We have a wonderful family in our congregation wherein the mother is from the Philippines and the father is Jewish. The four boys in the family are being raised as Jews.
Last week, the 13-year-old son, whose Bar Mitzvah Torah portion is from Leviticus, revised his sermon.
It is telling that these are his thoughts concerning recent events. In it, he is interpreting the “strange fire” of Nadav and Abihu from Leviticus 10.
“We have seen a lot of bias, bigotry and hatred in the world recently,” he said. “For example, throughout this pandemic, Asian American citizens have been harassed and assaulted for ‘spreading the coronavirus.’
“In response, signs have been seen all around New York City and San Francisco, saying ‘We aren’t making you sick’; ‘This is our home too’; ‘We are not your scapegoats’.
“Scapegoating is a very ‘strange fire.’ It is placing blame on people for a large number of other people’s actions. This phrase came about a long time ago with goat farmers. They kept a few fainting goats in the herd, which would be eaten when the group was attacked.
“Now, these things have been happening all over the United States. In Georgia, a man has injured and killed eight people, six of whom were Asians at massage parlors. Elsewhere, people are punched in broad daylight just because they are Asian.
“Asians are not just offended. We fear for our safety. Within the past year, there have been over 3,000 harassment cases against Asian-Americans, an increase of more than 149%!
“What was the point of this ‘strange fire?’
“I feel that there is both ‘good fire’ and a ‘strange fire.’ We have spent a lot of time talking about hate as the big ‘strange fire,’ but what would be ‘good fire’?
“For me the answer is clear. Love.
“The only way we can combat ‘strange fires’ is to not be scared of them. We need to stand against ‘strange fires.’ We need to stand up for what you believe in, support causes in person or at home.
“We can no longer afford to be bystanders. We must become upstanders. We must help spread compassion and justice. We must help spread love. We must fight fire with fire!”
If there are Asians in your congregation, this Bar Mitzvah speech indicates that now is the time to reach out to them with sympathy and love.
Around 3,300 years ago, the Jewish people experienced liberation from Egyptian bondage, and 3,300 years later, the forces of bias, bigotry and hate are still very much with us.
During the last four years, according to the Anti-Defamation League, hate crimes have increased dramatically.
As we sit down at our Passover seders (meal), this year, let us not only celebrate our own freedom but let us also realize that our freedom, this year, seems incomplete as long as there are others suffering not only from the COVID-19 virus, but also from the virus of hate.
At the end of the seder, Jews say, “Next year in Jerusalem – Next year in a world of peace!”
This year, we should add, “Next year in a world free from hate; a world of compassion, understanding, health and peace.”
To my fellow Jews, a happy and joyous Passover.
To my Christian friends, a blessed Easter!
To everyone else, I wish a wonderful spring filled with renewal and blessing!
Rabbi Emeritus at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he served as rabbi from 1995 to 2021. Guttman is a dual citizen of the United States and Israel.