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January 12, 2024

Reflections from Rep. Ritchie Torres

MLK Shabbat
Congressman Ritchie Torres

Like all of you, I was profoundly shaken, not only by October 7, but by its aftermath. I found it utterly horrifying to see fellow Americans openly cheering and celebrating the deadliest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust.

And for me, the aftermath of October 7 revealed the barbarity of the American heart that reminded me of an earlier and darker time in our nation’s history; a time when the public mobs of Jim Crow would openly celebrate the lynching of African-Americans or the lynching of a Jewish-American like Leo Frank.

And so words cannot express the overwhelming outrage that I felt at the barbaric reaction to the barbarism of October 7. You know, people often ask me, ‘Why do you care so deeply? Why do you speak out so frequently and forcefully against anti-Semitism?’ And I simply reply, ‘You are asking the wrong question. The question is not why have I chosen to be outspoken; the question is why have others chosen to be silent amid the deadliest day for the Jews since the Holocaust.

Dr. King once said that history will record that the greatest tragedy is not the strident clamor of the bad people, but it’s the appalling silence of the good people. Elie Wiesel once said that the opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference. And what we’ve seen in the aftermath of October 7 is appalling silence and indifference and cowardice from so-called leaders in our society; from institutions that we once respected and admired. And if we as a society cannot bring ourselves to condemn the murder of innocents with moral clarity, then we must ask: What are we becoming as a society? What does that reveal about the depth of anti-Semitism in the American soul?

October 7 has been an awakening for the Jewish community, but it must be a reckoning for all of America. We must confront the deepening rot of anti-Semitism; on social media platforms, on college campuses, and elsewhere in America. We must ask ourselves: What kind of society do we wish to be? Do we wish to be a society that affirms that every life, every Jewish life, every black life, every life, has inherent dignity and value and worth? That each of us is a child of God, that each of us is an equal creation in the image of God?

Or do we wish to be a society that affirms that violence and terror, no matter how barbaric, can be justified and even glorified, under the guise of 'resistance.'

I, for one, cannot imagine anything, more hostile to the teachings of Dr. King. More contemptuous of the non-violent life that he led and the non-violent legacy that he left behind, than the glorification of violence and terror that we saw in the aftermath of October 7,” he continued. ‘And so let us reshape our society in the image of Dr. King.

Like Dr. King, I had the honor of speaking at the National Mall in the presence of hundreds of thousands of people; the context was the March for Israel, the march against anti-Semitism, the march to secure the release of our hostages. And as I spoke, I took note that year in which I spoke, 2023, was historic in more ways than one; it marked the 75th anniversary of Israel’s rebirth and the 60th anniversary of Dr. King’s I Have A Dream speech. And those words, ‘I have a dream,’ reminded me that the Jewish people have long had a dream of Jewish liberation through a Jewish state. And Israel itself is the realization of a dream that is both ancient and modern. And that realized dream, despite the tragedy and trauma of October 7, will live on for the next 75 years and beyond.

You know, a rabbi once shared with me a story about the origins of the phrase, ‘Am Yisrael Chai’” (The people of Israel live). 

In 1945, there was a BBC reporter, Patrick Gordon walker, who was present during the fifth day of the British Second Army’s liberation of the (Bergen) Belsen Nazi concentration camp. And since he arrived on a Friday on the eve of Sabbath, he recorded for the BBC broadcast a religious service held in the concentration camp by Rabbi Leslie Henry Hartman. And as you might imagine, the religious service was both inspired and inspiring. Here you had survivors who had just been liberated; many of them were frail and seriously ill; many of them were starved and emaciated. These survivors easily could have felt overwhelming despair, but instead found the inner strength and inspiration to sing HaTikvah, which is, as all of you know, means hope. And after the singing of HaTikvah, the rabbi cried out loud the words Am Yisrael Chai, which was captured live on the BBC radio broadcast.

That was said to be the first and earliest recording of those words, and for me, I find that there’s something poignant and even providential about the words Am Yisrael Chai emerging from a moment of hope and liberation.  And I always found it poignant that the national anthem HaTikvah predates the Jewish state by half a century, which meant that there were early Jewish leaders and dreamers who were singing HaTikvah, hoping for a Jewish state, but realizing that they themselves may never live to see one. And this thought reminded me of Dr. King’s final and fateful speech; a speech in which he prophetically yet tragically predicts that he himself may never live to see the realization of his own dream.

Even though he knew he would never live to see the realization of the dream for which he fought, Dr. King never lost hope. The survivors of the Holocaust who sang HaTikvah from the depths of a Nazi concentration camp, never lost hope. And so if some of the greatest people who ever lived can never lose hope, then neither should we.

Hope is the anthem of the Jewish people, and hope was the animating principle of America’s greatest dreamer, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. God bless you all.

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.