Rabbi Nickerson's Shabbat Message - April 26, 2024

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Rabbi Nickerson's Shabbat Message - April 26, 2024

On Wednesday night, I had a nightmare that I was attacked by an antisemitic mob, not once, but twice. Each time they attacked me, there were groups of people just standing there, letting it happen, as though it was a normal day-to-day occurrence. I fought back but they just kept coming. I woke up on Thursday morning with a deep sadness, a deep longing for the way things used to be, and the realization that I have internalized the sense of isolation, loneliness, and fear that so many of us are feeling right now. 

This year, as we make our way through Passover, it feels as though we are in our own wilderness. We may feel secluded, without a real sense of direction, almost shell-shocked, as we view images and videos of these terrible campus protests, complete with anti-Israel sentiment, overt antisemitism, and a brewing storm of frustration, chaos, and anger.

A group of protestors chanting pure hate:

Documented occurrences at recent protests:

A young woman who was interviewed about why she was at the protest at NYU:

I hate to say it, but this seems to be Hamas’ dream come true. The other day, Hamas released a video of that poor young man, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, who is still in captivity in Gaza. One would think that the video would remind the pro-Palestinian protestors that the real enemy here is Hamas, who continue to hold on to innocent hostages and as a result, continue to hold the Palestinian people hostage as well. But the video’s release made no dent and that’s what really scares me. These protests on college campuses are becoming a reflection of something sinister. They seem to be moving away from an attempt to bring awareness to the humanitarian crisis affecting Gazan civilians. Instead, they are veering into anti-Israel, antisemitic, and anti-establishment protests; protests purely meant to attack and spew hate, not protests meant to bring about meaningful and lasting change.  

It’s easy to spin out with all of this information. It’s easy to feel as though we are doomed. But there is a passage from Rabbi Lawrence Kushner that has centered me, calmed me, and emboldened me these past few days. It’s a piece focused on the  wilderness, a place usually considered to be scary and dangerous. Rabbi Kushner, however, redefines that place for us:

The wilderness is not just a desert through which we wandered for forty years. It is a way of being. A place that demands being open to the flow of life around you. A place that demands being honest with yourself without regard to the cost in personal anxiety. A place that demands being present with all of yourself. In the wilderness your possessions cannot surround you. Your preconceptions cannot protect you. Your logic cannot promise you the future. Your guilt can no longer place you safely in the past. You are left alone each day with an immediacy that astonishes, chastens, and exults. You see the world as if for the first time.
Now you might say that the promise of such spirited awareness could only keep one with the greatest determination in the wilderness but for a moment or so. That such a way of being would be like breathing pure oxygen. We would live our lives in but a few hours and die of old age. It is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness (Exodus 14:12). And indeed, that is your choice.

Rabbi Kushner challenges us to find purpose and strength in the wilderness. In some twisted way, the current climate has liberated us from the latent, hidden Jew-hatred that had been festering underground for so long. Now, it is out in the open and we have an incredible opportunity to take it on. We have been provided the opportunity to address issues that were only whispered about or gained traction in small circles, but have now been thrust into the spotlight for all to see.

Let’s see this as an opportunity. Let’s embrace the wilderness through which our ancestors have wandered for thousands of years. Is it better for us to serve the Egyptian taskmasters of complacency and fear or wander through the desert with purpose and possibility? I know my answer.

Shabbat shalom,

PS: I know that so many of us want to find tangible ways to act right now. I have good news and bad news. The good news is that you can lend your support to the Hillels at campuses around the country. Maybe it’s your alma mater, your child or grandchild’s college or university. Send your appreciation for their important work on campus, whether it be a donation, or even just an email of support. The bad news is that we are facing a systemic issue that is going to take years to address and there are no quick fixes. We need to be in this for the long haul, so prepare yourself, pack your metaphorical bag with information and resolve, and get out there and start speaking to people about how you’re feeling, how this situation is affecting you, and start sharing information with others. Don’t avoid conversations, engage in them.