Instead of right or left, straight ahead

“Can I help you on, sir?” a young man asked an elderly gentleman who was nervous about stepping onto a descending escalator at a mall in Holyoke, Massachusetts. He had a scary experience once before so he was pleased to receive the assistance. Back in June this pedestrian act of kindness quickly became viral on social media. People want to believe in human goodness. Our long, hot summer began with the faith-warming kindness of a young stranger steadying the balance of an elder.

Balance. It feels particularly remote these days. We’re increasingly unmoored and unnerved. We ask ourselves, “Is this really happening in 2017 America?” Do rabbis still have to remove Torah scrolls from sanctuaries in response to arson threats? Do statues standing throughout the halls of the US Capital suddenly need to be taken down? Does the wickedness of Nazis now need to be re-learned? Will a college campus disinvite a speaker for expressing a non-conforming worldview? We worry about where this is all heading. Will free expression and facing history become additional casualties of hate?

Our portion of Torah re-directs to our moral compass. “You shall not turn from the thing that they will instruct you, right or left” (Deut. 17:11).  Checks and balances are also set in place for the King, “So he will not turn from the commandment, right or left” (Deut. 17:20).  Tilting right or left does more than impair balance.  Swaying right or left can careen toward staggering outcomes.  Balance is restored in the final words of our portion: “purge the ‘wrongly punished’ by doing what is straight (yashar) in the Lord’s eyes” (Deut. 21:9).  The Hebrew word yashar, straight or upright, connotes righteousness.  The answer to swaying left or right is not sweeping to the opposite extremity.  It is in moving forward, straight ahead as spaciously as we can.

Today’s extremities hold too much space.  Bad ideas must be challenged.  Their defeat is brought about by their inferiority not by their suppression. 

Just around the corner of ‘limited expression’ is ‘eliminated history’.  Empty pedestals offer an interesting alternative to statue removal and crowded museums. They preserve history as they discourage veneration.

Noxious forces are gathering momentum across our country.  May we not be swayed by what’s to the left of us or by what’s to the right of us, but by what’s ahead of us.  And may our summer draw to a close with each of us fashioning tender moments that echo the gentle goodness revealed that June afternoon in a Holyoke mall.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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