On Tuesday night, as I listened to the presidential debate, there was a moment when I audibly gasped. A lot of the debate felt predictable or uncomfortable or, at times, demoralizing, but this moment made my blood run cold. There were five words uttered that were all over the airwaves this past week, and they need our attention. And they need to be taken seriously. And they need a response.
When asked if he would denounce White Supremacy and White Supremacist organizations, our sitting president instead said about the organization called Proud Boys, “Stand back and stand by.” If Proud Boys are unknown to you as an organization, then let me share that they are named a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, they are self-declared western-chauvinists, and they were among the neo-Nazi organizations who marched in the streets in Charlottesville chanting the deeply Anti-Semitic “Jews will not replace us.” That march resulted in the death of Heather Heyer. Proud Boys are also anti-immigrant, homophobic, Islamophobic, and openly racist.
“Stand back and stand by,” were the words this president chose, instead of “I denounce all White supremacist groups, actions, and ideologies.” Instead, of “Of course I do, don’t insult me with that question.” “Stand back and stand by.” Many have since suggested that “stand by” was shorthand for “stand by for my orders.” We can disagree about what he intended—if it was a slip of the tongue or a misuse of a phrase. Certainly, in the days that followed, the president half-heartedly retracted this statement, suggesting he has never heard of the group being discussed. But if we are wondering if his message was received by the Proud Boys, there is already merchandise bearing these words and an insignia declaring: Standing by, Mr. President. I shudder at what the members of this hate group whose upper levels are achieved by engaging in violence, believe they are standing by to do.
Tonight, we begin the holiday of Sukkot. On this holiday, we traditionally read the Book of Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes. The third chapter begins with a familiar phrase. Lakol z’man v’et, l’chol chefetz tachat hashamaim. A season is set for everything. A time for every experience under heaven. The text continues: eit laledet v’eit lamoot. I time to be born and a time to die. Eit la’ta’at v’eit la’akor natua. A time to plant and a time to uproot that which has been planted. I was never sure what this second phrase meant. When would it be a time to uproot what had been planted?
But I’m learning. From this moment in history, I’m learning. Over the past many years now, we have had leaders who, taking the microphone and the sacred platform they are given, have decided to sow seeds of hate into our fertile ground. What do these seeds look like? Calling immigrants rapists and murders. A seed of hate grows into suspicion and resentment for those who would come seeking asylum. Calling Black people thugs or excusing unchecked police violence on black bodies. A seed of hate that grows into feelings of dominance and fear. Saying Jews are only in it for themselves, Muslims are in secret cabals, gay people have agendas for educating children, the poor want to be paid not to work. Seeds of falseness and hate that grow poisonous fruit which makes our nation sick when we consume it. Seeds that grow into enmity between neighbors, and a seething readiness to believe that the “other” is the enemy.
I believe The Proud Boys heard these words as a call to arms because for many years now, the seeds of hatred have been sown into the ground beneath our feet. And when we plant seeds of hatred, nurture them, water them, tend them and allow them to grow, then what ripens is a poisonous and toxic bounty.
Lakol z’man v’eit. Eit la’ta’at v’eit la’akor natua. A time to plant and a time to uproot that which has been planted. Dangerous leaders have planted dangerous seeds. I believe it is long past time to uproot what has been planted. These seeds that are meant to divide us, make us afraid of one another, name winners and losers. Uproot them, so we might begin to replant something in their place. I won’t pretend that it will be easy.
This summer, I’ve had the chance to spend time in the Catskills where there is a garden. When we arrived, I thought I’d help by getting the garden ready to plant tomatoes and zucchinis and maybe flowers and herbs. I took this rusty sharp tool with a circle at the bottom and sharp protrusions and I dropped it into a lightly weedy part of the earth and I turned hard and the tuft of overgrowth came right up. And then I did it a few inches over and then over again. Until a whole line had been turned over and underneath, the soil looked fresh and rich. Then I began a second line, where the weeds were dense and thick and deep. And I jammed the tool down and twisted. Nothing moved. I did it again and again and nothing. And eventually, the tool bent and broke and my hands were torn by my effort and my back was wrenched out of place and the weeds remained just as they had been.
It is so hard to uproot what has been planted when it has grown so densely and the roots are deep. But Sukkot is also a harvest holiday. Agriculturally, we are celebrating the time of year when families would go out into the fields and reap the fruits and vegetables and grains that they had spent a whole season planting and tending until the produce was in their hands and, relieved, they knew they could feed their families through the winter with such a beautiful and healthy yield. Sukkot reminds us that what we harvest has everything to do with the seeds that we plant and how we nurture what sprouts from them.
Today, we find ourselves eating toxic, contaminated fruit, and we can feel it making our body and our body politic sick. But it does not have to be this way. We, the people, are in charge of this land. If we work together now—not one of us alone, it is too hard—but together across lines of difference—to uproot the plants of hatred that have sprouted, getting our knees dirty and our hands full of the overgrowth, we can plant instead that which we want most to be harvesting by next year.
The seeds of trust. Of compassion. Seeds of seeing each other as created in the image of God. Seeds of possibility, an impatience for justice. Seeds of listening, of repenting, and repairing. Seeds of daring to believe in the humanity of most people. The seeds of seeing white skin as equal to black skin and brown skin and every hue of beautiful body and every belief of pure heart. Imagine what we might harvest if we do not allow the seeds of hate to grow in our fields, to produce bitter fruit that we then gather up, cook for our family and feed to our children. I have no interest in feeding my child that toxic hate. I want her to feast on words of sweetness.
This election season, which is today ever more confusing, is a chance to sow seeds of sweetness. To show up at peaceful protests. To sing and pray and wear masks to protect each other, to call and text people and tell them how much their vote and their voice really matters. To listen to people’s stories, to tell our own, to fight powerfully, and non-violently against voter suppression in all the ways we know how—with our pockets, with our time, and by exercising our own right to vote. To believe that we are the architects of our field and to make the soil inhospitable to hate is to sow the seeds of a healthy and robust harvest.
There is a time for every purpose under heaven. It’s time to uproot what has been planted and to plant the seeds of the future that we have the power to shape. May we grow what is nourishing, beautiful, and sweet.
Shabbat shalom and Chag Sameach.