The following is the winning essay in the 2016 Enlighten America essay contest, sponsored by the Achim/Gate City Lodge of B’nai B’rith.
Growing up Jewish, there are two beliefs in my religion that stand out most to me. First, all people are created in G-d’s image. Second, we must treat each other the way we want to be treated. These teachings are directly related to George Washington’s letter to the Touro Synagogue in 1790.
In 1776, our country’s founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” The Declaration goes on to say that our “Creator” has endowed us with the inalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Based upon these founding concepts, similar to the centuries-old Jewish beliefs, Washington explained that our government “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
Equality, a basic concept of Judaism, comes from the belief that all people are created in G-d’s image, and since all people come from the same ancestors, Adam and Eve, we are all one family, and no person is created better than any other person. This is true, even though we may see slight differences in a person’s color, size or shape. Since we are all created in G-d’s image, all of us have value, even people who are murderers, liars, cheats, vandals and abusers.
For example, the Torah tells the story of the Hebrews’ Exodus from Egypt. The Egyptians had enslaved the Hebrews, but after the Egyptians suffered 10 plagues brought upon them by G-d, Moses convinced Pharaoh to free the Hebrews. Unfortunately, after releasing the Hebrews, Pharaoh had a change of heart and chased after them, breaking his promise to let the Hebrews go. The Egyptians chased the Hebrews into the Reed Sea, but the Hebrews made it safely to the other side of the water.
When the sea began closing back in on the Egyptians, the angels began to sing for joy, due to G-d saving the Hebrews from the evil pagan Egyptians. G-d heard the songs and responded by saying, “How dare you sing for joy when My creatures are dying!” This shows that all human lives matter.
As Jews, we are taught to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Rabbi Akiva described this as the essence of Torah. Similarly, Rabbi Hillel explained, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole Torah, the rest is just commentary. Go and study it.” These are ancient concepts, yet still applicable today.
There are some famous examples from the last 50 years of people working to make these concepts a reality in our world. One widely known advocate of human rights and equality was Martin Luther King Jr. Until he, and others like him, became the leading voices for equal rights for people of color, there was not the level of equality that we have today.
Prior to the civil rights movement of the 1950s/1960s, everything was separated based upon race. There were separate restaurants, schools, water fountains and bathrooms for “coloreds,” just because they looked different. Civil rights leaders made their point and were successful in promoting new laws to prevent discrimination. It was their fight to remind society that we are all created equal that helped make America what it is today. This struggle for equality and decency is, however, not completely over. It is still a work in progress to have completely equal rights for everyone and for people to truly “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Even though there are now laws that prevent obvious racism, discrimination still exists in other forms. Recently, new groups have arisen to bring attention to racial injustice. Organizations such as Black Lives Matter are sending the message that different groups are equal, that they should be treated with the same respect, and that their lives matter just as much as everyone else’s. In other words, society is once again being reminded of the simple words of Torah, that all people are created equal and that we should treat each other how we want to be treated.
It is odd that after all these years, racism still exists, and humanity has not learned, or chooses not to follow, the simple lessons of Torah. Perhaps the reason is because people seem to fear the unknown, or things that are different from what they are used to. Maybe it is difficult for some people to understand that these fears of people who may look slightly different are not necessary.
Until everyone can focus on each other’s similarities, instead of only seeing people’s differences, it may be difficult to completely erase all forms of racism. It may be difficult, but I believe that we are capable of eradicating racism and finally having equal rights for everyone, both under the law and in actual practice. Each of us must remember that we are all created in the image of G-d, that nobody is better than anyone else, and that we should treat each other with the same dignity and respect that we want for ourselves.
In conclusion, when Washington said that our nation “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” he meant that there is no place for disrespect, racism and inequality in our country. A nation in which every citizen will be viewed as simply an American, and judged based upon their merit and not their appearance, is what George Washington, the founders of our nation and Martin Luther King Jr. all hoped for our future. This is what I hope for too. This is the way that I will live, and this is the message that I will give to others in order to make our country a better place for everyone.
Gabriel Weiss, 14, is an eighth-grader at Atlanta Jewish Academy.