While in Israel a friend, and mentor, who had been following my posts urged me to expand my writing. She urged me to write more about the topic of good versus evil in the world. Given the fact that she is primarily responsible for my remaining frum in my life, I listened. Truth be told, there is so much one can write about good versus evil, love versus hate, or Ahavat Yisrael versus Sinat Chinam. But I was nervous to write above me; I only wanted to write about what I know.
I realized though that at 45, I have been through a lot, learned a lot and lived in an inordinate amount of places, before settling in my current home. My home is physically the 20th place I have lived in my life. I know, I am quite the wandering Jew! But, whether I moved because my family moved or because I was chasing my educational dreams, each move afforded me an opportunity to engage with new people, learn from them and even more so about myself.
My becoming a prosecutor, where I witness good versus evil – man’s inhumanity to man – on a daily basis, did not emerge in a vacuum. In fact, it is my second career. Before going to law school I had spent 10 years in the field of Holocaust Studies, both learning, researching and teaching the subject. I was privileged to have as my mentor and dear friend, Dr. Yaffa Eliach, who molded me into a researcher, a fact finder, an investigator, and all along the way shaped my world view of justice.
The preservation of memory is justice. And so it was only fitting that I entered the field of prosecution, where witness testimony is key, where victims stand up to their abusers, where memory is recorded, transcribed and preserved. I became part of a system of justice built on our Talmudic foundation and I proudly teach my young assistants the ethics of our forefathers.
I realized that I move through this world, ever a frum Jew, ever cognizant of what I say and do because G-d sees. Simply, because I believe he does and because the world out there sees too – how we behave as Jews, how we behave with others and with each other. I am always aware that each human being I encounter, in life, whether in my personal sphere, or in my professional one, has a neshama (soul) within them that is G-d given. And, this too, I teach to my assistants, because we must always remember to temper justice with mercy.
Interestingly enough though, I did not always view the world with such deference and faith. When my friend and mentor met me, I was a young 16 year old who was very angry at G-d. I was angry at a world that consumed my relatives in the Holocaust, a world where poverty reigned across continents, where crime raged in NYC (where I went to school at the time), and where the AIDS epidemic spread, while people were busy playing the blame game, rather than finding a cure. At a young age, I had learned about many acts of man’s inhumanity to man, but all I could do then was turn my anger at G-d and ask Why? Why would he let all of this happen?
But it is not G-d who I take umbrage with now, it is man. Although I have no answer as to where G-d is during moments of evil, and there are so many of them, I realize that each one of us was created in his image and that we are the ones that choose to bring good or evil into the world. It is the Torah that teaches us that we were created in his image, and yet I find it ironic since we are such imperfect creatures. But according to Rashi, this image in each one of us is our intellect; which we can use to choose right versus wrong, humanity versus inhumanity, good versus evil. And so, I became a seeker of justice; both at work and in my own life. It is why I write.
So I sit here typing away on the eve of the 15th anniversary of September 11th, and I am still moved to tears over the loss of life and the loss of my friend and former paralegal, Firefighter Christopher Pickford, who died a hero that fateful day. It was a day where hatred in the name of religion, where man’s inhumanity to man, and where evil seemingly all triumphed. But I know that this was not the will of the Heavens. I know that it was by choice, by choice of man, by choice of many men, that lives were taken that day; murdered by those who cared nothing for the sanctity of human life, but only for their twisted religious beliefs.
And so it is for many a man or woman in the name of religion. Dr. Yaffa Eliach once told me a story of a woman who requested her help in researching the fate of her relatives during the war. Yaffa had discovered that one of this woman’s relatives had actually survived the Holocaust; one whom this woman had thought had been murdered along with the six million. When Yaffa disclosed this wonderful news to her, she asked Yaffa to wait to reunite them until after her child’s wedding. She explained to Yaffa that she was very religious and was terribly embarrassed that her survivor relative was not. She did not want that relative at her child’s wedding. And Dr. Eliach then said to me, something I will never forget, “Every family makes their own Holocaust.”
In the name of religion, within our families and within our communities, we make our own Holocausts. In the name of religion, we are fractured, we spread Lashon Hara, we allow Sinat Chinam to thrive and we do not embrace the Jew that is different – the Jew like me. We simply cease to practice Kvod Habriyot. Rather, we stand up with self-righteous indignation, with arrogance, so certain that we know the wishes of the Heavens, even willingly causing harm to others based on our own twisting of beliefs. But it is our very own Talmud that addresses the characteristic of arrogance in mankind; it describes an arrogant man as a Ba’al Mum, a deformed being. Arrogance serves no purpose other than to deform one’s soul through hatred. I believe the two are inextricably intertwined and I believe that they are at the root of why man chooses evil in this world.
But in my soul I know that Judaism is not a religion filled with hatred; it is people that make it so. As one Rabbi friend said, upon hearing how poorly the LGBT Jews in my community have been treated, “This is not the Judaism I practice.” And that is just it – we have Bechira Chofshit (free will). We can choose to practice a religion of love, or a religion of hate. We can sanctify G-d’s name through acts of compassion and kindness or we can sully it with arrogance and Sinat Chinam. Knowing how short life is, how much importance our religion places on the sanctity of human life, I choose the former; so should we all. I am convinced that with such choices the world would be a better place. Let’s make it happen together.