One year since Charlottesville, in Vermont
D’VAR TORAH / SERMON
RABBI DAVID BENJAMIN FAINSILBER
30 AV 5778 / AUGUST 10, 2018
As many of our Jewish Community of Greater Stowe (JCOGS) members recall, it was not that long ago in the arc of history that Stowe was an unwelcome place for Jews. “Gentiles only” signs were common practice.
This week, a hateful incident happened in our midst, a swastika and an MS13-gang related symbol were spray painted on a field of the public school People’s Academy property in Morrisville. What we know is that a witness saw a couple of young kids, 10 to 12 year olds do this, but we don’t know who the kids were. These children learned this behaviour from somewhere. While 2018 is another era, the past continues to haunt us.
The PA incident took place one year after the world’s attention was brought to a torch-bearing group of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia. There, they spewed the Nazi hate of “blood and soil” and “you will not replace us” onto the streets. There, a white nationalist deliberately drove his car into a crowd of protesters, taking the life of activist Heather Heyer, may her memory be for a blessing.
When such incidents happen, we all feel threatened. Having heard about the incident from PA, and reflecting on Charlottesville, I found myself walking the streets of Morrisville, looking over my shoulder, for friend or foe, seeking a sign or symbol that would give further context to this moment.
In part, it is in turning to our weekly Torah portion where I have found meaning. “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of Adonai your G-d…and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of Adonai your G-d, but turn away…and follow other gods.” (Deuteronomy 11)
Today we are also at a crossroads, a fork in the road between the blessing and the curse. Thankfully, we have increased our awareness of the rights of many. Yet as we do, we are faced with increasing segregation of ideas and people. Which path shall we choose? Will we choose the blessing of those who fight for democracy, peace and justice, or will it be the curse of equating them with those who spew hatred; will we choose the curse of fascism and populism returning again, or the blessing of reason and rationality and cultivating the ability to listen to one another’s needs and respond in kind?
Our Torah portion says: “You shall not act at all as we now act here, every person doing what is upright in their eyes” (Deut. 12), everyone as they so please. Rather, “that all should go well with you and with your descendants after you forever – do what is good and right in the sight of Adonai your G-d.” (Deut. 12:28)
We have gone too far astray as a society. We have prioritized personal action over communal good. Our Torah reminds us: Do not do what is simply good or right for you, but what is right and good in G-d’s eyes, or for the non-theists among us, if you prefer, what is just not only for you, but for others.
Yet, how are we to know what is a blessing or a curse? As our same Torah portion also reminds us: beware the false prophets and their temptations. For me, I am but a humble servant of this world. But what I do know so ever clearly, and with perfect faith, is that G-d is not hate, G-d is, if anything to be spoken of, the opposite of what we know as hate. Our faith requires of us love and care and concern.
There are other gods that we can follow that will take us down the road of curses. And of those gods, there is no greater stumbling block than the god of hate, no greater idol that plagues our society than bigotry and prejudice.
The difference between a society that is corrupt versus one that cares about its future is whether those in the society simply do as they wish, or whether their conscience is directed at something beyond themselves, the greater good. When we choose a life of blessing, of justice, and what is right, we have the capacity to bless all those in our midst because we stop caring only about what is good for ourselves and start caring about others.
With any act of bigotry – whether racially or religiously motivated, whether a sexist act, or one against disability rights or one’s sexual orientation, and so on – the difference between a healthy society and one that is corrupt is whether good people stand up and speak out, in spite of their fear, even in spite of their implicit bias. None of us are perfect. None of us know all the right words to say. Yet, we must build a society where those who are victims to the prejudice are given voice to their aches and cries, where we can focus on the greater good and what is best and blessed for all.
We in North-Central Vermont are blessed to be in a community where we and our community partners are willing to speak up. We are grateful for the statement issued by the superintendent; we are thankful for the continued investigation of the local police and sheriff’s departments; and we stand arm-in-arm with our faith-institutions and other community members as we are firm in our commitment to build a society on principles of love and care for one another. Together, we can strip down the foundations of anti-Semitism, racism, and other forms of systematic hatred that for too long have been at the root of our society. All for the greater good and blessing, so all feel welcomed.
Allow me to share one final story. 9 years ago, I took a formative visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau with a group of emerging interfaith clergy. There, we gathered to pray for the lives taken and for a path forward. I shared with the group about the life of Rabbi Kalonymous Kalmish Shapira who was known as the Warsaw Ghetto rabbi. His life was taken in the Shoah/Holocaust. By the graces of G-d, his writings were preserved. On August 23, 1941, he gave a sermon about the Torah portion I referenced above. In his sermon, he quotes from Psalm 91: “I am with you in pain and suffering.” Rabbi Shapira writes: “G-d endures the brunt of our pain”.
One can imagine the great solace this would bring to those who were suffering in the ghetto. Rabbi Shapira himself lost his wife, his son and his daughter in the years preceding these words. What strength it must have taken him to conjure up words of comfort for others even in his own suffering. He chose to look for the blessing amidst the endless curses.
Even in the suffering and difficulties, we can see the greater world as holding our pain. And it is that sense of being held that can give us strength to manifest love and justice for all.
To those in our Jewish community, to our children most especially, we hold you, as G-d holds us all, in the light of healing and love. To all those targeted by systemic bigotry, know that we are in this with you to uproot all that seeks to separate us. To our partners and friends, we ask for your prayers, and we cannot express enough the importance of feeling held by our greater community.
Let us all do what is the opposite of hate and choose a society of blessing. Let us all choose life
and do what is right and just not only for ourselves but for all – for the greater good.