I feel it is important to depart this week from my usual approach to sharing ‘Torah From Sinai.’ I hope that, usually, I am able to share a little teaching of Torah that adds to the peace of your Shabbat, inspires some ‘food for thought’ to Shabbat dinner discussion, or helpfully touches your soul in some way.
This weekend is exceptional, and it reminds us that Torah must also deal with the less pleasant side of existence. Not all is right with the world, or with us, all of the time. Torah needs to be relevant always.
This Shabbat marks six years to the day – August 12, 2017 – since modern-day, American-bred nazis invaded Charlottesville, Virginia. A protester, Heather Heyer, was killed and some 20 others injured. Those same nazis are still around, still hating.
When those events in Charlottesville happened, I was physically nauseas and so completely shocked – both rationally and spiritually – by what happened that I was literally short of breath that day and for several days following.
I continue to struggle to find words to express precisely what is going on in my soul when I think of Charlottesville.
Seeing men with torches shouting ‘Jews shall not replace us’ is as alarming as it is unfathomable. It is as if all the books on Jewish history and so many, many incidents and stories and testimonies of anti-Semitic abuse and horrific murder we’ve all read about (or heard about from our own family members and Holocaust survivors) became as real as a dream seems inside your head….and yet impossible to be real at the same time. A horror movie. I felt like I saw all the black and white photos I’ve seen of the Shoah bleed into color and then start to move and then add sound, and then become 3-D, and then…and then here I am waiting for the next ‘and then’ to manifest as reality…as real as the trees and air and sunlight but terribly cold and metal and loud and angry and painful.
But I also feel what I guess is the feeling of being “violated”. Those nazis were in my personal space and landscape memory. I studied and lived in Charlottesville for 6 years, and every photo or video of the nazis on “my” streets, and “my” campus Lawn, under “my” magnolia tree and amidst “my” dogwoods feels vile. And most vile of all are those of them with their ridiculous torches around “my” statue of Thomas Jefferson below whose foot I would sit on the step to study – among other things but most poignantly – Emil Fackenheim’s philosophical struggle to cope with the Holocaust. Fackenheim’s famous realization has guided much of my adult life and career as a Rabbi: The Holocaust demands of us to hear a “614th Commandment” which is not to give Hitler any posthumous victories.
And here were nazis on that same spot, corrupting my own personal memories while – in a much larger way – corrupting our national consensus in the United States about what America stands for, what our values are, and undermining the entire enterprise launched by the likes of Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers by whose efforts and privilege we all live here in relative freedom and comfort and security…
…Or “did” live – past tense – in relative freedom, comfort and security. Today, these are threatened by hatred.
Rabbi Leo Baeck, who escaped the German nazis 85 years ago, said we Jews “see the world through ancient eyes.” We must keep our eyes open, first of all, vigilantly open. We have to look through time at the eternal values we live by – as Jews, and as Americans and as humans-in-general. Ours is the duty to ensure our neighbors recognize – through our personal example – how to live in a way that brings holiness, goodness, peace, and aims to fix all that is broken in our world. To live in a way that does Tikkun Olam. We need this for ourselves as well as for our neighbors. It is a task each of us can and must take on, with joy and kindness, and hope. This is a Jewish task of Kiddush haShem, sanctifying God’s world by the good example of how we live our lives.
This needs to be our response to the hatred we see rising up. Six years ago and now more than ever there was and is no room for equivocation. Leaders, whether local or national, and those of us who comprise ‘the masses’ all must deride and derail and condemn and utterly repudiate those who in any way subscribe to an ethic of ‘white supremacy.’
May Hitler have no more posthumous victories. May the tolerant and kind America that we all thought we lived in be restored.
Rabbi Michael Schwartz