On a single day last week, we were stunned by news of the Charlie Helbo attack in Paris and a bomb going off at an NAACP office in Colorado. At the same time, this day was no different than any other: our media regularly saturates us with stories of death and violence. In her prophetic book All About Love, bell hooks describes this phenomena as a symptom of America’s death-obsessed culture. She says, “It may very well be that…the constant spectacles of dying we watch on television screens daily, is one way our culture tries to still that fear [of death], to conquer it, to make us comfortable.” Our culture’s efforts to comfort us and conquer our dread depict deaths that are sudden, faceless, and violent. This ultimately deepens our anxiety about death.
The day before, in my role as rabbi of the VNA-Hospice of Philadelphia, I gave a blessing to the social workers, nurses, administrators, and chaplains with whom I work. Words of blessing came easily as I beheld a roomful of people engaged in holy work. The hospice staff regularly facilitates family conversations about what is important to loved ones at the end of their lives, and does its best to care for the dying according to their desires. My coworkers and I often need to initiate these conversations because, as hooks writes, “The more we watch spectacles of meaningless death, of random violence and cruelty, the more afraid we become [of death] in our daily lives.”
We feed our anxiety when we only hear about death “out there” and deny it is also part of our story, and can even be a meaningful and peaceful part of our story. A 2013 survey says that 90 percent of Americans believe it is important to discuss the way we want to live at the end of our lives while we are able, but less than 30 percent of us actually have had this conversation: Parents don’t want their adult children to worry about them; children don’t want to think their parents will ever die. Locked into a mutual conspiracy of denial, families wish they had spoken only when it is too late. A recent Institute of Medicine report notes that most people nearing the end of life are not “physically, mentally, or cognitively able to make their own decisions about care.” According to many doctors, how we end our lives is the most important and costly conversation America is too afraid to have.
Fortunately, recent initiatives like The Conversation Project are shifting all of this. In collaboration with “Death Over Dinner”, adults of all ages have begun, over the last few years, to discuss their wishes for end of life care at a structured dinner party using guiding questions like, “How long do you want to receive medical care?”, “How involved do you want your loved ones to be?” and “What role do you want them to play?” Having these conversations over dinner, or tea – as long as we have them – improves our chances of receiving the type of care that we want, and helps decrease family discord should our families be called upon to make these difficult decisions for us. Perhaps, when we make the choice to confront our cultural anxiety and acknowledge the inevitability of our own death, we can give ourselves to love and to life more fully.
When I cook in my kitchen, I have a lot of company. I sometimes speak aloud to my grandmother who helps me intuit when the recipe “looks right.” My father looks on when I make pizza—none was better than his. My mother-in-law sits at the kitchen table recopying her recipes, telling me stories about her life. They are blessed and welcome spirits who provide context for my life.
But I have other company, too—sometimes in my kitchen, but not always. They come unbidden, but are welcome. They teach me to receive every moment of life not in expectation, but as an astonishing and treasured gift—and above all—as a limited resource.
They are the souls who treasured a crumbling crust of bread from their meager prisoners rations in the labor camps. They are the mothers and children who starved in the siege of Leningrad. They are our ancestors who were caught in sieges when the first and second Temples fell, or when the Crusaders crushed their lives. They are the helpless and voiceless pawns caught in current national and global conflicts. They are our neighbors, nearby and a world away. And they remind me that human suffering at the hands of tyrants cannot be sorted into neat columns of place and time and nationality or placed in historical context. They provide context for the way people behave in the world.
Understandably, we try to do this, especially when the reality of the human capacity to harm others makes us feel as if we can’t breathe, either. It’s all just too big to grasp. But really, the tragedies are not about sheer numbers, nor the depth of an oppressor’s depravity. Every tragedy is individual. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters—whose precious lives were cut short in the name of ideologies – were all once babes dandled on their parents’ knees.
I have no idea how those who survive/d in the most extreme suffering manage/d to open their eyes each morning. I would like to think I could, somehow, to be resourceful enough to not starve or freeze to death. To do whatever it would take. Would I be strong enough? Perhaps. Would the overwhelming pain of it all make my soul long to flee my body? Very likely. Would I be able to pray? I’m not so sure—because when I see the news, I am not so sure I can pray today, either.
The cultures that razed the temples to the ground, brought about the horror of the crusades, and the scourge of the diabolical reign of madmen in the last century were easily identifiable enemies. But the threat we now face is more insidious, and just as deadly. It emerged over the years with war games and paintball and laser tag and the Hunger Games. And today, just as in ancient Jerusalem, the oppressor’s culture is alluring to many even as it destroys the lives of innocents. Today, though, we have no idea if our neighbors are among those who are armed and ready to do harm to others and claim it as their right. Today, we do not know if our children are safe in their schools. How did this happen? In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Last Sunday was the second yahrzeit of those who were murdered in Sandy Hook. That town is right next door. Literally. Members of my congregation live there. And they will never, ever live “normal” lives again. Their friends and neighbors lost their children, their innocence, their sense of physical security and for many, their faith in humankind—forever. Children all over town have been traumatized beyond description. In Sandy Hook, as in all other communities in which such tragedies occur, the earth spins slightly off its axis.
Since that infamous day, over 70,000 of your neighbors have been senselessly murdered with guns, and another 200.000 have been wounded. The scale of these atrocities add up to staggering numbers while the ability of their assailants to be armed to the teeth (some 300 million weapons in civilian hands) is each day protected in the name of the chilling ideology that a one’s right to own a gun outweighs the rights of children (and all of us) to live in security. How powerful is the fear of an enemy that cannot be identified! We would, as a nation, never tolerate such an assault from an external enemy. And yet, it is nothing short of terrorism. In truth, the earth is spinning of its axis for all of us.
Rabbi Avraham Joshua Heschel said, when he attended a demonstration against the Vietnam war, “I am here because I cannot pray.” I get it. The anger and frustration have to be channeled into positive, wise and compassionate action.
And I have to ask each morning: what can I do to be worthy of this day, of the breath I draw? If I cannot utter a prayer, is there some way I can BE a prayer? Can I find the wisdom and strength to do whatever it will take, even in my own small way? I think of the Maccabees who were small in number and mighty in the strength that they drew down from the Creator of all life, and of the light and love and justice that are commanded to bring into the world. Like the oil that burned miraculously in the menorah of old, will I be able to burn bright enough, for long enough?
Think of Yael, who risked her life to ensure that the Maccabees would be victorious. Think of Judah and Mattathius who lead the few and the brave. We know our ancestors’ names not because they set out to do something earth-changing—but because they did something—and that something, eventually, changed the world. They remind us that when we respond to the call for justice, and do something—we are worthy of our breath – praying with each small act, lighting one small light at a time—and changing the world.
As a native New Yorker and a die-hard Yankees fan, the year I lived in Boston was not always an easy one. When I braved the T wearing my Yankees jacket, I definitely got more than a few dirty looks.
But I was in Boston on 9/11, and was amazed at how Bostonians rallied around and supported New York City. Though my memory might be faulty and I may have imagined it, I think I might have even got some smiles and nods when people saw my Yankees jacket in the weeks following 9/11.
It’s a same way people are feeling now about the relationship between New York and Boston. Jon Stewart said it well: “New Yorkers and Boston obviously have kind of a little bit of a competition. Often, the two cities accusing each other of various levels of suckitude. But it is in situations like this that we realize it is clearly a sibling rivalry, and that we are your brothers and sisters in this type of event.”
Indeed, even as scary events raise our anxiety levels, one of the unexpected benefits of fear is that it causes us to spend more time focusing on what unites us than on what divides us.
On the day after Election Day, psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt had writtne an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times entitled “We Need a Little Fear.” In it, he reminds us that in times of crisis, we come together in ways we would not have done otherwise:
A Bedouin proverb says, “Me against my brother, my brothers and me against my cousins, then my cousins and me against strangers.” Human beings are pretty good at uniting to fight at whatever level is most important at a given moment. This is why every story about a team of warriors or superheroes features an internal rivalry, but all hatchets are buried just before the climactic final battle in which the team vanquishes the external enemy.
There’s a reason that one of the great Hebrew songs says, “Behold, how good and beautiful it is when brothers and sisters dwell in unity” (Ps. 133:1) — when we come together united to support each other, when we see our former rivals as “brothers and sisters,” it truly is good and beautiful.
So even as we are afraid, even as our world seems to be ever-more broken, we can take this moment to transform our fears into a vision of brotherhood and sisterhood.
After all, if Red Sox and Yankee fans can join together in harmony, anyone can do it.
I am writing this blog from my bunker in Los Angeles, so if it doesn’t make perfect sense when you read this I’m blaming the poor internet connection I have. Also Anonymous, the hacker group which has recently targeted the State of Israel. I’m Israeli, so typos and meandering sentences in my post can easily be understood as causalities of cyber attacks – please be patient, these are tough times.
Listen, North Korea said it has nukes and that its missiles are aiming for Hawaii and California. Vladimir Putin said, “If, God forbid, something happens, Chernobyl which we all know a lot about, may seem like a child’s fairy tale.” Part of me read Putin’s analogy as wishful thinking on his part, “Finally something to make chernobyl seem like a child’s fairy tale!” As I was thinking about this, I realized that this is a guy known for hunting down a tiger without a shirt on, and whose former KGB agents are linked to poisoning the food of a Soviet dissident in London with a mysterious radiation. CNN, NBC, and Fox all say that North Korea can’t hit the West Coast of the United States, but because I fear disagreeing with Putin, I agree with him.
Please, Anonymous, don’t scramble the following: “I agree with Putin!”
I have a history of not taking threats seriously, but finally, fear has motivated me to act. In Israel my late grandparents built a bomb shelter beneath their home. It was a 10×12 foot concrete storage room with steal enforced air vents that opened and also sealed shut in case of a chemical attack from Sadam. We were not to go in there, were not to disturb the food rations stored there. But, well, a kid can get hungry. Sure enough, a SCUD missile did hit a half mile away from their home a few weeks after I left back to the States. My family in Israel didn’t complain much about those attacks, so I didn’t take the missile threat seriously. If I were in Southern Israel a few months ago, when it was raining rockets from Gaza, I’m sure I’d be one of the people running to get his camera instead of to a shelter – they said that seeing Iron Dome at work was beautiful like fireworks on the Fourth of July.
I remember comparing California earthquakes to roller-coasters. Wheee! Until the Northridge quake in 1993 scared the beep out of me. If you want to know what the end of the world is going to sound like. Imagine God banging continents together like dusty chalk erasers. California is due for another big one – we’re constantly warned. You’d think I’d have a fully developed earthquake plan for my family after that, but I don’t. Here are my notes:
1)Turn off the gas line to the house.
2)Remember that the water in the toilet tanks is clear. We have three toilets, so a family of six should be able to make it 2 days.
3)Try to call brother-in-law Mark. Mark has a smaller, younger family. They don’t look like they eat much. Remember that Mark has full earthquake supplies for six months. Remind him that he once said that it’s more than they need.
4) Set up a Google alert for Mark to keep gas in his Jeep so he could come and get us if he doesn’t hear from us after an earthquake and roads are closed.
5) Ask my wife when Mark’s birthday is so that I can send him a card and stay on his good side.
Anyway, with Anonymous, and Putin, and, well, Kim Jong Un – fear has been a great motivator. I’ve built my own bunker. So far it’s just a tent and a lawn chair. But I’ve got plans, and I’ve put up a sign – a quote I saw out front of a cafe in Jerusalem. I was living in Jerusalem when a bomb went off on Ben Yehuda Street, the crowded pedestrian mall. The next day I went to the scene of the attack to reclaim the space. The Israeli perspective is that living in fear is hardly living. There was still blood on the cobblestones, and there was shattered glass everywhere, but there was also a sign in the blown-out window of a popular cafe. My sign:
“Life is short. Eat dessert first.”
It was January 2007, almost exactly six years ago. I was sitting in my office, reviewing a dense corporate document retention proposal, when I realized it was time for a career change. I had questioned whether I wanted to remain a lawyer for several years. On the one hand, the law firms where I practiced treated us like indentured servants. We worked extremely long hours, were yelled at, and spent most of our time toiling away at menial tasks like reviewing boxes of emails or proofreading our bosses’ work. On the other hand, the pay was great and the risk was low. All we had to do was sacrifice our time and our pride and we could do quite well. For years, the financial benefits of the job and the uncertainty about what else I might want to do held me in check. But by 2007, the drudgery of the work and the sense of how meaningless it felt became too much for me. I decided that the risk of switching careers—even to something as dramatic as becoming a rabbi—was worth it.
This dilemma of accepting an unpalatable status quo or taking a risk on an uncertain but potentially transformative new direction is basically what the Israelites confront in Parashat B’shalah. The Israelites have just fled from Egypt and have journeyed as far as the Sea of Reeds when God rouses Pharaoh to chase after them. God is looking for the big finish to the Exodus drama, a climactic battle in which God can once and for all establish supremacy for all to see (Exodus 14:4). The Israelites, however, are not amused. In fact, they are terrified. Whatever faith in God they might have developed from experiencing the ten plagues quickly evaporates in the face of charging chariots and alarming battle cries. They beg Moses to let them return to their former lives of slavery in Egypt. But Moses tells them to have faith, and God, through Moses, parts the waters of the sea so that the Israelites can pass through to the other side. We all know what happens next: the Israelites make it safely across the sea, and once they get to the other side, God causes the waters to crash down upon the Egyptians who are in hot pursuit, drowning them in the sea.
In a fascinating commentary, though, our Sages did not just assume that the Israelites had the courage to march into the parted sea. Even though this event, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, would become a seminal moment in Jewish history which we recount twice a day in our liturgy (in the Mi Chamocha prayer), the Talmud (Tractate Sotah 36b-37a) depicts the Israelites as being hesitant to take the plunge:
Rabbi Yehudah said: When the Israelites stood by the Red Sea, the tribes strove with one another. This tribe said. “I’m not going into the sea first.” And another tribe said, “I’m not going into the sea first.” [Finally,] Nachshon the son of Amminadav jumped and descended into the sea first.
Rabbi Yehuda reflects how we often feel when facing a life-altering challenge. The fear of making change can often be paralyzing. Inertia is a powerful force, as is the psychological comfort of predictability, no matter how unpleasant the predictable may be. We can—and do—come up with a multitude of justifications for staying right where we are. We are conditioned, both culturally and biologically, not to go into the sea first. But Rabbi Yehuda’s account also expresses the truth that it only takes one leap, one chance, one moment of action, and our whole world can change.
We each face these crossroads in life. For some, it might be whether to remain in a relationship that has gone stale or whether to endure the pain and anguish of ending the relationship with the hope of finding a better one. For others, like myself, it might be whether to remain in a job that lacks fulfillment but provides a steady paycheck, or to pursue a dream job that might not work out.
We even experience this crossroads at national levels. As the Israeli election on January 22 showed, Israel is almost perfectly split between center-left and right-ultra Orthodox parties (each bloc received approximately 60 out of the 120 seats in Israel’s parliament). Israeli leaders, in picking a new government, will have to choose between retaining the status quo coalition of the past few years or forming a new coalition that embraces socioeconomic reform, equal treatment of Haredi and Hiloni Israelis, and an engaged peace process. Will a Nachshon ben Amminadav emerge to lead Israel into a new, dynamic, and possibly redemptive future, or will Israel’s leadership remain entrenched on the shore, arguing among themselves and unwilling to take the first pivotal step forward?
Change is always hard. We yearn for stability, structure, and continuity in our lives. Yet the wisdom of our tradition is that God will support us if we are willing to take the plunge into uncertainty. The narrative of the Israelites standing at the Sea of Reeds offers us more than just an historical/mythical account of our people’s origins. It empathizes with the difficulties we face, today, between taking risks on an unknown but potentially meaningful future versus remaining mired in an unpleasant, yet known, present. And it offers us hope if we are only bold enough to claim our own redemptive path.
After the Israelites realize their freedom from the Egyptians, they break out into raucous celebration. The people unite in a triumphant and jubilant song, known as Shirat ha-Yam, the Song of the Sea, which we recount each year during the Torah reading for Parashat Beshallah. May each of us be blessed with the courage to follow our own paths of meaning in life. And may our decisions enable us to sing with joy about the lives we create for ourselves and our people.
When I was growing up, a common group activity to do with Jewish teens was some sort of values clarification. One such example might be “the world is about to come to an end and you have been chosen to colonize a distant planet. What five items would you bring with you?” Another favorite was “if you had to choose just one item to save from your burning house, what would it be?” Both questions, while eliciting some interesting discussion, seemed so far-fetched as to be bordering on the ridiculous.
Yet now, with Hurricane Sandy bearing down on so many, the question of what to take versus what to leave behind is a very real one.
The American Red Cross, FEMA, and other agencies have available lists to help families and individuals prepare for emergency situations/evacuations. But not one of these lists address the spiritual needs. As I filled water-resistant bins with emergency provisions, batteries, flashlights, and the like, I made certain to include my favorite siddur, some kippot, and a book of Psalms. Long recited during times of distress, my book of Psalms has gotten me through some really dicey times. Just the feel of it in my hands brings down my blood pressure. Our tallitot, Shabbos candlesticks, ketubah, and a few of our children’s favorite picture books made the cut as well as they will bring them some comfort as the gusts rattle our home.
Dearest God, Whose Power and Might fill the world,
I thank you for the shelter of my home.
I thank you for technology that provides us time to prepare.
I thank you for the kind folks at Sesame Street for creating a video to ease my children’s fears. And mine too.
And I thank you for the promise of the rainbow.
Barukh ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh HaOlam, oseh ma-asei v’reisheet.
Praised are You, Sovereign of the Universe, Who does the the work of Creation.