The call for moral leadership
As this Hebrew month of Av draws to a close in the week ahead, leading us into the reflective month of Elul, I am reminded of a teaching by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of pre-state Israel: “If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred – sinat chinam, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love — ahavat chinam” (Orot HaKodesh vol. III, p. 324). The destruction to which Rav Kook refers is that of the Holy Temple; but his teaching is as equally valid today as we experience again and again the destructive force of baseless hatred all around us.
These times demand moral leadership. The actions of neo-Nazis and white supremacy groups in Charlottesville–marching with torches, toting guns, chanting hate-filled slogans, intimidating Shabbat worshippers, and ultimately inciting deaths and injuries—or anywhere else, for that matter, cannot be countenanced without a response. In the moment, we cannot afford to be bystanders, though we are not required to put ourselves in harm’s way; in the aftermath, we call for moral leadership. We demand swift and unequivocal condemnation from those elected or appointed to positions of power. Over the past few days, we have read many such statements from organizations and individuals representing our communities. Frankly, I am underwhelmed by all of them.
Statements are important; but they are nothing compared to actions. Of course, we should call out—or expect our leaders to call out—that which we find despicable, abhorrent and unacceptable. But how have we truly changed our world in relying on someone else to speak what we are feeling?
Moral leadership must indeed be demanded; Judaism, however, dictates that we demand it of ourselves. We must be the moral leaders of our day; others may speak for us, but only you and I, individually, can change the landscape. And Judaism tells us how in this week’s reading of R’eih: “Do what is right and good in the eyes of God.” Feed the poor, care for the stranger, let the land regenerate, show gratitude for what you have, don’t take time for granted. Love (the verb).
Love. We’ve been reading all about love in the Torah weekly throughout this month of Av. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your essence.” “Love the stranger.” In response, I commonly hear expressed the struggle with the notion of being “commanded” to love. How can love be commanded?
If I had to define “love” in the context of what the Torah tells us, it would be the feeling we experience when we give to another at our own expense. The Torah wants us to serve the Other–and others–through our choices and with a generous spirit. (A moral leader is defined typically as a leader whose purpose is to serve, as opposed to be followed.) But we aren’t born with that desire to love. We are taught how to give love by being loved and by loving. Love may be an emotion, but it is also learned by experiences and actions.
“But hate is stronger than love,” I hear. My response: Hate is taught, just as love is taught. Perhaps hate is taught more easily, because hate appeals to our base instinct of self-preservation. Teaching love through our actions demands self-sacrifice, vulnerability and risk-taking. Teaching love means overcoming our reticence, our fear of the stranger, our complacency.
Moral leadership means accepting these challenges for ourselves, and not giving in to insecurity, fear and despair. Moral leadership means embracing and living by the notion that there is a shared code of conduct or set of values, that calls upon us to serve one another and “do what is right and good.” Moral leadership is the constant and intentional endeavor to behave morally and to love.
Some of you struggle with the idea that, as Jews, it is our mission (calling? obligation? command? responsibility? — call it what you wish!) to pursue love in the world, just as we are taught to pursue justice or peace. Love needs to be practiced, exercised and cultivated, just like any other discipline, muscle or character trait. And the more we love, the easier it gets. Trite? Perhaps. But when was the last time you went about your day consciously choosing to give love beyond your friends and family circle? To your neighbor? To a stranger? Try it, and you will soon discover that love is stronger than hate.
What does God/Judaism want of us? To live with a consciousness of our connection to others that guides our choices and our behavior. This is what God hopes will shape the kind of love we experience and bring into the world, the kind of moral leadership you and I provide for the world of tomorrow.
Rabbi Craig Scheff