Biased cops murdering innocent people of color. Innocent cops targeted by assassins. A President who claims he either wins or the election is invalid. A simple statement of truth like black lives matter, obscuring the truth of an organization by the same name whose 47,000-word manifesto accuses Israel of genocide and some of whose leaders credit their inspiration to Louis Farrakhan who said not long ago: “Pedophilia and sexual perversion institutionalized in Hollywood and the entertainment industries can be traced to Talmudic principles and Jewish influence…Satanic influence under the name of Jew.” (Saviours’ Day speech, Chicago, Feb. 17, 2019) Let all of that that sink in.
Our country has such serious problems and instead of thoughtful solutions, we get finger pointing. The far left points to Wall Street, to “white privilege,” to the 1%, most of whom work hard, pay their taxes and are our best hope to jumpstart the economy when Covid-19 recedes. The far right meanwhile points to Jews, Muslims, gays, gun control advocates, and people of color and immigrants, most of whom also work hard, pay their taxes and have suffered disproportionately during Covid-19 delivering our food, stocking our shelves, caring for our elderly, sick and dying and cleaning up our messes while many of us have been at home behind our computers riding out the threat. Each side sticks to its version of the truth, neither listens to the other, each shouts louder while the country continues to suffer and to bleed. “The world, that understandable and lawful world, was slipping away,” wrote William Golding, in Lord of the Flies. It’s easy to feel that way these days.
What would the ancient prophets have to say to us today about our national bickering? They would remind us that the Second Temple in Jerusalem fell not because of Roman occupation but because of sinat chinam—infighting. They would remind us that the plague of darkness in the Passover tale was “A darkness so dark that people could not recognize the humanity in each other.” The prophet Zecharia would shout to us across the generations “Not by might and not by power, but by God’s spirit shall people live in peace.” Might and power alone mean little if uninformed by the spirit of God and by the spirit of a genuine peace that comes from mutual respect.
What is this genuine peace the rabbis encouraged us all to pursue? The great Slonimer Rebbe explained it this way: “The shalom that our Rabbis placed on such a high spiritual level cannot simply mean the absence of disagreement and conflict.” The rabbi’s point is that real peace is so much more than the lack of differences. Real peace is a wholeness, an ethic, a marriage, a family, a workplace, a city, a country, and a world that values, respects, and honors different points of view and different human journeys.
What does it say about us as a nation when it is politically correct to say that black lives matter but politically incorrect or worse to also say that blue lives matter, and that all lives matter? The Torah teaches we are all born of the same two parents and the biologists remind us that we are all 99.9% genetically identical. Have we forgotten that no one’s blood is redder and that when you prick us we all bleed?
Consider a single page of the Talmud – the collection of laws that have defined the essence of Judaism for nearly 2,000 years. Choose any one of its 2,711 pages and you will see multiple columns and sections. Each is the opinion of a different school of scholars and individuals. Every argument is recorded, considered, and respected. This was the ancient rabbis’ model for us to prosper as a people for 20 centuries — by appreciating and respecting each other’s views, not by demonizing and disregarding them. The greatest, most mature, most truly powerful people know that theirs is not the only truth. Without affirming there are many paths to many truths, without seeing, listening to and respecting our neighbors near and far, and without accepting that sometimes you are the one who is wrong…we are lost.
Two famous study partners in the Talmud named Resh Lakish and Yochanan challenged each other on virtually every point of Jewish law. When Resh Lakish died Yochanan sank into deep grief. In order to help him, Yochanan’s friends found him another study partner who was a brilliant young scholar. When they studied together, each time Yochanan made a point, the young scholar gave 24 reasons why Yochanan was correct. This only worsened Yochanan’s grief as he wailed, “Oh where is my dear friend Resh Lakish to tell me when I am wrong?” Not long after, Yochanan also dies. It’s simple really—with friends to tell us when we are wrong we arrive together at the truth. Without them, truth dies.
Each year, Yom Kippur comes as a friend to challenge us. It is meant to cast doubt on our behavior and assumptions; to help us see the world through the eyes of those we have hurt. The commandment of Rosh Hashanah is not to blow the shofar, but to listen to the shofar. The supreme mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah is to listen with an open mind and an open heart. The supreme imperative on Yom Kippur is to say out loud with sincerity, humility and commitment to change, “We were wrong.” If you cannot say you were wrong, you cannot become a better human being.
We are all mourning the loss of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—a Jewish giant. As Yom Kippur approaches, it would do us well to consider her legacy and perhaps even more so, her relationship with Justice Antonin Scalia, who was arguably one of the Supreme Court’s most conservative members. The liberal Ginsburg and conservative Scalia were fast friends. They took their families on vacations together, regularly went out to dinner together, and met up each New Year’s Eve. "Call us the odd couple," Scalia said. "She likes opera, and she's a very nice person. What's not to like?" On another occasion, he noted, “I have never gotten angry at Ruth or at any of my colleagues because of the way they voted...Ruth and I disagree on the law all the time and it has never had anything to do with our friendship.”
Consider also, especially as the election approaches, this too-often forgotten letter from George H. W. Bush to Bill Clinton, found sitting on the desk when Clinton first entered the Oval Office as President:
When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that too. I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described. There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course. You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good luck. George.” That is decency. That is respect. That is democracy.
As Yom Kippur approaches, let us all pay heed to the words of a thirteen-year-old girl who in 1946 wrote in her childhood synagogue’s newsletter:
“The war has left a bloody trail and many deep wounds not too easily healed. Many people have been left with scars that take a long time to pass away. We must never forget the horrors which our brethren were subjected to in Bergen-Belsen and other Nazi concentration camps. Then, too, we must try hard to understand that for righteous people hate and prejudice are neither good occupations nor fit companions. As Rabbi Alfred Bettleheim once said: ‘Prejudice saves us a painful trouble, the trouble of thinking.’
In our beloved land families were not scattered, communities not erased nor our nation destroyed by the ravages of the World War. Yet, dare we be at ease? We are part of a world whose unity has been almost completely shattered. No one can feel free from danger and destruction until the many torn threads of civilization are bound together again. We cannot feel safe until every nation, regardless of weapons or power, will meet together in good faith, the people worthy of mutual association. There can be a happy world and there will be once again, when men and women create a strong bond towards one another, a bond unbreakable by a studied prejudice or a passing circumstance. Then and only then shall we have a world whose structure is the Brotherhood and Sisterhood of men and women.”
That thirteen-year-old girl was Ruth Bader. Let us not give in to the coarseness and carelessness of our time, lest we reap what we sow. Let us embrace instead more deeply and truly than ever before the brotherhood and sisterhood that are surely our greatest hope. For only then shall we merit inscription in the Book of Life as we enter the New Year.