Thank you Mr. Moriwaki. It is an honor to be asked to speak today, although I am not sure you were aware of all the levels of synchronicity involved when you contacted me: Before I moved to Bainbridge Island in 2014 I served as a rabbi in Germany, and as far as we can determine, was the first American Jew to be ordained as a rabbi in Germany. To stand here today is a reminder of how many different peoples share stories of humiliation and horror, and our responsibility to indeed never forget.
My story today begins as do most good Jewish stories—with four rabbis arguing. In this particular story, the argument of all things had to do with the purity status of an oven. Of course, we all know a few of those people who are intolerably always right, and Rabbi Eliezer in this story was that person. The other three Rabbis in the argument, however, disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer and as Jewish Law is decided by the majority, you can only imagine the growing frustration of Rabbi Eliezer. In a series of ever more incredible pronouncements, Rabbi Eliezer demanded that his correct opinion be accepted. “If I am right,” he exclaimed, “then let that carob tree uproot and move itself,” and then later he demanded that a stream of water reverse its flow. Of course, the tree did move itself a couple hundred feet and the water in the stream reversed its flow, to which the other rabbis responded, unimpressed, “Since when have trees and streams had anything to do with deciding Jewish Law?” Finally, Rabbi Eliezer demands that if he is right that a voice from heaven confirm this, after which a voice from heaven proclaimed, “The Law is according to Rabbi Eliezer.” For most of us that would probably end the discussion, but one of the other sages ended the argument by quoting from the book of Deuteronomy: “Lo b’Shamiyim hi.” Torah is not in heaven.
I am reminded of this, because I think there is a powerful similarity in the stories of the Jewish people and Japanese Americans in the years following World War Two. I think that we all made the assumption that the shame, guilt and humiliation that society felt after the fact of the horrors and humiliations would in and of itself be enough to bring about the dream of “Never again!” Yet anti-Semitism is up worldwide including ongoing denial by some that the Holocaust ever happened. And now inexplicably the same sort of amnesia affects the United States as over the past year we have heard several politicians refer the internment of Japanese Americans as an example of good policy that we should once again look into. It took all of thirty seconds to find the most recent iteration of this insanity: a speech on March 23rd in the Colorado State Assembly.
It is critically important to gather on days like today and remind ourselves of how capable we are as human beings of visiting humiliation and horror on other humans. Yet within that reality it is also far too easy to look off in the distance to see the acts of objectification and abnegation that bring about the worst moments of our history. Yet Lo b’Shayim Hi. The responsibility rests with us, not elsewhere. No voice from heaven is going to change how easy it is to make an “other” out of the stranger that lives in our midst, whoever that stranger may be. It is too easy to live in the fantasy that the victimization of the past confers virtue on the present. It is simply not true, yet our tendency is to prefer to see ourselves as the hero of our own story rather than the possible villain. As I once learned while becoming a pastoral counselor, “For every person that we are in therapy because of, someone is in therapy because of us.”
We turn “Never Again” into a practical reality when we notice how capable we all are of dehumanizing someone else. Lo b’Shamiym Hi. The responsibility rests solely in our own hands. In any given moment, we are in the process either of lifting each other up or tearing each other down. The first step is to even be aware when we do tear others down in thought, word or deed and then to admit it to ourselves and finally to do something about it—to make amends, to learn about that which frightens us, to have compassion for the differences in others that make us uncomfortable, to enter into dialogue with those with whom we disagree and in doing so recognize their humanity as acutely as we would want our own to be recognized.
Lo b’Shamayim Hi means that each of us takes seriously the individual responsibility of changing our internal dialogues and then standing together as we see, unthinkably, many of the horrors and humiliations once again blooming in the fertile soils of making the stranger in our midst into the “other.”
Oseh shalom bimromav. Hu ya’aseh shalom, aleinu v’al kol Yisrael v’al kol yoshvei tevel, v’imru, amen. May the one that makes peace in the heaven establish peace among all of us that struggle to overcome ourselves, and through this establish peace among all that dwell on the earth, and let us say, amen.