These days, when the future seems uncertain and many religious and political leaders have lost all credibility, it is not easy to believe in hope and faith for the future. Religion has become irrelevant to some and a cause of conflict for others, rather than a source of idealism and reconciliation.
Many young people abandon religious faith, while others have become religious zealots who lead their fanatical followers to battle against those who do not share their own beliefs.
In the Catholic Church, many bishops are not trusted by their people. America’s Protestant evangelicals are criticized for being more interested in propping up Trump, than in gospel values.
In the world of politics, we see a general inability to deal with the real issues of our day: climate change, economic injustice, and conflict among peoples. We see partisan divisions and political chaos: in France over a tax on energy, in Britain over Brexit, and in most of Europe over political refugees and economic immigrants.
Right-wing parties rule the governments of Brazil, Philippines, Turkey, Italy, and Hungary and threaten the governments of Austria, France, Germany, Spain, Poland, and the USA. Anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and Anti-Immigrant political groups are growing throughout Europe and North America.
But it is a Mitsvah to hope; and not to despair. Many years ago I read this wonderful narrative which I still read and reread when I am disgusted by current events.
One day my divorced mother, two younger brothers and I were going to a park outside the small Jersey town we lived in. On the way we passed a small bar where an agitated crowd had formed outside. There was a terrible tension in the air.
“Uh, oh,” one of my brothers said. “Shah,” my mother told him. I got an uneasy feeling in the gut of my stomach. I’d always had a certain uneasiness about crowds. Fear actually.
When I was about five, and we were living in Manhattan. I witnessed a crowd yelling for a suicidal man on an apartment building to jump. It left me with a bad feeling of what normal people are capable of doing when in a crowd mentality.
I shouted to my mother to speed up. Instead, she slowed down! She pulled to the curb on the opposite side of the street. We were maybe fifth feet from six or seven people cheering on a drunken fight. It was definitely a crowd mentality, all right. To our horror our mother got out, locking us boys in. “Stay put.” she said.
We didn’t unlock the car but we did open the windows a little. To our astonishment our petite mother walked through the ruckus, went up to the two brawlers and shouted to the one on top. “Get off him right now!”
It was as forceful as she had ever sounded. I’ll never forget her standing there with her hands on her hips, seemingly oblivious to the others around her.
Two men in the crowd must have been humbled by her audacity because they broke ranks from the rest and separated the two combatants. In the distance we heard a siren. Minutes later a police car pulled up and we got going again. From the back seat my youngest brother kept his arms lovingly around our mother’s neck as she drove, while my other brother and I just stared in utter amazement at her all the way to the park
The whole incident took only five minutes, but I have never forgotten it. In later years I learned from books that millions of Christians in Europe stood by idly when Jews and Gypsies were rounded up and deported to concentration camps.
For many decades millions of white people in the American south stood by while thousands of blacks were lynched.
Most Californians were bystanders when Japanese Americans were rounded up and sent to internment camps.
When I asked my mother why she was so different from other people, she told me Jews must be faithful to one of the most important Mitsvahs in the Torah; “Do not stand by while your neighbor bleeds.” (Leviticus 19:16)
But how could you go up against that crowd of big men I asked her.
She replied that the next two most important Mitsvot were: “Do not follow a majority to do evil.” (Exodus 23:2) and “You Shall be Holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy.” (Leviticus 19:2)
I now realized that I learned a great lesson that day from my petite mother. I learned that I really had nothing to fear from a crowd like that — as long as I never become a part of it.