In the Talmud we are taught: Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if s/he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if s/he saved an entire world. (Mishneh Sanhedrin)
Shabbat-a day of rest and renewal, remembering the beauty and wonder of creation-was shattered-it’s world was destroyed this past weekend as white nationalists, neo-Nazis and alt-right members clashed with anti-protestors in Charlottesville, VA. Protest is a cornerstone of American history; it is woven into the fabric of our American identity. In recent decades we can name numerous seminal moments when American voices were raised in protest: Civil Rights, anti-nuclear weapons, Gay Rights, Kent State, Women’s Choice, Viet Nam, Occupy Wall Street, Israel and Palestinian rights. Even when we disagree with the reason for a particular protest, our Constitution defends the right to protest. Forty years ago, neo-Nazi leader Frank Collins won in court the constitutional right to march with a band of brown-shirt neo-Nazis through Skokie, IL, home to 8000-9000 Holocaust survivors. The march venue ultimately was moved from Skokie to Chicago.
On Saturday, Heather M. Heyer’s world was destroyed and her family and friends are trying to pick up the broken fragments of their hearts and lives. Her death was not the result of out-of-control violence emerging from face-to-face protest/counter-protest. James Alex Field, in an act of alleged terrorismdrove his car into the crowd of counter-protesters to cause injury and death. Like those who masterminded the bombings in Oklahoma City, (if found guilty) James Alex Field’s act was one of homegrown, domestic terrorism. White supremacists that applaud his actions and justify his deadly rampage are supporters of terrorism. He and they must be condemned.
A second world was destroyed in recent days as well: America as a protector of all its citizens. Our president’s refusal to condemn by name those whose philosophy espouse white supremacist rhetoric-those who strive to cleanse America of racial minorities and Jews-does not make America great again. Statements ‘from the white house’ are not equal to direct statements from the president. His generic words of condemnation of both sides of the Charlottesville protest have served to vindicate white supremacists both in Charlottesville and across our nation. The permission to hate that was unleashed during the presidential campaign has given way to acting on that hatred and not being held accountable. Democrats and Republicans alike have implored-demanded the President be specific in his condemnations. Would the president heed the calls of Senator Cory Gardner’s (R. CO) tweet: “Mr. President, we must call evil by its name. These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism.” And Mark Rubio tweet, there was “nothing patriotic about Nazis, the KKK or White Supremacists. It’s the direct opposite of what America seeks to be.”
On Saturday, Heather Heyer’s life (and the lives of 2 officers and those wounded) was destroyed, but, her soul will not be destroyed. We must keep her soul alive. We cannot stay silent when words of hatred are transformed to acts of violence. Heather Heyer was a champion for justice. We must carry her torch of love and justice. As she posted on her Facebook Page words echoed after the election, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
We must pay attention! We must be outraged! We must protect the lives and rights of those Americans most vulnerable to demonic hate.
And as our teacher Hillel taught, V’lo achshav Ai Matai-And if not now, when?
May Heather’s memory be for blessing. May we be inspired by her passion.
Rabbi Deborah A. Hirsch