Prayers and Reflections on Charlottesville

Olam chesed yibaneh…

I will build this world from love…
And we must build this world from love…
And if we build this world from love…
Then God will build this world from love….

Thank you for being with us, for being a part of Shaaray Tefila, this sacred congregation of meaning, connection, and purpose. We pray together, we learn together, we rejoice and mourn together. And we gather in moments like this-- to find strength in one another, in our Jewish tradition, that we might go out into this broken world and do our part, individually and collectively, to be partners with God in the ongoing work of creation.

Thank you for joining me for this brief time of prayer and reflection, as we gather virtually after the horrendous acts of violation and violence this past weekend in Charlottesville VA and beyond. We will have time to be together; there are many vigils and events being planned; as plans become clearer, we will share them with the congregation. So, too, these remarks will be available on the synagogue’s website, by the end of today. A recording of this video will be available as well. Feel free to share them with friends on email or social media. Included online will be some key organizations I would encourage you to support should you be moved to do so by these events.

Today, in these few moments, I will share a few reflections, a few poems that have struck me in recent days, and then close with a prayer. I hope you will find this time meaningful.

Please note that while we can see each other, which is important, all participants are on mute, as it didn’t seem practical in this space for us all to speak at once. But I am eager to hear your thoughts, your reflections, and your prayers as well.

What are we to do in this moment, in America in 2017, when the merit of Emma Lazarus’s words on the Statue of Liberty, “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”-- when those words have been marginalized by this presidential administration?

In this moment, when a mosque burns in Minnesota, and our President is silent?

In this moment, how shall we respond when a car is turned into a weapon by a terrorist in Charlottesville, VA? When chants of “Jews shall not replace us” reverberate from the mouths of unmasked, swastika carrying bigots?

In this moment in America, I thought of the haunting and powerful words of Jewish author Aaron Zeitlin:

Praise Me, says God, and I will know you love Me.
Curse Me, says God, and I will know you love Me.
Praise Me or curse Me, and I will know you love Me.

Sing out My praises, says God,
Raise your fist against Me and revile, says God.
Sing out graces or revile,
Reviling is also a kind of praise, says God.

But if you sit fenced off in your apathy, says God.
If you sit entrenched in, "I don't give a damn," says God,
If you look at the stars and yawn,
If you see suffering and don't cry out,
If you don't praise and don't revile,
Then I created you in vain, says God.

A message of faith from Rabbi Karyn Kedar:

Lift your eyes and stare down evil. This is a spiritual experience.

We must be unequivocal in our name calling. The KKK, National Supremacists, neo-Nazis, and unaffiliated bigots of all kinds are hateful and perpetuate acts of evil. Even the neighbor next door and the colleague in the office who say something offensive and intolerant, only to end the remark with the popular disclaimer, “no offense, or anything,” feed this evil inclination. Or the protestors for progressive causes, fighting against prejudice and for freedom, yet espousing discrimination and exclusion based on religion, feed this evil inclination.

I do not distinguish. Hate is hate. And we should say so.

And, when we do, we engage in spiritual discernment; discerning good from evil, blessing from curse, light from darkness. If these troubling and dangerous times teach us anything, it is not to be polite, or diplomatic, or shy when witnessing acts of hate, prejudice, racism, and discrimination.

Never be silent. Moral clarity is a spiritual experience. It is perhaps the greatest message of faith. For what is the purpose of compassion, of love, of kindness, of spiritual practice if not to practice compassion, love and kindness in the face of derision. Do not stand idly by, ever. The practice of religion, faith, and spiritual intention is for two reasons: it is to give meaning to our inner life and purpose to our communal life; to heal the fragmented heart and to repair a broken world.

So, lift your eyes, open your hearts, and speak up, firmly. Be unequivocal, diligent, uncompromising in your vision of a world of wholeness, beauty, safety and love. Be religious about it.

And words from an unlikely place brought me comfort this week-- the words of Bengali poet and 1913 Nobel Prize for literature laureate Rabindranath Tagore. He wrote:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

A moment has arrived in America. Mark this month: August 2017. Don’t get me wrong: Hate is not new this month. Anti-semitism, racism, and bigotry are not new to America in 2017.

We as Jews are blessed to live as freely in this nation as at any time in Jewish history, and yet we are not immune from hateful anti-Jewish rhetoric.

Muslim Americans have been feared and targeted since September 11, 2001 and before.

People of color have been marginalized in this land since before there was a United States, and that marginalization did not end with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

The southern poverty law center has been tracking 917 hate groups in this land of the free; that hate started long before the city of Charlottesville decided to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee from the town square.

But this month, all of that hate, all of that bile, has exploded into view.

This is a moment. Will it last beyond the news cycle? Will we be numbed by it all? Or will our collective conscience not allow us to be numb? Will we be silenced or will our mouths refuse to keep shut? Will we feel powerless, or will our souls demand that we act?

Holy One of Blessing, You command us not to stand idly by while our neighbors bleed. You command us 36 times in the Torah to love the stranger because we know what it means to be the stranger. God, You implore us not to forget, because we know what it means when good people turn away.

Dear God, give us strength now.

Give us the courage to grapple with the moral implications of the flawed decisions we have made as a nation in our history, and the ramifications those decisions have for our time.

Help us to continue to confront the shame of our past, and in this way, begin a process of healing.

Help us remember that we need to confront anger at direct angles, not oblique ones.

Help us see hate and condemn it.

Help us to speak truth, even in a time when there are those who would have us devalue objective truth, devalue right and wrong.

Help our leaders know that the violent and murderous actions of Nazis and the counter-protests of those willing to fight them are not morally equivalent. The former was what Jews call a Hillul Hashem-- a desecration of Your Holy name. The later was an act of spiritual resistance, of sacred non-violence on behalf of all those created in Your image.

O God, help us to both remember and declare that racism, islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia have no place in America.

Holy One of Blessing, a moment has arrived in America. You have blessed us with wisdom, courage, strength, and the knowledge of right and wrong. But only we can determine what will come of this moment. Will it be a moment of more violence? Or a moment of recognition, reconciliation, and healing? Will this just be a moment we can’t bear to remember-- a moment that will we will eagerly allow to pass as the news cycle changes? Or will we remember this moment, transforming the outrage we feel now into potent action for justice?

In the words of my colleague, Rabbi Josh Whinston:

We are not numb, we will continue to resist.
We are not silent, we will continue to cry out.
We are not powerless.

Olam chesed yibaneh…

I will build this world from love…
And we must build this world from love…
And if we build this world from love…
Then God will build this world from love….


Thanks again for being with us. I’ll see you soon.