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Symbols After Charlottesville


Shabbat Re'eh 5777 | August 19, 2017
In a simple, upbeat song, singer-song writer Ed Sheeran asks, “What Do I Know?” He begins:
“Ain't got a soapbox I can stand upon
But God gave me a stage, a guitar and a song.”
I don’t have a soapbox I can stand on, either. But God gave me a stage, (or at least a lectern,) a thought, and a sermon. So here goes. This was a difficult week for our country. When we come to synagogue it is important for us to reflect on and talk about what happens around us. It is our proper responsibility as a synagogue community to advocate among ourselves and in our society for the values of our religious tradition and historical heritage. Especially at a time of social discord.
At times, we may disagree with one another. We may never disparage each other. The message going out from this sanctuary and this campus must counter the culture of crass conversations surrounding us.
You’ll discover I do not speak of politics from this podium. I do speak of ethics. Justice is not a political idea. Neither are compassion and human dignity. Judaism teaches us to use words carefully and to act with integrity. Standing against bigotry and standing for the oppressed are core Jewish principles. Denouncing anti-Semitism and racism is our moral mandate.
This particular verse from Ed Sheeran’s song came to mind this week.
“I saw people marching in the streets today
You know we are made up of love and hate
But both of them are balanced on a razor blade.”
Our ancient sages teach this. “Love upsets routine and hate upsets routine.” The rabbis explain. When we act out of love, love lifts us up and moves us to do for others more than is our norm. Yet, when we act out of hate, hate brings us down and moves us to do against others more than is our norm.
Translate the rabbis’ words for yourself. Think about the many times you went out of your way to help someone you care about. Remember the few times you didn’t offer assistance because you didn’t care enough for the person asking. Feelings of love and hate lead us to be kind or mean, kinder or meaner. We’re all capable of both.
Ed Sheeran’s song concludes with these words.
“Spread love and understanding, positivity
Love can change the world in a moment
But what do I know?”
It’s a sweet song with a lovely sentiment which came to mind in response to the disturbing events in Charlottesville, VA this week. It would be nice if love could change the world. It sure seems hate can.
We need to remember that hate fills voids in people’s lives. Hate comes from the inability to control circumstances. Hate comes from the inability to achieve validation and dignity. Hate comes from fears felt in a changing world. Hate comes from ignorance and unfamiliarity. Hate comes from difference, envy, anger, desperation, and unhappiness. It would be great if love could fill those voids instead. But what do I know?
This is why Torah places a stark and standing choice before us. “See, this day, I set before you blessing and curse.” Moses’ words urge the people’s allegiance and adherence to God’s commands.
We think of mitzvot as behaviors to perform. Mitzvot are also symbols. When we do them, we discover the blessing of bringing God into the world. When we don’t do them, we discover the curse of living without the grace and ethics of God’s presence. It’s a basic choice. Do our lives reflect our love or our hate?
For this reason, Moses emphatically demands the destruction of “all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshipped their gods…” Sefer HaHinukh, a text seeking to explain the ethical purposes of mitzvot, sees in the intent of Moses’ demand a decision not to maintain for future generations any impressionable images of idolatry.
All of Judaism’s classic students of Torah agree. In order to stand up for the good and the right, a community and a society must remove any influential symbols of depravity. In our freedom, we have to choose: blessing or curse, good or bad, love or hate.
These very Torah values speak to us today. All symbols have meaning. We must decide. Which ones represent us? Which symbols do we want to influence our children and theirs?
I have two reactions to the racism and rage in Charlottesville. First, it is time to decide that statues depicting Confederate leaders and the Confederate flag have no place on United States government property. Maybe there are other educational settings for teaching about the Civil War, slavery, and our nation’s history. These displays do not belong in the public square.
I’m new to San Diego and unfamiliar with how these issues are or are not present locally. I did take note of the City Council’s decision on Wednesday to remove a sign marking the “Jefferson Davis Highway.”
Confederate symbols are not emblems of a regional heritage. Their display on public property is not a matter of free speech. A nation cannot fly two flags. The Confederate flag and statues paying homage to the Confederacy are icons of racism and sedition.
It’s easy to tell others what to do with their symbols. My second reaction involves deciding what to do with my own.
Last Saturday, men dressed in fatigues carrying semi-automatic rifles greeted the members of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville as they came to pray. Marchers with Nazi flags and lit torches paraded outside the synagogue building and in city streets chanting anti-Semitic slurs. We gasp. Even though we know it’s irrational and ignorant, we know from history, and our own personal experiences, to pay attention.
I, for one, am proud those who can’t grasp or don’t recognize the goodness and dignity Judaism empowers us to represent, promote, and uphold hate me. If my mere presence among them is so bothersome then I must actually represent something truly important. You and I are symbols, too. We are symbols of human dignity.
This ugly episode, and this ugly moment in American discourse, will pass. To be sure they do, like our ancient ancestors preparing to enter their land, we have to decide which symbols will influence us and what our symbols mean. Symbols represent loyalties and identities, memories and hopes, values and beliefs. Symbols include or exclude, embrace or reject, unite or divide.
“See, this day, I set before you blessing and curse.” In order to stand up for the good and the right, a community and a society must remove any influential symbols of depravity. In our freedom, we have to choose: blessing or curse, good or bad, love or hate.
“Spread love and understanding, positivity
 Love can change the world in a moment
But what do I know?”
© 2017 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
Sat, March 2 2024 22 Adar I 5784