Adapted from a Sermon delivered at Boca Raton Synagogue
January 19, 2019 – Shabbos Parshas Beshalach
Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we will mark this Monday, spoke powerfully about the danger and potential damage of silence. He once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” On another occasion he said, “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Both of these insights, separately and the combination of the two together, resonate deeply for me these days, days in which the silence from too many is growing increasingly worrisome.
This morning, as we sit here in shul, the 3rd Annual Women’s March will be held in cities across the country. Many of its most prominent founders and leaders have associated with outspoken anti-Semites and have been accused of expressing anti-Jewish sentiments themselves. Just this week, on a major talk show, women’s march founder Tamika Mallory, who called her hero Louis Farrakhan the greatest of all time, refused to condemn his statements, among them his calling Jews termites, Satan and “the great enemy.” In another interview, she refused to recognize Israel’s existence, while calling Palestinians native to the Land of Israel.
To their credit, some refuse to be silent and have disassociated from the movement. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz wrote an op-ed in USA Today this week explaining why she cannot continue to participate. “I cannot associate with the national march’s leaders and principles, which refuse to completely repudiate anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry.” The Democratic National Committee removed itself from the list of sponsors and should be commended for doing so.
But aside from the few who have spoken out, there is deafening silence from too many groups, among them those who supposedly stand against bigotry and discrimination like the ACLU and others. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who has announced her intention to run for President, is attending this morning’s women’s march in Iowa, but while she spoke out against anti-Semitism in general, she has refused to condemn the march specifically or its organizers for their associations and comments. Would she ever participate in a march whose founders identify with leading racists and who themselves have been accused of racists comments and policies? Can you imagine the backlash she, or others, would face?
Rep. Steven King of Iowa made deeply disturbing remarks about white supremacists and his colleagues acted swiftly, and correctly, stripping him of his committee assignments. But what about Rep. Ilhan Omar who supports BDS, a hypocritical anti-Semitic policy against Israel, a woman who once tweeted “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.”
Instead of being held accountable for her offensive, discriminatory remarks, she was placed on the Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday. A woman who holds anti-Semitic views and who described the “evil doings” of Israel has been placed on the most important committee for foreign policy. In response, there was no uproar or outrage, only absolute silence. Indeed, those who spoke about her appointment, haven’t done so in opposition to her appointment, but in opposition to anyone who dared to oppose her appointment. Shockingly, JStreet’s founder and leader said, “smearing Rep. Omar as an anti-Semite – or suggesting that she is somehow not fit to serve on an important committee like Foreign Affairs – is bigoted and deeply wrong.”
In other news this past week, a Palestinian activist who has praised Hezbollah, said Israel did not have the right to exist, and has called for Israeli “Zionist terrorist” Jews to return to Poland, posted a picture of himself with Freshman Congresswoman Rep. Rashida Tlaib after she posed for a picture with him at a private, invitation only dinner following her swearing in. What do you think the reaction has been from her colleagues? Deafening Silence. Can you imagine a member of Congress posing for a picture with David Duke or a KKK member at a private reception? It would correctly elicit outrage. Where is the outrage when it is hatred against Jews?
Martin Luther King was absolutely correct: If we are silent in moments like these, our lives have literally begun to end. Outrageous comments, views and associations deserve to be greeted with outrage. Intolerable comments, pictures and attitudes must not be tolerated. And he was also right when he said most disturbing is the silence of our friends. Where is the outrage and condemnation from Jewish elected officials about their colleagues’ anti-Israel remarks and aspersions, paralleling their reaction to Rep. King? Where is the ADL to lead the fight, stand up for truth, be at the forefront of calling out inappropriate and offensive speech, posts, pictures and policies?
Whether Avraham Avinu speaking truth to the ultimate Power when he protested the impending destruction of Sedom, Moshe challenging Hashem about why bad things happen to good people, Moshe and Aharon confronting Pharaoh, Esther and Mordechai taking on Haman, the Chashmonaim standing up to the Syrian Greeks against all odds, or countless other examples, we come from a tradition of not being silent when injustice is being perpetrated against anyone, and certainly not when it is directed against our people.
These are moments that demand we not remain silent. Hashem has blessed us with voices, with influence and with access. We must speak up and speak out and hold those that are silent accountable. We must generate outrage, the most powerful commodity these days and the only one that draws attention and demands action and reaction.
But while there are moments like these to overcome our silence and to express outrage, there are other times in which we would do better to be quiet than to react with indignation.
When the Jewish people miraculously cross the sea and emerge safely on the other side, they erupt in spontaneous song – Az yashir Moshe u’Vnei Yisroel. In that song that we recite each morning in our prayers, we describe Hashem:
“Who is like You, Hashem, among the celestials; Who is like You, majestic in holiness, Awesome in splendor, working wonders!”
We typically understand the song as praising Hashem’s unique power. For example, the Seforno writes: “Hashem’s incomparable stature consists in His ability to change the nature of phenomena in the universe which had previously been considered as indestructible, inviolate, impervious to any attempt by man to influence their nature in any way.”
But the Gemara understands our praise and awe of Hashem differently. When the wicked Titus entered our Holy Beis Ha’Mikdash and desecrated the Holy of Holies in unspeakable ways, Hashem was silent, He was passive and failed to react. Why would the Almighty, the infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, all-powerful Hashem, do nothing when He could do anything? Our rabbis explain (Gittin 56b):
מי כמוכה באלים ה’ מי כמוכה באלמים דבי רבי ישמעאל תנא
Do not read “Who is like You God b’eilim,” among the celestials, but “Who is like You b’ilmim,” among the mute. Hashem modeled for us the greatest strength, the most powerful response – doing nothing. God showed us His power not by manipulating nature and controlling the world, but by the self-control and discipline, to remain silent in the face of insult, defamation and even blasphemy.
He taught us that our greatest strength too is not in overreacting to being insulted; it is not acting at all. Chazal teach (Shabbos 86) we should train ourselves to always be min ha’ne’elavim v’einam olvim, from those who when insulted don’t insult back; shom’im cherpasam v’einam m’shivim, hear the wrath against them, but don’t respond.
Save your outrage and indignation for things that truly matter, for threats that are real and for insults and offenses that have real consequences. When it comes to a personal slight, a hurtful insult, let it go, walk away. But how? We get that nasty text, that hurtful email, someone makes an aggressive comment. How do we stay silent? How can we find the resolve to walk away, press delete, not match or escalate what has been cast our way?
The answer is found in something we say every day, three times a day. We say at the end of the Amida – “v’limkalelai nafshi sidom, to those who curse me may my soul remain silent.” Why do we invoke nafshi, or soul? Perhaps we mention our soul because it is the source of our strength, our self-control. We each have a tzelem Elokim, a Godly spirit, and just as Hashem shows His greatness by hearing an insult and not responding, we too can find the inner strength and discipline to not respond and match the volume and vitriol, no matter how poorly we are mistreated.
The Zohar says that Hashem’s chariot has four legs, the first three are Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov and the fourth is Dovid Ha’Melech. We understand the patriarchs are the three legs, by why Dovid over Moshe, Aharon, and so many worthy others?
The Chafetz Chaim, in his Shemiras Ha’Lashon explains that David Hamelech became the fourth leg of Hashem’s Chariot, when Shimi ben Geira hurled insults at him in public, and Dovid just ignored it. Even when Dovid’s servants wanted to respond, Dovid told them, he couldn’t be cursing me and embarrassing me if Hashem didn’t want it to happen, so leave it. There is a master plan, no need to respond.
Rav Pam says there are times we are meant to experience yesurin, suffering. It can come in many forms – illness, financial collapse, relationship crises. When it comes in the form of someone insulting us, we should sing and dance with joy that with all the options and alternatives, being insulted is our form of suffering. What a gift and a blessing. Lean into that insult, embrace it, and gladly take it and remain quiet.
Finding the capacity to remain silent, even when insulted, is an expression of true gevurah, of great strength. When we dig deep and find that ability, it creates a very special moment. We have a tradition that when being insulted, instead of responding, escalating or matching the vitriol, we should take a deep breath and offer a prayer, ask for something in that propitious and providential moment in time. That is when we are at our best and most worthy. Don’t waste it by shouting or insulting back; prove your strength and take advantage of the opportunity to be worthy by asking for something important.
My friends – We seem to have it backwards sometimes. We are outraged when we should be quiet, and when we should be screaming from the rooftops, somehow, we remain silent.
When it comes to anti-Semitism against our people and injustice against others, let’s vow to never be silent, to stand up and speak out. Let’s hold our elected officials accountable. Not the ones in the other party, that’s easy. But calling up and calling out those in our party, the ones we identify with and voted for. Object to the elected officials saying the wrong things and call up those who are remaining silent while their colleagues cross important boundaries.
But when it comes to being personally insulted, to absorbing a slight against ourselves, let’s learn to let it go, to show our true strength and be like Hashem, to be counted among the ilmim, those that are silent, and among the ne’elavim, those that are insulted but never insult back.
עת לדבר ועת לשתוק – We are blessed with voices; we have the capacity to express outrage. True wisdom, says Shlomo Ha’Melech is knowing when to use it. Choose carefully and wisely for there is a time to speak and a time to be silent.