We have been living in a global pandemic now for nearly six months. Back in April I would check the stats every day. Statistics like where the hot spots are, what the R naught is in various places, the number of infected and the number of fatalities among many others. Nowadays I have become too sensitive and distraught to do that. As of this recording, through testing we know of about over 27M people in the world and 6M in the US that have been infected. I say through testing because we all know that there are far more infected than there are positive results. Scientists the world over are working hard on finding an effective and deliverable vaccine. We do not know how many more months that will take, but many are hopeful that it will happen in 2021.
The purpose of the vaccine is so that a person does not get ill if the virus gets in them. The virus will not be able to replicate and therefore will try to find another host. If the next host it tries is also vaccinated, and so on, then the virus has no way of replication and eventually is eradicated in from the human population. This is essentially what happened with polio and what could happen with measles. The challenge with measles is that there are countries which have not had their population immunized and then they meet with people in the US who are also not immunized and it can spread, which is what we saw last year.
Because, you see, that is how vaccines work—they are only effective if people take them. If one is not vaccinated, then one is able to contract the virus for which there was prevention. Once contracted, one is then able to spread to many. Vaccines only work if we all agree that it is for the better of our society as a whole in addition to the individuals within society.
The life of a person is worth an injection of a vaccine. And it does not matter if that person is you, your family member, your neighbor, or a stranger. They are worth it. Our society, our world, is worth it. We must all believe this and take action to make it happen.
To prevent the preventable, especially now that we have seen the devastation. Especially now that we are living it. So when the vaccine against the coronavirus becomes available, is there any question that we will all do what is right?
There is another vaccine that we need too. But it is not one that can be concocted in a laboratory. And it is not one which we will take once or twice and be covered. And it is not one which be given by a medical professional. No, this one is going to take much more work.
I am talking about needing a vaccine against hate. And we need one now.
Pirkei Avot asks: “If I am only for myself, what I am? If not now, when?” What is it that is preventing us from taking action against hate? Sadly, in our world hate has taken on many forms.
We see hatred in the form of anti-semitism when we see overt words, graffiti, and violence against Jewish people throughout the world. Here at home in America, the Anti-Defamation League reported in 2019 a 12% increase over the previous year and the highest year of crimes in 42years…since the ADL has been tracking these incidences 1https://www.adl.org/what-we-do/anti-semitism/antisemitism-in-the-us.
We see hatred in the form of xenophobia as industrialized countries are shuttering their borders at a minimum and harshly detaining refugees and refusing asylum seekers. We close our windows, we close our eyes, to immigrants who are suffering.
We see hatred in the form of white-supremacists spewing racists messages far and wide. From hidden chat rooms on the dark web to the street corners in dozens of cities, this message of white-supremacy has hatred as its deepest foundation and its most vile product.
We see hatred in the form of injustice for police brutality, especially against Black Americans. From George Floyd gasping for air as he calls for his mama and pleads “I can’t breathe” to Breonna Taylor killed in the middle of the night to Jacob Blake being shot multiple times in the back. And the list goes on of those who have suffered oppression in this way.
We see hatred in the form of systemic racism, the caste system which built America and for which we have not yet come to terms with. Issues such as school funding, loan applications for housing, schoolyard to prison yard pipeline, just to name a few areas in need of repair.
Hate needs a vaccine. As Dr King Jr said, “the time is always right to do what is right”. Now is the right time.
Not tomorrow when it is less complicated. Not after the latest unrest settles down. Not “when the pandemic is under control”. Not ‘when it feels less paralyzing”.
No, now. Today. We can all find our courage to stand up for what is right and not be a bystander to hate.
So you ask, what can I, but one person, do? More than you realize is the answer.
First of all, you can vote. Vote against hate wherever you see it on the ballot. Use that lens to discern which candidates you want to have in our government at all levels. In the same vein, tell any seated politician that you want them to unequivocally renounce hate in all its forms.
Name hate whenever you see it—whether that is in person, online, or even in your own heart. Simple, non-attacking statements meant to diffuse and stop the situation are helpful.
If that sounds scary, remember, as Nelson Mandela said, “that courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it”. 2https://shmaltzandmenudo.wordpress.com/2016/08/07/famous-sayings-22-courage-is-not-the-absence-of-fear/
Contact our local chapter of the NAACP and see how they would like individuals to get involved. Read books about other cultures. Dr Rudine Sims Bishop uses the term “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors” to encourage diversity.
She further develops this statement by saying, “Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience.” 3https://www.kirkusreviews.com/news-and-features/articles/honoring-a-legend-dr-rudine-sims-bishop/
Make sure your bookshelves, those in your family, the public library have all these opportunities. I would extend this to say all entertainment content including radio, tv, movies, podcasts, online articles, and so on.
How else can each of combat hate today? With love!
Let’s find ways to move the needle. We can move from tolerance to acceptance. And then to inclusion. And then to appreciation. And then to representation. Let us look at diversity as an asset, not a liability. Let us find beauty in a mosaic, rather than the homogeneity of a melting pot. Let us see one another, really see other human beings for all their lived experiences. That means even if it makes us uncomfortable. That means even when we are confused by the intersectionality that a person can present. That means even if want to shy away from the hard conversations because we simply cannot comprehend their story. We can combat hate by being informed and curious and kind.
You might be asking yourself why we need to engage so completely now. To that I would answer with another Jewish concept, which has been more well-known in this Covid-era:
the concept of pikuach nefesh, the saving of a life. There are few subjects more precious in Judaism than that of life. In fact, we are able to evaluate and make concessions on nearly every mitzvah if it means that a life is saved.
The Talmudic rabbis, and commentators since, have tried to understand what this phrase truly means. And the more it is analyzed, the broader it gets. No longer is pikuach nefesh relegated to the literal moment between life and death. No, a far more generous definition which widely protects the sanctity and reverence of life is found.
When evaluated with this understanding, we see the need to look at quality, not just quantity, of life. Therefore we come to understand that a life lived in poverty, in oppression, in
fear, in sadness, in hopelessness, is in need of our assistance. Our value system which is built-in to our Jewish tradition places the protection, or redemption, of a quality life above nearly all else. In the face of so many areas of need, how can we turn away?
Think of the lives that will be affected by our actions, or by our inactions.
We don’t need to wait for a laboratory scientist to discover the right formula for a vaccine. We only need to look into our own hearts and then realize that we have the power to be those agents of change in the world. Just as a medical vaccine need to be administer to all in order to be effective, so too does a vaccine against hate need to be absorbed by all in order for complete peace and change to occur. We cannot control other people, but we can control ourselves—our words, our actions, our hearts.
May we come to see the hatred in all its forms in our world.
May we come to recognize our ability to do something to stop and perhaps even prevent it. May we come to know a true abiding peace that comes from doing what is right and by making the world that much better by our deeds.
May we be inscribed and sealed for the book of life.
Shanah tovah, may this be a good year for us all.
This was adapted from a sermon delivered on Yom Kippur morning, September 28, 2020, at Agudas Israel Congregation in Hendersonville, NC.