This a text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 8/19 –
It was a Shabbat morning, and a small group of Jews – about 40 or so – had gathered together in their shul to recited the morning prayers. They were there for various reasons – some to celebrate, some for the sense of community, some because they felt obligated – the same reasons why many of us are here today. The little synagogue was their spiritual home, connecting them to our ancient tradition.
While they prayed storm clouds were gathering outside. There was unrest in the streets, marchers waving flags, chanting slogans, and spewing hate. The president of the shul stood outside at the entranceway, with an armed guard the congregation had hired for protection. For a time three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street, staring coldly at the front of the building. Multiple times in the course of the morning loosely organized groups of Nazis marched by the synagogue, pointing at it, screaming out ‘there is the synagogue!’, and anti-semitic slurs, and carrying flags with swastikas on them. When the services ended, the shul president advised the worshippers that they should leave the synagogue by the back door, and they should walk in groups until they get to their cars. And so the worshippers had to sneak out of their own shul, by the back door, because they were afraid.
What I just described happened over and over again in Germany in the 1930s. Who would have imagined that it could happen here in the United States, in Charlottesville Virginia, in the year 2017, just last weekend? Nazis marched in the streets, openly. Jews were afraid to go outside, a synagogue was threatened, and as we know later in the day a young woman was killed and others injured by a Nazi sympathizer. Perhaps things we never expected to see in the United States. I think we all felt like the nation had taken a step back to a darker and more dangerous time.
The first verse of this morning’s Torah portion is ראה אנכי נותן לפניכם היום ברכה וקללה – Behold! I put before you this day both blessing and curse. And we have indeed seen both this week. The curse has shown itself in the violence and hatred, in the stark reminder from the events in Charlottesville that the twisted tropes of anti-semitism can still be found in the dark corners of our country and in the ignorant minds of the Neo Nazis and White Supremacists who marched last week. That is the ‘kellalah’ – the curse, that we have seen, that we have been forced to confront.
What is the ברכה, what is the blessing? It has not come from the White House, and many in the Jewish community have been deeply disappointed by the response or lack of response from Washington. Perhaps we thought that at least the President’s daughter and son in law, both Jews, would step forward and speak out, but to this point they have not. So what is the ברכה, and where can we find it?
And the truth is, there have been many 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 – from both sides of the aisle – 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 to our hearts, and we were reminded of what makes this country great.
Freedom is at the core of that greatness. That is why Jews came to these shores, that is why Jews have done so well here, that is why we love this country. But the key is remembering that freedom cannot exist without freedom for all. We know as Jews that when some are free and others are not, the freedom is not real. That is the insight that has enabled America to become the greatest country in the world. We haven’t yet fully realized 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.
Those are the values and ideals that we must embrace as a nation and as individuals as we try to move forward from Charlottesville. If and when we feel hatred and prejudice tugging at our own hearts and poisoning our own 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.
You see the berachah – the blessing – is in each and every one of us. The courage and strength and faith and hope that God gives to each one of us, that enables us to stand up for what we know to be right, to embrace in our daily lives the values of freedom and tolerance and dignity for all that the founding fathers of our nation learned from the words of our Torah. When we ignore those values we fall short, and we are all diminished. But when we embrace those values we become the blessing, and we fulfill our destiny as human beings and as Jews.
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.