The news weighs heavily on the mind. Old feelings of racism, hatred, and discrimination return with renewed vigor and urgency. The murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minnesota lit the brittle tinder of human nerves dried in the heat of virus-induced isolation. The world appeared ready to explode, and the video of Floyd’s murder was the match. A 400-year-old legacy of racism in America again stirs the hearts and minds. Mass protests and rioting pushed the casualties of the global Pandemic from the front page of the news.
Looking around the world, we see old and new hatreds of the other from Uyghurs in China to modern slaves in Africa. And even in Israel, accurately or not, people find parallels to what happened in the U.S. in the tragic death of Iyad Halak, an autistic man, at the hands of Israeli police.
Despite the well-reviewed work of people like Steven Pinker of Harvard, hatred of the other remains a powerful and active force.
In 1963, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously wrote President John F. Kennedy, “I propose that you Mr. President declare a state of moral emergency… the hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.” These words ring true to me today. Where do we find our “moral grandeur and spiritual audacity” when the protests run out of steam, and the world goes back to debating wearing masks and returning to work?
Legislators attempt to discover better methods of law enforcement and governance in various states in America to calm the present situation and improve the world for the future. Those of us watching from the sidelines often struggle to figure out what we can do. Beyond setting examples for our children and speaking up against racism in our own community, how can we help improve the world? Sometimes, the smallest gesture might have the most significant impact over time.
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the 19th-century founder of the Mussar Movement in Europe, is credited as saying,
“When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation. When I found I couldn’t change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn’t change the town, and as an older man, I tried to change my family.
Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realized that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation, and I could indeed have changed the world.”
Perhaps a small spiritual practice will enable us to follow Rabbi Salanter’s advice. Based on the kabbalistic tradition, Rabbi Avraham Gombiner suggests the following addition to the standard order of daily prayer. He writes, “before morning prayers, one should accept the mitzvah of loving the other as oneself.” This little ritual made its way into some versions of the prayer books, such as Chabad.
It’s a small thing, beginning the day trying to fulfill this biblical injunction. But sometimes little, constant gestures can be the most powerful like in the famous rabbinic story of water wearing out the rock. The hero of that story is none other than Rabbi Akiva, who suggested that “loving the other as oneself” is a great rule of the Torah. (Talmud Yerushalmi Nedarim)
Nachmanides questions the exact formulation of this biblical quote. He points out that logically one could not interpret the verse literally. For how could one love another absolutely as one loves oneself? Therefore, he suggests that the bible instructs how one should act towards another person. That in the manner one wants to be treated, he or she should treat others. While on the emotional level, achieving this state may be impossible, on a practical and pragmatic level, the Torah demands that we do. Some, of course, have read this verse as limited to fellow Jews. However, Rav David Tzvi Hoffman proves the universal message of Rabbi Akiva to include all good people. (See Commentary to Vayikra 19:18)
Putting this all together: The kabbalists suggest that one of the first things we do in the morning is to offer a brief daily prayer. This prayer reminds us that all humans are deserving of decency and created in the image of God. It doesn’t sound like much and requires no time and little effort. Yet the simple reminding ourselves of the value of every person we will great during the day.
The kabbalists suggest we need to realize the power of internalizing this value system. Could one who really accepts the Divine Image in another use racist slurs or humiliating language? Would a person who rises in the morning declaring the importance and value all of people, humiliate, and devalue another? Could Derek Chauvin have murdered George Floyd if he recognized our shared humanity?
We bystanders who are not sitting in the halls of power making the decisions; can we rise to change the world? Through marching and protesting and voting, we can influence legislation. We can march, and we can preach, and we can teach others. In a way, that might be the easy part. The real question is, can we begin by changing ourselves?
Can we accept upon ourselves the commitment to love the other as we love ourselves? It’s an excellent place to start.