I had an amazing, inspiring experience in Washington DC this week – and not for the reason I thought I would.
The reason for the trip was to take our Confirmation class to the Holocaust Museum. We were invited to join students of the Celebrate Diversity program, which works with public and private schools all over the area to promote tolerance, understanding, and open communication.
After several hours in the museum, we needed to be outside, to unwind and get some fresh air. So we went down to the Tidal Basin, where many of the national monuments are located. It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day, and not very crowded, so we had a lot of time to go through several of the monuments I hadn’t been to before.
The memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt is stunning – not in its grandeur but in its simplicity. It’s more of a park, with broad, winding paths. It’s very organic, like it’s part of the natural landscape. Facing the Tidal Basin is a series of rough-cut low limestone walls with trees above and inspiring quotes from President Roosevelt chiseled into them.
Whoever planned this park did something really interesting. You know, there are plenty of moments in the area dedicated to war – World war two, Korea, Viet Nam. But the FDR memorial is not about victory in battle. It focuses on the economic recovery of the 30’s, the immense hardships that so many Americans felt, and Roosevelt’s hallmark achievements in improving the lives of Americans of every background, class, and race. It’s about the inherent value and dignity of every human being. And almost everything is presented on a very human scale.
As you walk in, you’re greeted by a life-sized bronze statue of Roosevelt in the one pose he would never be seen in during his life – seated in his wheelchair. It’s a bold statement, I think, about what people with disabilities can achieve if given the chance. Tourists were sitting on the president’s lap, getting their picture taken with him. And that’s great. It humanizes a man who’s almost become a myth, and reminds us of his immense power despite his physical frailty.
Moving into the next section there’s a sculpture of an ordinary working-class man plying his trade, and another of a group of people standing in a bread-line. They represent the millions of Americans who struggled for years with hunger, with joblessness, with homelessness, with hopelessness – and they represent the millions of Americans who face the same challenges today. The sculptures might have been inspired by real people who suffered 75 years ago – but they might well remind us of people we know, people in our own communities.
Juxtaposed with the quotes from Roosevelt, they are also a reminder that government can, and has, played a powerful and necessary role in putting millions of people back to work so that they can feed and clothe and house their families. Roosevelt’s words still apply today, “Among American citizens, there should be no forgotten men, and no forgotten races.”
The only larger-than-life depiction of Roosevelt is at the very end of the park, a bronze statue of him seated, wrapped in his cape, with his beloved dog Fala at his side. But even here, we get a sense of his humanity, and his compassion for all of God’s creatures.
The human factor is at the heart of this week’s Torah portion, which begins with the laws of the Sabbatical year, proclaimed every seventh year, and the Jubilee year, every fiftieth year.
The Torah demands we recognize the needs of the people and the land itself to rest in order to be fruitful and productive.
At the Jubilee, we are commanded to release all indentured servants and forgive their debts, using the language inscribed on the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof.”
The land, too, must be redeemed – and can never be sold so that it beyond reclamation by its original owners. Thus, every person in our community is granted a second chance to return to home and family, without the specter of crushing debts hanging over their children.
But the Torah goes farther in its concern for human dignity. The Torah not only allows for the redemption of impoverished and enslaved Israelites – it actually requires family members to pay what it takes to bring them home by the Jubilee year. And as for those who keep indentured servants who owe them money, the Torah states, “the other shall not rule ruthlessly in your sight.”
Kindness and compassion are required – because of the inherent dignity and value of each human being regardless of status. As the rabbis teach, we are all descended from a single human being, so that no one of us can say that our blood is redder – that is, that our life has more worth than another.
That’s what Celebrate Diversity is designed to do, too. Let’s face it: our children grow up around here in a relatively safe, and fairly homogenous, environment. This program challenges some basic presumptions they might make about the world, just because they’ve seen so little of it. One workshop requires kids to be segregated out by hair color, or eye color – not a far cry from segregating people by the color of their skin, and just as pointless and hurtful.
Exposing students of all backgrounds to the horror of the Holocaust – and to the human potential for evil and death and even genocide – forces them to look more closely at how other people are treated, on the basis of race and religion, even here at home. And how they might be perpetuating denigration of the “other” without even realizing it.
The reason I think that the FDR Memorial and the US Holocaust Museum are so effective in delivering the message about the inherent value of every human being, is that they present our past on a human scale. At the monument, it’s bringing the scale of both FDR’s challenges and his achievements down to dimensions we can comprehend.
The Holocaust museum puts names and faces to a tragedy that sometimes defies comprehension. Each person entering the museum is given a card with the name and photo and story of someone swept up in the Holocaust. That person becomes your alter-ego, through whose eyes you view the horror as it unfolds – the anti-Jewish laws, the ghettos, the starvation, the work camps, the death camps. You don’t find out until the end of the story what happened to them. Did they survive? Escape? Die in the camps?
In both cases, these memorials move us beyond the tragedy of faceless and nameless millions that can overwhelm us and makes individual action seem pointless, if not impossible. We learn the stories of righteous gentiles who saved thousands of Jews – and also the names of those who refused to help. We see the images of working-class Americans bent over from hunger, and we are still inspired by the words of a disabled man who, more or less single-handedly, mobilized the power of an entire national bureaucracy by appealing to the moral imperative that we must not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor.
Okay, so FDR did it on a grand scale, because he was a great man who was in the right place, at the right time, for the right purpose. But God doesn’t expect us to be FDR. God does expect us to do what we can, one day at a time, one person at a time. Or as the rabbis say, “one who saves a single life, it is as though he has saved the entire world.” We are not commanded to complete the task – but neither are we free to abstain from it.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. And let us say together: Amen.