Since this week begins the holiday of Passover, known as “z’man heruteinu” or “the time of our freedom” in Hebrew, I had been working on a column about the meaning of freedom and just how often it is abused for people’s own personal ends. All things considered, it was a pretty good column (that would become much better after the editors made a pass through it). It started with a great hook to draw the reader in, had some broad strokes about the way the concept of freedom is often invoked selfishly or used to serve a political agenda and concluded with the way freedom is frequently abused as a blunt instrument to silence and oppress others. It even had a solid tie-in to this past Friday’s Day of Silence, the culmination of Genocide Awareness Week. And then…Kansas City. Specifically, Overland Park, a suburb of Kansas City where many of my Jewish friends from summer camp called home. A place where many of their families still live and where other friends and colleagues now live.
As I was finishing that column in one window on my computer screen, the newsfeed in the other window began to scroll very, very rapidly with people updating their statuses, sending out messages about to whom they had spoken and thanking God they were OK. By the time this is published on Thursday, we will know much more than we do now, but at the very least we know that several people are not OK. Three people were murdered by Frazier Glenn Cross, who, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, was the former Grand Dragon of the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and has been described as a “raging anti-Semite.” He murdered a 14-year-old boy and his grandfather outside of the Jewish Community Center and another unidentified woman at Village Shalom, a Jewish retirement community.
When Cross was arrested, he was alleged to have shouted “Heil Hitler” as he was placed into the back of a police car. It’s 2014, and a 73-year-old man is shouting “Heil” after attempting to murder Jews. And not simply Jews—he attacked a community center and a retirement community, places where you find the very young and the very old. And he murdered a child. The week after the Duke community rallied together to say “never again for anyone,” we have someone who very much wants to see to the work the Nazis completed. Would it make any difference to the murderer that two of his victims were not Jewish, but members of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection? I don’t know, and I can’t say. What I can say is that seemingly out of hatred, people have had their lives taken from them. Not passively lost, but actively taken.
There is nothing passive about murder, and our reaction to it must be an active one. This isn’t a rehash of “never again” (even though that message is sadly timeless out of necessity), but a societal imperative. A campaign of terror is the antithesis of freedom, as it seeks to create a system where people are enslaved and bound by chains of fear, and that is sadly only a precursor to active elimination. When people are not accorded the basic rights of human beings and are instead seen as “parasites,” as Cross evidently views Jews, there ceases to be any meaningful means of engagement. Bigotry does not necessarily have to end in murder, but it is a far smaller step than it might seem.
The story of Passover begins in the book of Exodus, when the rule of Egypt declares that the Jews are an existential threat to the nation of Egypt, and therefore they must be dealt with cunningly. This leads to the enslavement of a people and an attempt to murder every Israelite infant. When that fails, every male Israelite child is cast into the Nile to drown. The actions described in the Bible are simply of a greater scope than those of the murderer in Kansas City. He too sought to start with children—but, thankfully, he is not the ruler of a nation nor capable of acting on such a scale.
During the Passover Seder, there is a very short, very small section towards the end of the evening that many people omit. It is known as “s’foch ha’matcha” or “pour out your wrath.” It consists of four verses from the Bible, three from Psalms and one from Lamentations, where God was asked to take vengeance on the nations who do not know God and have attacked Israel. Those verses refer to the Assyrians and Babylonians, two people who were wiped out by other empires well after they had defeated ancient Israel. Yet the verses remain. While they became part of the Seder during the Crusades as the cry of the wronged, they remain as a call to challenge—to not take vengeance into their own hands, but demand for higher ethical standards for all people.
We are called to always be active in holding ourselves to the highest of ethical standards and to hold society to the same standards. The text is a challenging one, and it should be. Rather than seeing it as one inimical to our values, I will suggest that we view it instead as an active challenge to always response actively, vigorously and powerfully in the face of bigotry and injustice. May this be the last year anyone needs to recite these texts at any Passover.
Jeremy Yoskowitz is the campus rabbi and assistant director for Jewish life. This is his final column of the semester. Send Rabbi Jeremy a message on Twitter @TheDukeRav.