Shabbat Pikudei: The Invasion of Ukraine–Where Is G!d?
(Delivered by Student Rabbi Maayan Lev on Friday, March 4, 2022)
For those of us in the building with me, it is so great to be together in our sanctuary once again. There is still great value in having hybrid services. It allows those of us who cannot make it to the sanctuary to still be included in the community. But it is a blessing to be physically together again, and that science says it is safe enough to open our sanctuary once again.
The Mishkan, the original sanctuary in the Torah, is actually open for business for the first time in this week’s Torah portion, Pekudei. But I’m actually not here to talk about the Torah portion. As happy as we are to have our own sanctuary back, there are 43 million people in Europe whose sanctuary has recently been violated. I am speaking, of course, about the war in Ukraine.
I’m sure most of us have heard the news. Some of us may have even seen pictures or videos.
- They are sad.
- They are scary.
- They are enraging.
There is no way around it. What Vladamir Putin has been doing to Ukraine is inexcusable and downright evil. Bombs are going off left and right. Russia has not been afraid to strike residential areas. While plenty of Ukrainians have stayed behind to defend their country, tens of thousands of refugees have flooded into Poland. Not everyone has been able to make it to the border though, and there are people seeking shelter in subway stations. I even read a story about a woman having a baby in a subway station. Reading these stories and looking at these images, it’s not illogical to decide that we would feel better off if we stayed away from the news for a few days. But as responsible citizens, and also as Jews, we cannot turn a blind eye to what has been happening. The Torah urges, “Do not stand on the blood of your neighbor.” In a globalized world, we are all neighbors, but Ukraine is actually a very special place for us, the Jewish people.
Putin’s pretense for the war is that he is entering Ukraine to deNazify it. But Nazis do not rule Ukraine. Their President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is Jewish. He had multiple family members die in the Shoah (Holocaust). But Ukraine’s Judaism is not limited to its president. About 200,000 Jews live in Ukraine, and historically, it has actually been much more than that. Though the name of the country has changed over time, Ukraine has given us incredible Jewish figures like Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, commonly known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, headed the Chabad-Lubavitcher movement, and was one of the most influential Jewish leaders of recent memory. Ukraine was the birthplace of Jewish hero and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. The firebrand Zionist revolutionary Ze’ev Jabotinsky was from Ukraine. Writers Hayyim Nachman Bialik and Ahad Ha’am were also from Ukraine, as was Sholem Aleichem, who is responsible for Fiddler on the Roof.
So does the land of Ukraine hold a certain significance for Jews? Absolutely! But in truth, this is not about Jews. This is a straightforward matter of right and wrong. The majority of Ukraine’s citizens aren’t Jewish. That doesn’t make what is happening any less evil. But even though this is not truly a war about Jews, as Jews, there is a question that many of us ask whenever violence like this breaks out: Where is G!d? Why isn’t G!d stopping this? There are many possible answers. As mortals, we are never meant to truly understand G!d. We are made in the image of G!d, and we are meant to be godly in our good deeds, and we are even meant to question G!d and strive to understand G!d. But we will never truly be able to understand, for we will never be on G!d’s level.
But even so, we are still tempted to figure out the answers. If someone asked me, “Where is G!d right now,” This is what I would say.
We cannot rely on G!d to provide miracles for us like in the Torah. There is a reason why so many people find the splitting of the sea hard to believe. Whether it truly happened or not, it was a long time ago, and stuff like that just doesn’t happen today.
Nevertheless, if you could suspend your disbelief for a moment, you can’t deny that the story of the Exodus is inspiring. Among other things, the Torah is meant to inspire us. It inspires us to bring a little bit of godliness into ourselves!
The Lubavitcher Rebbe spoke about three main loves. He is quoted as saying, “[The] love of G!d, love of Torah, and love of one’s fellow, are one. You cannot differentiate among them, for they are of a single essence.” So does G!d love us? Of course! We believe in a loving G!d. But G!d’s single greatest gift to humanity was not the Torah itself. It was free will. The will to choose for ourselves. To accept the Torah, in whole or in part, or to reject it altogether. To live by good deeds, to live passively, or to purposefully commit acts of evil.
G!d wants us to choose goodness, to choose life, but if G!d does not allow us to make the choice for ourselves, then the choice is meaningless. As a consequence of free will, there will always be people who use that free will for acts of evil.
So I’ll ask again: Where is G!d?
G!d is in us! God is in humanity. G!d is in the people who are doing godly acts. God is in those who are rising to the challenge and doing what is right. G!d is in President Zelenskyy, who refused an offer from the United States to be evacuated, knowing that a power vacuum would allow Russia to seize the country. When he turned down the evacuation offer, he famously stated: “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.” G!d is in the spirits of the Ukrainian people, who are fighting heroically for their land. G!d is the people offering shelter to refugees, and the doctors who are giving them medical care. G!d is in everyone who is working together to stop this great evil.
It is very tempting to say that Russia is the enemy here, but in truth, it is not. This war is largely the action of one man. He is highly disliked within his own country, but people are often afraid to speak up, because those who oppose him are often arrested or even killed. He has ruled since 2000, and while he has had to face elections many times since then, those elections have been highly, highly unfair. Vladamir Putin opposes democracy. Vladamir Putin opposes free will. If it is G!d’s determination to give humanity free will, then Putin, who deprives people of that free will, is by definition, an enemy of G!d.
But Putin did not attack from behind, as Amalek attacked our people in the Torah. He attacked from three sides, in a move that careful observers have seen coming for months. With all this time that Putin has spent preparing for the invasion, Ukraine has also spent plenty of time preparing to defend itself. And so far, they have done it very well.
As for us, is G!d with America’s leaders right now? How are we addressing this? Not with boots on the ground. That is by design. Over the years, Ukraine has privately begged to join NATO, and the U.S. has made sure that Ukraine has never been granted membership. Because the U.S. knew that if Russia ever invaded Ukraine, the U.S. would be bound by the NATO treaty to send in troops. We aren’t sending troops, because we chose not to. You could say we are cowards. Or you could say we are trying to prevent this conflict from turning into a larger scale war, a war that does not look at the moment like WWIII, but could certainly become so if we were to escalate it.
I am not here to say if the decision to send in troops would be right or wrong. The philosophical questions behind such a decision are deep, and I do not envy Joe Biden and other Western leaders for having to decide. But as individual citizens, there is still a lot that we can do to help the people in Ukraine. We can exercise our free will. President Zelenskyy asked for ammunition. We can’t do that, but we can send aid in the form of money and medical supplies. We can make donations of many kinds. If you cannot donate, you can make your voice heard by protesting, in person or online. G!d is in every one who is donating money and supplies to Ukraine. But believe it or not, to me, the strongest voice of G!d right now is coming from Russia itself. It is coming from the Russian people. They are standing up to this war in large numbers. They are protesting in the streets. They have been willing to face arrest. You can see them when you turn on the news. They are ashamed of their country. Well I say, they shouldn’t be ashamed at all. They should be ashamed of their leader, but not their country.
It is not just the common citizens standing up to Putin, but people in the Russian government as well. This past week, multiple assassination attempts against Ukrainian President Zelenskyy were foiled. How were they foiled? Not by the Ukranians, but by the Russians! Members of Russia’s own intelligence agency, who are opposed to the war, called to tip off the Ukrainians about the plots! There are heroes on both sides.
I do not know how this war will end. Some say that Russia will incorporate Ukraine into its borders. Others say Russia will install a puppet regime in Ukraine and then leave. Some people think that Ukraine will win! I hope so. But we are not fortune tellers. We do not know the future. All we know is that the only actions we can truly control are our own.
G!d needs partners! They say that we are G!d’s helpers on earth. Let us keep doing G!d’s work! And no matter how bad things ever get on this beautiful planet, let us remember to pause and recognize that even when bad things happen, G!d is still all around us.
Thank You, G!d, for the peace we have in our Am HaYam sanctuary this Shabbat.
May You work to inspire us to band together to spread that peacefulness all around the world, so peace can be felt by everyone, Jews and non-Jews alike, on Shabbat, and on every day of the week.
From America to Israel.
From Russia to Ukraine.
All over the world,
may there be peace.
Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’ase shalom aleinu,
v’al kol yisrael,
v’al yosh-vei tei-vel,
And we say together, “Amen.”
 Leviticus 19:16.
 Rabbi Schneerson (1902-1994) was born in Nikolaev in the Russian Empire, but what is today Mykolaiv, in southern Ukraine. It is the shipbuilding center for the Black Sea region and an important transportation hub. It is currently under siege by Russia. When Schneerson was six-years old, the family moved to Yekaterinoslav. Today it is Dnipro, Ukraine’s fourth largest city.
 Wiesenthal (1908-2005) was born in Buczacz in the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, then part of the Austro-Hungary. Today it is known as Buchrach and is in western Ukraine.
 Jabotinsky (1880-1940) hails from Odessa. In 1880 it was part of the Russian Empire.
 Bialik (1873-1934) was born in Ivnystia, then part of Volhynia. Today it is in northern Ukraine. Considered as our people’s national poet, he was also a prominent essayist, story-teller, and translator.
 Ahad Ha’am (1856-1927) the pen name of Asher Ginsberg, was born in Skvyra in the Russian Empire, but is today in central Ukraine. He was a Hebrew essayist, the founder of Cultural (Spiritual) Zionism, and one of the foremost pre-state Zionist thinkers.
 Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916) the pen name of Solomon Rabinovich, was born in Pereiaslav in the Russian Empire, but is today in central Ukraine.