Wednesday, September 13, 2017

This weekend, we will read about Moses' warning that at some point in the future, the Jews would be exiled, and later rteturn to our homeland. Driving in a sea of 7 million Floridians who left and returned, I was struck by this experience of rootlessness, of putting our lives on hold; for those of us who were here as well, I sensed that life was on hold-schools are closed for a week, and to quote a text one of you wrote, "nothing to do but cook and catch up on reading."

In some ways it has been like a Shabbat, like a week where instead of "doing" we have been engaged in "being." But it has also been distinctly abnormal, whether because our windows are boarded, our power is out, the library is closed, or we are not in our homes at all.

This weekend, as we read the parsha, I invite us to consider what the Torah is inviting us to feel as our "home," and in what ways even when we return to our houses are we still experiencing "exile.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Passover: Speaking our way out of shame

According to a recent article in the Atlantic, “the secret shame of middle class americans,” many more Americans are cash-stapped than we are accustomed to believe. For example, 47% of Americans can’t round up $400 for an emergency. Most can’t afford the accoutrements of middle class lifestyle: house, cars, health, vacation—which costs an average family $130,000, double the median family income. You’d never think—those who have these things talk about them, we hear about all sorts of family vacations, but those who don’t have don’t talk about it-it’s too shameful.
How many Americans are living in this kind of shame, unable to speak about the pain they experience?
The Haggadah instructs us to start the narrative with shame (gnut), and end with praise (shevah). The Talmud (Pes 116a) reports a debate about what shameful situation is meant. Rav says “shame” refers to idolatry, so he starts the Maggid narrative with terach’s idolatrous family. Shmuel, on the other hand, starts in Egypt with avadim hayyinu, “we were slaves in egypt.” What’s the difference?
Maybe for Rav, shame is when we do something truly bad, so he reaches back to idolatrous days. For Shmuel, on the other hand, shame has nothing to do with whether it is our fault; it is being in an embarrassingly low situation
What’s the shame in that? Why do we feel bad about ourselves when we are down & out? Why do people feel ashamed of not having money, live in silence?
Maybe the shame is really like Rav: fear that others will see it as a moral failure. The OED defines shame as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” Jeremy Seabrook, in the Guardian, recently argued that we used to blame poverty on God, but now we blame it on the people.
Or perhaps Shmuel feels that even if it’s not my fault, I still experience it as shameful. I know others will look down on me. Also, I can’t see myself as being needy, weak, etc. None of us wants to see ourselves as poor, vulnerable, down and out. We certainly don’t want others to see us that way. So we suffer in silence.
Just like when we were slaves in egypt, We are shamed into silence. Shame is a contemporary Mitzrayim
What truths do we have that we are not speaking?
What truths are those around us suffering but too ashamed to speak up?

There is a classic midrash on the word “pesah,” that interprets it as peh sah, a mouth telling. On a simple level, the ‘mouth telling’ is reading the Haggadah, telling the story of the Exodus. On a deeper level, however, the mouth is gaining the ability to speak through the process of the exodus. Gaining the ability to speak is itself yetziat mitzrayim, leaving egypt.
Now we get a little technical:
The Zohar distinguishes kol, inner truth that we need to speak, the voice of our heart, from dibbur, the words that actually leave our lips. If the universe is divine speech, self-expression, then kol is the voice of the divine heart, and dibbur is the actual expression of the divine into the physical universe.

Exile is a rupture between kol and dibbur. On an individual level, this means that my inner voice is not articulated into speech. On a divine level, this same rupture happens to God.

The Zohar says that the Jews were constricted like the embryo of a donkey in its mother’s womb. They could not move. Redemption started when they cried out: They cried out, and god heard their cry.

Really embryos do move, so not a great metaphor; maybe donkey embryos move less than human embryos, or maybe the point was that an embryo can’t talk. But the idea was that egypt is a constriction that prevents the dibbur, the articulation of deep truth—they were not not speaking their truth. Only when they cried out, in an unarticulated cry, did the redemption start

The invitation: speak our way out of our personal mitzrayim,
To speak our way out of shame

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Bernie's boycott of AIPAC

I was deeply saddened and disappointed by Bernie Sanders not addressing the AIPAC convention. It was sad to me, for one, to see the only Jewish candidate skipping a major Jewish convention. It was also disappointing to me since, just by virtue of being the only Independent in Congress, Bernie is something of a hero to me. But I was also deeply saddened by what it suggests for the possibility of conversation around Israel, and conversation in general over difficult topics.
For me, this raises some central questions: What’s the best way to deal with someone if I disagree vehemently? What does boycotting accomplish, and what does it destroy?
It is easy to engage in a “conversation” if I have enough things to say that you will agree with; this was the direction Hillary and Trump both went. It’s much harder to have a meaningful conversation if I assume you disagree with me if I walk in assuming there’s a conflict. The belief that there’s a conflict itself creates conflict.

I can think of two important ways to keep converations both real and productive, both of which 9I think) have a basis in Jewish tradition.
1. find common ground
In the classic debate between Shammai and Hillel (over a person sitting in a sukkah, but the table is in their house), Hillel wins the argument, not because of their superior reasoning, but because they were humble. What’s the proof they were humble? They quoted Shammai first. I imagine: they tried to fully understand his position first, and were even happy to explain his reasoning to others. I imagine they were even open to his arguments, even if (as in this case) they ultimately disagreed.
What would this have looked like? If you ever are a candidate for president who feels AIPAC is too easy on Israel, what could you do? You could first meet privately with AIPAC leaders, try to understand their position, try to learn if there are any facts that you may not have considered. try to understand whether there really are substantive differences.
I am not convinced the difference is really so far—maybe a difference in emphasis. Everyone at AIPAC already believes in a “2-state solution”-that’s not really a question. Could Bernie agree that Palestinians need to renounce violence before negotiating boundaries? Probably—he did say so in his speech. Could AIPAC agree that once Palestinians renounce violence, we would talk about a freeze of settlements? Probably.
What often strikes me in these conversations is that there’s much less substantive disagreement than the rhetoric leads us to believe.

2. engage personally,
In the debate between Hillel and Shammai, which was inherited by their followers (Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai), there were differences in their understanding of marriage laws that could have split the community. But nevertheless, their kids married each other. They were still friends. They didn’t
let it result in a breakdown of their relationships.
By boycotting, the conversation is automatically shut down. Once I boycott, I announce, I disagree with you no matter what, and there’s no conversation.
I would like to think that if Bernie had taken his proposed speech to AIPACleaders, and asked what they thought, he might have toned down what he said. I would like to believe he would have backed down from criticizing alleged Israeli bombing of hospitals in Gaza, if he realized they were being used as weapons bases (which he said are legitimate targets). I would like to believe he would not have criticized the alleged economic blockade of Gaza to the same extent, if he was educated about the military nature of the blockade, the challenges of allowing economic borders to remain open while trying to prevent weapons from entering, and the material support Israel does allow through.
When we shut down conversations, we prevent ourselves from growing, from learning our own blindspots. It’s easy to stay locked in my position, to think I’m right and build barriers against the world. It’s harder to engage in a meaningful conversation, where I learn and grow, and where I run the risk of actually changing my opinion.
The Talmud says that Torah scrolls should be written with a reed (rather than something stiffer) because reeds are flexible. May we all be flexible like reeds, growing in wisdom and understanding from deep conversation with each other.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Jewish Civil Disobedience, part 1: when do we cross the line?

Shifra and puah are my heroes
Transform course of history radically, through basic decency
Model for jewish civil disobedience, the faith that people being good, standing up to tyrants, can overpower them

Gandhi: He who resorts to civil disobedience obeys the laws of the state to which he belongs, not out of fear of sanctions, but because he considers them to be good for the welfare of society. But there come occasions, generally rare, when he considers certain laws to be so unjust as to render obedience to them a dishonor. He then openly and civilly breaks them and quietly suffers the penalty for their breach
Reading about shifra and puah in light of recent events makes me wonder:
Where is the line between non-violence/not committing crimes, and complacency?
Where is the line between speaking up and resisting, and criminality?

Danger of Criminality
The line to criminality has been crossed, recently, by BLM protesters destroying stores—ironlically, black owned stores-in race riots.

On Thursday evening, Nov. 12, a large demonstration by members of the Dartmouth and Upper Valley communities culminated in a moment of silence in front of Dartmouth Hall,” Mr. Hanlon wrote in an email sent to the Dartmouth community on Monday, The Tab Dartmouth reported. “This demonstration was a powerful expression of unity in support of social justice — Dartmouth at its strongest. I cannot say the same about events that transpired in Baker Library immediately afterward. I have heard reports of vulgar epithets, personal insults, and intimidating actions used both by students who entered the library and students who were already in the library.
Apparently: white students were pushed and shoved by the group during their Nov. 12 demonstration. some students studying in the Baker-Berry Library were yelled at, insulted and driven to tears.

In rockdale temple here in cincinnati, black rioters smashed the luchot during the race riots of the 60's; you can see the broken tablets in their lobby.

Halacha: law of the land is the law
-follow law and even pray for the governing authority
-only applies to just civil laws,
by proper authorities-i.e. the ones who mint the coine,
-only applies to laws which do not violate torah
What’s left?
Rambam: taxation & currency regulation
In general: halachic obligation to follow laws
Pay taxes, follow speed limit, don’t counterfeit money

Greatest danger: in protesting something unethical, I become unethical
Tzedek tzedek tirdof
never allowed to harm another person, even during a protest
While it is clear that Jewish law and tradition have a positive attitude towards protest and civil disobedience, it is equally clear that such activities must be non-violent in nature. This is because one Jew is not allowed to strike or injure another Jew. When Moses sees one Jew striking another in Egypt (Exodus 1:13), he says "Rasha, why do you hit your fellow!" and the Midrash comments: "Rabbi Yitzhak said: from this you learn that whoever hits his fellowman is called a wicked."
- Ginzey Schechter, Vol. I, p. 114.

Arthur waskow: the only violent protest is done by god (10 commandments). Most active jews get is going house to house requesting reparations

Palestinians try to justify suicide bombiongs: “it’s your fault for pushing us into a corner, that’s why we have to resort to unethical means
Unethical means always ruin the justice of one’s cause

But there are Situations when Obligated to break the law
Kiddush hashem: don’t break 3 biggies
In public: don’t break any halachot

So if a law requires us to violate halacha, we don’t simply say it’s the law of the land-

Midwives: not only did not comply, went directly against pharoah’s order
Ibn Ezra on 1:12-jews broke law by continuing to have children (nb midrash on amram)
V 17: tichiyena-rashi: fed them; sforno: gave them medical advice
V 19-20-lied to pharaoh; hizkuni-he apparently believed them
Willing to pay the price: v 12 batim
Rashi: lineage of levites, cohanim & kings; Hizkuni: house arrest

interesting cases in Israel: noncompliance with oppressive orthodoxy:
Article about illegal marriages
Also women of the wall smuggling a torah?
Does “law of the land is the law” apply here?—no-unjust, oppressive laws

Israeli army: built into code:
Purity of Arms – The IDF servicemen and women will use their weapons and force only for the purpose of their mission, only to the necessary extent and will maintain their humanity even during combat. IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity and property.

Discipline: IDF soldiers will be meticulous in giving only lawful orders, and shall refrain from obeying blatantly illegal orders.
Descent into chaos? (cf kim davis-wedding registrar in ky)
Reservists who refused to serve in west bank
Better to have that level of chaos than a tyrannical system with evil results
Perhaps a certain amount of chaos is good for the moral fabric of the world

Friday, January 15, 2016

Jewish Civil Disobedience Part 2: the obligation to speak up

pete seeger was followed by FBI for over 30 yrs, letters opened, blacklisted & called in 1953 before house committee on un-American activities and cited for contempt of congress, didn’t know why
In July 1942, Seeger, 23, was drafted into the Army. He was training as an aviation mechanic at Keesler Field in Mississippi. in the fall of 1942, Seeger, wrote a letter of protest to the California chapter of the American Legion. It was to the point:
Dear Sirs -
I felt shocked, outraged, and disgusted to read that the California American Legion voted to 1) deport all Japanese after the war, citizen or not, 2) Bar all Japanese descendants from citizenship!!
We, who may have to give our lives in this great struggle—we're fighting precisely to free the world of such Hitlerism, such narrow jingoism.
If you deport Japanese, why not Germans, Italians, Rumanians, Hungarians, and Bulgarians?
If you bar from citizenship descendants of Japanese, why not descendants of English? After all, we once fought with them too.
America is great and strong as she is because we have so far been a haven to all oppressed.
I felt sick at heart to read of this matter.
Yours truly,
Pvt. Peter Seeger
I am writing also to the Los Angeles Times

"How did the American Legion respond? It forwarded Seeger's note to the FBI in San Francisco. And somehow this matter was brought to the attention of the Military Intelligence Service of the War Department. Within weeks, military intelligence was investigating Seeger—and soon updating the FBI on its effort. The official "reason for investigation," as numerous military reports forwarded to the FBI noted, was that "Subject wrote letter protesting and criticizing the California American Legion's resolution advocating deportation of all Japanese, citizens or not, after the war, and barring all Japanese descendants from citizenship.""

Banal, something many of us would have done
Irony: now we all see that the government acted in an un-American way

Perhaps there are times when we must speak up
Whoever can protest to his household [for committing a sin] but does not, is seized for [the sins of] his household. If he could protest to his fellow citizens, he is seized for the sins of his fellow citizens; if the whole world, he is seized for the sins of the whole world. Rab Papa observed, the members of the Resh Galuta's household are seized for the whole world. Even as Rabbi Hanina said, “Why is it written, ‘The Lord will enter into judgment with the elders of his people, and the princes thereof” (Isaiah 52:14) If the princes sinned, how did the elders sin? But say, [He will bring punishment] upon the elders because they did not forbid the princes. - BT Shabbat 54b
Latin saying: Qui tacet consentire videtur “silence is consent”

Another explanation: Yocheved was called Shiphrah because through her the people of Israel increased
(sh’paru) and were fertile. Miriam was called Puah because she lifted (hophiah) up Israel to God. Yocheved
was called Shiphrah because her deeds were beautiful (sh’iphra) before God. Miriam was called Puah because
she defied (hophiah) Pharaoh, all but thumbing her nose at him, saying, “Woe to this man when God comes
to settle with him." Pharaoh, filled with rage, was about to have her put to death. But Yocheved, who was
called Shiphrah because she used to smooth over (meshapperet) her daughter's impudence, conciliated Pharaoh
by saying, "Need you pay attention to her? She is only a child and doesn't know a thing."
- Sh’mot Rabbah 1:13

Miriam and Yocheved were the balance of wisdom and courage, speaking and knowing when to be silent.

Tradition gives a major caveat on obligation to speak up: Only when we actually have power to stop something
But in a democracy, a vocal majority has power to stop anything
Argument that ‘nobody is listening’ swiftly becomes an argument for mass silence

Tyranny thrives on secrecy, and the implicit consent of the masses
Ramban on 1:10-pharoah’s plot to manipulate public so he would not be identified as bad guy
"Let us scheme against them" Pharaoh and his advisers did not decide to smite them with the sword, because that would be a great betrayal, to smite a nation that has come to the land on the command of the first king. Even the common people wouldn't give consent to the king to do such a crime, for he advises with them, and additionally the nation of Israel was numerous and mighty and would fight back in a great war. Rather he advised that they should act cleverly so that Israel should not feel that he is acting out of hate, and therefore he levied a tax on them, for it is common for foreigners to pay a tax to the king, as is seen by Solomon (Kings 1, 9:21)
In other words: found ways to oppress them that wouldn’t raise eyebrows
People would stay silent, allow their conscience to be subtly violated

2003: Iraqi war and duct taping windows
I was going to participate in anti-war rally, before Bush invaded Iraq
Government warned of impending biological attacks, told us to duct tape our windows
I didn’t go to the march—I was scared into silence

Silence is very dangerous because it empowers those who use it to support oppression, tyranny & abuse

Buchenwald-just outside city
Allied forces came in, forced locals to walk through in Sunday garments
And yet, when they talk about Nazis, some foreign element that came, did bad things, and disappeared
People don’t realize how much they themselves are complicit through complacency

I am very disturbed by peoples silence over Radzinger’s involvement in nazi youth
—“I had to do it”—what if nobody had complied?

On a personal level, Sometimes we are silent because we do not find the right words to speak up
Or do not feel anybody is listening
Art: honesty without hurting feelings

My experience recently:
Somebody laughing at me in demeaning way
I was upset, didn’t know how to respond, fell silent,
Finally told them: really hurt me that they were laughing at me
They claimed laughing because it was funny
I stood my ground, told them: still hurt my feelings

We need to find ways to speak up
For ourselves, in hurtful relationships
For what is right, in a world that often seems to be going in the wrong direction

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Kol Nidre 5776: sanctifying digital communication

Kol Nidre 5776 sanctifying digital communication

On Rosh Hashanah, we discussed some of the opportunities and challenges of our technological society. One of the amazing things that has happened is the advent of email. When I was at Dartmouth, in the 90’s, it was the early days of email; all students had an account, and it was something of a novelty. I never dreamed I would be asking my wife to email me the shopping list on my way home, so I could use my cell phone at the store. In Brooklyn, we could not find a single time all the members of the young family programming committee could meet, so we just met vie email thread. Some people could participate at lunch at work, at 3 am in their jammies.
Judaism has always recognized that communication is one of the places we are most likely to hurt each other. Language is the primary way we relate to each other, and according to the mystics and the literal sense of the torah, divine speech underlies and even forms the substance of creation.
There is a halachic term, lashon hara, evil speech. Lashon hara is more than just gossip. Lashon hara is any time I hurt another person with my words. They can be true or false, they can be an insinuation, a hint, even a non-verbal gesture. And there is an extensive body of literature exploring the details of what constitutes lashon hara.
We are still in an exploratory phase when it comes to texting and email, both as a society and as jews. The language of texting is evolving daily, now with innumerable emoticons. The Japanese site 2channel has literally hundreds of emoticons! I am inviting us to explore how this body of wisdom applies to email.
One of the basic challenges of email is the fact that there is no face to face interaction. There’s an enigmatic reference in Bereshit to eight kings who "reigned in the land of Edom before any king ruled over the Israelites" (Gen. 36:31). Isaac Luria, the founder of Lurianic kabbalah, taught that they died because they didn’t look panim bepanim, face to face. For Luria, these 10 kings were an early model for the spiritual substructure of the universe; they did not survive, and were replaced by a universe in which spiritual elements do look in each other’s faces. A universe of non-relation, of parallel play without true interaction, cannot survive; our universe is built on face to face relation. Babies know this; newborns are designed to focus on faces. It is one of our first instincts.
What happens when we lose the face?
When we communicate electronically, we cannot convey a tone of voice or body language, leading the other person to guess at our affect. So a well intentioned, calmed “why did you do that” can come across as an accusatory “why did you do that?” I have heard that 90% of communication is body language [I think my other 90% rule applies here]. The Talmud says when we smile, the white of our teeth is like the white of mother’s milk. Smiling is like giving someone mother’s milk. So, the Talmud, teaches, we should have a generally friendly, smiling demeanor. We can’t do that with emails. We can’t smile, unless we put in an emoticon and look like it’s written by a teenager. That’s a problem.
We also lose the other person’s facial gesture, body language. It is so easy to hurt another person in conversation; the Talmud says embarrassing someone is like shedding blood. If I see that I have upset you, and we are in person, I can modify what I’ve said, “oh, I don’t mean it that way,” or, “I’m sorry, that came out harsher than I meant.” I can tend to your feelings. If you’re not in the room, though, your feelings tend to fester, they don’t get tended to.
We tend to correct ourselves in communication—it is a living dialogue which shifts in response to the other person’s reactions. But when we email, which often happens very quickly, there is a permanent record, and if we try to change what we say, the person can point back and say, “look what you wrote.” We need to be able to take back our words. It is said that god tried to create the world based on emet, on truth, but he realized it wouldn’t work, so he cast it underground. Life requires kapparah, covering over, forgetting. Our relationships could not survive the glaring light of constantly scrutinizing what has been said in the past.
Another challenge of email is that we tend to forget how many people we are talking to. There’s a big difference between a small private conversation, and talking in front of 100 people. A few weeks ago, I was in the woods on my day off, so what do I do in the woods on my day off but check my email. Pam Saeks had relayed some of foundation’s questions about the synagogue to the members of the group that requested the grant. I whipped off a quick email on my cell phone, giving the names of the cutting edge places we are modelling our approach on. The next day, Brian Jaffee, the CEO of federation says to me “great email.” Apparently I wasn’t able to see every name that was in the cc field!
Several years ago, CNN reported the story of Jamie Diamond, an employee at a public relations firm, who emailed his boss about how to deal with a client. His boss wrote back about the clients' incompetence and how they hindered the team's ability to get anything done. But, oops -- the clients received the email as well. They yanked their $5 million account immediately
Fortunately, in my case, it worked to our benefit. But we often forget how many people we are talking to, and often include people who really don’t need to be included. According to Forbes, this is actually one of the biggest time wasters right now; many managers spend 20 hours per week on emails, many of which are just forwarded conversations they are being let in on.
The central example of lashon hara in the Torah is specifically about bringing a 3rd party into the conversation, who really should not have been included. The Jews are out in the desert, after Mt Sinai, and Moses decides that since he’s always on call for god, he is going to live a celibate life, and separates from his wife tzippora. Miriam, Moses’ sister, feels bad for tzippora, and goes to talk to aaron, her brother, instead of moses. For this, she is struck with leprosy, symbolic of lashon hara.
The central idea is that if we have something critical to say, we go directly to the person with whom we have a problem. This is the mitzvah of tochecha, loving rebuke done in a way which helps a person improve without hurting their feelings. Complaining to a 3rd party, even if they already know, is lashon hara.
Why is it human nature to complain to a 3rd party instead of the person themselves? Why was it totally natural for Miriam to go to aaron instead of directly to moses?
Perhaps because we are scared of telling the person, so it’s just easier to tell someone else. Miriam was scared Moses might be upset, or she was scared she would hurt his feelings
Perhaps because we don’t believe the person will hear us—Miriam wanted aaron to go together with her to moses, to make sure he’d listen
Sometimes complaining to a 3rd party is actually a form of revenge: You hurt me, I just want to hurt you back by telling other people about you. We get angry and naturally want to lash out.
The guldeline for rebuke is that we need to go directly to the person, and only bring in other people if the party proves recalcitrant. Miriam should have gone straight to moses, and if he wouldn’t listen, ask aaron to talk to him too.
We also need to be sure of our motives: that we are doing it to help the person improve, and to repair our relationship, not to get revenge. Miriam talking to aaron is just venting—it’s not actually helpful
Let’s imagine Miriam and aaron had smart phones in the desert. There is such a temptation for Miriam to cc aaron; maybe she’s thinking that otherwise he might ignore it; maybe she really is friends with tzippora and wants to embarrass him, or just lash out as much as she can. cc’ing is such an incredibly easy way to do lashon hara! I have noticed that the more upset people are, the more people they cc; really, the more upset we are the fewer people we should cc.

I’d like to offer some guidelines for us, both as individuals and as a community. I'd like to empower all of us to enforce these guidelines.

1. Notice when an email needs to be an in person discussion
If there might be substantive disagreement, we need to talk in person.
If somebody might be upset, it needs to be handled in person.
If you are upset, it should be handled in person.
If you are complaining about what someone did, it needs to be done in person.

2. Once we’ve had the in person meeting, don’t go and kvetch about it on email afterward.
According to Halacha, once a court has made a decision, a member can’t say ‘I didn’t agree’. Once the decision is made, you’re not allowed to kvetch. It’s pretty good advice.

3. Avoid Lashon hara by cc
Halachically, we are supposed to communicate negative information to the minimal number of people necessary to accomplish the result. If we have a problem with something someone did, we go to them directly. My advice is if it’s negative, there shouldn’t be anybody in the cc field. We need to question our motives very carefully when we add that cc.

4. Don’t forward a private email
There’s a halachic presumption that private conversations—things told to one or two people--are private. We need to be extremely careful forwarding someone’s private email.

5. Cc for nice reasons too

a. take the time to copy someone’s boss when they do something great
b. what a world it would be if everyone did something like that even once a month... or once a year.
Chofetz chayim’s prayer:
Master of the Universe, may it be Your will, Compassionate and Gracious G-d, that You grant me the merit today and every day to guard my mouth and tongue from loshon hora and rechilus.
And may I be zealous not to speak ill even of an individual, and certainly not of the entire Jewish people or a portion of it; and even more so, may I be zealous not to complain about the ways of the Holy One, Blessed is He.
May I be zealous not to speak words of falsehood, flattery, strife, anger, arrogance, hurt, embarrassment, mockery, and all other forbidden forms of speech.
Grant me the merit to speak only that which is necessary for my physical and spiritual well-being, and may all my deeds and words be for the sake of Heaven

I would add:
May we as a community and as individuals use our mouths, mouses, and cell phones only for helping each other, lifting each other up, and bringing holiness to the world through our kind and loving interactions

Yom Kippur 5776: The Limits of Empathy

Yom Kippur 5776: Whose life matters?

For a lot of us, yom kippur is about introspection—taking stock of my life, what I’ve accomplished. What I haven’t accomplished. Taking stock of my relationships, what’s new and wonderful, what’s broken and needs my attention. And of course we have Yizkor, where we remember our loved ones who are no longer with us, and our grief tinged memories of their presence in our life.
But Yom Kippur is not just about looking in. It is about taking stock of where I stand in the world, how I have impacted the world, what’s wrong with the world even if it’s not my fault, and how I can heal it. The priest’s 3 confessions moved out in concentric circles: first we take account of our personal lives, our families, what happens in the private sphere, and take responsibility for what I’ve broken. Then we move out to our tribe, and then the whole nation. What have our nation done wrong? What are the sins of our nation even if I have not caused them? The Talmud teaches that the high priest, especially, bears everything on his shoulder because at least he could have davened harder, for peace, for safety. It was a huge weight to carry.
How much of a weight do we have to carry on our shoulders? Do we have to bear moral responsibility for the whole nation, for the world?
How far must our empathy extend?
If empathy is a zero sum game, if having concern for one person means I neglect another, then it cannot possibly extend to the entire nation. I must pick winners, and in doing so, pick losers. I only have limited attention. If I pay attention to the black community, I neglect the police who are getting shot at trying to keep the peace. If I pay attention to what’s going on here, I neglect the millions of syrians fleeing the atrocities of Assad, and the horrors going on in ISIL, in Iran, all over the arab middle east.
When I pick up Aliza, to feed her, Daniel wants to sit on my lap, which is okay because I have two legs. When I kiss Daniel, Hannah thinks it means I don’t love her, and of course, my legs are already allocated. We have a basic assumption that love is a limited resource,
But What if loving one person, having empathy for one, actually extends my compassion, makes me more capable of loving of loving others? What if empathy is not a zero sum game, but rather like the ocean, where you may take a cup but it is still full? Or better yet, what if it is like a candle, where if I take the heat to light another candle, I actually increase the light in the room? What if by having empathy even for the people hardest to have empathy for, I actually extend my ability to empathize with the entire world?
Some people scratched their heads when pope francis washed the feet of juvenile offenders. Did these people deserve his concern? And as jews, we are tempted to say, yeah, that’s catholic meshugas; we know better.
There is a very interesting Mishnah in Sanhedrin, about what the shechina (the divine presence) says when a murderer is executed. This is a murderer we are talking about—someone who was convicted with absolute certainty, by witnesses who warned them and saw them commit the act. When such a person is executed, the shechina complains, “my head hurts.” The divine presence in the world is an empathy that feels the pain of all human beings, even a murderer.
Having empathy for a murderer does not mean we’ve taken sides, that we don’t have empathy for the victim. It means our soul has become so expansive that we even feel the pain of such a person.
The haftarah for today, from the book of Isaiah, tells us not to be overly introspective today. It tells us to take stock of the world, and take responsibility for it, to feed the hungry, take the needy into our homes and have them at our table.
Why the needy?
The mystics tell us that actually, the needy are an embodiment of the shechina, of the divine presence in the world who is eternally dependent on the divine, and has no light of her own, much like the moon is in need of light from the sun.
What about the needy who are caught up in drugs, in violence? Are they too an embodiment of the shechina? As we all know, poverty is intertwined with gangs, drugs, violence. Is Isaiah telling us to focus on such people, on Yom Kippur?
Two weeks ago, we had a selichot program that I found heart opening. We were visited by 3 students at cincinnatti cooks, Kye, David, and Rachel.
Little David, who isn’t so little, looks like a gang member. He is a strong young man, black, he wore a baseball cap, and dressed like a gang member. He actually was, previously. He grew up in a poor, violent neighborhood, where you had to be tough to get by on the street. As he said, you couldn’t show any signs of feelings, of softness. He had to miss school regularly to take home his family’s WIC food baskets. I don’t know if he finished high school, but he got caught up in drugs and gangs, and was convicted on a gun conviction. Many of the students grew up with abusive parent figures, going hungry, being beaten and insulted as children.
Little dave is in the Cincinnatti Cooks program now, and almost finished. He has interviewed for a job as a dishwasher at a chain restaurant, which he is excited to take. I worked as a dishwasher in high school—it was miserable, underpaid, hard work. This is Little Dave’s path out of the criminal system.
Listening to dave’s story, and Kye’s, and Ruth’s, I was struck by just how hard their lives are, how hard they have to work just to stay out of criminal trouble. At the dessert reception, Little david was piling up desserts. At first I figured, okay, he’s not worried about seeming appropriate, but then it dawned on me, he hasn’t had dinner. I offered him dinner, and he gave me a look of “that would be terrific.” The students in the program do not make an income; they get to take home one portion for their families. Some of them are homeless, or living in a recovery center.
Ruth was laid off from her job at a day care, because she is restricted for working with children for 10 years from her date of conviction; she lost her house, and at age 66, she is just beginning a career as a food service worker. She described the temptation of wanting to cash a forged check, just to have basic necessities. What an incredibly hard row to hoe.
I want to challenge us with the possibility that david, Ruth, Kye are included among the people Isaiah is saying we should be thinking about today. Isaiah calls us to think about the stain of poverty on our nation, a stain which has only spread, not gotten better. Perhaps, too, we should even think about people like Little david who chose gangs and drugs because it was the only viable career path they could see, and hurt people along the way. Can we, like god, be poshet yad leshavim, extending our hand out to those who wish to return, and have empathy for Little David, Kye, and Ruth?
I think we can. That night after selichot, and the next morning, many of us reacted strongly realizing that we had hungry, homeless people here, and hadn’t done more for them. One person poignantly asked, did they just come to serve our own spiritual needs, for us to feel good? What were we doing for them? It was a very good question.
This past year, riots have erupted under the banner of black lives matter. It is a truism, of course, that black lives matter; but the challenge has been that it seems to negate other peoples’ lives from mattering. What about white lives, like Zachary Hammond, a teenager in south Carolina who was shot while he was out on a date, who had 10 grams of marijuana on him? What about cops, like sonny kim, who was just a wonderful human being? What about the innocent children in sex slavery, and slaves on fishing boats, don’t they matter too?
And what about the fact that many of these young black men who have been shot really were often up to criminal activity, or that they didn’t follow police orders? Shouldn’t we focus our attention instead on people who really are just the innocent bystanders, people who chose not to go down the path of criminal activity?
Every life matters. The Mishnah teaches that when a human king stamps coins, they all look the same—they have the image of the king. When god stamnps coins we all look different, but we still have the image of the king. We are all unique manifestations of the divine image. Can we understand that all lives matter, that there’s no such thing as a lowlife?
The window into this, for me, is Little David. We could write him off as a gangster, a criminal. Our system does exactly that, by making it so hard to return to society, by leaving drug trafficking as the only viable career option open to him. Little david could easily be shot by a cop, and nobody would blink. Can we see the divine image in him?
I think once we do this, we develop our empathy, our ability to see the divine in everybody. We challenge ourselves, we ask ourselves: is everybody in our country given the opportunity to lead a life in which they really matter, where they are not the dregs of society?
I am challenging us, as a community, to look at the poor neighborhoods in Cincinnati, black neighborhoods with 74% childhood poverty rate, and ask how we can help. The black community has 8x the level of gun violence as non-black; 1 in 6 black men will be incarcerated in their lifetime. Isaiah is talking about these communities. Isaiah challenges us: what would happen if we take them into our homes, feed them, clothe them, help them?
Isaiah calls us to unlock the fetters of wickedness around the world:
To speak out about slavery—in the sex industry, fishing, chocolate
To speak out about oppression of religious minorities happening right now in the middle east

Isaiah calls us, too, to reach out to our own communities, to places like the new prospect Baptist Church, in the old JCC, and ask how we can help. To reach out to Cincinnatti cooks, which is helping people like david rebuild their lives, giving them a second chance, and ask how we can help. To join with AMOS, which I am a member of, and pursue policies which create equal opportunities. And to take a deep look at our society, and not accept the status quo, to ask what we can finally do to untangle the terribly tangled web of poverty, drugs, and violence that traps people like Little david, to help them live lives that matter, that honor the divine image in them.