After Charlottesville, Be a Light – Rosh Hashanah 2017

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JJ Grey, a contemporary rock and blues singer, once recalled a lesson his grandmother taught him: “you can’t fight darkness, so be a light.”

Last month, darkness came to Virginia: An unholy alliance of white supremacists marched on Charlottesville. Just 70 miles from where we sit. They came brandishing swastikas, gesturing “sieg heil,” and chanting “Jews will not replace us.” They were armed and ready for a fight. Dozens were injured. Three were killed. All of this they did in broad daylight, without hoods or masks. This time, America’s neo-Nazis didn’t feel they had anything to hide.

The resurgence of a newly emboldened white supremacy is the challenge of our time.  Charlottesville was but the most tragic of recent battlefronts. It was by no means the first and, as we experienced just last week here in Richmond, it will not be the last. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that the number of active white supremacist groups in the U.S. has more than doubled in the last decade. According to the ADL, anti-Semitic episodes rose 34% in 2016. The surge continued this year, with incidents up 86% by March.

The magnitude of the threat has grown because, for the first time in recent memory, major public officials are giving new power to this “bloody heirloom” of America’s original sin. Through word and deed, promise and policy, silence and sympathy, previously marginal forces have been emboldened to feel that this is their moment, their opportunity to “take their country back.”

Theirs is a chilling vision of white power, espousing the dominance of white, Christian men, and the subjugation – or worse – of everyone else. More than merely anti-Semitic, white supremacy targets people of color, immigrants, women, and LGBT people; anyone who reflects our country’s shift toward diversity, pluralism, and egalitarianism. From our perspective, the danger may manifest as vandalisms at Jewish cemeteries and bomb scares at Jewish community centers.

But Charlottesville and its aftermath revealed that the same menace encompases glorifying the Confederacy, lionizing Jim Crow, and torching mosques. It is the same force that animates policies like mass deportation and mass incarceration; building border walls and banning Muslims; tolerating sexual assault and curtailing voting rights; it fuels international know-nothingism, climate denial, and, God help us, the threat of nuclear war. By denigrating the worth of anyone but white, Christian, men, white supremacy imperils us all.

Those advancing this ideology aim to reclaim the country by any means necessary and welcome the possibility of armed struggle. One senior government official recently offered this call to arms: “If you think they are giving you your country back without a fight, you are sadly mistaken.” The men who descended upon Charlottesville gleefully answered that call, promising “a lot more are going to die before we’re done here.”

These are indeed troubled times. The enemy we face is formidable, resilient, and persistent. It has powerful allies. It cannot be wished away or ignored. It may, in the end, never be fully eradicated.

Rosh Hashanah is the day our tradition gives us to confront present troubles and navigate the journey forward. We probe our past and look ahead. We consider our brokenness and pledge repair.

What guidance might emerge if we answered the invitation offered by this day, holding our current struggles up to the light of our history and our tradition?

I think we would find that the challenge of our moment calls for reaching out to and providing support for others, across cultural and ethnic boundaries. It calls for befriending those who are different from us and defending anyone who is targeted for their difference. We may not defeat the darkness. But we can increase the light.

The lesson is affirmed by our history. In her masterful study of resistance against the Nazi regime, historian Nechama Tec tells of brave efforts to limit and subvert Nazi brutality (Tec, Resistance. 10). True, those efforts didn’t topple Hitler or save every Jewish life. But through courageous action, oppression was periodically thwarted and many lives were saved.

What was the key to resistance against the Nazis? First and foremost, resistance required cooperation (Tec, 4). It’s true that Jews bravely helped each other during the Holocaust. But that’s only a small part of the story. Hundreds of thousands of European Jews owe their lives to what we call the “righteous among the nations,” non-Jews who defied Nazi cruelty.

We know some of these stories: There’s Oskar Schindler, of course, and Raoul Wallenberg.

But there are also stories of lesser-known heroes. These, to me, are more powerful because they were otherwise such average individuals. Take, for example, Antoni Zieleniewski. In 1943, he was the secretary to the mayor of a small village in Eastern Poland. One hot summer’s day, a delegation of local peasants came to the mayor’s office to report that they had discovered a group of Jews hiding in a bunker in a nearby village. “As law-abiding citizens,” Antoni later recalled, “they came to report a legal transgression. The law required that such a report should be telephoned to the local police. All those who listened knew that this story would end with the execution of the hidden Jews.” Antoni assured the group that he would notify the police.

After they left, he called a friend named Wojcik [“voy-jik”], who helped him devise a plan. They sent someone they trusted to the Jews to warn them to get out and to direct them to a new hiding place. The Jews fled and relocated, as instructed. That evening, Antoni shared the villagers’ report with the police who, when they went to the original hiding place, found no one there. The police declared the report false and dropped the matter.

But Antoni wasn’t content simply saving the lives of this group of Jews. Instead, he and Wojcik “became the protectors and ultimately the rescuers of the ‘missing Jews,’” anonymously supplying them with food and keeping them hidden from the authorities.

And lest we think that the only Righteous Gentiles were Christians, consider the story of Mustafa Hardaga. When the Germans invaded Yugoslavia, they destroyed the home of the Jewish Kavilio family. Homeless and scared, they fled. Mustafa rescued them, taking them into his family’s home and providing them safe refuge until the war’s end.

What motivated otherwise average people like Antoni and Mustafa to save Jewish lives? Why did thousands, maybe millions, of ordinary, everyday non-Jews risk their lives to save Jews?

The answer is surprisingly simple, yet its lesson for our moment is critical. Non-Jews who knew Jews helped Jews (Tec, 189-190). By and large, those who would become the Righteous Among the Nations started out simply as non-Jews who happened to have Jewish friends.

Yosef Kavilio was Mustafa’s friend. And lots of Antoni’s boyhood schoolmates were Jewish (Tec, 16).

When we reach out to others beyond the boundaries of our own community, we create ever-expanding spheres of concern and support.

In his testimony decades after the war, Antoni put this idea beautifully. Reflecting about a close friendship he had as a boy with a Jewish neighbor, Antoni said, “Somehow our friendship made us insensitive to the mounting prejudices around us’” (Tec, 22).

Friendship made them impervious to bigotry. When we befriend those who are different from us, we begin to see that the diverse array of “others” out there are actually not others at all. And those “others,” who might also typically see us as strangers, can also begin to see that we have been a part of their family all along.

Over and again we affirm this truth on Rosh Hashanah: we all belong to each other. When harm befalls any one of us, the rest of us are injured, too.

The Rosh Hashanah liturgy, like the holiday itself, is universal in scope. Befitting a day on which, according to tradition, all of creation passes before God in judgment, the mahzor repeatedly recognizes God as the Source of all life and the Sovereign of all the earth.

The world would be perfected, our worship today insists, if all humanity recognized its common Creator, affirming and embodying its brotherhood and sisterhood. Over and again, this day reminds us that we are called to bind ourselves to one another, uniting in our common origins and our common destiny, upholding God’s “standards of justice,” perfecting the world through a shared allegiance to God’s sovereignty.

The non-Jews who resisted Nazi terror didn’t defeat the darkness. But by protecting and saving the lives of the vulnerable and oppressed, they increased the light, helping bring us closer to this Holy Day’s vision of a perfected world.

Rabbinic tradition has long understood and taught this wisdom. Our ancient Sages held as axiomatic that good relations between disparate people helps to bring about ultimate redemption.

The Talmud teaches (B. Gittin 61a):

מפרנסים עניי נכרים עם עניי ישראל ומבקרין חולי נכרים עם חולי ישראל וקוברין מתי נכרים עם מתי ישראל…

We must give tzedakah to poor non-Jews the same as we would for Jews. So too, we are forbidden from distinguishing between Jews and non-Jews in feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, and burying the dead.

Most interesting is the Talmud’s rationale for these injunctions: We are commanded to care for the welfare of non-Jews as we care for Jews מפני דרכי שלום, for the sake of the ways of peace.

Now, it is of course possible to understand מפני דרכי שלום as mere pragmatism. After all, Jews benefit from having good relations with their non-Jewish neighbors. If we discriminate against them, they might hate us. But if we scratch their backs, maybe they’ll scratch ours.

But I actually think the rabbis are making a much more sweeping statement. While we usually think of the word “peace” as an antonym for violence, our tradition sees the concept differently. The root of the Hebrew word שלום is שלם, meaning complete or full. שלום is thus the state of being whole, settled, perfected. In Judaism, שלום is not merely the absence of conflict. If it were, then how could teachings like “students of Torah increase peace in the world” (B. B’rakhot 64a) make sense? How can one increase an absence of something?

Instead, שלום is the presence of something, the presence of well-being and fulfillment, wholeness, equity, and harmony. Indeed, in the rabbinic consciousness, שלום embodies the redeemed state of things that signifies the messianic era. שלום is nothing less than the very perfection of our world.

The arc of today’s liturgy bends toward שלום, toward that vision of perfection, envisioning a time when all humanity will recognize its common Divine parent, when we will relate to each other with a sibling-like sense of love and shared responsibility, fostering a world of justice and harmony between all of God’s creations.

But despite the impression one might get from a basic study of the Rosh Hashanah prayer book, the establishment of שלום is not merely God’s purview. The rabbinic tradition insists that we can increase שלום. We can make our world a little more whole, a little closer to perfect. When the rabbis mandate certain behaviors מפני דרכי שלום “for the sake of the ways of peace,” they are saying that we can and must engage in acts that make ours a more perfect world.

Through fostering good relations with those who are different from us, we take a step toward peace. When we care for the welfare of those who we see as “others,” we take a step toward peace. We may not ultimately be successful in building a more peaceful world. But every action that we take מפני דרכי שלום, for the sake of the ways of peace, gets us a little closer.

Reaching out beyond our own communal boundaries and fostering relationships with those who are different is not always easy. Sometimes, those boundaries exist for good reasons. Are we really supposed to befriend those who espouse beliefs or engage in behaviors we detest? Are we expected to put our lives or our livelihoods on the line for everyone?

It’s important to remember that, in the talmudic period, our ancestors did not have great relationships with their non-Jewish neighbors. Non-Jews were generally hostile to Jews. Direct engagement could be risky. And non-Jewish beliefs and practices were typically antithetical to Jewish values. Nevertheless, the rabbis demanded that we care for their welfare for the sake of the ways of peace.

Seen from this perspective, it seems that there is virtually no limit to the lengths we are expected to go to build a more peaceful world, including even befriending and helping our enemies. After all, the Torah itself commands (Exodus 23:4-5): “When you encounter your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering, you must take it back to him. When you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.” We have responsibilities to help everyone in need, even the people we despise.

However, many of us understandably may not feel that magnanimous toward our enemies, however much they may need our help. I’m not itching to have a beer with Richard Spencer, and I doubt I would succeed in befriending him.

That’s why it’s important to remember that the talmudic principle of מפני דרכי שלום emphasizes caring for the needy: the poor, the hungry, the sick, the bereaved. In urging us to build peace by reaching out beyond our own communal boundaries, the rabbis have a simple suggestion: start with the most vulnerable, most at risk, most in jeopardy, most in need. Start with those who have the least and who have suffered the most. Reach out to them first. Befriend them first. Support them first.

If you are willing and able to go beyond that, you are praiseworthy. If you are willing to expand your sphere of concern all the way to your sworn enemy, you are saintly. Falling anywhere on this spectrum makes you part of the project of building shalom. You don’t need to be an activist or an angel. You just need to reach out to whomever you can, as much as you can, whenever you can. Whether you do little or much, you will be increasing the light, advancing a perfected world.

The average men and women who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust advanced a perfected world.

And right now, so many people are adding to the light. Like John Aguilar, a 30-year Navy veteran, who, along with several other Christian citizens of Charlottesville, took it upon themselves to stand watch over Congregation Beth Israel while armed throngs of neo-Nazis marched through the city’s streets.

And earlier this year, following a spike of vandalisms at Jewish cemeteries, Muslim activists launched a campaign to raise money for repairs. They raised $20,000 in the first three hours alone, and to date have raised over $160,000.

Here in Richmond, dozens of faith leaders from a variety of backgrounds, myself among them, responded to the surge in Islamophobia and anti-refugee vitriol that followed the Paris and San Bernardino terrorist attacks by pledging to “Stand Together.” We’ve repeatedly renewed that pledge, standing shoulder to shoulder with each other and with vulnerable communities against recent waves of xenophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism.

And when the worst refugee crisis in history was exacerbated by xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric and action in Washington, a few dozen of our fellow Temple Beth-El congregants took it upon themselves to help a family of Iraqi refugees begin new lives in Richmond. They have cared for the Safar family as though they were their own, assisting them with housing, furnishings, transportation, cultural immersion, job training and, most importantly, friendship.

As if this all weren’t amazing enough, it’s worth bearing in mind that, before they met the members of our Refugee Task Force, the Safars had never been to a synagogue, spoken to a rabbi, or even met a Jew. Helping the Safars has reminded us that Iraqi Muslims are part of our extended human family. And it has taught the Safars that Jews are part of their family, too. Expanding spheres of concern. Increasing light. Building peace.

Indeed, the work of our fellow congregants, along with the righteous acts of people across the religious spectrum, proves our rabbis knew what they were talking about, demonstrating how caring for those who are different from us increases peace. Whenever one person transcends their usual boundaries to perform an act of lovingkindness, it instructs and inspires others to do the same.

One after another, new lights begin to shine. Each subsequent spark magnifies the total luminescence, until a billion little points of light become, as our prophets envisioned, a world utterly bathed in the radiance of the Divine (Cf. Isaiah 60).

Remember Mustafa Hardaga, the Muslim man from Yugoslavia who risked his life to rescue the Kavilio family during World War II?

In 1992, Serbian paramilitary forces destroyed the home of Zejneba Hardaga, Mustafa’s widow, during their brutal siege of Sarajevo. She and her family went into hiding in an underground bunker.

One night, a Jewish family in Jerusalem was watching the news and saw footage of the devastation in Sarajevo. “Sarajevo.” The city sounded familiar. Of course! That’s where grandfather was from! The family had grown up on stories of how Sabba Yosef had survived the war thanks to the heroic efforts of a family of Muslims by the name of Hardaga. “With all this violence,” the Kavilio family mused, “I wonder if the Hardagas are all right.”

With the help of Yad Vashem and members of Sarajevo’s small remaining Jewish community, the Kavilio family found Zejneba and her family, and successfully lobbied the Israeli government to help facilitate a rescue. They were ultimately resettled in Israel, reunited with the family they had saved 50 years earlier, the family who, half a century later, was able to return the favor.

When we reach out to others, we invite their care for us. When others support us, they elicit our support for them. When we see ourselves and our fellow human beings, in the words of the mahzor, as an אדוגה אחת, as one people, bound together by common humanity, shared responsibility, and a united destiny, when we support each other, we can advance a perfected world.

In this perilous moment, in which the world feels as far from perfect as many of us have experienced in our lifetimes, it is tempting to stay silent and hope that the threat dissipates, or to retreat inward, circle the wagons, batten down the hatches, and care exclusively for our own. But relationships, friendships, love and concern for others – across boundaries, beyond borders – are the pathway to a better world. We perfect the world by opening up and by reaching out. In the year to come, let us recommit ourselves to building those relationships.

We may not defeat the darkness, but we can increase the light.

Shanah tovah.

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