Society Needs to Do Some Serious Cheshbon HaNefesh

This past weekend marked the one-year anniversary of last year’s bigoted marches and protests in Charlottesville, which led to the death of Heather Heyer, and the injuries of several more. For me it led to nightmares of Klansmen, no longer concerned with hiding their faces under white hoods and instead wearing polos and khakis, with tiki torches in hand chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

And this weekend, White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis continued to spew hatred and bigotry. This time, they were just up the road in the Nation’s Capital, having received permission to hold a rally, directly in front of the White House. Only a couple dozen showed up for that so-called “Unite the Right” protest in DC, while thousands of counter-protestors were there taking a stand again bigotry. Still, the lack of attendance this weekend is not a sign of bigotry’s demise. The opposite is true.

In  The Atlantic, Adam Serwer writes about how “The White Nationalists are Winning.” The reason, he writes, is because their message is being amplified by media personalities. When cable news hosts say things like “Latin American countries are changing election outcomes here by forcing demographic change in this country” or “the America that we know and love doesn’t exist anymore because of massive demographic changes as a result of both illegal AND legal immigration,” they become the megaphone to amplify the bigoted message that American is somehow “at risk” because it is becoming more diverse.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Re’eh, and we read of two juxtaposed verses. The first verse (Deuteronomy 15:4) demands that there shall be no needy among you. This is something to strive for, something to live for. This is a goal to achieve. The second verse (Deuteronomy 15:7) tells us to not harden our hearts and shut our hands against those in need. These verses speak about more than just feeding the hungry. These verses are juxtaposed because the first speaks of a messianic dream-state, a reality that we always strive for, but we know may be out of our grasp and out of our reach. The latter, focuses on the reality, until that Gan Eden arrives, that we must fight for what is right. These verses speak of a perfect world that does not exist and how we must continue to roll up our sleeves and work, and fight, to build that world.

My colleagues and friends, Rabbi Aaron Alexander and Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, of Adas Israel Congregation in DC, hosted a press conference at their synagogue last Thursday with DC Mayor Bowser and District Police to explain how they will ensure safety and security for their building and the Jewish community as these Neo-Nazis marched into town. Rabbi Alexander quoted the prophet Amos and said: “Let justice roll down like waters, righteousness like a mighty stream,” charging the congregation and the District of Columbia, saying: “we are the water for which justice rolls, we are the stream in which righteousness can flow. All of us together.”

I do not believe in a world where hate will cease to exist. Still I pray for that world and work towards that reality. I did not believe that the bigots and racists, the anti-Semites and homophobes all changed their ways. I just believed that we lived in a society, where such hate should remain in the gutter where it belongs, and that hate and bigotry has no place in public discourse or debate. Claiming that a single race, religion, or ethnicity is above anyone else has no place in society. But these Charlottesville protesters from a year ago, and these DC protesters a year later succeeded. Their racist slurs and chants, and their anti-Semitic signs and slogans added fuel to the fire and empowered each other; to believe that hatred and bigotry in broad daylight, in public, was not only again socially acceptable, but was to be celebrated.

That is the reality that we live in. It is a far cry from the messianic dream of Deuteronomy 15:4. Which is why we have Deuteronomy 15:7, a verse that is telling us to get to work. And as the silence of the President and his administration grows deafening, as his refusal to call out such hate, and in many cases his choice to spread hate based on bigoted policies, we must get to work. To paraphrase Rabbi Aaron Alexander, it is up to us to BE the water, to BE the stream.

As we read Parashat Re’eh this past Shabbat, we also celebrated Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul. This is a time to spend this month doing Cheshbon Hanefesh, doing an internal accounting of the soul. And this country desperately needs to do some Cheshbon Hanefesh, to help us realize how we got here; to help those who come up with excuse after excuse to understand how problematic it is that we ARE here; to admit that we haven’t done enough; to admit that we have been too silent when hate didn’t directly impact us, even though all hate impacts all of us; to admit that we were concerned about being political and partisan so we refused to call out hate for what it is.

Let’s spend this month doing Cheshbon Hanefesh, let’s spend the year to come BEING the water, and BEING the stream, to rid the world of hated and bigotry, to heal this broken world.


-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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