“In a place where there is no good person, strive to be a good person.”—Pirkei Avot (Jewish wisdom text)
This teaching feels very timely today.
Last night, as the election results became clear, I went on a walk around the block and thought about all the moon above us has seen, and what this moment means in the context of longer history.
I grieve at this victory for hatred, but more importantly, I feel the imperative to fight on behalf of love, and on behalf of those who will be threatened by this turn of events.
Growing up Jewish, I always knew I was one step (or, to be precise, 35 years and 4,000 miles) away from having been born in a time and place where I would have been murdered along with my family because of who we were. Now I feel that we Americans who are grieving and angry must not stop with grief or anger. We have a responsibility to be the conscience of our society in a time when the majority of our society has fallen prey to the temptation of hatred and empty promises. We must take action on behalf of those who will be threatened in this dark time: women, people of color, Muslims, queers, immigrants, and yes, Jews.
Last night, as the arrow on the New York Times website began to swing and quiver itself in a direction that had seemed impossible only a few hours earlier, my husband and I looked at each other. What were we going to say to our 4-year-old daughter in the morning?
I thought of a sunny fall day 15 years ago. I was 24, a new teacher just entering my second year at a small Jewish elementary school in Massachusetts. That morning, our principal, Sandy, called us into the break room and told us somberly that the country seemed to be under attack. It was not a hoax: the World Trade Center had fallen. There were reports of planes still circling in the sky, and no one knew exactly how many or who was flying them.
Looking back, I think that is the day I became a real adult.
Sandy made a decision: We would carry on teaching, and we wouldn’t tell the kids what was going on. With kids as young as 5 in the building, we would let their families decide what to say. Between classes, we teachers huddled around the radio listening for news, and when our 10-minute breaks were over, we wiped our tears and headed back into the classroom. All day we carried on giving our students the sacred, everyday knowledge: the alphabet, multiplication tables, world history, Torah stories.
Since we were a Jewish school, we feared for the kids’ safety. The local police came to stand outside the front doors. In the classroom, I also thought of my kids’ emotional safety, and I knew it was more important than my grief in that moment.
On September 12, 2001, we returned to stand in front of our students again. This time they knew what had happened. We discussed what it meant for our country. We talked about what we knew and what we did not know. We acknowledged the fear of these times, and also modeled hope: not having all the answers, but also knowing what we believed in.
This morning, as I told my daughter that the man we did not like had won, I thought back to that day in the classroom. My daughter needs me now, just as those kids needed me then, to be honest but also strong.
After the Times declared the winner, I crawled into bed beside my husband and whispered to him: “We’re terrified, but we have to make our kids feel safe.” We have to model hope. We cannot change what happened, but we can show our kids by example what it means to have courage, faith, honesty, patience, and conviction. We can teach our kids about the kind of power that embraces vulnerability, that refuses to fall back on easy slogans, that refuses to hate.
This is a dark time. But walking beneath the moon last night, I knew that it is not the first time evil has triumphed, nor will it be the last. This is what it means to live in human history. Our very heartbreak is a clear mandate of our responsibility: to be people of conscience. To look out for violence and hatred, to take care of each other. To fight back. To refuse to despair.
“In a place where there is no good person [ish], strive to be one.” Ish means “man” in Hebrew, and in this context it means “good person.” But it also means adult as opposed to child. We parents have a special responsibility to our children. We must show the little ones that we can create a safe space in our own homes, that our love for them is more powerful than our fear for the future. And show the older ones that we can and must act through our grief.
We who strive to be good people, we who are called to be adults in the deepest sense, must not give into hate or hopelessness as we head into this dark time. We do not have that luxury. Instead, we must fight for what we know to be right and true, and, at this moment especially, on behalf of those who will be most threatened by this course of human events.