Remarks at 2016 Community Eid Dinner

As-Salam-u-Alaikum and Eid Mubarak.

Adira joins me in expressing what an honor it is to be with you this evening. I am deeply grateful to the organizers for their generous invitation, for all their holy work on behalf of the local Muslim community and for a more inclusive Virginia, and, above all, for their friendship. Shukran.

I join you tonight holding a bit of cognitive dissonance. As I share with you in the joy of your sacred occasion, I am still in the final hours of the observance of the saddest day in my tradition’s calendar, known as Tisha B’Av, or the Fast of the Ninth Day of the Hebrew month of Av. On this day, for 24 hours, from sunset to sunset, Jews are forbidden from eating and drinking…As I stare at the baklava…Here’s something that was not on the list of ironies in that famous song, “It’s like being a Jew who gets invited to a Muslim community’s delicious food-filled celebration of the end of a month-long fast on the one day your religion requires you to fast. Isn’t it ironic?”

But the contrast of our two observances is not all dissonance. Tisha B’Av commemorates the most tragic day in Jewish history, the day nearly two millennia ago when the Roman legions sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Holy Temple – the epicenter of ancient Jewish religious life and, metaphorically, at least, God’s dwelling place on earth. Rabbinic tradition insists that this historical devastation was not random. Rather, ruin was the result of Jewish society being mired in what they called sinat hinam, unfettered hatred. When the rabbis autopsied their people’s trauma, they concluded that hate leads to ruin.

Last night, Rev. Ben Campbell, whom many of you know well, graciously agreed to join us at our community’s Tisha B’Av observance. We were also blessed to have Dr. Damaj with us. Rev. Campbell reflected on the prescience of that rabbinic teaching, reminding us that, above all else, the ancient Jewish Temple symbolized unity. In antiquity, the Children of Israel were a disparate collection of ethnically similar tribes. The Temple would become the place where they would all meet as one, where they would be reminded of their fundamental brotherhood and sisterhood. Having one central house of worship reminded those ancient Jews of God’s oneness, a belief that implies the shared parentage not only of all Jews, but also of all humanity. Rev. Campbell pointed out that it makes perfect sense for the rabbis to claim unfettered hatred brought about the destruction of the Temple. Disintegration (“dis-integration,” in his words) is the natural result of our refusal to integrate. The symbol of oneness can only be torn apart by rampant separateness.

And it goes even deeper: The Jewish tradition has us mourn the destruction of the Temple each year and, in some senses, every day. We do this in order to direct our attention to the fact that the Temple still lies in ruins. Or, to put it in the words of my friend Rabbi David Ingber, every day that the Temple is not, as it were, rebuilt, it is being destroyed. The Talmud teaches that, each and every night, God awakens multiple times and roars like an injured lion, crying, “Woe to the children, on account of whose sins I destroyed My house and burnt My temple and exiled them among the nations of the world!” (Berakhot 3a). The world is broken through dis-integration, and daily remains broken through our failure to come together.

We live in a time when this tragic reality has never been more apparent. In an era where there is more possibility for togetherness than at any other time in history, powerful forces who profit from disunity and hatred constantly seek to pull us apart, exploiting our fears to turn us into enemies. We must not let them. Violent extremists taunt us into becoming as brutal as they are. Homegrown demagogues lure us to respond by normalizing prejudice and by giving thinly-veiled license for violent vigilantism. The massacre in Orlando and yesterday’s murders outside a New York mosque are two manifestations of the same basic spiritual sickness. The Temple is destroyed whenever we permit ourselves to hate each other.

But the Jewish tradition insists that there is a remedy for this seemingly ceaseless cycle of brokenness. V’yerushalayim irkha b’rahamim tashuv. Three times daily, the observant Jew prays: You, God, will restore Jerusalem, Your city, through love. If destruction occurs because of dis-integration, then redemption can be brought about through integration, through unity, through togetherness, through love. If the Temple is destroyed because of unfettered hatred, then it can be restored through unconstrained love. We can repair our broken world by coming together, by refusing to be enemies, by resiliently striving to be each other’s allies. Friends. Brothers and sisters.

And make no mistake: that’s what we’re doing here. We are repairing the world, all of us, together. We may not be able to change the whole world here, tonight. But we can change our own hearts. We can pray together for an end to hate, but our prayers cannot be answered until we begin to love. We can pray for redemption, but our prayers cannot be answered until we become agents of that redemption. Tonight, we model the kind of togetherness and unconstrained love we want to see in our country and world, and commit to becoming agents of redemption. It may not repair all that is broken, but it is a beautiful start.

In that sense, it feels fitting to close with two prayers. The first is a prayer by St. Francis, because, to me, nothing says “togetherness” like a Jew sharing a Catholic prayer at an Eid dinner. Feel free to join with me if you know the words:

God, make me an instrument of thy peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

Where there is sadness, joy.

The second prayer is actually a contemporary song called “Salaam” by the Israeli band Sheva, a group made up of Muslims and Jews who fuse traditional Jewish and Arab music with contemporary rock, forging something unique and beautiful. The words mean, “Peace will yet come upon us, and upon everyone. Peace. Upon us and upon all the world. Peace, peace.” The song uses both the Hebrew, “shalom,” and the Arabic, “salaam,” when referring to peace. If you know the words, you are welcome to sing along with me.

Od yavo shalom aleinu, v‘al kulam

Salaam, aleinu v’al kol ha-olam, salaam, salaam.

Taqabbala Allahu minna wa minkum. Shalom.

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