I have spent this week haunted by the images and sounds from Charlottesville. Haunted by the idea that while we sat here singing for peace on Shabbat, a new generation of Nazis and white supremacists with fire in their hands marched chanting “Jews shall not replace us.” These words have echoed in my mind and in my heart as I have watched my two-year-old son discover the names of new flowers as we go on walks, and proudly exclaim “tada” when he does his first unassisted somersault. My son who is too young to understand race or religion. And who is still young enough to see all human beings as equal, all adults as equally trustworthy, and all children as a new best friend. My son, who by virtue of being mine, of being born to a Jewish mother and a Jewish father, my son who still sleeps with a teddy bear, and who needs kisses and cuddles when he falls down or is scared. My son who is hated. Who is despised.
Because he is a Jew.
The marchers will tell you that they aren’t all bad. They aren’t all racists. They aren’t all Nazis. They were protesting the removal of a statue, the revision of history. The President of the United States will tell you that within this group there were, and I quote, “some very fine people.”
“Jews will not replace us.”
Let me be unequivocally clear here. Anyone chanting this hate-filled message, anyone who doesn’t, at the very least, walk away and separate him or herself when this message is spewed, is not a very fine person. I need to say this. We, as a community, have to say this. Because my son, and Jewish sons and daughters around the world, should not live in a place where those charged with their safety, those charged to be their moral compass, excuse such statements.
This morning, we read from our parsha, Re’eh; Deuteronomy 11:26-29:
See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of Adonai your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of Adonai your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced. When Adonai your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and possess, you shall pronounce the blessing at Mount Gerizim and the curse at Mount Ebal.”
Blessing or curse? That is our choice according to Moses as he speaks to the Israelites before they enter the Holy Land. And it is the choice that each one of us faces in this world, to follow paths of goodness and righteousness, or to not. I’ll admit that when first reading this passage, I didn’t quite know what to do when I came across the words in our parsha: “bracha u’klalah” – blessing or curse. I know the word blessing. I know what it means to say a blessing, and to bring blessings to the world. But “curse” is a word quite foreign to me. To be honest, when I hear the word “curse” I can’t help but picture a big caldron bubbling over while a witch recites the words of dark magic and, cursing those upon whom they wish to bring evil. Blessing, on the other hand, is a common word in our Jewish vocabulary. When good things happen, we say, “what a blessing!” When Abraham departed towards his destiny, God stated that he, himself, would be a blessing, meaning a person that would bring goodness to the world.
I’ve never uttered the reverse phrase, “what a curse,” until this past week when I sat with my wife, our son peacefully sleeping in his crib, and witnessed those scenes in Charlottesville, those unbelievable scenes of Nazis…Nazis marching in the United States, their hatred lit by torches, yelling phrases not heard in half a century.
“What a curse!”
When we heard the deafening silence or rationalization and sympathy from our leaders, and when the condemnation met with very little action, and when a whole slew of hate-groups felt suddenly empowered and validated by our government.
“What a curse!”
Not since Nazi Germany have we as Jews felt such abandonment by our country, such helplessness in the face of antisemitism and evil growing in power.
“What a curse” upon this land.
We must remember that these men and women, young and old, who try to normalize their ideology by calling themselves the alt-right, but who are in fact white supremacists, racists, and neo-Nazis, made a choice. They made a choice on how to spend that day. They got up, put on their Nazi paraphernalia, or camo gear, picked up their torches, and decided to yell out messages of hate-speech, racism, bigotry, and antisemitism. They chose to follow the path of curses, the path of ignorance and blind-hatred, of old world fears and stereotypes. They chose to ignore their opportunity to be a blessing to this world, to bring kindness, understanding, and equality to an already hurting world.
But what about us? On this morning, on our day of rest and peace, what are the choices that we will make? God gave us a choice: blessing or curse? Note that God did not indicate a gray area in between. There are no “very fine people” carrying torches and recreating some of the darkest moments of our history. Abstaining from a choice, staying silent, is likewise not an option. Blessing or a curse, God says. “I didn’t know” or “I couldn’t choose” is not good enough. As Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once said, “What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander.” Like so many other survivors of the Shoah, Wiesel knew the pain of seeing those who should be making the choice of goodness and defending the targets of hatred, instead making no choice at all, staring in silence and watching the world go by.
Silence, dear friends, is not a choice we as Jews have been given. Silence gives power to those who bring curses to this world, and silence fails to empower and validate those who bring blessing.
So, what will we do to bring blessing in these difficult times, these times of confusion, fear, and disbelief? Let us make the choice to be a voice that stands up against the ignorant rhetoric of dead S.S. leaders. We must say, emphatically, that all are welcome here. We must open our doors to our neighbors, and to strangers. To Jews, to Muslims, to immigrants, to refugees, to people of color, to members of the LGBTQ community, to all those who are targets of hatred and ignorance. You are welcome in our homes, you are welcome at our table, you are safe and protected within these holy walls.
As Reform Jews, we are charged not only with hospitality, but with audacious hospitality—courageous, in your face, loud and proud, hospitality. Let us make the choice to no longer be passive and quiet, but to speak out to our government officials, to the press, to our racist uncle or ignorant neighbor, that there will be no Nazi rally in Indiana and that we will not use terms like alt-right to normalize what is in fact white supremacy and antisemitism. When those cursed individuals find their way to our doorsteps, we will be ready, with our own torches, aflame with love, character, integrity, and blessing. Our fires of blessing will drown out theirs, and we will sweep evil from our midst, as commanded by our God.
Friends, it is important that you know that we are not alone in this struggle. This week, faith leaders in our community have reached out to me by phone, in writing, and in person, to tell me that they support us, that they stand with us in these times of uncertainty. We must let their voices, combined with ours, become the louder voice. We must make blessings, not curses, the overarching narrative of our times. There is a story in our Tanakh, in 1st Samuel, that tells of King Saul, who was terrified and troubled by an evil spirit. To combat this terror, whenever Saul felt the evil spirit, he would call upon David to play the lyre, filling the world with music.
We are starting to feel an evil spirit come around us, terrifying us and troubling us. It is the spirit of curses upon the world. When it comes, let us take up our lyres, and bring music to one another. Our music will be the music of blessings, of worship, singing together in these sacred walls. Let the prayers and music here be cleansing, helping us to find relief, and release from the evil in this world. Let us invite others in to feel that relief, let our house be a house of music that keeps evil away, a Temple that chooses blessing over curse.