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Jewish Journal

Global soul: Zev Yaroslavsky

by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis

March 5, 2013 | 1:07 pm

Zev Yaroslavsky. Photo courtesy zev.lacounty.gov

Zev Yaroslavsky. Photo courtesy zev.lacounty.gov

When Cain killed Abel, the Bible recorded it as the first murder in history.  But the rabbis commented, this is more than murder.  Abel’s murder opened the jaws of genocide. For when Cain killed Abel, it wasn’t Abel alone that died.  It was Abel’s posterity, his potential progeny  – those unborn, unlived, unrealized talents prematurely buried with Abel  –  poets, philosophers, artists, scientists. Therefore, our sages declared, “Who murders a single person, murders an entire world.”  To the lifeless skulls we see daily, add the unfulfilled promise of unborn infants and parent.

We live in a century of genocide.   No two holocausts are the same.  There are differences in their history, demography, geography, theology.  Many victims of mass murder are often different in their skin pigmentation, their language, their catechism. 

Well, if holocausts are so different, and the victims so different, what have I to do with Darfur, Sudan, Chad, and the Congo, and their sorrow?

Let me alone to mind my own tragedies
Let me cry my own tears
Let me lick my own wounds
And not of strangers.

Against this insular provincialism, the Jewish conscience of ethical monotheism confronts us with a penetrating question:

“Is your blood redder than theirs?  Is your pain deeper, your grief wider?  Is your compassion so small, your heart so narrow, that it cannot include the agony of other peoples, and the need to respond to their torture and their torment?” 

When my ancestors and yours gave civilization the Ten Commandments, did they mean to prohibit the murder or theft or false witness only against Jews?  Only against crimes committed against Judah or Israel or Jerusalem? Never before, and never again.

Never.  Such provincialism would only shatter the oneness of God into fragmented tribal deities.  Sh’ma Yisroel -- the God of monotheism will not be segregated in Heaven.

The God of Genesis, which inspired the daughter religions of Christianity and Islam, created the whole universe, an entire humanity.  Thou shalt not murder – whom?  Every human being, male and female, every human being created in God’s image is to be protected, and cared for – the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the vulnerable, the suppressed communities, God’s children.

To avert my eyes from the torment of others, to stuff my ears from their shrieks, is to deny the kinship of human suffering and my own humanity.  

Am I created to be only a bystander, a passive voyeur gazing at the dying of human dignity? What defines my existence? 

The philosopher defined existence by declaring,  “I think, therefore I am.”
The existentialist wrote, “I feel, therefore I am.” 
The poet recited, “I imagine, therefore I am.” 

But our tradition declared, “Because you suffer, therefore I am.”   For if you suffer and I pretend deafness, muteness, or paralysis, I am reduced to a yawn, a breath, vanity of vanities, a cipher floating in the wind.  

Jewish World Watch was born out of the lash, scream, shouts, of human beings, out of the terror of children and of women raped, ravaged, and ruined.  We who have known genocide know that silence is lethal and muteness is complicity with evil.   We know to shed a tear is not to save a life, to sigh in sympathy is not to bind the hemorrhaging that drains life from terrorized human beings.

You friends – whom I have the privilege to address – during these last nine years have done more than express sympathy.  You helped build, and continue to help build, hospitals to repair ruptured fistulas and torn wombs of trembling girls and women.    You helped build, and continue to help build,  burn clinics to soothe the searing flames embedded in the flesh and the charred bones of innocents.  You have made our youth proud of the synagogue’s relevance and engagement with this world, here and now. 

Therefore, it is an honor for me, and my spiritually-restless cohort, colleague and co-founder Janice Kamenir Reznick, to be in your company, and especially this night, when we celebrate the vitality of human goodness and human Godliness.  Especially this night, when we honor our beloved friend Zev Yaroslavsky –  a serious person, a devoted civil servant, a feeling intelligence, that flows into his moral activism. 

When my wife Malkah and I came to this community in 1970, we heard about someone who stirred the moral sensibility of thousands, someone who heard the sobbing anger of dissidents and refusniks languishing in the grinding gulags of the Soviet Union, and who awakened the moral sensibility of thousands.  That person, who carried such a burden, with such responsibility and persistence, turned out to be all of 26 years.  Zev Yaroslavky:  an old head and a young heart, who taught with words and posture a post-Holocaust revelation:   We are not only a people of survivors, we are a people of rescuers.

Zev’s moral heroism was cultivated in a home of parents immersed in Jewish ethics.  At the table, at the school desks, from the pulpit, Zev had internalized the words of the last prophet in the Bible, Malachi.  To the question, “Why should we care about others?”  Malachi said,  “Have we not all one Father? Did not God create us all?  Why do we profane the covenant by breaking faith with one another?” 

Zev, you live your calling against the grain, raising up those kicked to the ground.  You have been in many battles in your life.  You have prayed and offered many petitions.  But all those causes and petitions are rooted in one cry for meaning and purpose:  “Make use of me. Make use of me.  For God’s sake, make use of me.” 

Zev, you are needed.  We need your leadership.  Help us use the best within us, for the sake of protecting the other children of God. 

For Zev and Barbara, and their supportive family, L’chaim, to life, to hope, to courage.

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