On January 6, riotous supporters of President Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol, scarring a majority of Americans who felt violated by this grotesque attack. My comments this Shabbat focus on the desecration of this sacred space and its impact on us as witnesses.
The Breaching of Sacred Walls
Bricks are supposed to be used for building. Indeed, in Moses’ heavenly vision of God, the divine throne rests on לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר, “sapphire brick-work” (Ex. 24:10). But time and again in our sacred texts, bricks are subverted, used to build heinous edifices such as the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:3) and altars of idols (Isa. 65:3). In this week’s Torah portion, the Hebrews are required not only to construct the treasuries Pharaoh will use to store goods denied to his slaves but they must also form the very bricks they are forced to lay (Ex. 5). Our texts testify to the pain evoked when tools of security are used to oppress.
So in our own day and age, we are rightly horrified to see a brick thrown at black-owned business, a community organizing hub for local justice-seeking nonprofits. On Tuesday night, a brick was thrown at the Live Café right here in Oak Park. It rebounded off the community center’s shatter-resistant glass door, waiting on the sidewalk for a pedestrian to discover the racist threat tied to it.
Symbols have power. A brick with a note tied to it is more than paper and stone. And a positive symbol twisted to darkness—a humble brick hurled with hate—is particularly painful.
That explains, at least in part, the revulsion we felt on Wednesday witnessing the invasion of the United States Capitol. What we saw on TV, heard on the radio, read online, experienced as if we were there …. It was more than a rally, more even than a riot. We bore witness to a violation.
Our people knows something about the breaching of walls. The prophet Ezekiel describes the assault of the Babylonians on the holy Temple in Jerusalem: וּבָאוּ־בָהּ פָּרִיצִים וְחִלְּלוּהָ, “and the raiders entered it and defiled it” (7:22). As Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier, a scholar on ancient Judaism, teaches on this verse: “There is something about an enemy breaching the walls of a sacred space that forever tarnishes it. … The trauma of an enemy’s trespass onto sacred ground is incompatible with, and thereby undoes, that holiness.”
Like all hallowed places, it is not the walls or foundation bricks that bear the most meaning. Holy relics lie within, representing the people’s most treasured values. In the case of a synagogue, the Torah scroll stands as our most sacred symbol; and I am reminded of the congregation in Charlottesville, Virginia that evacuated its Torah scrolls when threatened by Nazis three years ago.
Here’s a description from Business Insider:
Federal law dictates that sealed certificates of each state's electoral votes — which were cast December 14 — are transported to the Congressional chamber in ceremonial, 18-inch by 10-inch mahogany boxes lined with leather.
As they evacuated, Congressional aides grabbed the boxes, rescuing them from possible harm or vandalism.
“If our capable floor staff hadn't grabbed them, they would have been burned by the mob,” Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon tweeted.
Photographs of the sealed ballot box being rescued from the Senate floor and, later, ceremoniously returned to the chamber went viral on Wednesday. Despite the digital copies that could easily be reproduced, the symbolism of these paper ballots is palpable. The intent of the vandals was to hijack democracy, literally to steal these votes. They failed. Order was restored, the election was certified, and justice—imperfectly, as always—will be pursued.
The slow, eventual expulsion of the looters is cold comfort, especially to the families of the four people who died. And it does nothing to erase the sacrilege that their trespass has indelibly stamped on the halls of Congress and emblazoned in our mind’s eye. I join Americans across the country and allies around the world in denouncing their attempt to subvert democracy, and I join all of you in searching for shreds of light to emerge from this desperately dark week.
Perhaps some strength may be taken from Avraham Sutzkever, the most famous poet of the Vilna Ghetto. Sutzkever was part of a group of partisans known as the Paper Brigade, who strove to rescue treasured works of literature, both religious and secular, from the Nazis. The salvation of these documents represented the preservation of the Jewish spirit, an act of resistance that resulted in the reestablishment of YIVO, the Jewish Research Organization, after the war.
One of Sutzkever’s most well-known poems is called “Grains of Wheat,” written in the Vilna Ghetto in 1943. The poem expresses the sacred need to save the words we live by so that they can continue generation after generation to give life. An excerpt:
Caves, gape open,
Split open under my ax!
Before the bullet hits me --
I bring you gifts in sacks.
Old, blue pages,
Purple traces on silver hair,
Words on parchment, created
Through thousands of years in despair.
As if protecting a baby
I run, bearing Jewish words,
I grope in every courtyard:
The spirit won’t be murdered by the hordes.
I reach my arm into the bonfire
And am happy: I got it, bravo!
Mine are Amsterdam, Worms,
Livorno, Madrid, and YIVO.
Perhaps these words will endure,
And live to see the light loom --
And in the destined hour
Will unexpectedly bloom?
And like the primeval grain
That turned into a stalk --
The words will nourish,
The words will belong
To the people, in its eternal walk.
Heroic acts of defiance cannot undo the despoliation wrought by rampaging vandals. But they do remind us why we care. We care about our sacred institutions, we care about our community organizations, and we care about one another, especially our neighbors who are under attack.
The new year dawned with promise, a promise still waiting to be delivered. May we draw strength from the symbols that reflect our purpose and resolve, committing ourselves to the values we hold dear. Even in moments of despair, they will always sustain us.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”