All Can Do Something

Comments Delivered by
Rabbi Vered L. Harris, RJE,
on the Occasion of Human Rights Day
at the Oklahoma State Capitol, Oklahoma City

On December 10th, we were proud to honor some of the everyday human rights heroes who walk among us in Oklahoma. One of the recipients was Rabbi Vered L. Harris, RJE of Temple B’nai Israel. We thank her for her continuing human rights work in the state of Oklahoma. Her comments captured the essence of Human Rights, and we would like to share them with you.

I am the rabbi, or spiritual leader, at Temple B’nai Israel. Founded in 1903, we are proud to be the longest operating Jewish house of worship in Oklahoma. Thank you Wilfredo Santos-Rivera and the Oklahoma Universal Human Rights Alliance for honoring Temple B’nai Israel and me with this award.

Today is the 4th day of the holiday of Hanukkah. During this Festival of Lights Jews remember a time when our ancestors were persecuted for refusing to give up our heritage and assimilate into the larger society. Our own experiences over the past 4,000 years demand we be sensitive to the plights of others.

Over 2,000 years ago the Jewish sage Hillel used to say: (Mishnah, Pirkei Avot 2:5*)

“…a boor cannot fear sin,”

Because he is so wrapped up in only himself he doesn’t notice how his actions ripple out and can hurt others,

“nor can an unlearned person be pious.”

Because attainment of religious heights requires deep, thoughtful study

“A bashful person cannot learn,”

Because asking questions and speaking up are imperative to true learning,

“nor can an impatient one teach.” 

Because to affect others we must be patient with their journeys and overcoming their, as well as our own, ignorance.

An artist’s depiction of Hillel the Elder

Hillel continued: “Those who are occupied excessively with business will not become wise.”

Because wisdom involves knowing the intimacies and the breadth of the human condition,

And finally:

“In a place where there [is no humanity], endeavor to be [humane].”

How sad that there are many media reports today that show us lots of humans, but not a lot of humanity. What an opportunity for each of us to step up and fulfill Hillel’s challenge!

This means we must condemn and fight and support solutions for libelous words against Muslims, discrimination against African-Americans and Blacks, inadequate educational opportunities for those in poverty, food insecurity and hunger, homelessness, disregard for indigenous cultures, insufficient medical care, violence against women, senseless shootings… Don’t let our limited time limit your list.

Also in ancient Jewish texts we are told: it is not your duty to complete the work of making this world better, but neither are you free to desist from it (Pirkei Avot 2:16*). None can do everything, but all can do something.

May the accomplishments of the individuals in this room collectively inspire our legislators and civic leaders to consult the spirit and the letter of the Declaration of Human Rights. May we see the day when, as the prayerbook in my tradition says, “we are loved, each of us, for no other reason save we are human.” And may we each approach our neighbors with that same intent of making their world better, because, surely, this is how we fulfill the highest purpose of our humanity.

*  The citation in Pirkei Avot may differ according to which publication of the Mishnah one is using.

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