Shabbat Sermon: Compassion and Standards Are Not Mutually Exclusive

A Sermon in Response to the Recent Incidents at Ridgefield High School

March 31, 2017
Temple B’nai Chaim
Rabbi Rachel Bearman

On Wednesday, the principal of Ridgefield High School and the Superintendent of Ridgefield schools sent emails to the parents and guardians of their students. By midnight that night, these emails had been forwarded to me by multiple congregants who wanted to make sure that I knew what had happened. The messages from the school told us that over the weekend, anti-Semitic and racist graffiti, including a swastika, had been found on the campus of the Ridgefield High School. Both Dr. Gross and Dr. Baldwin condemned the behavior as hateful and unacceptable. I immediately reached out to both of them, sharing my deep concerns and offering my support and help as the school community dealt with these most recent incidents.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that we have seen swastikas and other types of graffiti in our local towns. Before this past weekend’s incidents, the most recent example came this winter, when a swastika was found in Ballard Park in Ridgefield. In that case, the symbol’s presence in the park was met with a peaceful and swift reaction from the community as Ridgefield neighbors from all backgrounds and faith traditions gathered to reclaim the park as a place of friendship.

I was curious to see how the town would react to the news that a swastika and racist slur had once again been found in the community. By Wednesday evening, someone had shared the school’s email to the Ridgefield Facebook Group, where residents and former residents share information, post recommendations, and generally engage with one another about town issues. The initial post included both the text of the email and the question, “Where does this hate come from?”

Over the past few days, I have been watching as people have responded to the question and the email. Some posted earnest advice and suggestions for parents and school administrators. But, I was disappointed to see that a number of comments tried to minimize this behavior. Many people responded with some version of the following excuses:

  • Kids act out to shock people.
  • They don’t really believe these things, they’re just looking for attention.
  • Graffitti like this has always been in the schools… so why should it be any different now.
  • It’s just kids copying things that they see on the internet.
  • Whoever did this isn’t anti-Semitic or racist, they’re just immature and trying to be funny.

After every incident like this, and it has not only happened in Ridgefield, I hear and see these excuses and other, similar comments as they are shared by members of our towns and even by members of our congregation. But, I find these rationalizations to be misguided and even insulting to the young people in our communities who strive to act in kind and compassionate ways.

I can understand the thought processes behind comments like the ones I have just mentioned. People who feel this way are hesitant to judge the behavior of others, and in many cases, that can be a positive attribute. But, in this case, this is exactly the dynamic that tells me that we as a society and as a community need to do some intensive reflection because our desire not to judge others but instead to understand them should not mean that we lose the ability to judge behavior or actions as either acceptable or unacceptable.

I will gladly admit that many of the responses that people had to this story are potentially true. Teenagers’ brains are still developing, and, because of this, they are sometimes more likely to make impulsive and and even regrettable decisions. Perhaps whoever is responsible for this graffiti was acting out because of difficult and very real personal issues or struggles. Maybe the one responsible even lacks a deep understanding of what the symbol and slur that he or she painted would mean to other individuals or communities. Maybe whoever is responsible was in fact trying to be provocative or funny. All of these things can be true, but none of them means that this person is not still responsible or that the behavior itself is acceptable.

As Reform Jews, we embrace both the opportunity to approach individuals with empathy and understanding as well as our inherited commitment to the Prophetic tradition which challenges us to live in righteous ways. Some might think that our movement’s commitment to being open minded and loving toward all people means that we are “wishy washy” but I can assure you that we are not. We know that we are responsible for our behavior, and we know that when we act badly, we are responsible for making things right.

Fortunately, our tradition provides us with a way to move forward – teaching us that unacceptable behavior does not have to define our future lives and decisions. Instead, the Jewish tradition teaches us that when we have strayed from the proper halachah (literally way of walking), we must find our way back to the correct and righteous path. When we gather together on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we hear the refrain, “B’rosh hashanah yikatevun, uvYom Tzom Kippur yeichateimun. On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” But, even as that heavy promise looms over us, we are told the three steps that will allow us to make up for bad acts, “Utshuvah, utfilah, utzadakah, maavirin et roa hag’zeirah. But through returning to the right path, through prayer and righteous giving, we can transcend the harshness of the decree.”

These lines of prayerful language reflect the tension that the Jewish tradition teaches us is a healthy way to understand our lives and our responsibilities. The things that we do and say have weight and power. Every action and every choice is a part of our life’s story, and we are responsible for all that we do – the good and the bad. It is not a question of whether we will act badly because all people will stumble. But, we are taught, that when we stray, we are responsible for correcting our course. We are responsible for the following:

  • T’shuvah- reflecting and then making things right
  • T’filah- acknowledging that we are in relationship with something much larger than ourselves, whether that is God, the community, or both
  • T’zedakah- giving back to the community, making the collective and our neighbors stronger through our actions

Acknowledging that someone’s behavior is wrong does not mean that we can’t support them and help them as they correct their course. The way back to the right path may not be easy, but we do ourselves and others no favors by pretending that we and they have not not stumbled in the first place.

Having standards does not mean that we are not compassionate. Tonight, we remember that our tradition was built on both the expectation of righteous behavior and the knowledge that we will sometimes fall short. Let us carry that tension with us as we go out into our communities. Embracing that tension will give us strength.

Shabbat Shalom Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Rachel Bearman
Temple B’nai Chaim