Shabbat reflection on the Paris Attacks
By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
There is no language adequate to express our horror over the terror attacks in Paris.
Our thoughts are with the bereaved; our prayers are with the wounded, the traumatized and their families, and with all who strive to help them and work to protect life and liberty.
Acts of mass terror by Islamist extremists have been perpetrated in many parts of the world, in Israel, Africa, Asia and the West. But Paris is near, a city like ours, and most of the victims were young, enjoying life, doing what we and our children like to do. The random viciousness is therefore all the more frightening and closer to home. My Bnei Mitzvah class expressed their bewilderment. ‘But why?’ they asked, ‘Why do people do things like that?
Aside from political and military considerations, policing, vigilance, intelligence work and countering radicalization are all urgently important, all matters of life and death. Even so, no one believes the risk of terror will swiftly be lifted from our world.
How then do we live with that threat? Only our enemies want it to undermine our attitude to life and our values.
The heart of the matter is spiritual. In crisis, Judaism, like all true faiths, teaches us to deepen our connection with God. This isn’t about affirming beliefs. It’s about recognizing the sacred and the wonderful: it’s there in the everyday and ordinary: we may find it in a leaf, a bird, a cloud; in a poem, a song, a prayer; in a child’s joy, or the smile of an old person. Any part of life belongs to the whole of life, to the sacred vitality of all things, the presence of God in everything. Stillness, prayer, contemplation, music: these spiritual disciplines connect us with life at the deepest level. They nurture and purify us. They keep our heart open to wonder, compassion and understanding.
The issue is also communal. We all need fellowship. We must maintain our engagement with family, friends and community. We must study Torah together; it brings us the wisdom and resilience of our ancestors through the vital words and practices of our tradition. We should celebrate life together, sustain one another amidst fear or pain, and draw in those who are isolated and alone. ‘Better two than one’ wrote Ecclesiastes, ‘and the three-stranded cord cannot readily be broken’
The question concerns society as a whole. Wherever possible we need to meet in solidarity with other communities, of different faiths and none, in shared expression of our common joys, hopes, needs and challenges. Without being naïve, we need to challenge suspicion and prejudice, and work carefully but constantly to create an embracing society expressive of our shared humanity. Complex communities are easily torn apart; that is the aim of terror.
Sustaining such societies is an often moving, sometimes painful, always patient task. But there’s no other way for the world to be made safer in the end.
Amidst the sorrows of the week, I’ve been specially moved by the words of two people. Diane Foley’s son Jim, a courageous journalist, was executed by so-called Jihadi John. She said ‘God has been our strength. God was suffering with me; God was crying with me. My challenge is to keep walking in faith…’ Hatred, she added, only increases suffering, ‘and our world needs the opposite’.
Antoine Leiris lost his wife Helen in Paris. He said: ‘Of course I am devastated with grief’, but ‘my son and I, we will be stronger than every army in the world….this little boy will be happy and free.’ What courage, and what love.
I was asked to offer a short prayer:
All-Present God, comfort the bereaved, heal the wounded and traumatised, be with all those who care for them, and give strength and hope to all who strive for life, freedom and peace. God, guard us, our countries and the world against violence, hatred and destruction. God, penetrate all our hearts with respect and reverence for life and guide us by means of wonder, compassion and wisdom.
May God who makes peace in the high places, make peace for us, for all Israel and for all the peoples of the earth, and let us all say ‘Amen’.
This Shabbat New North London Synagogue was joined, during a brief interval, by leaders of other faiths in prayers for the healing of the wounded and in a shared declaration against violence and hatred. After the service there was time for those who wished to stay to share reflections in a facilitated conversation on their personal and spiritual responses to events.
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg is the Rabbi of New North London Synagogue and Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism.