Rabbi Michael White
Friends or Foes?
During this summer’s pilgrimage to the Clark Art Institute, a magnificent museum nestled in the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts, I found myself drawn to Fredric Remington’s painting, “Friends or Foes?” The piece’s central character is a Native American scout peering down across a snow filled valley at an encampment below. He leans forward, his rigid body filled with obvious anxiety, and he knows that his life depends on how the encampment perceives him, as a friend or a foe.
Remington writes that his painting’s context is an increasingly isolated, dwindling Native American population. They posed no threat; they only
hoped to survive. And yet at every turn across the land they inhabited for centuries, they lived in fear.
As we approach the Jewish year 5779, our country’s current mood is also dominated by fear and suspicion. The old norms of collective trust, civility and honest debate have evaporated. Our nation faces enormous challenges, and yet our discourse is often laced with unfounded, shallow judgments, deceitful castigation bordering on bigotry and drummed up fear, creating a collective dark energy that leads to the sadistic separation of parents from children at the Southern Border and a dangerous spike in anti-Semitism; vandalism, fear and violence directed towards people of color.
As we prepare to gather for our High Holy Day season, our world hinges on how we respond to
Remington’s timeless question: “Friends or foes?” Will we address our nation’s most sensitive and complex problems from a place of hyperbolic fear, or with generous, empathetic hearts? Can we protect our families as we must, and also realize that our neighbors from different lands and cultures want to live side-by-side with us in peaceful coexistence? Our High Holy Day prayerbook speaks of the books of life and death opened at this sacred season, and we Jews, humanity’s perennial victims of irrational fear and prejudice, know best that the answers to these questions are matters of life and death.
Rabbi Michael A. White