Stephanie D. Kolin | December 11, 2015
This past weekend, I had the profound honor of joining two of our exceptional LCLJ staff members in taking our Central Synagogue 9th graders to Washington DC to join 200 other Jewish teens on a trip that the Religious Action Center calls: L’taken, or “to repair” – as in – to repair the world. Our kids are incredible and besides advocating on behalf of issues that deeply matter to them – they also learned and laughed a ton, sent 4 billion text messages, ate 36 donuts – there were 9 of them – fell in and out of love multiple times, did Havdalah in front of the Jefferson Memorial, and made us very very proud.
On our second day, we visited the Holocaust museum and they grappled with one of the darkest times in world history. At the end, we reflected together. They shared that they were: Sad, angry, grateful, overwhelmed, speechless, confused, outraged. And also, they added, scared – why? They explained: “because a lot of what we saw in there is happening again – sometimes to us and sometimes to other people. It’s all repeating.”
They saw in the refusal to let the Jews on the St Louis into the United States echoes of closing our borders to refugees fleeing terror today. They saw in the tattooed numbers on Jewish arms the threat to register Muslim Americans with numbers.
They read the words of Martin Niemoller a Protestant Pastor who spent 7 years in the camps: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.
They heard in these words a warning against keeping silent. They felt it all. They were like Joseph.
In our Torah portion this week, Miketz, Joseph stands before his brothers who had long ago thrown him in a pit and sold him into slavery. He had now risen to power as the second in command under Pharaoh in Egypt and his brothers had come to him for help because there was a famine in the land and Joseph was the guy in charge. He recognized them. They did not recognize him. They stood before him and pleaded their case.
Our text describes Joseph’s reaction like so: vayimaher Yosef ki nichm’ru rachamav. “Joseph hurried out, for he was overcome with feeling . . . and was on the verge of tears; he went into a room and wept there.”
See, standing before Joseph was his whole life story. Everything that had given him his scars – real and metaphorical. But also the family that he yearned for. The love and the pain and the relief and the betrayal and his longing heart – it was just too much.
And so nichm’ru rachamav – which is translated in our chumash that he was “overcome with feeling.” But the Hebrew phrase nichm’ru rachamav – means: his compassion, his rachamim, was churning inside of him. As he felt all of these emotions – he could have chosen to hate, or to rage at them or to give up on them. This is not an uncomplicated moment for Joseph. Instead, though, he weeps, allows his heart to break open, and chooses compassion.
And so it was with our students’ hearts that broke open in DC and called them to choose to respond to what they saw with compassion – for our people and for other people. And so perhaps it is for us.
Many of us no doubt know that there is a terrible wave of bigoted rhetoric in our country right now – a call to register all Muslims in America or even to ban all Muslims from our country. And perhaps you are sitting here feeling many things about that, like Joseph was. The fears for our safety from radical terrorist groups in the world, vulnerability in the face of the unknown, uncertainty about the future. It is not easy to act with love in the face of fear. In the world we live in, in the city we live in, we can understand fear. But as Jews, we’ve lived this part of the story – we have been the target of such proposals, accused of being dangerous to society just for our Jewishness, and we know the devastating ends to which such rhetoric leads – including that which is seen in the current uptick in violent crimes against Muslim American women, men, and children, today, and also people who get mistaken for being Muslim, like Sikhs.
And so it is on us to also choose to unleash our rachamim – to see ourselves and our own fragility and humanity reflected in the denigration of an entire people based on their religion. We are compelled to offer, in a loud and clear voice, that we stand with our Muslim neighbors and friends and the strangers we pass each day. We will not stand by and watch history repeat itself, this time beginning with the demonization of Muslims.
And yes, some say that all this anti-Muslim rhetoric shouldn’t be taken seriously – it’s a media grab. But I want to offer . . . we would be better off to look foolish, in hindsight, for taking such outlandish things seriously than to realize too late that we missed our window to stand up at all.
Here we are celebrating Chanukah – a holiday that reminds us of our obligation to bring greater light into the world – to dispel darkness with our actions.
So how do we do it, how do we bring some sparks of light? Lots of ways. Yesterday, in our lobby, with our 4th grade families, Imam Dewidar from our local mosque, came to Central and lit our chanukiah with us, sharing the meaning of light in his tradition. And then some of us went back to his mosque to light a second round of 5th night candles together.
The light in the world grew as our 9th graders talked about issues that matter to them – gun violence, stem cell research, and refugees – to their elected officials – they said: We are here today because we believe we can do better than this. And: With this action, so much loss and suffering can be prevented. They said: We are taught in the book of Micah that we must not let fear overshadow our values. In 1939, one said, we let fear win. Today, we cannot make the same mistake. And they said: We, as Jews and Americans, cannot stand idly by while our neighbor bleeds.
Each act of compassion, courage, and connection that you individually make and we, as a community make, brings sparks of light and the potential for healing.
Perhaps, in these days, we can rewrite Pastor Niemoller’s poem: “First they came for the Muslims, But I was not a Muslim. I was a Jew. So I stood up and took my Muslim brothers’ and sisters’ hands and I said no way. Absolutely not. Not on my watch. End of poem. Amen.” Perhaps that can be our legacy – finding ways to show up for one another, speaking out, seeking out opportunities for compassion. May we turn darkness to light, fear to love, and isolation to solidarity.
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