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Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת ויקרא, תשפ״א

Parshat Vayikra, 5781

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, March 20th, 2021

Don't Stand Idly By - A Response to Violence Against Asian-Americans

I’d like to share with you the Rabbinical Assembly’s statement on the shootings that happened in Atlanta this past Tuesday…

On March 16, an armed gunman killed eight people at multiple massage parlors and spas around Atlanta. While the motive is not fully clear, it is likely the suspect targeted women of Asian descent in a mass shooting spree.

According to police department crime data, hate crimes directed at the Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community have increased 150% in major U.S. cities. And since last March, there have been 3,800 reported incidents of hate crimes targeting Asian-Americans nationwide, many directed at Asian-American elders.

These horrific attacks are not isolated incidents. They flow from the same toxic pool of xenophobia, racism, and white supremacy that led to the hate-fueled murders in Charlottesville, Charleston, Pittsburgh, El Paso, and too many other communities.

The wrongful scapegoating of Asian-Americans during the pandemic has caused deep pain and anxiety among Asian-American communities, which includes Jewish Asian-Americans. We call on our leaders and members to speak out against all these forms of prejudice and provide shelter and resources for anyone threatened by hate and violence.

As we are taught in Leviticus 19:16, lo ta'amod al dam re'eikha, do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all members of the AAPI community, their families, friends, and loved ones. May the memories of those who were killed be a blessing, as we work together to end racism, hate, and violence.

Lo ta’amod al dam re’eikha - the commandment not to stand idly by the blood of your neighbor - exists as part of the Holiness Code, a list of commandments that we will read in Parashat Kedoshim later this month. This list includes such famous laws as “don’t take a vengeance or bear a grudge,” “leave the corners of your field for those in need,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” Instead of focusing too much on the sheep, goats, and entrails that dominate much of the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), each week from now until the beginning of May, we will explore one or two of the jewels of wisdom found in the parshah that implores us “Be holy, for Adonai your God is holy.” Kedoshim tihyu - ki kadosh Adonai. Our Rabbinical Assembly’s statement is a tragic but fitting place to start our learning.

The Babylonian Talmud’s Tractate Sanhedrin asks, “What is the proof that the one who sees his fellow drowning in a river or being dragged by a wild beast or being attacked by thieves must save him?” The answer - Lo ta’amod al dam re’iekha - do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. The Talmud’s interpretation of Leviticus 19:16 implores us not to stand by when we see suffering. When we could have prevented harm, we are liable for ignoring the situation. More directly to the point, every time we hear negative stereotypes, false accusations, or outright xenophobia and fail to respond, we are at fault.

We all have friends or family who have made inappropriate remarks about someone they view as “other”; each of us here has probably made inappropriate remarks about someone we view as “other.” While one comment will not cause a spike in hate crimes on its own, a general allowance of every-day racist speech will work its way towards normalizing violence. When we hear the words “China virus” or “Just go back to your country,” we cannot forget how we react to words like “Christ-killers” or “money-grubbers.” Just as we cannot forget Eastern European pogroms or the Holocaust, we cannot forget Japanese internment during WWII or the hundreds of undocumented deaths of Transcontinental railroad workers in the 19th century. We, too, have a history of blame for a plague over which we had no control. In our seder next week, when we remind ourselves that we were slaves in the land of Egypt, we are not only celebrating our own freedom but reminding ourselves to look out for others who have struggled alongside us. We are not only encouraging ourselves to fight for the preservation of our own tenuous freedom, but also, for the tenuous freedom of all those whose lives also include a nagging fear of “what if…”

Medieval commentator Ibn Ezra teaches that lo ta’amod al dam reiekha asks us not to befriend violent people. Even when our friends or family are not violent, but rather, ignorant or misguided, we have a responsibility to use our position as a loved one or a trusted companion to remind and rebuke. And when we are not in a situation of trust, we are allowed to leave a room where unsafe ideas are being shared - “I don’t agree, and I’m not comfortable with this” can sometimes be enough to make a statement.

Beyond reminding and rebuking, we cannot leave friends and family who identify as Asian-American alone at this moment in time. If you have not already, tonight is the time to reach out, to send that text message or make that phone call of comfort. To all those who reached out to us after Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, and Poway, we must extend the same compassion and respect. On a different note, now is also time to turn our attention to our nation’s community of Asian-American Jews, to reevaluate how we speak to and about them and how we speak to and about anyone in our Jewish community whose grandmother may not have made matzah ball soup and kugel.

The word holy means separate, distinct - while we are created in the image of God, we do not achieve God’s holiness until we earn it. Lo ta’amod al dam rei’eikha, refusing to stand by when another is in pain is just one step towards that holiness, and I am looking forward to exploring more of those steps in the weeks to come. Shabbat Shalom.