Pirkei Avot teaches: In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person. Meaning, even when other people are acting irresponsibly or unethically, we are still obligated to be guided by our highest selves. Even when others are disregarding basic rules of civility and humanity, we are still obligated to act with integrity and not give in to the basest of human impulses. It reminds us that to be human means striving to be our best.
What happened on Wednesday in our nation’s Capitol was an example of how low we can go as humans when we let hate and anger rule us, when we give in to demagoguery and hate. And indeed, while Wednesday was a terrible and violent day, what undergirded the drama of that day has been happening for a long time in our country now.
Our tradition teaches us to love the stranger, to care for the oppressed, to give voice to the voiceless. That is not partisan politics, but foundational Jewish teachings that comes from deep within the Torah, our prayer books, our Passover Haggadah.
A central text in the Haggadah teaches:
For the sake of redemption—ours and the world’s—
we pray together hallowed words
that connect us to Jews everywhere,
and to all who are in need:
the stranger and the lost,
the hungry and the unjustly imprisoned.
For our redemption is bound up with theirs,
and with the deliverance of all people.
As Jews we are called upon to understand that our destiny is bound up with the destiny not just of people like ourselves and people who think like us, but with the destiny of everyone around us. That is a message of unity and strength—that none of us can rest when some are suffering, and therefore we must care for one another.
So too as Americans, we are called upon to care for one another. No matter who I voted for or who you voted for, our destinies are bound up together. We can disagree—that is part of the democratic system that makes this country great. We can vote, we can speak our mind, we can argue, we can respectfully hold different opinions, we can peacefully march in protest, and then we can vote again. But what we cannot do is destroy the very system that gives us that precious freedom.
The terror that we saw at the Capitol on Wednesday, and the lackadaisical response on the part of law enforcement, will not define the American future and it does not define us. Rather, it serves to strengthen our resolve to work together to dismantle the forces that would divide us, to better understand and take responsibility for our own biases and prejudices, and to turn toward our neighbors with love. If anything, it shines a light on how much work we still have to do in order to rid our society of the diseases of racism, antisemitism, and white supremacy. And it propels us to get to work rebuilding our hope for a better future.
Our hope in tomorrow must never fade. When I spoke to my mother on Wednesday she was in tears, not believing what she was seeing in her America. And I suspect that many tears were shed that day. Yes, it was heartbreaking to see our democracy being trampled upon. But I will not let my heart shatter in the face of all this violence and hate, because I need a heart to help guide me out of despair and into hope. A shattered heart cannot withstand the vitriol and divisiveness around us. A shattered heart is a defeated heart, a heart unable to respond with caring and compassion. And that I refuse to give in to. But there is another kind of brokenheartedness, not a shattering but a cracking open, an enlarging, which allows in the light and makes more room for love and empathy, for compassion and hope.
We all have a choice to make, as we’re reminded by the words of Pirkei Avot. Do we let go of our humanity and choose fear and hate, or do we call on the best of our humanity, choosing empathy and its companion, love? Let us then go forward into this Shabbat and into this new year, with hearts cracked open just enough to let in light, to let in hope, to let in love, so that we can be part of the healing of America.
Rabbi Hara Person is the Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. This message was delivered as part of the Reform Movement’s program “Hope, Healing, and Action” on January 8th, 2021.