Rediscovering Our Faith in Human Decency

Parshat Nitzavim
28 Elul 5778 — September 8, 2018

I once had a red, lightweight, metallic brush for combing my hair to which I was very attached.  It had sentimental value because my father in love bought it for me when we were walking around the Watertown Mall.

One day, mysteriously, the red brush disappears.  I look in the drawer where I usually keep it. Not there. I look in neighboring drawers. Not there.  I look in Shira’s drawers. Not there.

Then it dawned on me:  Maybe my wife took my brush!  Maybe she woke up one morning and said I am going to use Wes’s brush, and when I am done, I am going to misplace it so that he can’t find it.  So I asked her:  Shira, did you see my red brush?  No, I did not see your red brush.  Did you use my red brush?  If I did not see your red brush, I definitely did not use your red brush.  Do you happen to know where my red brush is?  No, I don’t know where your red brush is.  Where do you think the red brush went?  I don’t know.  But I do know that I don’t want to talk anymore about your red brush.  It’s just a brush. Use another brush.

So I went back to my old brush.  Then one day, the red brush, that had mysteriously disappeared, just as mysteriously reappeared.  There it was again, in its accustomed spot.

Shira, I said: it’s a miracle.  The second coming of the red brush!

It’s not a miracle, she said.  By accident I must have put it in a bag of shopping returns.  When I did the returns, I saw the brush.   It was me.  Sorry.

I know it’s only a red brush.  But I pause here because the psychology of losing things, and finding them, is so striking.  When I lost the red brush, I felt a weird, outsized anguish at having lost it.  I knew at some level it is only a brush.  But I felt really sad when I lost it.

And then I felt a weird, outsized happiness when I found it.  We all know this feeling of the odd

anguish and relief of lost and found objects, whether our cell phones, wallets or keys.

I have been thinking about the red brush because many of us feel that we have lost something much more important than a red brush, and we worry whether we will ever know the joy of finding it again.

What we have lost was best captured for me by the movie Notorious RBG.  Here is Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, on the progressive end of the spectrum.  Here is the late Justice Antonin Scalia, on the conservative end of the spectrum.  They disagreed passionately on the merits of most issues.  And yet, they had the highest respect for each other as human beings.  They were fast personal friends.  They and their spouses dined together, even vacationed together, all the while they saw the world and the country and the proper role of being a judge so very differently.

That is what we have lost.  Justice Ginsburg and the late Justice Scalia were not like each other.  But they liked each other.  They were not like each other—they were philosophically the antithesis of one another.  But they liked each other as human beings, deeply.

That is what we have lost because all too often we cannot see the decency, the humanity, the menschlikeit, in people who disagree with us; in people who are not like us.  That is why all too often we do not like the people who are not like us.

If we feel bad for a lost red brush, how ought we to feel about the loss of our shared social fabric?

The place that we are in as a society right now calls to mind a line in the Book of Psalms that I have puzzled over my whole life.  In Psalm 116 the psalmist cries out: ani amarti bchafzi kol haadam kozeiv, in my anguish, I thought all people are liars.

I imagine the psalmist becoming a curmudgeon, looking out at his larger world and

retreating into his bubble.  The larger world has negative energy. People whose views I do not get. People who do not get me.  They are not like me.  I don’t like them. This is the anguish of a loner convinced that decency has fled the world.

How do we get back the sense of shared social fabric?

This summer a Weymouth police officer named Michael Chesna was slain in the line of duty, leaving behind a wife and two young children, ages 9 and 4.

That is just the kind of terrible tragedy that could confirm a curmudgeon in his curmudgeonliness.  People are liars.  People are cruel.  Life is suffering. I am retreating.

But there is a coda to this tragedy.  There is a seven-year old boy named Max Allegrini, who has two cousins, Gabriel and Matilda Murray, ages 8 and 10, who set up a lemonade stand in Norwell hoping to raise $200 to help Sergeant Chesna’s children.  Their lemonade stand had two signs.  “Lemonade for fallen officer” and “Help kids help Sgt. Chesna.”

The response was overwhelming. There was a constant line down the block from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.    The young lemonade merchants stopped only because they ran out of lemonade. They charged 1 dollar per glass.  By the end of the day the kids had raised $916.50.  The parents of the children agreed to contribute matching gifts so that the 7-year old, 8-year old and 10-year old raised a total of $2,000 for the Chesna family.

Here is what is really important about the story.  The 916 people who waited in line to buy the lemonade.  What is their politics?  Don’t know, don’t care. The parents of the three children who ran the stand and gave a gift.  For whom did they vote for president? Don’t know, don’t care.  The Weymouth police officers who were touched by this gesture of kindness.  Do they want the current Supreme Court nominee confirmed or not? Don’t know, don’t care.

It’s not that politics are unimportant.  Politics are very important.  It is just that you can

have very different political views and still be a good person.  Decency transcends politics.

And that—liking somebody who is not like you because you see their decency even as you disagree with their politics—is the red brush we need to find again.

Which is just what the curmudgeon in psalm 116 did.  For all of his surliness, he rediscovered his faith in humanity.

Here is the amazing thing about this psalm.  We say it as part of Hallel, the group of psalms that express joy in God and in the goodness of life.  The curmudgeon who was alone and alienated is now singing.  How did that happen?

The answer is simple. You just have to read Hallel.  The curmudgeon started to sing again because he found  lemonade stands. 

He saw that there were sick people, but there were also doctors to heal.

He saw that there were hungry, but there were also people who shared their bread.

He saw that there was homeless, but there were also those who opened their own homes.

He saw that there were widows, but there were also those who comforted widows.

When the curmudgeon saw these lemonade stands, he realized he need not be angry and alone.  All people are not liars.  Some people, maybe even many people, are decent.  Even idealistic and inspiring.   He started to sing with the intensity and joy of somebody whose faith  is lost and found.  He started to sing Hallel.

Here is your homework for this new year.  Can you be the reason that somebody else has their faith in humanity restored?  They look at you, who you are, who you help, how you act, how you care, how you talk, how you make things better, and they say, we’re going to be okay.  Decency still lives here.  Run that lemonade stand. Be the reason that a curmudgeon can sing again, because they believe in you.

Shabbat shalom.