Whom Shall I Fear?

R. Noa Kushner // Kol Nidrei, 5779

1. The Decay of Symbols 

The Kitchen went last summer on a trip to Israel, an incredible learning trip, we met scholars and activists and artists and more scholars.

It was just like Birthright except it was nothing like Birthright.  

One day we went with Breaking the Silence to Hevron.

Breaking the Silence is “an organization of veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military. […]”

As they say it:  

“We have taken it upon ourselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories. We endeavor to stimulate public debate about the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers …are engaged in the [military] control of another population’s every day life. Our work aims to bring an end to the occupation.” [1]

When you consider that almost every Israeli serves in the Israeli Army, and keeping its secrets are, understandably, part of the fabric of Israeli society, the amount of conviction and courage required to be associated with this group is considerable. 

The group is controversial. In fact, Netanyahu regularly goes after Breaking the Silence, mischaracterizing their work, targeting their revelations, claiming their words, not the occupation itself, is the reason for international condemnation of Israel’s policies. [2]

But our guide did not seem like he was the problem. He just kept telling us the truth. Shai was a gentle and personable young man who was raised on a diet of mainstream Nationalism who only joined Breaking the Silence because he couldn’t stand what Israel was doing any longer. “I had to do things to families that I would not want done to my own family,” he said. 

Shai took us to downtown Hevron, what I can only describe as a shuttered ghost town. He told us that 3-400,000 thousand Palestinians still lived all around where we were standing and used to live in this city center, until Jewish extremists moved in, displacing the Palestinians. 

Thus the empty streets.

Soldiers who looked like the ages of my daughters’ high school friends were stationed in pairs on every block but they seemed to be guarding literally no one. 

In one kilometer there are no fewer than eighteen checkpoints.

We ourselves had to cross three just to be on the walking tour. With only a few hundred Jews living here, this is clearly not for the security of Israel, so who are these soldiers guarding? 

We find out soon enough.

We pass a house, an empty house, boarded up, like many of the houses. But this one has Jewish extremists actively occupying the house. They are out front, in a make shift tent. We learn they are new there, essentially squatting, and through their presence and tactics, they are claiming yet another house. 

There is a giant Israeli flag on top of the house and a sign expressing why the house belongs to them. Something having to due with biblical references that I can comprehend, I recognize the verses, but cannot for the life of me understand. 

Soon, Shai tells us, if they live there long enough, the Israeli army will expand its jurisdiction to include that house, to protect the Jews inside it. After all, this is the Israeli army’s job, to protect Israeli Jews. One house at a time, the occupation grows. 

We go to a park.

I should say it is the carcass of a park.

In the middle of it is one of the strangest and saddest sights I have ever seen.

Surrounded by weeds and brambles, the grave of Baruch Goldstein, a memorial. You remember Goldstein, fanatic and terrorist, was a Jew who, in his kippah, tzittzit, and army uniform, went into the grave of our ancestors, and slayed 29 Muslims while they were in prayer.

A person whose life can only be described as a dark cautionary tale, a source of our great shame.

And if that grave is not enough

It is inconceivable but I saw it with my own eyes, 

What I can only imagine as a Jewish extremist couple,

Has put an invitation to their upcoming wedding on top of his grave. 

It is hot outside. Very hot. 

Time stops as I try to take this in.

A Jewish wedding invitation for a dead Jewish terrorist in a ghost town filled with Israeli flags.

And at this moment, everything crystallizes for me: The hijacking of Jewish symbols, the decay of Jewish life, a hostile takeover.

These ideas and people are not just squatting in one apartment, they are inhabiting my Torah. 

They are residing in symbols that should represent hope, that must in these times represent hope, symbols that should represent the flourishing of justice, of miracles.

What is more hopeful than a wedding?

What generates more respect than a grave?

What is more honorable than a nation’s flag?

Except my symbols, our symbols, are being corrupted, degraded, whether we like it or not. 

With symbolism like this,

With the hijacking of symbols, the decay of symbols,

The use of symbols to bolster what I can only call the perversion of justice, the inversion of justice,

Why would you or I want them? Who needs it?

Maybe it is, as you say, better to leave Israel alone.

Leave the ugly Judaism to them.

Go back to a loose, ad hoc spiritual system that revolves around me and a few friends not hurting anybody. Very popular here. 

Leave God to those who would use zealotry and literally everything in their power in order to reside in those symbols -- 

Until there is no distinction anymore between 

their zealotry and Torah, 

zealotry and Israel, 

zealotry and God, 

zealotry and Graves. 

zealotry and Weddings. 

But I wonder, if we give all these things up, what’s left?

If we declare our allegiance only to what the extremists leave behind, we will find ourselves with an ersatz religion that has no moral claims.

After all, if we are decidedly uninvolved, if we are not willing to even speak or be informed, if we give over all the symbols to the extremists and zealots, 

We have then essentially cut ourselves out of the discussion

And thus have no claim, no stake in Israel or Israel / Palestine, 

Or by extension, the future of Jewish life. 

And make no mistake, if we give all this up, we will watch the decay spread, from Hevron to other places, it already has, to other occupied homes, soon to be occupied towns, the ideas of ethnic dominance and abuse of power taking root right here in the good old Jewish community of America. Tell me you haven’t already seen a few domestic warning signs. Tell me you are not cringing when Jewish philanthropy cozies up to Trump and his supporters. No, Hevron is an extreme but it is on a continuum that has a lot to do with you and I and our future.  

“Rabbi Nehunia ben Hakkeneh would pray when he entered the House of Study, ‘May no harm come from my teaching, may I not falter in matters of giving legal advice.’ 

[because] failure… is [always]’ a possibility. 

[In fact we learn] …all paths should be presumed to carry danger. 

There is no path forward that is not without crookedness or ambushes. [3]

We’ve been selling easy Judaism for so long in this country we’re somehow surprised when this all becomes life threatening, complicated, implicating. But, there is no [real] path forward that is not without crookedness or ambushes

[The text continues] Some say, ‘What do I need this trouble for? I will watch my step and not sin, and I will have saved my soul.” But the sages teach that the ones who [blaze a path] light lamps in public, they are the ones who receive yeshuah / they are the ones who bring salvation. [4] [This refers to] the ones who light the lamps.” [5]

Not only that, I can’t get Shai’s face out of my head. 

As much as it is an incredibly hot day and I recoil from almost everything I am seeing, from the reality that this is my problem

His courage is keeping us steady

And in the end I cannot bear the thought of leaving him to do this alone. 

2. New Coordinates 

Many people know: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, z”l, their memories should be a blessing, in Selma, for civil rights.

Not as many people know that even before that day Heschel had been placed on an FBI list of citizens to track for his growing reputation as a troublemaker. [6] Many don’t remember that only weeks before this march, John Lewis had led six hundred activists across the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama river to fight Alabama’s resistance against black voting. Later named, “Bloody Sunday,” that march was met with officers who used tear gas, attack dogs and bully clubs, beating the nonviolent protestors. Fifty people were hospitalized. [7]

This may be why Heschel’s wife and daughter feared for his safety and when he left, as they said goodbye, I have been told they were not at all sure they would see him again. 

There was a service before the march. 

They prayed with their mouths

Heschel opened that service by reading a part of Psalm 27. [8]

The Lord is my light and my help, whom shall I fear? [9]

See, Heschel could not have gone on this march without fear.

Protesters were being attacked, some killed. And while the march was protected by some 1,800 members of the National Guard, nothing in that time was certain. 

See, Heschel could not have gone on this march without fear. But notice what Heschel, a Talmud prodigy, poet, textual virtuoso

chose to offer as his prayer:

Adonai ori v’yeeshi / mimi ira? 

The Lord is my light and my help, whom should I fear?

Heschel looks at the situation in the country, the grave injustices,

And recognizes that to be afraid of the billy clubs or of being on the FBI watch list, to be afraid of the Jewish Southern Establishment, which did not appreciate his views and activism, or to be afraid of harming his career – because none of this was playing particularly well at the seminary where he taught and worked - to be afraid of these would be to be afraid of the wrong things. 

In fact, with this Psalm Heschel taught, 

Yes, the plain reading of the Psalm – “God is my light and strength, I don’t need to fear because God is with me.” 

But remember this is a person who lost almost his entire family, his entire young adult community, his teachers, his peers in the shoah.

He knows death, he knows risk, and although he loves God with all his heart, he also knows the limits of divine protection. He does not believe in divine guarantees, he does not believe in divine insurance --

So the reason Heschel chooses this psalm is not to teach that God will protect us no matter what. No, the reason he chooses, “What should I fear?” is because he wants us to know that the real thing to fear is a world where righteousness is absent.

A world where there is no justice.

What should I fear? A world where righteousness is in exile. A country where the symbols and systems of the country: the flag, the vote, the police are no longer markers for justice and equality but instead inverted to protect the powerful, to protect the ruling class. 

Does this sound familiar?

What should I fear? The opposite of righteousness, righteousness in exile. 

The reality of this injustice frightens Heschel so much, he leaves his wife and daughter and gets on a plane. 

This Kol Nidrei, “What shall I fear?” also becomes our critical question, our life-guiding question. 

Because asking it may help us understand just what is at stake now: 

Whether we will move towards the possibility of righteousness or succumb to the forces of oppression. 

3. Galileo / New Map  

In a chapter so famous in history it has taken on mythic status, (not to mention an Indigo Girls reference), Galileo publishes his (Starry Messenger) in 1610, describing the surprising observations that he had made with the new telescope, namely the phases of Venus and the Galilean moons of Jupiter. 

With these observations he promoted the heliocentric theory of Copernicus, and claimed that the earth is not at the center of the universe, rather, that our planet rotates around the sun. 

As you probably remember, Galileo's initial discoveries were met with opposition within the Catholic Church, and in 1616 the Inquisition declared heliocentrism to be formally heretical, and eventually Galileo was put under house arrest for the remainder of his life. [10]

But, here’s the thing:

Not only was Galileo astronomically right, I think (ironically) he was religiously right, spiritually right. 

In fact, I think our current religious maps have not even caught up with even the sophistication of those old medieval astrological maps.

Let me explain: Just as many people assumed in the 1600’s that our planet was in the center and the sun revolved around us, I think that many of us today, maybe by default, assume we are at the center of our spiritual universes, with others who orbit around us.

Plus maybe a friendly God concept floating around, sort of “Break glass in case of emergency” kind of thing,

A two-dimensional God we engage a few times a year when we need a parking space or something. 

But just like that astronomical map with us in the center wasn’t right hundreds of years ago, 

This religious map isn’t right for us now.

For one, it is literally self-centered, inhibiting our ability to see, disorienting us.

Not only does it cut us off from each other,

If we are each our own suns, it follows that we are the ultimate reason for our own spiritual activity,

after all, everything revolves around us,

And this makes us spiritually thin, anemic.

Because if we are the beginning and end of the picture, we by necessity short-circuit any possibility of real sacrifice or connection to something greater than us.

And so great risk out of the question,

Because those risks have to first align with our own needs, our current perception of things,

And great risks rarely align with our own needs, they rarely fit into our existing perception of things.   

In fact, the idea we should each make up our own commandments, frame the problems and solve them as suits each of us seems kind of childish, too trivial a response for what faces us collectively now on many fronts, the planet, politics, to many to name.

And it may be that our societies will not begin to heal until we understand our proper place on the map.

What I suggest tonight, in keeping with Torah (I definitely did not make this up) is nothing less than a different set of coordinates, a rearranging of our spiritual solar system. [11]

Perhaps we are not at the center after all, not even of our personal, religious maps.

Perhaps God is at the center.

And if the idea of God at the center of your spiritual religious world makes you want to run screaming from the room – we can also name this center “the call + demand for a righteous world.”

I personally find it is hard to cozy up to an abstract idea when I am confused about what to do or in pain, but it’s Kol Nidrei, so for once I’ll be flexible. 

So God / Call to Righteousness is at the center, and there is only one planet that’s orbiting, a planet marked “Us.” 


You see, immediately, this model changes two things, it helps in two ways:

(1) Us 

First, each of us is not solely responsible for fixing the world nor for creating global solutions singlehandedly. Silicon Valley, are you listening? 

Heschel did not start his own civil rights march nor project, nor did he self publish a magazine, he joined the people who were already working and did what they told him to do

In fact, the enduring test is not regarding each of us at all but whether we can understand that whatever we do, we have been and will be stuck together. 

Not only that, this shared responsibility for the world is also shared over time. This means that we are the recipients of the efforts of the people who came before us. And this means we might not see the fruits of our labor in our lifetimes. This means we think in generational terms, we rotate in generational orbits. 

(2) God is the Sun   

The second difference is that rather than “Me” in the center, the beginning and end of every story, Now God / the call to righteousness is literally what holds us together, this is the gravitational pull, this is what we turn ourselves towards, personally and communally.

So now we make decisions -- not on what suits us or even what makes us feel brave or worthy or known -- but simply on whether or not our next act can sufficiently respond to the call for righteousness. 

Case Study: Egypt

So, for example, on our way out of Egypt, away from Pharaoh and oppression, when we were crossing the sea, 

The rabbis teach that we said the very same line from the psalms 

that Heschel prayed in services before he marched with King. [12]

Adonai ori v’yeeshi / mimi ira? 

The Lord is my light and my help, who should I fear?

Why do the rabbis put this same Psalm in our mouths as we cross the sea? 

I think it is because the question of, “Who / what should I fear?” helps us to get real clear, real fast about what’s at stake in the different maps, different ways of seeing the world:

See if I am in the center, my needs, if my life is ultimate

And I am crossing the sea and I only get one fear 

Maybe I choose the fear of Pharaoh, 

In this system (where I am in the middle) this is understandable, even laudable! 

After all, Pharaoh has a lot of weapons and soldiers I don’t want to die. 

Maybe I even turn around and volunteer to go back to Egypt.

But if we imagine that we are in the kind of religious solar system I am advancing tonight, 

We understand that we never cross the sea only for ourselves, and not even for all those who cross with us 

Instead, we cross so that possibility of righteousness can remain in the world.

We cross to refract more divine light.

We cross so that our lives can be evidence of the existence of that great light. [13]

The rabbis teach: There is no [real] path forward that is not without crookedness or ambushes

Some say, ‘What do I need this trouble for? I will watch my step and not sin, and I will have saved my soul.” But the sages teach that the ones who [blaze a path] light lamps for the multitudes, they are the ones who receive yeshuah / they are the ones who bring salvation. [14] [This refers to] the ones who light the lamps.” [15]

4. Repair of Symbols / Light the Lights 

I am sorry to say that last summer, a few days after we were in Israel, 

The leaders of Breaking the Silence were detained while giving a tour in Hebron, they were questioned by the border police. Harassed. Their tour was shut down for some time. [16]

One light extinguished.

Then, a local gallery that had operated out of a municipal building for 13 years hosted Breaking the Silence, was brought to court and as a result lost its lease. Mayor Nir Barkat did not conceal his politics: “We will not allow city property to be invaded and used to insult Israeli soldiers and the state.” 

A second light out. 

Around the same time Education Minister Naftali Bennett used his authority and the Knesset passed a law aimed at keeping the stories and people of Breaking the Silence out of Israeli schools. [17]

A third light, extinguished.

Then Yehuda Shaul, co-founder of Breaking the Silence suffered physical assault while giving a tour in Hevron, he is punched in the mouth, his face bloodied by a Jewish right wing extremist. [18]

A fourth light, out. 

And in this week’s news another home in the occupied territories has been claimed, leveled, the village of Khan Al-Ahmar destroyed. [19]

A fifth light. 

The lights are extinguished, one by one by one.

And we are Heschel deciding whether or not to get on the plane.

And we are in the sea deciding to go back to Egypt or to try to cross.

If we get involved, we see it so clearly, the suffering that awaits us.

The personal repercussions, 

The invariably messy consequences, 

The possibility of being publically disparaged, slighted, dismissed,    

The despair of knowing we probably won’t even win this round or anytime soon.

But tonight, while we list of all these real fears, 

Let us also remember we have a greater fear, our most valuable fear,

It is our inheritance, it is our prize, it is who we are. 

We fear oppression in the world, especially, in our Israel, in our gates.

We shudder to think that our symbols and our language and our inheritance and our stories and our loved ones are increasingly intertwined with oppression.  

We fear more and more lights going out all around us.

We mustn’t lose this fear nor its corollary, an unrelenting commitment to doing what is just, no matter the cost.  

Perhaps this great fear will grant us the conviction and courage of some of our Israeli activist counterparts to turn towards righteousness,

To risk what is necessary to ensure this oppression does not continue to grow,

And maybe we can draw courage from each other and the holy one, the center of all the maps, the very source of righteousness 

The one who gives us life, who sustains us, and who commands us 

To make sure the lights don’t go out,

To light the lights,

To keep lighting the lights. 

[1] See https://www.breakingthesilence.org.il/about/organization

[2] Chemi Shalev, “To Whitewash Occupation, Netanyahu Crew Casts Breaking the Silence Whistle-blower as Bogeyman,” Haaretz, November 21, 2017.

[3] See note 5.

[4] Ps. 50:23.

[5] This is taken from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s treatment of these verses in Heavenly Torah. Gordon Tucker, Trans., Ed. (Continuum, New York, London, 2005), p.718-9. See also BT Berakhot 28 b, Leviticus Rabbah 9:2.

[6] Edward Kaplan, Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2007), p. 221.

[7] See: Blackpast.org. http://www.blackpast.org/aah/bloody-sunday-selma-alabama-march-7-1965.

[8] Op. cit., p. 222-3. Note that Heschel was originally going to read a different Psalm but changed his mind when he got there, see Note 22, p. 434.

[9] Psalm 27:1.

[10] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galileo_affair

[11] This is a traditional theology and one Heschel translates again and again in his work. I have been heavily influenced by the biographies of Heschel by Edward Kaplan (see above) where emphasizes Heschel’s insistence on a living God, as well as his belief that, “Maybe ideas can help us now.”

[12] Midrash Tanchuma, Tezaveh, 4:4.

[13] Heschel points out how in BT Hagigah 16a God gave the multitude a sign by which God could be recognized (See Heavenly Torah, p. 284). But I was thinking that if we needed a sign, this meant God could not be instantly recognized. I think the “sign” is actually our willingness to cross, to have faith that our actions are connected to a greater light.  

[14] Psalm 50:23.

[15] Op. cit., Heavenly Torah, p. 719.

[16] These and the next two examples from Haaretz Editorial, “Defend Breaking the Silence,” September 2, 2018. https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/editorial/defend-breaking-the-silence-1.6434494

[17] Haaretz Editorial, “Defend Breaking the Silence,” September 2, 2018. https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/editorial/defend-breaking-the-silence-1.6434494

[18] Times of Israel, “Right Wing Activist arrested for punching Breaking the Silence Guide in Hebron.” Jacob Magid, July 29, 2018.

[19] The Forward, “Soon I Will Watch Israel Destroy My Home,” Eid Khamis, September 14, 2018. https://forward.com/opinion/410311/soon-i-will-watch-israel-destroy-my-home/