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April 26, 2024

Lo Dayeinu, It Is Not Enough

Jenna Pearsall

Lo Dayeinu, It Is Not Enough
Cantor Jenna Pearsall

The first night of Passover and Earth Day coincided this year and as we celebrated both last Monday there truly could not have been a more strikingly beautiful scene outside. The sky was a piercing blue without a cloud in sight, the miraculous colors of spring showed off in the warm sunshine, the pinks of the cherry blossom trees and the magnolias as vivid as ever. Walking around my neighborhood of Forest Hills, I couldn’t help but feel that sense of awe Rabbi Buchdahl is always talking about, that kind of breathless wonder we feel when untouched, natural beauty is displayed before us. It is serendipitous that the peak of the spring blossoms, Earth Day, and Passover all combined on this one day, for on Passover, we make a point to read Shir Hashirim, its pages filled with nature imagery as the rabbis liken its love story to the love of God for the people of Israel. Nature is used in vivid detail to help the two lovers describe their love for one another, as it reads in chapter two “K’shoshana bein hachochim kein rayati bein habanot,” like a lily among thorns, so is my darling among the maidens.

Juxtaposed against this backdrop of budding trees and pink blossoms was a thorn among lilies, the flipside of the love poetry of shir hashirim, events happening in our city that certainly did not evoke awe, that in turn had us feeling the weight of the Passover story and its themes a bit more acutely this year. One headline in the free press read, “At Columbia I Am Told: ‘Go Back to Poland’. Another news story spoke of an Israeli Jewish professor at Columbia who was turned away at the gates of the college, his ID deactivated because they could not ensure his safety as an advocate for Israel and for the Jewish community. A video circulated online showing a line of protestors barricading an Orthodox Jewish man from going past. One student’s Israeli flag was forcibly taken from him as the perpetrators attempted to set it on fire, and other Jewish students were splashed with water. Hearing these stories, I reflected on my own time in undergraduate. Undergraduate is a time of high stress, exams, extracurriculars, the drama of students’ social lives, first love, part-time jobs, and for many, their first time living away from home. On top of all this, students now have to navigate blatant hatred and anti-Jewish rhetoric being thrown at them from all directions, feeling unsafe to walk from class to class, and even being encouraged by Jewish faculty to return home and stay there, as it is no longer safe to be Jewish on campus. This is a travesty, and it begs the question; who will stand up in the face of this darkness and hatred? Who will protect these students, when no one is stepping up? My heart breaks for these Jewish students, who spent years wishing and hoping to be admitted to these prestigious schools, who are now being told their physical safety is not guaranteed.

As I read these headlines sitting in the grass, looking around at the blooms of spring, I thought to myself–how could anyone hold hatred in their hearts in the face of such awe, beauty, and love? We are in dire need of more love in this world, and Passover could not have come at a more apt time. Passover is not only a story about freedom, it’s also a love story, between God and the Israelite people, God parting the seas to usher us out of Egypt just in time to save us from our plight. Shir Hashirim is a love story too, an allegorical one in which God’s love for Israel is expressed yet again. We had the privilege of seeing two love stories up here tonight on this bimah as we witnessed two simchas in this community.

I LOVE a good love story. In recent months I have sat on my phone for longer than I’d like to admit scrolling through videos online, getting lost down an internet rabbit hole of strangers’ joyous moments, my eyes literally tearing up watching other people’s love stories. One content creator in particular goes out on the streets of NYC to interview couples about how they met and fell in love which usually gets me smiling, and I’ll usually full-blown ugly cry when seeing videos randomly pop up of people being told they are going to be grandparents for the first time—and don’t get me started on the videos of parents surprising their kids with puppies. As I sit there crying over strangers' happiness and inherent, real love, I ask myself–why is this impacting me so greatly? It’s because for over 200 days, we have been in an endless cycle of fear, sadness, and disappointment. For more than 200 days, we have been afraid to check the news each day, for we know there will either be yet another day of no steps in the right direction, or several steps in the wrong direction. For more than 200 days, our college students have endured blatant antisemitism and harassment, both online and on campuses, being blamed for a conflict happening thousands of miles away. For more than 200 days, our hearts have longed for good news, something, anything to uplift us as our hearts stay firmly in the east.

This week we started counting the omer, as we are commanded in the Torah to count each day from Pesach to Shavuot, originally a way to thank God for the barley harvest during those intermediary weeks. Kabbalistic commentary says that we count the omer to embark on a path of spiritual redemption in the days leading up to receiving the Torah at Sinai. I don’t know about you, but I am tired of counting. For over half a year now, we have been painfully marking each day. With counting the omer, however, we find a way to incorporate a blessing into each day. The ritual’s goal is for us to do inner work, to bring out the goodness in each of us, and to prepare ourselves spiritually for being worthy of receiving Torah. We need this spiritual rejuvenation now more than ever as we wade through the heaviness we now feel.

Passover is not only a love story, it is also a story of hope. But in these times, hope alone is not enough, and hope is hard to come by when you scroll to the comments on any online article or video concerning Jews or Israel and see the hatred and the vitriol. This Passover, we say Lo Dayeinu, it is not enough to sit idly by, to do nothing as this rhetoric of hatred proliferates so close to home. Lo Dayeinu, what the leaders of these institutions have done for the safety of their students is not enough. To our college students who have stayed strong in the face of adversity on your campuses, we hear you, we are here for you, and if only love alone could protect you, this communities’ love would wrap you up and turn away any baseless hatred that comes your way. May the administrators at your institutions commit themselves to ensuring your safety, and may you be afforded the opportunity to pursue your academic pursuits in peace. Kein Y’hi ratzon.

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.