This past Thursday, I, along with Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Beth El Congregation and Rabbi Mark Cooper of Congregation Oheb Shalom, had the opportunity to spend the day at South Orange Middle School and meet with each of the 8th Grade Social Studies classes. I came away impressed with both the teachers — they are caring, creative and passionate — and the students themselves.
We had been asked to come speak about Judaism in general but, in light of the recent bias issues that have taken place in the school, the conversation was largely focused on the recent increase in anti-semitism, racism and Islamophobia. It is one of these exchanges that I want to share with you this Erev Shabbat.
During one of the sessions, Rabbi Olitzky asked everyone present to raise their hands if they have ever been on the receiving end of any sort of biased words or actions. Every single hand, including those of the teachers and rabbis, went up. When it came time for me to speak I shared the following-
I suspect you are all familiar with the Golden Rule. It teaches that we should treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated. It is a wonderful and powerful teaching. It is important. But that’s not how Judaism cites it.
No, rather than ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ Judaism teaches, ‘That which is displeasing or hurtful to you do not do to anyone else.'” It is a small change but an important one. Every single person in this room raised their hand when asked if they have ever had bias directed at them. Every single one of us knows what it feels like to be singled out, belittled, made to feel smaller and less valued. Every one of us knows how bad that can feel. So I cannot help but ask, If we know how much it hurts to have bias directed at us why in the world would we think it is okay to do that to someone else? And why in the world would we not stand up and speak out when others are having something hurtful directed at them? If we know what hurts us, don’t we have even more responsibility to make sure someone else never has to feel like that?
As we gather to celebrate Purim this weekend we are reminded that while the decree Haman and Achashverosh put forth was legal — Achashverosh was, after all, the king — that did not make it right. That did not make it moral. The Jewish community of Shushan only survived because Esther and Mordecai stood up in the face of hatred and bias.
Do not afflict the stranger [one who is different] in your midst, the Torah teaches, for you yourselves were once slaves in Egypt.
If we know what it is like to be singled out as individuals and as members of the Jewish community, how can we possibly think it is okay for anyone to experience what we know only too well? With 46% of JCCs nationwide having now received at least one bomb threat, we need to reaffirm our commitment to stand together on behalf of our community. But if we only stand up and speak out when bias hits home we have missed the point. “That which is hurtful to you do not do to anyone else” means we need to stand up against bias wherever and whenever it rears its ugly head. Because while Purim may be fun, its lesson is a serious one… especially at a time when increasing numbers of people feel as if they are living in Shushan.