By Dr. Saundra Sterling Epstein
Here we are again. Charlottesville. Florida. Pittsburgh. Now New Zealand. Too many tragedies.
Here is what scares me. Add them all up — it’s all coming from people who hate anyone who is different. Pull them from the right and from the left, and you will note that the center is being closed out.
My husband often reminds me that he feels most people are good people who want the right thing. I am really, sincerely wondering how this is playing out in this time of extreme positions. Yes, many of us gather repeatedly to mourn and to share, but the problem is that we’re doing so too often.
I sit here once again with the past few days as busy as ever but clearly overshadowed by the latest tragedy in New Zealand. An entire community — actually an entire world of Muslims and all people of faith — is mourning.
I have been involved once again in mobilizing communities of Jews and multifaith organizations to go to yet another interfaith gathering of sorrow and support for our Muslim brothers and sisters. I have just been in communication with many of my Muslim colleagues, supporting them as they supported me a few months ago after the Pittsburgh massacre.
As Peter, Paul and Mary asked, “When will we ever learn?” Apparently, what is being learned is hate and intolerance and lack of acknowledgment that we are all part of a human family.
This past Shabbat was Parshat Zachor. On this Shabbat, the one before Purim, we remind ourselves to destroy Amalek, the force that attacked the Israelites in the desert so long ago, going for the weak and tired, and killing them without mercy. When we remember what Amalek did, it is this hatred and lack of humanity that we are supposed to eradicate wherever it is found, including in ourselves.
I am privileged and have so much gratitude for being able to be connected to so many wonderful people of faith. Whether we pray to HaShem or the Lord or Allah or any other supreme being, what my colleagues and friends and I share is a sense of humility that we are trying intentionally to live the life that supreme being wants us to. When one holds oneself accountable to that higher being, then being careful with words and actions comes as a necessary part of one’s daily existence.
The Talmud and so many other sources teach repeatedly that words that hurt, embarrass and minimize the other are as dangerous weapons as anything concrete. What we need to understand is that words count and our leaders and all responsible members of our community have to go back to a time in our lives when we had to think before we spoke.
Communications theory teaches that what you hear is more important than what I say. I remember when Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir, stated that his rabbis and teachers at yeshiva taught him that Rabin was threatening the lives and well-being of all of Israel by engaging in peace talks and initiatives. Amir used that as permission to assassinate him. For a few weeks afterward, there was some reflection in the yeshiva world, and then it was back to business as usual.
I am hurting, as are many people in my world.
This weekend, we had an amazing gathering at the Muslim Cultural Center Sunday afternoon as members of the Cheltenham Area Multi-Faith Council, including many members of our Jewish community, came together to mourn the loss of lives in New Zealand.
I was told that as many as 300 people were there. The people at the Center were overwhelmed and did not expect this outpouring of support. Many expressed gratitude for our being together as well as the hope that we can continue to come together to celebrate, not just mourn.
When will the perpetrators of such misery learn that it is not our purpose as human beings for X to hate Y and Y to hate Z? If we do not learn to play nicely on the playground we call this world, we will not have a playground to play on.
May we all reach out and share the same message — that we must consider the impact of our words on others and get back to preschool basics: Don’t hit, share the space, if you don’t have something nice to say, etc. Too many adults have forgotten these very basic lessons.
Dr. Saundra Sterling Epstein is president of the Cheltenham Area Multi-Faith Council and director of BeYachad — Bringing Jewish Learning and Life Together.