As the Jewish New Year arrives I inevitably think of all those whom we have lost over the past year. Neil Armstrong, Marvin Hamlisch, Gore Vidal, Sally Ride, Ernest Borgnine, Stephen Covey, Hal David and Nora Ephron, among others. But in truth, the one famous person who died this past year whom I have thought of the most is Rodney King.
No, not because his videotaped beating and the subsequent trial of the police involved set off the tragic Civil Disturbances of 1992. I have been thinking about Rodney King because of his famous plea on camera in the aftermath of those terribly destructive LA riots. A plea that sounded to my ears at the time as so incredibly simplistic, that I remember watching him quoted on the news that night, and shaking my head at how naïve he sounded.
What was this simplistic, trite comment that in my own arrogance I laughed at? Everybody knows. It was Rodney King looking plaintively into the camera and simply asking, "Can't we all just get along?"
I laughed, and I thought, "How silly. How naïve." But today I say, "How utterly foolish of me." Just look at where we have gone from there. We are a United States of America that is anything BUT united. A Supreme Court where the majority of decisions now seem to be decided one way or the other, by a vote of 5 to 4 almost every time. A U.S. Congress so divided and polarized that when the Democrats held a majority right after the stunning election of Barack Obama they argued among themselves so much that they were frozen into inaction. Then the Republican party took over after midterm elections, and the polarization between the parties was so deep and corrosive, that the Republican Leadership announced to the world that its number one goal was not passing any legislation at all, but rather simply to do whatever necessary to make sure that Barack Obama was a one term president. Period.
"Can't we all just get along?" doesn't sound so foolish to my ears any more. Eighteenth century British author Samuel Johnson once said, "When once the forms of civility are violated, there remains little hope of return to kindness or decency."
We should be celebrating our differences and not trying so desperately to make them all disappear. So last month I participated in a press conference with a young Muslim woman named Imane Boudlal who along with the ACLU was bringing a suit against the Disney Corporation for harassment and religious discrimination. She was working as a hostess at a restaurant owned by Disney and because she wanted to honor her religion and cover her head with a scarf, her fellow workers and managers called her a "terrorist" and "camel" and "bomb maker."
The entire press conference was Imane, her lawyers and me -- the rabbi. I was there because of all people we Jews have thousands of years of history experiencing what it is like to be attacked and pointed at, accused of invidious wrongdoing simply because of our religious traditions and I wanted Imane and all Muslims who were watching and supporting her to see that it was a rabbi who stood with her in her moment of anguish and despair.
"Can't we all just get along?" I stood with Imane, comforting her, supporting her, encouraging her, because I believe that human beings are fundamentally the same regardless of race, regardless of religion, regardless of language, regardless of culture. I believe that is what the Torah means when it says we are all created btzelem elohim -- in the image of God. What is most powerful about The Torah and it's more than 3,000 definition of human beings as reflections of the divine, is that there are no "excepts" in its text. It doesn't say that human beings are created in the image of God except Muslims, or except people who speak Arabic or Spanish, except people of another race, or people who are poor, or people who are gay, or illiterate or of the other political party. It simply states that all human beings are created I the image of God, and as such are worthy of dignity, respect, civility and honor.
Left wing progressive or Tea Party Republican, Ruth Bader Ginsberg or Clarence Thomas, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, Bibi Netanyahu or Shimon Peres, everyone wants a voice, everyone deserves to have a place at the table, everyone has a right to our respect, to be treated with dignity, because in our tradition that's how God would see them all.
This is our High Holy Day season, and a time to remember that no one should ever have to be defined by their worst moments in life, or only by their past mistakes, or by their past poor choices, because right now, this moment, every moment we have the opportunity to choose again. Choosing how we live our lives is what character is all about, what living our best life is all about, and what this entire High Holy Day season is ultimately all about as well.
My deepest wish for the New Year is that especially in the midst of this hot, political season, that every one of us accepts the challenge to do our part to help heal the world this year by reaching out to someone who thinks differently than we do. So I challenge us all to open our hearts, open our minds, open our souls to those who see life through different lenses and trust that seeing the world through someone else's eyes can only expand our field of vision. And that would truly be a blessing worth sharing for this New Year.
"Can't we all just get along? So simple and yet so profound. I believe we could change the world, if we simply give it a try in the year ahead.
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