Saturday, November 23, 2013

50 Years After the Kennedy Assassination

50 Years after the JFK Assassination
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel, Denver, CO
November 22, 2013
My Dear Friends,
I want to begin with one of my favorite pieces of Torah:
Genesis 37:14
One time, when his brothers had gone to pasture their father’s flock at Shechem, Israel said to Joseph, “Your brothers are pasturing at Shechem,  Come, I will send you to them.”  He answered, “I am ready.”  And he said to him, Go and see how your brothers are and how the flocks are faring, and bring me back word.”  So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.
When Joseph reached Shechem, a man came upon him wandering in the fields,  The man asked him, “what are you looking for?”  He answered, “I am looking for my brothers.  Could you tell me where they are pasturing?”  The man said, “They have gone from here, for I heard them say:  Let us go to Dothan.”  So Joseph flowed his brothers and found them at Dothan.

I love this text because it teaches a wonderful lesson.  Joseph is going down to find his brothers.  As we read the story, we know what is going to happen next:  We know that as soon as his brothers see him, they’re going to throw him into a pit, tear up his multi-colored cloak, sell him into slavery, and set in motion the story that ends up with Joseph’s ascension to power in Egypt, reuniting with his family, causing them all to move to Egypt, followed by a New King arising over Egypt who will enslave the Israelites– leading up- to Moses, the burning bush, the ten plagues, the Exodus from Egypt and finally – to the Ten Commandments at Mt Sinai.

Quite a narrative –
a lot depends on Joseph finding his brothers, doesn’t it? 
But it almost doesn’t happen!
Were it not for this strange man that Joseph encountered,  none of us would be here.  The world would have been a radically different place. 
Our text is playing with us:

When Joseph reached Shechem, a man came upon him wandering in the fields,  The man asked him, “what are you looking for?”  He answered, “I am looking for my brothers.  Could you tell me where they are pasturing?” 

What if this man in the text had said:  “How should I know?”  Or what if he gave him bad directions?  Or what if Joseph had acted like most men and refused to ask for directions?
Why is it even necessary to have this little digression in the text?  Why doesn’t the text say,  Joseph went down to Shechem, found his brothers and they through him in the pit?
The story would have worked just as well, wouldn’t it?

No, it wouldn’t.  You see, that man was essential to the story.  He is there to teach us something – his job is to show us that one person – one chance encounter – one split second - can change history.

As we all know – today marks the 50th anniversary of the Assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Dallas’ TX. In the blink of an eye - a  split second, - the amount of time it took for Lee Harvey Oswald to pull the trigger on his 6.5 mm Carcano carbine rifle from the window of the Texas book depository – our entire world changed. Without a doubt, history was irrevocably transformed on that November afternoon in 1963.  So many people in this chapel tonight remember where they were when Kennedy was assassinated.  A colleague recently remarked that it has become so much a part of the ethos of our nation, that she feels like she remembers it herself – even though she wasn’t even born yet.  I was only 4 years old at the time, yet I clearly remember the sight and sound of my parents’ sobs as they sat around our Black and White Television set watching the news unfold.

Volumes have been written about the Kennedy assassination.  We will never know what the legacy of our 35th president might have been if he had not been murdered on that day.  And yet, we also know that just as his election symbolized a sense of hope for an entire generation, his murder marked a turning point in our confidence as a nation.  Five years after the death of JFK, we also witnessed the public killings of Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.   With each successive violent act, our nation realized that hope and history are intertwined with the vicissitudes and randomness of the acts of individuals. On November 4th, 1995 the State of Israel came to a similar realization as a Jewish assassin named Yigal Amir gunned down Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at a peace rally in Tel Aviv.

Many of you may have seen the powerful video produced by the Anti Defamation League in honor of their 100th Anniversary.  Entitled, “Imagine a World Without Hate,” it begins with the strains of John Lennon’s anthem “Imagine.”  It is then followed with imaginary headlines from newspapers showing Anne Frank, Rabin,  JFK, Dr. King and other victims of hatred – living into 80’s and 90’s and documenting all of their achievements throughout their long lives….. 

One person can make a difference.  Whether that person is a galvanizing and charismatic leader or a madman with a rifle, our actions – be they innocent or pre-meditated – can and do change history. 

But it is not only our actions that bring about change.  Sometimes our inactions can speak volumes as well.  In a recent blog post, my colleague, Rabbi Seth Limmer[i]:  writes that parashat Vayeishev contains another story of how one person can make a difference – not by what he or she does, but by what he or she doesn’t do.  He writes about how young Joseph, in the beginning of our story, brags to his brothers about his dreams of one day ruling over them.  The brothers’ anger at Joseph leads them to hate him and to concoct a scheme to get rid of him.  In Genesis 37:11 we read that “…[Joseph’s] brothers became jealous of him, and his father observed the matter.”  The words, “Jacob observed the matter…” seem somewhat innocuous at first glance, and yet, if we really explore them in the context of the story, there is a deeper, and perhaps more tragic aspect to them.  Think about it:  If Jacob knew about the hatred between Joseph and the rest of his sons, why didn’t he intervene?  And why did he send him out to meet them – putting him in harm’s way? 

Rabbi Limmer indicts Jacob for not preventing the potential fratricide between Joseph and his brothers.  Had he been more attentive, he might have thought twice about sending his favored son out to see his brothers and setting in motion all of the events that followed.

Our task, as we commemorate this solemn anniversary, is to look deep inside ourselves and our souls and ask ourselves if we are prepared to accept the fact that each of us can make a difference – maybe not in a global sense, but certainly within the context of our families our community and our own growth.

Next week we will gather around our Tables surrounded by family and friends to give thanks for the bounty that God has given us.   I believe that one of the key messages of Thanksgiving is to remember that we are essential to one another – that we can impact one another – with a desire to help – to change things – to renew our relationships, our commitments, our resources – both physical and spiritual – and transform the very essence of the world in which we live.

It doesn’t take much. 

  • Sometimes all it takes is to turn to the people we love – and tell them that we love them.
  • Sometimes all it takes is a smile, a caring hand, a sympathetic ear.
  • Sometimes it requires that we speak up in the face of injustice
  • Sometimes it requires that we work to support the causes and organizations we believe in
  • Sometimes it takes all of our strength and all of our patience –
  • Sometimes it only takes a moment to remind us that every person in this room – and every person we meet on the street – is created in the image of God.  And when we see that – we realize that all of us are holy vessels.
I want to conclude tonight with the words of John F Kennedy’s favorite poet, Robert Frost – a poem that was read at his funeral service 50 years ago.  This poem that captures the beauty of a single moment – frozen in time  - also reminds us of that we have a responsibility to work to make the world a better place – what we, in our tradition call Tikkun Olam – repairing the world.  We have “Miles to go” before we sleep.  Let us embrace and accept the fact that we all have the ability and the responsibility to change the world.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
By Robert Frost 1874–1963
Whose woods these are I think I know.  
His house is in the village though;  
He will not see me stopping here  
To watch his woods fill up with snow.  

My little horse must think it queer  
To stop without a farmhouse near  
Between the woods and frozen lake  
The darkest evening of the year.  

He gives his harness bells a shake  
To ask if there is some mistake.  
The only other sound’s the sweep  
Of easy wind and downy flake.  

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.  
But I have promises to keep,  
And miles to go before I sleep,  
And miles to go before I sleep.


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