"Jews must have two qualities. They must 'stretch forth their wings on high,' always striving upward toward higher levels, and they must have 'their faces looking at one another,' always seeing the distress of others and willing to help."
–Sadeh Margalit, quoted in Itturei Torah, 3:215
This has been a painful week, and a hopeful one. In Copenhagen this week, a gunman killed an innocent man at a "free speech" event that featured a cartoonist who had previously drawn a picture of the Muslim prophet Muhammed. He then went to a synagogue and killed another innocent man, a volunteer who stood guard to protect the Jewish community there.
In my own community of Rhode Island this week, someone vandalized a Muslim school by spray painting insults on the walls of the building. The primary victims in this case were the innocent children who attend a school that has been noted for its community spirit and kindness.
The spray paint on the facade of the Islamic School of Rhode Island already has been washed away, but the fear in the hearts of the school's children will stay within them for as long as they breathe. The life of Dan Uzan, the 37-year-old volunteer murdered in Copenhagen, is gone forever. The tears and heartache of his family and community also are etched on their souls for lifetimes.
These crimes were the product of hatred, a refusal to see another human being as anything but an enemy. In such eyes, even a child appears to be worthy of any pain that can be inflicted upon him or her. But this is not the Jewish way of seeing human beings.
At the center of the holiest place in the world, we learn in the book of Exodus, there is a throne upon which rests the Presence of the Blessed Holy One. Judaism does not countenance anything like a graven image to represent God, so what did the ancients Hebrews put in the place of the throne? In the Holy of Holies, they put a golden box containing words of Torah that taught them all human beings are created in the image of God.
On top of the box, they placed two golden cherubs with their wings outstretched and their faces looking at one another. This teaches us that we should always lift ourselves beyond the limitations we experience in life. It teaches us that we should always be willing to look into the face of others and see their humanity.
In response to the attack on the synagogue in Copenhagen, Muslims in the Norwegian city of Oslo this week are surrounding their community's synagogue on Shabbat in a gesture of protection. They are lifting themselves up from their fears and looking into the faces of Jews and seeing their own Norwegian brothers and sisters. Here in Rhode Island, a broad coalition of faith leaders from the Christian and Jewish communities came together the day after the vandalism of the Muslim school to vow their support and symbolic protection.
I know that there are people in the Muslim community and in the Jewish community who fear that supporting members of another faith will put them at risk. Those are reasonable fears. There are people who will question whether it is their role to support members of a different faith that has not always been so friendly to them. That is also reasonable. The higher truth, though, is that it is exactly at moments like this that we should spread out our wings and strive to be our best. We are at our best, as human beings, and as Jews, when we are willing to look into the face of another and to recognize the image of God.