Rabbi Jonah C. Steinberg, Executive Director and Harvard Chaplain, Harvard Hillel. File Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.
By Rabbi Jonah C. Steinberg
Executive Director and Harvard Chaplain, Harvard Hillel
I can share with you – on what I figure to be this tenth visit of mine to speak in Harvard's Memorial Church in various ceremonies – that by now I feel quite at home here.
Not least, especially on these Sunday visits, you certainly know how to put us preachers in what we may fancy to be a natural habitat, up here on this majestic perch. It's probably healthiest for my ego, and my own community, that I only find myself up here occasionally – I could get used to this – but I do thank you for the treat.
Most of all and truly I am grateful for the warm welcome and the good fellowship I always find here – for a wonderful new colleague in your Minister, the Reverend Matt Potts, whom I am coming to know as a friend, and the Reverend Alanna Sullivan, long a friend – and the whole team, Ed, Calvon, Laurie and Cheyenne, and Elizabeth. I really do feel welcome here with you —
Except.... What was that about us Israelites in the reading from Second Corinthians a few moments ago? "For to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read..." and so forth. I should apologize, by the way, to your reader for putting her in the position of reading that to my face — not least as Suzanne and I are friends. I did know it was coming. Your lectionary calendar offered two choices for this Sunday as emailed to me, the transfiguration or that – and perhaps somewhat mischievously I decided to go, so to speak, with the recent President who said: "Two Corinthians, that's the whole ballgame, right?"
I hope you will forgive me if I say I know it isn't, not like that anyway – in good part from your welcome I know it cannot be. I mean, if you thought of my tradition only as "the ministry that brought condemnation" as opposed to "the ministry that brings righteousness" – as the Epistolary writer says just before the passage that we heard – if you thought of my community's covenant of Sinai as "the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone," as opposed to "the ministry of the Spirit" – then why would you have me here, unless somehow to represent "the end of what was passing away"? – and I don't suspect you of that. I don't – but I do wish us to talk about this. I think we must, if we are truly to be friends.
I wish to talk about it with you – but I am going to start somewhere else this Sunday, because it is a yahrzeit for me, a day of remembering a particular passing – which is such a gentle word for what I am remembering.
And if I speak of my friends Sara Duker and Matt Eisenfeld, of blessed memory – and frame my words here today in memory of them – it is not least because they would tell me to be gentle in their name.
So I start with Sara and with Matt, years ago and far away.
Exactly twenty-six years ago this last Sunday of February, Matt and Sara set out on a trip to Jordan. Matt was a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, spending a year in Jerusalem, and Sara had timed a stint of science-study at the Hebrew University after her time at Barnard College to be in Israel while Matt was there, he was her boyfriend.
This was 1996, and Matt and Sara were so joyous about what it meant that they could travel from Jerusalem to Amman – such a short trip, but one that had for so long been impossible. King Hussein had only recently declared formally an end to 46 years of hostility between Jordan and Israel. President Bill Clinton, celebrating the accord with Prime Minister Rabin and King Hussein on the White House lawn, had observed, "It takes but a minute or two to cross the river Jordan, but for as long as most of us can remember the distance has seemed immense. The awful power of ancient arguments and the raw wounds of recent wars have left generations of Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians unable to imagine much less build a life of peace and security." And the President said, "As this century draws to a close, a new era of peace opens before us in ancient lands, as brave men choose reconciliation over conflict."
So, Sara and Matt met that morning between their apartments in Jerusalem and got on the Number 18 bus, heading to the central bus station for their own brave trip to Jordan – and just before it reached the terminal, traveling down Jaffa Road, that Jerusalem bus was completely destroyed by a terrorist bomb, killing twenty-six, among them Matt and Sara. Forty-five minutes later a second bus exploded southwest of Jerusalem, in Ashkelon, killing two and injuring 31. Six days later another Number 18 bus in Jerusalem was bombed, killing 19.
Support for Shimon Peres – who was running at that time to retain the Israeli Prime Minister-ship on a platform of carrying forward the assassinated Yitzchak Rabin's designs for peace – dropped twenty percent that week. And the explosions continued into March. Peres never recovered as Prime Minister, he was made to look impotent and naïve. Binyamin Netanyahu was elected to his first term as Prime Minister that June, on a platform of skepticism toward the Oslo accords, which was sadly not so hard to understand.
In the message that took responsibility for the bombings, the Izzedine Al-Qassam, the military wing of the Hamas organization said the attacks were intended 'to make Israelis realize there never would be peace.' Speaking of his own role in planning the attacks, Hamas Operative Hassan Salameh said, "I believe what I did is a legitimate right, which my religion and all the world gives me."
The main generational difference, I think, between myself and the Harvard undergraduates I serve is that I have lived in hope of awakening from a nightmare ever since those days in 1996, while their lifespans to date have been entirely within that nightmare.
If it were not recorded on video, I am quite sure many students at Harvard today would not believe that on hearing of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, the long-militant head of the Palestine Liberation Organization Yasser Arafat, then elected President of his people (and that "militant," by his own account, was a gentle word in his regard) proclaimed, "I am very sad and very shocked for this awful and terrible crime against one of the brave leaders of Israel and the peace-makers; I hope the Israelis and the Palestinians will have the ability to overcome this tragedy against the peace process." I almost do not care how sincere or not he was – which of course is still debated – if the path had continued, the peace might have been, in spite of those who at the time celebrated its undoing.
The tragedy is we live today in the world shaped by the Jewish assassin of Yitzhak Rabin and the Hamas murderers of Matt and Sara and so many others. We live in that world even here at Harvard – I don't know if you have been following the war of words on campus – the anti-Israel stickers appearing on Sabra hummus in the dining halls, the tearing down of Harvard Hillel posters all over campus, about which the Dean of Students Office had to issue a statement just this past week, and the black-colored posters everywhere against the Harvard College Israel Trek.
The Trek, by the way, I am quite proud to say, was first created a decade ago by Jewish and Arab-Israeli students, with Harvard Hillel as its home base – and coming back from Covid now, after two non-travel years, the trip is again co-led by an Arab-Israeli undergrad with Jewish Israeli friends. The Trek has also doubled in size – it used to take 50 Harvard undergrads of all faiths and nationalities and backgrounds to Israel and the Palestinian territories; this year it will be a hundred. In addition to all the tourist attractions, museums, and religious pilgrimage sites, the trip will include time with Palestinian community and leadership across the Green Line and with Arab-Israeli organizations in East Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The trip participants will meet with the President of Israel, and with the Deputy Speaker of the Israeli Parliament – who is Mansour Abbas, head of the United Arab List. They will meet with Justices of Israel's Supreme Court, Jewish and Arab – and just like three years ago when the Trek met with Ayman Odeh, then head of the Arab Joint List in the Knesset and with Naftali Bennet, who was then just an MP, the trip will hear again from those remarkably different Israeli parliamentarians, the difference being that this time Bennet is Israel's Prime Minister. In short, the strategy for building the trip's itinerary is shamelessly to use the Harvard name to open every door. The result is a head-spinning Spring Break trip. My advice when I speak pre-trip with the participants always is the same: get a lot of good sleep before departure, because the jet lag is nothing in comparison with the experience of hearing so many different voices and perspectives in such a short time, voices that can seem to have only intensity in common.
But maybe you saw the posters on the way here this morning: "How about Spring Break without Breaking International Law?" "Your Trip Is Free; Palestine Isn't" and "Would you go on a trip funded by South-African Apartheid?" So far as I know, not one of those posters has been torn down – and let me take a moment here to say that reflects some admirable restraint on the part of Harvard Hillel students, when posters with a QR code offering a chance to learn why many in our community care about Israel have been torn up all over campus and the torn pieces tacked back to the walls.
So – "Two Corinthians" – I promise there is a homily here, and a hope. But let me say something more first about Sara and about Matt, because I miss them – and because I am resolved to be gentle in their memory.
After Sara was killed the owner of the Broadway Market got in touch to ask who would coordinate picking up the sandwiches for the homeless people. Most of us had not known that Sara had made a quiet arrangement for her and several friends to pick up packets from the deli counter, of food that would have been discarded each week, which they handed out all up and down the stretch of Broadway by Columbia.
Sara and I had planned services together in the Seminary's synagogue in preparation for the High Holidays that past autumn. There came a moment in going through the prayer-book together when Sara pointed out to me a passage in the liturgy where it was customary to rise. The words there say, "We know not what we should do, but our eyes are turned toward You." After Sara so suddenly was gone, I wished that I had taken more time to hear what she meant when she observed to me, almost in passing, "We have to stand up when we're saying we don't know what to do."
As to Matt, I didn't know him quite as well, but last I saw him he was immersed in study of Ecclesiastes – and it was typical of him to home in on a book he felt reflected doubts and questions people often bring to Rabbis. "What benefit to a human being in all the toil one does under the heavens?" On the day after Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, Matt wrote in his diary: "I admired Yitzhak Rabin and had confidence in the Israeli government because of him. I feel like the country is in disarray at this point because nobody can really fill his shoes."
In her diary, Sara wrote: "I do not know why there is evil in the world, but I know I must do nothing to support it."
Twenty-six years, and it really doesn't seem like all that long ago. I don't know exactly, but it is not so hard to imagine what Sara and Matt would be like now as a married couple some fifty years old – perhaps with kids at Harvard, although Matt was a Yalie. We may all have been twenty-something going on fifty in those days, we earnest young theological types.
I do know Sara and Matt fulfilled Ecclesiastes' words: "Remember your Creator in the days of your youth ––– before the days of evil come and the years of which you may say, I have no desire of them – before the sun darkens, and the light and the moon and the stars, and the clouds return after the rain; on the day when the guardians of the house shudder, and the men of valor bend themselves, and the millstones fall silent, being few, and the watchers at the windows dim; and the doors are shut in the market, as the sounds of milling fade, and one startles at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of music are brought low; when everyone is afraid of that which is high up, and terrors on the road – and the almond tree blossoms as the grasshopper drags itself along, and the succulent caperberry fails, for the man goes to his eternal home, and the mourners circle in the marketplace."
So, yes – I would prefer not to be told, in the voice of your Epistle, that my mind is dull to the words of my own scriptures. I would like to think we could live without a zero-sum-game where a Gospel concept of truth requires that a Jewish one be called deception and distortion.
We both inherit Isaiah's songs of the Suffering Servant and the Man of Sorrows – and I am here to tell you they resonate in my tradition and my people no less than in your faith. I am also here to say that I think we are at peril, right here at Harvard, of falling into generalizing caricatures about morally blind Jews and innocent lambs – which are not only misleading as to the factions of our ancestors in the first century of our Common Era; they are insufficient in accounting for the murder of my friends, and the lack of peace in my homeland.
More and more I think there are largely only two factions – pursuers of peace, and protractors of enmity. And neither of our traditions guarantees our individually being one way or the other – that is up to each of us, and we have to stand up – even or especially when we don't know what to do.
When I rode in the hearse with Sara's body from her funeral in Teaneck to Matt's in West Hartford – which should have been dancing her from her bridal reception to the wedding canopy – I sat up front next to the kindly driver and I sang the ‘Songs of Ascent’ from the Psalms – Samachti be'omrim li beit Adonai nelech – "I rejoiced when they said to me, let us go to the House of the Eternal One." I learned that day for sure what a holy place was – there is one in this world I know for certain – as every spade-full of earth in Matt and Sara's grave in Avon was placed there with love. The marker there today reads, "Loving peace and pursuing peace they loved their fellow beings and drew them near to Torah."
Friends, where better than a sanctuary in Harvard Yard to say, let us go together to the House of God? But please, let us not think or hope or imagine that we must be identical to one another when we get there. What accomplishment would there be in that? And what a dull place it would be. Matt and Sara set out on a journey to encounter others – and I visit you here in that spirit.
I can agree with Paul that "in God we live and move and have our being," all of us – but as he taught amid the shrines of Athens’ mysteries about one Divine breath in humankind, one community of offspring – let me hope and urge we not forget that we speak also of a God of Hosts, a Divine of Legions – and the miracle of Love itself requires alterity, else it is mere solipsism. To speak of veils, and of shining faces – we are given the blessing of one another so that in each other’s faces we may discover the Divine.
That is a frightening encounter – it shakes us from ourselves. "Turn your eyes away because they terrify me," says the one voice in the Song of Songs – but he is saying that to his beloved. It is not a plea for distance, it is an acknowledgement of how we look into a dizzying and soaring abyss of transcendence when we meet each other's eyes.
I love being here because this is not my tradition – and it is a joy to make togetherness in our difference. It asks a lot of us, but my prayer – and I hope it can be our prayer together today – is that, if we say, "Let us set out in the light of the Eternal One" – we have the courage to believe it will take all our different eyes to get somewhere together by that light.
May Sara's and Matt's memory be a blessing. May there come a day when brave journeys like theirs can be confident of happy arrivals – to see one another's faces, and in seeing one another to see the face of the Eternal One.