The Blessing and the Curse — Charlottesville and Racism in America

I would like to address the horrific events in Charlottesville last week.

This week’s parsha begins

רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה׃

See, I place before you today, blessing and curse.

And Torah goes on to say that this choice, between blessing and curse is be given physical expression, it is to be brought to life in a unique performance

וְהָיָ֗ה כִּ֤י יְבִֽיאֲךָ֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־אַתָּ֥ה בָא־שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּ֑הּ וְנָתַתָּ֤ה אֶת־הַבְּרָכָה֙ עַל־הַ֣ר גְּרִזִ֔ים וְאֶת־הַקְּלָלָ֖ה עַל־הַ֥ר עֵיבָֽל׃

When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and possess, you shall pronounce the blessing at Mount Gerizim and the curse at Mount Ebal

There are two mountains, opposite one another, 6 tribes are to ascend one mountain, 6 will ascend another and the levites in the middle will pronounce words of blessing and curse.

It was to be a very unique, impactful scene.  On the one hand, nothing else remotely like it was to happen again, on the other hand, it must have remained in the people’s minds for generations.

Famously these two mountains paint a stark, visual, physical metaphor. Har Grizim, the mountain on which the blessing is to be directed, is green and verdant, lush and alive. The other, the mountain at which the curses are stated, is dry, arid, barren, lifeless.

And it seems to me that the Torah is using the very topography, the actual map of Eretz Yisrael to teach one of its most important lessons.

רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה׃

Blessing and curse — Hayom — not that one day, but every day. Every day individuals, societies, choose between good and evil. We used to think that progress was unrelenting, inevitable.  That in the words of Martin Luther King’s precept  “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

But we now know — and we only need to look at the tragedy that is the continued terror attacks against civilized Europe — that that is not the case.

Progress can be won, and it can be lost. Societies can advance, civilize, but they can also regress, brutality and intolerance can come roaring back, even after being apparently defeated.

And so, near the entrance to the land of Israel is the most physical reminder of this – the land contains symbols of both progress and life, and of darkness and death.

The Jewish people’s eyes are to be ever directed to that spot, always to remember that this great project, of the Brit, the covenant, the settling of the promised land by the jewish people would not inevitably succeed. That it could go either way – both mountains beckoned, and that every day, every single day, people faced a choice about what kind of society they chose to build.

Clearly, the Torah’s warning, applies not just to Ancient Israel. Or even modern Israel. Every people, every society faces that test. Every society is charged with both advancing, morally, improving the life and welfare of all its citizens, casting out evil and hatred. And at the same time it is charged with eternal vigilance that what one generation achieved, another should not squander.

Last week I visited a federal office, to be fingerprinted in connection with my citizenship process. And looking around the people from all backgrounds – hasidic jews and muslims, people of all ethnicities. I thought about the Har Eval and Har Grizim of our own America

America is the Statue of Liberty. It is the Declaration of Independence and the constitution. It is the dream of emancipation of freedom from the very first.

But America also was the scene to some of the very opposite values.  Slavery. Segregation. Separate lunch counters and people of color at the back of the bus.

Not merely individual crimes, but legalized, protected, vigorously defended by elected officials, judges, and whole populations.

We like to think that racism simply ended. That there used to be, in living memory of many people, a time when blacks and whites were not allowed to drink from the same water fountain. When it was legal to discriminate in housing, employment, education.

And then, in  matter of years, that all simply went away.

We used to think that — hope that. But last weekend in Charlottesville told us, finally, that we were wrong.

The fact is, even before Charlottesville , racism in America had not gone away.

It would be ridiculous to think that. Just a passing familiarity with the life chances of Blacks compared to Whites tells you that this is not as equal society as we like to think. And if in 2017 america there are huge parts of the country where black people literally tremble in fear when pulled over by the cops in their cars – there is a battle that is far from over.

What was displayed in Virginia last weekend , should fill us all with horror. The lesson of history — and Jewish history in particular — is that hatred, evil, can never be brushed off as too insignificant to bother with.

The regrettable fact is that alive and well, and growing in this country, are movements based on old hatreds, who would like to turn the clock back, bring back the segregation , racism and evil hatred that we had hoped had been banished.

And even if it posed no threat at all to the jewish community we should still be outraged. Many people have shared with me a letter by a congregant from the shul in Charlottesville, and although now it is being said that contrary to what is written the police did offer, and did provide full protection to the shul, nonetheless the description of Jews in a synagogue in today’s America — “Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, “There’s the synagogue!” followed by chants of “Sieg Heil” and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols” – should fill us with horror.

Four years ago,we at Lincoln Square Synagogue held a memorial service, for three “Freedom Riders” — one African American, two Jewish who were murdered in protecting civil rights in Mississippi 50 years earlier.

I spoke then about how I had very much hoped to discover that Michael Shwerner and Andrew Goodman had been influenced by Jewish teachings, but they had not been, but I had discovered that, tragically, the people who had killed them had almost certainly been brought up on Bible lessons twisted and misapplied to justify segregation and discrimination.

But we need to know that the Torah teaches the opposite values — the Sanctity of Life, equality before the law, moral progress, human dignity and the bedrocks of modern civilization, that are, I believe, under real jeopardy in America today.

And in this crazy climate that we find ourselves in, when good and bad are so often confused in people’s minds, let it be stated clearly in the words of the Torah good and bad are placed before us — we have to see them, and then choose them there is no room for confusing them, for fence sitting or for hesitation.

Friends, the pulpit is not a place for politics.

But as I said on Shabbat Chanukah when I spoke about the disgraceful UN resolution and Secretary Kerry’s and President Obama’s remarks, somethings are not politics, they are morality.

So for the record, let me add my voice in echoing in protest President’s Trump’s remarks, doubled down on, a failure to wholeheartedly, unambiguously repudiate racism and nazism in America.

Let me echo the words of the Republican Jewish Coalition  who called on Trump to “provide greater moral clarity in rejecting racism, bigotry, and antisemitism”.

Let me echo Rabbi Lookstein: “While we always avoid politics, we are deeply troubled by the moral equivalency and equivocation President Trump has offered in his response to this act of violence.”

Let me echo James Murdoch, son of Rupert Murdoch and C.E.O. of Fox 21st Century: “I can’t even believe I have to write this: standing up to Nazis is essential; there are no good Nazis. Or Klansmen, or terrorists.”

Friends we have, unfortunately many forces that oppose us. The Antifa and radical Left contain many hostile elements. We are all too aware of their antipathy to Israel. We sadly face threats from all directions.

But when Nazis march in America i don’t want to hear the president of the United States fail to simply say this is evil and will not be tolerated.

The swastika cannot be allowed, racism cannot be allowed to raise it head again. There are not good folks on both sides when neo nazis march and shout racist and anti-Semitic slogans.

A president’s job is to lead, not to follow. And if the President of the United States feels that it is politically inconvenient to come out against racism, that it might affect his vote , what exactly does that say about the United States of America, and what exactly does it say about the president of the United States of America.

And it makes no difference — and shame on Israelis who have been anxious to make this point — that these American nazis claim to be “pro Israel.” “White Zionism” they call it, G-d forbid.  First of all they are not, they are at root deeply anti-Semitic and secondly, they are certainly not for the kind of Israel that you and I and every decent Zionist wants to see.

This past week we at Lincoln Square lost a beloved member, a Holocaust Survivor

Reb Mendel Schuldenfrei. In my last conversation with him, just last Friday, he told me not to go back to Poland. That it was one large cemetery.

Did he think that swastikas would again parade in the streets of America? That the evil that suddenly appeared, swallowed his entire family in the worst hatred, would be celebrated, paraded in this land? And that some people, some Jews, might not know whose side they were on? He and survivors like him, would have been our moral compass. He would not have shrugged his shoulders and said “there are good folk on both sides.”

We are familiar with the idea of their being 613 commandments. The Torah contains many more than 613 instructions — the 613 commandments are normally understood to be things that were to be done not just on one occasion, but are commandments for future generations. Yet, when Rav Saadia Gaon listed his understanding of what the 613 mitzvot were, he included the ceremony of Har Eval and Har Grizim, which is truly strange as it happened once, and was never meant to be repeated.

I think perhaps he means as follows. The Torah is commanding us, always;

Look at those two mountains, those  two stark possibilities.  The blessing or the curse, the terrifying reality that evil can come surging back,  that society doesn’t always progress to the good. Remember, be warned, be vigilant, ubcharta bchaim, and choose life. Always.

About the Author
Born in Glasgow, Scotland. Holds a BA in Economics and an MBA. Former Rabbi of Cambridge University and Barnet Synagogue in London. Appointed Senior Rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan in 2005.
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