Choose to Love

October 11, 2016

Yom Kippur • Kol Nidrei

Aspen Jewish Congregation

 

Just before Rosh Hashanah, I learned of the loss of Allyn Carol Ravitz z’’l, beloved sister of our longtime member Marilyn Gallant. Marilyn told me a story about Allyn that stayed with me. Allyn was a “flaming” liberal, and she walked the walk. She went to marches and protests for women’s rights, gay rights, workers, minorities, you name it. Her third husband, though, was a lifelong conservative. They were so in love, so happy together, so in awe that they had found each other later in life — they just had to agree not to talk about politics. As they aged, Allyn developed a rare neurological disease. As her eyesight failed, her caring husband became her driver. So now he, a Republican, took her to all her liberal marches and demonstrations, and he stayed with her in the crowd until it was time to drive her home. The things we do for love!

 

In Jewish tradition, love is something you do. It is a verb, not a feeling. God loved us by freeing us from Egypt and giving us the Torah. And when God commands us to love, God expects certain actions. Think of the V’ahavta: “You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, soul, and strength” (Deut. 6:5). And then it lists ways to love God: Teach these words to your children; speak of them at home and away; write them on your doorposts; follow God’s mitzvot. Love is performative, active, directed outward.

 

And so it should be when the Torah commands us: “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18) and “love the stranger…as yourself” (Lev. 19:34). These commands to love are no less God-given than any ritual we observe. Yet we tend to treat them as mere niceties: Be polite, follow the Golden Rule. We tend to see love as sentimental and weak. But the truth is, loving your neighbor, let alone loving the stranger, is tough and draining. It is not for the faint of heart. Love is fierce. It is disruptive and transformative and life-saving, and we need to do more of it today. We need to reclaim love as a fundamental Jewish practice.

 

Just as the V’ahavta gives examples of deeds that make for love, I want to share three stories of love’s power to save.

 

I. Denmark

 

We all fear terrorism, to varying degrees. When it strikes, we want to strike back, or strike first. That desire is not surprising or wrong. Genuine self-defense is a virtue, after all, and a mitzvah in Judaism. But what if our knee-jerk impulse to resort to force isn’t the best way to fight terror? What if we’re making it worse by feeding the fire? What if there were another way — believe it or not — through love?

 

In the town of Aarhus, in Denmark, a clean and quiet suburb, there has been a growing Muslim immigrant community. Starting one day in 2012, young Muslim men began to disappear suddenly. Word on the street was that they’d been recruited by ISIS to become fighters in Syria. It was happening fast and the numbers were growing. Their parents were nervous and their neighbors were scared. 

 

Instead of a harsh crackdown, like in much of Europe, two local police officers, Thorleif Link and Allan Aarslev, found a different way. They worked their beat. They talked to parents of the missing men, to mosque leaders, to other young men. They found that the local mosque was not a jihadist recruitment site but a moderating influence and a pathway to integration. The young men were being recruited in secret groups who met outside the mosque to watch radicalizing videos online and contact ISIS recruiters in the Middle East. The story they heard — really, the brainwashing they got — was that Denmark, and the entire West, would never accept them. They would always be seen as other, they would never fit in, they would be constantly hated. When we threaten refugees, condemn all Muslims, and marginalize immigrants, we legitimize that message of hate. The young men see our suspicion and say, “The West does hate us. You call us terrorists — we’ll give you terrorists.” And then they become easy prey for ISIS recruiters. 

 

That’s where Thorleif and Allan’s approach was disruptive. They chose love. They did outreach and built relationships. “They made it clear to citizens of Denmark who had traveled to Syria that they were welcome to come home, and that when they did, they would receive help with going back to school, finding an apartment, meeting with a psychiatrist…, or whatever they needed to fully integrate back into society.” When they heard of a young man slipping off the grid, instead of writing him off, they invited him to their office for coffee. They listened to his concerns, his fears, his hopes. They coached him. They set up mentors from among older Muslim immigrants who had built careers and families in Denmark.

 

Here’s the crazy thing: Love worked. ISIS recruitment fell. Almost all the young men who had already left for Syria returned; they had heard through their network about Thorleif and Allan. Many of them were lost souls, and they needed guidance, not violence. Would-be and former extremists embraced Danish life. The office helped more than 300 young men in three years. Their success spoke for itself: “Since the initial exodus of young people, very few have left from Aarhus for Syria, even when traffic from the rest of Europe was spiking. Last year, in 2015, it was just one person.” And this was all without firing a single shot, without violating civil liberties, without trafficking in hate and fear. Love worked.

 

Love works because it has the power to flip the script. Most of the time, we fall into patterns of what social psychologists call “complementary behavior.” When someone is hostile to us, we offer hostility in return. It escalates and often spirals into violence. That is, unless something blocks it. The Danish policemen’s response to extremism was an example of “non-complementary behavior.” They rewrote the script by disrupting the spiral of suspicion. Of course, non-complementary behavior is hard. We are wired to respond in kind when someone threatens us. It takes grit and vision to depart from the script. It takes deep reservoirs of strength to refrain from lashing out. It takes love.

 

II. Wichita

 

This July in Wichita, Kansas, the local Black Lives Matter group was planning a demonstration to protest police violence against minorities. The police were preparing to staff the demonstration, as police do. Everyone had their eyes on the coming protest, that powder keg of a moment when even the slightest slight can spiral into sparring and rioting.

 

But then something disruptive happened. A lead activist with Black Lives Matter met with the police chief face to face. They discussed issues facing their community. After a long meeting, they cancelled the protest and scheduled a cookout instead. They invited the whole community to join in a spirit of fellowship, police and civilians together, neighbors meeting each other. "At one table, three men — a black man, a Hispanic man and a white man — sat down with burgers next to police Lt. Travis Rakestraw to share their ideas. It was the first time since 1992 that Jarvis Scott, the black man, said he'd sat down with a police officer, and the other two said it was their first time ever sitting down with an officer.” Over beers and basketball, they were reminded of each other’s humanity. They flipped burgers and they flipped the script. Love worked.

 

This "First Steps Community Cookout" was only a beginning, but at least it was that. Wichita leaders urged other communities to try similar things — to disrupt the polarized narrative of racial tension and community policing. They understand that police departments and communities who get this right have less crime and fewer police casualties. “It takes two parties to make a healthy relationship,” the police chief said. Love saves lives.

 

III. Ann Arbor

 

Twenty years ago, the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Across from where the Klan members rallied, protesters gathered. Police and barricades separated the two sides. Suddenly, a protester shouted, “There's a Klansman in the crowd!” A middle-aged white man wearing a confederate flag shirt and sporting a Nazi SS tattoo had wandered somehow onto the wrong side of the barricade. Protesters chased him down and surrounded him. They shouted “kill the Nazi!” as they knocked him to the ground, kicked him, and stabbed him with the wooden stakes of their protest signs.

 

That’s when Keshia Thomas intervened. Keshia was an African American high school senior among the protesters. She saw the mob beating the man. Then she threw herself on top of him. She shielded him with her own body. She saved his life. A photographer at the scene was shocked by Keshia’s act, especially because he felt she saved someone who would not have done the same for her. Honestly, I don’t know if I would have done the same. Would you?

 

Afterward, Keshia was asked why she did it. She said, "I knew what it was like to be hurt. The many times that that happened, I wish someone would have stood up for me.” She saw herself in this stranger; she honored his humanity. She chose to love. She said when it happened, it felt like "two angels picking my body up and laying me down.” 

 

Keshia never saw the man again. But a few months later she was in a coffee shop when a young man came up to her and said, “Thank you.” “What for?” she asked. He said, “That was my dad.” Keshia said later, ”For the most part, people who hurt... they come from hurt. It is a cycle. Let’s say [the mob] had killed him or hurt him really bad. How does the son feel? Does he carry on the violence?” But Keshia broke the cycle; she flipped the script. Love saves lives.

 

A midrash in the Talmud makes the startling suggestion that God prays. These are the words of God’s prayer: “May it be My will that My mercy may prevail over My anger, … so that I may deal with My children in the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice” (BT Berachot 7a, adapted). During these holy days, we ask God to love us, for based on justice alone, who among us would merit forgiveness? On this night of atonement, God prays the same prayer for us: May our mercy, compassion, and love prevail over our hate, judgement, and fear.

 

At the beginning of July, police in Baton Rouge killed an unarmed black man, police in Minnesota killed another unarmed black man the next day, and then a black gunman killed five policemen at the Dallas protest. A few days later, a black Baton Rouge police officer named Montrell Jackson posted a heartbreaking and hopeful note on Facebook. It said:

 

I’m tired physically and emotionally. Disappointed in some family, friends, and officers for some reckless comments but hey what’s in your heart is in your heart. I still love you all because hate takes too much energy but I definitely won’t be looking at you the same… I swear to God I love this city but I wonder if this city loves me. In uniform I get nasty hateful looks and out of uniform some consider me a threat. I’ve experienced so much in my short life and these last 3 days have tested me to the core… I personally want to send prayers out to everyone directly affected by this tragedy. These are trying times. Please don’t let hate infect your heart… I’m working in these streets so any protesters, officers, friends, family, or whoever, if you see me and need a hug or want to say a prayer. I got you.

 

Ten days later, a gunman targeting police killed three Baton Rouge officers. Among them was Montrell Jackson, a 10-year veteran of the force, respected neighbor, loving husband, and new father of a 4-month-old boy named Mason. 

 

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” God says. “Love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers, too.” How can we choose to love in the face of such pain and loss? When hate and fear come so easily? And yet… Hate and fear are what killed Montrell Jackson, and so many others. Love is what he stood for — he and Keshia Thomas, and the folks in Wichita, and the Danish policemen Thorleif and Allan. This night, we pray, may our love prevail over our hate.

 

“I call heaven and earth as witnesses for you this day: I have placed before you life and death, blessing and curse” (Deut. 30:19). In the new year, let us choose life. Let us rewrite the script. Let us choose to love, so that we and our children may live.

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