Guilt and Responsibility

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It’s been very hot here today in Northern California. Normally we have a cool breeze from the ocean, but today there was only a hot wind from the east. Such weather makes everyone nervous: it’s fire season.

There’s a kind of foreboding that goes with hot windy days in fire season, especially in a drought year. Any tiny ember can start a huge fire, whether it’s from some fool tossing a cigarette butt or something more innocent, like a piece of equipment that happens to throw a spark. So those of us who have lived here for long pay attention and call the fire department if we even think we smell smoke.

Days like today I am reminded that Torah teaches us about communal values. In a few weeks, we’ll be saying Vidui, a prayer of confession. That prayer will include some sins that I know I have never committed. I have never personally committed murder, for instance, but I will confess it as if I had.

The first time I said that prayer with the congregation, it felt ridiculous. I didn’t murder anyone! I haven’t robbed anyone, or given bad counsel! I felt angry that I was supposed to say those things, even though I hadn’t personally done them. I felt misunderstood.

But now I understand the Vidui prayer differently. Even though I haven’t done those particular things, I am part of a community in which people may very well have done them. Even though I have not personally committed arson, I am part of a community in which some people are criminally careless with fire. (Witness all the illegal fireworks on July 4.) Even though I have not and would not make money from the exploitation of children, I live in a community notorious for its child sex trafficking.

What the Vidui teaches is that even if we don’t participate, if it happens in our community, we are responsible. As Abraham Joshua Heschel z”l said:

Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. – The Prophets, p. 19

I have never thrown a cigarette butt anywhere (I’ve never smoked.) But as part of my responsibility for fire safety in my area, I pay taxes for the fire department, and on days like today, I pay attention to any sign that there might be a fire. Anything less could cost lives. I am not guilty, but I am responsible.

I also live in a society that is racist to its core. People with dark skins suffer all manners of indignities I with my white skin do not suffer. I have never had any reason to be afraid of cops. I have never been trailed in a store. Nor is the suffering merely to dignity: my forebears benefitted from the accumulation of real estate wealth in the mid 20th century, and thanks to red-lining, African Americans did not. I have tried for most of my life to be a good, non-racist white person; I am not guilty of personal misbehavior since I learned better, but I am still responsible.

I am responsible to see to it that no one says racist things in my hearing without being challenged. I am responsible to see to it that my elected representatives vote for remedies to racist policies. I am responsible to keep my civil servants honest about their policies and the implementation of those policies. I am responsible to make sure that some of my tzedakah funds and volunteer time goes to address the wrong that still exists in my society. I am responsible not to interrupt, but to listen, when a black person shares their truth with me.

And as for all those other things, I’m responsible there, too. For instance, since there is that horrible child sex trafficking down on E 14th Ave. in Oakland, I support organizations that work to relieve the suffering, and I vote for elected officials who will work to end it. Since we live in fire danger country, I garden appropriately and do everything else the fire department suggests.

We don’t live on this planet alone. We can’t do whatever we want. And we cannot absolve ourselves with “it’s not my problem” when something is expensive or inconvenient or embarrassing. We are responsible to do what we can.

Holiness in the Nail Parlor

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I met a remarkable woman last month, and I spent time with her today. Delane Sims has a little business in my home town of San Leandro, Delane’s Natural Nail Care. If all she did was nails, hers would still be a remarkable shop because she is committed to healthy methods and to good labor practices.

I originally found Delane’s because I was tired of going to get my nails done and then fearing that the women working on my hands were slave labor and/or that I was going to acquire an infection or fungus. I did a search online and found this wonderful place just a mile from my home.

But when I met Delane herself, I was in for a real treat. She runs her business with a vision of health and wholeness, and treats her staff like human beings. But that isn’t all: she is the primary mover of not one but two programs that are changing this corner of the world for the better.

The first is Steps to Success, a program that seeks out low income single mothers and empowers them through education, mentoring, and sustainable job placement in the nail care industry. Graduates have gone into business for themselves, or used the employment in nail care as a springboard to other choices including college educations. All of that is accomplished with an emphasis and active mentoring on work/family balance!

Her other program is Senior Moments, which identifies and reaches out to isolated seniors in the community, matching them up with appropriate professional referrals and volunteers. Senior Moments partners with a number of community organizations to bring help to the elderly. Elders are prey to scammers, they are vulnerable to sudden changes in health and life situation, and they often have thin resources for coping when these things happen. Senior Moments sees to it that whatever their income, they are rich in available resources for help and connection.

Going to get my nails done at Delane’s is both relaxation and inspiration. The last time I went, I was inspired to volunteer to work in her programs. Today I stopped by for a pedicure and we wound up talking Torah and she reminded me of all the many opportunities we each have for doing good in the world, if we are but willing to see the image of the Holy One in the face of every person we encounter. Delane seems to have mastered the art of staying in that holy mindset full time.

If you happen to live in the San Francisco East Bay Area, consider making an appointment with Delane. I know you will leave with healthy fingers and toes. I suspect your heart will have had a makeover as well: I know that mine gets one every time I see her.

The End of the Zero-Sum Game

“Zero-sum game” – a game in which the sum of the winnings and losses of the various players is always zero, the losses being counted negatively. (Dictionary.com)

Lately I hear arguments about a zero-sum game:

IF we pay attention to institutional racism,

     we might miss an opportunity to deal with gun violence.

IF we focus on gun violence,

we might drop the ball on disability rights.

IF we focus on the rights of disabled people,

we might forget the violence against women and transwomen of color.

IF we focus on justice for transgender people

what about women’s rights?

IF we focus on women’s rights

what about economic justice for all?

And if we are so focused on economic justice for all

what about… surely by now you get my point:

Justice is not a zero-sum game in which I am the natural enemy of another.

Justice is when we notice that we are natural allies: the queers, the browns, the blacks, the ones on wheels, the blinds, the poors, the last in line, the fats, the funny-looking, the girls, the trans, the bis, the dispossessed of all nations, the Palestinians AND the Jews, all the people who usually get shown the back door…

Until we notice that we are all at the same door

Until we notice that we are all

One.

And on that day, we will be One

And God’s Name will be One. – Jewish Prayer Book

I don’t know exactly  how we get there, but I am determined to work for it. I am determined to see the miraculous spark of the Holy One in every single face before my own. I won’t lie down in the road to be run over, but I will do my best to lift up every other person that I can. I will deal with my fears.

Because I am really, really tired of zero-sum games.

Tzedek, Tzedek, Tirdof.

Justice, Justice, you shall pursue.

In a Time of Anger and Hurt

Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar used to say: Do not appease your fellow in the time of his anger, nor comfort him while his dead lies before him. – Pirkei Avot 4:23

On the face of it, this saying makes no sense. Why shouldn’t we appease someone who is angry? Why not comfort a person when he is bereaved?

The clue to Rabbi Shimon’s meaning is hidden in the second clause. In Jewish tradition we do not attempt to comfort a mourner until after the burial of the dead. The stage of bereavement before burial is called aninut. During that time, mourners are relieved of all Jewish responsibility except the responsibility of providing for a proper funeral and burial. We do not speak to them unless absolutely necessary and we do not bother them with comfort. This is not a cruel practice, but a kind one: we understand them to be in terrible pain and to be carrying a great burden (the funeral.) Anything we might say would only be a distraction.

So the teaching here is: don’t try to comfort people until they are in a position to take it in, until it is time.

Then we can look at the first part and make more sense of it:

Do not appease your fellow in the time of his anger.

Rabbi Shimon is advising us that when people are very angry, they can’t listen to reason, any more than a person who has just lost a loved one can be comforted. Appeasing an angry person won’t work, and arguing with them definitely won’t help matters. In both the case of the mourner and the angry person, the only thing that will help is time.

As time passes, the mourner will bury the dead, and will gradually become ready for comfort and human connection. The angry person, too, may have a chance to cool off and have a genuine discussion (unless, of course, they choose to work themselves into greater and greater anger.)

Over the last months, as the discussion on racism and America has heated up on social media, many good people have been very upset. African Americans have very literally had to mourn their dead, and they are legitimately angry about the way too many of them have been treated. Some white Americans have felt attacked by things that African Americans and other whites have said. Some whites have been taught to fear African Americans, too, and that feeds the evil of racism. Attempts at communication have gone awry. Angry words have flown.

So when I happened to read Rabbi Shimon’s words today, I was glad to be reminded of Jewish teachings about grief and anger. Shimon is saying that we do not get anywhere when we tell people how they “should” feel. When emotions are high, it’s a time to listen, not to argue. If listening is impossible, then it’s a time to step back.

Now some readers may be thinking, but rabbi, didn’t you just write that whites need to challenge one another on racist talk? I did write that, and I’m not backing down from it. Rebuke can be a mitzvah when it is properly done. There are better and worse ways to go about it, all informed by Jewish tradition:

It is important to treat every person with dignity. The rabbis tell us that embarrassing a person is no different than shedding their blood. Take a person aside to say privately, “Are you aware of how your words sounded? The words “x,y,z” sounded racist – surely you didn’t mean it that way!” Calling a person racist is just going to enflame the conversation, but pointing out words or behaviors gives them something they can change. Maybe they need help hearing themselves. And maybe, if the words were angry, they need time to cool off before they can hear anything at all.

Name calling never helps. We get farther if we talk about racist behavior and language, rather than racist people. Calling people names never won their heart. Pointing out behavior is different than calling names. People can do something about their behavior.

Leave politics out of it. So many insults have been hurled between Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, that we’re all walking wounded. When someone says to me in a spiteful tone, “That’s just like you liberals,” I feel that nothing I have to say will get a hearing from them. I am sure, from what conservative friends tell me, that the converse is also true. For our own sakes, we need to lay off one another, no matter what the folks at Fox News and MS-NBC do. Let’s drop the insults and name-calling: have you ever known it to add to a fruitful discussion?

Give each person the benefit of the doubt. Actually, that’s another quotation from Pirkei Avot. When it is time to rebuke someone in private, assume that they meant well. Maybe they did or maybe they didn’t, but how can anyone know for sure?

Finally, when we are beside ourselves with strong feelings, it’s time to take a step back. It is only natural sometimes to feel angry or hurt, especially if we feel that we’re doing our best and we are not understood or appreciated. There is no shame in saying, “I am too angry/upset/tired to have a conversation right now.”

None of us are perfect. Torah calls us to love the stranger and who is stranger than the person with whom we disagree?  Let us embrace this difficult task together, and work towards a day when

…everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid. – Micah 4:4

For Whites Only: After #Charleston

This post is for my readers who are white citizens of the United States. If you are not a US citizen, or if you are a person of color, this isn’t meant for you. Nothing to see, move along, move along; please refrain from commenting, also.

If you are Jewish and wondering if you are white or not, has anyone at synagogue mistaken you for a janitor or a babysitter? If not, for purposes of this conversation, you’re white. Welcome.

I will post again soon for everyone, I promise.

***

Ever since the Charleston murders this past Thursday night, I have heard a phrase repeated by several people: “This is not who we are.” I wish I could give you citations, but most of it was on the radio, and anyway, I think you will recognize it. We’ve heard it all so many times.

We want desperately to separate ourselves from a mass murderer. That’s relatively easy to do when he doesn’t look like us, but when he could be my son, my brother, my nephew it is harder. That blonde kid with the bad haircut entering the church in his gray sweatshirt is terrifying to us because he looks like us.

So we say, “This is not who we are.”

“This is not who we are.” We say this because of the horror of his deeds, because of his picture on Facebook with the racist flags on his coat, because of the hateful rhetoric he apparently espouses. We point out every detail that separates us from his ideology: our ancestors, who arrived after the war, our own birth dates, long after 1865, our membership in a group the white supremacists also hate. We assure ourselves that we do not say the N-word. We assure ourselves of our African American acquaintances and friends, maybe even of our votes for an African American president. We are not that man with the gun!

I feel it too: I feel the urge, when there’s a discussion about racist behavior, to point out that not all whites are bad, and that I was just a kid during the civil rights movement. I feel the need to point out that Jews were in the civil rights movement too, that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched at Selma, that white supremacists hate Jews, that … you know the routine. And it’s all true.

But there is a line in the Torah that bursts through all this defensiveness, all this, “Who me? That was not me!”  The line is from Leviticus 19, verse 16:

לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ

This phrase, pronounced, “Lo ta-a-MOD al dahm ray-EH-cha” means “Do not stand on the blood of your neighbor.” The “your” in it is singular: this commandment is the responsibility of each individual who hears it. We can’t delegate it. We are commanded to act.

This week, nine African American human beings were murdered in cold blood by a white man with a gun as they sat in a meeting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Those facts are not in dispute. What does seem to be in dispute is each of our responsibility in the face of this crime.

If I am not to stand upon the blood of those nine individuals, then my question must be: What have I done this week to end racism in America? 

  • Do I vote? (Why not?) If I vote, do I know the record of my candidates on issues of race?
  • Have I ever contributed to the campaign of a candidate of color?
  • When did I last donate to an organization that works actively against white supremacy hate groups? (ADL, SPLC, ?)
  • When did I last notice the hiring practices at my workplace? Do I have any co-workers of color? Where are they in the hierarchy at work?
  • When did I last let a friend or co-worker know that racially tinged humor was unacceptable to me? Did I tell them so in so many words?
  • When did I last challenge someone spouting racist language?
  • When did I last question my own behavior and views?
  • If I assure myself that I have friends of color, when did they last eat in my home?
  • When did I last use a phrase like, “I don’t see color”? Do I understand how not seeing it is also a problem?
  • If my child dated a person of color how would I react? Does the particular color matter? Have they dated anyone of color? Would they know how I’d react?

If I am not actively doing something about racism, then I am standing upon the blood of my neighbors. America has a 400 year old love affair with racism. It did not end with the Civil War or with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. It did not end when we elected an African American Miss America or a President with brown skin. There are some people who act as an excuse for the rest of us to do nothing, because their behavior is so much worse that we can pat ourselves on the back and say, “That’s not us.” But as long as we do nothing, we are standing upon the blood of our neighbors.

What have I personally done this week to fight racism? What will I do in the coming week?

The Doorposts of Your House

Polski: Mezuza

— A mezuzah (meh – ZOOZ – zah) is a box or case which we attach to the doorframe of a Jewish home.

— The little box or case contains a piece of parchment called a klaf. (See photo below.)

— The parchment has Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 written on it by a specially trained scribe, in Hebrew:

Hear, O Israel: The Eternal our God, the Eternal is one.  Love the Eternal your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today—to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul— then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and olive oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.

Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them.  Then theLord’s anger will burn against you, and he will shut up the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the Lord is giving you.  Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 20 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates,  so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the Lord swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth.

— By putting the mezuzah up, the Jews who live in this home fulfill the commandment to “write [these words] on the doorposts.”

— The box and the parchment serve as a reminder that a Jewish home is a holy place.

— Some Jewish homes have mezuzot (plural) on all the doorways except the bathroom doors. Others put a mezuzah only on the main entrance.

English: The Shema parchment of a Mezuzah.
A typical Klaf

For more about the mitzvah [commandment] of the mezuzah, read more in this article in the Jewish Virtual Library.

Too Busy to Be Bad

“I do not want followers who are righteous, rather I want followers who are too busy doing good that they won’t have time to do bad.” – Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk

Rabbi Morgensztern, more often referred to as the Kotzker Rebbe, was a Hasidic leader who lived from 1787 – 1859. He was born to a non-Hasidic family in Lublin, Poland but was attracted to Hasidism early in his life. Unlike the Baal Shem Tov, who was known for his pursuit of joy in Torah, the Kotzker Rebbe was a bit more stern. He was very much aware of the human inclination to evil [yetzer harah] but also determined to fight against it.

He never published any works, and was quoted as saying:

Not all that is thought need be said, not all that is said need be written, not all that is written need be published, and not all that is published need be read.

(Something tells me that he would not have approved of blogging.)

However, I love his quotation at the top of the screen. Whenever I read it, I think I should find myself another mitzvah to do. If we are not quite busy enough, then we might have time to sit around and congratulate ourselves, and then we would not be truly righteous! However, with 613 mitzvot to keep us busy, what excuse is there for getting into trouble?

If you find the Kotzker Rebbe intriguing, there’s a wonderful piece about him in the Jewish Virtual Library, and more of his sayings on yquotes.

Do you have a favorite saying by the Kotzker, or by any other Hasidic rebbe?