Rabbi Jack Paskoff

Rabbi Jack Paskoff

In keeping with journalistic tradition (perhaps clergy tradition as well), I take to heart the idea that our purpose is “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” We don’t have to look far to see that the world is afflicted right now, and while some would say we need to be comforted, others might wonder if we’ve been afflicted enough.

I am also looking to take my cues from the Jewish calendar. This Thursday is the holiday of Tisha B’Av. It is a day when we afflict ourselves, remembering the destruction of both the First and Second Temples, and the resulting upheavals and exiles. Just 24 hours after the holiday ends, though, we arrive at Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort, when we read from Isaiah, “Be comforted, be comforted, my people.” In this spirit, I’ve struggled to find words of healing.

Here are three Hebrew words that I invite you to learn. The first is Kavod. We are going to honor the inherent dignity in every human being. Next is Sh’ma. Don’t just listen, but truly hear. Finally, T’shuvah, a call to repentance, not just an apology, but a sincere effort at changing something faulty in ourselves.

If we had kept these three ideas in mind this summer — and late last winter, when our country first had to wrestle with COVID-19 — I wonder how this time might have been different. I don’t want to believe that it’s too late.

What if we had heard, and, where appropriate said, some of the following things?

— “The name of the virus is novel coronavirus, novel as in never seen before. Let’s hear from the experts who are working incredibly hard to learn what they can and are doing their best to keep us safe. Let’s pool our minds and our talents to protect our lives, and let’s bring government together with the private sector to help families preserve all that they worked so hard for. Let’s unite our country in this effort.”

— “I’m sorry. I know I should have, but I just didn’t understand how hurtful a symbol a noose is for you. Can you tell me more? Where can I learn about this? Can you forgive me?”

— “I’m sorry. In my circle of peers, we use ‘defund the police’ and we all know what it means. It’s our shorthand for a much more complex reality we hope to see. I can see how hearing that might be jarring to someone who hasn’t been part of our conversations. Can I explain it a little more precisely to you?”

— “Can we have a more nuanced discussion about statues? Did you know that the Stone Mountain monument in Georgia wasn’t created until decades after the Civil War with financial support from the Ku Klux Klan? How can we honor the ideas and history that come with people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and still condemn the fact that they thrived, in part, due to their ownership of other human beings? Maybe we need to go back to the biblical injunction against creating any graven images.”

— “My friend, I love you, and because I love you, we need to find a way to talk about these issues so that they don’t tear us apart. Would you be open to the conversation? I know we still might not see eye to eye, but I feel like we need to try.”

Some say that the destruction of the Temples, which we will commemorate this week, was punishment for the sin of baseless hatred. I fear that we are teetering on the brink. What kind of destruction do we risk that we haven’t already encountered this summer?

The ultimate expression of repentance for Jews won’t come for another two months when we observe Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement. One of our great teachings about the day says something along the lines of (and here I’m paraphrasing): “Don’t waste your time asking God for forgiveness if you haven’t first sought forgiveness from the people you’ve harmed.”

We have our work to do to restore shalom, not just peace, but wholeness, to our families, our community, our country and the world. Maybe it can begin right here, right now.

Jack Paskoff is rabbi at Congregation Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster. He also is a correspondent for LNP. Email: jpaskoff@shaarai.org.