Rabbi Josh Breindel: Strong and courageous

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PITTSFIELD — The contrast made it all the more painful.

I had just concluded a week with the rabbinic faculty at Crane Lake Camp in West Stockbridge. Our theme was the biblical passage in which humanity is made "in the Divine image" (Genesis 1:27). As we revere our Creator, we taught, so must we respect those made in the Divine image. We encouraged our students to embrace this perspective as the key to sustaining their summer community's "culture of kindness."

The students described camp as "the bubble" — a refuge from the world. Returning home on Sunday afternoon, my bubble was violently burst. I was horrified to learn about the events in Charlottesville. As the aftermath unfolded, the racist, misogynist and anti-Semitic beliefs of the demonstrators remained on full display.

Struggling to make sense of all that had happened, I envisioned a conversation with one of my campers. In my imagination, she was asking me about the week's lesson from camp. "OK, rabbi," she argued. "I get that we're all made in the image of God. But what am I supposed to do about someone who doesn't believe it? How do I respond to people who don't want to be part of a culture of kindness?"

As I played out possible responses, one of my favorite biblical verses came to mind: "Behold, I have commanded you to be strong and courageous — don't be fearful or lose heart " (Joshua 1:9). My values are not invalidated if someone doesn't hold them. As a matter of fact, our spiritual traditions are often most valuable to us in moments of conflict. Many religions (including Christianity, Islam and Judaism) tell powerful stories where people of faith demonstrate their strength by holding to their convictions in the face of coercion and temptation.

True strength comes from enriching others. True power flows from self-discipline. True greatness follows from caring for the least of those among us. These are the ways through which we can demonstrate, in the words of the biblical Joshua, that we are "strong and courageous."

In 1960, Sen/ John F. Kennedy quoted this same passage in his "New Frontier" speech when he accepted the Democratic Party's nomination for president. As Kennedy continued, he made an observation that feels strongly relevant today: "For courage — not complacency — is our need today — leadership — not salesmanship. And the only valid test of leadership is the ability to lead, and lead vigorously."

One way to "lead, and lead vigorously" is to stand together, demonstrating our common ideals. I am heartened by those who have taken to the streets to declare that hatred has no place in our communities. Their courage is a source of blessings for us all.

Many of our elected officials spoke out early, strongly and clearly about the events in Charlottesville. Others remained silent or issued bland remarks. We must remind them, as necessary, of their responsibility to protect the safety and civil liberties of all. We cannot be satisfied with platitudes or allow indifference to take root among us. Rather, we must remain strong and courageous, taking heart from one another's love.

Various alt-right groups have proposed a "free-speech" rally in Boston this weekend. The events of Charlottesville have left me wary. Nevertheless, the right to free speech is one of the most cherished of our country's institutions and must be upheld. I will be thinking of, and praying for, my friends and colleagues who will be attending counter-demonstrations.

As we look to the future, let us resist the temptation to be fearful or lose heart. Rather, let us be strong and courageous as we strive to create our own culture of kindness in the Berkshires and beyond.

Rabbi Josh Breindel is the spiritual leader of Temple Anshe Amunim in Pittsfield. He is serving his second term as president of the Pittsfield Area Council of Congregations.


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