Saturday, May 4, 2019

Kedoshim (Stand Up)



Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.
                                    -Leviticus 19:16

In a recent New York Times op-ed, former FBI director James Comey chillingly describes what happens when decent people fail to stand up to a corrupt, malignant regime. “It starts with silence,” he notes, and intensifies into complicity.  Ultimately, evil “eats your soul in small bites” until it is gone.

While serving under Donald Trump, James Comey learned, the hard way, an essential truth at the heart of our Jewish tradition: to be a leader—and a mensch—one must actively resist bigotry and persecution.   As Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel eloquently reminded us: “We must take sides.  Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.  Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

This week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, frames this imperative even more concisely: “You must not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.” 

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In 2002, academic and diplomat Samantha Power coined the word “upstander” while promoting her Pulitzer Prize-winning book about genocide, A Problem from Hell.  While addressing students about what they can do to prevent atrocities, Ms. Power spoke of “standing up rather than standing by”; this quickly transitioned into “upstanders versus bystanders.”  The students ran with the term, which was later popularized by the curriculum Facing History and Ourselves, which encourages learners to examine crimes against humanity like the Holocaust and then connect that history to their own moral choices.  In 2016—after a significant lobbying effort by young activists—Merriam-Webster and the Oxford University Press officially added upstander to their dictionaries.

Now, more than ever, our state, our nation and our world dearly need upstanders.

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American country music duo Sugarland—Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush—put out an inspiring call to upstanders in their 2010 anthem “Stand Up.”  Like many a potent rallying cry, the song begins with boldly beating drums.  Next we get Bush’s steady, driving guitar, then Nettles’ opening vocals:

All the lonely people cryin'
It could change if we just get started
Lift the darkness, light a fire
For the silent and the broken hearted

Bush joins in on the chorus:

Won't you stand up
Stand up
Stand up
Won't you stand up you girls and boys?
Won't you stand up
Stand up
Stand up
Won't you stand up and use your voice?

The next verse and chorus build, with swelling keyboards and soaring harmonies:

There's a comfort
There's healing
High above the pain and sorrow
Change is coming
Can you feel it?
Calling us into a new tomorrow
Won't you stand up. . .

By the end of the final verse and chorus, the driving, infectious melody and the clarion call of the lyrics leave no doubt of what the listener should strive to be: an upstander.

When the walls fall all around you
When your hope has turned to dust
Let the sound of love surround you
Beat like a heart in each of us

Won't you stand up and use your voice?

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Our portion begins with the words, Kedoshim t’hiyu—You shall be holy.  Rashi interprets holiness here as separateness—to be holy is to muster the courage to go against the crowd.  To speak out against the indifferent silences that eat our souls and empower tyrants.  To stand up.

This week, and beyond, be an upstander.

Do not stand idly by while our democracy bleeds.

Won’t you stand up and use your voice?

For a rousing live version of Sugarland performing “Stand Up”: