Finding Our Moral Compass: Reflection on Charlottesville

Thu, 08/31/2017 - 8:39am -- Clergy

Two years ago, I received a phone call from my daughter-in-law, Kelly, and she asked if it would be possible for me to drive our older granddaughter, Sophie, to school a couple days a week. Of course, I said, “Sure. It’d be a great opportunity.” I was thinking, what is it that I needed to do to do a good job of this? So, I decided to get some great music in my car and I loaded up the disc player, with songs from Frozen. I thought to myself, “Well, I really am going to impress my granddaughter with Frozen.”

"Get in the car and buckle up", I said, “You want to hear some great music?” and she says, “No.” I said, “You’ve got to be kidding! I got your music. Why don’t you want to hear it?” She says, “What I really want to know is does your car have a compass?” I said, “You want to know if my car has a compass?” She said, “Yeah, we learned about compasses in school and I was wondering if your car had a compass?"

Well, built in to all the bells and whistles of my car was a compass. It’s actually on the rearview mirror. We drove to school following all the changes in the compass. We learned that SE was Southeast and we had a debate as to whether or not the compass could ever say NS or could it ever say EW or could it say SS. And she became very proficient in the compass. And, in fact, at another time, some other of us were driving together and Sophie announces from her seat, “We are now driving Southeast.” She knew her compass.

Learning about the compass and setting one’s direction is important. It also supplies us with a very important analogy to what is called a moral compass. How do we set our moral compass? Almost weekly during the school year as Bar and Bat Mitzvah get underway, we talk about "What’s the meaning of becoming an adult?" One of the answers is, as you become an adult, you learn more and more to set your own moral compass! You learn how to begin to make decisions about right and wrong on your own.

This was a week, unfortunately, in which we as a nation were challenged to make sure that our personal and national moral compasses were set correctly, that we had a true North Star to guide us from a point of view of fundamental beliefs as a society. It wasn’t just because of the viciousness of the white supremacist demonstrations and violence that took place but because, unfortunately, of the moral confusion that emanated from the highest sources of this country, in which there was a moral equivalency drawn, where there is no moral equivalency. The fact of the matter is that Nazism and all of its doctrines and its allied causes, whether it’s in the form of the white robed KKK member or some other nationalist or supremacist, is always wrong and there is nothing to compare it with! It represents a kind of absolute evil and it represents the moral opposite of what this country is founded upon and the moral opposite of what has been the foundation of our faith for almost 4,000 years.

The Torah begins, among other things, with the statement that the human being is created in the image of God. It doesn’t say that white people are created in the image of God exclusively, or black people are created in the image of God, or Asian people are created in the image of God and others aren’t. It simply says the human being, from our distant, distant ancestors to today, all reflect the divine. All are entitled to our ultimate respect.

When this country was founded in 1776, 10 miles from where we’re sitting, the American Revolution was summed up in a terse phrase that said that certain rights are inalienable: life, justice, the pursuit of liberty, and that every human being is granted those rights by their Creator. The reality is our experiment in democracy, our experiment in extending rights, equal rights to all of our citizens, of all shades and all faiths has been less than perfect. It’s been a very rocky road. But at the end of the day, supposedly, our ideals are in place. The rock upon which this nation was built was meant to be unshakable.

There is no debate, ultimately, as to the truth of all men are created equal. Yet all of a sudden, the moral compass is no longer clear. There was a false equivalency between those who hate that principle and deeply hate and resent that principle and those who stood up to resist those who were saying all men are not created equal, that some are superior and some are inferior. Some are to rule; and others are to be ruled over. And it was indeed a difficult and depressing and challenging week, I think, for all of us.

To get a sense of how bad it was on the ground in Charlottesville, I shared online with the congregation. I know some of you have seen it and others not, so, I’ll take the liberty of repeating it, a letter written by the President of the Reform Synagogue of Charlottesville, Virginia. What happened there, beginning this time last week, on Friday night, when worshippers came to the synagogue and people began passing by the front of the synagogue with torches, with automatic weapons, with long guns, with swastika flags, with the banner, battle flag of the Confederacy, with white supremacist messages spewing from them. He reported how men with guns stood on the other side of the street from the synagogue and leered at the synagogue, of how messages were being burned, were being sent across the internet and on Facebook that if you’re in Charlottesville, and you march by the synagogue, burn it down.

The members of the synagogue had to make decisions. Do we stay? Do we leave by the back door? Do we wrap our Torah scrolls up in blankets and smuggle them out? Do we have an off-site Havdalah service for our members tomorrow night or should we cancel it? Because we put the address online and the bad guys knew exactly where they were meeting? And we learned that the local police were so stretched in their obligations and the situation that the local police department was unable to put a policeman or a squad car in front of the building. It was just too overwhelming a moment for the congregation. Over and over again, in his letter, Mr. Silverman wrote, “and this is America 2017.”

I know from my own family’s lore, from Germany, in November of 1938, that long lines of Nazi demonstrators and marchers with torches went through the street of their city in Bavaria, Bamberg, and ultimately took the Torahs out of the arch, tore them to shreds, used them as kindling, and then burned the synagogue down. But something happened in Charlottesville that did not happen in Bamberg. Other people, old and young, male and female, also showed up at the synagogue. A 30-year veteran of the United States Navy with a Spanish name and not Jewish went to the synagogue, talked to the President of the synagogue and said, “Would you mind if I stand in the door of your synagogue? I need to protect you.” And an elderly woman who was Christian came and said, “I need to sit here and worship with you. And would you explain to me exactly why these people hate you? Because I can’t figure it out.”

That did not happen in Germany. Also, what didn’t happen in Germany were thousands and millions of voices that rose up, not because word went forth from an opposition political party said, “Go and demonstrate,” but because people simply couldn’t contain themselves in the face of this abuse of our national ethos.

Here in Elkins Park, last Sunday night as we were coming back from our summer vacation, we got some email from KI families. Not even Jewish families at the pre-school saying, “There’s been a message on Facebook that there’s going to be an anti-racist gathering in the park at High School Park. Just come.” There was no organization behind it. There was no program. There were no speakers that had prepared in advance. It was simply people rising up out of the grassroots, out of their homes, and proclaiming, “We have a moral compass. And our moral compass is not confused and we’re going to hold that moral compass up and we’re going to say, ‘We have a true North Star in this country. And that North Star says all men, all people are created equal and that is inalienable and that is self-evident and we are not going to allow anybody to intimidate us. We’re not going to back off because thugs with torches and shields thinking they’re some kind of medieval warriors are going to tell us that that is no longer true and that’s not America. What they are saying is not America. We know what is America.’ We know the direction that our moral compass points.”

And that letter – that letter explained to me, illustrated to me, very, very deeply what it must have felt like to be on the ground where there was no question whatsoever about moral equivalency. The people were yelling ‘Sieg Heil’ and ‘America is for white people only’ and whatever it means, ‘Jews will not replace us’ and ‘blood and soil,’ things that are totally foreign in American political life were being shouted, supposedly, in the name of patriotism. But, that is not patriotism! That’s treason. That is confusion. That is having a broken, human compass.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.