Triggers and Twisters

Earlier this week, the first anniversary of the catastrophe of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh where 11 innocent lives were snuffed out and 7 sustained injuries ought to have resonated more deeply with Jews of Dallas than with Jews anywhere else in this world. With last week’s tornado touching down and wreaking havoc in various neighborhoods in the city, particularly the neighborhood surrounding Tiferet, those who witnessed devastation and those who suffered devastation would do well to consider the following.

The catastrophe at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last year occurred because the assailant specifically targeted Jews. Armed with a semi-automatic rifle and three handguns, Robert Bowers set out to murder Jews. Neither worshipers at any church or the faithful at any mosque were in his cross hairs. It’s highly doubtful, that it would have mattered to the murderer, if the site he chose to attack was a Reform Temple, a Conservative Synagogue, an Orthodox Shul or a Chabad House. Unlike so many of us, anti-Semites rarely distinguish or differentiate. In their eyes, one Jew is as worthless and as expendable as another.

Not so, last week’s tornado. Other than zeroing in on specific neighborhoods, it made no difference to the tornado, whether its victims were Jew or Christian,  Hindu or Moslem or any other group. Similarly, it mattered not to the tornado whether it destroyed a business or a private home, a nursery school or a senior living residence. One could perhaps even argue that not only were neighborhoods chosen at random, but homes and buildings were either hit or missed in the most haphazard of ways. One house sustained severe damage, while the house right next to it, was minimally affected. Put differently, the destruction in Pittsburgh came about, because they were Jews; the destruction in Dallas came about, (thankfully and miraculously) just because.

Pittsburgh was yet another example of human cruelty. One can argue whether such attacks are perpetrated as copycat crimes; one can take a stance either for or against gun control. All will agree however, that what took place in Pittsburgh was the result of man’s inhumanity against man.  Driven by unrestrained hatred anger and intolerance, the assailant in his twisted mind, made a concerted effort to improve society by snuffing out the lives of Jews, whose only “crime” was attending Shabbat services at a synagogue.

The Dallas tornado was the exact opposite. I believe that the insurance companies are spot on when they categorize tornadoes and hurricanes, floods and wildfires as acts of G-d. With Yom Kippur a mere three weeks behind us, let us recall a medieval acrostic (among the many ark openings prior to Kedusha) where each stanza begins with the words “Ma’aseh Elohim” or “it is the work of HaShem.” A tornado is no different. It too, is Ma’aseh Elohim. As such, tornadoes not only defy understanding and explanation as to why they occurred, but they serve as reminders that human ingenuity and strength are laughable, or perhaps better stated lamentable.

Last but in no way least,  our response to Pittsburgh and our response to the tornado revealed a great deal about us. From coast to coast, synagogues as well as other Jewish buildings in this country have adopted strict security measures. The synagogue I attended last week had a parked police vehicle replete with flashing lights, two uniformed officers, as well as plain clothed security, standing at the door of the building. Congregants insisted on feeling secure and knowing that they are secure as they offered up prayers that pretty much indicated that they placed their faith in HaShem.

Human response to last week’s tornado, as well as other acts of G-d, evokes a far different response. We rebuild and continue as before, with an implicit resolve that no act of G-d is going to change or interrupt the way we live. Perhaps, we humans have greater faith in HaShem than in our fellow man; perhaps we humans fear our fellow man more than we fear HaShem. Perhaps the words of the prayer prior to removing the Torah from the ark say it best: “Not in any human do I put trust … only in the G-d of heaven.” Something to think about.

CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

I very much doubt that many, if any, rabbis have ever used Yom Kippur to speak about capital punishment. With the exception of the fifth and final prayer of the day – Neilah – mention is made in every Yom Kippur service of four different types of capital punishment administered by the (human) court: stoning, burning, beheading and strangulation. Given last week’s flurry of executions in neighboring Arkansas (Governor Asa Hutchinson signed orders for eight executions to take place within a time period of eleven days) perhaps it’s time to take a look at the death penalty from the perspective of Judaism.

In theory, Judaism does not shy away from discussing any number of situations where the death penalty is warranted. In theory, Judaism does not shy away from discussing how the death penalty is to be carried out. In practice, however, the death penalty occupies a totally different position amongst our people. It’s as though Jews and Judaism are of totally different philosophies concerning the death penalty. While Judaism (certainly from a Biblical and Talmudic point of view) appears to be very much in favor of capital punishment, Jews make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to implement it. Below are three reasons why I believe Judaism supports capital punishment in theory:

Jewish society is  predicated upon justice. When HaShem confides in Abraham that He is about to destroy the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of the rampant evil and the wanton wickedness, Abraham mounts an excellent argument where he confronts HaShem: “Shall the judge of the earth not do justice?” Sweeping the innocent away with the guilty is not justice. Permitting a willful murderer of an innocent individual to live out the days of his natural life is also not justice. Because Judaism values innocent life so very highly, it sees capital punishment as the highest form of justice in dealing with a murderer.

Judaism simply cannot tolerate the taking of an innocent life. To express its anger and to vent its outrage, Judaism goes to great lengths to warn the would be perpetrator or murderer what lies in store.  Whether such a warning instills fear or serves as a deterrent is open to debate. In all likelihood, it does not.  What such a warning does do however, is provide a catharsis for a society and culture that values and even cherishes innocent human life.

I have never been to an execution, much less served as a chaplain to the condemned prisoner, but  speaking in the name of Judaism, I cannot help but feel that, regardless of the prisoner’s religious faith or lack thereof, Job 1:21 ought to be read: … “HaShem has given and HaShem has taken away.” Just as HaShem places innocent beings into this world (what could be more innocent than a newborn?), so too does HaShem (and only HaShem) have the right to take innocent human beings (those who cause no imminent physical threat to others) from this world. According to Judaism, just as Adam and Eve forfeited their world by overstepping their G-d given boundaries, so too according to Judaism has a murderer of an innocent human forfeited his or her G-d given boundaries.  How Jews and non-Jews choose to understand, interpret or react to this is of course an entirely different story.

It would be interesting to observe the reactions of both the proponents, as well as the opponents of capital punishment, if a completely freak, fatal accident were to occur to a murderer who was spared the death penalty by our judicial system.