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Lessons from our faith

Rabbi Debbie Stiel

(Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the August edition of Temple Beth Sholom’s Bulletin.) 

Last year my August bulletin was titled “Living in a Worrisome World.”

A year later I could certainly title this bulletin article the same way. This summer we have witnessed repeated tragic shootings in our own country and horrendous Isis-inspired massacres abroad (and on our own turf). To be caring human beings we must never allow ourselves to become numb to the pain these events inflict on people like you and me. Yet, if we pay attention to what is going on in the world, how can one not be dismayed, saddened, worried at what one sees? 

With these attacks it is natural to become reactive. But how should we react? What insights can we gain from Judaism’s values and long history of living through turbulent times? Three Jewish lessons come to my mind.

First, Jewish history teaches us the importance of knowing the facts and not judging a group without knowing them. Ignorance often leads to fear and bad decisions. In Exodus we read, “now there arose a new king in Egypt who knew not Joseph” (Ex. 1:8). This Pharoah, rather than learning about the Israelites, enslaved them out of fear of what they might do. Then again in the book of Esther, King Ahasuerus decrees that all Jews should be killed because he believes Haman’s lies about the Jews. So many times in Jewish history fear and ignorance have led people to anti-Semitism. Today, we are witnessing a similar lack of knowledge about Islam. People see the radical Islam of the terrorists, and they equate that with the faith observed by 1.6 billion Muslims. We need to educate ourselves about this second largest faith in the world so we can help prevent the reactive fear mongering that is being espoused by certain politicians and many individuals. While we clearly need to take steps to safeguard people against terrorism, we also need to speak out against the prejudice that peace-loving Muslims face today.

This leads to my second point. Jews know what it is like to be politically powerless. Thank God that is not the situation today! In the United States we are blessed to be able to vote and to speak out for what we believe is right. I think Jews, because of our long historical memory, have important views to offer the public and politicians, and we need to make sure that our values are heard, along with those of others. For example, this is a time when we need to share with politicians our beliefs that the United States must remain a country that does not have an official religion and that safeguards separation of church and state. Too many people out of fear for things they see going on in our country want to declare this a Christian nation. We know where that goes! The rights of all are best guaranteed by a country that does not have an official faith. So the second lesson is that it is important for Jews, like others, to be politically informed and involved. We cannot underestimate the policy making power of elected officials. And we cannot afford to stay quiet when we hear of proposed legislation that we consider dangerous.

Lastly, let us try to keep an open heart. Fear and danger lead to very reactive minds and a dark world. Instead, it is important for us to use cool minds and open ears and hearts. We need to listen to the views of others even when they are very different from our own. Our country has become so polarized that we forget how to compromise and listen to others. And despite the population explosion, many people feel lonely and friendless. I don’t know that it will stop a knifing, but I do think that in our world where people are constantly told to close and lock the doors, we need to also counsel people to smile and offer a friendly word to someone who may need it. As Torah teaches, “v’ahavta lerayecha kamocha — love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19).

Rabbi Debbie Stiel is the rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom, the only congregation in Topeka, Kansas.