George Floyd. Ahmaud Arbuery. Christian Cooper. The recent victims of the pandemic of racism and bigotry have eclipsed our nation’s attention to the pandemic of flesh and blood. I had hoped and prayed that during this time of physical social distancing, we as a nation would have focused on increased spiritual closeness. Watching the raging headlines and the fiery violence engulfing the streets and social media channels I am left despondent.
Despondent but not without hope.
For there are other names that I can invoke who can heal the pain and chart a path toward justice for all: Martin Luther King Jr. Ellie Wiesel and the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
In 1967, in an essay titled “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” the champion of the civil rights movement proclaimed, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
In 1986, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel declared, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
And in 1991, following the Crown Heights riots, the Lubavitcher Rebbe blessed New York City Mayor David Dinkins and stated, “We are not two sides; we are one side. We are one people living in one city under one administration and under one God.”
Fighting darkness with light. Championing the voice of the oppressed. Recognizing the unity within our collective community. These are the clarion calls that will vaccinate us against the opportunists who wish to loot our national soul of that simple but sagaciously salient mantra, composed by our Founding Father John Dickinson for the Union in 1768, “United We Stand.”
It is precisely during these times of proliferated political polarization that we must hearken back to the courageous heroes of our past, who stood up against that one weapon that is far more deadly than a nuclear bomb: an ideology of hate.
One of these heroes was my father’s ancestor, who fought at the Battle of Gettysburg to abolish slavery. He made the ultimate sacrifice for he believed that truth, often not so self-evident, that all people are created equal. He fought with a sword and a bayonet. The least I can do is pick up my proverbial pen and continue his legacy. And no, in this case, the pen is not mightier than the sword. For it is only through the heroes of our past, upon whose mighty shoulders we stand, that the evolution of democracy and liberty can continue to march forward.
This is especially true when the ugly face of bigotry can hide in plain sight under the cover of “It’s just a joke,” “I didn’t mean it like that,” or “But it’s a nice thing to say about you people.” Insidious racism is a poisonous virus which swiftly spreads through the bloodstreams of our societies and institutions, unchecked and devastatingly destructive.
I may not be a statistician but the truth about stereotypes, especially the positive ones, is that they ensure the continued enslavement of a (minority) group by robbing each individual of free choice and shackling them with oversimplified expectations. Seemingly benevolent and innocuous stereotyping can quickly devolve into negative generalizations and then to flat-out racism, prejudice and violent hate.
Isn’t this attention to rhetoric about the “other” the message taught by the great Torah scholar Beruriah to her husband, Rabbi Meir, in Talmud, Tractate Berachot 10A? Or the prohibition against the angels singing for the death of ancient “Nazis” as depicted in Megilla 10b, Sanhedrin 39b, and Berachot 31a? Or the teaching from Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, in Pesachim 3a, about the superfluous letters Hashem added in the Torah just to ensure the dignity of mere animals?
The message I see from all these sources, and thousands more weaved through the glorious canopy of Torah tradition, is one salient truth: It is not external labels or oversimplified generalizations that define us. Rather, our value is determined by our intrinsic and internal individuality. In other words, our soul.
My spiritual leader, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, taught me that in the beginning, God created Adam and Eve. His two greatest creations. Two human beings, and only two, so that all future generations would know that no matter what pigment of the rainbow God gifts us with to wear on the outside, our souls (and bodies) all come from the same great grandmother and great grandfather.
The Torah teaches us to “Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). From here, our sages learn that, “Just as God is called gracious, so you be gracious. Just as He is called merciful, so you be merciful. Just as He is called holy, so you be holy.” The famous 14th century Egyptian Torah scholar, Maimonidies, declares that we are bound by Torah law to “imitate God as far as we can” (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De’ot 1:6).
My father taught me that God did not create us to be creatures but to be creators ourselves. Creators of peace. Creators of holiness. Creators who can see a jungle, a place of survival of the fittest, and transform that place into a veritable Garden of Eden, with harmony for all.
Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that “A riot is the language of the unheard” and that “our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay” in demanding justice against institutionalized racism. In response to the current pandemic of racism and rioting, his daughter advocated for non-violent protest and quoted Isaiah 1:17, “Learn to do good; seek justice; correct oppression.”
Elie Weisel said, “Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.” In an inspiring social media post, his son said that the key to social justice and healing the world is an increased study of the “[Torah] texts that have sustained our culture.” One of those texts is the commandment to “love the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:19). Many of us are already prepared to love the stranger. But are we “prepared to be the stranger?” When I read this, I heard the ancient words of the 1st century Talmudic sage echo in my heart: “Do not judge your friend, until you have reached their place.” (Pirkei Avot 2:5)
The Lubavitcher Rebbe told CNN that redemption can come through doing “something additional in the realms of goodness and kindness.” He had no children. So that means it is up to each and every one of us to create a riot of love, a pandemic of goodness and kindness, and a demand for justice, equality and peace for all peoples.
In this way, we can heal the pain, and heal the world.
Rabbi Levi Welton is a chaplain with the United States Air Force and the spiritual leader of Lincoln Park Jewish Center in New York.
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