How we can upstage Billy Joel in the New Year
September 15, 2017
In the wake of the awful events in Charlottesville, Billy Joel’s fans got an inspiring surprise toward the end of his recent concert in Madison Square Garden. The singer, who does not wear his Jewish upbringing on his sleeve, came out for his encore in a black jacket with a yellow Star of David sewn on the front and back. Deservedly, Joel has received kudos in many quarters for spurning silence. By boldly wearing the startling image of the star that Nazis forced Jews to wear during the Holocaust, he was decrying anti-Semitism in particular and, by implication, racism and other forms of hate.
But Billy Joel is a celebrity. What can we do to help repair the severe divisions besetting our nation––to fulfill the ideal of tikkun olam? I believe we can do plenty. I believe we can always do more.
Take even Billy Joel, for example, who did make an indelible statement. What if instead of donning the yellow star, he had returned to his piano wearing a kippa? What a message that would have delivered: that instead of reminding his audience of anti-Semitism’s terrible toll on victims including his father’s family, he had chosen to symbolize the present and the future. The fervent, ongoing wish that Jewish traditions and values will not only survive, but thrive.
And that brings me to my main point. It is one thing to wish; it is another to do. Judaism, after all, is a tradition of deeds––of performing mitzvot.
The perfect illustration is occurring right now as we watch with sadness the massive suffering inflicted by the hurricane in Texas and wish for relief from the ravages of the storm. Yes, we wish, but what can we do? Well, we can donate money or supplies to any number of organizations offering support to the victims––including many organizations in the Jewish community. (Some individuals are even able to help in a hands-on way. I just read about Jewish summer camps in Texas being opened to provide shelter for hurricane victims and about a young Jewish man from Ohio whose organization has been on the water volunteering in rescue efforts.)
And what about the rest of the year? Times that do not convey a sense of urgency or elicit our compassion? I have a current illustration for that as well:
On August 22, the New York Times’ podcast “The Daily” profiled Derek Black, a young man born into one of the “first families” of white nationalism. As a boy in Palm Beach County, he already had a radio show aimed at youngsters that spewed bigotry and white supremacy. As a teen, he got into politics to further his cause.
Then he went to college. There, he hid his background, but after a while videos of his earlier activities surfaced at the school, and many fellow students learned of his past. One of his friends did not shun him, however. Instead, that young man, an Orthodox Jew, invited Derek to one of the Shabbat dinners he routinely held for a wide range of friends.
That was the turning point. Derek started to open his mind to others’ experiences and views. After a while, he came to see his values as all wrong and painfully turned his back on his family’s teachings. Now, though he comes across as a humble individual not out to make a name for himself, Derek has gone public with his transformation to help others.
Given the deep divisions in our country right now, many leaders have called upon us to stop demonizing people outside our belief system or political leanings and, instead, try to understand their perspectives. This is definitely something each of us can do.
It should come as no surprise to you that The Rebbe, of blessed memory, offered a beautiful example of how we can move from feelings to action: The story is told of a Jewish leader who suggested that in the days leading up to Passover the Rebbe should tell all his Chabad followers to add an extra chair, which would remain empty, at the Passover seder table. The empty chair would remind us of those missing because of the Holocaust.
The Rebbe wisely replied that, yes, he would encourage the setting of an extra chair at every seder—but to be certain to fill it with a person who would otherwise not have been at the seder. The point is that Judaism must be about what we are for, not what we are against.
So with apologies to Billy Joel, who stepped out of character to bravely wear a yellow star, he could have acted in an even more courageous way if had gone beyond harking to the past and expressed or demonstrated what we are for.
But to applaud Billy Joel further, he didn’t stop with his important, symbolic gesture at the concert. A few days later, responding to all the attention his gesture had received, he cited the renowned quote by the 18th century Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
This is the Jewish way. We are instructed that when we encounter darkness, it is our responsibility—it is a mitzvah—to light a candle, to do that extra good deed.
Rabbi Aryeh Kaltmann is the Chabad emissary in Columbus, Ohio.