Parashah Ponderings

“Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” Emma Lazarus, 1883

Parashat Behar 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת בְּהַר
Torah Portion: Leviticus 25:1-26:2 

If any of us ever wondered if there’s truth to the adage “None of us are free until all of us are free,” now we know. An 18-year old white supremacist opened fire at a grocery store in Buffalo, NY, last Saturday, killing 10 and wounding 3. Of the 13 victims, 11 were Black. The man drove 200 miles from his home to reach his target. He arrived heavily armed and wearing tactical gear, including a helmet outfitted with a camera to livestream his barbaric attack. This hate crime has rocked the community in which it took place, but its reverberations are felt everywhere, including in America’s Jewish community. Not only do our hearts go out to the families of the victims and their community, but more than that, we Jews share in their grief. We are no less free to ignore the hate that revealed itself in Buffalo than the people there who are suffering the most.

In “What you need to know about the antisemitic ideology behind the Buffalo shooting,” the Jewish Telegraphic Agency writes:

An online manifesto attributed to (the perpetrator) explains that the attack was spurred by the theory that a tide of immigrants is crowding out white populations in western countries. The manifesto also says that Jews are the real problem but that “they can be dealt with in time….” 

“Are you an anti-semite? YES!!” the manifesto reads in one place. Later, the author answers the question, “Why attack immigrants when the Jews are the issue?” The answer reads, in part: “They can be dealt with in time.”

How can we read the words of this proud anti-Semite, who just shot eleven Black people, and not recall Martin Niemoller’s lament, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist….” We know how it ends. Niemoller could distance himself from Hitler’s hate for only so long before he, too, was incarcerated in a concentration camp. He discovered just how intertwined his own fate was with the Jews and others whom Hitler sought to exterminate. In our own day, white supremacists and believers in the bogus “replacement theory” will target anyone they deem as “other” and they’ll do it “in time.”

There is no “us” or “them” when it comes to hate. The biggest mistake we can make is to only join forces with other minority communities in response to tragedies like the one in Buffalo or the one in Pittsburgh or the one in Christchurch, New Zealand or the one in…. We must always strive to be in relation with other minority communities, with other faith communities, and with all who are committed to working toward a more just and peaceful world. We won’t always agree with people’s politics or worldviews, but unless people of good will are prepared to work with those with whom they have serious differences, we’ll never create the just, peaceful world that all people of good agree we want to live in.

While the adage with which I opened my remarks has been attributed to Maya Angelou, among others, it was the great Jewish poet Emma Lazarus who wrote in 1883, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” At the time, Lazarus was addressing the assimilated, comfortable Jews of America who were turning their backs on Jews who were being beaten, raped, and murdered in the pogroms of Eastern Europe. Let us close our eyes, though, and imagine Emma Lazarus standing before us today addressing the current scourge of hate plaguing our nation. Let us hear her talking about the interconnectedness of all peoples when she says, “We ignore and repudiate our unhappy brethren as having no part or share in their misfortunes — until the cup of anguish is held also to our own lips.”

This week, we read in the Torah about God’s call for a jubilee (yovel, in Hebrew) – a reboot of the social order and a release from indebtedness and servitude. The yovel reminded our ancestors that the lives of all Israelites were intertwined, that all of Israel was responsible for one another. The same must be said of all humankind: all lives are intertwined, we are all responsible for one another. In this spirit, I ask each of us to explore ways in which we can build relationships with people who are different from ourselves – whether that’s joining them in their social justice efforts or inviting them to support our work for social justice. There’s more than one right way to increase love in the world. Find one that works for you.

May we live to see the day when hatred ceases, guns go quiet, and all of us are truly free.