As I have often noted, Torah teaches the profound power of words. God creates with words. How does God create? God speaks. “Let there be light-and there was light.” And, created in God’s image, we create with words. So often we speakand it becomes so. The opposite is also true. And just as God could destroy with words, so, too, can we. Again, in Torah, in the Book of Proverbs, “mavet v’hayyim b’yad ha-lashon-death and life are in the power of the tongue.”
I write these words after our own JCC was threatened for the fourth time with a bomb scare and after several Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated. One should not minimize the fear one feels when one’s own three yearold child has to be rushed out of daycare. One also cannot minimize the fear that begins to pervade an entire community. Furthermore, one can only wonder about the desecration of cemeteries. Is it to cause fear and pain? Or is it even an attempt to negate Jewish history? And I remain convinced that, while anti-Semitism and hatred of the other has long existed in our land, I am profoundly concerned that these forces were unleashed during the recent presidential campaign and have been given encouragement through words spoken by too many of our leaders.
Take the two words “America First.” I, as so many Americans, have always seen this country as unique; many of our founders saw this new land as the Promised Land, with our Jewish story providing images for those founders and words for the Liberty Bell.
Even the word “immigrant” did not exist prior to the creation of this country; only the word emigrant, which identified the individual with the country left, existed. A new word for this new land. As Stephen Chapman noted in a recent column, we Americans once offered a simple gauge about a simple America – the movement of people. “You have the Berlin Wall,” the argument went. “We have the Statue of Liberty.” But America First takes us back to an organization formed in the months leading up to Pearl Harbor, an organization formed to ensure that the United States would not enter into another war. And Charles Lindbergh would become America First’s primary spokesperson. He and others ensured that anti-Semitic words infested the America First Committee. And the use of the expression “America First” is yet another dog whistle which gives permission for some of our country’s darkest impulses to emerge from their hiding spots.
So the words I come back to are the following as I write this on St. Patrick’s Day; they are words put by the writers into the mouth of James Donovan, the lawyer selected to defend Soviet spy Rudolph Abel in the movie Bridge of Spies. In response to a government agent trying to elicit confidential information from Donovan, he responds, “My name’s Donovan. Irish, both sides. Mother and father. I’m Irish and you’re German. But what makes us both Americans? Just one thing. One. Only one. The rule book. We call it the Constitution, and we agree to the rules, and that’s what makes us Americans. That’s all that makes us Americans.”
To those with their words who try to separate us by nature of religion or race or ethnicity, remember that the United States of America is not held together by race, not by ethnicity, and not by religion. The United States of America is held together by words. As I have said time and again, as an American, I know the unique experiment that this nation is. As a Jew, I also know how fragile liberal democracy can be.
As we deliver our story as Jews on Pesach, that same story which informed this country, may its words bring us closer together to other Americans seeking freedom. And may it take us away from words which separate us, which close doors, which destroy. May our words, our own words and those of our leaders, be those who help us “build a more perfect union” “where we are all created equal “with the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
As I have noted earlier, I invite all of you to become part of our delegation to the Consultation on Conscience in Washington, DC, from April 30 to May 2. Sponsored by our Movement’s Religious Action Center, the Consultation is our biennial social justice leadership conference. If you are looking to join in our congregational delegation, please be in touch with me.
Then, join us to share a special Shabbat together at Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute on our Congregational Family Retreat the weekend of May 5- 7. Check our more information about our retreat elsewhere in Ha-Kol or be in touch with Rabbi Schaller.