Today is August 12, 2020 -
With the serious and somewhat novel issues and challenges confronting our nation today, I find the stability and consistency of the Jewish calendar, with the months and the holidays following ineluctably one after the other, to be especially comforting this year. In fact, as I write this article, Tisha Ba’av, the 9th day of Av, the fast day on which we mourn, as a community, a number of the most tragic events in Jewish history, is less than two weeks away, which means that summer will soon be winding down, and the Hagim, the Jewish High Holy Days, will soon be upon us.
In the same way, while we will likely be celebrating the Hagim somewhat differently this year, because of the COVID 19 pandemic–Caren Jacobson is currently chairing a committee, which is studying whether services for the High Holy Days should be in-person, virtual, or a combination of the two–whatever the committee’s recommendations may be, we can all take solace in the fact that the nusach, the distinctive High Holy Day melody; the stirring prayers like Una Tanah Tokef, asking “[W]ho shall live and who shall die” [during the coming year];” and the majesty and pageantry of Kol Nidre, are still going to fill us with awe and wonder.
For the duration of my column this month, I would like to address a particularly difficult and destructive problem confronting our nation today, a problem that has only served to make it more difficult to respond to and to resolve the burning questions of the day, such as “should wearing a mask be mandated by government or left to the individual;” “should schools, colleges, etc., re-open in person this fall;” “should statues and memorials, etc., named after Confederate generals and leaders be removed from public squares;” and/or “should the names of sports teams and college mascots be more sensitive to members of the Native American community in our country?”
It is important that we keep in mind that this is not the first time that we, as a nation, have experienced healthcare crises, such as the polio epidemic, which terrorized our country from 1946 until 1955, when Dr. Jonas Salk’s vaccine successfully brought the epidemic to a halt; or have had the moral conscience of our nation pricked by marches, protests, and demonstrations, such as during the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.
What has made and is making our overcoming our current challenges far more difficult and complicated than in the past is that, instead of our working together and putting the best interest of our country first, our current challenges have been unnecessarily politicized, causing our great nation to be badly fractured and polarized.
All too often, in our secular society today, selfishness has replaced selflessness; the good of the individual has replaced the well-being of the community; condescension for respect and dignity; and blame and judgment for empathy and compassion. Identity politics has become more rampant than I can ever recall, with people voting for or against a candidate based on the candidate’s position on a solitary issue; and perhaps most distressingly, even among members of the same family, we have stopped listening carefully and respectfully to each other, especially to those holding opinions contrary to our own.
As is usually the case, the Jewish Tradition has a way, a remedy to bring about some healing, some peace to our fractured and hurting nation. The first teaching from our Tradition is a midrash pointing out the importance of keeping an open mind and listening to and learning from each other:
“Rabbi Yannai said: The Torah was not given in a clear-cut manner by God to Moses, rather God would give 49 reasons the matter could be pure [decided one way], and 49 reasons the matter could be impure [decided a different way]. Finally, Moses said to God, ‘Master of the Universe, how will we Israelites know that we have gotten to the truth of the matter? God responded, ‘After you have carefully and respectfully listened to each other’s opinions, you will know. If you are still in doubt, go with the majority.’”
The two rabbinic role models for humility and for being respectful of each other’s views and positions are Hillel and Shammai, who, in the Talmud, rarely agree on anything but who are always respectful to each other. The narrator of the Talmud thus notes that:
“Even though one would allow what the other would forbid, and the other would forbid what the other would allow, Hillel still permitted his followers to marry the followers of Shammai and vice versa.”
In other words, even though they consistently disagreed on what the appropriate halacha was, each was humble enough to realize that he did not have all of the answers, and each respected the other despite the fact that one was more conservative and the other more progressive. Contrast this teaching with a recent poll in this country showing that a significant percentage of those adults identifying as “Republican” would have strong objection to their child marrying a “Democrat” and vice versa.
It is not too soon for me, hopefully for you, too, to begin looking inward in preparation for the hagim, and examine our attitudes toward those, who may hold opinions contrary to our own, whether they be in our own families, in our synagogue community, or in the greater community.
I close my column with a reflection by one of this country’s great patriots, John Lewis, whose recent death will be a loss to all Americans regardless of race, religion, or party affiliation:
“Anchor the eternity of love in your own soul and embed the planet with goodness….Release the need to hate, to harbor division, and the enticement of revenge. Release all bitterness. Hold only love, only peace in your heart….And if you follow your truth down the road to peace and the affirmation of love, if you shine like a beacon for all to see, then the poetry of all the great dreamers and philosophers is yours to manifest in a nation, a world community, and a Beloved Community that is finally at peace with itself.
Congressman Lewis has certainly given me, hopefully all of us, a goal to strive for this High Holy Day Season!
Please be safe, stay healthy, and enjoy the beautiful summer flowers, the delicious summer fruits, the long sunny summer days, and the other summertime gifts from God!
Rabbi Howard Mandell