Tag Archives: better angels of our nature

Charlottesville

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.

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Filed under America, American Jewry, Beth El Congregation, Bible, civil rights, community, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized

The Better Angels of Our Nature

This famous phrase comes from Lincoln’s first inaugural address. In large part the speech was intended to be a plea to the South for reconciliation, and initially Lincoln penned a conclusion that offered the southern states a choice between ‘peace or the sword.’ But in the end he was persuaded to change the text so the last sentence read as follows: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle field 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.”

There is a shared humanity that unites us all, the common threads of home and hearth, of struggle and strength and courage and faith, the universal need for dignity and freedom, the Divine soul we all carry that can open our minds and hearts. At times it seems hard to locate, obscured by the cross currents of events, almost unrecognizable behind the haze of anger and violence that can arise when people give in to the dark side. Lincoln recognizes this. By choosing the phrase ‘better angels’ he implies that there are darker angels that can lead us to places of destruction and hate. We have certainly seen this in Baltimore over the last days.

And yet Lincoln understands the darkness to be something that will pass, a dynamic that cannot sustain itself in the face of goodness and light. He writes: ‘when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.’ There is no doubt in his mind that ultimately kindness and caring and hope will survive and even thrive, while the dark days will fade into memory and history. It is not a question of will the better angels arrive, it is a question of when. As Jerry Garcia sang in the Grateful Dead song New Speedway Boogie, ‘one way or another this darkness got to give.’

And it will give. There are too many good people. Too many strong leaders of principle. Too much effort and energy and pride invested in Baltimore. This darkness will give. If not today, then tomorrow, or the next day. Hurts will be healed, connections will be strengthened, bridges will be built. And then, after the immediate needs are addressed, after peace and calm have been restored, then the work begins. There are deep seated needs, long standing problems of enormous complexity and challenge, educational problems, societal problems, economic problems, demographic problems that simply cannot be ignored. Problems with how the police conduct themselves, problems that stem from deep racial divides, the list is long and every item is connected to every other. Justice must be pursued. Needs addressed. Dignity restored.

Yes much work to do. But there are great people with great determination and spirit to do that work. If these days become a wakeup call to begin that work anew, we may one day look back and see this as a dark point that became a turning point, a storm that in the end gave way to a clear blue sky. May that be God’s will. And may it be brought about by human hands that work only for peace and hope.

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