By: Rabbi Jennifer L. Frenkel, Senior Rabbi – Congregation M’kor Shalom, Cherry Hill, NJ.
Asked to offer some reflections on the challenges and blessings of leading a congregation in our current socio-cultural and political climate, I go back to the very first question asked in Judaism’s holiest text, the Torah. As Adam and Eve are hiding, having eaten the fruit from the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden, God calls out to them “Ayekah?” Where are you? While we assume God knows where they are physically, the question posed to the very first human beings asks them to step forward and take responsibility for the situation in which they find themselves. When God asks why they are hiding, Adam points his finger back at God and then at Eve, and quickly exclaims, “This woman You put by my side, she made me do it.” And Eve, for her part, does no better, immediately pointing her finger at the serpent, accusing it of trickery.
God asks, “Ayekah, where are you?” And Adam and Eve both answer, “Hey, don’t look at me! I’m not responsible! Someone else should have stopped this from happening!”
There is no question that many of us are feeling particularly vulnerable these days – individually and as a community. We are still grieving the loss of life from Covid, and the loss of a sense of “normalcy” that we have slowly come to realize we may never return to. We are very much aware of the fact that while our “hybrid” worship services (in person AND on zoom simultaneously) allow more people to join us each week, we are deeply missing being in physical proximity to one another, and gathering together in one space. Added to the stress of living through a global pandemic, we are also seeing an increasingly concerning rise in anti-Semitic attacks, a rise in bigotry and xenophobia, and a rhetoric of hate that, while present in the past, has now found, in many circles, an increasingly hospitable place in the center of conversations and debates that should alarm us all.
Every month as we look at our Synagogue budget, and see the tens of thousands of dollars that are being spent on security and armed officers who guard our entryways, it is heartbreaking to know that those dollars are being funneled away from programs and services and educational opportunities that would better meet the needs of our communities. And that our children are growing up in a world where it is necessary to have police officers greet them when they show up to their synagogue.
It would be easy to shake our heads and wring our hands and accept all of this as a reality we are powerless to do anything about. Where I (and so many in our community) have found renewed purpose and a deep sense of meaning is in instead heading the lessons of our tradition and the call of the biblical prophets to recognize that we are not simply passive participants in our own life or in the arc of history. We recognize that there is much we can do to bring a sense of meaning, intention, holiness, and godliness into our lives and into the world. We recognize that how we respond to the challenges we face, our answer when we are each asked “Ayekah?” “Where are you?,” matters.
Every January, our Synagogue community joins with Church communities and choirs from around South and Central New Jersey for a special Sabbath honoring the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This past year, we shared in the following reading by Dr. King: “This is what God needs today: men and women who will ask, ‘What will happen to humanity if I don’t help? What will happen to the civil rights movement if I don’t participate? What will happen to my city if I don’t vote? What will happen to the sick if I don’t visit them?’ This is how God judges people in the final analysis….On that day, the question will be, ‘What did you do for others?’”
In other words, “Ayekah?” When others need you, are you there for them?
I think about that question all the time, as well as the challenge put forth by Dr. King when he proclaimed, rightly, that “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands at times of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
There is no doubt that this year has been a challenging one for all of us who believe deeply in the American and in the Jewish value of justice. A challenging one for all of us who believe in the power of the teachings from Torah: Lo tuchal l’hitalem “you must not remain indifferent,” and Lo ta’amod al dam rey’echa, “we cannot, we must not, stand idly by while our neighbor bleeds.” A challenging year for all of us who believe that when we speak of our “neighbors,” we are not speaking about a geographical concept, but rather a moral concept — the recognition of our shared humanity and of our collective responsibility to protect the dignity and integrity, the rights and freedoms of fellow human beings, no matter the color of their skin or the religion they practice.
It has been a challenging year as civil discourse in America has disintegrated, as civil rights are under siege —the rights of women, of immigrants, of minorities, and of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.
Martin Niemoller, a Protestant pastor in Nazi Germany, wrote the often-quoted reminder of what can happen when we allow those challenges to paralyze us rather than to inspire us to act. He wrote:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.
His words were echoed by Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who came to the United States from Germany in 1937, and was the speaker at the March on Washington right before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his speech. That morning, Rabbi Prinz warned the crowd of a quarter million that “Bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problems. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most tragic problem is silence. A great people, which had created a great civilization, had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality, and in the face of mass murder. America, he said, must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent.”
So seriously does Judaism take the problem of silence and apathy in the face of injustice that the Talmud unequivocally states, “Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of his or her own family and does not do so is held responsible for the transgressions of his family. Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the people of his community and does not do so is held responsible for the transgressions of his community. And whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not do so is punished for the transgressions of the entire world.”
It is no longer enough to say that we oppose what is happening in our country when minority groups are marginalized, victimized, bullied, and targeted. The time is most certainly here when we must ask ourselves what we are each doing to alleviate the suffering of others; what we are doing, on a daily basis, to bring more compassion and justice to our world; how we are standing up for our neighbors and protecting for others the rights we claim for ourselves. For history has taught us that there is incredible danger in choosing to look the other way, in choosing to assume someone else will do what we should, in choosing to remain silent. History has shown us that tolerating injustice here or anywhere, diminishes the humanity in each of us. And history has also taught us that there is such a thing as being too late.
Holocaust survivor, Eli Weisel once said that “there may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest it.” Our religious tradition is clear that we are commanded to pursue justice. It is an endless journey, it is difficult, challenging, and often overwhelming work, and it is very rarely comfortable or convenient. But our grandchildren and great-grandchildren’s history books will record what we do in the months and years ahead. And we must each honestly ask ourselves which side of history will we be on. We must each ask ourselves if this is the kind of world, we want our children to inherit from us. Ayekah? — what will our answer be?