In another time, the great Jewish sage Hillel taught, “b’makom she-ein anashim, hishtadel l’hiot ish.” This means: in a place where no one behaves like a human being, we must strive to be human.
The words are simple, the meaning complex. Hillel teaches that when we are in a place where no one is acting human, we must strive to do better. When we find ourselves in a time where morality is questionable, we must endeavor to be the voice of right. When others display cowardice, we must respond with courage. In this historical moment when we witness cruelty and division all around, Hillel’s message resonates with profound power.
These are the High Holy Days for Jews, beginning with the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, celebrated earlier this week, a time of both remembrance and hope. We reflect upon the year past in which we have seen antisemitic incidents rise in scope and number yet again. Here in Rhode Island we have witnessed this first hand. Who ever thought we would witness Nazis in our streets and find fliers recruiting for white supremacist groups circulating in our neighborhoods?
Considering all this, it is no surprise that the latest Ken Burns documentary, “The US and the Holocaust,”has struck a raw nerve for the Jewish community and beyond. It is a disturbing and much needed reminder of how humanity can descend to its very worst, offering an important lesson for us all about indifference and denial.
This past summer my family visited the fairgrounds in Blue Hill, Maine, that inspired author E.B. White to write the classic “Charlotte’s Web.” In this timeless work, a young woman, Fern, cries out to save the life of the runt pig who we come to know as Wilbur. Fern calls out the injustice of Wilbur’s persecution simply because he is small. “It’s unfair,” she cries. “If I had been born very small at birth would you have killed me?” Her quest for justice reverberates through the decades.
We read this book to our children as a lesson against indifference and complacency. When Fern declares, “This is a matter of life and death!” it speaks to the moral courage that is possible for each one of us.
As Hillel’s words remind us: When the majority acts with callousness, we must be the ones to care – even if we are in the minority. When others are complacent, we must disregard their indifference and take action. Or, put bluntly: When people are behaving badly, we can be the one to be a mensch. A Yiddish word, Mensch is a powerful shorthand for humanity at its best. Most importantly, it is within our grasp to act with decency and compassion.
Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a refugee from Nazi Germany, knew firsthand the dangers of hatred and racism. Rabbi Prinz spoke just before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1965 March on Washington. Rabbi Prinz told those assembled on the Mall, “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”
We are charged now and forever with stepping forward to speak against bigotry of all kinds. Sometimes this hatred seems novel and at other times it painfully rhymes with past wrongs. We are reminded that, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself.” When we see humanity at its worst, it is upon each of us, as Hillel taught, to find the courage to summon our very best.
In these Days of Awe, as Jews, we reflect and look forward, atoning for the wrongs of the past year and committing to a new, better year ahead. In these days of deep division, mistrust, and worse, it is a time for all of us, as Hillel taught, “to strive to be human.”
Sarah Mack is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth-El in Providence.