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Parashat Beshalach: In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - Get Going!

April 24, 2020

When I was in college, I spent half a year living on Kibbutz Ketura, a small, collective community in the southernmost part of the country, in the Arava Desert. I was on a semester abroad, studying the local and regional environment, with Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, and Americans. For one week, we took a trip around the Jordan River valley. The once-mighty Jordan river is now very tame in most of its segments. It winds its way through Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli lands. Toward the end of our trip, we needed to cross from Jordan back into Israel. The Americans and Israelis could cross the border together right into the outskirts of Jerusalem, but the Palestinians on our program needed to cross the border, the human-made, much disputed line on the ground, in a different spot, because of their citizenship status. 

The Jordan Rift Valley is an ecosystem shared by Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians. But borders that humans have imposed, moved, and fought wars over do not align with ecosystems. A river flows where a river flows. Pollution and drought follow those same river beds, ignoring nations and treaties. A border feels like a wall, a way to say - whatever’s happening over there - not my problem. 

There are many days on our calendar that memorialize challenging times in our past, or help us think toward the future. This past week we marked two such occasions: Yom HaShoah, which is Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Earth Day - the 50th anniversary of the first earth day in 1970.

Yom HaShoah commemorates a global tragedy, yet one that is felt most specifically by Jewish community and other minorities that were persecuted by the Nazis at that time. As we know well, from our Feigenbaum speaker last year, Deborah Lipstadt, Holocaust denial is a form of antisemitism. Recently, we’ve seen antisemitism emerge from dark corners of the internet to the forefront of our communal life - with the attacks in Pittsburgh and Poway in recent memory. In the past two weeks, there were not one, but two antisemitic incidents in our neighboring Pioneer Valley. I was shocked and saddened to hear about an attempted arson at a Jewish assisted living facility in Longmeadow, and of graffiti spray painted on the Hillel House at UMass Amherst.

The legacy of antisemitism and its modern manifestations are here with us. Despite its inherent connection to other forms of hatred, racism, and xenophobia, many people outside the Jewish community feel empathy for the Jewish plight in the Holocaust and today, but that’s where it stops. Empathy. That’s your experience, not mine. A particular problem, not a global one. Not my problem.

Let’s turn then, to the other observance this week - Earth Day. Even the name of the holiday emphasizes its global reach. The first Earth Day in 1970 is remembered as a largely apolitical event, before the environment was an issue for left or right. It did much to raise awareness for global issues, not just national or local challenges. Over time, the momentum from the environmental movement of the 70s lost steam and consensus, and our current, pressing challenge of climate change is now a polarized, political topic. The United States, once out front, does not lead any more. Nations more at risk of the immediate impacts of global warming suffer more than the highly  industrialized nations, which cause the bulk of the problems, notably sea level rise and desertification. While climate change is a worldwide problem, we struggle to see its global implications. Here in the Berkshires, we don’t live somewhere that will be uninhabitable or underwater, in the near future, anyways. It’s so easy to say, not my problem.

Earlier this week, I was lucky enough to participate in a special briefing with Ron Heifetz, a leading leadership scholar out of Harvard Business School. Heifetz encouraged us to acknowledge both the challenges and the opportunities of the coronavirus pandemic. This moment in history, he explains, could be our global teaching moment, a common reference point. Everyone in the world is having the same experience. Everyone in the world is being called to take responsibility. No one can say - not my problem.

From our particular Jewish wisdom, we find an antidote to the not my problem response. Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo ata ben chorin l’heebtatel mimena. It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to ignore it. No one can say - not my problem. Now, more than ever, our problems are many and our challenges are great, and they are shared. Certainly, the pandemic impacts people in different ways, and disproportionately weighs on the most vulnerable in our world. This should only inspire us to work toward a global approach to tackle these problems - our problems - problems that belong to us all.

Last night, I gathered with a group young adults on zoom for a virtual, lend a hand happy hour. We shared numerous ways to volunteer right now, both in-person and virtually. Our problems our global and our impact can be local. The next generation is picking up the mantle of leadership and change. I hope one day, maybe fifty years from now or more, we will look back and remember this time as a turning point in global consciousness. A common reference point. A shared story across the world. Inspired by the twin legacies of combatting antisemitism and addressing environmental injustice, may we go into a future of hope, connection, and a world united in love.

Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch
Temple Anshe Amunim | Pittsfield, MA

Wed, June 19 2024 13 Sivan 5784