Dvar Torah:  Erev Rosh HaShanah

Singing and Working and Fighting for our Lives

Rabbi Zari M. Weiss

Wed., September 20, 2017  1 Tishri 5578


One image has stayed with me from this summer:  a group of clergy—rabbis, ministers, a Muslim woman leader, a Buddhist priest, and others—marching, arm-in-arm, down the streets of Seattle under a banner that said,  “Love Wins.”  Some of you were there as well.  It was the day following the terrible events in Charlottesville when right-wing extremists had marched, spewing hateful rhetoric and provoking violence, as they held flaming tikki torches up high.  As we know, three people were killed: Heather Heyer, a peaceful protestor, and two State troopers, Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Trooper Berke M. M. Bates.  Many others were injured.   That is an image that I don’t want to stay with me.

Upon hearing that the “Patriot Prayer” white supremacist group were rallying in downtown Seattle the next day, thousands of us showed up to protest their hate-filled ideology and unwelcome presence in our community.  We knew we could not and would not remain silent.

We sang songs, many of which had been sung during Civil Rights marches.  I find singing these songs so much more powerful than yelling chants such as “Hey, hey, ho-ho, racism has got to go.”  One song kept coming to me. Written by Holly Near, a powerful feminist singer songwriter, the words are “we are a gentle angry people.”  I changed one word, and led it over and over that day.  “We are a gentle loving people, and we are singing, singing for our lives . . ..”

We continued with many rounds:  “We are a gentle loving people, and we are praying, praying for our lives. . .

We are gay and straight together . . . . we are young and old together . . . We are people from all countries . . . We are people of all colors . . .”

Since that day in August, I have not been able to get those words out of my head.  But rather than finding this annoying, I’ve found the continual chorus of “We are a gentle loving people” empowering, energizing and uplifting.  For me, it has become an anthem during these challenging times.  Those words, along with the memory of marching arm-in-arm with faith leaders and people from other communities, have given me what I need in order to face a time that—like no other that I can recall–requires clarity, collective strength and solidarity, and moral courage.

In Jewish Tradition, a mashal is a parable or story.  From a mashal, we can glean important moral lessons or deep spiritual truths, which are known as the nimshal.

I’d like to share with you my nimshal, the lessons or deeper truths that I gleaned from that day of walking arm-in-arm with my colleagues, singing those powerful and empowering words, surrounded by so many.  I hope that these lessons and deeper truths might help guide all of us as we navigate our way through these difficult times.

The first lesson:  Clarity.

Many people have responded to the unbridled hatred and racism we have been witnessing by saying we need to counter them with love.  The phrase “love wins” has appeared everywhere—on bumper stickers, yard signs, Facebook and Instagram.  Those were the words on the banner held above us, as we marched.  I must admit:  as I stepped under that banner, I felt some discomfort.  It’s not that I don’t believe in love, it’s just . . .  .

Well, it’s just that, from a Jewish point of view, the response to hatred and racism is not just love; it’s also being committed to the inherent dignity and equality of every human being.  Regardless of a person’s color, regardless of a person’s religion, economic status, country of origin, sexual orientation, immigration status, every person deserves to be treated with kavod, dignity.

Treating others with dignity is one of the most fundamental values of Judaism.  There is an ancient debate recorded in the Talmud, in which rabbis try to determine the most important principle that summarizes the entire Torah.  In one between Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai, Rabbi Akiva says the most important principle is, in fact, love; V’ahavta l’rey’echa k’mocha, it says in Leviticus:  “You shall love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).  But Ben Azzai believes the most important principle comes from the verse, “Zeh sefer toldot adam.” This is the book of the generations of Adam.  On the day that God created the human being, bidmut elohim asah oto G-d made the human in the likeness of God.” (Genesis 5:1) ((Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:4).  For him, the principle that every human being is created Bidmut Elohim, in the likeness of G-d is most important.   Created in G-d’s likeness, then, all people must be treated with dignity.

I agree with Ben Azzai.  You may not like or love someone, but you must still treat that person with dignity.

Another Talmudic story emphasizes our inherent equality.  It says:  In the beginning, G-d created only one human, adam, zachar u’nekeva—with both male and female aspects in that one being–from whom all subsequent humans descended, thereby ensuring that no one person could possibly claim, “My parent was greater than your parent.”  We are all equal.

The first line of the United States Constitution is consistent with these two foundational beliefs of Judaism:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”[1]  Of course we know that those with dark skin and women were initially excluded.  We’re still working and fighting to extend these rights equally to everyone.

While the Constitution may be consistent with the teachings and values of different religious traditions, it does not and should not enshrine the religious teachings or values of any one religion, the First Amendment states:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  And while the Constitution guarantees free speech, whenever that speech demeans the inherent dignity of another human being, or expresses a belief in the inequality of another human being based upon the color of that person’s skin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, or country of origin, that speech should and must be condemned.

Both Judaism and our nation’s Constitution, then, are clear about the values that should guide us in our personal, communal, and societal treatment of others. For me, and I hope for you, having greater Clarity can help us move forward knowing what we are fighting for and working toward:  a nation and a society where all are treated with dignity, all are treated as equals.

Not all of us need to be on the front lines of marches and protest rallies, of course. There are ways that each of us can work to ensure the dignity and equality of all.  For some of us that might mean marching; for others, it might mean treating the clerk at the gas station or the person cleaning your office building with decency, perhaps even extending your hand and introducing yourself, a simple but radical act, these days, in recognition of our common humanity.   Each and every act and interaction offers the possibility of affirming the values that guide us and the principles that we stand for, as well as the behavior that we won’t stand for:  acts of hatred and intimidation that seek to demean and demonize, to deprive others of their fundamental rights to live with dignity and equality.

Which leads me to the second lesson of my nimshal, my deeper moral lessons and spiritual truths: the necessity of communal strength and solidarity.

Confronting bias in whatever form it comes—whether racism or anti-Semitism or anti-Muslim attitudes–can be scary.  It’s hard to stand in the presence of hate.  I cannot tell you how supported I felt by marching arm-in-arm with other faith leaders.  I also cannot imagine how it would have felt to march alone, even knowing it was the right thing to do.  At one point during the Seattle march, the police set off a loud scatter bomb.  Everyone began to run.  Rabbi David Basior, whose hand I was holding, stayed calm and guided us to get to a safe place, without panic.   I felt strengthened and calmed by his presence, allowing me to stay calm for others.  One person said she felt less afraid because of my calm presence.

The fact is:  we need each other for the hard work of working and fighting for others’ right to dignity and equality.  We need others not only those in the Jewish community, but also those from other communities as well:  faith, labor, environmental, women’s and immigrants rights. We need to stand or march or work alongside those who share the values that are foundational to our different traditions as well as to this country’s ideals.  For the fact is:  While the taunts and flags and salutes may trigger our own deep fears and anxieties as Jews, the hate-filled words are a threat to every group in our society that is vulnerable.  We must stand with others just as we want and need them to stand with us.

And indeed, in city after city around this country, that’s what’s been happening.  Whether it’s setting aright gravestones that have been desecrated in a Jewish cemetery or standing with a Muslim community whose sign has been vandalized, members of different faith communities have been coming together to support and protect one another.

Many of you were among the hundreds of people who showed up last December at MAPS—the Muslim Association of Puget Sound—to rededicate the sign that had been vandalized the previous month.  MAPS’ leaders invited various people to place our hands on the wet cement that formed the base of the sign.  They wanted to show their appreciation for the many ways in which so many had extended their hands in support of their community in the face of that anti-Muslim act.  I was honored to place my handprint there.   Sadly we learned, just one week later, that the newly dedicated sign had been vandalized again.  I wrote to Aneelah Afzali, a leader at MAPS, to express my and our sadness that the vandalism had happened again.  Aneelah wrote back:  “Hello and thank you so much dear Rabbi Weiss for your message and reaching out, and for your (and your community’s) continued support.  It is so unfortunate and disheartening that individuals engage in such acts of hate.  But we are uplifted by the tremendous outpouring of community support, which proves that love is far greater than hate, and that we are stronger together.  We definitely have a lot of work to do, and I look forward to collaborating with you to find effective ways to counter the hate and create safe and thriving communities for all of us.”

We are stronger together.

At the same time, in so many ways, these are scary times, and I don’t mean to discount this reality.  Recently, following the events in Charlottesville, I participated in a webinar for rabbis.  We heard Rabbi David Saperstein, who led the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center for decades and is now Senior Advisor to the Reform Movement for Policy and Strategy.   Rabbi Saperstein said:  “This is something extraordinary, it’s chilling.  It may be the first time in Jewish history, in American Jewish history. . . [sure] we’ve had violence, people killed . . . .but where armed Nazis were intimidating a congregation at worship . . .something we never thought we’d see again in Western Europe or the United States after WWII and yet we see it growing[ly] in Western Europe and in our own country. . .  . this is a time that people must speak out—it’s vitally important.”

Which leads me finally to the third lesson I gleaned from that day of marching:  the need for moral courage.

Not just courage, but moral courage.

The dictionary says that courage is “the state or quality of mind or spirit that enables one to face danger, fear, or vicissitudes with self-possession, confidence, and resolution; bravery.”  It’s derived from the Latin for heart.  Courage is perhaps, then, the strength of heart to face or do something that may be difficult, overwhelming, challenging, or scary.

Scaling a mountain or jumping from a plane with a parachute may require strength of heart or courage.  But it is different from the kind of courage I’m talking about.

In the Torah we have several examples of those who demonstrated moral courage.  One is the story of Shifra and Puah.   If you recall, at the beginning of the Book of Exodus, Pharaoh commanded two midwives, Shifra and Puah, to drown all newborn Jewish male babies in the Nile.  The midwives disobeyed the edict.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that the Bible states the reason for what may be the first recorded act of civil disobedience:  “Va’tirena ham’yaldot:” The midwives feared G-d.” Shifra and Puah’s fear of G-d liberated them from the far more natural fear of a human ruler, Pharaoh.

Sacks points out that the two women are identified as hameyaldot ha’ivriyot—which could mean “the Hebrew midwives” or “the midwives to the Hebrews.”  If it means midwives to the Hebrews, they might have been Egyptian women.  Writes Sacks:  “The Torah’s ambiguity . . .is deliberate.  We do not know to which people Shiphrah and Puah belong because their particular form of moral courage transcends nationality and race.  In essence, they are being asked to commit a ‘crime against humanity’ and they refuse to do so.”[2]

I know many people are uncomfortable with the language of fearing G-d.  To be honest, I think the English translation is inadequate.  Some might be more comfortable describing this as “following one’s conscience.”  Rabbi Harold Schulweis says whether we call it following our conscience or our fear of G-d, it is “the hidden inner compass that guides our lives and must be searched for and recovered repeatedly.” [3]

Another rabbi, Joseph Telushkin, points out that the phrase yirat elohim, fear of G-d, is used repeatedly throughout the Bible.  Every time, he says, it leads to one of two results:  1) It liberates people from their fear of other human beings, and 2) It defends the weak and the disadvantaged from the powerful.[4]

In other words, Yirat Elohim, or following our conscience, our inner compass, helps liberate us from our fear of other human beings—those who are in positions of greater power, and provides us with what we need to defend the weak and the disadvantaged from the powerful.  It gives us the moral courage needed to do the hard work of fighting for and protecting others’ right to dignity and equality.

Friends, tonight we enter into a New Year.  Judaism teaches that these next 10 days are a period of great soul-searching—individually and collectively.  Who are we, and who do we want to be—not only as individuals, but also, as a nation? With whatever challenges we will face—and surely we will face more challenges in the coming days and weeks and months—we will need to work and fight for what is right—as guided both by our Tradition, as well as by the founding principles of this country.  In many ways, as the song says, we are fighting for our lives—and for the lives of many others who are vulnerable or are not in positions of power to fight for themselves.  As gentle, loving people let us —Jews and those from other faith communities, young and old, gay and straight, people of all colors—join arms and move forward together –singing and marching and working for our lives and the lives of the generations yet to come.

L’shanah Tovah.

[1] US Constitution, July 4, 1776.

[2] Jonathan Sacks, Covenant and Conversation:  A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible (New Milford, CT:  Maggid Books and the Orthodox Union, 2009-2010), 21-22.


[3] Harold M. Schulweis, Conscience:  The Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey [Woodstock, VT:  Jewish Lights, 20080, 5..


[4] Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy:  The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and its History (New York:  William Morrow, 1991), 510-511.