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Why I Think Billy Joel Missed The Point

Thursday, 24 August, 2017 - 6:46 am

By Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman - Chabad of Peabody

Like many of you, my facebook feed was filled with people who shared that Billy Joel wore a yellow star at a recent concert, the kind worn by Jews during the Holocaust. He did this in solidarity with Jews, and against hate.

To be clear, I think the sentiment, that he stands with fellow Jews (it appears his parents are Jewish, making him Jewish) and against hate, and standing up in such a bold manner is incredibly powerful and brave. He is to be lauded to for standing against hate, in a hostile world that has anti-Semitism simmering just below the surface.

Having said that, I think he missed a really great teaching moment. Let me explain.

His point, was obviously to make a bold statement, that I am against hate, and I am supportive of Jews. However, as we’ve heard in politics so many times, you need to be the party that is for something, not the party that against things.

The Holocaust, is a critical part of our past, and a part of history, that is etched into our souls, that has spawned that "NEVER AGAIN" is the mantra that we live and repeat always. However, the core of our religion cannot be only that of "never again." You know why? Because, sadly, just 70 years after the horrific destruction wrought by the Holocaust, people, particularly, children, teenagers, yes, millennials too, have forgotten or don’t want to hear about it anymore. If they do, it is just the basics, they don’t want to hear all the gory details of what happened that lead to NEVER AGAIN.

At our Hebrew School, one parent chided me for frightening the children when I tried to very delicately discuss the generalities of what happened and why it is important to remember.

If our whole identity is wrapped in the that horror of the past, then we are guaranteed that it will not be NEVER AGAIN FOREVER.

Try this on for size, imagine Billy Joel had put in a Kippa instead? (Pun intended). Rather than telling the world what happened, he’d be explaining what we are for, and why NEVER AGAIN, should indeed never happen again. Not just because such despicable and wanton murder and plunder ought not be allowed to happen again, but more importantly, because, we the Jews stand for something.

We stand for Gd. We stand for values. We stand for living for a higher ideal. We are “light unto the nations” with a message for all humanity. We are here. We are here to stay. We have a message for all of you. We will speak loudly, clearly, boldly, unwavering an without a stutter, “We have a mission to heal this world and make a dwelling place for Gd above.”

It is not, Gd forbid that the yellow star did not make a good and salient point. Of course it did. It is just that the Yamukah would have made a much better and stronger point. It would have said what we are for, rather than what we are against.

This concept exists in every arena of life. Politics, family and business, and even Jewish life. We are not only Jews for the things that are the tragedies of life (what I will call the things we are against). Including when Holocausts (personal or public) Gd forbid arrive, or when there is marching in Charlottesville, or when someone passes away, or a serious holiday arrives (think Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that are upcoming). 

We are Jews even when things are quiet, and no one is chasing us, and it is an ordinary Tuesday in middle of February. We are Jews then too. We tend to show up on the scary days-think Yom Kippur, but skip out on the fun ones! We are Jews on Simchas Torah and Purim too.

So, Mr. Billy Joel, you are to be commended for standing up in the face of bigotry and hate. For that I an many others, including Gd I believe, bless you.

However, to those of us hearing the message, see him in a bright yellow Kipah and not only the star, and then we will have really heard the message he was sending.

There is s story told of a prominent Jewish leader who suggested that the Rebbe tell all his Chabad followers to add an extra chair, that would remain empty, at the Passover Seder to commemorate those missing because of the Holocaust. The Rebbe wisely replied, that he would encourage an extra chair at every Seder, but to be certain to fill it with another person who'd otherwise not have been at the seder. Doing something commemorates those who perished, not an empty chair.

The point; Judaism must be about what we are for, not what we are against, that will ensure its continuity.

Good Shabbos, and Happy Chodesh Elul!

Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman

P.S. My good friend @Dovid Weinbacum posted this on Facebook 

Ethan Ertel you are one amazing kid... You are proud of who you are and what you stand for. As I was sitting at the US Open and watching you ball boy with your Kipah on your head I thought to myself there are so many adults who can learn from you of what it means to be a proud Jew. Thank you for teaching me. Jacques Ertel" 

Kippah at US Open.png

Comments on: Why I Think Billy Joel Missed The Point

Caren wrote...

Great message (and loved the pictures from the Open!)