A Jewish woman's sacrifice and the spirit of Deuteronomy

Howard Kaye holds his daughter Hannah Jacqueline Kaye at the funeral for Lori Gilbert-Kaye, the sole fatality of the Saturday shooting at Congregation Chabad synagogue in Poway, north of San Diego, California, U.S. April 29, 2019.(Photo: Reuters/John Gastaldo)

Christians and Jews have suffered grievously over the Pesach and Easter period, which have coincided this year. On Easter Sunday, hundreds of Christians praying on the holiest day of their year were mown down in a planned terrorist attack on several churches in Sri Lanka. And then, last Shabbat, a lone gunman attacked a Jewish Chabad synagogue congregation near San Diego in California during the 8th day celebrations which bring to an end the entire Pesach period, celebrating the redemption of the Jewish people.

All Jewish services are very well organised, with different readings from the Bible on each of the 8 days, culminating on the last day with two unsurpassed passages from the Hebrew Bible. These are the words that G-d wants us to carry with us for the rest of the year, and these are the last verses that the San Diego congregation heard before the shooting started.

It is interesting that in diaspora, (i.e. in the USA and here in the UK) we keep an extra 8th day, unlike in Israel. So, in California and here in Broughton Park, Salford, Greater Manchester, last Shabbat we read the beautiful words of Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17, which remind us what slavery and freedom are all about.

We and fellow Jews in California followed the passages from Deuteronomy with readings from Isaiah 10:32-12.6. It was after those joyous readings and just before the Yizkhor Service of Remembrance Prayers for the Dead (who we name, all those martyrs and victims of various Holocausts inflicted on us by our enemies, not to mention our dead parents and grandparents - in my case the latter were also victims of the latest Holocaust in Poland) that the shooting started.

The gunman struck between the end of these two passages and the beginning of the Yizkhor Prayer in memory of the dead, which Jews worldwide recite on the final day of our festivals.

Because Pesach is the festival which reminds us all of freedom from slavery, our readings on the 8th and final day reflect more than any other the plight of the vulnerable.

Deuteronomy 15 concentrates on the remission of debts and the manumission of slaves, and the chapter is regarded as the central affirmation of G-d's rule. It teaches that access to the blessings of G-d should be available to all members of the community, including those who, out of need and position, are least likely to enjoy these blessings.

Not only are concrete solutions to poverty included, but the parallel aim is to transform the people of Israel into a community of mutual care and concern. And the heart is paramount. Deeds are of course necessary and essential. But it is the way they are carried out that counts – Judaism being constantly aware of the problem of robotic behaviour.

Deuteronomy therefore attempts to instil in the children of Israel a sense that they are one large family, with all the care and compassion, responsibility and obligation that family ties entail.

For Judaism, and this is especially the case in Deuteronomy, socioeconomic status is meaningless. What is important is common memory of slavery and Exodus, a common blessing in the Land and a common allegiance to the G-d of Exodus and to the Land.

In California on Shabbat, Jews of all nationalities and backgrounds came together to pray: some had come from the State of Israel to escape the murderous rockets from Gaza. Last Shabbat they acted as heroes. Lori Kaye, on the other hand was a founder member of the San Diego Shul and threw herself in front of the rabbi in order to save his life. This behaviour is in the spirit of Deuteronomy.

For the Hebrew reads: 'If one of your brothers or sisters is in need in any community of yours ... you must not harden your hand nor close your hand against your needy brother or sister. Instead, you shall open open your hand ...'

The word 'open' is repeated in the Hebrew and not always adequately translated. Every letter and word of the Hebrew Bible is there for a purpose and the doubling is similar to the injunction in Deuteronomy 16:20: 'justice, justice shall you pursue.' The doubling of the word 'justice' is taken to mean both justice and mercy, or justice performed in a merciful way (the word tzedek also translating as 'charity').

So, 'open open' means don't just go through the motions of giving, but really want to give, and not only should you want to give, but you should give again and again, and you only learn this by giving again and again even when you don't feel like it.

And following on from this reading from Deuteronomy comes the Messianic prophecy of Isaiah 10:32-12:6. Isaiah 11 describes the great salvation that will come upon us at the End of Days, when 'a staff will grow from the stump of Jesse and a shoot will sprout from his roots', and I think it's worth quoting in full as the promise is so beautiful.

'The spirit of the Lord will rest upon him – a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and might, spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.... He will judge the destitute with righteousness and rebuke with fairness the humble of the earth.... Righteousness will be girdle round his loins and faith will be the girdle around his waist.

'The wolf will reside with the sheep and the leopard will lie down with the kid. And the calf, the lion's whelp and a fatling together, and a young child will lead them. And the cow and the bear will graze and their young will lie down together. And the lion, like cattle, will eat hay. The suckling baby will play by a viper's hole, while the newly-weaned child will stretch his hand toward the adder's lair... For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as water covering the seabed.

'On that day the nations will come seeking the root of Jesse, who will be standing as an ensign to the peoples, and his resting place will be glorious.... It shall come to pass once again on that day that the Lord will put out his hand to recover the remnant of His people that survive .... He will raise a banner for the nations and assemble the dispersed of Israel and gather in the scattered of Judah from the four corners of the earth... Make this known throughout the world ... for great is the Holy One of Israel in your midst.'

What the congregation in San Diego would have read just before the shooting started were these unsurpassed injunctions in Deuteronomy and Isaiah to love everybody, to give to the weak, the oppressed, the widow and the orphan, and yes, to the alien, the stranger and the foreigner as well.

In doing this, the Messianic Age will truly come, says Isaiah, when former enemies will live together in peace, because 'on that day the nations will come seeking the root of Jesse, who will be standing as an ensign to the peoples and his resting-place shall be glorious.'

Obviously, Lori Kaye, who in California on Shabbat gave her life so that others might live, had digested these words of Deuteronomy and Isaiah and carried them through. Because long after her murderer is forgotten, as well as the foul murderers in Sri Lanka, Lori's action will remain as an eternal blessing and her deeds will be recorded in the annals of Judaism for ever more, up there with all the other martyrs of our history who we remember during the annual Yizkhor Prayer which takes place every year on the final day of our joyous festivals – lest we forget.

And may that holy day of ingathering come speedily in our day, when the wolf will truly lie down with the sheep, enmity and terror cease, and there will truly be war no more.

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible.