'Tis Not Too Late to Seek a Newer World
When I was little, my sister was obsessed with Beauty and the Beast. She would watch it, rewind it, and watch it again. So I watched Beauty and the Beast quite a lot growing up - except for one scene, for which I always left the room. It scared me and made me uncomfortable to even think about. Belle enters into the forbidden room and discovers the enchanted rose. The Beast catches her and yells at her to "Get out!" Watching it now, I seem to have outgrown my fear and discomfort of that scene. I find another scene significantly more disturbing.
Gaston riles the townspeople, fueling a fire of insecurity and inciting a mob to kill the beast - torches and weapons in hand. They sing as they march:
"We don't like what we don't understand
in fact it scares us
And this monster is mysterious at least
Bring your guns bring your knives
Save your children and your wives
We'll save our village and our lives
We'll kill the Beast
Hearts ablaze banners high
We go marching into battle
Unafraid although the danger's just increased
Raise the flag sing the song
Here we come, we're fifty strong
And fifty Frenchmen can't be wrong
Let's kill the Beast"
I couldn't get that fictional, torch-carrying mob out of my head this week as I watched the events unfold in Charlottesville.
In an interview conducted by Vice News, a Neo-Nazi is asked if he is a racist. He responds, "It's really not skin color for me, I'm really more of an anti-Semite."
He's then asked if there should be another genocide. He says, "I don't think there ever was genocide to begin with." His wife chimes in, "I think there should be another genocide." The journalist clarifies: "When you say genocide, you mean the women, the children, the kids?" "Absolutely."
In another interview with the Washington Post, a White Nationalist gave his rationale for attending the Charlottesville rally (58 second mark): "1: Standing up for local white identity. Our identity is under threat. Number 2: The free market. Number 3: Killing Jews."
The trauma and pain of this week is still raw. If your week was anything like mine, you stumbled through with a blurry perception of the world and a pit in your stomach - which was exacerbated Thursday as terrorists killed 14 in Spain, and injured over 100. There are no magical words to heal the repeated stabs into the flesh of our lived, Jewish experience.
This week I felt as if I was entering the rabbinate 70 years ago, rereading my library of Holocaust books as contemporary literature. I got lost in one from a Holocaust history course I took in college: Philip Roth's alternate-history novel called The Plot Against America. In this alternative universe set in 1940, celebrity aviator and anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh is elected President. As I read this excerpt, it perfectly summed up my emotions in a way that only fiction often can.
And then there was the shock of seeing on film the Nazi von Ribbentrop and his wife warmly greeted on the White House portico by the president and Mrs. Lindbergh. And the shock of seeing all the prominent guests stepping from their limousines and smiling with anticipation at the prospect of dining and dancing in von Ribbentrop's presence — and among the guests, seemingly no less thrilled than the others by the disgusting occasion, Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf and Miss Evelyn Finkel. “I could not believe it,” my father said. “The smile on her face is a mile wide. And the husband-to-be? He looks like he thinks the dinner is for him. You should see this man — nodding at everyone as if he actually mattered!” But why did you go,” my mother asked him, “when it was bound to upset you like this?” “I went,” he told her, “because every day I ask myself the same question: How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country? If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I’d think I was having a hallucination.
And every day this week, I have felt like I woke up in a terrible dream, a hallucination from hell, to a time I relegated to history books. Yet here we are in 2017, a year in which antisemitism has dramatically spiked in our country. Just this week, synagogues were urinated on, Holocaust memorials were vandalized and destroyed, Nazi chants from the 1930s and 1940s were resurrected in Charlottesville, and Jews from that town were forced to leave Shabbat services inconspicuously through the rear of the synagogue in fear for their lives, as armed neo-Nazis stalked the front of their building and the local police offered zero support.
You might feel endangered.
You might feel scared.
You might feel attacked.
You might feel vulnerable.
You might feel confused.
There are certain points in our life where words cannot serve as an antidote - only presence can. As synagogues fill this Shabbat and Jews gather around Shabbos tables, we powerfully assert our presence and defiant resistance to this week's ugliness. This is not normal and we will never, ever accept it as such.
As I studied the parsha this week, searching for direction and meaning, I found a teaching that sent chills through my body. On a verse in our portion, Parashat R'eih, Rabbi Avraham Mordechai of Gur observes that something is seemingly repeated from last week. "...but, while the verse in this week’s portion is in the plural form - the y'all form - in last week's Parashat Eikev it appears in the singular - the you, individually. Why, then, he asks, is this repeated here in the plural?
The rebbe teaches that in normal times, a person can focus their worries inward, within their own home; at a time of disturbance, though, when hatred and bigotry prevail in the world, an individual's power is insignificant, and there is a need to join together and form a mighty force to defend Judaism - and all oppressed peoples - against their detractors. That is why the Torah repeats the same sentiments in both the singular, individual form and the plural, "y'all" form, to indicate the need to unite against those who would destroy us." [Source]
Rabbi Avraham Mordechai of Gur was a Holocaust survivor. Born in Poland in 1866, the Rebbe was born into a Hasidic dynasty, and before the Holocaust, his followers were estimated around 100,000. In 1940, the Nazis made known their desire to find him and he fled to what-was-then Palestine where he died in Jerusalem during Israel's War of Independence in 1948.
And lo and behold, in silent serendipity, our Torah and tradition speak to us when we need direction most. In our darkest hours, our tradition calls on us to act, to resist, to join together. This week lit a fire under us, and we cannot afford to let it go out. I found inspiration and a call to action in author Scott Reich's book, The Power of Citizenship:
The historian’s pen is in our hands, and it is time indeed to write a new chapter in the story of America…That we live in this great country may be a matter of chance, but how we conduct ourselves and the kinds of efforts we make are entirely our choice. The British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s words of long ago…still ring true today: “Come, my friend / ’Tis not too late to seek a newer world…So let us go forth to lead the land we love. Let us volunteer our time in worthy causes. Let us get involved in charity work. Let us be engaged in public affairs. Let us be generous in spirit. Let us use the skills and talent we are fortunate to have in ways that are constructive for the communities we treasure. In short, let us answer the call to service to which we are rightfully summoned.
Wishing you a Shabbat of inner peace, filled with love and loved ones, and praying for strength and courage as we write a new chapter in the story of America in the weeks and years to come.
“Come, my friend / ’Tis not too late to seek a newer world..."
Delivered at Temple Sinai of Roslyn on 8/18/2017.