From Rabbi Carl M. Perkins:

created at: 2011-01-10Yesterday, we read in the Torah about “signs and wonders” in the Land of Egypt. Afterwards, I spoke about signs and wonders in today’s world as well. 

One such wonder is representative democracy – the political system that we enjoy in the United States.  One expression of this wonder all of us witnessed this past week.  Thousands of newly elected national, state and local officials quietly replaced other officials, who turned over their offices without violence, bloodshed or resistance of any kind. In some cases (such as in Congress), power shifted peacefully from one party to another. How many people have merited the privilege of witnessing such a miracle?  We truly are a fortunate generation.
Within hours, when the news of the horrifying shooting rampage in Arizona was broadcast, some might have wondered whether I spoke too soon. 
In fact, though, I argued in my sermon that notwithstanding the recent peaceful transition of power, we must never be complacent.  For there are many who oppose liberty, and we must constantly take steps to confront them and to defend our system of government.  Apathy, I argued, is the great enemy of freedom. 
Yesterday’s assassination attempt on Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona confirms my concern.  (Six people were killed in that attack, including John Roll, a federal judge, and over a dozen were wounded. For a brief reaction by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, click here.)
The facts of this terrible attack are still being investigated.  For example, was Representative Giffords targeted because she is widely known as “the first Jewish congresswoman from Arizona” who has often proudly asserted her Jewish identity?  Her assailant once listed Mein Kampf as one of his favorite books — but his motives remain unclear. 
But one thing is clear.  This attack took place against a background of intimidation and threats of violence against politicians whose positions on certain key issues are considered “un-American.”  Among the most controversial of these issues is the 2010 health care law.  Representative Giffords voted for it, and she was explicitly targeted by the law’s opponents. 
I use the word “targeted” deliberately.   For example, for many months, the website of former Governor Sarah Palin prominently displayed a map of the United States on which twenty districts whose representatives voted for the health care bill were highlighted with cross-hairs.  One of those districts was that of Representative Giffords.  Such targetting was loudly and publically condemned — but continued unabated until the attack on Representative Giffords.  (As of yesterday, the map no longer appears on Governor Palin’s website.)
I spoke about this increasingly intimidating political climate on Shabbat Hagadol, about nine months ago.  I urge you, if you have not yet done so, to read my remarks.  (You can access them by clicking here.)
This atmosphere threatens our society’s stability.  The art of respectful disagreement, which used to be seen as a virtue, is now often ridiculed as weak and unmanly.  Disrespectful, contemptuous rhetoric is widely celebrated — as it displaces reasoned dialogue.  I decried this alarming trend from the bima last June.  (You can access my words here.)   
As Jews, we should never acquiesce in this.  Not only because we have too often been the victims of vicious speech leading to vicious action, but also because long ago our sages recognized the dangers of this kind of verbal violence.  It’s called sin’at hinam – gratuitous hatred – in Hebrew.  We have carried around with us the memory that it was because of sin’at hinam that the greatest of all classical tragedies of Jewish history, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the loss of national sovereignty in the Land of Israel, came to pass.  More than other peoples, then, we should recognize the dangers of sin’at hinam — and vow never to be complicit in its expression, much less to support or to further it.  Like Hillel and Shammai, who were said to disagree intensely yet be respectful of one another’s integrity, we too should strive to listen to our opponents while articulating our positions, and to avoid ad hominum attacks. 
President Obama has asked us to observe a moment of silence on Monday morning at 11:00 am.  I urge you to participate in this national moment of solidarity with the victims of this attack.  Let us take time to express our sorrow for the victims — and our solidarity with their families. 
Let it also be a time of heshbon ha-nefesh – soul searching – for all of us.  Wherever we stand on the political spectrum, I hope that in the wake of this attack we become more committed to opposing and condemning irresponsible rhetoric wherever we encounter it – and become more committed to pursuing civility in discourse. 
Let us do what we can to preserve our wondrous democracy, which depends so strongly on our ability to disagree non-violently and respectfully. 
May the memory of those who lives were lost remain a blessing, may God grant healing to the wounded, and may strength, comfort and support come to their families and loved ones.