The following remarks were delivered Nov. 1 at Cape Cod Synagogue in Hyannis at an interfaith event titled “Standing in Solidarity.”
by Rabbi David Freelund
I have so much to say with such urgency, and with such heartbreak. I thought it logical to start at the beginning. God created humanity.
Adam was created from the dust of the earth, the first intimation that we are one with the stuff of the earth. The very meaning of the first person, Adam, is a word play in Hebrew, because he was made from adama, the earth. From the earth, and to it we all return. We are differentiated from the earth only by the breath of God and the souls that rise within us.
Long ago the rabbis asked, “Why start with only one person? Why not start with many?” They answered, so that no person may ever claim to be better than another by dint of birth, because we all have the same origin. It is genius of God that from that one person, the entire rainbow of humanity issued forth. Let us reflect on that: We have but one parent. We are all one human family.
Some of those people in the human rainbow are Jews. Since our father Abraham and our mother Sarah walked the earth, we have been here. Since those earliest of days, we have been witnesses to a radical, earth-shaking idea: the unity of God. There is only one. That unity implied the destined unity of all people. It can be hard to bear witness to one God when your neighbors are not receptive, but we never gave up. Today, we look with joy at our sisters and brothers in the Muslim and Christian faiths who call upon the same God. We may walk on different paths, but they point in the same direction. Tonight, your presence here shows how true that is. We may all walk on different paths, but we are all headed in the same direction.
The world is not only a place of progress. I have been wrestling with this this week. I can’t help but ask, “Is this a new era we are entering, or a return to the way it has always been? Is America truly exceptional, a place unlike all the others that have ever been? Or perhaps has the magic worn off?”
At our nation’s founding, we accepted the enslavement and brutalization of millions of people simply because they and their ancestors had come from Africa. There was a debate, ended by none other than George Washington, as to whether or not Jews would be allowed to be citizens of the United States. As Americans, we are better today than we have ever been, but it’s still not good enough.
I have been thinking a lot this week about the year 1492. It’s a significant year in history. We all learned as children, “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” What they didn’t teach us in elementary school was that it was also the year that 1,500 years of Spanish Jewish life was extinguished. There were Jews in Spain before anybody spoke Spanish, before there was a Christianity and before there was an Islam. It was the greatest civilization that Jews had ever produced. In 1492 the Alhambra Decree ended it all in a matter of months. There were three choices for the Jews of Spain: convert; flee, totally dispossessed and penniless; or die. After 1,500 years, Spanish Jews certainly must have believed, “It can’t happen here. We’re more Spanish than anyone else.” Fifteen hundred years! My family has been in the United States for only 120. It can’t happen here, can it?
What can I tell you to do? What wisdom can I impart? I would ask you to believe us when we tell you we’re scared. Don’t tell me not to notice or to play down anti-Semitic and racist innuendo and speech. Don’t tell me I’m imagining things, or that you don’t see what I see. Don’t tell me they didn’t really mean that. Believe us when we tell you that there is anti-Semitism in the air and there is racism in the ground, and even closer. We know. We have an exquisitely tuned radar that has been a matter of self-preservation for 2,000 years. My people have seen this before too many times, and in too many places. Believe me. We know.
Don’t let it go unchecked in the United States. The bloodiest war we have ever fought was against each other, and it was over race. I beg you to believe me: It is a war we are still fighting, and the latest victims fell in Louisville and Pittsburgh. If we allow it to rise, it can destroy us. We must stand tall against the forces of hatred and racism. What we say matters. Believe me when I tell you, don’t let this go unanswered.