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17 April 2012

Why The Laramie Project?

Why The Laramie Project?
In 1993, five years before Matthew Shepard was beaten and left to die, a rock was thrown through the window of a home displaying a menorah in Billings, Montana.  The people of Billings rose in silent protest and paper menorahs appeared in windows all over town.
Nothing much changed for Jewish families in Billings in the aftermath of this event. Nothing much except the reassurance that there were people in their town who had a deep capacity for compassion.
Sometimes nothing much is a whole lot.
The most straightforward statement of the principle of compassion in the Torah is Leviticus 19:18; “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  This ethic of reciprocity, this “golden rule,” is said to exist in every world religion.  
And that’s fitting because the question of how to treat others is a universal human question.  In a Jewish context, the ethical approach to compassion is referred to as “accomplishing a mitzvah.”   In its most literal meaning, to accomplish a mitzvah is to carry out one of the 613 Commandments of Sinai. But Jewish texts and teachings take the notion of a mitzvah further; any act motivated by spontaneous kindness toward another person can be considered the moral equivalent of one of the original Commandments. Translated this way, mitzvah means “good deed.”
In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Ben Azzai is cited as saying, “Run to perform even a minor mitzvah, and flee from sin; for one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, and one sin leads to another sin; for the consequence of a mitzvah is a mitzvah, and the consequence of a sin is a sin.”
Run to perform even a minor mitzvah.  Sometimes nothing much is a whole lot.
The problems of the world are huge and overwhelming.  Watching the evening news can be bewildering; story after story about the human capacity for hate, greed and violence.  Hate is complex.  It’s big.  It can seem unconquerable.  The power of The Laramie Project lies in the fact that the plays don’t gloss over that complexity, that largeness, that invincibility.  The Laramie Project plays face it all head on.  They don’t pretend to heal the wound with a contrived set of pat answers; instead they rip the scab forcefully off the wound and leave the audience free to decide how best to heal.
Perhaps one way to heal is to walk out of this theater newly resolved to do good deeds; to re-enter the world determined to find ways to accomplish a mitzvah.  Even tiny good deeds can make a difference; holding open a door, smiling at a passerby. And if you pay enough attention to the world around you to smile or hold open a door, chances are you’ll be well-placed to notice opportunities for more good deeds. 
Sometimes nothing much is a whole lot. 
There’s a story in the Talmud in which a young man walks up to Rabbi Hillel and promises to convert to Judaism if the Rabbi will teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel lifts one foot off the ground and replies, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your comrade; this is the whole Torah in its entirety; the rest is commentary: go learn.”
Go.  Learn. 
And, as Plato said, be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

Krista Lang Blackwood
Director of Cultural Arts
Jewish Community Center of Kansas City