Harold Kushner has been Rabbi of Temple Israel in Natick, Massachusetts, for 25 years and is the author of two best sellers: "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" and "When Children Ask About God" - among other books. This is a sermon he delivered a while ago, which is well worth reading.
You don't need me to tell you what a bizarre year this past year has been, what a troubled and troubling year. On Sept. 11, the attack on the World
Trade Center and the Pentagon, the first enemy attack on the continental United States since the War of 1812, the equivalent of Pearl Harbor
happening in New York City instead of in far-off Hawaii. Not long after that, the situation in Israel deteriorated virtually by the week, almost to
the point of all-out war.
And if that weren't enough, there was a renewal of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere on a scale not seen since the 1930s, not criticism of Israeli
policies, not even dislike of Israel, but crude vicious Nazi-style anti-Semitism: Destruction of a 500-year-old synagogue in Tunisia; desecration of cemeteries in France, Germany, Italy and Poland; contemptible, totally loony accusations of Jewish involvement in the World Trade Center bombing, believed by otherwise intelligent people; the hijacking of a United Nations conference on racism in Durban, South Africa, turning it into an orgy of hatred for Jews and Judaism; vicious anti-Semitic harangues tolerated by the liberal community at the University of California
at Berkeley; not to mention the condescending, oh-so-politically correct anti-Israel bias of the BBC and National Public Radio.
It has been a hard year for those of us who love Israel and love Judaism. In fact, it has been a hard year for all of us who love decency and hate
This past year has compelled me to come to conclusions I didn't want to come to. For all of my years as a rabbi, I have believed and I have taught that Jews were no different from other people, that Judaism was different from Christianity and Islam but Jews had the same feelings, the same strengths
and weaknesses, the same fears and dreams that Christians and Muslims have. I took issue with the Chabad rabbis who argued that Jewish souls are
qualitatively superior to gentile souls.
I opposed and discouraged interfaith marriage, not because I believed that Jews were better than non-Jews but because a family with two religions was
likely to raise children with no religion to avoid arguments.
But this year has persuaded me that Jews are in fact different. I find myself compelled to face the fact that the Jew plays the role for the world that the canary used to play for the coal miners. You've read about how the miners would take canaries with them into the mines because the canaries were extremely sensitive to dangerous gases. They responded to danger before the humans did. So if the miners saw the canaries get sick and pass out, they knew that the air was bad and they would escape as fast as they could.
That's what we Jews do for the world. We are the world's early warning system. Where there is evil, where there is hatred, it affects us first. To be a Jew, whether we like it or not, is to be a magnet for hatred, for envy, for resentment no matter how unjustified, no matter how irrational. If there is hatred anywhere in the world, it will find us. If there is evil somewhere in the world, we will become its target. People overflowing with hatred for whatever reason, including self-hatred, make us the objects of their hatred.
Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, hated Jews though he could never have explained why.
Leo Felton who was convicted in a Boston courtroom of trying to start a racial war by blowing up local landmarks, hated Jews though it is not clear
if he ever met any.
White supremacists who hate blacks hate Jews, too, and black extremists who hate white people hate Jews with special fervor, not because there is
anything wrong with us but because there is something terribly wrong with them.
Semi-literate peasants in countries as diverse as Russia and Malaysia blame Jews for ruining their economy, and unemployed college graduates from Egypt to Pakistan blame Jews for ruining their careers.
This is the role we play in the world, not by choice but imposed on us by others, to be the miner's canary, to smoke out the bigots, the haters, the
people who will be a menace to their communities if someone doesn't stop them, and we identify them early on by their hatred of us.
Hitler attacked Jews before he attacked western civilization, and that should have alerted the world to what kind of person he was, but the world misread the signal. Muslim fanatics practiced their terrorist skills on Israelis before turning those skills on the rest of the world, but the world never understood the warning. When I see what Pat Buchanan or James
Traficant have to say about Jews, or Jean Marie LePen in France or Jorg Haider in Austria, I don't have to look any further into their political philosophies. I know everything I need to know to consider them disqualified from public office.
At the very beginning of the Jewish enterprise, God said to Abraham, go forth from your country, from your father's house, to the land I will guide you to, and be a blessing to all the nations of the world. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you. Why would anyone curse Abraham when he is such a wonderful person who is going to be a blessing to the whole world? People who make their life's work studying the sickness of the human soul offer three theories, none of which is likely to make Israelis feel safer when they get on a bus, but perhaps they will help us understand the origins of the problem.
One is captured in Maurice Samuel's remark that "no man loves his alarm clock." We don't like to be told that certain tempting, attractive things are wrong. We chafe at the restrictions of morality, and we resent the descendants of Abraham who remind us of what God expects of us. That is the only way I can understand Hitler's determination to murder all the Jews of Europe, even if it meant losing the war and seeing Germany destroyed in the process. Dedicated to the cause of death over life, committed to hatred rather than tolerance, he had to destroy the people who, in his mind, symbolized morality, tolerance and life.
A second theory is that many European intellectuals, embarrassed by what educated Europeans did in the Holocaust, are desperately eager to exaggerate
Israeli misbehavior because it lets them say, "You see, they're no better than we are. We can stop feeling guilty about what we did to them."
And finally, the experts would tell us that there are people who hate themselves, often with good reason. They are not comfortable hating themselves, so they find someone as different from themselves as possible, and whatever they don't like about themselves they project onto this other person. They imagine it's this other person, not they, who has those terrible thoughts and habits. Sometimes they define the "other" racially, African-American or Asian. Sometimes by gender or sexual orientation, hating
women or gays. And sometimes by religion and ethnic background, hating Jews as a way of not having to hate themselves.
So much for analysis. What do we do about it? How shall we respond to this reluctant conclusion that, whether we like it or not, we are fated to be the
world's early warning system, the perpetual targets of the messengers of hatred and evil in the world?
My friends, we pray for a better year this year than last year was. Are there grounds for optimism? In my lifetime, I have seen the defeat of Hitler, the fall of communism, the creation of Israel, the repeal of racial segregation, the empowerment of women, the extension of the lifespan, the eradication of so many diseases. We have grounds for hope.
When the war in Afghanistan began, a reporter asked an American general if he would ever be able to forgive Osama bin Laden for what he had done to us. The general answered, "Forgiving bin Laden is God's job. Our job is to arrange the meeting."
In the same way, we might say, bringing about the downfall of bigots and terrorists is God's job. Our job is to live as Jews were summoned to live, not because it will make our lives easier, but because it will make our lives more meaningful, because it will bless the world as Abraham blessed the world, showing people what it looks like to live by God's word, and God knows this world could use that blessing.
Our job is to live as Jews were summoned to live, because we can't escape the fate of being a Jew. Generations before us have tried and failed - - but we can claim the destiny of being a Jew; because when we do that, we discover how satisfying a truly human life can be.