Judaism - Torah

30 Days After Pittsburgh – Who are the Righteous Up-Standers?

I wonder if whoever wrote the expression, “May you Live in Interesting Times” had a prophetic window into today’s world. As we near the end of 2018, I can’t help but think about how it has certainly been an… interesting… year.

For many, interesting isn’t a strong enough word. It’s been a downright tough year for people who care about antisemitism, political civility, the success of the #MeToo movement, addressing the worldwide refugee crisis, and more. It seems as though we never have to look too far to find something that arouses frustration, anger, and fear. So often, these feelings add up to a sense of abject paralysis: what can we really say or do to make a difference?

I was considering this while reading this week’s Torah reading, Vayeshev. It features part of the famous story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph’s brothers – seething with hatred – gang up on him, plotting to kill him. Even though he is a blood relative, they think Joseph is different. They don’t see him as one of them. And out of malice and groupthink, they conspire to murder him.

It’s an 11-on-1 brawl, as Joseph is totally overpowered and overwhelmed. But in a moment of either patience, or sudden moral insight, or guilt, one of Joseph’s brothers – Reuven – rises up and speaks out against this act of violence. He’s not able to stop his brothers from the attack, but at the very least, he persuades them not to murder Joseph: “Throw him into a pit and leave him there, instead,” Reuven argues.

Reuven refuses to be an innocent bystander. We can argue whether or not his act of defiance went far enough, but at the very least, Reuven saw a potential injustice and acted to right it as best he could.

Reuven’s act should be a continual inspiration to us. “Today’s Torah portion speaks, in the language of its own age, to this timeless question – when to get involved,” notes Rabbi Bradley Artson. So when faced with feelings of anger and fear, one of the ways we can restore a sense of calm and hope is to look for inspiration from those who refuse to be bystanders. 

Who answers the eternal call to get involved? Who are the righteous up-standers today?

I was moved to tears last month, when the Sixth & I sanctuary burst at the seams with over 1,200 members of our extended DC community who showed up to offer support to the Jewish community in the wake of the antisemitic Pittsburgh shooting. It was a bittersweet reminder – one we wish we didn’t need – that we are not alone in the fight for justice and peace.

And, of course, we should do more than just look for up-standers, we should be righteous up-standers ourselves. If you’re looking for a way to offer support in the wake of the Pittsburgh attack, there are still numerous ways to help the victims, their families, and the wider community.

Here’s what you can do:

  1. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is addressing the trauma that many children are experiencing by providing age-appropriate books that address loss and grief, that focus on kindness and tolerance, and that remind children that we can still build a better world together.

    You can donate funds to support the purchase of these much-needed books.

  2. Donate funds directly to the Tree of Life Synagogue through the verified GoFundMe campaign.
  3. Donate to HIAS – an international nonprofit that works to protect refugees who have been forced to flee their homelands because of who they are, including ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities. Anti-Semitic gunman Robert Bowers negatively referenced the organization on his social media accounts prior to the massacre.
  4. Donate to the Jewish Federation Pittsburgh Solidarity Fund, which is collecting donations to fund psychological services, support for families, medical bills for all those involved, reconstruction, and security.
  5. Support and join the Anti-Defamation League in their work responding to anti-semitism, bigotry, and hate crimes in the United States.

Please join me in taking one of these steps to learn from the lessons of Reuven, Joseph, and their brothers. It may seem small, but – like Reuven – you can stand up for what is righteous and just. It’s a way you can reflect some hope and light into our shared world.

Wishing you a week of peace and inspiration.

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