If justice is up to us as God’s people, we must lead with compassion and not anger

By Student Rabbi Remy Liverman

Student Rabbi Remy Liverman served United Hebrew Congregation during the 2019-20 academic year. She delivered these remarks to honor the memories of George Ward and Ida Finkelstein during The Bridge Project ceremonies Sept. 26, 2021, at Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Terre Haute. View the full program on Facebook.

During the Jewish festival of Sukkot, a part of the Jewish High Holy Days, we read from the Book of Exodus where God instructs Moses to chisel new tablets upon which God will engrave the Ten Commandments.

As Moses takes the new tablets up to Mt. Sinai, God reveals His glory to Moses, proclaiming His 13 Attributes of Mercy:

The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished…. (Exodus 34:6-7).

The Lord presents us with a dilemma

The dilemma we face when interpreting this sacred text involves understanding a God of forgiveness, love and compassion and yet also punitive retribution for the guilty.

Whatever our impulses, we cannot use God’s words as an excuse to exact punitive retribution when it serves us best.

If justice is up to us as God’s people, we must lead with compassion and not anger.

We must stand up against unjust punishment and oppose those swift to carry out cruel sentences and reignite the flames of racism and xenophobia.

We must stand up against unjust punishment and oppose those swift to carry out cruel sentences and reignite the flames of racism and xenophobia.

We grapple with this issue today as we come together to both honor the lives of George Ward and Ida Finkelstein, who died without justice — both in the way their lives were taken and institutional failure to identify those responsible for their deaths.

The prophet Amos foretold:

Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate…. Let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream. (Amos 5:15,24)

Hate evil and love good

When we live by these ideals, we are all held accountable in speaking up to condemn acts of senseless hatred and cruelty.

We are commanded not to be bystanders, just as much as we are commanded not be perpetrators.

When we stand up on this day together as one community, we unite as one to protest racism, antisemitism and all other sources of bigotry and intolerance.

We are commanded not to be bystanders, just as much as we are commanded not be perpetrators.

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote during the civil rights movement of the 1960s:

When we hear and accept what we hear without meeting others, without asking how can it be, without looking for friends outside our circles, when we accept hatred for a group as a legitimate discourse — Pharaoh is alive and well, inside ourselves.

Coming together today, we oppose what happened to our ancestors 120 years ago and we stand up for millions of those who have been oppressed and continue to be oppressed.

We stand up for those who have been victims of hate and continue to be victims of hate.

There is a principle in Jewish rabbinic tradition (Sanhedrin 37a:13) that tells us saving one life is as if to save the entire world, while destroying one life is as if to destroy the entire world.

Save one starfish

So, before honoring George Ward and Ida Finkelstein through the Jewish memorial prayer of El Malei Rachamim, I wanted to share the following brief parable of the poet at the seashore:

Once upon a time, a poet went for a walk along the beach when he saw a woman moving oddly along the ocean shore. At first, he thought she was dancing, but as he got closer he realized that the woman was picking up starfish one by one and throwing them back into the sea.

“What are you doing?” the poet asked. The dancing woman replied, “The tide is low and unless I put these starfish back into the water, they will surely die.”

“What are you doing?” the poet asked. The dancing woman replied, “The tide is low and unless I put these starfish back into the water, they will surely die.”

The poet responded, “But there are millions of starfish; you cannot possibly make a difference in doing this.” And with that, the woman leaned forward and picked up a starfish and threw it back into the water, saying: “Maybe, but it made a difference for that one.”

Today, we all bear witness to this story. We stand for its ideals and virtues.

In our unity, we teach that every life is sacred and worth fighting for in life — and every life is sacred and worth commemorating in death.

El Malei Rachamim: A Prayer for Mercy and Compassion

O God, full of compassion, Who dwells on high, grant true rest upon the wings of the Divine Presence, in the exalted spheres of the holy, pure and true who shine as the resplendence of the firmament, to the souls of George Ward and Ida Finkelstein, for charity has been donated in remembrance of their souls; may their place of rest be in Gan Eden.

Therefore, may the all-merciful One shelter them with the cover of His wings forever and bind their souls in the bond of life.

The Lord is their heritage; may they find respite in their eternal resting-place in peace; and let us say: Amen.

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