New Year’s Day Message

Embracing our DifferencesOn January 1 I participated in a panel at Wentz Concert Hall for the ninth annual World Peace Day Interfaith Prayer Service.  The theme of the day was “Embracing Differences in Our Changing Communities”.  My first thought was, “Who better than a rabbi to speak about the consequences of failing to embrace differences in a community?”  The Jewish experience testifies to the suffering and injustice that occurs when a minority that is different is not only not embraced, but actively persecuted. This has been part of the Jewish narrative ever since Pharaoh decided, as we read in the Torah this week, that he would not tolerate a free Jewish presence in his land. One lesson the Exodus story teaches is that everyone in a society suffers when intolerance reigns. Is it any wonder that Jews have been at the forefront of movements to tolerate and embrace those who are seen as “different” in our country – whether they be racial minorities, the immigrant, women, gays, lesbians and transgendered people, the physically challenged, the politically outspoken?  This evening I want to share with you what I said on New Year’s Day at the World Peace Day Service:
Look around! We are of different skin colors, ethnicities, religions, cultures, and sexual orientations. We speak different languages, have different accents, and have different talents. We are of different ages, different genders and have different physical capacities.  Yet, at the same time, we are all remarkably alike.  In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “First and foremost we meet as human beings who have so much in common : a heart, a face, a voice, the presence of a soul, fears, hope, the ability to trust, a capacity for compassion and understanding, the kinship of being human.”[1]  The Talmud says that G-d created human diversity on purpose, to proclaim the greatness of the Creator. “For,” say the sages, “If a man strikes many coins from one die, they all resemble one another – in fact, they are all exactly alike!  But though the King of Kings, the Holy Blessed One, created every single human being out of the die of the first one, not a single person is like his fellow.”  Thus, in the Jewish view, G-d created a world full of diversity in order to testify to the magnificence of G-d’s glory and power.  Recent history shows the consequences of trying to undo and even to eradicate that divinely planned diversity. In the twentieth century, the government of the Soviet Union sought to erase all differences among peoples.  This rested on the ideology that all human beings are equal, and, in their view, equality meant that there are no differences. They understood that everyone should be” the same”. The Communist authorities of the last century held that, “Ethnicity, class, religion and national characteristics belong to an old and decaying world. The time for such distinctions had passed,” they proclaimed.  They saw human diversity as a hindrance to human progress.   Natan Sharansky, one of the moral giants of the 20th century, opposed this ideology with all of his heart, soul, and strength.  Sharansky lived in the Soviet Union and was arrested by Soviet authorities in 1977. He spent the next nine years in a Soviet Prison Camp in the Siberian gulag. His crime — he wanted to affirm his Jewish identity by emigrating to Israel.  His arrest and imprisonment became a world- wide symbol for human rights in general and for the right of Soviet Jews in particular. He was the first political prisoner to be released by Mikhael Gorbachev due to intense pressure from President Reagan and the United States.  He wrote an account of his ordeal in an inspiring book entitled Fear No Evil. He writes of the corrosive effects on the individual by those who seek to erase all differences among human beings. That Soviet government, he writes, wanted to create a new type of man – homo sovieticus. In a fanatical pursuit of this goal, it became illegal for Jews to gather for prayer, to teach their children about the Jewish religion, to have Jewish books, to learn the Hebrew language, and to follow the news about Israel.  If one was caught doing any of these things, one could be denied acceptance to a University, fired from a job, or thrown into prison.  The efforts to erase difference succeeded beyond imagination.  Sharansky writes that he grew up knowing that he was Jewish, but knowing nothing about Jewish history, language, culture or religion. “Like all Soviet Jews of my generation,” he writes, “I grew up rootless, unconnected, without identity.” Sharansky found the courage to fight for human rights in the Soviet Union by embracing his particular Jewish identity.  Through affirming his right to be different, he found the strength to fight for his own personal liberation and the liberation of all citizens of the Soviet Union.  “Slashing off their roots did not create a new, strong, free man,” as Soviet ideology had believed it would, he writes.  “Instead, it trampled human dignity and turned the individual into a slave a chattel….. Only a person who is connected to his past, to his people, and to his roots can be free, and only a free person has the strength to act for the benefit of the rest of humanity.” Only when we support each other’s right to be who we truly are, are we truly free. Each morning a Jew recites the following in his or her prayers “How varied and multifarious are your creatures, O Lord, you made each of them with wisdom, you have filled the world with your creation.”   May this New Year see a renewal of our efforts to create a community that respects and embraces our differences, that finds strength and creativity in our uniqueness, and that sees in our diversity a reflection of divine glory.  Amen.  

[1] “No Religion is an Island” in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity edited by Susannah Heschel 1997