A year ago, both tragedy and profound beauty struck at the heart of the United States of America. On a Shabbat morning in October, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, fear and sadness blanketed their lives, rapidly sending tremors of concern and shared sympathy across our nation and across the world. One week later, hundreds of synagogues hosted crowded services that were attended by Americans of every stripe who simply wanted to stand and be counted among the kind and inclusive of our nation.
Here at Woodlands, we named a baby. Camila Chesterson, daughter of Tiffany and Jedd, had been born on October 21, just thirteen days earlier, and was only expecting one of her rabbis to bless her. Instead, while she did get a rabbi, she found the hands of a Christian and a Muslim were blessing her as well. It was a beautiful, powerful moment and the first of many responses that we and so many others have made, and will continue to make, whenever hate tries to ruin people’s lives.
On a related note, our sukkah fell down. Again. A year ago, one good storm sent it toppling. This year, we were certain no rains would bring it down. But we didn’t expect as hard a rain and as unyielding a wind to ravage our harvest home, and down it came a second time. But don’t you fret. Next year, we’ll be back, and better than ever!
Our fallen sukkah is as good a metaphor as any for the difficulties and challenges this nation finds itself confronting in recent times. As wonderful as America has been for us, for our immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents, and for new Americans everywhere, it takes a special kind of vigilance to ensure that the rights enshrined in our Constitution remain strong and protected. Not only must legal and political vigilance be maintained, but how we treat one another, including people who may not like us, may very well be the keystone that locks America’s humanity into place.
In 2017, when the current administration first enacted a travel ban preventing entry into the United States by citizens from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, mass protests appeared at airports throughout the nation, with pro bono lawyers climbing over each other to provide representation to individuals and families who had arrived from those countries by plane only to find themselves unable to enter. The response was swift, merciful, just and unforgettable.
When America’s sukkah of welcoming shelter was toppled by the hard-hearted winds of xenophobia, crews appeared almost out of nowhere to set that sukkah upright again. At the very moment when so many of us thought America’s soul had been overrun, we learned just how amazing the citizens of this nation can be.
Perhaps the most compelling story that I’ve heard of acting against hate comes from a man name Daryl Davis, a blues musician who, after a set one evening, found himself talking to a man who’d never heard a person of color play the blues. “This is the first time I’ve ever heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis,” he said. To which Davis replied, “Well, where do you think Jerry Lee Lewis learned how to play that kind of style?” The man objected, “Jerry Lee invented it. I’ve never heard a black man except for you play like that.” And as Daryl Davis spoke about the music of Fats Domino and Little Richard, the other man interrupted, saying, “You know, this is the first time I’ve ever sat down and had a drink with a black man.” “How is that possible,” asked Davis. Came the reply, “I’m a member of the Ku Klux Klan.”
So began Daryl Davis’ travels across the United States, welcoming the opportunity to speak with members of the Klan, starting as enemies, in time always finding commonalities that then became the basis for a relationship, and then a friendship. In time, because of Daryl Davis’ willingness to meet his enemy, more than two hundred of these men gave up their robes. Davis would ask, “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” He’s been a good salesman, that’s for sure. But Daryl Davis wasn’t selling Toyotas; he was selling love.
Here’s a photo of Daryl Davis standing with Richard Preston, who participated in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, two years ago. Here you can see the two of them visiting the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. First Davis invited Preston to his home. In time, Preston invited Davis to his wedding. “That’s a seed planted,” Davis said, as he continues his truly sacred work of bridging the divides between people.
This past Sunday evening, we celebrated Simkhat Torah. What a blast! Music, dancing, juggling(!) and unrolling an entire Torah around this sanctuary. All to celebrate the completion of our year-long reading of the Torah and then, without so much as a single breath, because we love the Torah and what we learn from it, starting all over again. Which means that this week we’ve been reading and studying Bereshit, the beginning of the Torah, which tells the story of the beginning of everything! And while we don’t look to the Torah to teach us the science of how things began, we do look to it to try and understand what life is all about.
In Genesis chapter one, throughout the story of Creation, God is continually noting that the things being created are good. Light is good. Land and seas are good. Plants and animals are good. Sun and moon are good. You know the one thing God doesn’t say is good? Us. Human beings. Why not? Are we bad? Of course not. We’ve been created b’tzelem Elohim, with the spark of God inside of us. But even that doesn’t make us good. Not yet, anyway.
What we are, the Torah teaches, is “in process.” We’re neither good nor bad until we establish that for ourselves. Each one of us determines our own status. Each one us must decide what we stand for. That’s why it’s so important to learn from our parents and from our teachers and, yes, to come to temple and learn from our rabbis. And it’s also so very important to be a good role model for others, because we never know who’s watching.
In the early 1960’s, a first grader went off to her first day of school. It was a newly integrated school down south, at the height of the desegregation storm. That afternoon, a very anxious mother met her daughter at the door as the little girl returned home. Once inside and sitting for a snack, her mom asked, “How did everything go, Honey?” “Oh, Mother, did you know that a little black girl sat next to me?” This had been a new experience both for the child and her mother, who didn’t know how to respond. Finally, she asked, “Well, what happened?” The little girl said, “Oh, Mommy, we were both so scared, we held hands all day.”
America is a great country. It’s built on a mighty foundation of fairness and understanding. It doesn’t always work but, given enough time and sufficient attention, things get better. It’s each of our jobs to do what we can to see it stays that way.
During the story of Creation, God never says that human beings are good. Because God’s waiting, waiting to see what we do, and waiting to decide whether we become worthy of the words, “kee tov … and they were good.”
October 27, 2018, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, will not determine God’s final declaration. We mustn’t allow days like that one to become the face of our humanity. It’s in the days following October 27 that showed the real beauty of our species. Plus all the pro bono lawyers, and all the Daryl Davises, and little kids who hold hands to take care of each other. Let these be what show the beauty, the compassion, and the real future of humankind.
Jackie Pilossoph, a freelance columnist in Chicago, writes, “Hate is exhausting. Hate makes a person lose sight of life’s beauty and goodness. Hate destroys others. Hate destroys the hater. Love, on the other hand, rejuvenates. Loving and being loved makes a person want to help others, sustain compassion, and make the world a better place. Love makes people grow and prosper. Martin Luther King Jr. said: ‘I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.’”