2020: The Year We Should Have Learned Humility
It’s still a little early for Yom Kippur, but today I was thinking about the Al Chet confessional that we recite then. Specifically the part that says:
עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָֽאנוּ לְפָנֶֽיךָ
For the sin we committed before You
with haughty eyes.
So here’s the thing: In 1973, I boarded an airplane for the first time in my life. And not just for a short flight, but I was travelling to Israel, the first time I had been outside of the United States. As we passed over the Atlantic, my mind was also flying. “Wait, the world is round”, “Oh, I’m not in America anymore”, “English isn’t the major language where I’m going (or in most of the world)”. It was an eye-opener for a 17-year old kid, who grew up thinking that the entire civilized world was the United States of America.
After spending that trip and the year that followed studying in Israel, my perspective was never the same. The realizations were that: there is civilization in other places, there is science and research throughout the world, people my age were going to universities everywhere, folks worked at deli counters like my dad and at law offices like my cousins not only in the U.S. And let’s be honest, we weren’t even building the best or coolest cars in the U.S.
And I realized that we Americans weren’t just proud of our country (a good thing), but we were flat-out arrogant about our country (not a good thing). Despite growing up seeing racism and poverty, I was taught that America was just the best country imaginable. Despite watching elected officials who took bribes, turned off the microphones of opponents at goverment meetings and knowing how serious voter fraud was in 1970’s Chicago, I learned that American democracy was just the perfect form of government. Despite knowing that our family didn’t have the money to send me to college, I heard over and over how any kid could get anywhere and accomplish anything in America. The lessons were inspiring. And not as true as I was led to believe.
Along came 2020 and the truth came out: All protestations aside, we didn’t have the “best testing”, or the “best research” or even consistent policies to combat a pandemic. The racism that we middle class white folks thought had magically disappeared with the civil rights movement was alive and well. The antisemitism that was just a childhood memory in which Jews couldn’t move to Kenilworth or join certain country clubs, ended its historic downward trend with a strong upsurge and with actual mass killings in synagogues. And many Americans shut their eyes to it all, preferring lies to truthful bad news.
Humility is a tough practice. Like many kids, my parents overpraised me and my abilities. And my rabbinic training gave me a hightened sense of importance. Humility has to be acheived through hard work, every day. But the only way we can ever achieve personal improvement is the recognition that “we are but dust”, balanced by the Talmudic affirmation that “for my sake was the world created”.
We can go into the High Holiday season as Jews (or whatever season for any human) in one of two ways: We can choose to continue to affirm personal, group, religious, racial, or national superiority. Or we can choose to recognize that the same blood pulses through the bodies of every human being. We can boast about being the best and continually compete with everyone else. Or we can accept the reality that we’re on this journey together, that nobody has all the answers, and that we and our countries need to learn to collaborate and cooperate.
So let’s examine ourselves, our society, our countries, our world. during this season. The great leader Moses is praised not because of his giving of the law, certainly his greatest acheivement, but because he was the most humble human being. And that humility gave him the opportunity to be good and to be great.
And let’s make a choice, to be humble so that we can all improve, personally and societally. And work to make our world both good and great.
Cleaning up our Act This Yom Kippur
During the holiday season, the Selichot / Penitential prayers include the following declarations:
דִּבַּֽרְנוּ דֹּֽפִי – We have slandered
זַֽדְנוּ – We have sinned with malicious intent
טָפַֽלְנוּ שֶֽׁקֶר – We have added falsehood upon falsehood
לַֽצְנוּ – we have mocked
צָרַֽרְנוּ – We have caused others to suffer
עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ בְּטֻמְאַת שְׂפָתָיִם
For the sin we committed before You through impure speech…
עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ בְּדִבּוּר פֶּה
For the sin we committed before You through the words of our mouths …
וְעַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ בְּשִׂנְאַת חִנָּם
For the sin we committed before You through free hatred…
In all, there are around a dozen or more references to how and what we communicate that are on the list of what we seek forgiveness for at this season.
Following that point, allow me to share some bipartisan dialogue that we’ve seen from those who either ran for office on either of the two major parties ballots or who actually currently hold elective office in our United States.
In no particular order:
“XXX was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, XXX. He made XXX look smart, which isn’t easy to do.”
“When you give a crazed, crying lowlife a break, and give her a job at XXX, I guess it just didn’t work out. Good work by XXX for quickly firing that dog!”
“Crazy XXX is trying to act like a tough guy. Actually, he is weak, both mentally and physically”
“It’s one man, one man, myself, that’s standing for the truth, and the news media can’t stand that — the Democrats and Republicans, the cursed two-party, Jew party, queer party system — can’t stand that!”
“The holocaust is a bunch of kosher baloney. It’s an extortion racket pure and simple to extort money out of perpetrators
“Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel”
And then there are the disgusting uses of the words “libtard” and “Nazi” to describe those with whom we disagree. And the mischaracterization of the detention camps for children who have entered the country as concentration camps of the Nazi model. They aren’t.
These words and behaviors are not on the extreme sidelines of American life. Their sources are the President of the United States and candidates from either of the two major parties for congress or other offices. They were from Illinois, from Minnesota, from Michigan and others.
Those are the tip of the iceberg. An average week on Twitter or on CNN or on Fox News will report dozens of these. This type of communication has replaced what used to be civil dialogue. Most of us can remember the Trumps and the Clintons pictured socializing together, we can see the Bushes and Obamas befriending each other, and during the Mc Cain funeral, we saw liberals and conservatives together mourning his passing. But today the voices of those who insult and those who hate is louder and more persistent. And every time we retweet, repeat or tolerate these types of expression, we become partners in sin and in moving the world a little bit farther from where it needs to be headed.
What has become missing in action in our country and in our world is a type of divergent thinking in which one side of an argument or the other doesn’t have to be stupid or just plain wrong. We have stopped recognizing gray areas and no longer recognize that both sides of an argument might be intelligent and that both are committed to the community’s good and welfare.
Two quick lessons, one from the Talmud, one from medieval debates: In the first, the schools of Shammai and Hillel argued over many points of Jewish law. Hillel is generally the lenient, while Shammai tends towards the strict application of law. Eventually God takes the wheel in a heavenly rant in which he states that elu v’elu divrei Elohim chayim, both opinions reflect God’s living words, but concludes that the law follows Hillel. In discussing why Hillel’s opinion won out, it is suggested that it was because the school of Hillel always taught the opposing opinion – that of Shammai – before it taught its own opinion (Talmud Eruvin). It was humility and openness to more than one possible truth gave Hillel and his followers the edge.
The second lesson is that of the mezuza. There was a dispute as to whether the mezuza was to be hung horizontally or vertically. The argument could have turned easily into the type of name calling and insulting that we see all over social media today. Instead it led to the compromise that is universally practiced in the Ashkenazi community. Yes the mezuza is hung in the unlikely slanted position, a compromise in which both sides were able to claim a limited victory and validation.
It would be easy to see what is happening in the United States, and even to a degree in Israel and to say “this is not Judaism’s business”. There are fringe groups in the Jewish people who do try to isolate themselves and do not bring their Jewish beliefs and core values to the greater society. But in doing so, we deprive Judaism of its greater value and deprive the world of important lessons that we have to share.
We are, according to the Torah, mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh, the kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Not the only nation or people in the world, but one which aims to be a model to other nations. We Jews cannot be passengers in the boat of the larger world that has holes letting leak in, lest we all drown together. We have to step up to be leaders who are fixing the moral leaks of our greater world.
Our politicians and world leaders aren’t going to be angels. Certainly, that standard was not expected or attained by even the greatest of Jewish leaders from Abraham to Sarah to Moses to King David to Golda Meir. But each of them stepped up to admit their wrongdoings, often helped by ancient or modern prophetic voices who demanded they aim higher.
We need to step up to be those prophetic voices today. As Jews, we need to demand greater wisdom and higher standards for the leaders of our people and for the leaders of our country and our world. It’s not just about “but s/he is good for Israel” or S/he is good for our Jewish neighborhood”. To accept limited self-interest as the main tipping point in who we promote as leaders, while leaving moral leadership off the table isn’t Judaism. When we look to leaders and find that they are totally immoral in their personal and business lives, and that we have to actually censor their words because they cannot be repeated in the company of children, then we’re lost our moral compass.
We need to use everything at our disposal: our votes, our letters to the editor, our letters to our leaders, social media, donations, whatever it takes, to bring back what the Talmud refers to as lashon naki, clean speech in public dialogue. We need to demand that personal and public integrity is more important than self-interest. As noted in the creation story (particularly that of the mystics) the world was created incomplete so that we can work to perfect it.
May we find the strength and courage to step forward to bringing civil discourse and respectful disagreement back, so that we can work together in service of the goal of improving ourselves, our communities, our country and our world in the coming year.