing a very good job.
It wasn’t just the Jews who said “Never Again!” after the Holocaust. In 1948 the United Nations passed the “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.” There are 138 signatories to the convention, nations that agree to be bound by its terms. The Convention confirms that “genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law,” and the Convention bounds signatories to prevent and punish transgressors.
The Convention defines genocide as murder and a variety of other acts of violence intended to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.
Even though as I mentioned last week, the US was slow to enter the second world war, by the end of the war we had become among the most passionate supporters of preventing other such tragedies. We took the lead in the Nuremberg trials, bringing many of the perpetrators to justice. When the Convention on Genocide was presented, President Harry Truman called on U.S. Senators to endorse the Convention on the grounds that America had “long been a symbol of freedom and democratic progress to peoples less favored,” and because it was time to outlaw the “world-shocking crime of genocide.”
Where were the signatories to the Convention when over 3 million people were killed, mostly victims of genocide, in Cambodia between 1970 and 1980?
Where were the signatories to the Convention when 800,000 Tutsis were murdered by the Hutus in Rwanda in 1994?
Why did it take so long for the signatories to the Convention to respond the murder of 200,000 Muslims—and the forced relocation of many more—in Bosnia beginning in 1995?
Samantha Power of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University has pointed out how much progress has been made in the field of human rights in the last fifty years. There are global conventions outlawing discrimination on the basis of gender and race, that outline rights of refugees and children. There is planet-wide ban on land-mines, and there are international war crimes tribunals that take certain mass murderers to task.
“But,” Power wrote, “one ugly, deadly and recurrent reality check persists: genocide. Genocide has occurred so often and so uncontested in the last fifty years that an epithet more apt in describing recent events than the oft-chanted “Never Again” is in fact “Again and Again.” The gap between the promise and the practice of the last fifty years is dispiriting indeed. How can this be?”
In the last 50 years the United States has gone to war to stop the spread of Communism in Korea and Vietnam, we went into Panama and forcibly removed Manuel Noriega, we stopped Iraq from invading Kuwait, we attacked Afghanistan and removed the Taliban and we have removed Saddam Hussein from power.
We have been ready to go to war when our own national interests are at stake. We have not been ready to commit troops, money, and American lives to stop genocide in places like Cambodia, Rwanda, or Bosnia.
All recent US presidents have pledged that they would never again allow genocide to occur. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush the first, and Bill Clinton all made that pledge. Yet they all did nothing to stop genocide when it was happening during their terms in office.
When current President George W. Bush read a report on the genocide in Rwanda, he is reputed to have marked in the column “Not on my watch!”
The President said “not on my watch,” and we, the Jewish people, have said “never again!”
Yet it is happening again, and it is happening on President Bush’s watch.
400,000 blacks in Darfur have been murdered by the Arab government and Arab militias in Sudan.
We read about what’s happening in Sudan and it looks like just a bunch of violence, we think of it as a civil war, it’s chaos, it’s Iraq, but what’s happening in Sudan is far more sinister.
It is genocide.
As the UN Convention defines it, when one ethic group tries to eliminate another ethnic group, it’s genocide. Both houses of the United States Congress have declared in official resolutions that what is happening in Sudan is genocide.
Arabs, living on oil-free deserts in the north and east of the country, are taking over the more fertile and oil rich south and west of the country, where blacks live. Blacks in Sudan are being killed by the Arabs for no crime other than being black – just as Jews were killed by the Nazis for no crime other than being Jewish.
Many of the black Sudanese in the south follow ancient tribal traditions, or are Christian. Something that makes what is happening in Darfur, in the west of Sudan, particularly heinous is that the blacks are also Muslim – but the Arabs don’t care, for what they see are blacks, not fellow Muslims, and the slaughter and displacement continues. It’s as if Ashkenazi Jews were killing Sefardi Jews.
A report from the BBC describes the scene:
“For months, the Islamic government in Khartoum, together with traditional Arab militia, have been accused of pursuing a scorched earth policy in western Sudan.Everything we saw, everything we heard, suggests that this is true. Strung out along our route, are more deserted, torched villages. In all of them, the signs are of a hasty, panicked departure.
“Up to one million people – a sixth of the population of western Sudan – is believed to be on the move. The Sudanese of African descent have been “cleansed” from their traditional lands, forced to become refugees in their own homeland.”
The BBC reporter also interviewed some of the refugees. The reporter interviewed a13-year-old girl, named Hawa. “She escaped to Kalma after her village was torched. She identifies the attackers as Arabs on horseback, accompanied by government planes. She and her six sisters managed to run away, but her parents were killed. She takes us to the fragile straw and stick hut where the little girls have set up house. Hawa cradles her three-year-old sister. A battered pot, containing a little porridge, sits outside. During the attack, the family’s livestock – cows and horses – were also lost. The family is left destitute.”
We cannot allow genocide to happen to anyone. Jews have a long tradition of sticking up for the rights of others. Not just the Jewish activists in the struggles over civil rights. Going all the way back to Abraham – when Abraham argued with God to spare the lives of the non-Jewish residents of Sodom and Gomorrah. Years later, the prophet Jonah was reluctant, but he ultimately did the right thing and went to save the non-Jewish residents of Nineveh.
Last Monday night, at our Yom Hashoah commemoration, we presented a certificate acknowledging the efforts of Reverend Waitstill Sharp and his wife Martha, who have been honored by Yad Vashem as righteous Gentiles. Reverend and Mrs. Sharp could not sit on the sidelines as genocide unfolded. Leaving their two young children behind, they went to Czechoslovokia and southern France in 1939, saving the lives of hundreds of Jews, smuggling them out of the country, securing false papers, exposing themselves to tremendous personal danger.
We can’t all be Jewish Reverend Sharps heading for Sudan. But we can all be “righteous Jews” working to save people of other nations. We can speak out: in letters to President Bush, letters to Congress, letters to the newspapers. We can stay informed about what’s happening, participate in rallies—there’s a big one in Washington, DC tomorrow. And as always with a crisis, we can provide financial support. The American Jewish World Service is accepting donations to provide humanitarian aid to help the people of Darfur. An information sheet can be found on the table by the entrance to the synagogue.
Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, please God, strengthen the hands of those who would stop the slaughter of your children in Darfur. Bring the survivors under the wings of Your sheltering presence. Help the leaders of the civilized world to remember their promise of “never again,” and help them to act on that promise. Help us, Lord Almighty, to bring peace to the land, peace between black and Arab, Muslim and Muslim, Muslim and Jew and Christian and all peoples on this earth,