You may have caught a couple of stories that have been spreading virally over blogs and Face book the last couple of weeks. Both share one theme in common – in simple and unassuming ways, ordinary people acting morally or compassionately. In the first story, a fellow traveler on a subway line caught a picture of an African-American man taking a nap on the shoulder of a white man wearing a kippah. I mention the specifics of ethnicity and religious identity here because I believe they are relevant to the impact of the story and the way it went viral. More on that in a moment. In the second story, a rabbi in New Haven bought a second hand desk and, upon taking it apart to fit it through a door at home, discovered $98,000 hidden inside it. He called the previous owner and returned to her what happened to be an inheritance that she had hidden there years ago.
Why have these two stories caught the imagination of so many? They may have particularly moved Jewish readers, pleased (or perhaps even relieved) to see a story featuring a fellow tribe member in such a positive light, but clearly these stories have spread far beyond our own community. Are we surprised to see such acts of kindness, compassion and honesty in a world where we have come to expect only self-interest and getting ahead? That might be the cynic’s response, but I think there’s more to it than that.
First, let me back to the detail of ethnic and religious identity in the first picture. While I don’t believe for a moment that this had anything to do with the motivations of the individuals themselves, from a purely pragmatic perspective, I do think it had something to do with why the picture went viral. Think for a moment; if it had been two white or two black people side by side, with no distinguishing garb to demonstrate the difference in some aspect of their identity, would this have caught the photographer’s eye? There might have been an assumption that these were two friends, boyfriends or girlfriends. So, while it might detract a little from the overall ‘feel good’ of this story, I think it is hard to deny that part of the impact of the image is the underlying assumption that these two individuals were not previously connected in any way. There’s a whole other narrative we could write about that but, for now, let’s stay with the positive. What I see here is a visual cue that is largely interpreted as ‘the kindness of strangers’.
Likewise, the Rabbi who returned $98,000 had made a transaction for a second-hand desk with someone with whom he previously had no connection. So we see two examples of people acting kindly and morally toward others because of some inner calling that directs them to interact with others in these ways in these particular moments. And, in both cases, what drives that decision is consideration of the ‘other’. As Isaac Theil was reported to have said to the traveler who took the photo, “He must have had a long day, let him sleep. We’ve all been there, right?”
I’d like to suggest one other frame for both of these stories. We are presented with individuals who, by appearance or title, are assumed to be observant Jews. While I know that many others without such an identity may have acted in exactly the same way in these circumstances and, in fact, people are demonstrating these acts of kindness every day (but rarely to this attention because there is nothing remarkable about their identity to make them stand out from the crowd), I think that many may be assuming that an underlying spiritual ethic is at least a part of the story here.
And certainly, Jewish ethics are in alignment with the choices that were made in these stories. So often, when I talk about Jewish ethics as abstract theory, I will find my students (teenagers or adults) reflecting on what feels like lofty ideals to aim toward but that are hard to truly live up to in practice. Many of the stories we have to illustrate these values are drawn from times and places that seem so distant from our own, featuring exemplary figures who are hard to emulate. Take, for example the following ethical statement that can be found in our morning liturgy:
“May one always revere God in private as in public.” [L’olam yehay adam y’ray Shamayim ba-seter u’va-galui]. It’s a bit like the question, “Does the tree make a sound when it falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it?” (cited from The Wisdom of Judaism: An Introduction to the Values of the Talmud, By Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, Jewish Lights Publishing).
And here is a story that illustrates this principle:
The Chaffetz Chayyim was once given a ride in a horse-drawn carriage. The driver, unaware of the identity of his passenger, stopped the carriage near a grove, and stepped down. After instructing the Chaffetz Chayyim to ‘call out if anybody sees me,’ he started to gather fruit from the trees in the field. Within a matter of seconds, the Chaffetz Chayyim called out in an agitated voice, ‘We are seen, we are seen.’ The frightened driver dropped the fruit, rushed back to the wagon, and drove off in great haste. After he had driven for a minute or two he turned around and saw that the road behind them was empty. He turned to the Chaffetz Chayyim in anger, saying, ‘Why did you yell out like that? There was no one watching me.’ The Chaffetz Chayyim pointed skyward: ‘God saw what you were doing. God is always watching.’ (as told by Joseph Telushkin in A Code of Jewish Ethics Vol 1: You Shall be Holy, p. 489).
Perhaps what we have in these two recent stories are simply contemporary examples of a spiritual ethics story; ones that we can relate to, that we can discuss and debate, find ourselves in more easily and, ultimately, be inspired by.
Every year on the 9th of Av it’s the same arguments in my head. Should I fast or not? On the one hand, the Temple was destroyed, and more. On the other, the State of Israel is reborn, and we Jews live in tremendous freedom. Besides, do we not look forward instead of back? The Judaism I practice helps me build toward a better future, not recreate the past. Between these poles I bounce all 24 hours long – and then, well then the fast is over, and I’ve made no resolution, no progress of how to mark the 9th of Av next summer.
“This is the Day of Destruction.” It’s a phrase my father uses to describe this date in Jewish History, the 9th of Av. Indeed, it was on this date that the First Temple fell (587 BCE) as well as the Second Temple (70 CE). Additionally, on the 9th of Av. It’s also the date of the negative report of the 12 spies that Moses sent (Num. 13-14), the date the Romans put down the Bar Kochbah Rebelion (132) and plowed over the Temple Mount (133) – All of the above constitute the 5 calamities of the described in the Mishnah Taanit 4:6 (200 CE). And there is more: The first crusade (1096), the expulsion from England (1290), the Expulsion from France (1306), and the Expulsion from Spain (1492). Closer to our own age, it was on the 9th of Av (Aug. 2, 1941) that Heinrich Himmler received approval from the Nazi Party for “The Final Solution.” the following year the mass deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto began.
Such a day… Traditionally, the 9th of Av is marked by fasting from food and drink, not bathing, not wear leather, and abstaining from sexual relations. In synagogues we sit on the floor, and by candle light we read the Book of Lamentations, “Shall the women eat their fruit, the children that are dandled in the hands?” (2:20). Blood in the streets, dead babies, young and old dead in the streets.
Why such anguish? I ask the same question about the passion of Jesus? What is the religious point of dwelling in such torture, blood, and murder? Why should I stomach such Biblical torture porn – the gore of Lamentations and of Jesus’ brutal beating and crucifixion remind me more of movies I choose not to see than of the religions of Love which I see in Judaism and in Christianity.
I believe that the case of the 9th of Av echoes the Christian understanding of the Passion of Jesus. To bear one’s cross is to feel the the very human pain of loss and hurt and loneliness and betrayal. Feeling the full force of the worst day(s) of one’ life is a powerful human connection to the Jesus story. Yet to focus on the horrible things that happened to Jesus or to the Jews on the 9th of Av is only half of the point. Can’t I try to see it from God’s perspective? What does it mean to loose your children right before your own eyes? Can I also cry for God?
Why should I cry for you? Why would you want me to?” – Why Should I Cry For You, Sting (Soul Cages).
The Mishnah in Sanhedrin teaches that even when a criminal is hanged, God cries out ‘woe unto Me.’ Mankind is made in the image of the divine, and by extension whatever we do to others, it is as if we do it also to God. “When I injure my fellow man, I injure God.” -AJ Heschel.
This year, I see the 9th of Av as a day on which to feel the world’s pain: From the unrest in the streets of Syria and Egypt, the pain of strained race relations in the wake of the Zimmerman/Martin case, but also the acute sadness of friends in my circles who are mourning the deeply personal loss of loved ones. And everything in between. From broad and distant to particular and close by, my heart-strings are pulled by human tragedy. With every hurtful and hateful thing mankind is able to inflict upon each other, we diminish the image and the presence of God in the world. When we give heed to the suffering of others, we also hear God’s lament, “woe unto Me.” This, I believe is an important step in shedding Godly light into the broken places of our world.
David Brooks’s recent NYT column, “The Wealth Issue,” comes at an opportune time if you’re one of those people who reads the weekly parasha. As we make our way through the story of the Exodus from Egypt, Brooks offers a sort of meditation on what it means to integrate the experience of one’s ancestors.
In the piece, Brooks takes us back to Romney’s ancestors, who were among the early Mormon families who made their way first west to Utah and Arizona, and then later south to Mexico. He attempts to make the case that Romney has none of the negative characteristics that people associate with the rich. He is not “spoiled” or “cosseted,” nor has he been “corrupted by ease and luxury.” To the contrary, he is a hard worker, “tenacious” and “relentless,” having more in common with hardscrabble immigrants than with inheritors of great wealth.
To what does Brooks attribute these traits? To Romney’s family history. As the descendant of a persecuted, driven family, Romney “seems to share his family’s remorseless drive to rise.” Though he “can’t talk about his family history on the campaign trail…he must have been affected by it.”
At which point, the Jews enter the column. Brooks brings his own “family history” by way of conceding the point that Romney himself never lived a life of persecution or privation. Yet, he writes, “Jews who didn’t live through the Exodus are still shaped by it.” Brooks knows his readership, and it’s not for nothing that he analogizes Romney’s connection to his family history to that of a contemporary Jew connecting to the Exodus.
But the analogy doesn’t ring true in light of the ways that we Jews are supposed to be shaped by our memories of Exile and Exodus. Again and again, Torah reminds us that our experience of Egypt ought to make us compassionate toward others (including Egyptians!). “You know the heart of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exod 23:9; see also Exod 22:21, Deut 23:7). Which is to say, our experience of persecution and the ensuing freedom ought not be only about making sure that we never find ourselves enslaved again (though that is indeed part of it). At their best, “child-of-Exodus-ethics” are about expanding our hearts to make room for today’s persecuted strangers, and not only about continuing to best today’s Pharaohs.
The State of Israel’s current status as refuge of choice for tens of thousands of African asylum-seekers makes for an interesting laboratory in which to consider this dynamic. Our ancient memories of persecution and deliverance, and our more recent memories from Europe, provide the backdrop for the current conversation in Israel about what to do with the Eritreans and Sudanese who have crossed the very desert that looms so large in our mythic memory. On the one hand are calls to deport them, in order to preserve the Jewish character of the state and to keep Israelis employed. On the other hand, many Israelis recognize the irony of Israel, of all places, not opening its doors to asylum-seekers. Like most things in the Jewish State, it’s not simple.
Also complicated is America’s relationship to the large population of immigrants currently residing here. Some certainly came seeking relief from danger and persecution at the hands of their government or criminals in their home countries. Many came simply to seek better wages and a better life. They too, confront us with the question: how do we, a nation of immigrants, relate to the people who are perhaps a few generations behind our own ancestors. Recognizing that complex political and economic considerations don’t make for easy answers, does our basic orientation to the problem have us feeling persecuted ourselves, and responding accordingly…or do we dig into the past and emerge with heightened compassion?
As I read the parshiot that tell the story of my family’s persecution and deliverance, the lessons that speak to me have less to do with our own current-day successes, and more to do with cultivating compassion for those who are currently in need of redemption (and acting accordingly). More than great wealth, more than relentless drive, that sort of compassion is something I seek to develop in myself, and something I admire in others (including presidential candidates).