January 9, 2021 — 25 Tevet 5781
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” In just a few words, Charles Dickens penned one of the most powerful and gripping opening lines in the history of literature.
It is also, frankly, a questionable line. If you read the rest of the story, you will notice that A Tale of Two Cities does a glorious job capturing the grit and despair that Dickens describes as the “worst of times.” It is much harder to identify what makes it the best.
I have been thinking a lot about that line since Wednesday, when a mob desecrated the sacred halls of our democracy. I have been thinking a lot about that line since Wednesday, when the Confederate flag was carried through the “People’s house,” sullying the pride of generations who stood tall knowing that the flag of bigotry never entered its hallowed halls, not even during the Civil War. I have been thinking a lot about that line since Wednesday, when the world looked on in horror as elected officials lay on the floor of the chamber that had been a beacon for us and nations around the world of peaceful rule of law.
It is easy to see the worst of times. A vile noose of racism lifted in the Capitol. White supremacy raging, including overt anti-Semitism, which should make every single one of us shudder. “Camp Auschwitz” emblazoned on the sweatshirt of one man photographed in the thick of the mob, the man next to him smiling. That is not to mention hospitals filling to critical capacity in states across our nation, illness and death growing exponentially as we await vaccination, and an increasingly unbridgeable rift in civic connection.
It is easy to see the worst of times. It is hard to see the best. So I have been wondering: how did Dickens come to imagine that a world filled with so much pain could also hold beauty? Was the “best of times” he referred to simply a swipe at those in their London bubble who dispassionately watched desperate revolution unfolding in Paris from a safe and comfortable distance? Or was it a profound perspective on the world of the revolution itself – that, even there, there could be a “best” to go along with the “worst,” a season of light with the season of darkness, a spring of hope with the winter of despair? Are these just words, or does Dickens, a Victorian Kohelet, have helpful wisdom for our times today?
In A Tale of Two Cities, the personal is a prism of the political. Where does Dickens find “the best of times?” Not just in a far-away bubble, but in the love shared by those battered by the brutal wave of history.
It is tempting to make a similar move now – to say that big historical turmoil may be afoot in Washington, but here we are safe and loved. Here in the middle of the pandemic, if we are healthy, we are counting our blessings. Here in the middle of unimaginable upheaval, if we can close our doors securely, we are surviving the storm.
And that is all true, and all important. But it is not all.
Dickens wrote what he knew. He channeled his own gritty childhood into his words, creating with his characters an inclination to empathy in those who might otherwise turn a blind eye to the plight of the poor.
But he did not just use his writing to open souls. He used his book readings to open pocketbooks to philanthropy, famously going on a book tour to secure funding for a hospital that otherwise would have collapsed. For him, the political was personal.
And so Dickens takes us deeper. In A Tale of Two Cities, tragedy is transformed to triumph in the final words of Sydney Carton, who imagines a world beyond the trauma of the now, a world where the sufferings of today will become the substratum for a new tomorrow. A world that we are always on the road to building.
As Carton’s final imagined monologue beautifully captures: “I see … long ranks of the new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old, perishing … I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss…” In other words, the despair of the present can be borne with a vision of a future we can help, even now, to build.
Dickens’ one-two move – first the personal, then the political – is a move Moses makes in our parasha today too. In Midian, tending sheep, Moses finds love. He finds family. He finds freedom. And then history knocks on his door. “There’s a world out there that needs you,” God says. “Time to start walking toward its repair. Time to speak truth to power. Time to fight for right in a world that can be better than what it is. Time to own that the world is profoundly broken and needs your hands to mend.”
And – obviously, since otherwise there would not be a story – Moses goes. But less obviously, Moses does not go alone. He meets his brother along the way. And his sister. And the Israelites. It is when they join together that change starts to happen.
So too for us today. It is easy to see all the ways that this is the worst of times. And yet. This week, our democratic system of government was sorely tested and held fast. A majority of Senate Republicans joined with Senate Democrats to uphold our system’s core.
It is easy to see the worst of times, but this week, in Georgia, the epicenter of the famed “Southern Strategy,” a black pastor and a Jew were elected.
It is easy to see the worst of times, but into this moment, God sent you.
And lest you are dispirited, consider the words that rang out from Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1965 preached by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King said, “Now ever since the founding fathers of our nation dreamed this dream in all of its magnificence… America has been something of a schizophrenic personality, tragically divided against herself. On the one hand we have proudly professed the great principles of democracy, but on the other hand we have sadly practiced the very opposite of those principles… But now more than ever before, America is challenged to realize its dream, for the shape of the world today does not permit our nation the luxury of an anemic democracy… So, yes, the dream has been shattered, and I have had my nightmarish experiences, but I tell you this morning once more that I haven’t lost the faith. I still have a dream…”
Today, his successor at that same Ebenezer Baptist Church is headed to the Senate. Reverend Raphael Warnock, reflecting on the meaning of that new fact, shared about his mother: “The 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton went to the polls and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator…The improbable journey that led me to this place in this historic moment in America could only happen here.”
Wednesday was one of the lowest moments in American history. It also, perhaps, can be the start of our best – if we use the shock of this week to remind us that the American story is a dream whose best of times, even now, still lie in reach.
December 19, 2020 — 4 Tevet 5781
There is an amazing new sculpture on Commonwealth Avenue. Carved out of a tree trunk, in mid-stride is a magnificent runner confidently bounding up Heartbreak Hill. I pass him every day on my way to Temple Emanuel and am always struck by how he never seems to run out of energy.
A little more than 10 years ago, I ran a marathon. Well, “run” is perhaps too generous a word. I jogged for a super-long time until I crossed the finish line in what I had hoped would be under six hours. To this day, I am still not entirely sure what possessed me to do this.
Every time I pass that tree trunk runner, I think back to my marathon. The tree trunk runner was carved to life in the middle of a global pandemic – at a time that the Boston Marathon has now been called off for a second season. The tree trunk runner is, by definition, rooted in place – stuck – on Heartbreak Hill, the hardest part of the route. Yet the sculptor filled him with eternal boundless positive momentum.
The last leg of my marathon was the opposite. In runner-speak, I “hit the wall.” Seasoned marathon runners speak of “the wall” as an experience to be studiously avoided. Scientifically, it is the point when your running body has depleted its stored glycogen, bringing out feelings of fatigue and emotional exhaustion.
So I prepared for the wall. I trained for the wall. I tried to positive-self-talk my way out of the wall. But I hit the wall – hard.
My exhaustion was matched only by Mike’s energy. Even though he had not planned to run this marathon – even though he had not trained to run this marathon – he woke up that morning and decided to go with me. At mile 24, just 2.2 miles from the end, seeing me flagging, he encouragingly looked at his watch and said, “You can do this – you can make it in under six hours.” I looked at him and said, “Yeah, no.”
I am not sure I even remembered why I was doing this, let alone why I would try to come through in any particular way or time. And so, 6 hours 1 minute and 5 seconds after I began, I crossed the finish line – changed.
I have never regretted those 65 seconds. Indeed, they were among the most important 65 seconds of my life, because they schooled me in acceptance. They sensitized me to how painful the choice to keep going is when your energy is flagging and everything feels too hard.
The reality of hitting the wall with the finish line in sight feels like an apt metaphor for where we are as a nation in this pandemic. This week the United States marked a grim milestone – more than 300,000 dead from coronavirus. And this week the United States marked a hopeful turning point – the administration of the first approved vaccine. Heartache. And hope.
On the one hand, the news could not be better – there has never been a faster vaccine whose rate of efficacy appear to be beyond any expectation.
There is hope in an economic aid package that appears to be on the verge of helping those hit hardest by this pandemic. Hope in our beloved member, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, being appointed to head the CDC, bringing her light to our nation, sharing the strong, steady, science-grounded leadership she has so lovingly given to our congregation throughout this pandemic with our country and our world.
On the other hand, hospitals across our country are nearing or at critical capacity, economic devastation is rampant, and community spread is now so significant – driven by our very human need to be close to one another, and very human exhaustion for having done this pandemic isolation for so long. This was stunningly captured in a recent Boston Globe article titled, “Makes you ask why the hell we even bother -subtitle-Infectious disease experts face disillusionment as COVID-19 pandemic worsens.” Heartache and hope.
How do we keep going – keep limiting our gatherings, limiting our dining out, limiting our travel, limiting our contact with those we love who we miss so much it hurts but cannot see, cannot hug? What do we do when we are at mile 24 of a grim marathon that we never would have signed up to run – hope is around the corner, but we have hit the wall?
Luckily, we can refuel with the wisdom of our Jewish tradition. We’ve been through tough times before. Indeed, our story today finds Joseph in jail. He had interpreted two dreams, both of which came true, and Joseph pinned his hopes on the cupbearer. But last week’s parasha ended ominously: “The chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph.” Just in case we missed the point, the verse ends: “He forgot him.” It is easy to imagine Joseph hitting a wall.
When our parasha this week picks up, it has been two full years – until finally Joseph is summoned. It is then that Joseph gives us a key to resilience and finding a new wind when we have hit the wall.
Back at home when times were good, he shared his dreams as being all about him. Now, facing Pharaoh, this previously pampered young man has learned from his hardship.
Rashi notices something odd in the Torah’s report that the “necromancers did not interpret for Pharaoh.” He does not accept for a minute that the people paid to satisfy Pharaoh’s every whim did not offer him, or at least attempt to offer him, some explanation of his dreams.
Instead, Rashi suggests that the verse be read that they “did not interpret for PHARAOH.” They gave him a personal read of his dream as if the dreams were about him alone, one person going through anxious times.
What Joseph did, in contrast, was to see Pharaoh as linked to his people. He offered an interpretation which enabled Pharaoh to see beyond himself as intricately bound, and responsible to, a greater whole.
That truth is what helped the famous refusenik, Natan Sharansky, to get through nine years in a Soviet prison. As he shared at the beginning of the pandemic:
“In prison, I didn’t know when I’ll be released. I didn’t know, in fact, IF I will be released at all…I always had to remind myself, I am part of a huge, global battle… Remember that you are not alone. We Jews, for thousands of years all over the world, were scattered but we always had this feeling we are part of a big people, a great people. With our mutual past and our mutual future and our mutual mission.”
We are not going through this pandemic alone. We all have a mission, no matter how small, to protect and preserve each other’s health, life, and safety. If you have hit a wall, if your energy is flagging, if all you want to do is hug your mom or your grandpa or just feel normal by having a meal with a group of friends, look left and look right. Remember that you are part of something bigger, a people who have persisted for thousands of years with concern for each other that steadied them and can steady us now through heartache with hope. There are so many who are trekking with us, so many who we may be called, right here, right now, to go beyond ourselves to be of service to in their time of need.
Heartbreak Hill, it turns out, is famous not only for being heartbreaking, but for being a place which can offer a second wind. The story is told that in the 1936 Boston Marathon, Ellison “Tarzan” Brown went out hard, and his energy was starting to flag. By mile 20, Johnny Kelley, the winner of the previous year’s marathon, caught up with him and patted him on the back. That pat reinvigorated Brown, who surged ahead to win. The hill is named for the heartbreak Johnny Kelley felt with that fateful pat.
But there is a coda to the story. The news of that day reported: “Fifth is Kelley. Worn, battered to bits…Kelley covers the last mile on his nerve alone…Badly beaten, this Johnny Kelley, but his great heart is not broken.” Kelley went on to run the Boston Marathon 61 times, including a marathon finish at the age of 84.
Kelley kept running that hill. His energy wavered in that most famous race, but his connection to the running community grounded him, inspired him to renew and keep looking forward, eventually earning him the role of Boston Marathon Grand Marshall in 1995.
It is easy for a statue to be eternally robust – easy for the tree trunk runner to always keep running. For us, it takes continued resolve. We are all on Heartbreak Hill. Don’t give up. Don’t give in. Keep on going.
November 28, 2020 — 12 Kislev 5781
When Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks passed away earlier this month, he was arguably the most impactful English-speaking rabbi in the modern world: prolific, profound, patient, persuasive, powerful. His words of Torah touched and transformed countless lives.
If anyone was born to be a rabbi, it was Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks – though to hear him tell it, becoming a rabbi, let alone the spiritual guide of a generation, was not his plan.
In an interview this past summer with Tim Ferriss, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks tells a story about himself as a young 20-something. Young Jonathan thought he would grow up to be an accountant or a lawyer. The year, he says, was “1968, when Simon & Garfunkel were counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike and they’ve all come to look for America. In 1968,” he shared, “the end of my second year at university, at 20 years old, I thought to myself, ‘I don’t know much about Judaism, about religion, but I do know there are lots of distinguished, distinguished rabbis.’ And so I decided…to take a plane to the States and buy a Greyhound bus ticket — a hundred dollars, unlimited travel…I went around looking for America and counting the rabbis. Not the cars. And I met lots and lots of terrific rabbis.”
As it turns out, although he had grown up in an observant family, Rabbi Sacks’ family were not so steeped in Jewish education. His parents were practical folks, his father a businessman, and his mother drove ambulances in London during the blitz. He attended schools with names like St. Mary’s Primary School and Christ’s College.
But something possessed him to make a modern pilgrimage, collecting conversations with rabbis all over America. “The extraordinary thing,” he said, “was that almost all of them mentioned a name to me, which I hadn’t heard of before. And the name was Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson…And they said, ‘You must meet him because he is the great leader of our time.’”
So, one day young Jonathan shows up at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. “I’ve come 3,000 miles to meet the Lubavitcher Rebbe,” he says, “Could I please have an appointment?”
He was laughed out of the room. “Do you know how many thousands, tens of thousands, of people are waiting to have a meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe?” the scheduler said. “He’s got … hundreds of thousands of followers. And they all want to see him…so come back next year or 10 years’ time and forget it.”
But young Jonathan was not to be deterred. “Well, look,” he said, “I’m traveling around on this Greyhound bus. I don’t know where I’m going to be when, but I do know that I am going to be in Los Angeles because I have an aunt there… So here is the phone number of my aunt. And if the Lubavitcher Rebbe finds that he can see me, please give me a call and let me know. And I’ll come back to New York.”
Would you believe it but a few weeks later, he got a call in Los Angeles on a Sunday night that the Rebbe would see him on Thursday? Amazingly, young Jonathan hopped back on a Greyhound bus for 72 hours of non-stop travel back to New York for a 25-minute appointment with the Rebbe. It is an appointment he credits with changing his life. And, I’d add, the lives of so many of us who have been touched in the years since by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ brilliant Torah taught with his trademark gentle tone.
What happened in the Rebbe’s office? Rabbi Sacks shares, “The interesting thing was that he did not really let me ask him questions, he asked me questions. He was interviewing me. And he said to me…‘How many Jewish students at Cambridge University?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, but around 1,000.’
“[The Rebbe asked], ‘How many Jewish students …get involved in Jewish life?’ I said, ‘About 100.’” [The Rebbe replied,] ‘You mean 90 percent are just completely disengaged? …What are you doing about it?’” Jonathan began to reply, “In the situation in which I find myself…”
The Rebbe interrupted, “You don’t find yourself in a situation. You put yourself in a situation. And thereby, I think you should put yourself in a different situation.”
That was it. Rabbi Sacks reflected, “[W]hen you are told by one of the greatest spiritual leaders of the 20th century you are going to have to lead…because you are in that situation where you can do something, that did actually change my life.” He concludes, “Good leaders create followers. Great leaders create leaders.”
That’s what the Rebbe did to transform Jonathan Sacks, a wandering Jew, a stranger in a strange land, into Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Jonathan Sacks was seen, and he made it his lifetime mission to see others. Jonathan Sacks was inspired, and he made it his lifetime mission to inspire others. Jonathan Sacks was charged, and he made it his lifetime mission to charge others.
Listening to him throughout his interview with Tim Ferriss, it is clear that he felt that was against his natural grain. He did not naturally gravitate toward leadership. But the charge he received is one he paid forward with every one of his days. And so can we.
Now, you may say, haven’t you heard we are in the middle of a pandemic, specifically a Thanksgiving that is not Thanksgiving, a simcha that would have filled our Sanctuary to the brim now remote? We cannot even see each other, let alone hop on a Greyhound travelling the country to seek our truth. You may say, he was the great Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, and I am just me. But back then, he was just Jonathan, a vulnerable young man facing an uncertain world, laughed out of the office. Yes, you may say, but he spoke directly with the Rebbe and received a personal charge. Yet each of us who hears Rabbi Sacks’ story or learns his Torah is now part of the ripple of that sacred charge that “the situation in which we find ourselves” – even, or perhaps especially, now – is ours to shape.
How? There is another young man who finds a calling in our parasha today. He finds it not in the best of times, but in the worst of times. Jacob is alone, afraid, and anxious about what the future will bring. He lays his head down on a stone and has a dream that shakes his soul.
He lies down, afflicted by the situation in which he finds himself, on the run from his brother Esau for a stolen blessing he always felt frustrated should have been his. He awakens to begin to own what the blessing he received actually means – not just the rights he had imagined, but the responsibilities – in a way that will lead him to become Israel and enable his own impact to ripple through time to every one of us today.
Jacob asks for God to be with him, to guard him on his way into an uncertain future, to have enough food to eat, and someday return to his father’s house again in peace. His prayer feels tailor-made for a pandemic. May God guard us all, bless us with physical health, keep us from hardship and hunger, and one day soon may we hug our parents, grandparents, and grandchildren again.
But those are not just wishes and worries. They are charges to us to act right now – to pay forward the legacy we have received. To lift up the loneliness of distance, seeing sanctity in our separation as a promise to protect each other. To lift up the loss of this profoundly broken season, the anxiety of uncertainty, with the question, “What is asked of me now?”
Jacob’s dream charges him with a mission. Jonathan Sacks’ legacy charges us with an example. They both take a negative energy zone and flip it, to give them the courage to rise up to shape our world.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks passed away on Shabbat, November 7th. But he has left a charge for us. Before he died, he wrote two books with big asks – “Morality,” in which he asks us to, as the subtitle says, “Restore the common good in divided times,” and “Judaism’s Life Changing Ideas,” which invites us to make our own the most powerful and transformative lessons of our tradition. Today we receive that charge – no Greyhound bus ticket required.
We are more than “the situation in which we find ourselves.” Today, may we take hold of our charge to lift up the blessings we find ourselves in possession of now and pay them forward.
In our fast and furious news cycle with so many historic moments of upheaval and anxiety covered every day, in the middle of this past week came a report that was different from all the rest.Read More...
October 3, 2020 — 15 Tishri 5781
I love the book. I needed the book. I know I have the book; my copy is dog-eared from repeated reading. But I couldn’t find the book.
As I searched high and low, an entirely different book jumped out at me. Its spine read, “Not Quite What I Was Planning.” If ever there were a phrase that captured where we are right now, that would be it! I would wager there are not many of us who can say, “Yes, this is exactly where I thought I would be come Sukkot.”
Since the first moments of the shutdown in early spring, I have been thinking, perhaps an unreasonable amount, about an old movie, “Sliding Doors.” It imagines one woman’s life unfolding in two drastically different ways for the smallest of reasons, depending on whether or not she catches the subway. The movie splits into two tracks. In one, we see her catch the subway and have a painful moment which ultimately leads her to becoming her best self. In another, we see what happens if she misses the subway: she stays stuck.
It is a concrete embodiment of the butterfly effect, a popular chaos theory that posits that very small causes can have infinitely large effects. In the context of our own lives today, if the butterfly effect applies, then we all have a million butterflies loose. What is the pandemic, after all, if not a massive sliding door?
I know this in my own family. The shutdown last spring coincided with something we had planned for my daughter since probably before she was born – an independent Israel experience. Mike and I both had been shaped and profoundly changed in Israel. Like a cosmic railway line shift, my entire life’s trajectory transferred to a different track by my experience there as a teen. I would not be here as a rabbi today if not for that. I would not have met and married Mike if not for that. And so we dreamed and planned and expected. What path would be shaped for our daughter? What would she discover about herself? Who would she become?
Instead, the spring felt a bit like one of those sci-fi movies where the crew is travelling light years away and they put the crew in stasis. Instead of adventure and discovery in Israel, our daughter was sitting home in front of a screen day after day. And we were the lucky ones. For others, their sliding doors moments have been the loss of a job, relationship collapse under the strain of too much together time, illness, or death of a beloved family member.
For each of us in this season of sliding doors, we thought we were living one story, along comes COVID, and suddenly we are living another. Throughout the High Holiday season I have been catching up with members: “How are your kids?” “My child was supposed to have moved to campus for their first year of college; instead they are online in the basement.” “What are you doing to mark the season?” “We thought we would be seeing my parents, our children or grandchildren by now, but it’s just us – again.” “What does your work life look like?” “We’ve chucked the five-year plan out the window. We are focusing on just trying to navigate a five-week plan or even five-day plan – this definitely is not what I was planning.”
It turns out we are not alone. Our tradition has a hero that embodies the Torah of sliding doors. We read about him today: Moses. Moses thought he was living one story. It turns out he had to live another.
Our Torah reading this morning begins with Moses sharing with our ancestors the details of the Omer sacrifice that we’ll offer when we get to the promised land – all while knowing he himself will never set foot in that promised land.
At the end of his life Moses gives a big speech. It is a long and beautiful and inspiring speech. But in the context of coronavirus, something I had never seen before flashed into focus. The context of his speech-giving is not just, “Here is what you are going to need to do when you get to the land; go and make me proud.” It is actually Moses’s reflection on the sliding doors moment about which he clearly still has feelings so many years later.
If not for the fear that gripped the Israelites and the decisions they made not to enter the land when they first arrived, the whole world could have been different! Moses would have been there 40 years ago. The whole hitting-the-rock-for-the-second-time thing would not have happened. He would be a young man in a young land. The people he had brought out of Egypt, he would have gotten to bring home.
When God called Moses back at the burning bush, the deal was go to the land. “I made a promise to your ancestors,” God says. “You’re my guy.” Then, of course, it turns out that is not the deal. Moses is angry. Then he is sad.
That could have been the end of the story. But it’s not. It’s the beginning of a story, a story we still tell today. You see, Moses has critical wisdom for us. Moses thought he was going to the land. Instead he got a sliding door. He knows his life has been indelibly shifted off its most foundational course because of events he could not control. He will never get to the land he has been dreaming of. It is exactly then that his most important legacy clicks in: he shapes a story of what can I do now? He names the loss, then gets to work on laying out tools for what it might mean to shape this new reality.
Author Bruce Feiler speaks pointedly to the power of shaping our sliding doors into new stories in his new book “Life Is in the Transitions.” It was printed before coronavirus became a household word, but it feels like it was written for precisely this moment. In it, he argues that each of us will experience, repeatedly over the course of our lives, what he calls disruptors: an event or experience that interrupts the daily flow of our lives and shifts the path we thought we were on. Feiler calls the most major of these “lifequakes”: “signature events that shape or, more accurately, reshape our lives, often in ways we can’t imagine with an intensity we can’t control.” The thing is, none of us are immune. Feiler argues that “even those in their twenties had been through one or two; no one over forty had been through fewer than three…the average [is] between three and five in a lifetime.”
If sliding doors take what we would have done, should have done, but did something else instead, and inexorably shape us into someone else instead, lifequakes do the same on an epic scale.
Feiler offers himself as an example. Having been diagnosed as a 43-year-old new father with a rare cancer, he re-examines not only his own life, but all life – setting on a path that ultimately leads him to conclude that “the proper response to a setback is a story.” What is his story? That he is a collector and teller of stories – and so he interviews hundreds of people, inviting them to share their stories, teasing out from them universal life lessons we all can apply to our own. The biggest finding from all these stories? Lifequakes are traumatic. But lifequakes, if we use them properly, can be the ingredient we need to force our hand toward renewal and resilience.
Which leads us back to Viktor Frankl, who writes, “Live as if you were living already for the second time.” In other words, imagine the sliding doors that you have gone through, and those you have missed, and use that vision to craft a different story with this one life you actually have now.
It is easy to see what has been lost. The idea of entering our own promised land is every bit as compelling for us today as it was for Moses. But the Torah of Sukkot is that our lives are fragile and precarious. The Promised Land is not always on the menu. When, inevitably, life is “not quite what I expected,” we can learn from Moses, Viktor Frankl, and Bruce Feiler. In this season of sliding doors, as we weather our lifequakes, we are called to shape a different story: not what happens to us, but what we make of it.
My father and stepmother left back in January to spend a couple of months in Israel. In March, the world shut down and they realized they were not coming home any time soon. This was not what they were planning. They had signed up for travel across the country, for great restaurants, for their favorite spice shop, for classes and connections and seeing friends. They had not signed up for being alone in a city not their own. They had not signed up for lockdown in their small apartment in Jerusalem, spending endless 24-hour days between four walls. They had not signed up for being unable to get home, an ocean separating them from grandchildren they wonder when they will see again.
But, realizing that they were not getting what they ordered, they wrote a different story. They filled their days with every online class they could find. They went for late-night walks down the deserted Jerusalem roads and started the paperwork for a process they had put to the side. In August, they made aliyah, fulfilling a life-long dream.
Today, they are in another lockdown in Jerusalem, as the whole country has shut down once again. The lifequakes keep coming. But they keep rewriting their story. And so must we.
In this season of sliding doors, what will your story be?
Shabbat shalom and chag sameach!
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July 18, 2020 — 27 Tamuz 5780
The latest symbol of the American culture wars is a can of beans. In case you missed the political scuffle, last week Robert Unanue, the CEO of Goya Foods, the largest Hispanic owned company in the U.S., stood next to the President in the Rose Garden and declared his support.
The response was swift and severe: a massive outcry that took social media by storm with clips of Hispanic celebrities flushing Goya beans down their toilets, tweets of tutorials for how to hand-soak beans, calls to boycott Robert Unanue and Goya Foods for what he had said. No question of why he was there or what his words meant to him.
A similarly swift response came from the right – a “buycott.” No question of why so many were so hurt.
Boycott or buycott, one thing was clear. Goya had just taken center stage in what has become the template for how we in America engage with each other today – through what is colloquially called “cancel culture.” The concept of “cancel culture” is a political flashpoint, often attributed only to liberals on the left. But the truth is that both on the left and the right, we in America today are quick to “cancel” those with whom we disagree.
How many of you have seen something like this appear on your Facebook feed at some point? “If you think this is ok, unfriend me immediately. I have nothing to speak to you about.” The “this” can be anywhere on the political map from racism, to abortion, to support for Israel or disagreement with it. The common thread is that if you support someone or something that is seen as unacceptable in a broader group, you are “cancelled.”
We like to think of this as unique to our time, but, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat pointed out, “All cultures cancel…Reputational cancellation hung over the heads of Edith Wharton’s heroines; professional cancellation shadowed 20th-century figures like Lenny Bruce.”
Indeed, even as far back as Talmudic times we Jews have our own version of cancel culture. It fell hardest on a young scholar who could not wrap his head around God in a world of injustice and did not refrain from saying so – Elisha Ben Abuyah.
According to stories told about him, even as a young student, Elisha could not resist secular scholarship, music, and the culture of the Greek world around him. He used to keep forbidden books hidden in his clothes and could often be heard humming a Greek tune. But he dutifully learned and taught, and he became an esteemed rabbinic leader – until one day when he witnessed the death of a child in the process of fulfilling a mitzvah. That broke his faith. He never returned – even going so far, according to one account in the Jerusalem Talmud, as to drop by houses of study to convince young men there not to waste their time on Torah but to pursue careers in the trades instead.
For his apostasy, Elisha Ben Abuyah earned the name “Acher,” Other, and became the ancient poster child of cancel culture. You might say from the very notion of “Acher” that Judaism stands firmly on the side of cancel culture.
But there is a coda to Elisha Ben Abuyah’s story – and the Talmud makes sure to tell it. Elisha had a student, Rabbi Meir, who did not cancel Elisha. Indeed, he want out of his way to keep seeking him out as a teacher, to keep learning from him to his dying day. When asked why Rabbi Meir would do such a thing, the rabbinic voice famously says, “Meir ate the date and threw away the pit.” By remaining in conversation with the “Acher,” the Other, Rabbi Meir chose to do something tremendously hard, something that he learned not from the cancel culture, but from an alternative ethos that also emerges from our tradition: chevruta culture.
In chevruta culture, a pair of students are encouraged to disagree in order to mine the truth. In chevruta culture you stay in conversation, you keep pushing, keep probing, keep trying to convince the person who feels very differently from you of the merit of your perspective. Indeed, chevruta culture is best exemplified by the word used to describe a study partner – a “bar plugta,” a sparring partner or adversarial colleague – reflecting the truth that there is always something to learn, especially from those with whom you most vehemently disagree.
Cancel culture is seductive in its clarity and in the satisfaction it brings of feeling morally in the right. That is exactly why it should give us pause.
Today we mark Birkat HaChodesh for the upcoming month of Av, most famous for the mourning we will do together on Tisha B’Av for the fall of the ancient Temple. Our rabbis could have made the observance of Tisha B’Av about an evil empire who wantonly destroyed that which was most sacred to our people. But they did not.
Instead they focused on Sinat Chinam, which is defined not only as baseless hatred but as the inability to speak to each other. They tell a story about a party invitation gone astray, delivered inadvertently to the wrong guy. The host meant to invite his friend Kamtza, but his enemy Bar Kamtza showed up instead. Rather than allow this enemy to enter, the host refused to speak to him and publicly cancelled him – which led Bar Kamtza to go off to the emperor and plant the seeds of ultimate destruction.
In other words, on Tisha B’Av, our rabbis chose to assert that the collapse of society is directly linked to the moment when we stop being able to engage with those with whom we disagree. And just to make sure we do not miss the point, they report in the name of Bar Kamtza that the biggest sin of the whole ordeal was that of the rabbis who saw and sat there and were satisfied with Bar Kamtza being cancelled.
What happens when we cancel people or ideas? We think of it as a “mic drop,” a “win.” But more often, not only do things not get better, they can get worse. The people who cancel stop listening. The “cancelled” often entrench. Hatred builds. Destruction follows. That is the Tisha B’Av path.
But there is also Rabbi Meir’s path – the harder path, the more troubling path, the more demanding path. Also, the more generative path.
Last week was a big week for hatred. Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson kicked it off with a vile antisemitic screed. Many rightly condemned him immediately and vowed to shut him down.
Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman made a different play. “I know he said some ugly things,” Edelman said about Jackson, “but I do see an opportunity to have a conversation… It’s really hard to see the challenges a community can face when you’re not a part of it…what we need to do is we need to listen, we need to learn, we need to act. We need to have …uncomfortable conversations if we’re going to have real change.”
“So, to that end,” he said, “DeSean, let’s do a deal. How about we go to DC and I take you to the Holocaust Museum, and then you take me to the museum of African-American History and Culture. Afterwards we grab some burgers and we have those uncomfortable conversations.” DeSean Jackson agreed.
Although the museums are not yet open for visitors due to the pandemic and the burgers will have to wait, their conversation has already begun.
Cancel culture or chevruta culture? It is our choice.
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