In these difficult days we all need strength, to stand firm against the wrongs and brutalities of the world; to speak out for justice, even where that is unpopular; to cauterise with healing the endless hurts suffered by so many.
It’s not a choice. Take Moses for example. He has a whole list of reasons why he can’t face Pharaoh as God requires: Who am I to do that; I can’t speak; Pharaoh won’t listen; my own people call me a troublemaker; if they won’t listen, the Egyptians never will.
But God doesn’t ask; God demands: ‘God spoke to Moses and Aaron, and commanded them against Pharaoh, king of Egypt.’ (Ex. 6:13)
I hear these words echoed in Timothy Snyder’s short diatribe: On Tyranny, Twenty lessons from the Twentieth Century. It’s necessary reading in today’s distorted world:
Take responsibility…Believe in truth…Stand out. Someone has to…
It takes guts to confront evil when it surrounds us. My grandmother went to the Gestapo buildings while my grandfather was in Dachau in November 1938. She passed through doors with no handle inside. She demanded: ‘Where’s my husband?’ Asked the same question back, she retorted, ‘You’ve got him; you should know.’ That’s courage.
We need such strength to stand up to Putin, Iran, Hamas, Hizbollah, the worldwide web of lies they spin with threads of hatred, and the violence and defamation they direct against Israel, Ukraine, Jews and numerous others.
We require such strength too, to challenge the hatemongering corruption of Trump, should he stand for president again, let alone if he succeeds.
We need it, dare I say it, too, to confront prime minister Netanyahu, to call out the blatant racism and contempt of certain ministers and policies, even amidst this terrible, grief-bringing war.
But what is strength, beyond anger and frustration?
We stand between the Yahrzeit of Abraham Joshua Heschel, last December 31st, and Martin Luther King Day, next Monday 15th January. They drew their strength from the spirit. Their activism came from listening intently to the voice of God in the soul. They were followers of Zachariah, whose words we read on Chanukkah:
‘“Not by might and not by power, ki im by my spirit,” says God.’ (4:6)
Ki im is often read as ‘but’. It really means ‘except’ or ‘unless’. No true strength, Zachariah teaches, except with God’s spirit.
It’s a dangerous description. Few promulgate hatred more fiercely than zealots who claim to know God’s mind.
But true strength of spirit is rooted not in violence but in solidarity with life and the God of life. It knows not hatred or the urge to destroy, but the indignation of injustice which will not be ignored. It is driven not by contempt for suffering, but by the determination to heal.
I shall never forget knocking on the door of John and Mavis Hyman after learning that their daughter Miriam was among the victims of the London bombings of 7 July 2005. Unsure what to say, I muttered, ‘I wish you strength.’
I still see John standing on the path in front of me, a tall man then, nodding, saying, more to himself than me, ‘Yes. That’s the one. We’ve had many greetings. But that’s the one.’
And strong he was, and strong Mavis is still, in her constant efforts to bring healing in her daughter’s name, to meet sorrow with love and counter racism with the teachings of understanding.
True strength has many forms. It may be steady presence amidst grief, diligence in under-appreciated caring, defying bigotry to stand with the mistreated and maligned, challenging injustice and cruelty in the face of brute power on the political stage.
We need such strength, in our hearts, communities and the public square.