January 5, 2019 — 28 Tevet 5779
When you see somebody do something that you do not understand–perhaps it is puzzling, perhaps it is more than puzzling, it might even be offensive to you–how are you supposed to think about and respond to this challenging conduct? Consider three vignettes.
The first comes from my youth. When I was a kid growing up in Denver in the 1970s, working at my parents’ kosher grocery store, our best customers were Lazar and Irma Rosen. They were an elderly couple. Every Friday, I would deliver their groceries, our biggest order of the week: chickens, turkeys, briskets, jars of gefilta fish, challa, cakes. But here is what was puzzling. They already had all of this in abundance. In fact, I did not deliver the groceries to their house, but to their garage, where they had multiple refrigerators and freezers that were already amply stocked. I would unpack all the food in their fourth or fifth refrigerator or freezer wondering: why did they order all this food when they already have all this food?
The second example comes from the New York Times sports pages and concerns a man named Gary Vaynerchuk. Gary Vaynerchuk is a multi-media magnate. He owns a thriving communications company. That is his day job. But on Sundays, he takes off his executive garb, and puts on his green New York Jets jersey, and spends fall Sundays when the Jets are at home tailgaiting, grilling hotdogs and drinking beer with the guys, and watching the game from his bleachers seat, Section 113, Row 18. That is every Sunday the Jets play at home, all day. What is remarkable about the story is that, with very few exceptions, the Jets have been perennial losers for the last 50 years. It has been 50 years since Joe Namath’s guarantee of victory. It has been 50 years since Jets fans have had real nachus. Which means that Gary Vaynerchuk has been giving up all those Sundays for a losing cause. His lifetime dream is one day to buy the New York Jets and help them win six Super Bowls before he dies. Why this lifelong commitment to a mediocre sports franchise?
The third example concerns conduct that some might find offensive. It comes from a marvelous work of fiction, The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout. The story is set in a fictional town called Shirley Falls, Maine, described in the novel as the whitest town in America. It is a New England mill town that has fallen on hard times. One of the characters, Susie Burgess, has strong negative feelings about a new thing that is happening in their town: the arrival of Somali immigrants. As the narrator tells the story, the Somalis are coming from a dangerous, war-torn, violent place of civil war where people are starving to death; women are raped; there is no education and no future. From this desperation a lucky few find asylum in this New England mill town. When they arrive, many of the citizens in Shirley Falls welcome them with open arms, helping them begin a new life, by taking them shopping for clothing, for refrigerators, for anything they need to start their new life. Susie Burgess hates all this. She hates the Somalis invading her hometown. She resents the people she decries as liberals who take the Somalis shopping. She is bitter and resentful about this changing world, so much so that she and her twin brother stop speaking because their politics are so different. She knows the women were raped and people starved. Why does she have such strong feelings of resentment against people seeking their thin slice of the American dream?
How do we think about cases where people do things that we do not understand?
Motivational speaker Brene Brown quotes a 19th century Scottish minister named Ian Maclaren who observed that everybody you meet is fighting a hard battle that you know nothing about. They are fighting a battle that is totally engaging to them. But you know nothing about it.
In other words, everybody has a backstory that can explain their rough edges and curious choices. They do what they do in large part because of their backstory. We know what they do. But we usually do not know the backstory that explains why they do it.
Consider a surprising turn in the Exodus story. The King of Egypt, melech mitzrayim, decrees explicitly that Egyptian midwives are to kill newborn Hebrew males. Drown infant boys in the Nile. That is the genocidal command of a fascist King–which is observed by everybody throughout the land with the sole exception of two courageous women who defy the King. Their names are Shiphrah and Puah. Defying the King’s command, these two women let the Hebrew newborn boys live. Their defiance is inexplicable. Who defies the King? They are placing their own lives in peril.
Why did they do it? Rashi’s answer is that these midwives had backstories. Namely, Shiphrah was Yocheved, the mother of Moses. Puah was Miriam, the sister of Moses. Both women presented themselves as Egyptian midwives. But both were also Israelites who had a very personal connection to this decree. Complying with it would have meant that they had to murder their own son and their own brother.
This is so real and so deep. Rashi is suggesting that all of us have not one but two identities. We have our external identity. What we show to the world. And we have our internal identity that we do not show to the world. But our internal identity drives what we do, how we act, how we roll in the world, even as the world has no idea, even as the King of Egypt had no idea that Shifra and Pua were Israelite women. Backstories matter.
Which means that when we encounter conduct we do not understand, we might ask: what is their backstory? Can we summon humility? What do we not know that might explain why they are doing what they are doing? Can we summon curiosity? What battle they are fighting? Can we summon generosity? How can we help? In the battle that they are fighting, how can we be a friend?
Why did Irma and Lazer Rosen order all that food when they already had all that food?
They were Holocaust survivors. They were constantly, chronically hungry. When they emerged from the Shoah, they were skeletal thin. When they came to Denver, and procured resources, there could never be enough food. It took me until my adulthood to realize that the five refrigerators in their garage were not for feeding their current appetite. It was responding to a hunger that could never be satiated. Backstories matter.
Why does Gary Vaynerchuk have this obsession with the perennially underachieving New York Jets? He was born in Belarus. He came to America as an immigrant who did not speak English; who was an outsider; who felt like an outsider; who felt like he did not belong. But there was one thing that made him feel like he belonged. When he rooted for the New York Jets with kids his own age who also rooted for the New York Jets, he felt at home. He belonged. It wasn’t about the Jets winning or losing. It was about this young boy from Belarus fitting in. Owning the Jets would be the crowning glory of his American story. Backstories matter.
Why did Susie Burgess have such negative emotions about the Somali immigrants to Shirley Falls? Let me share her words, as she finally explains her feelings to her twin brother Bob, who had not been speaking to her over this issue. She tells her brother:
Caroline Prescott and her daughter-in-law are always taking these Somalian women shopping and buying them refrigerators and washing machines or a whole set of pots and pans. And I think, is there something wrong with me that I don’t want to buy a Somalian woman a refrigerator? Not that I have the money, but if I did, Susan gazed off into space, then started knitting again…
She continued, I have this friend, Charlene Bergeron, who got breast cancer, and people offered to help with her kids, take her to treatments. But then her husband divorced her a few years later. And zip. Zero. Nothing. No one stepped forward to help her at all. And it hurts, Bob. That’s how it was for me, back when Steve left. I was scared to death. I didn’t know if I’d be able to keep this place. Nobody offered to buy me a refrigerator. Nobody offered to buy me a meal. And I was dying, frankly. I was lonelier than I bet these Somalians are. They have family crawling all over them.
Bob said, “Oh Susie, I’m sorry.” p. 50.
Everybody has their own version of Steve left me, and nobody called. Everybody has their battle that you know nothing about.
It is human nature to be put off by conduct we don’t understand and don’t like. It is human nature to judge, to diss, to dismiss—all of which creates distance.
What would it look like if we tried to transcend our default position? What would it look like if we responded to the person whose deeds we found challenging not by judging, dissing or dismissing, but by summoning our humility, curiosity, and generosity?
What is their backstory? What battle are they fighting? How can we help? It is not easy. It does require transcending our natural impulses. But it is a new year. Let’s try to create a new world. Shabbat shalom.