In the Wake of Violence.....

The following is an attempt to reproduce the Devar Torah I gave on Friday, April 20th, 2007. 

I am posting it here to share some of the thoughts I expressed. 

In offering it to be read, rather than spoken, I fear that it loses all of the emotional content, and will seem cold and unaffected. Please know that it was very much from the heart as I gave it. 

In the Wake of Violence

Rabbi Joe Blair

April 20, 2007

The Torah parashiot we read from a few moments ago are found in Vaykra (Leviticus) in the double portion of Tazria-Metzora. Some translations call Tzara a leprosy, but this is not quite right. It is not truly Hansenitis, but would seem to me to be more something that afflicts you because of your own behavior, as happened to Miriam when she spoke ill of her sister-in-law. In some way, the term carries the sense of an affliction as retribution, which struck a chord for me this week.

I am offering this devar Torah on April 20, 2007 sadly, the 8th anniversary of the Columbine school killings, and less than a week after the horrific massacre at Virginia Tech. The airwaves, print media, and cyberspace are all filled with discussions of this most recent tragedy: could it have been prevented, what do we do now, what mental health services are needed at universities, should we try to institute gun control in light of this tragedy, what is needed for school and campus security, who is to blame, will this affect the upcoming elections: a myriad of questions about the world around us, practically all without answers. Issues, in the words of Tevye the dairy man, that would cross a rabbi's eyes - and they do, between my tears.

But right now what is weighing on my mind and spirit has more to do with the unasked religious questions, and less to do with the secular culture with which we are surrounded in America and in the world. It is more about those large, looming and unanswerable questions of meaning and values, called to our attention by tragedy and sorrow.

In some ways, the horror in Blacksburg, Virginia was an aberration and a first. In other ways it was simply one more eruption of violence, a plague with which we are assaulted and struck daily, at least by reports from the streets of Washington, DC, to the marketplaces of Baghdad, to the countryside of Israel.

In the midst of all the suffering and pain, I was intrigued to read these moving words, spoken in response to the Virginia Tech killings:

"It is impossible to make sense of such violence and suffering. Those whose lives were taken did nothing to deserve their fate. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now they're gone - and they leave behind grieving families, and grieving classmates, and a grieving nation. In times like this, we can find comfort in the grace and guidance of a loving G-d. As the Scriptures tell us, Dont be overcome by evil, but oercome evil with good."

Those words were spoken by President Bush. I am not usually noted for quoting politicians, but in this instance I resonated deeply with the Scriptural message he offered in his speech - a quote from the book of Romans in the Greek Scriptures (often called the New Testament), itself quoting the Tanakh (the Hebrew Scriptures, our Bible), from the book of Proverbs. A very Jewish sentiment, and one that seemed appropriate and timely.

No doubt you, as I, have been inundated with reports of what happened in Blacksburg. No doubt we are all sickened, saddened, and shocked. Though I, as many of you probably do, have some personal connection with the victims or with their families, what has jumped out to my attention and cause me to take special note is one story in particular.

Perhaps you, too, heard of engineering Professor Liviu Librescu. A Romanian Jew by birth, he suffered terribly under the Nazi sympathizers in his nation during the Holocaust. He survived. After that horror ended, he returned to live a normal life, only to suffer again under the repressive rule of Ceaucescu and the Communists when he would not join the party, and even more so when he declared that he wished to make Aliyah to Israel. He survived that, as well, and made his way to Eretz Yisrael, and the Technion. From there he was recruited to Virginia Tech, and he had been teaching at VT for the past twenty years.

When the gunman came near his room, Professor Librescu recognized the sound of gunfire. He told his students to flee out the windows, and without hesitation, he ran the opposite way, towards the door, to block it against the gunman. The gunman was prevented from entering, and in frustration, shot through the door, striking Professor Librescu fatally, but leaving without entering and without injuring any student in that classroom. Professor Librescu saved all of the students in his class, at the cost of his life.

We see that Professor Librescu puts the lie to the words of President Bush. He was not simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. By his actions and choices, Professor Librescu proved that *even if* we are in the wrong place at the wrong time, we are not simply pawns in the hands of fate: we have a choice in how we react. We can take to heart the instruction, the Mitzvah drawn from the Tanakh, with which President Bush concluded "don't be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Professor Librescu did just that.

It does not change the fact of his death. It does not alleviate the loss and suffering of his family and friends. It does, however, change the character of his death, demonstrating nobility, humanity, and compassion, and elevating him beyond the status of a victim to one who overcame evil with good. The outpouring of love and affection for Professor Librescu is no accident. By his actions he teaches us a deep and abiding lesson in love, faith, ethics, and morality. He shows us a way to elevate our lives.

Despite all the evils that befell him throughout his life, Professor Librescu was not bitter or hate-filled. By his actions he teaches us the inherent goodness that we can choose to live out, and he gives us renewed hope for humanity and for the future. As sad and as tragic as his death is, he is elevated, and his choice and his actions give meaning to his life, and to our world. This is his lesson and his legacy to us.

Yehi zichrono tzadik livrachah, may his righteous memory be for a blessing. May we remember him, along with all the other victims of this terrible event, and all other innocent victims, for good and with love

Let us all say, Amen.


With appreciation and acknowledgment of my colleague and friend, Rabbi Toba Spitzer, for some of the language and ideas contained herein.

April 25 2007