Just before Shabbat entered the world last Friday evening, a tragedy occurred in Portland. Two men who tried to intervene in the harassment of two teenage Muslim women were murdered. By Shabbat afternoon, over a thousand people had come together to mourn, to comfort each other and to encourage each other and ourselves to continue to rise up, as the two men did, against acts of hate in our public spaces. By Sunday morning, news of the murders had been publicized internationally. By Sunday evening, nearly half a million dollars had been raised for the families of the two victims as well as a third person who survived the attack (and needs help with medical bills, to our shame as a country).
Perhaps you remember that in January and February Shir Tikvah organized an opportunity for us to learn about non-violent intervention in cases of public acts of hate. Perhaps it is just now that you feel it hitting home, as I do: standing up for another person in an attempt to intervene to keep that person safe is not necessarily, and certainly not guaranteed to be, a safe act.
What are we, then, to do, with this frightening new reality?There are those who have already called for armed police on every MAX train. No doubt there are even those who are calling for each of us to carry a concealed weapon. But reactions which stoke our fear and mistrust of each other will only drive us farther away from each other, and not toward peaceful co-existence.
Traditional Jewish ethics teaches us to see G*d as our role model, and to reach out to others as described in our daily prayers: to lift up the fallen, to heal the sick, to free the captive, to keep faith with those who sleep in the dust (the Gevurot prayer of the Amidah).
Yet we are also taught in Jewish tradition to care for all life, including our own; piku’akh nefesh, saving life, comes before all other mitzvot. Sacrificing oneself is not encouraged, unless there is no other way. Yet from our own experiences, the Jewish people has also learned, as the Israeli historian Yehudah Bauer puts it, the three mitzvot of the Holocaust:
You shall not be a perpetrator; you shall not be a victim; you shall not be a bystander.
Non-violent intervention is a complex act; if you remember, our teachers told us that it may escalate, and we ourselves may find ourselves in danger. When hate is abroad, none of us are safe: not the victim, not the intervener, and not the bystander, who will one day be engulfed in the hate s/he has done nothing to try to stop.
This is all a great shock for those of us whose parents worked hard to shield us from the murderous hatred our people knew in Europe; for some of us, we have never felt even a little bit unsafe. We must support each other as we face this new reality, and give each other the time that we have to begin to try to accustom ourselves to a new, harsh reality.
Violence is always wrong. Compassion is always right. The difficulty is in our daily struggle to identify what’s truly happening and to find the right path forward through it. Let the mitzvot of our prayers live for you not only as a challenge to your acts but as a guiding light of sanity when you are trying to figure out what to do. No matter what, it is right to try to lift up the fallen, to heal the sick, to free the captive, to keep faith with those who sleep in the dust.
And luckily, you can join the communal prayers anytime you want to meditate on just how this framework of mitzvot can hold you up, when you realize you also must stand up.
Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other