The Architects of our Own Destiny

Be Strong

It is times like these, like the days after the terrible hostage crisis at Congregation Beth Israel, our nearest neighbor shul, a community with which we have many ties, that I think to myself (and I’m sure many of you do, also), what would Charles Bronson do?

Charles Bronson was probably my favorite tough-guy actor while I was growing up. I know much of my generation was still in the thrall of John Wayne, but for me, Bronson was far more watchable. For one thing, he was a more plausible everyman hero. He could convey vulnerability as well as toughness. Whether he was an American POW (The Great Escape), or an Apache Chief (Chato’s Land), a watermelon farmer (Mr. Majestyk), a Mexican gunslinger (The Magnificent Seven), or a bare-knuckle boxer (Hard Times), he just looked right and filled the part, effortlessly.

And he was in one of my favorite movies, the low budget made-for-tv 1977 thriller, Raid of Entebbe. He played Gen. Dan Shomron, one of the architects of the Israeli rescue of hostages and air crew taken from a hijacked Air France flight and held under threat of death in Entebbe airport, Uganda.

Moreover, that movie imprinted in my teenage brain a very memorable scene. It is right at the end of the film, after the hostages have been rescued, in the interior of one of the C130s. The paratroopers are all sitting silently in the cargo bay, exhausted by the events of the day. Someone starts humming Hinei Mah Tov to himself. In a few seconds, other soldiers take up the words. Soon, the entire Paratrooper detachment is singing Hinei Mah Tov with gusto and pride.

Meanwhile, Bronson, sitting in the crew compartment in front of the cargo bay, listens in silent satisfaction.Now, appreciate, that at 17, I was not yet a Jew. I had no idea what they were singing. But I still found it incredibly moving. Because I already understood the message from what came before. The failure of the hostage crisis in Munich, when the Germans had tried to manage the situation, was an utter failure, an overwhelming tragedy, yet another tragedy is the long history of Jewish powerlessness. But this time, Jews had become the architects of their own destiny.* They had taken their own fate into their hands, and triumphed.

And isn’t that the Jewish story of the 20thcentury, our gradual effort to become the masters of our own fate? There are many facets to this painful juourney, but Munich – Entebbe – and now, Colleyville, are three points in that journey.

But Colleyville? Other than being one more r moment when Jews are threatened with death, how does Colleyville’s humble little crime connect to these earlier, historic events? In the initial confusion that followed the end of the siege, I, like most others, thought that the FBI Hostage Team had initiated a rescue. But, as the facts came out, it became clear that Rabbi Charlie and his congregants, Jeff and Shaun, had rescued themselves. Yes, the FBI was on the spot to stop the gunman from pursuing them, but Rabbi Charlie used the training he had and his own initiative, to engineer an escape. He became an architect of His own fate, and the fate of his fellow Jews.

So rightly, we should think about what has happened here, what has happened to our fellow Jews, our close neighbors, not as Munich, but as Entebbe. Of course, we are distressed, frightened, and angry. We feel all those things because we know Jewish history, we remember the moments of persecution, of oppression, of slaughter. We know what it is to be a victim, in a way many of our neighbors do not. But rather than reach back into the long litany of crimes that have crushed us, here we should bring to the fore our deeds of self-empowerment. We are NOT helpless. Now that it has fully played out, we should not remember this, not as a moment of dread, so much, as of triumph.

But you will say, it’s yet another in a lost line of unmerited attack on Jews, just for be Jews. Yes! True, and that has not change now for about 1500 years. In that sense, it is no different. And the gunman evaded our security measures. Yes. On an incredibly cold Texas day, Rabbi Charlie took in a man and gave him a cup of tea. But realize, while one layer of planning did not work, another layer did. Charlie’s active shooter and hostage training worked. He was not helpless. We are NOT helpless.

And, of course, there was help. Our people were surrounded by helpers and advocates. From the FBI Hostage team, to the local LE, to the religious communities that opened to us, to the people standing vigil. We had many allies that day. But we were the architects of our own fate.And our sacred calendar reinforces this message. Tu B’shevat is over. And our next holiday? Purim! The archetypal story of how Jews saved themselves. Easter and Mordecai initiated salvation at the highest level, and the Jews of Persia fought back.

Now… This is the point in my remarks where I had planned to quote a Jewish source. But this came across my feed, a statement by Amanda Gorman, the young lady who read her poem at the Presidential inaugural in 2020. An honor she almost declined, out of fear.She writes “I’m a firm believer that often terror is actually trying to tell us there is a force greater than despair. In this way, I look at fear, not as cowardice, but as a call forward, a summons to fight for what we hold dear….”**

In other words, it is OK to be afraid, but do not let fear control you. Realize that feeling is actually a clarion call to act, defend, push back.I think it is a common sentiment among Jews that their fellow Americans don’t really understand the Jewish condition, our well-founded worries and concerns, our sense of vulnerability. I credit that to America’s lack of historical orientation. We Americans are so forward-looking, we forget more than we remember of the past. Jews, on the other hand, are so history conscious because we believe it helps us anticipate what the future may hold. But our historical memory can also be a kind of hinderance. We remember trauma more readily than we remember deliverance. Maybe, that is why God commanded us to so often rehearse, remember, and refresh out memories of the Exodus.

We should apply the same to our more recent past. We remember Munich before we recall Entebbe. We are frightened by the violence of Squirrel Hill but forget the recent thwarted bombing attempt against a Pueblo Colorado synagogue. I know, you are searching your memories right now to recall that one.

Perhaps, alongside “We were slaves in Egypt, but now we are free,” we need to add “We are Jews, and now we are empowered.”

Theodore Herzl said of a yet to be Jewish state: “If you will it, it is no dream.” He was right. Looking back on the short history of the Jewish state, Jewish dreams proved – Not to be too big – But perhaps too small. Because Israel has changed so much of the Jewish experience, but we American Jews have not fully assimilated that message, the message that Jews can be architects of our own destiny.

So, I ask only one thing of you, Jews of Congregation Kol Ami, Jews of the United States of America, this mighty nation of dreamers. Don’t think fearfully. You are great. You are not powerless, you are powerful. Think of the courage we have shown. And work to will those thoughts into a more secure and better reality. For you, your children, and all our people. The Jewish people are empowered. We are a people of destiny. Do not accept yourself just as we were, dream of who we can be, and make it so. Do not accept the world as it is. We can change it, just as in the past 100 years, we have changed ourselves. Envision ourselves and our world as it should be and make it your life’s work to realize those changes in yourselves and in our community.

In the remainder of 2022, may we realize our hopes, not our fear, and may we be what God envisioned for us (now comes the quotes from our tradition):

“Keep therefore and do my Torah; for this is your wisdom and you’re understanding in the sight of the nations who shall hear all these statutes, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” (Deut. 6.)

And affirm to yourself the words of the Psalmist, Lo ira ra – “I will fear no evil, for You are with me” (Ps. 23)

*This phrase first appears in a Rabbi David Kishner sermon for the anniversary of Entebbe.
** NYT January 20, 2022.

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