I am watching part of my city burn. I am watching the blocks around my old office be trashed, stores looted and pain and frustration be manifest in ways I foolishly thought were behind us.The scene brought back memories of the 1960’s; riots and violence from civil rights demonstrations, viet-nam protests, assassinations and political corruption. Our generation remembers them, heck, many of us took part in some of them. And here we are again, a half century later, looking at TV and seeing our country being ripped apart and we remember that if we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.
“The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose” (James Baldwin). We are living to see that again. So now, our generation watches these pictures and many of us look and wonder what kind of country and society are we leaving to our grandchildren? We were naive to think that legislation and time would eliminate the historic stain of racism. We are not immune, we Jews. We see anti-Semitism on the rise, but the systemic racism that still pervades the USA, despite all the country’s greatness, continues to threaten the very core of who we are. Add to this the pandemic and economic decline and a growing nationalism, and we have a perfect storm; a storm that is breaking now. Will we, as a society have the courage to face this. or will we, as things calm, retreat to former norms and behaviors, placing a band-aid of rhetoric and resolutions on the festering sore of racism? And for rhe Jewish community, if we allow ourselves to think that this has nothing to do with us, well, just study a little Jewish history!
This is a challenging moment. We can seriously engage in this discussion and build coalitions that empower people to change. Since our generation has walked this walk, perhaps it should be elders, Boomers who lead this charge. No one is “born” to hate, that is why that tune from “South Pacific” is still so true; “you have to be taught to hate”!. This is a time to recall that quote from Pirke Avot, a line we posted in one of our poste for the Passover to Shavuot time frame, the line which reads: “in a place where no one acts as a humen being, strive to be a human being”. This a time when we are being called to act like human beings, as true people created b’tzelem elohim, “in God’s image”. This takes courage and reason and a willingness to engage people “where they are”. It is not just about money and laws, it is also about attitude, education and our basic value of chased —loving-kindness, compassion and empathy. And we better do it soon, for “if not now, when?”
Maybe we are being given one last chance. Maybe we need to listen again to the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel from a speech he gave in 1963. “Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal and evil racism is.Few of us realize that racism is man’s greatest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking”
The fires are burning.
Rabbi Richard F Address