Category Archives: Uncategorized

Yin Yang

Getting Better is one of my favorite Beatles songs. First, Paul McCartney’s voice on this recording is perfectly captured. Second, the harmonies with John Lennon are spot on. Third, the instrumentation is so clever; between Paul’s bass line and the tamboura that George Harrison plays about half way through the song, is captivating. Fourth, the quality of the recording is exceptional: the harmonies, in particular, stand out. It’s worth getting headphones to listen to this song. But there is something else; it’s the message of the tune.

Paul started writing the song and famously played the chorus for John. He sang, “I have to admit it’s getting better/A little better all the time.” To which John added in his classically cheeky, subversive, cynical style, “It can’t get no worse.” And so the song was created, co-written by Paul and John, yin and yang personified. The song, deceptively simple, exemplifies the duality in our lives and times. Or as Dickens wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” 

We can all so absolutely relate to those opening words from A Tale of Two Cities, a book published in 1859 about the French Revolution, which transpired in 1789. But this then begs the question: Is our deep familiarity with this yin/yang as described by Dickens or later sung about by Lennon/McCartney, pathetic or encouraging? Or both? 

Let’s be frank: sometimes it’s hard to look at the general situation of our planet and the people and animals on it, and not feel the panicky desire to find the nearest exit. It’s all so overwhelming; “can’t get no worse…” We can feel the cold wind blowing from the abyss, the certainty of our mortality. We see and hear so many terrible things. We witness suffering as well as experiencing our own losses and traumas. And yet there is a force that drives us forward. As Jews, that cosmic, Divine force has made all of the difference. “The Jews’ assigned task within humanity has been, despite everything, to endure and abide in perfect faith and trust: to hope. That is what it has meant to be Israel.”

Rabbis Emil Hirsch and Joseph Jacobs sum it up: “For all its realism, Judaism never advised passive resignation, or the abandonment of and withdrawal from the world. It rejects the theory that the root of life is evil, or that humanity and life and the world are corrupt as a consequence of original sin. Its optimism is apparent in its faith in the slow but certain uplifting of humankind, in the ultimate triumph of justice over injustice, and in the certain coming of a Messianic age.” Or, as Lennon/McCartney sang, “I have to admit it’s getting better/ A little better all the time.” 

There is a great Hasidic aphorism attributed to Reb Simcha Bunim that stipulates, “Keep two pieces of paper in your pocket at all times. On one: “I am a speck of dust,” and on the other : “The world was created for me.”” Both are true and finding a balance point helps us stay sane. The struggle between these dual truths is our struggle to find meaning every day. Every day we ask, why bother? And the answer is, why not? It can’t get no worse. And the answer, according to Bob Marley, is, “Every little thing’s gonna be alright.” These days I feel pushed up against the wall as I survey my world. The despair, the divisions growing more pronounced, the hatred and the bigotry louder and more vitriolic than ever. It can’t get no worse. But spring is coming and the holiday celebrating our redemption will be here soon. And who can scoff at the promise of springtime and a bowl of matzah ball soup? You see? Yes, I admit it’s getting better all the time.

Empathy

I was invited to join a panel of professionals at Mass Bay Community College to discuss the subject of empathy before an audience of academics and college administrators. It was fascinating to explore how different people express empathy, and why. The panel included a psychology professor from Mass Bay, a high school guidance counselor, a minister who teaches at a university and maintains a pulpit presence, and me.

There was little disagreement about defining empathy. We all subscribed to the notion that empathy is viscerally feeling what another feels, as opposed to sympathy. The main difference is that when you have sympathy, you are not experiencing another’s feeling. Instead, you can understand what the person is feeling. We identify empathically when “our entire consciousness is projected into another person, so the feelings that inhere in others act upon us.”

Theresa Wiseman, a nursing scholar, noted four attributes of empathy:

Perspective taking refers to walking in the other person’s shoes and trying to think like them.

Staying out of judgment means not making comments that infer their emotions or response was invalid or wrong. Such as, “that’s stupid. Why did you get so upset?”

Recognizing the emotion is looking within yourself and identifying that feeling the other person could be feeling. It’s okay to check it out with them ask if you’ve got it. For example, you could say, “Sounds like you are feeling sad.”

Communication refers to being expressive about understanding their emotion and validating them.

The ability to connect empathically with others—to feel with them, to care about their well-being, and to act with compassion—is critical to our lives, helping us to get along, work more effectively, and thrive as a society.

As I thought about empathy before, during, and after the presentation, I came to feel an enormous sense of sadness and despair about the world we’re living in right now. Empathy is in short supply. Instead of listening to others and attempting to enter their concern, we seek ways to cut them off and shut them down. As Stephen Covey famously said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

Our tradition teaches us to listen carefully to those who are dispossessed, those who have no voice. We are enjoined to look out for the widow and the orphan and the strangers in our midst. God tells us that we are responsible, that we must do something to ameliorate social inequities. And more: God says we have a special obligation to engage in the act of reaching out to the Other. We know the heart of the stranger, because, as God reminds us 36 times in the Torah, “we were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

When we forget that once we were dispossessed, abandoned, cruelly treated, and persecuted by various governments and peoples, we lose our Jewish spark. When we fail to engage, to empathize, we fall in with the darkest impulses of humanity. And, God knows, there is so much darkness in the world.

With apologies to Burt Bachrach, what the world needs now is not love, it’s empathy. We don’t have to love those who are disenfranchised or needy or broken. But we must affirm their humanity, feel their pain, and without judgment, express our solidarity with them as fellow human beings.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand is a living example of how to respond with empathy in a highly charged atmosphere of mistrust, contempt, fear, and hatred. She has shown the world what an empathic leader can do. Wearing a black headscarf was a beautiful, empathic gesture to the Muslim community. Refusing to use the name of the killer was a powerful empathic response to the nation of New Zealand, affirming citizens’ feelings about the criminal by refusing to popularize him for other deranged mass murderers. Banning military-style semiautomatic weapons and assault rifles was a powerful step in responding empathically to the overwhelming sentiment for such an act by the vast majority of Kiwis.

Prime Minister Ardern reminds us that empathy is more than a series of kindnesses. Our tradition reminds us that, “We were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This is not just a throwaway line. It’s not just a Passover topic. It is a call to action.

Beyond Belief

Again.

I’ve read so much about the Holocaust, looked at Nazi propaganda, and wondered how educated people could look at us and then decide that because we are Jewish, we are, ipso facto, subhuman. Why are there people for whom our existence is an insult?

No matter how much I try, no matter what I read, I remain utterly clueless as to how it is possible for a person to plan methodically, and then carry out, a mass murder against people who have committed no crime, whose only “sin” is to be of a different color and/or religion.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Omar Ilhan, her statements that some see as antisemitic at most, and at least, insensitive to Jewish interests and historical trigger words. But I’m not worried about her comments. She’s a first-year representative; we’ll see how she does and the extent to which she’s interested in Jewish concerns. No, she’s not seeking to inspire a race war; she’s not glorifying mass murder.

What worries me, what keeps me up at night is white nationalism and the twisted ideology that fuels it. A hodgepodge of ugly, ignorant thinking riles people up who feel disenfranchised, left behind in a multi-ethnic future. These deluded people – mostly men – are motivated—at least in part—by the fear that whites are in the process of being demographically outnumbered and replaced. Hence the chants in Charlottesville, Virginia, of “Jews will not replace us! Blacks will not replace us! Immigrants will not replace us!”

You may have noticed that, when it comes to white supremacists, we Jews are not considered white at all. For the men who gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, we are an enemy, a historical relic that must be destroyed, because we are Jews. For the shooter in New Zealand, for Dylan Roof, and some of the other sickos engaged in this despicable behavior, the Jewish people are no different than the folks sitting in the mosque, praying to Allah.

Now more than ever, we must acknowledge that we are a part of an alliance comprised of Moslems and people of color. We are in the same circle as Honduran refugees, eager to find safety. We share a real vulnerability to this kind of hatred and rage.

The phrase “white genocide,” a mythological conspiracy created by white supremacists – contends that people of color – and that includes us – are plotting to destroy the white race. Get used to hearing this absurd, stupid claim. It is the clarion call of the alt-right. It’s used all the time now.

We know white nationalist violence is here to stay. The real question is whether the United States and other governments will treat it with the seriousness it deserves and work together to counter this growing international scourge.

In the meantime, we stay vigilant. We monitor the hate groups and support organizations that get us accurate information. We extend ourselves to our allies and our friends, to all who, like us, are under threat from a small group of deluded and insecure men who work out their insecurities in violent, anarchic acts of murder and mayhem.

And of course, we send our condolences to the families of the victims in New Zealand. We pray with them and promise to do what we can to stand against these foul racists and murderers and their supporters.

The Western Wall and WOW


Netflix isn’t a streaming service. No. It is an alternate Universe of entertainment and education. Movies. Documentaries. Limited series. Old tv shows. Going to Netflix is like entering a casino with old familiar games and new ones you’ve never played before. I’m sure there’s a systematic way of surveying what’s available… but I don’t know it.

Last month while hunting Netflix for something to watch, I came upon an Israeli series called Shtisel. It follows the ins and outs of the Shtisels, a haredi (ultra-Orthodox, non-Hasidic) family in Jerusalem. As they speak a very stylized Hebrew and Yiddish (there are English subtitles), we learn about a unique, and little known Jewish sub-culture. We follow their complicated lives, observing their universal struggles through a very particular lens.

In so many ways, the show humanizes this Jewish sect that is generally seen as fundamentalist and extreme in behavior and ideology. Yes, we bump up against the sharp edges that are a part of haredi life, and the generally low opinion they have of the secular world – which is, essentially, everybody that is not them. But we also encounter a family’s deep love for each other, the loneliness of old age and widowhood, the ease with which they lie without any seeming pangs of conscience, the restrictive ways the rules bind and chafe at them.

As I watch Shtisel, I feel a kind of affection for the family and their humanity. I see the struggles that are a part of preserving their world, and the difficulties with living up to impossible expectations. It is a moving show.I thought of the Shtisel Family today as I watched coverage from Jerusalem of the Women of the Wall (WOW) celebrating the 30th anniversary of their movement. Or at least they were trying to celebrate. Unfortunately, ultra-Orthodox yeshivot and girls’ schools sent thousands of young students to block public access to the woman’s side of the Wall and ‘assigned’ the students to do whatever they could to disrupt the approximately 150 Women of the Wall and their supporters who showed up.

Anat Hoffman, the director of WOW, was there, proudly proclaiming the rights of all Jewish women to express themselves freely as Jews. She is a true champion of religious pluralism and of the rights of all Israeli citizens to equal treatment under the law. All they want is to read from the Torah, to wear a tallit, and to proclaim their love of God and the Jewish people. It is a public space of equal significance to all Jews.On her Facebook page, Melissa Carp, a member of our temple, a first-year rabbinic student, and an intern at WOW, wrote the following:

Today was probably one of the scariest days of my adult life. I have been anticipating Rosh Chodesh Adar II, that coincides with International Women’s Day and the 30th Women of the Wall Nashot HaKotel anniversary for months. I came ready to daven with revolutionary women that have been dedicated to this fight for over three decades. Instead I was greeted by 8,000 people in opposition, with such hate in their eyes they seemed completely soulless.Young girls were praised for their effective technique of bulldozing WOW supporters with their bodies, giggling and smiling at the older women that they had successfully knocked to the ground. I was almost trampled by these thousands of girls dozens of times, my feet in pain from using all my strength not to fall over.I’m tired. I’m tired of the word “Reform,” the denomination of Judaism that I hope to one day serve being used as an insult. I’m tired of the monolithic control of the Orthodox Rabbinate. I’m tired of panicking over the well being of my classmates at Shacharit. Yet, after today, I’m even more motivated. I’m even more motivated to repair today’s devastation and so grateful for the people I am lucky enough to stand with.

I watched film clips of the confrontation at the Wall. I watched ultra-Orthodox girls spitting on women, scratching their faces, pushing them down. I watched ultra-Orthodox men pushing, shoving and grabbing at the men who were there to support WOW. It was what Reb Shulem Shtisel would’ve called ‘a shanda,’ a shameful event. Yet it is also likely that the fictional rabbi would’ve sent his students to harass the Women of the Wall.

I’ve never managed to understand how it is possible to call oneself a Jew and then seek to destroy or to defame other Jews. I’m not naïve… I’ve seen it throughout Jewish history right up to the present day. It is a case where we are, once again, our own worst enemy.Until there is a willingness to talk, until we are able to see our shared history as a bond and a gift rather than a millstone around our necks, this madness will continue.

I wish Reb Shtisel and his family a gut shabbos. I wish they would respond with love and not violence. I wish words of kindness would flow from their lips instead of spit and revilement.

We are so proud of Melissa Carp and the other men and women who walked into the plaza of the Western Wall,outnumbered and vulnerable. The police did little to protect WOW, and stood by as they were abused by the crowd. But Melissa stood tall and proud. We salute her and wish her well.

When Anat Hoffman comes to TBA on March 29th, I hope you will join us at Friday night services to get her take on her recent experience as well as to hear Anat’s remarks on the future of pluralism and democracy in Israel. This is something around which we must all unite.

The Devil and Us

The other day, my dental hygienist asked me a very significant question. Of course, she had a dental probe in my mouth at the time. But it was so important that she removed it to let me answer. We’d been talking about her experiences as a believing, devoted member of the Armenian Apostolic church and their trip to Israel. During our conversation – well, her talking and my grunting – she asked me, “Do Jews believe in the Devil?”

I’m generally not asked questions about the Devil. It’s just not a “thing” for us. There was a period in the early centuries when the rabbis incorporated the figure of Satan as a demonic force loosed by God to test the Jewish people. In the Jewish literature of the rabbis, Satan is portrayed as a singular being who lures men into sin, and as a prosecutor in the divine tribunal, trying to convince God to mete out harsh penalties. He is said to have been a powerful angel, able to fly and assume the shape of men, women, and animals.

By the medieval period, this image of Satan as an actual being diminished. It was understood as a Christian belief, not to be emulated. This doesn’t mean that there were not appreciable superstitions related to Satan. In Christian dominated Europe, the image and the presence of Satan was ubiquitous, as was the unfortunate tendency to call Jews the devil’s spawn. This was picked up in popular Jewish culture and then channeled through the prism of Kabbalistic texts. The notion of an animated universe, filled with evil spirits, was anathema to many rabbis of the Middle Ages, but eagerly embraced by the common folk.

Many years ago, as a young rabbi in Texas, I put together a study group with a group from my temple and a group from a liberal-leaningDisciples of Christ church. The minister, Dick Lord, was a smart, funny, and open-hearted friend who was willing to take on any and all questions and controversies about our respective beliefs. I will never forget the day we spoke about evil. He was absolutely sure that there was a demonic force that existed in the world, an independent malevolent presence that sought to uproot human life. How else, he wondered, could one explain the evil in the world? It had to come from somewhere.

I replied that, from a Jewish perspective, there was no independent force, no Devil in the Universe. Jews believe in the Yetzer ha-tov, and the Yetzer ha-ra: the impulse for good and the impulse for evil. Human beings can perform selfless deeds of breath-taking good and have the capacity to commit unbearably evil acts. It is all about our individual existential decisions, choices to live a life of decency or conversely to stray from the path of righteousness. This dualistic battle, this endless acrobatic feat of finding a balance between our own selfish, self-serving agendas, and the greater good, is a struggle throughout our lives.

Most of the time we know what’s the right thing to do. But we also know what’s the most expedient thing that redounds to our benefit, and frequently, the two are diametrically opposed. 

No Jewish logic can justify saying, “The devil made me do it.” We may want to blame a force outside of ourselves. It makes us feel less overwhelmed and guilty.

The Jewish lexicon does not include the phrase, “The devil made me do it.” No force pushes us against our will to sin. It’s a decision, to do good or to do evil. The Yetzer ha-tov and the Yetzer ha-ra are impulses that make us think all of the time.No, Jews don’t believe in Satan. There’s no one to blame, no devil to shake our fists at. It’s all on us. It’s looking in the mirror and challenging ourselves to aspire to be our best selves.

Jussie’s Lies and the Search for Truth

The truth is, I hadn’t planned to write a Before Shabbat essay today. It’s the last weekend of vacation, people are away, maybe I’m feeling lazy… whatever. But then, the Jussie Smollett case broke wide open. If you’ve been out of the loop or refusing to watch the news (something I wish I could manage…), Jussie Smollett is a gay African American actor who claimed that he was attacked on the streets of Chicago. The alleged perpetrators, wearing MAGA hats, called him disparaging names, smacked him around, put a noose around his neck (a racist trope), and then poured bleach on him as a metaphor for their hatred of Smollett’s black skin.

What a harsh, tragic story. What a tale of invidious racism and a sign of just how low people have sunk. Almost every trope of hatred was mixed into this travesty of an assault. Three weeks ago, I responded, in part, by writing, “I want to say to Jussie Smollett that while I was never beaten or terrified like he was, I feel his pain and I applaud his bravery. We were strangers in the land of Egypt, and in Poland, and Russia, and Latvia, and, and, and… We stand with you, Jussie. We pray for justice. We pray for wisdom. We pray for peace.”

I honestly felt a deep sadness about Jussie Smollett, about the USA, about the future, about the world as it is and will be. Today, three weeks later, I feel sick. I wonder: what was it that motivated Smollett to do something so stupid? How blinded was he to the ramifications of his despicable actions?

Smollett initially claimed that the story of his attack, a true archetypal hate crime, happened. As Chicago police began to investigate the crime, they found that some pieces were not fitting together. He began to equivocate just a bit and then, realizing he had been backed into a corner by the truth and by surveillance cameras, he fessed up.

False reports of hate crimes are exceedingly rare. Between 2016 and 2018, there were approximately two dozen false reports, either confirmed or suspected, according to figures compiled by the Center on Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. That’s a fraction of the several thousand hate crimes documented by the federal government over the same period.

It was all a ruse, a publicity stunt, to get him sympathy, attention, a better salary, and name recognition. On the latter, be careful what you ask for. His stupidity, his utter lack of dignity for himself and empathy for the people he falsely implicated as well as callousness for the people who, like him, are actual targets of hatred, are evident.  He’ll never work again. Good.

Why did so many people, including myself, accept Smollett at his word? Because it was a story of outrage, another sign of how the current zeitgeist of America is a horrible, vindictive nightmare. It proved that haters are emboldened, that hate crimes are increasing, and that innocent people of color are victims of persistent racism that continues to grow. Smollett’s lie worked as well as it did because those general statements are true. By lying, Smollett gravely damages the credibility of those victims of hate who are telling the truth.

We are, all of us, so ready to jump on the stories we hear that support our view of reality. Instead of waiting to listen to the considered truth, instead of giving the media precious time to get it right, we want the answer according to our political preferences. It’s true of the Left. It’s true of the Right. It’s true of well-meaning people who are fired up, loyal to their cause. It’s also true of ideologues on the Left and the Right, cynics who make ignorant pronouncements and outright lie for their own advantage.

The whole situation is so sad. In the end, there is little to do other than this: we can, each one of us, try breathing a bit more deeply first. We can try to evaluate information rather than immediately use it as ammunition or as a means to make our soapbox higher. We need to listen more carefully. We must be unrelenting when lies are told as if they were facts. The truth: so fragile, so vulnerable, is so often a victim of hatred and corruption. I pray that we might find a way to uphold the truth again.

Shabbat Shalom,

rebhayim

Waiting

The chorus of the Door’s hit, Waiting for the Sun, is essentially one word: waiting. I sing that chorus quietly, in my head, whenever I find myself in a line for longer than 5 minutes: at Starbucks, on the phone, at the supermarket. It’s a good mantra, and I highly recommend you learn it.

 I’m sure there’s a statistic somewhere that provides what percentage of time we spend waiting: for people, places, and things alike. It’s probably a shockingly large number: at least, it feels that way. Even with my trusty iPhone in hand, waiting around can get irksome. I have so many other things I could be doing! Why am I stuck waiting?

The recent news flash that Boston has the worst rush-hour traffic in America was not a surprise for anyone who has ever found themselves on I-95 between 7-10am or 330-700pm, literally inching along. It can be utterly maddening, hence radios, illegal texting, and the Doors…

Why do I get so anxious and bothered about waiting? Someone once remarked to me when I began to lose it in some line I was standing in at the time, “What else have you got to do?” I suppose sometimes I have an excellent comeback, like, “Are you kidding? I have several appointments!”, or, “I have to make dinner!”, or something like that.

But the truth is that I am not a neurosurgeon, nor am I an EMT or an ER doctor. Life and death does not depend on my presence or absence. I always have stuff to do, but is it worth jacking up my blood pressure? I don’t think so. I will try, in good faith to get to where I need to be, but without killing myself in the process. The older I get, the earlier I leave to make sure I arrive on time to where I need to be, though this causes problems, chief among them being: I have to wait… Hence, the Doors. And earphones and podcasts and music.

Jews know a lot about waiting. We’ve been waiting for the Messiah for two thousand years or so. Sometimes this staying on hold gets to be too much, and there’s an explosion of impatience that provides an opening for someone to claim that they are the Messiah. Over the centuries, hundreds of thousands of Jews – maybe millions – became tired of waiting. Impatient for a change in their lives that would lead them from poverty and persecution to eternal life and salvation, they embraced a messiah.

 But it never panned out. From the first century, when Jesus as the messiah failed to ignite more than a small following of Jews, to the 17th century, when Shabbetai Tzvi convinced so many Jews for a short while that he was the Anointed Savior, to current times when there are those who say that the Lubavitch Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994, was the messiah and will rise from the dead – we’ve waited.

Most non-Orthodox Jews have let go of the ultimate Messianic dream. A personal messiah, chosen by God to lead the Jewish people to salvation, especially after the Holocaust, seems hopelessly anachronistic. No one is coming to save us. There are no shortcuts or sacred deeds that will lead to a perfect world. There is no end run around mortality. This is life: hard, unknown, dark, scary. We are the doers. We are the ones who create light to banish the darkness. We’re waiting.

It’s not sad or frightening to acknowledge that every self-aware human is waiting for the end. So as we move through space, let’s not hide. Let’s dance and sing and celebrate and love. As Leonard Cohen sang it,

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin

Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in

Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove

Dance me to the end of love

Dance me to the end of love

Or as Jim Morrison sang it, “Waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting…”

Beating Up the Future

A couple of months ago, I saw an extraordinary headline in the New York Times. It read, Wielding Rocks and Knives, Arizonans Attack Self-Driving Cars. I initially thought I’d misread it. It sounded like an Onion story. However, the story was legit.

Police reports obtained by local media suggest that the Chrysler Pacifica cars run by Google sister company Waymo have become a target for some disgruntled locals, with 21 incidents recorded in the past two years.

One car had its tires slashed while parked and Waymos have had rocks thrown at them on five occasions, the Arizona Republic reported.

One man aimed a gun at the backup driver of another Waymo car as it passed his driveway. He was arrested and charged with aggravated assault and disorderly conduct. His wife told police that he suffered from dementia.

A dark Jeep appears to have targeted the cars on six occasions, swerving abruptly towards them or braking sharply in front of them.

On another occasion, a “heavily intoxicated” man deliberately blocked the path of one of the cars by standing in front of it.

“He stated he was sick and tired of the Waymo vehicles driving in his neighborhood, and apparently thought the best idea to resolve this was to stand in front of one of these vehicles,” an officer wrote in a police report.

This phenomenon conjured an image I’d once seen many years ago. It shows people taking sledgehammers and iron bars to textile machinery. They’re angry, and they’re afraid. They believe that there is something evil afoot, and it’s to be found in the mechanisms of a new machine.

These were the Luddites, British workers in the late 1700s and early 1800s who, in a futile attempt to turn back the tide of mechanization, set about destroying machines — and in some cases killing the people who owned them. It led Britain to pass a law making machine-wrecking punishable by death.

The Luddites had many concerns about machines and how they would ruin their lives by taking away their jobs. But they also worried, as Thomas Carlyle wrote in 1829, that technology was causing a “mighty change” in their “modes of thought and feeling. Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand.”  “It’s about being afraid of machines and an abstract force called technology, rather than economic and political oppression,” says Steve Jones, a professor at Loyola University, Chicago. “People … have the sense that there is a disembodied, non-human force called ‘Technology’ that’s a threat.”

“People tend to express the highest level of fear for things they’re dependent on but that they don’t have any control over, and that’s almost a perfect definition of technology,” said Christopher Bader, a professor of sociology at Chapman College. “You can no longer make it in society without using technology you don’t understand to buy things at a store, to talk to other people, to conduct business. People are increasingly dependent, but they don’t have any idea how these things actually work.”

I try to empathize with this fear of technology, this sense that we are not in control of our world. It can be frightening to imagine how so much is happening around us all of the time that we cannot see or hear. We may wonder about our vulnerability to malevolent forces, how freely people can snoop around our lives, and so on.

The thing is, we can’t destroy technology. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle, nor can we uninvent the iPod or the desktop computer. Change can be extraordinarily disruptive – it usually is. As much as we may complain about our kids and screen time, there is no question that technology is enabling our kids and grandkids to access so much more knowledge than ever before.

Technology is not always good nor always bad; it is simply a reflection of the best and the worst of the human imagination. But we need to be on the edge of the change, and not trying to beat it up with a rake. Running a driverless car off the road may stop that car at that moment, but the future will not be deterred.

We Are All Strangers


This past week, Jussie Smollett, a gay Black man (who is Jewish, by the way…) who is one of the stars of the TV show Empire, was brutally attacked in what Chicago police are investigating as a possible hate crime. The actor took himself to the hospital directly after what police called a “possible racially-charged assault and battery”; authorities say he is in good condition. Police received a report that Smollett was walking in the downtown Chicago neighborhood of Streeterville around 2 a.m. local time “when two unknown offenders approached him and gained his attention by yelling out racial and homophobic slurs towards him,” the city’s police department told NPR. Smollett told police that the two men beat him up, “poured an unknown chemical substance,” believed to be bleach, on him, and wrapped a rope around his neck.

As I read this awful story, I first thought about Jussie Smollett. He must’ve been so terrified, convinced he would be murdered right there on the streets of Chicago. It’s traumatic just to read about such a blatant attack. It’s hard to know how Mr. Smollett will go on after having actually experienced it.

I’ve never hated anyone so much that I felt moved to violence. I despise the alt-right people who spread calumnies against Blacks and Jews. I loathe those people who propagate antisemitism, hatred of Moslems, racism in any form, and all neo-Nazis. But I don’t dream about beating them or killing them.

How did the alleged perpetrators justify their wanton and unprovoked violence against this Black gay man? Who are these people? What motivates such unforgivable violence against another human being?

Bernard Golden writes that “Acts of hate are attempts to distract oneself from feelings such as helplessness, powerlessness, injustice, inadequacy, and shame. Hate is grounded in some sense of perceived threat. It is an attitude that can give rise to hostility and aggression toward individuals or groups. Like much of anger, it is a reaction to and distraction from some form of inner pain. The individual consumed by hate may believe that the only way to regain some sense of power over his or her pain is to strike out at others preemptively. In this context, each moment of hate is a temporary reprieve from inner suffering.”

Historically the victims of this phenomenon are those who are perceived as less powerful, on a lower rung of the social order. We Jews know this syndrome all too well. Regarded as outsiders and strangers, we often felt this misdirected rage and hatred over two thousand years.

We know the heart of the stranger because we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. If we are human, so are they. If they are less than human, so are we. We must fight the hatred in our hearts.

And how do we do this? There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.

How do we spread this message? How does a culture morph from projection to a more sophisticated sense of inclusiveness? How do we live with the other when the other reminds us of our own shortcomings?

I don’t pretend to know any answers here. I can only continue to embrace my credo of unity. I can only continue to teach about oneness, about honesty, about reaching for a greater good. I can only keep trying to see that when I react negatively to another, that it may have less to do with that person, and much more to do with me.

I want to say to Jussie Smollett that while I was never beaten or brutalized like he was, I feel his pain and I applaud his bravery. We were strangers in the land of Egypt, and in Poland, and Russia, and Latvia, and, and, and… We stand with you, Jussie. We pray for justice. We pray for wisdom. We pray for peace. And we promise to continue to work for change by supporting leaders with a shared vision of inclusion, who, through their otherness, know the hearts of others as their own. There is no us and them. We are all strangers looking for peace.

Context and Subtext


 There are days when, after reading an article or listening to the radio or watching TV, I stop and wonder: where am I? It’s like I’m living the lyrics from the Talking Heads’ fabulous song, “Same as it Ever Was”:

And you may ask yourself
what is that beautiful house?
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right? Am I wrong?
And you may say to yourself, “My God! What have I done?”

When the video of the high school boys from a Covington, KY Catholic school went viral last week, I admit to being utterly horrified. Here was a group of mostly white high school boys standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, who were sent — on a school field trip! – to join in protesting a woman’s right to choose the destiny and the sanctity of her own body. As they waited for the buses to pick them up, decked out in freshly purchased MAGA hats, they began to harass an older Native American man, named Nathan Phillips, who was chanting a traditional song and playing a Native hand drum.

The video focuses on a boy named Nick Sandmann, who stands very close to the tribal elder, smirking the classic smirk known to all who work with or live with adolescents. It is a look of condescension and derision. His classmates, who are mocking the tribal elder by jeering and crassly imitating Native American dances, back him up. 

Watching that video was a profoundly disturbing experience. It reminded me of an infamous photo from Nazi-occupied Poland. A group of young SS officers have surrounded a religious Jew and are cutting his beard off. They are laughing, having a great time exercising their unbridled cruelty and animus at the expense of this poor man. The one who is closest, inches away from his face is smirking; it’s the same smirk. It’s the same message: “You are nothing. I am superior. You will not replace us.” 

I was filled with revulsion and disgust watching this display of hatred. Is this my country? Is this what passes for appropriate conduct? I know deep in my heart that our Midrasha high school students would never engage in this kind of debasing behavior. And I pray that they are never on the receiving end of it. 

As a few days went by, the story got much more complicated. Nick Sandmann’s parents hired a pr firm that specializes in crisis management. They produced a longer video that shows these same kids being harassed previous to the encounter with Phillips, by a group of Hebrew Israelites (who are neither…), who are essentially like Westboro Church, committed to extreme provocation to make a point of their chosenness. 

Some people have suggested that the full context of the day is crucial in order to gain a true understanding of events. They say that these boys are being singled out and vilified for behavior that they did not even engage in. If you had been there, some say, you would have seen that the boys were being actively heckled by the Hebrew Israelites and that their seemingly over the top, hyped up behavior was a response to that. Some also say that Mr. Phillips moved towards the boys and that some of them may have felt intimidated. Of course, context is essential, and so many stories that we see and read on social media are shaped to provoke us, and not inform us.

I watched the hour-long video to gain a sense of context, and I can say that the general scene at the Lincoln Memorial was utter bedlam. Adolescents and chaos are not a good combination, and so I think my initial disgust and my association with the Covington boys and Hitler Youth may have been a bit of an over-reaction. 

But if we acknowledge the importance of context, how can we not see a Native American man being disrespected? How can we not acknowledge that the tomahawk gestures, along with the mocking of the Indian chant, were ignorant and crude behavior? We can empathize with Nathan Phillips and the fear he experienced that day. Looking at Nick Sandmann’s face as well as the faces of some of his classmates watching Sandmann smirking and blocking Phillip’s attempt to pass, gives me valuable context. Like many, I have attenuated my initial outrage; however, it is still a sad display of just how far we are from MLK’s dream. 

Where am I? Waiting for justice. Working for justice. Teaching about justice. God, give us all the courage to stand with those who are disenfranchised, to remember that the message of Passover is an everyday, year-round obligation: none of us are free when someone is still treated with scorn and derision.

 Shabbat Shalom 

rebhayim