What is This World Coming To?

When I was a pre-teen, I read a book called “The Moon by Night” by Madeline L’Engel. It was a coming of age story about a teen (who happens to be the daughter of a minister) on a journey of self-discovery while travelling cross-country with her family. One of the characters in the book quotes a ditty which was created by Sheldon Harnick – the lyricist of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Here’s a link to YouTube so you can listen to it sung by the Kingston Trio: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RHYbvHyNRZA

Things haven’t changed too much in the past 50 plus years – things haven’t changed too much in that past century – actually, they haven’t changed too much in the past few millennia! While many of us are scratching our heads and wondering, “What is this world coming to?” in 2016; many peoples have experienced similar angst throughout history. Can you think of any civilizations or countries where unjust and merciless killing have not occurred? I can’t . . .

Just last night in Dallas, deep in the heart of the land of the free and the home of the brave, a sniper killed 5 police officers and wounded 7 others – this on the heels of police shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota. In an article published in today’s NY Times, authors Timothy Williams and Michael Wines wrote:

The convulsive events further divided a nation already torn over race and law enforcement, raising anguished pleas for unity and echoes of the protests and divisions of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“Even in the 1960s and 1970s, when there was a lot of tension around policing and civil rights and the antiwar movement, we’d never seen anything like what happened in Dallas,” said Darrel Stephens, the executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association and an instructor at Johns Hopkins University.

As Sheldon Harnick wrote, “The whole world is festering with unhappy souls. The French hate the Germans. The Germans hate the Poles.”

Our tradition calls senseless hatred, sinat chinam. Each Yom Kippur, we recite, “al chet shechatanu l’fanecha b’sinat chinam  – for the sin we have committed against You by hating without cause.” That is only one of the myriad of sins which we commit against others. We also admit to:

R’chilut – malicious gossip.

Tzarut ayin – narrow-mindedness

N’tiyah Garon – arrogance

Vidui peh – hypocrisy

and neshech umarbit – exploiting the weak

These are sins against God, because they are sins against other human beings. If we believe that each of us in created in God’s image, then any time we wrong another, we have wronged our Creator.

The shootings of African-Americans, the genocide which occurred during the civil war in Rwanda, the deaths of Native Americans in the New World – all these arose from sinat chinam, senseless hatred. However, the most notable example of sinat chinam in our world was the Holocaust. 6 million Jews perished; however ours was not the only group that suffered at the hands of the Nazis. During the era of the Holocaust, German authorities also targeted other groups because of their perceived “racial inferiority”: Gypsies, the disabled, and Slavic peoples (Poles, Russians, and others). Other groups were persecuted on political, ideological, and behavioral grounds, among them Communists, Socialists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals.

Last Shabbat, Elie Wiesel died. His NY Times obituary stated that “by the sheer force of his personality and his gift for the haunting phrase, Mr. Wiesel . . . gradually exhumed the Holocaust from the burial ground of the history books. When Mr. Wiesel received the Nobel Prize in 1986, the citation read, “Wiesel is a messenger to mankind. His message is one of peace, atonement and human dignity. His belief that the forces fighting evil in the world can be victorious is a hard-won belief.”

President Obama eulogized Wiesel, saying,

He raised his voice, not just against anti-Semitism, but against hatred, bigotry and intolerance in all its forms. He implored each of us, as nations and as human beings, to do the same, to see ourselves in each other and to make real that pledge of ‘never again.’

In an interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” Wiesel spoke of his Judaic background. He said that even in Auschwitz he studied the Torah and Talmud.  Many of Wiesel’s writings, after the publication of the classic Holocaust book, “Night,” show a reality heavily influenced by Talmud, Kabbalah and Chassidism. No doubt, he would have plenty to say about last night’s shooting in Dallas, not to mention the police actions which gave rise to it.

Jewish tradition teaches, “v’ahavta l’rei-acha kamocha.” While we usually translate this phrase, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” the term “rei-ah” is much broader – it can be translated as friend and even associate. Hillel taught that this phrase is the essence of Torah and all the rest is commentary; Rabbi Akiva taught that it is the greatest precept of Torah; according to the Gospels, Jesus taught that it was the second greatest commandment – the first being “Love Adonai your God with all your heart and all your soul and with all your might.” That teaching – v’ahavta l’rei-acha kamocha­ – takes us back to the idea that when we sin against others, we sin against God.

For Wiesel, the greatest sin was that of being a bystander. Sara J. Bloomfield, director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum said, “He was a singular moral voice . . . he brought a kind of moral and intellectual leadership and eloquence, not only to the memory of the Holocaust, but to the lessons of the Holocaust, that was just incomparable.”     We honor Wiesel’s memory when we speak out against injustice. We honor Wiesel’s memory when we see senseless hatred and work to eradicate it. We honor Wiesel’s memory when we elect leadership that will fight for equal rights for all persons – no matter the color of their skin, their religious belief, their education, their financial status.

Rabbi Tarfon taught, “the day is short, and the task is great, and the workers are sluggish, and the Master of the house is pressing.” He also taught, “You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to abstain from it.” So it is for each of us to participate in the mission of our people to be a light to the nations!

Ken y’hi ratson