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Reflection: A rabbi brings contemplation of Syria into Rosh Hashana service

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: This week’s Rosh Hashana services marked the first day of the Jewish Year 5774. The ancient notes from a great shofar – a hollowed-out ram’s horn -- sounded at dozens of synagogues and Jewish center across the region at the end of services.

Peace in the Middle East is a constant prayer on Rosh Hashana. It may have been so since the days of Abraham. And this year, the issue is more sharply focused as it comes near a major war anniversary and the time for decisions on what to do about chemical warfare in Syria.

Forty years ago on Yom Kippur, Egypt and Syria bombed Israel starting a war. As the high holy days begin this year, “we are on a collision course with the drama, history and politics of unrest in Egypt and Syria,” said Rabbi Jim Bennett in his remarks. Bennett is leader of one of the nation’s larger Reform congregations, Shaare Emeth. He was 16 years old on that fateful 1973 holy day when war broke out in Israel. His memory of the sorrow he felt that day remains vivid.

Bennett asked his congregation to consider the moral questions of what action the U.S., and the West, should take about use of chemical gas on innocent Syrians. Almost all of those in the congregation know of relatives who died of chemical gas switched on by Nazis in World War II death camps. He faced members whose cause is more than history but to “never forget.”

“What is our moral obligation to life in Syria?” Bennett asked. 

Bennett explained that he was bypassing reading this high holy day’s more traditional Torah portions in favor of passages about Sarah ordering Abraham to send his older son Ishmael by her slave woman Hagar into the wilderness. Sarah feared the older son might share Abraham’s inheritance with Isaac, her only son, the miracle infant of her old age. So, he abandoned the boy to please his wife.

Bennett read the Bible's portion and stressed that God heard the suffering Ishmael’s pleas for help, and an angel guided Hagar to go to a well and provided the dehydrated boy with water. An angel of God assured Hagar that as was the case with his younger half brother, he, too, would be the father of a nation.

“That nation is the Arabs, the followers of Islam,” Bennett said.

“So many voices so many more cry out to us after two years of Syria’s bloody civil war. The call of every suffering is carried to our ears on the wind,” he said.

He offered his congregation two voices, a Syrian Muslim boy and a Syrian Muslin young man. Both had witnessed chemical attacks, had seen others die and were quoted in a British newspaper. 

“God did not condemn Ishmael but heard his cry,” Bennett said.

He talked about the horrors of chemical warfare on the innocent civilians and asked for prayers to God for “many whose names are unknown to us.”

He asked the congregation whether it is moral to react with military force. He gave no firm conclusions on what U.S. action should be but carefully looked at moral issues on both sides.

“What is best for America, what is best for Israel?” Bennett asked. “How can it not be in our self-interest to prevent weapons of mass destruction, to take swift decisive action?” Then, he countered asking how the U.S. might unleash a military attack in a civil war.

“The answers to this question are so nuanced, so difficult so profound,” he said. “Our moral obligation begins with ourselves,” Bennett said. He quoted the great First Century Rabbi Hillel as saying “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for my self, who will be for me?”

“In the Jewish tradition, love of self is the foundation for love of neighbor,” Bennett said. Then, he warned his congregation against falling into narcissism or isolationism.

He asked them to go home, pray about it and research expert opinion on the Internet. Then, he requested that they share their opinion on the back of a white prayer sheet each held and send it back to him. The rabbi wants to compile their opinions to help shape a statement from Union for Reform Judaism to President Barack Obama.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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