I am thinking about 'taking risks' this week. There are moments in all of our lives, some little, some grand, where we need to take risks. Risk can be both exciting and dangerous, and we must weigh all sides of the situation before we decide. And yet, sometimes, in extraordinary circumstances, we human beings have the capacity to do amazing things, even life-threatening things, for the sake of others. I begin with a woman who died this week at age 100, a Christian woman who risked her life to help protect a Jewish family during the Holocaust. And not just any Jewish family, but one that would become, unbeknownst to her at the time, one of the classic names associated with Holocaust memory: Frank. This week, Miep Gies (pronounced Meep Gees), the Vienna-born Dutch woman who hid Anne Frank and her family in the attic of her Amsterdam apartment, passed away. In the LA Times obituary, Mrs. Gies is quoted as saying that she felt no fear when she risked her life to protect and bring provisions to the Frank family. "Real strength," she said during an Oprah interview in 2002, "is being able to carry on when times are hard. I had no time to occupy myself with fear. There was work to be done." I want to honor her memory by talking about risk taking, along with the legacy of Dr. King, and how we can apply some of that risk taking to today's world in which we live.
What does it take for a person to stand up to the evil in their society, risk their life and protect a persecuted, hated group of people? What is the quality or attribute that a woman like Ms. Gies must possess for this kind of remarkable story to be possible? Standing up for what we believe, as our parents and grandparents always remind us when we are kids, is a well-oiled human value. Yet, when times turn tough, when danger presents itself, or when we are afraid, we all know that it is possible to abandon that principle for the sake of personal self-interest. Miep Gies had to be thinking of something much greater than herself when she chose to protect Otto Frank and his family. A hero is someone who cares more about the greater good than themselves in the face of danger; a hero is someone who maintains their values and principles in the face of extreme pressure, especially such strong societal pressure as existed under Nazi occupation. As we look at our world today, we can continue to find heroes who are standing up for what they believe, even in the face of unpopularity and danger.
Dr. King risked his life for the belief that the human spirit and desire to be free from oppression can overcome any prejudice, bigotry, hatred or intolerance. His life was a tapestry of risk, a walking book of incredibly inspiring words, a faith in God that carried him all the way to the mountaintop, sustaining him in the face of ugliness, prison and ultimately, a tragic death. While we still have battles to fight in regard to racism, we know that Dr. King's life is a witness to the fact that ordinary people, with the right leader, can bring about great change, at the highest levels of authority and government. So, as I think about today, and what is calling to be stood for, I once again, as I have in the past, remind us that the lives of gays and lesbians, human beings seeking to be included in the fabric of our human family and accorded the rights and privileges therein, remain at risk and discriminated against. As we all know, brave men and women are currently taking great risks to speak out in court and challenge the constitutionality of Prop. 8, a law in California that denies their rights. And to be clear, I am not saying that Dr. King, or Miep Gies for that matter, would have been making this case. As we know, in fact, on the same day that African Americans voted over 90% for President Obama, they also voted in large numbers in favor of Prop. 8. Rather, the example of their risk taking gives me courage to stand with good people who continue to be discriminated against because of how God made them.
Our country used to think whites and blacks shouldn't marry, with many states passing laws to that effect which needed to be overturned. Social change is hard, and takes time, I understand, but as our textual tradition teaches us, "we are not required to finish the task, but neither are we free to ever stop trying." Gays and lesbians take risks everyday just to try and participate freely in their society and I believe that we should be standing with them. And ultimately, it shouldn't be a risk at all to be gay or lesbian. The overwhelming Biblical evidence for standing with the oppressed because of our experience in Egypt greatly outweighs the one or two scriptural citations that are quoted to promote discriminating against homosexuals. Finding the courage to stand against the tide of societal pressure, which is something I learn from Miep Gees, is one of the deepest messages of Dr. King and all risk-takers throughout history. As we watch the outcome of this trial, I pray that we take a step toward more equality, more inclusion, and more love.
On the day that Anne Frank and her family were betrayed and the Nazis came for them, Gies was in the office. An SS soldier pointed a revolver in her face and told her to stand back. She could only watch, in horror and tears, as the Franks were led away. After the soldiers left, Gies and some others found the hiding place ransacked. For fear that the officers would return, she quickly scanned the room and found the red-orange checkered cloth-bound diary she knew Anne was writing in. The diary and many other of Anne's papers were gathered up and dumped into Gies desk drawer, unlocked. She intended to return them to Anne when she came back to Amsterdam. Obviously, that never happened. 10 months later the war was over and Otto Frank, Anne's father came home alone. Gies gave him the diary, having never even read it herself. "It was too private and precious to Anne," she is reported to have said, "I couldn't invade her privacy." This woman was a risk-taker, yet never wanted any credit for the heroine that she was. Thanks to her, the world knows of Anne Frank. Imagine if she had not been so daring, so kind, so compassionate, so committed to doing what she knew was right? Both Gies and Dr. King are risk-takers, both people of valor. Today, right now, there are risk-takers standing up for the rights of ordinary people trying to fight against extraordinary discrimination. I am sure that we will read about someone, 100 years from now, who stood with them in their fight. Will it be you? I hope so.
Follow Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rabbijoshua