A Sabbath Message: A Commitment to Stand Up for Justice – and Hope

After a week of unrest and rage in our country, Sabbath brings a much needed moment of reflection… Our tradition has much to teach us about the role we must play when we see injustice in the world. As noted above, the Torah reminds us that we must not “stand idly by” while others are suffering. In fact, many commentators have pointed out that the Hebrew is even stronger in reminding us of our obligation: Lo ta’amod al dam re’echa – the word is re’ecah (your fellow human being), rather than the more specific achi’cha (your Jewish brother).  Thus, the message is clear: every human is entitled to live with dignity and hope. All are entitled to live without fear and pain. And when one of us suffers, we all should feel that suffering deeply. Interestingly, American law does not require us to rescue a fellow human being in danger, but Jewish law absolutely does – we do not have the option of “stand idly by.” We must act.

So, what do we do to speak out? How do we stand up to social inequality and racism? Attending a protest rally, especially in the time of a pandemic, may not be the answer for everyone. (That is what I’m telling my daughters, although it is apparently not stopping them…)  And although the murder of George Floyd and a number of other Black Americans in recent weeks represents a key moment in race relations in this country, clearly it points to a larger issue which will continue beyond these days. In a recent CBS News poll, nearly 70% of Americans expressed their belief that we are moving in the wrong direction in this country when it comes to racial equality – what a terrible tragedy that is.

The answer, although it may sound simplistic, is that everyone, in their own way must SPEAK UP and make a sacred promise not to remain silent. We must change our thinking and constantly believe in yourself as the one who will speak up in every situation. This is where it starts and how it gets accomplished. Silence is complicit.  To me, it was incredibly significant that the three police officers who stood by as George Floyd died, unable to breathe, were charged this week. The message is powerful – they “stood idly by,” which is what we are commanded not to do. When student groups come through our Portraits of Survival Program, we teach them the importance of being an Upstander in their own lives – everyday making a commitment to stand up for what is right and just in the world, even if it is not the popular choice. Seemingly small acts of this kind of courage can make a huge difference – especially if we all work together, committed to the same cause. In the same way that evil ripples across a society from small actions, so too does goodness. This is crucial – and hope will bring us there.

“Hope is a good thing…maybe the best of things – and no good thing ever dies.” It is an important distinction that “hope” is not blind optimism or “wishing” – hope is focused on a main issue and the existence of a goal combined with a determined plan for reaching that goal. Psychologists argue that hope opens us up to new, creative possibilities. In a world broken, we dare not lose track of hope – it is crucial now more than ever. We must be ambassadors of hope, bringing to fruition the kind of world in which we all deserve to live and thrive. 
And in our own community, we are venturing out with hope, managing our situation and bringing cheer to others… This week, we saw the country struggle. But we also had much to be hopeful for. I was lucky enough to “visit” from a safe distance with our friends Erika Kahn and Regine Pringle at the Friends and Family Parade at their senior residence (see photo above). They are always generous about sharing their stories as Holocaust Survivors and helping our students remember to stand up for others against hatred in our world. Our Schmooze in a Box Program had a strong beginning, as our community is beginning to venture out. Please join us weekly on Tuesdays at our building from 11:30 am–1:00 pm to pick up some lunch, and perhaps a word of encouragement from our staff and volunteers. We are here and remain hopeful together!

In this week’s Torah portion, we find the famous Birkat Kohanim (Priestly Blessing), used often in our tradition. I quote it here, with some minor edits for our community and our world, as it is clear we could all use a powerful blessing:

May God bless us and protect us!
May God cause the Divine light to shine upon us and be gracious unto us!
May God turn toward us and grant us peace!

With blessings for peace this Shabbat – for our country and for us all,

Ruth Steinberg, LCSW
Director, Jewish Family Service


Instead of my usual musical offering this week, and in light of the events of this week, I offer instead a story for Shabbat: Let’s Talk About Race by Julius Lester. An extraordinary man, Lester was Black and Jewish, and was an academic, an author, a Civil Rights activist and a musician. He was never afraid to tackle even the toughest subjects for children and for adults.

In this short story, he begins a conversation about the issue of race – a discussion we dare not avoid. Many parents have asked me how to discuss it – this is one way – but this story is truly for all of us. As a child, I loved stories on Shabbat. But Shabbat is also for discussing difficult issues, as well. I hope you find this story and the beautiful illustrations meaningful from the voice of Julius Lester.