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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