So what did you really look forward to last week—Thanksgiving or Black Friday? Gorging on turkey surrounded by all those relatives, or the chance to grab a 50 inch plasma TV for $500 at some big box store? Where were you at 12am on Friday morning (or even 8pm on Thanksgiving at some spots)?
Many social critics bemoan the fact that Black Friday is infringing on the “sanctity” of Thanksgiving. But I think it Black Friday is a good thing. Not because I like shopping, though I confess I enjoy a good bargain like the next person and have had my share of Black Friday experiences in the past. Instead, I think Black Friday is good for America because it forces us to confront, in all its cartoonish outlandishness, what we want to stand for as a people. Thanksgiving ought to be the perfect holiday for Jews. After all, offering thanks to God is one of the primary motifs of Jewish prayer, from the very first prayer we utter each morning (Modeh Ani) to our thrice daily prayer of thanksgiving within the amidah; there was even a thanksgiving (“Todah”) offering in Temple times. Plus, what’s more Jewish than gathering family together around a festive meal?
But take a look at what our contemporary Thanksgiving holiday is like in practice. On Thursday afternoon, we sit down and eat gargantuan portions of food, often accompanied by lounging around watching football. Then there is the manic shopping frenzy of Black Friday, a day created to inaugurate the beginning of the holiday shopping period in which retailers offer large savings to get shoppers in the door. Thanksgiving Thursday and Black Friday, as currently experienced, actually share a unifying theme—gluttonous consumption and overindulgence. In fact, it is not surprising that the two days are quickly becoming one; they are, in a sense, consuming each other! A holiday which began in 1621 as a gathering to celebrate a successful harvest, to appreciate what the Pilgrims and Native Americans had, has morphed into an orgy of excess. Consuming a 25 pound turkey with all the trimmings or buying some electronic gadget you don’t even want (because the object you wanted was sold out and you didn’t want to leave empty-handed) may be proof of material success, but it is not the Jewish way to express gratitude.
Judaism calls on us to engage the world not with greed or lust but with a sense of sova, of enoughness. Through our liturgy and the recitation of brakhot, Judaism demands that we appreciate the blessings we enjoy in this world rather than constantly yearning for more. This is the message that Thanksgiving historically conveyed and continues to have the potential to convey. And this is the message that I hope we, as religious leaders, can begin to propagate. There is nothing wrong with buying things we need, and it can be wonderful to gather together with friends and family for a festive meal. But intention matters. Context matters. To paraphrase the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, we pray with our feet, not just with our words. And, in the case of Thanksgiving, we can pray not only through what we stand for but also what we abstain from. So as we enter the fray of the holiday shopping season, let’s try to cultivate an appreciation for what we have rather than becoming fixated on what more we can have. In that way we can pay tribute both to our Jewish heritage and to the message that animated the original Thanksgiving so many years ago.
A few posts ago, while the Supreme Court was still hearing arguments on the legality of the Healthcare Act, I said, “If the Supreme Court strikes-down the Health Care Act, and we have to start health care reform all over again, instead of fixing the imperfect beginnings that are already underway, I’m just going to freak out.” So, it has passed, as a tax and not under the Inter-State Commerce Clause, but in any case, now we’ll have it- Obamacare (properly referred to as The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act).
What does this mean to congress? Not much. And that’s the nature of sinat hinam, baseless hatred. The rabbis of the Talmud said that it was for baseless hatred that the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 C.E. If the Democrats like something than you can be sure the Republicans will hate it, and vice versa.
This type of tit-for-tat bickering is not just exhausting for the country to watch, but it’s downright destructive for our society, which, before politics became so partisan and divisive, prided itself on the strength of our diversity.
Consider the classic cautionary tale about why Jerusalem was destroyed. There was a mix up on the invitations to a party. Two men whose names sounded awfully similar each thought that they were the rightful guest at a party. The problem is that that hated each other, couldn’t stand each other, and nobody set them straight. Even the sages that were present at the affair said nothing. You can read the whole story here, but to get to the juicy part, one of the men incited the Romans against the Jews. He told Caesar to send the Jews a goat to sacrifice at the Temple, a goat that would seem perfectly fine by Roman standards, but that the Jews would find blemished, unfit as a holy offering at the ancient Temple:
The Rabbis wanted to offer it, despite its disqualifying blemish, to preserve good relations with the authorities.
Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus said to them: “People will then think that blemished animals may be offered upon the altar.”
They wanted to kill the person who brought the animal, so he could not go and inform on them. Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus said: “People will say that anyone who places a blemish in a sacrifice should be killed.”
RabbiYochanan said: “The humility of Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus destroyed our temple, burned our sanctuary and exiled us from our land.” (Gittin 55b-56a)
By analogy, the debate regarding Obamacare , even after Chief Justice Robert’s tie-breaking vote to affirm the legality of the law, is likewise so toxic that it feels like we’ve been boxed in. In truth, nobody loves the law as it stands, Democrats wanted more, and Republicans in the House have already set a date to repeal it (July 11th).
What we know will happen with this admittedly (by everyone) imperfect law, is that when the cracks start to show, Conservatives will say, “we told you so.” You can set your clocks to it. And, they’ll be right.
But here is where we should learn the lesson of baseless hatred: When the costs rise instead of fall, or coverages shift in ways we did not predict and do not want, let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Let’s just make more calculated adjustments.
The truth is, the middle is messy. The law that was passed was built on the Centrist idea that a few steps forward are better than waiting for the perfectly crafted bill to be born, which would never have happened in the polarized system we currently have. When we become intrenched, clinging to one good ideal over any other (“I will never raise taxes”, “Everyone should have healthcare coverage”) we freeze up; we fail to act in the best interest of those we care for, and when that happens, society’s moral compass falters.
Republicans should not waste time trying to repeal Obamacare (a repeal will never pass the Senate even if it passes the House), they should be trying to improve it, and Democrats would be wise to listen to them.
We had reached one of those loaded moments in our family Passover seder where all my acumen as a parent, an educator, and as a rabbi are tested simultaneously. See, I have four sons, and hence a problem. We had already sung the Ballad of the Four Sons to the tune of My Darling Clementine, and it was now time to assign passages in the hagaddah to each of my boys, each of which, on any given day shows streaks of wisdom, wickedness, simpleness, and a lack of being able to ask a question much beyond “is dinner ready? (While technically a question, I refuse to count it). The danger in assigning parts is that I could unwittingly play into a fraternal competition of “See, Abba likes me best!” This is how I played it this year: I assigned the readings randomly, and before they could read into which part they were assigned (“Hey, why did I get the wicked one?”) I said the following:
Let’s read these straight through and as we read them pay attention to clues, I am going to ask you which child do you think I like best, and why (for a wonderful contemporary/traditional take on the Four Sons, check out this G-Dcast video).
The Wise Child asks, “What is the meaning of the laws, statues and customs which the Lord our God has commanded us?”
Answer him with all the laws, to the very last detail of the afikoman.
The Wicked Child asks, “What is the meaning of this to you?”
Answer him, “You have denied a principle of our faith. This was done for me, and not you!”
The Simple Child asks, “What is this about?”
Answer him, “God took us out of Egypt with a mighty and outstretched arm.”
To the One Who Does Not Know What to Ask, say, “This is done because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth from Egypt.”
To my delight, they gave me the answers I wanted.
“The wise child because he is wise.”
“The wicked child because he asks tough questions.”
“The simple son because he is open to anything you say. You said that last year.”
“Yes, you did,” two others guests at the table corroborated.
“I think it’s the One Who Doesn’t Know What to Ask, because he is polite and let’s you start the conversation.”
I know that each of us carries each of these traits within ourselves, and I pointed that out, with the use of a helpful and provocative paper-cut image in one of our haggadot (plural for haggadah)
This year I said that I preferred the wicked one – “He asks the best question,” I answered. And, I believe he does. I was also struck, more so than other years, that the Wicked son gets a bad rap, not only for asking a fair and pointed question – which we otherwise applaud (It is said that a Jewish parent does not ask a child, “what did you learn at school today,” but rather, “did you ask a good question today?”) The problem with the wicked child is that he has a crappy teacher, who slams him for showing up to the seder and being himself, for wanting some integrity in the system? “Do you believe this stuff?” “Is this still relevant?” “Why are you so Jewish all of a sudden?” The response to the Wicked child got me thinking about what I would say as a high school teacher, if I could say anything I wanted to these four archetypal students:
To the Wise son, “What are the statues, laws, and customs? Why are you asking me? Go read the Tenth Chapter of the Talmudic Tractate on Passover, and then we can discuss it, then you can explain about the Afikoman to your brothers.”
To the Wicked son, “What does this mean to me? Good question. I think it is an individual challenge to understand the duality of confinement and freedom. Ask yourself, what constraints on your life would you want to be free from? What obligations do you have to yourself and others as you exercise your freedom?”
To the Simple son, “Dig a little deeper. Yes we are commemorating an event that has long past, and whose memory still inspires us today, but go a little further – Why? Why should we bother with this? What lessons are we trying to hold on to? What implications does it have for the world we live in today?”
To the One Who Does Not Know What to Ask, I want to answer along the lines of Sterns Professor Scott Galloway, in his “Get your S–t Together” email to a student a few years ago – here is an excerpt:
…Let me be more serious for a moment. I do not know you, will not know you and have no real affinity or animosity for you. You are an anonymous student who is now regretting the send button on his laptop. It’s with this context I hope you register pause…REAL pause xxxx and take to heart what I am about to tell you:
xxxx, get your shit together.
Getting a good job, working long hours, keeping your skills relevant, navigating the politics of an organization, finding a live/work balance…these are all really hard, xxxx. In contrast, respecting institutions, having manners, demonstrating a level of humility…these are all (relatively) easy. Get the easy stuff right xxxx. In and of themselves they will not make you successful. However, not possessing them will hold you back and you will not achieve your potential which, by virtue of you being admitted to Stern, you must have in spades.
So To the One Who Does Not Know What to Ask, I find myself wanting to say, “Hey, Judaism, like being part of this family around this table is not a pass/fail course in which you can just hide out in the back. We need your voice in the mix too. You can ask picayune questions about tiny details, you can ask pointed questions in an antagonistic tone, you can even ask a basic question that you think everyone but you must know the answer to, but passivity is never a substitute for actual learning – doing nothing, saying nothing doesn’t just hurt you. You don’t have to be the smartest. You don’t have to be witty, you don’t have to leave your skepticism at the door, or anything like that, but keeping your personal Torah, your deep inner wisdom to yourself, deprives us all of sparks of the divine that only you hold. We are not at the movies, silence is not golden.
“Humans make errors. We make errors of fact and errors of judgment. We have blind spots in our field of vision and gaps in our stream of attention. Sometimes we can’t even answer the simplest questions. Where was I last week at this time? How long have I had this pain in my knee? How much money do I typically spend in a day?”
Thus begins Gary Wolf’s New York Times Magazine article “The Data-Driven Life.” As our lives converge with machines, data, in mass amounts, becomes the new wisdom.
Here is a bit of satire for those of us who approach that future with a bit of trepidation.
…The Lord is my Shepherd, I have zero needs.
We gather here in a moment of great sadness to mourn the passing of someone close to us all. The actuaries were right. What can we say – the numbers tell the story.
In health: His numbers were not so good. His blood pressure was 140 over 90 with a resting heart-rate of 72. His cholesterol was 330, with a frighteningly low HDL of 19. As many of you know, chromosomally he did have a few recessive abnormalities on chromosomal pairs 4, 23, and 24. But did they do him in? Unlikely, everyone could see that his BMI was well over 33!
…Yea, though I walk through the Valley of Asymptote Limit of Negative One, I will fear no evil, for You are with me.
His high school GPA was 3.7 (3’s and 4’s for his AP scores), 2110 for his SAT score, 3.4 at a 3rd tiered college, no GRE score to speak of (this technical mystery will be corrected in time for the obituary). He graduated without honors from a 2nd tired Graduate School. Such was his education.
… Your staff and Your rod, they comfort me.
Of course his consumer habits have been readily searchable. He shopped mostly at Mega Shopping Grocery. He accounted for approximately $95 of weekly average purchase they with a slightly elevated purchase quotient in the salted Snack aisle. Google reports that his interests were roughly evenly split between on-line fantasy games, sports, especially Indonesian Cricket, and Googles’ own World News Digest. Sadly, he had three outstanding bids for collectible Disney watches on eBay. He would have won. Nonetheless, those watches have already been sent to the next highest bidder. His digital life is otherwise unremarkable, with the exception of a single visit to a porn site. Google Notes suggest that it is statistically possible that he reached the site by searching for Morgan Spurlock’s documentary film “Super Size Me,” and by then clicking their search feature “Feeling Lucky.”
…You set before me a table against my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.
He was married for 34.6 years and had 2 girls and 1 boy. His favorite song was Bob Seger’s “Feel Like a Number.” His combined FICO score was 678. The family has asked that in lieu of flowers, kindly make a digi-donatation to their favorite cause, IRS Approved Non-Profit Mobil Code XH35G. That code number is now being broadcast to your phones and also appears on the screen above the casket. Please use this moment of silence to transact now.
… Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, as I dwell in the Infinite Loop of the Lord forever.
So it is that we bury Social Security number 456-89-9987. Let me add, unorthodox as it may be in our data-driven life, and at such an intimate setting no less, that he was my closest friend. I will always remember him. Bit by byte, he will be missed.
Yitgadal V’itgadash Shemei Rabbah …