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Rabbi Message: March 26, 2018

"Let Freedom Ring" by State Senator Stan Rosenberg
Presented to the Congregation of Temple Israel
Greenfield, Massachusetts
Saturday, March 24th, 2018

"There are no great people in this world, only great challenges which ordinary people rise to meet."

U.S. Admiral William Halsey purportedly said that, and I suspect he was being modest in his praise of the generation that defeated fascism less than a lifetime ago.But there was, of course, nothing modest about that achievement. Bending the arc of history and setting it on a more righteous course is no mean feat.

It was a fight for life and the Greatest Generation won it.

When I reflect on that, I am awed . . . a common feeling, no doubt. And I shudder, as I'm sure you do, too, at the realization that victory is rarely assured . . . and that what we think of as progress is rarely permanent.

Progress, at least in the social context, can only be maintained if large numbers of our citizens remain vigilant, and prepared to take action - definite, necessary, seemingly revolutionary action - to counter those who would thwart our efforts to achieve a more perfect union.

And one of the best ways to preserve hard-won progress is by building community, one of the pillars of our faith. And one of the best ways to build community, as far as I can tell, is by recognizing and appreciating and celebrating, the essential humanity of the people around us.

That can be tricky, especially in a society as diverse as ours, but it is always worthwhile because community mitigates conflict and facilitates peace.

Destroy the community and nations will fall.

From the time of the pharaohs, world leaders who really need no introduction, have advanced their own selfish and nefarious agendas by isolating certain members of the community, dehumanizing them, making them targets for oppression and violence.

About a month ago, the Anti-Defamation League released a report stating that anti-Semitic incidents rose nearly 60 percent nationwide in 2017 over the previous year. Massachusetts experienced a 42 percent increase during that same period.

The ADL went on to note that 1,986 anti-Semitic incidents were reported across the nation last year, incidents that included physical assaults, vandalism and attacks on Jewish institutions.

The ADL reported that 177 such episodes occurred in Massachusetts, making it fourth behind New York with 380, California with 268, and New Jersey with 208. Florida and Pennsylvania followed Massachusetts with 98 and 96 reported incidents respectively.

Similarly, the Southern Poverty Law Center's report - "2017: The Year in Hate and Extremism" - indicated that the number of hate groups reached 954 last year, up from the 917 hate groups reported in 2016.

The largest area of growth, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported, was within the white supremacist movement with neo-Nazi organizations increasing from 99 in 2016 to 121 last year.

The cycle is turning again, and clearly not in a good way. Destroy the community and nations will fall. It is absolutely clear to me that the promise, the fundamental promise of justice and equal opportunity and basic human decency that I like to think of as the beating heart of our society, of our democracy, of our American community, is as close to being broken as at any time in our modern history.

And as for the social contract, the promise that the current generation makes to the next to leave the world a better place . . . I'd say our record is decidedly mixed on that . . . and not faring too well at the moment, to say the least.

We know how to fix this. Or at least we've been shown some pretty decent examples, given some strong shoulders to stand on.

Gandhi taught us how to do it. He taught us by example, through his peaceful yet powerful actions, through his fasts, through his towering intellect and unmatched wisdom and compassion. Dr. King, of course, did much the same, adding soaring oratory to his repertoire.

For us, it all begins with Moses. With the aid of a powerful ally with some strong shoulders to stand on, he led our people out of Egypt, where our humanity had been ripped away, and began bending the arc of history toward a more righteous course, although an often arduous course, to be sure. From bondage in ancient Egypt to persecution and genocide in 20th century Europe . . . if there is any one group in the United States that should be sensitive to the soul-crushing cost of oppression and bigotry, it's the Jewish community.

Some 2,000 years ago, Rabbi Hillel, the greatest rabbi of his day, said: "In a place where no one is human, one should strive to be human."

The great leaders of all faiths, over the centuries, have, in various ways, delivered the same basic message: humanity must be more humane.

There isn't a problem in our society that a little more humanity couldn't either fix outright or significantly improve.

And it is our very humanity, I believe, that is under attack.

Bit by bit over the last decade or so, the racism and bigotry and hatred that progressive vigilance had, with varying degrees of success, kept at bay, has openly seeped into the body politic and, bit by bit, has become accepted.

Yes. Accepted. Not by the majority . . . certainly not. But by enough to provide a viable host to the kind of prejudices we want to believe we had overcome, prejudices we want to believe we had swept into the proverbial dustbin of history.

Remember, President Trump said there were good people on both sides of the demonstrations at Charlottesville, the demonstrations where Heather Heyer, a woman of conviction, a woman of peace, a woman of action, was killed by a fascist.

Sadly, that is but one of Mr. Trump's innumerable and incessant assaults on decency . . . on humanity . . . but it signals a reality we must accept:

The president of the United States believes there are good Nazis.

Just another bit of poison that has seeped into the body politic, been absorbed, and, shockingly, accepted.

Yes. Accepted. And I say that with the heaviest of hearts.

Whether Trump himself actually believes . . . anything . . . is almost irrelevant.

His tolerance of intolerance is far too blatant to ignore. It has given outsized courage to the cowardly who seek to sow fear and discord, to the cowardly whose nature seems to favor escalation and aggravation, to the cowardly who seem driven by impulses that I can only describe as craven and inhumane.

Fortunately, there are many, many more of us who think otherwise, who believe humanity's only hope is to become more humane.

"We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today," Dr. King said during the 1963 March on Washington. "We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action."

While we are gathered here, a new generation is beginning, in earnest, its own fight for life.

The "March for Our Lives," organized by students who survived the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in Parkland, Florida, has attracted hundreds of thousands of people to our nation's capital, and millions more in what I believe they are calling "sibling marches" across the country and around the world.

One of the hashtags this generation is using on social media to convey its message is:

Never again.

Never again . . . a phrase weighted with meaning, a righteous slogan, an ancestral demand, a shout raised many times in many contexts over the generations.

Sometimes the shout falls on deaf ears. Sometimes the shout is loud enough, or clear enough, or well-timed enough so that the arc of history will bend to listen.

I've read that this generation, teenagers, is known as Generation Z.

At first I thought that sounded a bit apocalyptic. But then I thought that's OK.

Because this generation, Generation Z, appears unencumbered by the bigotries that made our generation's progress so difficult to achieve . . . and that's a heck of a start.

I mean, this generation is so admirably, and nobly, represented by Emma Gonzalez -- she of the "We Call BS" speech, which I believe is destined to be remembered as one of the great speeches of American history -- a bisexual Cuban-American with a buzz cut.

That's pretty great. Barriers are being broken, and that's always pretty great. And when you add that this generation clearly feels the fierce urgency of now . . . clearly believes that it is time once again to bend the arc of history toward a more righteous course . . . clearly understands that this is their fight for life . . .

. . . then you understand that these ordinary people, ordinary young people who are rising to meet the challenge of their time, need as many allies as they can get . . .

After all, this generation could be the generation that says:

Never again to mass shootings . . . and means it.

That says never again to bigotry, in all its forms . . . and means it.

That says never again to taking no for an answer to the things that tear us apart as a nation and destroy the humanity around them . . . and means it.

I'm not putting pressure on Gen Z. On the contrary, I'm pledging support . . . my life, fortune and sacred honor, just as our founders did when they launched this democratic experiment. I've always found inspiration in the lines of Langston Hughes' poem Freedom's Plow, and I would like to be counted among the hands that, as Mr. Hughes wrote: "seeks other hands to help, A community of hands to help . . ."

If this generation, Generation Z, these ordinary people rising to the challenge, if they are to be the ones that let freedom ring in our country, that let it ring with perhaps a deeper resonance than we've felt in a while, then they need to know that they have our shoulders to stand on.

We had some pretty good shoulders to stand on, after all, and our generation, in many ways, did bend the arc of history toward a more righteous course . . .

Seems to me it's the least we can do. Seems to me it would be a mitzvah for the Jewish community, especially during this time of Passover as we commemorate our liberation and struggle to regain our human dignity, if we could do our part to help Generation Z liberate themselves, along with the rest of us, from the violence and oppression they have known their entire lives.

I've said this many times and I can't help returning to it . . . the ancient piece of wisdom from our teachings that tells us we are not expected to complete the work in our lifetime, but we are obligated to do our part.

When I reflect on the triumphs and tragedies, the personal sacrifices endured by millions whose names are lost to history, that create the character of all generations, I am awed. Truly awed.

But the realization that victory is rarely assured . . . and that progress is rarely permanent . . . well, I no longer tremble at what could have been.

Instead, I focus my energies on fulfilling the obligations demanded by that phrase heavy with meaning, that righteous slogan, that ancestral shout, that cry for humanity to be more humane:

Never again.

Never again . . . either it means "never again," or it doesn't.

No ambiguity. No nuance. No escape and no respite from the obligation we owe to those who came before us, and certainly to those who are on the streets today, who will be on the streets tomorrow . . . and tomorrow . . . and tomorrow . . . who have been on the streets forever . . . fighting for peace, justice, equality . . . fighting for life . . .

My prayer today is that Generation Z, the Let Freedom Ring Generation as I will hold them in my heart, feels our love . . .

My prayer for tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow is that they know that we have their backs, that we will not rest, except to regain our strength for the work to be done, because our obligations to freedom, to social progress, to making sure never again means never again, can never be entirely fulfilled.