It feels like we are still living in the shadow of Wednesday’s event in the Capitol. Seeing secret service agents with their guns drawn, defending Congress, was shocking; watching elected officials and their aides cowering behind chairs was painful, and seeing the brazen way in which these terrorists and criminals pushed past and ignored the police was frightening. That day I found myself navigating between feelings of fear, sadness, and anger—it was overwhelming.
I could not believe the way in which these violent criminals demonstrated a sense of entitlement to push past law enforcement officers, to disrespect the institutions and symbols of our government, and to commit crimes in broad daylight. I couldn’t help but think about what the reaction might have been had the protestors’ skin color been different; we unfortunately know that there is a double standard. And then, as a Jew, it was painfully clear to see that the anti-Semites were out in force. One man wore a sweatshirt that had emblazoned on it the words “Camp Auschwitz,” while another had a shirt that read 6MWE (initials for “6 million wasn’t enough”).
These are the people who were storming our Capitol, subverting democracy, and promoting a white supremacist agenda that threatens us all. Some who were there may object to that depiction, but when you find yourself standing next to the person wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” or a 6MWE shirt, you must ask yourself about the company you are keeping. If you stand shoulder to shoulder with them, you encourage their behavior. If you defend their right to protest and invade the Capitol, you encourage their agenda. If you say to the crowd, “I love you,” you give them your support.
The events of Wednesday were shocking, but after all the dangerous words and rhetoric, the lies and incitement, they were also completely predictable. If there is one lesson we must take away from the events of last week, it is to finally and fully learn the lesson that words matter. Our leaders, politicians, and influencers stoked the flames of hatred, encouraged distrust of our institutions, and laid the ground for Wednesday’s events. Words were the match that ignited a fire that engulfed the Capitol.
All too often we excuse words as “just talk”; we imagine they emerge from a person’s mouth and essentially fall to the ground. But we know that once spoken, words have a tremendous power to harm, to cause destruction, and to ignite flames that burn long after the words are spoken. In our Jewish tradition, words are the very bedrock of creation—God spoke, and the words became real. It’s the same with our words.
While Wednesday was a dark day in this country’s history, we should also recognize that once order was restored to the Capitol, senators and congresspeople returned to the democratic process; they finished the work that had been interrupted—democracy prevailed. Watching that evening, from both sides of the aisle, we heard words that condemned the actions of the criminals who had been in the chamber hours earlier. Words that warned of the danger that these people pose to our country. Words that sought to rise above political divisions to heal what so clearly has been broken. For the first time in what feels like years, we had politicians from both sides of the aisle united; the riotous mob brought senators and congresspeople together in their opposition and condemnation of what had happened earlier in the day.
In the Torah, we read about God at the Burning Bush; while it burned with fire, it was not consumed. As we react to Wednesday’s events, it is easy to be consumed by the emotions of fear, sadness, and anger. But we cannot allow ourselves to be consumed; we must respond like that bush in the wilderness, burning hot with a commitment to make things better, and refusing to be consumed by the fire that surrounds us.
For me, personally, in the space of just over two months, I became a citizen, voted in the election, and witnessed what looked like an attempted coup. People asked if I regretted my decision to become a citizen or if I was having second thoughts. The answer is unequivocally “no.” I did not join because I thought it would be easy; I pledged myself because I believed and still believe in the vision of America to which we are aspiring. As Jews, I don’t believe that we one day simply enter the Promised Land as a specific place on earth. I believe that our obligation each and every day is to do what we can to make our world and our country a Promised Land.
We have seen what destructive words can do. But we also know that words can heal, words can repair what was once broken, words can bring us back together. Wednesday was a dark day where we saw the danger of words inciting hate and violence, but it was also a day that ended with words of healing, words of unity, and words of comfort. We have the power to choose the words that we will add to the American story to ensure that we reach up to our highest ideals, follow our best inclinations, and recreate America as a beacon of democracy, promise, and hope.
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