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Charlottesville: Combatting Darkness with Light

“Jews will not replace us.” This was just one of the sickening chants we heard last weekend. This is nothing new, of course. Neither were the other hate-filled slogans, nor the torches, nor the twisted ideologies behind them.

What is new is the conspicuous absence of masks or hoods. These marchers proudly showed their faces, and their leaders claim the support of the highest office holder in the nation.

While I have felt free to speak out against corruption, intolerance, and leaders who fail to lead, I have been careful to not specifically mention the president, even when I did not agree with him. I am certain there are people in my congregation who supported him, people whom I like and respect.

But I cannot support, condone, or tolerate the behavior of a president who says that there was blame on both sides in Charlottesville. There is no room for moral equivalency between white supremacists and the protesters who stood up to them.

By quickly and unequivocally condemning the bigotry, hatred, and anti-semitism these monsters displayed, the mayor of Charlottesville and the governor of Virginia set an example for all of our leaders, from the local level to the highest office in the land. We deserve such clarity and moral authority from our elected leaders.

When I turned to this week’s Torah portion for comfort, I was caught short by its instructions to the Israelites on how to behave when they settled in Canaan. To our modern ears, the instructions are not acceptable: “You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess served their gods… Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.” (Deut. 12:2-3)

It is nothing like the hatred that we encountered last weekend. But it is certainly not the tolerance we crave. So how do we balance this with the outrage we feel at the sight of Nazi symbols boldly paraded down the streets of America?

For me, the answer lies in the fact that the Bible was written at a different time, for a different audience. Today, we have grown past the xenophobia that motivated the children of Israel as they became neighbors with people who were different from them.

We have learned the value of befriending the “other,” of learning about and from each other. We have discovered that it is possible – albeit difficult – to be a minority and still hold true to our heritage.

And if we have learned anything from the history of the last 80 years, it is that silence in the face of hatred is not the answer.

We must stand up and speak out for what we know is right. We and all of our leaders must publicly decry hatred, and make it known that this is not the America we love, that hate speech and violence are never acceptable.

I am not naïve enough to believe that those who harbor such hatred will be convinced to change their minds. But I do believe that we outnumber them. And we cannot let their darkness dim the light we bring to the world. Our voices must ring out; our light must shine so brightly that they are driven back into the hell of their own darkness.

Shabbat shalom, Rabbi Jennifer