When I welcomed first-year students at convocation this year, I told them Harvard was more than a place; it was an idea. The same could be said for our beloved country. At a time when all of us are trying to comprehend the incomprehensible, it is worth remembering the ideals that this country represents. President Franklin Roosevelt summarized them well in what he described as the Four Freedoms:
Freedom of speech
Freedom from want
Freedom from fear
Freedom of worship
At times like this, we need to recommit ourselves to these ideals. While we all may feel powerless in the face of such senseless violence, we are not.
We can vote, and vote for people who will unite us, not divide us.
We can respond to acts of hate by committing ourselves to doing good deeds for others (mitzvot in Hebrew) and acts of loving kindness (gimelut chasidim).
And we can reach out to the most marginalized in our society. As Dr. King reminded us, injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. The heinous act committed in Pittsburgh yesterday was not just a crime against Jews, although it certainly was that. It was also a crime against all humanity; a crime against all who care about social justice; a crime against all people of faith.
These are difficult times in this country. But we have been through difficult times before. In seeking wisdom, I went back to arguably the most difficult, most divisive time in our history—the Civil War. I would like to quote Abraham Lincoln from his first inaugural address:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
It is time for each of us to seek the better angels of our nature.
Let us begin.
These remarks were given at Harvard Hillel on Sunday, October 28, 2018.