This has been a difficult week. Some news commentators would likely apply that thought to what happened in the House of Representatives today.
Others might cite the Westminster attack, which is part of an unfortunately persistent wave of hatred and intolerance borne out in violent actions and murder.
Many Jews around the world might be thinking of the young Jewish man in Israel who is now the main suspect identified as the perpetrator of bomb threats against Jewish community centers in the United States and two locations in Australia and New Zealand. We are still not certain whether we will ever be able to explain his actions, even with reports that a medical condition may have affected his judgment, making him somehow see his actions as appropriate. This particular situation leaves us asking more questions, even though we may have a partial answer.
In both of those cases of threat and tragedy, the perpetrator wanted to tear down a house, so to speak, or a society. There may have been a desire to replace the house with something else. Or the motive may have been simply to derive a sense of twisted satisfaction by exerting personal abilities and power to sow chaos, disruption, or even loss of life.
During the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in Atlanta which I attended over the last several days, my colleagues and I saw other examples of attempts to create chaos and act upon prejudice.
|The site of the Pencil Factory|
Frank was convicted of the murder and sentenced to death, a judgment commuted by Governor Jim Slaton in 2015. Soon after that, Leo Frank was taken from a prison hospital by a group called "The Knights of Mary Phagan" and lynched. The Knights actually distributed post cards that bore photos from the lynching at that time. From those events emerged the Anti-Defamation League and, sadly, an emboldened and renewed Ku Klux Klan. So, standing at the Pencil Factory was simply chilling, and a reminder of how stereotypes and hatred can tear down decency in our midst.
|The original Ebenezer Baptist Church|
Our final stop on the tour was at the NAMES Project/AIDS memorial quilt headquarters. What we heard from the project's president and CEO, Julie Rhoad, was that this organization began as a way to draw people's attention to the challenge of AIDS through reflection and remembrance. That left an impression on me. They hoped to make great strides in medical research that would ultimately lead to a cure for AIDS. Their means to reach that end became the creation and public displays of quilt pieces sent to them memorializing individuals who died of AIDS and donations that came in from all around the world. I admire their continuing efforts and their peaceful approach that has woven together so many relatives and friends of persons with AIDS who died into a human tapestry of hope.
|Julie Rhoad, Director and CEO of the NAMES PROJECT|
AIDS Memorial Quilt, at its Atlanta headquarters
So, they brought their contributions....and then more, and even more...until what they were donating became overwhelming. Bezalel and Oholiab and their colleagues had accumulated enough raw materials to move forward with their work. They told Moses to announce to the people to stop! The Torah says that the people "had brought enough for the work to be done, and even more."
Here was a group of people, in the wilderness, having just escaped slavery, that was able to be exceedingly generous. After some of their fellow Israelites had previously given their jewelry to create the golden calf, a sign of communal breakdown and chaos, the people had learned from the past and reached a new level. They understood unity. They understood the honor of giving to something sacred. They understood how important it would be, in their present and their future, to build up, whether it was raising their own spirits or raising a structure where they could go to feel the presence of God with them.
|Mary Gurley sings "If I Can Help Somebody" at the morning|
service of the Central Conference of American Rabbis
convention in Atlanta, Georgia on March 20, 2017.
If I can help somebody as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody with a word or a song,
If I can show somebody he is travelling wrong,
Then my living shall not be in vain!
Know that among the 500 rabbis and other family members and guests gathered for that service, there was likely not a dry eye in the house.
That song's lyrics describe some of the most crucial building blocks of community because they direct us to act with kindness, with compassion, and with enough of a sense of fellowship to reach out to support others along our shared life's path.
What we do in our lives should not be about power, or control, or being more important and precious than anyone else.
We can be like the Israelites who brought their best to build a holy space where they would meet God.
And we, in our day, can do the same with generous hands and open minds and hearts.
May the space we create allow all people to enter, remembering that God's house can and should always be a house of prayer for all peoples. May we make it so.