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Water Cooler Revolution

12/15/2016 10:32:26 AM

Dec15

This article appeared in the Houston Chronicle on 12/11/16. 

Recently in Washington, D.C., there was a so-called “alt-right” conference of neo-Nazi, white-nationalists who hailed the election of Donald Trump with “Sieg Heils.”

The United States Holocaust Museum put out a very important condemnation of the event conveying a simple, but ever-important message: “The Holocaust did not begin with killing; it began with words.”

It continues: “The Museum calls on all American citizens, our religious and civic leaders, and the leadership of all branches of the government to confront racist thinking and divisive hateful speech.”

President-elect Trump distanced himself from the alt-right by stating: “I disavow and condemn them.” This was a very important step. All good people hope that this is a sign of things to come and that President-elect Trump will be able to squash forces of hatred and intolerance that have recently emerged.

But, it is not just up to Trump and other elected officials, we all have a duty to protect the vulnerable. It comes down to family by family, community by community, doing the hard work of creating a society and an environment that is safe and kind.

I turn to to the Bible, specifically Abraham as a source of guidance. We know why God favored Abraham:

“For I have known him, to the end that he will command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice; to the end that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which He hath spoken of him.”

Rabbi Benny Lau, acontemporary Rabbinic figure in Israel notes the following:

“This innovative idea redirects the thrust of the religious act from the context of segregating oneself and elevating oneself spiritually, to social matters and concern for one’s fellow man. The criteria that establish the degree of religiosity of an individual is the degree to which he pays attention to the needs of the living around him, and not only the type of relationship that he manages to establish between himself and the Divine.”

In his book, “From Optimism to Hope,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches: “To defend a country, you need an army. To defend humanity, you need education.”

If we wish to follow in the ways of the Lord, we are duty bound to make certain that all people are treated with righteousness and justice. It begins with education around our dining room tables, in our schools, synagogues, other houses of worship, the playground and around the watercooler. We must look beyond our own personal religious growth and beyond our own community’s needs.

A key aspect of Abraham’s life is that he first and foremost shared this world with others. The late Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, in his masterful introduction to the book of Genesis, explains: “The greatness of the ancestors (the biblical forefathers) was in their not only being righteous, pious and lovers of God in the highest degree possible but that they behaved respectfully even towards the most despicable idol-worshippers. They treated them with love and cared about their well-being. This sustains the creation. We thus saw Abraham pray for Sodom even though he hated them for their wickedness. ... Jacob, too, spoke gently with Laban even though he was justifiably angry with him for trying to destroy his entire family.”

Abraham cherished his shared humanity and recognized that as a human being first he was called upon to stand with and defend others — even those he disagreed with.

From the same incident we learn from Abraham that we have an obligation to speak up and act in the face of injustice. Abraham engaged God in a lengthy debate and negotiation when he felt that God was not acting righteously in His decision to destroy Sodom.

Abraham asked, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?!” (Genesis 18:25)

No matter the position of power we must take our lead from Abraham and be willing to speak truth to power.

Jewish people have too much experience of what it means to live as an unprotected minority and it is precisely those events that burdens Jews with added responsibility to protect vulnerable populations.

“You must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.” (Ex. 22:20)

Our interconnectedness is expressed powerfully in the words of the German, anti-Nazi theologian Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

I pray the President-elect Trump continues to condemn hate, bigotry and racism; and that those who feel emboldened by his election to incite intolerance soon realize that we are a country, as President George Washington wrote to the members of the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, “which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

Perhaps, however, it is more important for good people of all faiths to learn from Abraham and do our part by recognizing our shared humanity, committing ourselves to teaching righteousness and justice and by speaking up for those in need.

Wed, May 22 2019 17 Iyyar 5779