19 Sivan 5776                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              B’SD


Orlando – The aftermath of a tragedy

B’tzelem Elokim Nivra et ha’adam – Man was created in the image of G-d


I often speak of the immense strength I get from observing Holocaust survivors. I am amazed how they cope with their past tragedies while still managing to smile and radiate love and friendship. I wonder how I would react to losing scores of family members and living through a hell beyond all hells. Undoubtedly, my life would have been different with despair and misery enveloping my very existence. The scope of their deprivation is too immense for me to fathom. But one thing I can do is to never find fault in anything they do. I realize that for them, just being alive takes more courage and effort than I could have mustered.


However, I also see my limitation in comprehending the trauma or difficulties that so many people go through. I am often unable to connect with the gravity of their situation, failing to sufficiently empathize with their circumstances.  I can’t appreciate the years of torment felt by a victim of sexual abuse, despite the tears that freely flow when I read of parents refusing to believe their children. The tragedy is compounded when no one is willing to validate their story and allow the healing to begin. I can’t appreciate the emotional turmoil faced by women who stay in abusive relationships for the sake of their children.  I can’t understand the evilness of men that ‘chain’ the woman they once loved and refuse to grant a ‘get’- a Jewish divorce. Often the tragedy is multiplied by victims who are ostracized by the community they should be relying on for support.  Even though the Torah states: Do not oppress the widow, orphan, or convert, it is sadly those who are most in need who are often persecuted for being a victim.


Can you imagine anyone having the chutzpah or audacity to tell a victim of the Shoah that it has been seventy-five years and they should get over it? We can never truly fathom their tormented souls. The commandment of protecting a widow, orphan, and convert is not limited to a select group, it is an obligation to help ease the emotional burden of anyone who has gone through difficulties. Our duty does not require empathy; it necessitates refraining from doing anything that may be considered by the victims as being oppressive. We must not tell a chained woman that perhaps she is also to blame, or that she could mitigate the communal negativity by signing papers that may be detrimental to her financial well being or the emotional welfare of her children.


In light of the tragedy in Orlando, I think it behooves us to tackle a subject that would otherwise likely be placed on the back burner. In perusing rabbinic literature of yesteryear, the rabbis discuss whether it is permitted for two men to sleep in the same bed. The answers vary depending on the generation and cultures prevalent at the time. In societies where homosexuality was prevalent, the rabbis ruled that it is forbidden for two men to share a bed, lest they be tempted to act immorally. However, in generations where homosexuality was not outwardly prevalent, the ruling changed to permit two men to sleep in the same bed as there was no concern that this would lead to any immoral behavior.   


I believe that the rabbis that ruled that two men may share a bed because homosexuality wasn’t an issue were either fooling themselves or were blinded by what they wanted to believe. Those rabbis also dismissed the theory of evolution, thus making it impossible that heterosexual males could have evolved into homosexual males in the 21st century. Perhaps it is just too difficult to grapple with the preponderance of evidence that people are born with a specific sexual orientation and that it isn’t society or upbringing that causes sexual preferences. More so, they can’t make sense of the thought that God would create human beings born with desires that go against the teachings of the Torah. The fact that people murder, cheat in business, etc., is a matter they choose to ignore.


My understanding is that God is not looking for his followers to validate his position. And when the second commandment states: Thou shalt not have any other Gods, it actually means that He does not need or desire anyone to act in his stead. He doesn’t require or want a moral police squad to protect the sanctity of the Torah and he is quite willing and able to deal with those individuals in the way He deems appropriate. The 13th century commentary, Sefer Hachinuch, maintains that God gave us Torah laws as a means of promoting and protecting the continuation of the species. The moral and ethical codes found in the Torah are meant to promote the propagation of future God fearing generations. Thus, any behaviors that cause the cessation of procreation are negating the purpose of creation. The Hebrew word Toevah is erroneously translated as an “abomination” when it is actually defined by the Talmud as a contraction of three Hebrew words, toah attah bah.  This refers to one who is straying from the divine plan. The terminology is used in conjunction with numerous laws including cheating in weights and measurements, divination, soothsayer, witchcraft, charmer, or being a medium, wizard, or a necromancer. It refers to acts that cause the cessation of society’s ability to function. Thus, the term ‘abomination,’ when used in reference to homosexuality, must be understood in the context of procreation and not as negativity towards a particular sexual orientation.


Yet, as Torah observing Jews, we are meant to follow the dictates of the Torah whether or not we agree with them. If we agreed with everything written in the Torah, what would be the point of being observant? However, I don’t have sufficient paper or time to enumerate the many rules that we collectively ignore or blatantly dismiss. And that is ok, because God created mankind with desires and needs that go against his teachings. And most of us succumb to temptation in more than one way. I am not excusing our behaviors, I am just reiterating this truth so we have some introspection before seeking to delegitimize one segment of society that may not adhere to a law of the Torah that some may find easy to follow.  


Sadly, there is so much wrong in our society that we should worry about. How do we ensure the Holocaust survivors’ final years are without extra stress? What can we do to ease the hardship of 15% of the American Jewish population that live below the poverty line?  What can we do to ease the burden of the widow and orphans? What can we do to help chained women remove their shackles of bondage? How do we protect societies that are victims of oppression on a daily basis? And just in case my words don’t resonate with you, I ask that you consider heeding just one golden rule: Love your neighbor. Did you ever think about who the neighbor is that you are commanded to love? It is the neighbor we disapprove of; the neighbor whose lifestyle make us a little uncomfortable. It is the neighbor that makes it easy to justify our tendencies to ostracize, alienate, castigate, and justify our prejudices. I guess if we expect anyone to change their ways, it should be us that set the example. You may not know them by name, but let me introduce them: they are your neighbors that were also created in the image of God.


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jack Engel    

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