We Cannot Be Silent

I know that there are many who participated in Lights for Liberty actions this past Friday night, protesting the ICE camps and the anticipated ICE raids that are about to begin. As Friday evening was the beginning of Shabbat, I was instead lighting Sabbath candles and not participating in this action. But I believe the candles we lit that evening, whether they are Sabbath candles or candles of protest, served the same purpose: to light up the darkness. The prophet Isaiah said that we must be a light unto the nations. We must shed light on the darkest moments in history, on the actions by our government and leaders that darken our world. By shedding light, we expose such cruelty and immorality. By shedding light, we add light to the darkness that ICE detainees feel, hopefully knowing that they are not alone in their fight for freedom. And by shedding light, we amplify their voices and their struggle.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Chukat, when Moses is informed that he, the leader of the Israelites who took them out of bondage, out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom, will not be there to welcome them into the Promsed Land. Because Moses strikes a rock (twice!) instead of following God’s odd command to speak to the rock to draw water for the Israelites, he is punished by being told that he would not enter the land of Israel. 

What is surprising though is that Aaron is equally punished for Moses’ actions. Moses is the one that takes the rod. Moses is the one that strikes the rock. Moses is the one that yells at the people. And yet, the Torah tells us“And God said to Moses and to Aaron, it is because you both did not have faith in me” (Num. 20:12).

The Torah is clear that Aaron is punished for Moses’ actions. Our commentators are equally baffled by this. Abarbanel attempts to explain that Aaron’s punishment is a delayed punishment for his role in building the Golden Calf. But that was ages ago, and truly seems like an excuse, especially since Aaron wasn’t punished at the time of the idol being built, when the rest of the Israelites were punished. The Yalkut Shimoni though introduces a midrash where Moses is equally confused by Aaron’s punishment. Moses argues with God: “I understand that I am guilty, but why is Aaron?” God responds that is it Aaron’s silence that makes him liable.

Silence equals guilt. Being a bystander, midrash suggests, makes us just as responsible. We cannot unsee what we have seen. We cannot forget the stories we have read. We cannot unhear the cries of help from children in cages. If we do, then we remain a bystander, then we remain just as guilty. 

The President promised to begin ICE raids this weekend to round up individuals. There were reports that yesterday, ICE agents were at subway stops asking individuals for IDs. Neighbors are concerned about returning to their homes at night after they get off of a shift from work.  Elementary school-aged children in Border Detention Centers are being forced to wear diapers because ICE officers aren’t letting them go to the bathroom. Half a dozen children are being forced to share a mat to sleep on, denied basic rights, denied toothbrushes, denied showers, denied blankets. There are signs of trauma and children aren’t given any medical support. Older children are left to take care of younger ones. They are forced into overcrowded facilities meant for adult males and have alleged sexual and physical assault. 

If we are silent, if we don’t speak up, if we aren’t banging down the doors of every elected official who has the ability and responsibility to make a difference, and if we aren’t opening up our own doors, hands, and hearts, to care for those who are most in need, then we are guilty just like Aaron. If we don’t accept our privilege and thus, think about how we must use our privilege to advocate, and to give voice to the silent, then we too are guilty.

Like the lights lit on Friday night, a flame is how quickly it can spread. While even a single small flickering flame has the potential to illuminate the darkness, a single spark can spread into a towering flame. And we are more powerful when we unify, when our lights are shared, when we stand together to shed light, and to fight for justice.

May we speak up and refuse to remain silent. Speaking up sheds light and spreads light, just like these lit flames. Aaron’s silence prevented him from entering the promised lands. If we remain silent, then maybe we don’t deserve to live in this promised land either.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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