“When Words Hurt” – Shabbat Devarim, Friday, August 12th, 2016

When I was a kid – and maybe some of you remember this – we were taught a little proverb to say back to people who were mean to us: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but [words will never hurt me].” Turns out, that’s a total crock.

I’ve spoken about the power of words in the past – but, given the events of this past week, I think the message bears repeating.

Words are powerful tools. They tell others exactly how we feel, and where we stand. From the mouths of compassionate and sensitive people, words can be enriching, inspiring, and healing. From the mouths of insensitive narcissists or bullies, words can be devastating – even life- threatening.

In last week’s Torah portion, at the end of the book of Numbers, we learn through the laws of swearing oaths that God presumes that we mean what we say, and that we have an obligation to fulfill what we promise. “If a man makes a vow to the Eternal or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself,” says the Torah, “he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.”

This Shabbat, in the first chapters of the book of Deuteronomy, as Moses begins his final oration to the people before his death, the Torah shows us the power of choosing our words carefully. Alternatively chastising and motivating, Moses reminds the people of all the times they neglected the oath uttered at Sinai, Na’aseh v’nishmah, “we will do, and we will heed,” resisting God’s commandments and his own leadership.

But his words also are a reminder to them that they have persevered under God’s protection through their forty years of wanderings, and that – despite their occasional outbursts of pique and frustration – God has indeed fulfilled the promise of bringing them as a free people to a land of their own.

Words can hurt. Words can heal. Words need to be chosen very carefully.

And that’s why so many of us in the Jewish community were so horrified, angry, and disappointed by the words – one word, actually – that appeared in the manifesto of The Movement for Black Lives – an umbrella statement on behalf of some 50 groups, including Black Lives Matter, that are fighting for racial justice. Most of the platform focuses on what the group sees as the systematic oppression of black people in America; it calls for an end to, and reparations from, economic, educational, social, and political discrimination. But then there’s this:

“The interlinked systems of white supremacy, imperialism, capitalism and patriarchy shape the violence we face,” says the document. “As oppressed people living in the US, the belly of global empire, we are in a critical position to build the necessary connections for a global liberation movement.” And to that end, the platform singles out one, and only one, nation outside the US as a partner in this imperialism enterprise:

“The US justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.”

Genocide. “The deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group.” The word sends shivers down our spines. We Jews know genocide. We lived it. We died in it.

In the wake of the Holocaust, it was the United Nations itself that adopted this word to describe the systematic destruction of the Jewish people by the Nazi regime, and to condemn it as an international crime.

We have watched in horror since then as tyrannical regimes have engaged in genocidal slaughter: Tens of thousands of ethnic Kurds slaughtered by Ba’athist Iraq in the 1980s; the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia in the 1990s; and, most recently, the wholesale slaughter of the Yazidi people by the Islamic State.

Israel today is threatened by the avowed genocidal ambitions of the mullahs of Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and elements of the PLO in the West Bank.

But Israel is a victim, not a perpetrator. It is not perfect, by any means, and it has caused a lot of damage and made a lot of poor decisions. I have challenged Israel’s leadership on any number of occasions from this pulpit, and criticized its policies. But it does not engage, and has not engaged, in the deliberate and systematic destruction of the entire Palestinian Arab population.

The person responsible for the language, Ben Ndugga-Kabuye, says he can’t understand what all the fuss is about. He says their solidarity with the Palestinian people is not any different than their connection with Somalis or Colombians. But his document does not single out any other nation for condemnation, nor attribute genocidal intent to any other. Only Israel. And that rightly sticks in the craw of Jews and Jewish organizations around the world, many of whom have worked in partnership with black civil rights groups for decades in the fight for equality and human dignity.

Some of us could see this coming. I preached last winter about Black Lives Matter and how it publicly turned its back on one of its strongest and most committed supporters, Rabbi Susan Talve of St. Louis, who had literally been on the front lines of protests in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, Missouri, two years ago. Her crime was in being a Zionist – that is, by their definition, she is an enemy of the Palestinian people and therefore an enemy of black Americans. The Movement platform is a codification of that notion that black Americans and Palestinian Arabs have some commonality that Jews – we who lost six million of our brothers and sisters to genocide – somehow cannot understand.

It is a rupture in a relationship that will not be easily healed. As Yair Rosenberg wrote in Tablet Magazine, “It is sadly clear that those select activists who shoehorned such a slur in to the Black Lives Matter platform, whether out of ignorance or malice, have needlessly driven a wedge into the very necessary alliance to ensure equal treatment of America’s African-American brothers and sisters.”

Some Jewish voices on the left – many of whom support boycotts and divestment from Israel and identify her as a racist and aggressive state, came to the defense of BLM this past week. They told us to check our white privilege at the door and choose to side with these liberation movements. They contended that Zionism is antithetical to Jewish liberation.

To them, Rabbi Gil Steinlauf of Adas Israel in Washington DC penned a spectacular public response:

“Movements that struggle for racial justice teach us that privilege binds us,” he wrote:

“In America, good-hearted white people can delude themselves, believing that they understand black people because they care. But BlackLivesMatter and similar movements remind them that, while they may care, privileged people cannot understand what it is to be denied privilege . . .

“When BlackLivesMatter supports BDS and labels the Jewish people as perpetrators of genocide, then BlackLivesMatter is falling into the very oppression that it seeks to dismantle. BDS and similar groups are the product of privileged people who care about Palestinians, but who cannot understand the full complexity of dynamics in Israel-Palestine.

“From their position of privilege, BDS and all movements that seek to deny the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state, distort and oversimplify the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The result is a dangerous narrative that denies the voice of human beings – Israelis – who genuinely struggle for safe and just lives alongside their Palestinian brothers and sisters. The reality is that the Jewish state is an incredibly diverse and complex democracy, where the majority of Jewish people are struggling to end the occupation in a peaceful and just way.”

Rabbi Steinlauf has hit on two very important points. First, black Americans don’t understand what it’s like to be Jewish or Israeli any more than I can understand what it’s like to be a black American.

Second, the BDS movement and other similar anti-Israel groups are not really about the rights of Palestinians. They are committed to delegitimizing Israel’s right to exist, willfully ignoring the historic four-thousand year link between Jews and the Land of Israel, and characterizing the Jewish homeland solely as a post-Holocaust white colonial land grab.

As Bradley Burston wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz this week, “There’s a name for a belief that there is only one country which has permanently forfeited the right to exist, only one people which is so abhorrent, so incomparably wicked, that it alone has no right to self-determination.” That name, he said, is “racism.”

It is a sad, hurtful, and harmful thing that has happened: that a movement committed to racial equality has been coopted – perhaps by a small radical element – into championing what is, at its heart, a racist agenda.

I do not use that word lightly, because Torah teaches me how much power words have. But, like the Israelite who makes an oath, I have to take the Movement at its word. I have to presume that it has made a deliberate choice – in a world rife with slaughter and slavery – to single out Israel and only Israel as a perpetrator of genocide.

Movement supporters may say: Oh, but it’s only one word out of 40-thousand. But that doesn’t matter. As General Michael Hayden said this week in response to an equally incendiary public remark, “You’re not just responsible for what you say, you are responsible for what people hear.” And what I heard was untrue and unacceptable.

The Movement for Black Lives is insisting that I repudiate my Jewish identity and my Jewish home if I am to be their partner. And I’m not going to do that. There are plenty of religious, ethnic, and civil-rights groups committed to issues of social justice and personal dignity, with whom I can find common ground and who will not expect me to check my Jewish self at the door. It is, after all, that Jewish self that compels me to work for equality and freedom and justice.

I’m not going to give up the work. But I may have to find someone else whose hand I can hold, and whose counsel I can rely on, to get the job done.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.


©2016 Audrey R. Korotkin


Water and Wisdom: Remarks to the Ecumenical Conference of Greater Altoona, July 19, 2016

Presented as part of the “Matter of Faith” Interfaith Summer Series on “Caring For Our Common Home”:

Most people here are familiar with the story of Creation in Genesis, chapter 1: how God created an ordered material world out of the tohu va-vohu – the empty nothing that once existed. The earth is divided into oceans and continents, animals evolve from sea creatures to walk on dry land, the earth brings forth the lushness of the plant kingdom, and, eventually, humans are created from the dust of the earth itself, animated with the breath of God, and given the responsibility of tending the garden.

But according to Jewish tradition, three creations actually preceded the making of the world as we know it: water, wind and fire. That is to say, the earth could not be what it is without these three things existing first. In this mystical telling of the Creation story, water conceived and gave birth to thick darkness, fire conceived and gave birth to light, and wind (understood as God’s spirit) gave birth to wisdom. The world, then, is maintained by means of these six creations: water and darkness, fire and light, wind and wisdom.

We don’t often think of it this way. But I believe it is crucial that wisdom – born of the very breath of God – is included in this list of basic elements. Wisdom imbues words and actions with intention and thoughtfulness. That’s why we honor wisdom, as an element of creation, in our morning prayers every day:

מָה רַבּוּ מַעֲשֶֽׂיךָ יְיָ, כֻּלָּם בְּחָכְמָה עָשִֽׂיתָ

“How great are Your works, O God, in Wisdom have You made them all.”

But Wisdom is not reserved for God alone. If God’s spirit brought Wisdom into being, and if Wisdom is a basic element of the earth, then Wisdom was made to share with humanity. And to be used by humanity, to speak and to act with intention and thoughtfulness, just as God does. We are God’s messengers on earth. We must use wisdom in the way we treat the other elements of the world – earth and air, fire and water, light and darkness.

Jewish tradition and Jewish law – based in Torah, our sacred Scripture – are very clear about our responsibilities. Not to dominate the earth, but to take care of it.

And I want to focus on just one of these elements tonight, and how we ought to be treating it with wisdom. Water, in particular, is a powerful symbol in Judaism.

Water is a symbol of purity. Archaeological excavations at the southern entrance to the Temple mount have uncovered the mikva-ot – the ritual baths – in which our ancestors immersed themselves before they could ascend the steps to the Temple courtyard. Even today, Jews plunge into the waters of the mikvah to ritually cleanse themselves before the Sabbath or before being married.

Water is a symbol of hospitality. When Abraham’s servant went to look for a suitable bride for Isaac, he found Rebekah at a well, and chose her because she not only gave him water, but drew water for his camels as well. Isaac dug wells where his father had traveled, and where God called to him and blessed him.

Water is a symbol of transcendental change. It’s no coincidence that Jacob became Israel in the midst of a flowing stream, struggling for survival against an angelic creature. It’s no coincidence that the turning of the Nile from water to blood was the first miracle that Moses performed in Egypt. And that God’s parting of the sea – controlling the power of water over us – is the miracle that allowed the Israelites to escape the Egyptian army.

Miriam the prophetess is connected with the miracle of finding water in the desert. It was immediately after her death that the wells dried up, and so did the vines and fruit trees around them. Late in his life, Moses’s anger led him to strike at a rock to draw the water out, rather than coaxing it out as God had commanded. His punishment was that he would not be allowed to cross the Jordan River with the people, into the Promised Land.

The symbol of water points not just to our past but to our future: The prophet Ezekiel imagines the restoration of Israel as a time when God will sprinkle us with water to cleanse us from our sins, putting a new heart and new spirit within each of us.

But water is a potent symbol because it is far more than just a symbol. Let’s talk for a moment about water today. A number of our speakers last week talked about how we use it, how we waste it, and how we hoard it. Considering that 71 percent of the earth’s surface is made of water, you’d think we’d have enough. But it never seems to work out that way.

We Jews know what that’s like – and not just because of the Bible stories. Most of the land of Israel – and the modern state of Israel – is semi-arid, and rainfall is modest, at best. The Jordan River begins in Northern Israel, where there are some lush rain forests with magnificent waterfalls. But looks can be deceiving:. Israel been in a drought for most of the last decade. And Lake Kinneret, the source of much of Israel’s water supply, is well below what it should be.

But we Jews are resilient and resourceful. So we’ve come up with a lot of modern-day methods of well-digging. It was an Israeli, Simcha Blass, who first developed modern drip-irrigation techniques decades ago to, as we say, “make the desert bloom.” Instead of pop-up sprinklers or big irrigation rigs that waste water, either spraying it where it’s not needed or leaving it to be evaporated, drip-irrigation runs perforated hoses around the base of plants and trees dropping just enough water exactly where it’s needed – with water savings of 20 to 50 percent. Israel has been exporting this technology: one company, Netafim, operates in 150 countries around the world. But you can also get drip irrigation kits at Lowes and Home Depot for your own garden.

Israel also embraced desalinization – taking salt out of sea-water in the 1990s after yet another extended drought.  The coastal city of Eilat was a pioneer in the 1970’s, and now all of its municipal water supply comes from desalinization. And an Israeli company is now building a desalinzation plant in San Diego, as one way of dealing with the shrinking availability of clean water in an area of the country that seems to have an insatiable thirst for it.

The mechanics of all of this are one thing. But changing peoples’ minds about water – that’s something else. All of our speakers last week talked, in some way, about the environmental footprint each of us has. Shamsa [Anwar, speaking from the Muslim tradition] pointed out that when we use more than our fair share, we are leaving others with less than they need – sometimes with devastating results. I’m a child of the suburbs, where I’ve always taken clean water for granted, for drinking, bathing, and even brushing my teeth. It never occurred to me till pretty recently how much water it costs the earth to make one cotton t-shirt or one hamburger patty. So when I do environmental studies with my students, and we look at our water or carbon footprints, I do them along with everybody else to see where I’m being wasteful.

The book of Proverbs begins with the admonition: “L’Da’at chochma u-musar” – to understand wisdom and ethics. But the Rabbis also have translated it this way: “To understand wisdom and self-restraint.” Why pair wisdom with self-restraint? If a man has wisdom, say the rabbis, he will learn self-restraint. But if he has no wisdom, he is incapable of learning self-restraint.

I’d put it this way: Wisdom is a gift from God, embedded in the very creation of the world, which we can choose to use or to waste. If we choose to waste it, we also waste a lot of what the world offers us, thinking it’s just there for the taking – whatever we want, as much as we want, as long as we want it. When we choose to use it, we understand how very small we are, our very short are our years, and how very restrained must be our needs.

And we take to heart what the rabbis teach about Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden: “Take care of the world I have given you, says God. Because if you do not, there will be no one to do it after you.”

Thank you.

©2016 Audrey R. Korotkin





“It’s Not What You Think: Reflections on Extremism and Violence” – Friday, July 15, 2016

It seems to be a pattern lately: When tragedy strikes anywhere in the world, the Jewish and Israeli press seem to get the information out first. And they have deeper and different information than anybody else. After Orlando and Dallas – and even today after Nice and Turkey — the stories that showed up first in my Facebook news feed were from Israeli and Jewish media outlets.

I don’t know why that is. Maybe we’re just so used to responding to tragedy that we’ve gotten pretty good at it.

Anyway, in this week when we’re trying to make sense of events that seem to defy it, it was an article in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency feed earlier this week about the Dallas sniper that gave me some perspective.

While the mainstream American media have focused mostly on Micah Johnson’s military service, the JTA pieced together some other crucial details.

Johnson was, over time, loosely affiliated with a number of hate groups including some affiliated with Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic Nation of Islam. And he seems to have been, for a time, a member of what’s called the New Black Panther Party. He joined them in Houston a few years ago and attended several protests and other events. This is a group that espouses confrontation, and even violence – and it’s not just anti-white but it’s also anti-Jewish. It’s one of the hate groups that spread those horrific stories that Zionists were responsible for the attacks of 9/11, and that thousands of Jews new about the attacks in advance.

In fact, the Southern Poverty Law Center calls the New Black Panther Party, “a virulently racist and anti-Semitic organization whose leaders have encouraged violence against whites, Jews, and law-enforcement officers.” The Anti-Defamation League calls it “the largest organized anti-Semitic and racist Black militant group in North America.”

And here’s why this is important. Micah Johnson was involved with groups like this because Micah Johnson is a hater. Haters hate. That’s what they do. The fact that he was involved with, or a follower of, groups that hate whites, Jews, cops – that just confirms that hate travels in all directions. He said that day that he wanted to kill cops – but he just as easily might have aimed his weapon at Jews.

And Micah Johnson is not unique.

Take Dylann Roof, the young white man who murdered nine black people at Mother AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina last June. Much attention was paid to the fact he was wearing the insignias of white-supremacist groups. Much less attention was paid to a Facebook page connected to him that included a hate-filled manifesto railing against “Blacks,” “Jews,” “Hispanics,” and “East Asians.”

And then there was Omar Mateen, who slaughtered 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando. He claimed he was doing it in the name of Islam, but the groups he pledged allegiance to don’t really work together. So maybe he hated gays. Maybe he hated himself, since he was known to frequent the club. His former co-workers reported him to be angry at a lot of people a lot of the time. And his ex-wife said he was unpredictably violent at home and often beat her.

Violence against women is another common thread here, since the Dallas shooter had left the army after a sexual harassment complaint.

Haters hate. That’s what they do. There is something dark and evil and  very frightening inside such people that can lead them to confrontation and violence. And if you only examine one facet of the hatred – if you don’t look at the anti-Semitism or the violence against women – then you miss the bigger picture.

I don’t know what makes some people hate other people because of their color, their religion, their gender, or their sexual orientation, or all of the above. But I do believe that they are more dangerous than ever. First, because social-networking allows them to be bombarded by, and inspired by, the constant chants of hatred as never before. Ironically, it can make them feel both oppressed and empowered. Second, because our laws allow them access to weapons of mass destruction that are far deadlier than ever before.

That another hater will commit another mass murder is entirely predictable. That too many of our elected officials seem committed to doing nothing to stop it is also predictable. Congress has recessed for seven weeks without even passing a pretty toothless bill that says people on the no-fly list who are suspected of terrorist links cannot buy a gun. No fly, no buy. House Speaker Paul Ryan insists that some people might be on the list mistakenly and doesn’t want their second-amendment and due process rights violated. But where’s the due process for children who are slaughtered in their school, worshipers in their church, or young people in a club? Why isn’t the priority on protecting life?

We’ve all heard in the last few weeks the contention by some gun-rights advocates that what we need are more guns – that the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. But according to Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, there were 20-30 protesters legally, openly carrying their guns in that Black Lives Matter demonstration when Micah Johnson opened fire and the crowd scattered in all directions. “In the middle of a firefight,” the mayor said afterward, “It’s hard to pick out the good guys and the bad guys.” Open-carry made the situation more complicated, more confusing, and potentially more dangerous than it had to be. One innocent protester was wrongly identified as the shooter and arrested.

And a new study out this week from the American Journal of Public Health shows that the higher the rate of civilian gun-ownership, the more likely that police officers will face potentially life threatening situations. Line-of-duty homicide rates among police officers were more than three times higher in states with high gun ownership compared with low-gun ownership states.

You want to protect both black and blue? Here’s what the International Association of Chiefs of Police wants: A reinstatement of the federal ban on assault weapons. Expanded background checks. A national gun-offender registry. The vast majority of Americans – even the vast majority of NRA members – support expanded background checks. And even Justice Antonin Scalia, who penned the Heller case that upended the District of Columbia’s handgun ban, also wrote in that same decision that:

korotkin_headshot“Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

“Yes, guns can be properly and effectively used in self-defense,” wrote the Washington Post editorial board on Monday. “But saturating the nation with firearms also primes the country for deadly violence, making many situations more likely to end in death. Potential suicides are more likely to succeed. Deranged and angry people, such as Johnson, can murder trained law enforcement officers from a distance.

“Curious children accidentally shoot themselves, their friends, or their parents. Domestic abusers kill family members before tempers cool or authorities arrive. Police officers see or fear guns in the cars they pull over, and their adrenaline starts pumping.”

Columnist Eugene Robinson wrote that the solution is not more guns. The solution, he said, is to end the undervaluing of lives, both black and blue.

But that’s what haters do. They undervalue the lives of others who are different. And if they have the means to harm, to destroy, to murder, some of them will do it. Our Torah commands: You shall not hate another in your heart. But if we cannot force the hatred out of peoples’ hearts, we can at least make it harder for them to act on it.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.

©2016 Audrey R. Korotkin


In Memory of the Memory Keeper – Elie Wiesel – Friday, July 8th, 2016

As I approach another birthday, just a month from now, I am reminded that High School was a long, long time ago. But it was in high school that I first became acquainted with the works and the life of Elie Wiesel.

Because it was so long ago, we didn’t have Holocaust studies like many school systems have today. In our world history course, we barely made it to World War Two, much less any deep exploration of Nazi atrocities. So I came to know Elie Wiesel after school hours, in what was then called ‘forensics’ – competitive oral interpretation of books, plays and poetry.

For some reason, the couple of years I competed, the same excerpt from Elie Wiesel’s book “Night” was used over and over again, at least a dozen times. I don’t know why. It had been available in English for nearly 20 years at that point. But maybe that’s how long it took to work its way into the general curriculum, even without a special emphasis on the Holocaust. Anyway, it was always the same scene, captured more successfully sometimes than others. It’s the scene where Elie, as a 15-year-old boy, accompanies his father through the line at Auchwitz, where the notorious Dr. Mengele will sort those who can work from those who will go directly to the gas chambers.

As they approach, Elie begins reciting the mourner’s kaddish, preparing to say goodbye to his father, and to life itself.

“My heart was bursting,” Wiesel wrote. “The moment had come. I was face to face with the Angel of death…No. Two steps from the pit we were ordered to turn to the left and made to go into the barracks.

“Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”

So that’s what I first learned about Elie Wiesel. That he was a boy whose faith in God was tested by the evil and brutality of humanity. That these images would haunt him forever. But that he understood enough to blame humanity and not God.

At least that’s what I thought.

What I only came to know recently – actually what nobody knew until recently – was that an earlier version of the text was very different. After he wrote the original Yiddish, he wrote an extended version in Hebrew that he never shared with anyone, buried for decades in his archives. Here’s part of what he wrote:

“I stopped praying and didn’t speak about God. I was angry at him. I told myself, ‘He does not deserve us praying to him.’ And really, does he hear prayers? . . . Why sanctify him? For what? For the suffering he rains on our heads? For Auchwitz and Birkenau? This time we will not stand as the accused in court before the divine judge. This time we are the judges and he the accused.”

This was Elie Wiesel in the late 1950s, more than a decade after his liberation. Angry at the world for remaining silent. Angry at some Jews for foolishly believing that they themselves would not be targeted by the Nazis.

Angry at other Jews in places like New York and London and even in Israel, who knew exactly what was happening and did not warn their fellow Jews in Hungary. And yes, angry at a God who would let humanity come to this.

Dr. Joel Rappel, who was asked by Wiesel to organize his vast archive, is the one who found the missing material. He thinks that Wiesel intended to use it in an extended Hebrew version specifically for an Israeli audience, which would include many survivors of the camps, including Auchwitz and Buchenwald where he had been. But even though he never published it, Rappel says Wiesel never wanted it destroyed.

I think Wiesel knew there would come a time when people would question what really happened, as though maybe it wasn’t so bad – because after all, how could this happen in 20th century Europe?

I think Wiesel knew. That Holocaust deniers like David Irving would claim the numbers were small. That Jew-haters across the world would take to the streets and chant that Hitler was right, and that the gas chambers should be rebuilt so that they could finish what he began. That with turmoil and terror and murder throughout the Middle East, with Muslims slaughtering Muslims, somehow Israel would be blamed and ostracized and punished.

And I think that’s why he became a voice of conscience, not just a voice from the grave. For Jews in places like the Soviet Union, but not just for Jews – but also for victims of slaughter and genocide in Cambodia, and in Honduras, and on behalf of people in Tibet and Biafra and Paraguay. We say “never again.” But Wiesel knew that we never quite mean it.

After his death, I saw many otherwise intelligent people chastising Elie Wiesel for his support of Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing governments in Israel, which has eschewed peace talks with the Palestinians and expanded the reach of settlements in what might otherwise, eventually, become Arab communities. Some have even going so far as to equate it to support of Nazism. Now, you all know that I’m no fan of Bibi Netanyahu, that I think he has needlessly and frequently squandered both the opportunities for peace and the good-will of the international community.

But given Wiesel’s personal history, which he gifted to us, I cannot blame him. His experience taught him that virtually no one in the world would lift a finger to save a Jewish life. Not one, much less six million. So we’d better prepared to do it ourselves.

And thank God we have his history. The memoirs, the novels, the mystical tales, survive – and maybe a lot more that we don’t know about in that vast archive. “To forget the victims means to kill them a second time,” Wiesel once wrote. “So I couldn’t prevent the first death. I surely must be capable of saving them from a second death.”

That’s all the more important now. Those who survived have been passing away – many without sharing their stories. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington has tried to preserve as many stories as they can. So has Yad Vashem in Israel. Director Steven Spielberg was so swept up in the story he told in Schindler’s List that he created a foundation to record individual survivors’ accounts. His Visual History Archive includes the testimony of 53-thousand survivors.

But soon there will be no more people alive to tell the tale first-hand of the horrors they experienced, and how they managed to survive. And of all those voices, Elie Wiesel’s was the most powerful, and the most important. Because he spoke and wrote and preached and taught, for decades – refusing to be silent, refusing to let someone else tell the story. He never had an organization. He was an army of one. And yet his story is the one that everyone turns to – even if the one he published is not quite the whole story. And now that voice – that voice of conscience, that voice of truth – is silent.

So we must go back to the written words. Words like these:

“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides.”

This is the voice that calls us to action, to justice, to compassion. We must take sides. For some of us, it may mean standing up to the neo-Nazis in the streets of Paris. For others, it may mean demanding safety from gun violence in our own communities. Whatever cause calls to us, we cannot stay on the sidelines. We must take sides.

Historian Deborah Lipstadt – the one who stood up to the lies of Holocaust denier David Irving and beat him in a court of law – wrote this week that there is no replacement in sight for this man who spoke truth to power. That may be so. Maybe nobody else could be quite as eloquent, and as angry, and as determined, and as brave. But if the life and legacy of Elie Wiesel teaches us anything, it is the power of one voice in a world that sought to silence it.

Ken Yehi ratson. May we find courage in our own voices. As we say together: Amen.

©2016 Audrey R. Korotkin