By Rabbi Rick Sherwin
I didn’t know whether to be amused or annoyed…
I posted on Facebook my thoughts following the nefarious murder in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, expressing the hope that we can take an active step beyond expressing sorrow and outrage, with an option for action to prevent such tragedies in the immediate and distant future. As expected, there were people who agreed with me and there were people who did not. What I did not expect was the bitterness of some replies that were not directed at me, but at each other.
I decided to delete all condescending and accusatory comments, both amused and annoyed that people were using my page to attack each other. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could eliminate all rancorous rhetoric that currently pollutes cyberspace and the airwaves with the simple press of a button!
In a sense, the Rabbis of the Talmud almost 2,000 years ago taught that we do have a button at our fingertips, literally. They ask, “Why are fingers shaped the way they are?” Their answer: “They fit nicely into one’s ears to block words that should not be spoken.” Deleting those comments was my way to make a statement while putting fingers into my ears.
On Tuesday night the combined Jewish and the interfaith community came together to offer spiritual support to the Pittsburgh Jewish community, and to convey an active promise to defuse the anger that inspires such denigration and destruction. Every seat in the Sanctuary and social hall was filled, people stood along the walls, and others overflowed into the hallway and chapel to listen and to participate in the program. The message of the evening was simple and straightforward: it is time to stop the verbal madness that is unraveling the fabric of moral society, and time to become active in muffling the message of those who have little regard for human dignity.
Rabbi Steve Engel offered an impassioned message worthy of the classical prophets – Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Zachariah. Rabbi Engel began by acknowledging what we all know to be true: degrading, demeaning and derogatory words fan the flames of bigotry, racism, misogyny, and xenophobia. Name-calling, rumor mongering, and “mudslinging” have brought out the worst in our country.
We listened intently to Rabbi Engel and to his three-point demand to each of us, to leaders of countries and communities, to politicians and educators, to big business and to anyone who interacts with people:
- Limit our own temptation to attack anyone on a personal level or to ascribe negative motives.
- Whenever possible, speak up to stop words designed to undermine another’s dignity or the dignity of a group.
- Gather with friends and others in the community to create models that will bring unity.
When Rabbi Engel sat down, Pastor Jim Coffin approached the podium and, with his warm personable smile, asked how anyone could follow the rabbi’s passionate prophetic charge. He looked at Rabbi Engel, then faced the overflowing extended sanctuary, and softly said, “Here is what we are going to do…”
I believe we would all benefit by recalling and integrating Rabbi Tarfon’s message into our lives on the personal level and in the community: “It is not your responsibility to finish the task, but you are not free to walk away from it.”
- No one might be watching, but you must be the model.
- Society might not listen, but you must speak up.
- The community might not want to agree, but you must share.
- People tend to reach in, but you must reach out.
- The task is overwhelming, but you must move forward.
- Your charge is to make a difference in the world,
And the best way is to invite others to join you in transforming darkness into light.
The Hebrew Bible tells us the beginning of creation was chaos and culminated with Sabbath peace. Last Shabbat, the world returned to chaos in Pittsburgh. This Shabbat, join with your faith community in worship. Spend time with people – including those who might sit on the opposite side of the aisle – and create a strategy to safeguard each other’s integrity and to uphold the dignity of those who might not be able to stand alone. Resolve to walk the path to shalom together.
Rabbi Rick Sherwin, a graduate of UCLA, was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Rabbi Rick’s passion is filling spiritual services and interfaith educational programs with creativity, relevance, dialogue, and humor.