I sit typing these words just a few days after the tragic events in Charlottesville Virginia. It is hard to imagine that in the year 2017 (5777) White Supremacist and Nazi groups walked the streets of an American city, chanting anti-semitic slogans and carrying flags adorned with swastikas. Americans were chilled by the images that came from Charlottesville, but for Jews the images were even more disturbing, bringing to our minds memories of the events of the Holocaust and the twisted and irrational hatred of our people that has all too often plagued us over the long years. It felt like the nation had collectively taken a step back to a darker and more dangerous time.
We must always be on our guard. Even here, even in America, so far away, in both time and place, from the horrors of World War II. How easy it is to grow complacent, to allow ourselves to imagine that our hard won freedoms are guaranteed, that the forces of evil have been utterly defeated. Remember the line in the Haggadah – “In every generation there are those who seek our destruction.” And the Torah warns us of the dangers of complacency in the Book of Deuteronomy: “Beware, for at the very moment when you feel settled, when your wealth has grown, when your home is strong, when your life is good – beware lest at that moment you begin to take it all for granted.” (Deuteronomy 8) The blessings of life should never be taken for granted. And the greatest blessing of life, after life itself, is freedom.
The key is remembering that freedom cannot exist without freedom for all. When some are free and others are not freedom is illusory, a house of cards that can all too easily come tumbling down. That is the insight that has enabled America to become the greatest country in the world. We have yet to realize that vision, but we subscribe to it, we believe in it, we find hope and comfort in it. We work for it. And when others try to destroy it, we have a responsibility to speak out.
Over the last days there have been rays of light in the darkness. America’s top ranking military officers forcefully and unequivocally spoke out against extremism and bigotry in all its forms. Leaders from across the communal spectrum were quick to condemn the hate groups. CEOs from some of the top businesses in the country made it clear they would not stand for anything less than the dignified treatment of all people, regardless of race, color, or faith. The mother of Heather Heyer, the young woman who was killed during the violence by a man who revered Nazi Germany, gave an eloquent eulogy for her daughter that reminded us all of what we can be at our very best. Each bright moment helped to counter the darkness, each ray of light helped to restore hope, and we were reminded of what makes this country great.
Moving forward we must make sure that those are the values and ideals that we embrace as a nation and as individuals. If and when we feel hatred and prejudice tugging at our hearts and poisoning our minds, we must reject them, categorically. If and when we see hatred and prejudice in our communities, we must not turn our heads away, but instead walk forward to confront what we know in our heats to be wrong. If and when we see hatred and bigotry in our nation, we must call it what it is, and discover what our role is in making sure it will not happen again.
In 1861 Abraham Lincoln concluded his first Inaugural Address with the following passionate words: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” May we together follow those angels to a more peaceful, tolerant, and just world for all.