The Shabbat of Hanukkah comes on the heels of terrible news of tragedy in Newtown Connecticut. As one reporter said, it is truly overwhelming to consider a young man who would shoot, and keep shooting, innocent small children – and his mother, their teacher – at an elementary school, in a kindergarten classroom. That young man is now dead, as are many others, and especially here in Portland, we are still reeling from the shooting at the Clackamas Mall earlier in the week, and we are left stunned.
Last week in the Jewish world of Torah study we began reading the Book Shemot, called in English (or Greek, actually) “Exodus”. We know very well what is going to happen here: the Israelites, who moved to Egypt to escape a famine, have now found themselves enslaved in the service of constructing massive Pharaonic building projects. Everything started going south when a new King arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph. (Ex. 1.8)
How could Joseph, and all he did for Egypt’s survival, have been forgotten? And what does it mean to say that his name was no longer known?
Names are significant here; the Hebrew term for the book of Exodus is Shemot, “Names”; very simply, the book is identified by the topic addressed in the opening verses: These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt….(Ex.1.1).
Yet names are not incidental to the destiny of the Israelites, nor to their redemption, in this saga. A midrash asserts that The people of Israel were redeemed from Egypt for four reasons.
The first two reasons are that they did not change their Hebrew names while in Egypt and they did not change their language, but continued to speak in Hebrew (Lev. Rabbah 32:5).
To have a Hebrew name is to be part of the Jewish people in a formal way. When someone converts to Judaism, they are given a Hebrew name. All Jews are called to the Torah, and remembered in the grave-side prayer El Maleh Rahamim, by their Hebrew names.
Hebrew names carry much more than a few words of Hebrew (or Yiddish, or Ladino). For Jews, our Hebrew names are a way of communicating much more than the name; it hints at all that communicates, carries and guards Jewish identity.
The Israelites were redeemed from slavery, we are told, because they held on to their Hebrew names, and the memory of history, culture and identity evoked by names.
The real message of the Book we have just begun again for this year’s Torah cycle is that one can never be enslaved by the majority culture unless one lets go of the memory of one’s own name, and where it comes from, and how it was passed along. Jewish memory is the key to Jewish freedom – and freedom, in the Torah, means the freedom to struggle, to wander, and to confront what it takes to become a people.
What is your Hebrew name? what does it mean? what does it carry? how does it anchor your Jewish identity?
My heart is like wax, melting within my chest.
My mouth is dry as a shard, my tongue stuck to my jaw
dry as the dust of death.
– Psalm 22
The Jewish response to news of death is barukh Dayan haEmet, which can be interpreted as “I submit to this truth”. This is not a response of resignation or of acceptance. It is a recognition that there is a truth here that may not be avoided. Grief cannot become an excuse for turning our eyes away from what we must learn.
What is the truth here?
Is there a truth that we need to explore that will illuminate the alienation too many suffer, so that some among us lose capacity for human empathy and pain?
Is there some truth in the lack of willingness many of us feel to confront the harshness of the culture which causes Americans to turn to the use of guns?
Is there some truth that must be confronted in the lack of willingness on both sides of the gun debate to be thoughtful, rather than defiant?
Jewish tradition does not say that there is no evil in the world, nor do we shrink from the truth that much evil is done by us human beings to each other. But Jewish teachings do assert that the entire world is supported by learning, by prayer, and by acts of loving kindness. We are to react by learning what we can, praying on it so as to understand, and acting for kindness, for love, and for truth.
The days are still growing shorter as we observe the final nights of Hanukkah; and we must assert the necessity of the lights we kindle. We Jews know as well as anyone what it means to carry on despite terrible tragedy; we will celebrate with our children and know an even greater sense of gratitude for their lives, and determination to face any truth to make all children safe.