Shabbat Shalom. As most of you probably know by now, I was in Charlottesville on Saturday, and it was a bit of a rough time, but I was spared experiencing and even directly witnessing the worst of the events of the day. On Sunday, I was asked to speak at a vigil in D.C. organized by Indivisible, a progressive grassroots network. Still feeling very raw and looking for inspiration to articulate my feelings and experiences of this weekend, I turned toward this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Re’eh. It opens, as many in Deuteronomy do, with Moses preparing the Israelites for their imminent entrance into the Promised Land. They are told that when they enter, they must wipe out idolatry and paganism, destroy idols and foreign altars and monuments.
At first glance, it’s a little hard to stomach with our modern sensibilities. Remember, when the Israelite clan left Canaan to seek food in Egypt, there were about 75-80 of them. Now there are thousands of them, about to go around smashing other people’s holy sites? Today, we try to live pluralistically, respecting other people’s ways of worship, and the idea of desecrating someone else’s sacred is jarring. However, the sentiment shifts a bit when what is being worshipped is no god, but something evil. Other parts of the Bible describe the idolatry happening in the Holy Land as horrific: human sacrifices, children being thrown into fires, self-mutilation, and other such forms of prayer. Though there is no historical or archaeological evidence that human sacrifice was ever as prominent anywhere as it has been in Western popular imagination, if the Israelites truly believed they were saving babies and helping murderers find God, does that change things?
Given my state of mind as I was reading the parasha on Sunday, the first thing I thought of was an essay by Abraham Joshua Heschel. Rabbi Heschel escaped Warsaw just weeks before it would be too late to leave Warsaw. He opens his essay, “No Religion is an Island” with this reminder. He made it to New York City. If he had stayed just six more weeks in Poland, his destination would have likely been Auschwitz or Treblinka. With this as his starting point, he goes on to explain that the heart of Nazism is Godlessness, and that to survive hatred and bigotry, all people of faith must work together. I remember feeling mildly unconvinced by this essay the first time I read it, a couple years ago in rabbinical school, despite my deep love and respect for Rabbi Heschel as an activist rabbi. Christian hegemony and ancient Catholic anti-Judaism have played major roles in creating and informing modern day antisemitism, and I don’t think we can be successful in overcoming white supremacy without acknowledging that. But on Sunday, as the essay sprang into my mind, I thought about all the Christian clergy that stood up against hate in Charlottesville, and the white nationalists fighting to keep their idolatrous monuments to failed, treasonous, racists. And it has never been clearer to me how right Rabbi Heschel was. We are in this together. All people of faith, people who believe in goodness and the Golden Rule and Tikkun Olam, and whatever other names we might call such concepts, must work together to topple the evil that plagues this Earth mimicking religion. And not only MUST we work together, we proved this weekend in Charlottesville and at the subsequent vigils this week that we ARE working together. Just as Righteous Gentiles hid Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, just as Heschel and others walked with Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., cross-cultural and intersectional social justice movements will continue, and will ultimately prevail.
Also in this week’s Torah portion is the commandment to rejoice at festival times, an interesting commandment because it’s not proscribing specific actions, but actually demanding certain emotions. That too was something I felt I needed to hear this week. I might not have felt very joyful this week, but now it’s Shabbat and I’m ready for this special spiritual time to uplift my soul. Someday, when we defeat hatred and bigotry – and that’s when, not if – it will be such a time for rejoicing and celebrating, and we will do it together. May that time come quickly.