I announced with a bit of fanfare a few days ago that I needed to provide a religious response to the tragic violence and death that occurred over the weekend in Charlottesville, VA. In the days that followed, I spoke to a colleague in California and to my friend and colleague who is here this evening, Sat Bir Kaur Khalsa. From our prayerbook this evening, we shared that “we need to purify our hearts to serve God in truth.” I understand two things about my thoughts you will hear this evening: 1) They come from a deep spiritual place; and 2) They certainly are incomplete. With that in mind, I plan in the coming weeks to create the opportunity for other religious leaders in our community to join together and share our doubts and wisdom with each other. As a result of such conversations perhaps some deeper thoughts will prevail.
The Worlds We Live In
At the time, I was confused and disappointed in our 45th president for lacking the wisdom to respond in a sensitive, caring and wise manner. In the days that followed, there were talking heads on CNN, MSNBC, FOX News, and yes, we even watched it played out on ESPN Sports Center. The agony by many was that our president should have taken the mantle of moral leadership of our nation and lashed out at the racists, the demagogues, and those who would wish an end to the evolution of our great country as the bastion of liberty and justice. Would I have wanted that as well? Sure. After hearing the pundits, the experts, and the historians voice their outrage at the president for not making a clear moral declaration against certain groups, something became evident in my thinking. Let me be clear to all of you tonight, neither I nor you need the president of the United States to show any of us moral leadership. We can only ask that of ourselves!
My challenge to each of you is that you should never wait for someone else, be he the mayor, the governor, your congressman, senator, or the president of the United States, to decide how you should behave or respond in the midst of crisis, violence, and racism.
Tonight, I am not going to speak to you about our president and what he stands for. That is all very clear to all of us. Tonight, I am not going to speak about whether Confederate statues should be torn down or parks renamed.
Tonight, we grieve over the loss of life of Heather Heyer, and the deaths of the two Virginia state police officers: Lieutenant H. Jay Cullen, 48, a veteran pilot who spent several years shepherding the governor around Virginia, and Trooper Berke Bates, who would have turned 41 on the very next day, Sunday, and the many people injured last weekend.
Tonight, we wonder how we would have reacted were we faced with the trauma experienced by members of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville that Saturday morning. Our hearts, prayers and support go to Alan Zimmerman, president of Beth Israel, and their Rabbis Guther and Schmelkin and their entire congregation.
On Saturday, they requested an officer to stand in front of the synagogue. Their request was denied.
Forty congregants were inside observing Shabbat while three men dressed in fatigues with semi-automatic rifles stood outside. According to Zimmerman, parades of Nazis marched by and yelled out, “There’s the synagogue!” followed by, “Seig Heil,” displaying swastikas and other Nazi symbols.
After services, out of fear for their lives, they left by the back exit. Later that day, Mr. Zimmerman and the rabbis observed Nazi websites and saw that there was a call to burn their synagogue. They decided to return and removed their Torah scrolls to bring them to a place of safety.
What would we have done in a similar situation? Would your rabbi have challenged the men to move along? I do not know. Perhaps. But, I do not know.
The 40 Jews of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville feared for their lives and were traumatized by the possibility of their beloved synagogue being burned to the ground. The presence of racism and anti-Semitism brought fear not only to the citizens of that Virginia town, but to Jews, African-Americans, and other minorities watching on television.
I do not need to preach the obvious. Racism and prejudice, however, especially when they lead to violent action, are dangerous and must be addressed. We must not merely condemn these perpetrators by our words or call to tear down monuments or draft of articles of impeachment. The problem is deeper than that and our call to action much more important.
In speaking to a close friend, he reminded me that “especially racism against African Americans, given the moral failures and tragic consequences of racism against blacks in the history of the United States, must be condemned;” and these, our fellow citizens, must see us standing beside them any time their well-being is threatened!
I call your attention to our president’s ironic comparison to the president whom he perceived as our greatest president.
In 1922, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise compared the troubling renaissance of the KKK to the vexing social issues that Abraham Lincoln faced with slavery and abolition. He called on America to make the same stand Lincoln did vis-à-vis slavery during the Civil War, declaring, “Either the KKK has to go or America will perish.” Then a mere decade later, in March 1933 when Germany elected Hitler as their Chancellor, Rabbi Wise gave an address entitled: Germany Chooses Hitler-America Chose Lincoln.
In the 20th century, Lincoln’s moral character has been claimed by anti-Nazis, anti-clans, by civil rights leaders.
At the end of World War I, Kenyon West wrote a poem whose opening lines read:
Lincoln! “Thou shouldst be living at this hour!”
Thy reach of vision – prophet thou and seer –
Thy strong and steadfast wisdom, judgment clear,
Are need in this stress, thy old-time power
The ship of state to save from storms that lower
And threaten to engulf. Dark reefs loom near!
Since his death, Americans over and again embraced Lincoln’s commitment, his courage, and his moral leadership. Perhaps we need not wait for moral leadership to trickle down from higher offices to us; rather, we should embrace it ourselves. Let us be the moral arbiters from whom our leaders will learn from!
In a speech celebrating the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth (1909), civic leader Solomon Solis-Cohen spoke of the great Rabbi Hillel in conjunction with Lincoln:
Underneath all conflicts of race, of nations, of individuals, lies one great problem: that of vindicating the equal rights of every human soul to a freedom restricted only by the equal freedom of its fellows. “That which is hateful to thee, do not to any other,” said Hillel and Lincoln, applying the same thought to the conditions of this time and country, spoke words that I would have linger in your memory as the essence of our communion with his spirit tonight: “Them that deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves and, under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it.”
So, here we are during a crisis faced by our country which I assure you is not isolated on the east coast in Virginia. Perhaps we too can find wisdom and a call to action from our 16th president. The outstanding feature in Lincoln’s character is his passionate belief in the
- Prophetic type notion that God, who loves righteousness and established fairness (Psalm 99:4), calls humanity to advocate justice and equity in difficult times. And,
- Courage in the face of adversity and unquenchable confidence in the inherent goodness of human nature
These values of righteousness and courage of Abraham Lincoln are not only important to be our standards at a time of a civil war, but in any age when prejudice and violence find their way in the midst of acquiescence among enlightened people – like ourselves – when injustice and discrimination are condoned by otherwise moral nations and individuals.
The ideals of liberty and justice for all people should be impregnated among Americans always, not just in times of national crisis.
How do we stand up for liberty and justice and have the courage to face adversity with confidence in the face of forces of evil that seem so powerful?
It is like watching the world arm-wrestling championship – we watch as the competitors lock hands, and given the signal, attempt to push each other’s arm to the table. For a long time, the two arms remain upright despite the struggle. We are witness to the powerful force in two opposite directions. Who wins? Though tired, it is the one who cannot give up.
How do we prevail against a racist arm wrestler? No matter how mad we or they become, outrage, hatred and emotional outbursts will not prevail. Though many of us were challenged as parents, we knew that allowing our child’s emotional outbursts to direct our actions was a bad decision. So, if outbursts are wrong for our children, why are they correct for us? Calmer minds must prevail for us to achieve our goals for ourselves and for our communities.
Instead of condemnation of our president or of certain groups, I advocate something different from a very deep spiritual place.
Judaism has taught that there is an inherent goodness in humanity. Lincoln observed this in his lifetime, seeing the inherent goodness in human nature. We must believe this sacred teaching. This teaching has been taught to Jews for thousands of years, and has found its way into our prayer books and religious school classrooms since the beginning of our religious journey as Jews. We are not only created in the image of God; but within each human being is a divine spark.
Our High Holy Days are quickly approaching. This is the time for introspection and review of our behavior and our relationships with others. I implore each of you – despite how you want to behave, despite how you would like to react, to cry out with anger and hatred – instead, believe in the value of human beings!
I know this is difficult for you to do when you find the other person repugnant. In Lurianic kabbalah, there exists our ethereal divine spark surrounded by a husk (like a corn husk), representing our materiality – our ego, our desire, our world view. When we direct our hate toward another person, this only serves to harden their husk. We know that is true. We have seen it in ourselves. When people lash out at us, we become tough and more defensive, and we object to anything they say no matter how true it might be. The spiritually wise person attempts to break the husk and release that spark.
To be spiritually wise, we must acknowledge the divinity in the other person and speak and act respectfully toward them. This does not mean we allow ourselves to be to vulnerable to an attack. We must draw clear boundaries to protect ourselves.
Then, before we even venture into a conversation, we must ask ourselves, “What exactly do I want?” This, like any goal we set for ourselves must be a SMART goal:
Finally, be willing to take “No” for an answer. Accept that no matter what you are saying, you may not move the other person from “no”.
Each person has an inner reality which they believe is the true outer reality that everyone is experiencing. The person you are talking to has an inner reality based on their needs, their desires, and their fears. They think their reality is the real reality and should be yours as well.
How do you make a difference in another person’s life and outlook? Start by being respectful, by being honest, and understand that you may have to walk away when the person says, “No.”
At that point, follow the advice you gave your children: “Don’t let that kid’s bad behavior change you into the kind of person you do not want to become. Just because he lashed out at you, does not mean you become like him and fight back.”
Considering the terrorism of Charlottesville and that of Barcelona yesterday, I ask that you remember simply this:
The goal of terrorism is to intimidate us from who we are and what we believe. Our response is to stand up against hate. Let these latest tragedies invigorate us to work harder to ensure that those who voice hatred and that those who are responsible for terror face justice, and that those who are impacted find in us a companion; rachmanut, “compassion”; and shalom, “peace.” Amen.