by Rabbi Evan Schultz
Rosh Hashana 5778 Day 1
“Go back to your country”
“Jews will not replace us”
“You’re a terrorist”
Yes, this is 2017 America and these are the words we all too often hear spewed on the streets of our dear country. Hate seems to be permeating every aspect of American society, human beings attacking one another because of their skin color, religion, gender, sexual preference, or country of origin, just to name a few.
I, and I can imagine some of you, have felt the weight of this new dynamic plaguing our country. In some ways I can understand it, in other ways I’ll never quite be able to grasp how one human being can say and do horrible things to another human being. The accounts from across America in recent months have been nothing short of appalling and downright scary.
Of course the story from this past year that has been most prominent was the White Supremacist and Nazi march in August in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Perhaps some of you read the account of that Shabbat morning written by Alan Zimerman, the President of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville. Here’s just a short excerpt from his account:
“For half an hour, three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from the temple….
Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, “There’s the synagogue!” followed by chants of “Seig Heil” and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols.
A guy in a white polo shirt walked by the synagogue a few times, arousing suspicion. Was he casing the building, or trying to build up courage to commit a crime? We didn’t know. Later, I noticed that the man accused in the automobile terror attack wore the same polo shirt as the man who kept walking by our synagogue; apparently it’s the uniform of a white supremacist group. Even now, that gives me a chill.
When services ended, my heart broke as I advised congregants that it would be safer to leave the temple through the back entrance rather than through the front, and to please go in groups.
This is 2017 in the United States of America.”
This rise in hate, however, certainly did not begin and end with Charlottesville.
A black college student was fatally stabbed in College Park, Md., days before he would have graduated. Two men were killed and another wounded when they tried to stop a man’s hateful rant on a train in Portland, Oregon. Two Jewish women were told to leave the annual Dyke March in Chicago because they carried rainbow flags with Jewish stars on them, causing other participants in the march to feel “unsafe”. A home in Los Angeles owned by the N.B.A. star LeBron James was vandalized with racial slurs.
“We got a long way to go, for us as a society and for us as African-Americans, until we feel equal in America,” Mr. James said at a news conference following the incident. “Hate in America…is living every day.”
I am not naive, I know that the dynamics of hate is nothing new. What I do wonder about as I grow older and I see these incidents on the rise is, “is hate somehow embedded into our human DNA, does it lie dormant until there is some catalyst to awaken it? How do we respond to it? And can you and I too fall victim to it?”
Just look back at our early accounts of human beings in the opening pages of Genesis. Before there are laws and commandments, how do humans treat one another? It’s not exactly a pretty picture.
Cain slays his brother Abel because he believes that God favors his brothers’ offerings over his. The flood that God reigns down on the earth is prompted by the fact that God looks down at humanity and sees nothing but wickedness and evil. The city of Sodom was so flush with evil that God could not even find ten righteous people worthy of being saved. Joseph was so despised by his brothers that they faked his own death and sold him off to slavery, just because they couldn’t even bear being in his presence, listening to the accounts of his dreams. The more I read the book of Genesis, I realize that it is filled with primal hate, wickedness, and evil – between brothers, in the cities, and across all of humanity.
It seemed that God also realized this, and thus gave us commandments to instruct us how to treat one another. Five of the ten commandments, in fact, are human to human laws, seemingly attempting to respond to and curb these primal instincts of hatred that we find in the book of Genesis. Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness against your neighbor, do not covet.
Just think about the recent incidents of hate in our country and the subtext of what we’re hearing in the streets of America – the commandments seem to be so inextricably tied to the dynamics of hate.
Two men killed on a train in Oregon – Do not murder
Go back to your country – Do not covet
You are a terrorist – Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.
What I find scary in this is not only others ability to hate, but how easy it could be for me to fall victim to this dormant inclination that lies within me, or to use the language of the great Rabbi Yoda, how easy it can be for each of us to fall to the dark side. Yes, Yoda got that from the Talmud.
Many of you know that our rabbis teach that within us we have two inclinations, the yetzer hatov, the inclination to do good, and the yetzer hara, the inclination to do evil.
Ben Zoma teaches in Pirkei Avot, the Wisdom of our Sages, “Who is strong…? One who subdues his (evil) inclination, as it is written (Proverbs 16:32): “Greater is he who withholds his wrath than the hero, and the ruler of his spirit, than the conqueror of a city.”
In other words, according to our rabbis, it takes more strength to subdue the evil that lies within you than it does to conquer a city.
If hate is this natural instinct within us, why fight it? If someone hates me, why can’t I just hate them back? Doesn’t it say in the book of Ecclesiastes, “a time to love and a time to hate?”
So maybe the sixties was a time for love, and 2017 is just a time to hate.
I find myself frightened by how easy it is to succumb to it. Some days, my thoughts are downright frightening. I look at the faces and images of the men and women who marched with Nazi flags and semi-automatic weapons and the rage I feel is shocking.
I am attuned to potential within me to hate, to want to get in their face and scream, to wish they simply didn’t exist.
But…that is exactly what they say about us.
They wish that we, and African Americans and LGBTQ people and immigrants simply didn’t exist. And so I’m not only afraid of them, I am afraid of what my rage will make me if I’m not careful.
The Akedat Yitzhak teaches, “The Torah demands on repeated occasions that we rid ourselves of negative virtues such as hatred, jealousy and the like. Not only are we commanded “do not hate your brother in your heart,” (Leviticus 19,17) but we are even commanded to physically assist our enemies when needed, should the occasion demand it.”
We need these teachings now more than ever.
To be a Jew in 2017 America is to try to live this teaching, to find the strength to fight evil with courage, hatred by extending an open hand.
We know all too well what can happen when hate overwhelms us. The Rabbis of the Talmud warned us about the dangers of gratuitous hatred, sinat chinam.
They asked, “Why was the ancient Temple that once stood in Jerusalem destroyed?” Because of sinat chinam, they answer, because the Jewish people fell into factional bickering; because they’d broken into warring cults and were engaged in fratricidal religious disputes, each claiming to be the true Israel and denying the legitimacy of the others. (Lew, 44)
As we look out on 2017 America, it is disingenuous to say that we have no part in the hatred that permeates our streets.
You don’t have to shout “you’re a terrorist” to a Muslim person to own part of the sickness that ails us. You don’t have to shout “go back to your country” to an immigrant to be guilty.
The potential for hate lies as much within us as much as the potential for love.
Fear of the other is innate. So, if you were to ask me how to be a Jew in 2017 America, I would tell you that it means is having the strength and courage to employ love over hate, conversation over semi-automatics, tolerance over ignorance, prayer over slurs.
This is what Judaism demands of us. “Evil cannot be extirpated by evil means,” taught the Rabbis.
We are the people of the book, not the people of the sword. And, sword cannot be abolished by the sword. We have to blot out the evil in our hearts, taught Hasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev.
Awakening the evil within us to fight evil will only cause us to sin.
Judaism preaches love.
Deuteronomy requires us to love the stranger and that takes action, and strength. More strength than it takes to conquer a city.
It takes courage. Courageous love and courageous tolerance.
And it doesn’t happen on its own.
Just being someone who doesn’t shout racial slurs at other people is not enough. Just sitting at home and minding our own business is not enough. Posting our outrage on social media is not enough. Demanding our government denounce neo-Nazis is immensely important, but it too, is not enough. When Nazis shout in the faces of African-Americans and Jews in Charlottesville, we must respond with overt acts of kindness and tolerance. Here are just three recent examples:
On certain Fridays congregants from Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in New York City walk over the the nearby mosque as Muslims enter for their weekly worship services. They stand in front of the mosque with signs in their hands, shouting at those entering the mosque.
What do they shout? What are the words written on their signs?
We welcome you.
You are not strangers.
Love thy neighbor as thyself.
We are all children of Abraham.
That is courageous love.
And just last month, some of our very own congregants joined with CONECT, Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut, at a Norwalk rally to support a woman named Jung Courville. Courville has lived in the United States for over twenty years, is married to an American man, and has two sons, one of whom has spina bfidia and requires constant care, was facing deportation back to her native country of South Korea. Over three hundred came out to rally for Courville, and sent letters directly to the judge in Philadelphia determining her fate. We later found out that the judge granted her a stay in the United States, noting these efforts as a key reason for the decision.
That is courageous tolerance.
And just the other day in St. Louis, Rabbis Susan Talve and Randy Fleisher, opened the doors of their synagogue, Central Reform Congregation, to offer sanctuary to those protesting the acquittal of a white police officer for killing a black suspect.
According to an article in the Jewish Daily Forward, “After St. Louis Metropolitan Police officers reportedly surrounded the Central Reform Congregation on Friday night and threatened to fire tear gas at the protesters inside, a trending Twitter hashtag called on the police to ‘#GasTheSynagogue’. Some of the protesters given sanctuary in the synagogue took to social media to say that they were safe in the synagogue and grateful for the hospitality from the two rabbis.”
That is courageous welcoming of the stranger.
So in this new year 5778 let us be courageous and loving.
Let us open our ears to the cries of Deuteronomy, to love and welcome the stranger. Let us face our own anger and fears, our own biases and inclinations. Let us not be afraid of those who carry Nazi flags and shout that this is not our home.
This is a Jewish imperative that comes to us directly from God, straight from the mouths of the ancient prophets.
Let us stand up and speak out and respond to the divine call, each in our own time. As we sound the shofar on this day and on the day of atonement, let that be a call to each of us to be courageous, to stand proudly and know who we are, and to stand alongside those who feel most vulnerable walking down the streets of our country.
Do you know what tekiyah means? It means courage.
Shvarim? – love.
Truah? – tolerance.
May these be the words and the call that guide us in this new year, Shanah Tovah.