Yes, its true. An era is ending.
Jon Stewart, who hosted the Daily Show—the “fake news” program on Comedy Central—for the past 17 years, announced he was stepping down yesterday. Jon Stewart, the Jewish kid from New Jersey whose wit and satire helped shed light on the hypocrisies of government and society, who became for a generation a primary news source, who though humor took on the most serious of subjects, is moving on to new projects.
At seemingly the same time, NBC announced that Brian Williams, the host of NBC Nightly News for the past 10 years will be suspended without pay for six months after it was recently revealed that he had misrepresented facts of a helicopter incident while he was covering the war in Iraq in 2003. While he had claimed that he was travelling on a helicopter that was brought down by a rocket propelled grenade, it recently came to light that he was not entirely truthful in his account.
In a way, both of these stories can point to the blurring of the lines between news and entertainment. Stewart, who always claimed that he was not meant to be a “real” news outlet and was anchoring an entertainment show, nevertheless provided real social commentary that both reported and reflected the zeitgeist.
At the same time, Williams, who is one of the most well respected news anchors today since taking over the anchor chair from Tom Brokaw a decade ago, played off that serious persona to comic and entertaining effects. He made the rounds on Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock and as a frequent guest on the Daily Show. One wonders if his attraction to the world of entertainment led him to embellish the facts of his experiences.
The “real news” pursues entertainment, while the “fake news” pursues seriousness. As I joked on Facebook yesterday commenting on the parallel announcements, “Maybe Jon Stewart has been tapped to take over NBC Nightly News.”
But it would be too easy to draw these dichotomies. It is hard to say what is “the news” and what is “entertainment.” The elements of both are found in the other. Hard news is conveyed in entertaining ways, either though colorful graphics and flashy presentation, and entertainment sometimes reflects and comments on real events.
And perhaps we need a mix of both; the Torah tells us as much. In the weekly Torah reading this week, portion Mishpatim, Moses is on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah from God. God enumerates all of the different laws (“mishpatim”) and practices that the people are to follow. We then read, in Exodus 24:3-8,
Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of God and all the rules; and all the people answered with one voice, saying, “All the things that God has commanded we will do!” Moses then wrote down all the commands of God. Early in the morning, he set up an altar at the foot of the mountain, with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel. He designated some young men among the Israelites, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed bulls as offerings of well-being to God. Moses took one part of the blood and put it in basins, and the other part of the blood he dashed against the altar. Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All that God has spoken we will faithfully do!” Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that God now makes with you concerning all these commands.”
The laws are serious. But the laws are delivered with pomp and spectacle. The Torah is telling us something about ourselves that Stewart and Williams confirm: we like our news, and we like our entertainment. And indeed, we can’t have one without the other.
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The recent Sony hacking scandal raised an uproar about the movie The Interview with Seth Rogen and James Franco. But it also caused an uproar about James Bond.
Emails leaked as part of that hack reveal that the co-chair of Sony Pictures believes that Idris Elba should be the next actor to play British agent James Bond, a role currently occupied by Daniel Craig.
The character of James Bond, the suave spy originally created in a series of novels by Ian Fleming, has been a fixture of the movies since Sean Connery originated the role in Dr. No in 1962. Elba, who is known for his work on The Wire, is black. Every previous actor who played the role is white.
This raised some hackles, especially as voiced by conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh. In reacting to this, Limbaugh insisted that Elba could not play Bond because Bond, as written, is white. Limbaugh’s comments received their own reaction.
This is not the only issue of race and casting to make news recently. Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, a retelling of the biblical narrative of Moses, received criticism for its casting choices, since white actors portray the main roles of Moses and Pharaoh (and others).
Interestingly it seems that the same people who would criticize Limbaugh and affirm Elba as James Bond would be the same to object to Moses being played by Christian Bale—that it would be OK for a black man to portray a traditionally white character, but not OK for a white actor to play a character who historically would not have been white. But perhaps there is not much difference.
People who lived in the ancient Near East may not have looked like Christian Bale. Yet, the book of Exodus, which we began in our weekly Torah reading last week, is not a history book about the ancient Near East. When we read the biblical text we do not read it looking for details about the past, but rather for our present. We read the stories for the lessons that underlie them; the characters portrayed in the stories are not meant to be actual people, but archetypes that transcend time and place.
And although James Bond is a contemporary character, and although Ian Fleming did write the Bond character with a particular racial profile in mind, that character has also become an archetype.
Therefore, when it comes to the movies, there is no one way to portray these archetypal characters: Moses and Bond could be portrayed by either white or black actors.
We have recently once again confronted issues of race in this country, following several instances of black men being killed by white police officers. And these conversations about Moses and Bond, about race and the movies, are part of this larger issue. Our views about race and the movies are not about the characters themselves, but about ourselves. So let’s continue to have these conversations.
Since I moved to the Pacific Northwest a decade ago, people ask me how I deal with all the rain. Yes, it does rain a lot, but that doesn’t bother me. What did surprise me when I first moved here, and I still have trouble getting used to, is the early nightfall in winter. The reduced sunlight in winter feels very pronounced in this corner of the US, with sunset coming around 4 p.m. in the dead of winter.
And while the routines of life continue normally, there is one slight adjustment I make to my schedule in winter: I turn on my “happy light.”
A “happy light” is a colloquial term to describe a full-spectrum lamp, a lamp that gives off far more light than a standard lamp. It is used to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder, a documented condition wherein, specifically during winter, people will exhibit symptoms such as fatigue, lack of energy and concentration, tendency to overeat, and others. Since it is connected to decreased sun exposure, the lamp provides “light therapy” whereby exposure to the light is meant to counteract this absence of sunlight.
Now, do I clinically have Seasonal Affective Disorder? I don’t know, but I know during winter I tend to exhibit the aforementioned symptoms of fatigue and less motivation. And does the happy light work? I don’t know either, but it does feel good to get more light exposure during these dark times.
To use a happy light, one simply turns it on while carrying out normal functions. I usually put it on in the morning, so it is on while I have my morning coffee, fix breakfast for my kids and prepare lunches. The light is not meant to be used functionally as a normal lamp—i.e., lighting up a room or used for reading—rather one is meant to look upon it indirectly, and by doing so, maximize one’s exposure to the increased light in order to affect an internal change.
Today is the first day of Hanukkah. Last night we lit the first candle of this eight-day festival of lights. While we celebrate the historical story of the Maccabees and their victory over the ruling Greeks in the 2nd century BCE, and the rededication of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem to Jewish use, it is not a surprise that we celebrate a festival involving light during the darkest time of the year. Hanukkah overlaps with Rosh Hodesh Tevet, the celebration of the new month of Tevet. And as Rosh Hodesh is marked by the new moon (that is, no moon) and this month includes the winter solstice, one night of Hanukkah falls on the darkest night of the month that is closest to the longest night of the year.
So we create light to combat the effects of the darkness, and not just the physical darkness. Lighting the menorah is a form of “light therapy” to combat the spiritual darkness that surrounds us. Like the “happy light,” the Hanukkah candles are not meant to be functional or used practically, but are meant to be gazed upon to maximize one’s exposure to the increased light in order to affect an internal change.
How does it work? First, light the menorah. And when you look at the illuminated Hanukkah menorah, ask yourself these questions: What is the darkness that brings you down? Where in your life do you need illumination? What broken aspects of our society need to be exposed and brought to light? In what parts of your life do you burn bright?
Asking these questions and more will allow the light of the menorah to penetrate your inner being, And that should make us happy.
The minor outbreak of the Ebola virus on American soil is fueling our fears and concerns, and its no surprise. So many of the apocalyptic visions in our contemporary popular imagination—from the Andromeda Strain to Planet of the Apes to any number of zombie movies—have to do with the threat to humanity from microscopic organisms, and to see these scenarios play out in real life (an infected nurse on an airplane!) fills us with end-times fear.
The extent to which we should be afraid has been brought into question, though. The risk is isolated, and, as it’s been pointed out, there are many other threats to public health that are more prevalent. Plus, our own fears tend to neglect the fact that this is not a new disease, and that it has been ravaging African populations for some time.
This week’s Torah portion is an early example of this apocalyptic fear: the story of Noah and the Flood. The story goes that in the generations following Adam and Eve and the Garden, God gets upset at the evil that humanity has brought in the world, and so decides to reboot. God commits to destroy the world by flood, but chooses Noah to build an ark to save himself and his family, and be humanity’s surviving remnant (along with all the animal species).
Why Noah? The text says, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his age. Noah walked with God.” (Genesis 6:9)—a seemingly positive assessment. Yet later commentators will see this as a back-handed complement. A midrash picks up on the use of the qualifier “in his age:” While Noah was righteous in his age, that doesn’t mean he would have been considered righteous in any age. Sure, he was righteous, but in the sinful generation that prompted God to destroy the world, that isn’t saying much.
The commentators also pick up on the up on the use of the phrase “Noah walked with God.” Another statement of praise until you compare it with the biblical patriarch Abraham who is described as walking before God. (Gen. 17:1) The midrash compares this to two children of a king—one grown and one young. The young child must stay close and walks with the king, the elder takes the lead and walks before him.
So what is the difference between Abraham and Noah? Both are called by God to join in a covenant, and both are given special responsibilities to carry on God’s work on earth. The most striking difference is their reactions to the news from God that a destruction is imminent.
Sometime after the story of the flood, Abraham is told by God about the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah due to their sinfulness. (See Genesis 18. While God promised not to destroy the entire world by flood, targeted destruction by fire is apparently still permitted.) Abraham immediately protests, and argues with God to spare the city for the sake of the innocent within.
Contrast this to Noah’s reaction when told about the flood earlier: silence. Noah retreats to himself, builds the ark and sets out to save his family. How he feels about those condemned to die is unknown, but in any event, the news does not prompt any action or protest on his part.
Noah is faced with news of destruction and his response is to save himself. Abraham is faced with news of destruction and his response is to seek to save others.
So, we should fear the Ebola virus. It is a deadly disease and we need to take all the measures necessary to prevent its spread. At the same time, let’s fear the Ebola virus for the challenge it presents to us. That we may, in face of a real and potential threat, behave like Noah: concerned solely for our own welfare, indifferent to the suffering of others and silent in the face of devastating risks to humanity.
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A minor cultural kerfuffle flared up recently about airline seats and the question of whether to recline or not.
On a United Airlines flight last month between Newark and Denver, a passenger installed a device called a “Knee Defender” which prevented the woman in front of him from reclining her seat. He was asked to remove it, he refused, flight attendants got involved, tensions escalated, the woman threw water in the man’s face and the flight was diverted to Chicago and passengers removed.
Now, I think we can all agree that the water throwing and the fighting is unacceptable behavior. The more subtle question that this episode raised is whether reclining one’s seat is acceptable behavior.
The simple answer is, yes. Sure, it cuts down on the legroom of the person behind you, and makes it more difficult for that person to use the tray table and especially a laptop (the complaint of the man on the Denver flight). But reclining is permissible, it is legal. After all, the seats are designed to recline. One can say that if the airlines did not want you to recline, they would not have designed the seats like that in the first place.
But that still leaves the question: even if it is our right to recline, should we?
Me, I’m a non-recliner. I will only recline my seat if the seat behind me is empty. And I don’t recline for the simple fact that that I don’t like it if the person in front of me reclines. The reclining-seat issue is for me one that is an illustration of Rabbi Hillel’s maxim from the Talmud when he summed up the entire Torah while his student was standing on one foot: “That which is hurtful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”
There is a larger value at work here in the reclining-seat debate. There are a great many things in life that are within the realm of acceptable behavior, things that are legal, things that are by right ours to do. But just because we can do something, does not mean we should do it. Yes, I can recline my seat on an airplane. It is my right. But it does not mean I need to exercise it.
There is even a Jewish legal (halachic) principle that our tradition identifies known as lifnim meshurat hadin. Literally meaning “within the line of the law,” it defines extralegal behavior one demonstrates by acting in accordance with the spirit of a law and not just the letter, or by forgoing a privilege one is due for the sake of the benefit of another. When one acts lifnim meshurat hadin, one acts with compassion and kindness towards another, taking into concern the needs and desires of the other and not just of oneself.
Reclining your seat on an airplane is an example of this. Maybe it’s a minor example, but an example nonetheless. And shouldn’t we be just as attentive to a minor case as a major one? Minor acts can beget major acts. If we are not mindful of the impact of the small things, we are sure to grow in our callousness and insensitivity. And truly it is not a small matter when we forgo what we are due for the sake of another.
Tonight begins Rosh Hashanah and the New Year. And as we mark Rosh Hashanah we also begin the period known as the “10 Days of Teshuvah” which bring us through Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. We examine the ways we personally have erred over the past year, and it is also a time to examine our interpersonal relationships and how we wish to be with one another.
So I offer this as a kavannah (intention) for this year. If your actions, even though socially acceptable and permissible, infringe on another even slightly, maybe make a different choice. Think through all the consequences of your actions, no matter how minor. Try to maximize the benefit of all those involved, and not just your own. Ask yourself, even though I could do this, should I?
And this year, leave your seatbacks in their full, upright position.
Apparently yesterday was “National Dog Day.”
I had not heard of National Dog Day before, but it was created 10 years ago as an effort to bring attention to dogs who need to find good homes, to celebrate pet dogs and to recognize the role working dogs play in the lives of many.
What I do know is that yesterday and today are Rosh Hodesh Elul, the beginning of the new Jewish month of Elul. Rosh Hodesh Elul brings us one step closer to the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and ushers in a time in which we turn our spiritual energy to reflection and repentance (teshuvah), to making new plans and making amends.
But Rosh Hodesh Elul has an animal connection as well, as found in the ancient Jewish text, the Mishnah, tractate Rosh Hashanah 1:1, which states that there are four new years in the Jewish calendar: 1 Tishrei, which is our new year of Rosh Hashanah; 15 Shevat, traditionally used to determine the age of trees for tithing, now our environmental holiday of Tu Bishvat (literally, “15 Shevat); 1 Nissan, the month Passover falls and a date used in the past to determine the length of a king’s tenure; and 1 Elul.
The first of Elul was set aside as the “new year of the animals,” a time in which the age of animals was determined for the purpose of tithing. This is not in practice today, but this day and its connection to animals is worth reclaiming. We can use the first of Elul to honor animals and the role they play in our lives, especially those domesticated animals that share our homes. (In my congregation I perform a “Jewish blessing of the animals” ritual in my community on or around the first of Elul.)
And there is a deeper connection between living with animals and the work of teshuvah and self-improvement we do during this season.
I grew up in a home without animals, but currently my menagerie includes two dogs, seven cats, one fish, one guinea pig and five chickens. I’m not sure how exactly I got to this point, but my house is definitely full of animal energy. And moving from having no animals to being surrounded by them has been a challenge and a growth process.
There is much that living with animals has taught me: feeding and walking my animals has taught me compassion for those who are dependent upon me and the responsibility to care for others. Maintaining the fish tank has taught me about our power to protect and maintain whole ecosystems. Raising my chickens has taught me much about the cycle of food and interdependence. I have learned humility, patience, boundary setting, companionship and more. I have learned, though my interaction with animals, to be a better human.
These are important lessons to learn as we move forward through Elul. And to wake us up to the process of self-reflection we blow the shofar (ram’s horn) every day of Elul, starting on Rosh Hodesh. Thus another animal connection to this day.
The question for us, on this Rosh Hodesh Elul, is can we hear what our animal companions—and the shofar—are calling us to do?
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