By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
On the other hand, Abraham’s belief, which he stubbornly held on to, was that there was only one God, a just and compassionate God who wanted people to be like Him: just and compassionate.
The different beliefs led to two very different—and in many ways opposing—lifestyles. What Abraham was looking for was a place where he could live and worship freely, without fear of persecution.
People have been fleeing persecution, seeking liberty, for as long as humanity has existed. In fact, America was founded upon this principle. The social and political system that was created here is a democracy, guided by the principle that we, the people, have the right to participate in the selection and running of our government. Our democracy enshrines freedoms we hold sacred, holy.
Elections in a system such as ours never result in a unanimous vote. In a democracy, it’s a given that there will be different opinions and dissenting views. Elections are often divisive; all you have to do is look at what’s happening in our country today. A mere fortnight after one of the ugliest election in people’s memory, you can see people hurling insults, pitching hate at each other. In the media, among ourselves and even within families, people are unfriending one another, refusing to speak to one another, going as far as to cancel Thanksgiving family dinners because of the election, and who supported which candidate.
Democracy is not perfect. In fact, Winston Churchill once stated that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” But democracy is still the only system that allows us, the people, to have a voice, to place a person in office or take them out of it again. So far, this system has been more successful than all the others. Economically, socially, culturally—in every possible way, democracy has provided us with untold opportunities. It has granted us the greatest number of freedoms and rights. It has worked well—though not perfectly—for nearly 240 years now.
Still, what happened last week has left many of us in a state of shock and disbelief. In poll after poll, we were led to believe in a different outcome. For many of us, this election was to be an affirmation of principles we believed in, that we worked hard for, and that took decades to accomplish. But instead, we saw a swing in the other direction.
As a result of this election, there have been demonstrations, protests, marches and rallies. We have also seen and heard mean and ugly words. Symbols of hatred have been popping up in neighbors’ yards, in mailboxes, in the social media. One of the most common of these symbols is the swastika, a fearful symbol that to the Jewish people has special, ominous meaning, as it represents death and destruction, reminding us of the Holocaust, the most terrible disaster our people has endured in the last 2000 years.
But it isn’t only Jews who are seeing these signs of hate. All minorities—Muslims, gays, Latinos, African-Americans, immigrants—are feeling threatened by a wave of hatred and intolerance.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization, reports that since the election, there have been close to 500 incidents of hateful harassment and intimidation. In the larger picture, 500 isn’t a huge number. But the cumulative effect has been to strike fear in the hearts of millions more. These hateful acts have been taking place at K-12th grade schools (!), on university and college campuses, in places of business, private homes and public houses of worship. Even if we don’t experience the hate ourselves, television, the papers, the social media, all make sure we become witnesses to it.
One thing that we have learned from Abraham, the first Jew, the first recorded refugee from persecution, is that we are all responsible for one another. Throughout our 3600 years of existence the Jewish People have learned that, in order to survive, we must be there for one another. The legacy that the Founding Fathers of our country—all followers in Abraham’s footsteps—have left us, is that if America is to remain the Land Of The Free, we must be there for one another whenever we see acts of injustice, hatred, violence and intimidation.
Like yet another Abraham, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who fifty years ago marched in Selma, Alabama, alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King, arms linked to show support for those whose felt intimidated and disenfranchised, we too need to let all people—individuals and groups of all genders, races and beliefs—who are filled with fear, who see the hateful signs and words and know all too well what they mean, we need to let them know that we are there with them and will continue to be there for them. No individual, no group in America today need feel that they are alone. WE STAND WITH YOU. No one should feel afraid of his or her neighbor. We still believe that “love your neighbor as yourself” is the most important rule of humanity, and we must stand up and defend it whenever we see it threatened.
Father Abraham heeded the call to leave his homeland. Despite his standing in the community, despite all the contributions he made to his society in religion, business, art, literature, and philosophy, Abraham felt unsafe in his own homeland. And so he left all he knew and began his journey. It’s a path we still find ourselves on today: A journey toward a land and a time when all people, in all their marvelous diversity, live in peace and harmony. We don’t know when we will get there, but if our way of life is to survive, we cannot stumble and fall out along the way.
May our communities be strengthened by our pursuit of justice and compassion. May our nation continue to be a shining beacon for all who feel oppressed and persecuted. And may we all become messengers of hope, carrying forward the task of making America the great nation that it is and can be. May we see the day when all people shall walk free, tall and unafraid, and may this day come soon. Amen!