In one month, many of us will gather in our synagogues, observing the beginning of the New Year. Ten days later we will fast and be called to look beyond our needs and our yearnings to care for those whose basic needs are not being met. I realize today that my fulfillment is not found by remaining isolated. True good depends on my participation with others in need. The Prophet Isaiah calls us to, “Wash yourselves clean; put your evil doings away from My sight. Cease to do evil. Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:16-17)
While writing this article, I reviewed some events of the last several weeks. On July 27, the national board of the Boy Scouts of America removed restrictions on openly gay leaders and employees and the Mormon Church threatened to abandon their association with the group. On Aug. 3, Inbar Azrak, a 27-year-old Jewish Israeli, was injured after a firebomb was thrown at her car in the Arab neighborhood of Beit Hanina in East Jerusalem. On July 19, Samuel DuBose, a 43-year-old black man, was killed in his car by a University of Cincinnati police officer during a routine traffic stop. On July 30, six people were stabbed at an annual LGBTQ Pride march in Jerusalem by an Orthodox Jewish man, including 16-year-old Shira Banki, who died from her wounds. On July 31, in Duma on the West Bank, the Dawabshe home was burned to the ground, an act suspected to have been carried out by Israeli settlers. Saad Dawabshe and his wife, Riham, managed to escape with their 4-year old, Ahmad, but all three were severely burned. Eighteen-month-old Ali was already dead. Hebrew graffiti was scrawled on two walls, reading “revenge” and “long live the messiah.” Prime Minister Netanyahu responded, “We are shocked by it, we condemn it fully, the entire Israeli government and all the citizens of Israel. We decry it as a terrorist crime.”
In just a few short weeks we were again spectators to ongoing racism and bigotry. These are not isolated incidents. Over the past few months we have been witness to events in Ferguson and Baltimore, the shooting at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, the controversy over the Confederate battleflag in South Carolina and other southern states, Sandra Bland found dead in a Texas jail, and the fires this summer at six predominately African American churches. Isaiah is not accusing us of these outrages, but he is questioning us on whether we have, in any manner, devoted ourselves to justice and provided aid to the wronged. We may not have caused these atrocities; but we do bear responsibility for them.
In 1963, Abraham Joshua Heschel attended the “second” conference on religion and race. He said that at the “first” conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Heschel observed that “it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.” He categorized racism as “universal and evil,’’ and as “man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.” Unfortunately neither conference concluded with an end to racism and bigotry.
We cannot dodge these issues or remain quiet. We cannot yield one inch to bigotry and racism. Our concern for the dignity of anyone who is terrorized, discriminated against or oppressed is part of our creed as Jews. Anyone who offends another offends the majesty of God. An act of violence by word or deed is an act of desecration.
On my office wall hangs a lithograph. On it is a verse from the Torah, “lo tuchal l’hitalem,” “you will not remain indifferent,” followed by the words of Rabbi Leo Baeck, “A spirit is characterized not only by what it does, but no less, by what it permits, by what it forgives and what it beholds in silence.” As we enter our sacred spaces in September, let us not pray for God to make us a better person this year. Let us reaffirm God’s love and commitment to all humankind equally through our personal involvement, mutual reverence and concern for all of those around us. It is our moral duty to “unlock the fetters of wickedness” (Isaiah 58:6) and to “put evil doings away from [God’s] sight. Cease to do evil; and learn to do good” (Isaiah 1:16-17). We will thrive individually and as a society only if we reach and accept this divine undertaking.