Shemot – These are the Names

These are the names of the people who have lost their lives to ignorance, hatred and violence in the last week.  Three suspected al-Qaeda gunmen launched a murderous attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, leaving 12 dead. They have been named as:

  • Charb – (real name Stephane Charbonnier) 47, an artist and publisher of Charlie Hebdo
  • Cabu – (real name Jean Cabut) 76, the lead cartoonist for Charlie Hebdo
  • Georges Wolinski – 80, an artist who had been drawing cartoons since the 1960s
  • Tignous – (real name Bernard Verlhac) 57, a member of Cartoonists for Peace
  • Bernard Maris – (known as “Uncle Bernard”) 68, an economist and columnist for the magazine
  • Honoré – (real name Philippe Honoré) 73, the artist who drew the last cartoon tweeted by the weekly publication
  • Michel Renaud – a former journalist who was visiting the Charlie Hebdo offices
  • Mustapha Ourrad – a copy-editor for Charlie Hebdo
  • Elsa Cayat – a columnist and analyst for Charlie Hebdo
  • Frederic Boisseau – a building maintenance worker
  • Franck Brinsolaro – 49, a policeman appointed to head security for Charb
  • Ahmed Merabet – 42, a police officer and member of the 11th arrondissement brigade

Unfortunately, there are also the as yet unnamed victims of the hostage situation at the Kosher supermarket in Paris.

It’s almost too much to let into your heart. When the Torah talks of Pharoah’s heart becoming hardened, for a very brief moment I actually feel a tiny pang of jealousy. How nice would it be, I think, to not be totally blown over by the terrible things that people do to each other.

The attacks on our country on 9/11 happened right after I first graduated from college. I remember watching the towers fall and feeling as if my heart had fallen out of my chest.

Ever since then, I have had a hard time watching the news. Reading it is not much better. The problem isn’t just the tragedy of particular incidents, but the accumulation of them.

No wonder, as Pharaoh watched his people suffer, plague after plague, he chose to close off his emotions. Empathy and compassion would have overwhelmed him — as it does many of us today.

Ultimately, my goal is to be as different from Pharoah as possible. I don’t want my heart to harden.

As difficult as it is, I truly believe that a soft heart, filled with compassion, empathy and love, is the only way to change our world.

The commentators tell us that when it says Pharaoh’s became harded, we shouldn’t imagine that he was some big softy who loved everyone.

We might think he started out as a person with the capacity for love and empathy, but only turned cold and evil as a result of G-d making his life difficult, but if we look at the early stages of Pharaoh’s fear and resentment towards the Israelites, we see that he was already allowing those feelings to coagulate inside of him.

It is not a caring and loving person who issues an edict of infanticide.

This is not a man with a soft heart. This is a man capable of the most repugnant evil of all – hurting children.

And why? Because they were Israelites. Because of their ethnicity, culture and religion.

Thousands of years later, we still find people who hate others for these very same reasons. There are people in the world who think that a person’s worth and goodness is based on their ethnicity, religion or race.

But what I hear even more loudly over those ignorant proclamations is a crying out – a crying out all too familiar, like that of the Israelites who felt the injustice of their treatment.

Crying out is way of softening the heart. It lets us feel the pain, rather than cover it up with pontification or rationality.

But what really softens our hearts is not only when we cry out for ourselves, but when we cry out for others.

Many people these days are using social media as their means of crying out.

The hashtag has become the proverbial pedestal.

I am not condemning this approach, by the way. It certainly spreads information and at least has the potential to influence people to think differently.

As a religious person, my instinct for crying out is two-fold: the prophetic instinct and the pray-er instinct.

Our ancestors prayed to G-d to save them, but ultimately it was both G-d and the prophet, Moses, who saved them.

This tells us something important about our crying out:

  1. Crying out in prayer is an important first step

And

  1. The prophets who call us to action, those willing to cry out in a public forum will be the ones who ultimately lead us out of the narrow places

We often resist the first step, because it is painful. We might jump directly to standing on our pedestals and condemning the perpetrators of evil.

The problem with this is that it causes a closing off of the heart not so different from Pharaoh’s. Rather than allow ourselves to feel the pain of empathy, we condemn. This causes us to feel hatred and can lead, unfortunately, to the same kinds of racism, ethnocentrism and prejudice that caused the acts of violence in the first place.

We also resist crying out in prayer because many of us, including myself, don’t believe in the efficacy of prayer to bring about divine intercession. In fact, I don’t know many people who do believe that G-d will simply respond to our every request as long as it is for good. If G-d wanted to fix all of our problems for us, why make humans in the first place? But, I am digressing from my point.

Crying out in prayer is not about efficacy in terms of changing the situation, it is about the effect it has on us.

It is important to cry out, to feel empathy, to feel the painfulness of what humans do to each other, so that we remember how much we value life over ideas, so that we remember that our humanity connects us all to each other, regardless of the various ways in which we are different.

Crying out in prayer reminds us that we all feel pain, we all bleed, we all love. We humans inhabit this earth together and we are all we have to make it better.

Of course it is not enough to pray. There is a famous poem by Rabbi Jack Riemer, “We cannot merely pray”

We cannot merely pray to you, O God, to end war;
For we know that You have made the world in a way
That man must find his own path to peace.
Within himself and with his neighbor.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end starvation;
For You have already given us the resources
With which to feed the entire world,
If we would only use them wisely.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to root out prejudice;
For You have already given us eyes
With which to see the good in all men,
If we would only use them rightly.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end despair,
For You have already given us the power
To clear away slums and to give hope,
If we would only use our power justly.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end disease;
For You have already given us great minds
With which to search out cures and healing,
If we would only use them constructively.
Therefore we pray to You instead, O God,
For strength, determination and will power,
To do instead of just pray,
To become instead of merely to wish.

I agree wholeheartedly with Rabbi Riemer’s words. Yet, I think that sometimes we resist the doing, because it too is painful and hard when we don’t see immediate results.

We often don’t know where to begin. We don’t know what to do.

Social media has become a forum for speaking out because it is easy and readily available. We don’t have to gather a crowd in the cold or heat. We can access thousands of people instantly. This is a good thing in many ways.

It is not enough, though. It is too easy to ignore and discount the opinions of people with whom we do not agree. We can even “unfriend” people so that our list of “friends” becomes so monolithic that we are all just “preaching to the choir.”

Also, as I mentioned earlier, the tone too often becomes negative and the result is the exact opposite of our desire. Instead of promoting love and understanding, when we point fingers we inspire blame, criticism and ultimately hatred.

I want my crying out to soften my heart, not harden it. I want my crying out to promote more understanding, more kindness, more love.

So, first I cry out to G-d: I ask G-d to heal rather than punish, to soften hearts rather than harden them. I am willing to experience the pain that comes with knowing that fixing the world does not come easily or quickly, that results are slow, that too much suffering will happen along the way. I ask G-d to give me strength to endure and strength to continue loving people and loving the world, even when violence and murder threaten to destroy that love.

Second, I cry out to you: find a positive way to promote justice and peace. Let your heart remain soft. Bring G-d’s will into the world through your speech and actions.

Love, love, love, love, love, love, love. As much as you can.

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