Wrestling With God: the problem of suffering

Image: Two men wrestling (skeeze/Pixabay)

A reader wrote to me:

I find myself in the middle of a trying time, and it’s put me in an odd place that challenges my thinking about life, purpose, hope, Hashem, surrender, etc, and not entirely in a good way. … Wrestling with Hashem or, well, feeling lost or abandoned, specifically, is the kind of thing I’m looking for.



Jewish tradition teaches us that every life has tsuris (trouble.) Bad things happen. Some bad things are relatively small and some are true tragedy. Some make us sad for a while, and some things leave a mark that will stay with us forever. Some people have a year with one tragedy after another, and others appear to live charmed lives but may have secret sorrows that few of their friends know about.

Some misfortunes come from nature (earthquakes, tornadoes) and some from human carelessness or cruelty. The latter can be particularly difficult when the other person justifies their behavior, or simply doesn’t care. On the other hand, when an earthquake destroys my home, how am I to understand God’s role in what my insurance company may call “an act of God”?

When these things happen, we may indeed feel lost or even abandoned by God. It may set off a spiritual crisis: what is the point of being good, if bad things will happen anyway? What is the role of God in my suffering? What can a righteous person do when everything has gone horribly wrong?

Jewish tradition offers many answers to these questions, and we are free to find the answer that best fits our situation.

Deuteronomy says that trouble comes when we have been bad; if we are good, nothing bad will happen to us. Almost immediately, though, other books of the Bible explored why it is that bad things happen to good people, and the rabbis followed up with more discussion which continues to this day.

It is reasonable, when faced with misfortune, to ask, “Did I bring this on myself?” If the answer is “yes” then it is an opportunity to learn, and to make teshuvah if my mistake harmed anyone else. We have to take responsibility for our mistakes and misdeeds.

If the misfortune is the result of human misbehavior, it is reasonable for us to seek justice. Torah has many examples of people seeking justice. Ordinary Hebrews came to Moses and later to the judges for justice. (Exodus 18: 13-24) Tamar sought justice from Judah, who avoided her. She took extraordinary steps to receive what she was due, and he eventually acknowledged that she had been right. (Genesis 38) The daughters of Zelophehad believed that a law was unjust, and appealed to Moses. God agreed that the law was unjust and corrected it. (Numbers 27)

Sometimes we seek justice and cannot find it. Psalm 58 is a cry against the injustice of human beings and institutions. It ends with confidence in the justice of God, that God will punish authorities who judge unfairly. It is a very satisfying prayer to read when one feels wronged.

This brings us to the question of what to do when it is God who seems to be unfair. If God is both powerful and good, then why do bad things happen to innocents? The Book of Job explores the question. First we have the so-called comforters, who have read Deuteronomy and insist that Job must have done something to deserve his terrible losses. Job rejects their advice, and expresses frustration with the mysteriousness of God. He demands answers of God. In reply, God gives the “Whirlwind” speech in chapter 38, asserting that God’s plans are mysteries beyond the human mind.

The Book of Lamentations offers us another model, one that is uniquely Jewish. We are in a covenant relationship with God, and we can lament our loss and our pain. Lament is the passionate expression of grief or sorrow. The voices in Lamentations acknowledge that the people of Judah did not heed the warnings of the prophets, but they grieve and complain about their suffering. A great city and a beautiful Temple were destroyed. People died. Terrible things happened. And as the voices express all of the emotions, they are confident that God listens. God has to listen, because there is a covenant. We can pray prayers of lamentation when we are suffering. We can say, “God, pay attention to my suffering! I do not meekly accept it!” In other words, we can be angry with God.

Another answer from tradition: Some of the ancient rabbis and mystics suggested that the answer to injustice lay in the afterlife. If things are not fair in this world, they will be set right in the next.

Some authorities suggest that suffering is a test. In the first line of Genesis 22, God tests Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son. In the story, God sends an angel at the last minute to stop Abraham from killing Isaac, once he has passed the test. Certainly we can frame sufferings as a test, but it is for many an unsatisfying answer.

Other answers say that suffering teaches us things, that it is an opportunity to grow spiritually, or even that it is a special gift from God. To all that, I say a doubtful “maybe.” It is certainly possible to learn and grow from suffering. It is also possible to be destroyed by it. I would never, ever say to someone who is suffering, “You will be a better person for suffering this.”

My favorite text on suffering from the tradition is aggadah in the Talmud:

Rabbi Chiya bar Abba had fallen sick. Rabbi Yochanan went to visit him, and asked, “Are these afflictions dear to you?” Rabbi Chiya replied, “Neither they nor their reward!” Rabbi Yochanan said, “Give me your hand.” Rabbi Chiya gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yochanan revived him. Later, Rabbi Yochanan was ill, and Rabbi Chanina went to see him. He asked the same question. Events proceeded exactly as in the first story: Rabbi Chanina asked, Rabbi Yochanan replied, “Neither they nor their reward,” Rabbi Chanina asked for his hand, and Rabbi Yochanan was revived. [The text then asks why Rabbi Yochanan needed help, since he had been able to revive Rabbi Chiya. The answer:  “A captive cannot release himself from prison.” – a paraphrase of Berakhot 5a

Each of the rabbis who suffers is asked if his suffering is dear to him, and each rabbi says, “neither they nor their reward!” In other words, if it is a lesson, they don’t want the lesson. If there is a reward for it in the next life, they don’t want that. If it is a test, or a gift, or whatever it is – they don’t want it! They don’t want to suffer.

Then each time, the visitor says, “Give me your hand.” And what revives them is the touch of another person. They cannot heal themselves; but in relationship with another human being, they get relief.

The answer to suffering, for me, is not about God. I think the Book of Job and Maimonides are right: I am not capable of understanding God. What comfort there is comes from the touch of another hand. I have to reach out: I have to take some initiative to connect. But when I am suffering, if I will reach out, if someone will return the touch, my suffering will be reduced.

That is why it is so important that we respond to the suffering of others when we are able. God is not going to appear in a fiery chariot from the sky to fix suffering. God has created each of us with a heart and hands that can reach out. We are here to do the work of God in the world. If we have the power to fix something, wonderful! But even when we cannot fix anything, we can be present. We can notice. We can care.

As the activists of Black Lives Matter say, #SayTheirNames. We can acknowledge suffering, we can be witnesses to it. We can have the courage to remain aware and present even when it is uncomfortable to do so.


This world is full of trouble. People get sick. Old age is hard. Pets die. Children suffer. Children die! Sometimes unjust leaders are in charge. Even the most powerful of us need help sometimes, for as the story says, a captive cannot release himself from prison. What we can do is reach out to one another. Sometimes we can fix things; usually what we can do is extend a hand and say, “You are not alone. I’m here with you.”

And in that moment of connection, the Holy One is there.




Our Orgy of Anger

Image: A young woman with steam coming out of her ears. (Komposita/Pixabay)

Yesterday I threw a tantrum and wrote about my anger and disgust at the prevalence of gun violence in the United States. The article hit a nerve: I rarely get such a large response to a post in its first 24 hours. Many of the replies I received had a single message: “Yes! I’m angry too!”

And when it comes to guns, we are really angry. Gun owners feel slandered by every other word from the anti-gun left. People who don’t like guns are angry when they hear  “thoughts and prayers” as the only response to gun violence.

So one group of people say the problem is guns. The other group of people say the problem is violent people, be they mentally ill or just plain bad. (“Guns don’t kill people” etc.) Neither group is inclined to change its mind; we are at an impasse, getting angrier and angrier. We luxuriate in our anger; we fairly radiate it.

One of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Arthur Gross-Schaefer, taught me that we humans are prone to see only two answers to any given problem, and that the first thing to do when we are stymied is to look for other possibilities. Today I read an article that suggested another possibility at the root of our gun violence problem.

How to Stop Violence by psychologist Laura L. Hayes makes the case that it is a mistake to frame violent behavior as the product of mental illness. Mentally ill people are mostly harmless, despite what we may have learned in horror films. She cited some persuasive studies and figures:

Paolo del Vecchio of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has said, “Violence by those with mental illness is so small that even if you could somehow cure it all, 95 percent of violent crime would still exist.” A 2009 study by Seena Fazel found a slightly higher rate of violent crime in schizophrenics—but it was almost entirely accounted for by alcohol and drug abuse. Likewise, the MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study found that mentally ill people who did not have a substance abuse problem were no more violent than other people in their neighborhoods.

Dr. Hayes identifies out-of-control anger as the real culprit behind the cascade of gun violence. She suggests that the answer to the violence is not to identify the “bad people” but each of us to take responsibility for the anger epidemic in the country. She concludes:

Uncontrolled anger has become our No. 1 mental health issue. Though we have the understanding and the skills to treat the anger epidemic in this country, as a culture, we have been unwilling to accept the violence problem as one that belongs to each and every one of us. We have sought scapegoats in minority cultures, racial groups, and now the mentally ill. When we are ready to accept that the demon is within us all, we can begin to treat the cycle of anger and suffering.

I’d like to take her analysis a step further. Anger is at the heart not only of this wave of violence, but at the political dysfunction that has paralyzed the nation. Why work with a political opponent when we can cuss him out and have a vast chorus agree with us on FOX or MSNBC? Why work on solutions when we can “enjoy” a permanent rage state on social media, complete with friends and enemies?

We don’t talk like adults about those who disagree with us – and we rarely speak with them at all. We call them hateful words like “idiot” or “moron.” We ridicule their bodies. We make up names like “Orange Cheeto” and “Pocahontas.” We are righteous in our fury and we are loud. Then, when we are worn out with name-calling and rage, we collapse. Nothing improves.

Even within our bubbles, we are poisoned by our rage. Both major political parties seem to spend all their energy on self-destruction. On the left, it’s rare to bring people together now and get anything but combustion: witness the Dyke March debacle last summer and the polarization around Antifa.

Back to gun violence: Whether we focus on mass murders, urban drive-bys, or the epidemic of murder-suicides connected with domestic violence, anger is at the core. Whether the angry person wants revenge on someone in particular or on the world at large, if they don’t know how to deal with their anger in constructive ways, violence is the result.

Most of us learn not to let our anger go so completely out of control. However, as we give increasing permission for angry behavior in others. Our own self-indulgence in anger makes us part of the problem. 

Torah takes the issue of anger very seriously. Moses was barred from ever entering the Promised Land after he lost his temper and hit a rock with his staff.  (Numbers 20)  Readers debate whether that was fair or not, but the message in Torah is clear: losing one’s temper is a very serious matter.

Even God gets angry in the Torah narratives, and God’s uncontrolled anger usually results in disaster. In Exodus 32, God is so angry at the Golden Calf incident that Moses has to talk God out of destroying all the Israelites. This account is concluded with the following, telling line:

And the LORD repented of the evil which He said He would do unto His people. – Exodus 32:14

Even God repented losing God’s temper! This strongly suggests that the ability to keep one’s temper and deal with anger is a Jewish value.

Proverbs 16:32 tells us:

Better to be slow to anger than mighty, To have self-control than to conquer a city.

Rabbinic literature goes on at length about the importance of self-control. Early on, we hear from Shammai, a rabbi who is known to have resorted to violence at a prospective student. Shammai seems to have repented of that behavior, because one of the sayings that come down to us from him is:

Shammai says, “Make your Torah fixed, say little and do much, and receive every person with a pleasant countenance.” – Pirkei Avot, 1:15

Maimonides comments upon that verse:

“a pleasant countenance”: That is when he interacts with the creatures calmly and with pleasant and welcome words. – Rambam on Pirkei Avot 1:15:2.

…In other words, don’t run around angry. Learn to control yourself.

These are just a few examples from the tradition.

If I personally want to do something about the wave of gun violence, perhaps the place to begin are with the things over which I have some control. I can’t control what other people think. I am not the Queen of Congress. And maybe – just maybe – the people I disagree with are right: maybe if I got the laws I wanted, the only people with automatic and semi-automatic guns would be angry bad guys.

No, I will work on the violence problem by practicing self control and modeling it to others. Instead of ranting about how angry I am, I will channel my anger into effective political action – not just more anger on social media. Instead of passing my anger around, by writing more articles like yesterday’s, I will write about ways to maintain equilibrium in an upsetting world.

There’s more to say. For now, I will take a breath. I will say my prayers. I will do my best to be better tomorrow.

Abraham & Sarah in the Court of Pharaoh

Image: “Sarai is taken to the court of Pharaoh” by James Tissot. Public Domain.

This week’s portion is Lech Lecha, and it is the beginning of Abraham’s story in the Tanakh.  It tells us many things about Abram, soon to be Abraham, some very impressive, some less admirable. The same man who bargained with God for the lives of people he didn’t even know, who was willing to go on a great adventure with God, was also the man who handed his wife Sarai over to be the concubine of Pharaoh because he was afraid.

We are none of us flawless, even Father Abraham. Each of us can recall things we’ve done that we hope no one ever finds out.

We don’t know what Abram said when Pharaoh rebuked him for lying about Sarai’s status; it isn’t recorded in the text. We don’t know how Sarai felt about this, or what if anything she said to Abram. We don’t know how Abram answered her, if she confronted him. All the text says is that Pharaoh assigned guards to march Abram and his household out of Egypt, and that they went north to the Negev.

While there are more famous stories in the text, I think this narrative is most evocative of our present moment. Women accuse famous, powerful men of treating women like property. One comes forward; she is ignored and reviled. More come forward – and if some of them are white and almost as famous as the man, perhaps we pay attention. Perhaps the press takes note. Perhaps (but rarely) law enforcement takes note. Then the famous man lashes back in a whine: Why are these terrible women after me? And in the end, while there may have been some intermediate consequences, he goes on being powerful and famous and the women disappear from the news.

Another example: there is apparently nothing more horrible anyone can do to a white American than to say that their behavior was racist. “What? Who me? I did nothing! You are playing the race card! You are the racist!” Defensiveness rises like a fog, and people take their usual sides in the matter. Nothing really happens.

We can change this conversation. We can change it by handling it differently when someone says to us, “That behavior was sexist” or “That behavior was racist.” Instead of defensiveness, a better reply would be “Tell me more, please.” If the behavior was a mistake, fix it: apologize and learn better. If it was deliberate, we can apologize and take our medicine.

I am white. I grew up in the United States in the 1950’s and 60’s. I was taught racist ideas and behavior and I will spend the rest of my life learning better. There is no shame in it, unless I refuse to learn better. I can, I must, listen to what people of color have to say to me. Racism in America will only get better when white people like me close our mouths and listen.

I am a woman. I was born in the United States in the 1950’s and I’m still around in the 2010’s. I live in a sexist environment, whatever other advantages I may have. I can give sexist people the benefit of the doubt, assume that they were taught that behavior, but I do not have to put up with it. I can complain, and they should listen to what I have to say. Not talk. Not defend. Not argue. Listen.

We don’t know what went on as Abram and Sarai left Egypt. Here is my fantasy, because we are talking about Avraham Avinu, Abraham our Father, here:

Sarai: Abram, how could you use me that way? Are you my husband or my pimp?

Abram: Sarai, Pharaoh might have killed us!

Sarai: (Glares silently at him)

Abram: Sarai, I was scared.

Sarai: How do you think I felt?

Abram: (Sighs. Swallows.) Why don’t you tell me how you felt?

And then he listened.



How to Help the Hurting

Image: A person opens his shirt to reveal the Superman logo. (NeuPaddy/pixabay)

We are in a vortex of natural and unnatural disasters as I write this (October, 2017.) The mass murder in Las Vegas, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and the hideous fires in the West are only the major ones. It seems like terrible things are happening all over the place. It’s part of the human condition that tzuris happens – bad things happen in every life.

One of the best impulses in the human heart is our desire to help.  Sometimes we can send cash. Sometimes we can volunteer to send goods to where they are needed. But sometimes we are faced with another human being in distress, and we need to know what to do. Fortunately for us, Jewish tradition has a lot to offer on the subject.

Our nervous systems are wired to feel distress when others feel distress. A crying baby gets a range of reactions from bystanders: compassion, irritation, anger, even headaches. Our reaction, whatever it is, is part of a natural response to the pain of another human being. We evolved to respond to wailing infants and to distressed members of our tribe: we hear or see distress, and we feel anxiety, an urge to do something. That anxiety has many expressions: compassion, an urge to fix what is wrong, irritation, anger, or even a headache.

We are wired to leap in and fix it, to make the crying stop. If the problem is a hungry baby, that’s one thing. But what if the problem is something that is complex to fix, or that cannot be fixed at all?

Our sages recognize this impulse and its hazards in the Mishnah:

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: Do not assuage the anger of your friend at the time of his anger; do not console him at the time when his deceased lies before him. – Pirkei Avot, 4:18

It hurts us to listen to the pain of another, so we leap in and try to repair things. Sadly, some things are not easily fixed. When our dead lie before us, nothing can repair the damage. Even the slow healing of time is only a partial repair when the loss is profound. When we have been hurt, when we have been wounded, there is no quick fix. Rabbi Shimon advises us not to say anything that might seem dismissive. When the pain is greatest, “fixes” do not console. The pain is real. It has to be felt.

So what are we to do, when someone is mourning a loved one?  When people are crying about lost homes, or a livelihood destroyed? What are we to say to someone who has lost a place they loved? What can we say to the person who is choking on fumes from a far-away fire? What can we do for the person who has no visible loss but who feels overwhelmed by frightening events?

I am grateful for the guidance of our tradition as I navigate all this pain:

The reward for escorting a stranger is greater than any reward. It is a practice introduced by our father Abraham, a way of kindness which was habitual with him. He served food and drink to wayfarers and escorted them. Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence, as it is written: “He saw three men … he ran to meet them” (Genesis 18:2). Escorting them is even greater than receiving them. The sages have declared: “Anyone who does not escort his guests is almost guilty of bloodshed” (Sotah 46b). – Maimonides in Mishneh Torah, “Mourners,” 14:2.

One might read the passage above and say, “How does this address the question?” Let’s break it down:

  1. “Escorting a stranger” – the simplest way to read this is to talk about a newcomer to a place: a visitor, a tourist, an immigrant. However, anyone who has ever been in a major disaster will tell you that they feel like a stranger in a strange land. Nothing looks familiar anymore, even the things that haven’t changed. A single catastrophic loss can do that. So the “stranger” of our passage may well be the person who got shot at and survived, or whose home blew to bits, or whose neighborhood burt down. Sure, they are alive – but now they feel strange.
  2. “He served food and drink” – We can offer sustenance to those who are hurting. Water and food allows life to continue, and someone who has been through a trauma may need them more than they realize.
  3. “Receiving them” – We can provide a safe place to sit or lie down. A person cannot recover, even a little bit, if they cannot rest.
  4. “Escorting them” – What does it mean to escort someone? It means to accompany them, to walk alongside them for a while. If I escort someone to a place, I don’t hurl them from my car and drive away: I go with them. The Hebrew word is levayah (leh-vah-YAH.) A funeral is levayat hamet, accompanying the dead person to the grave. We do not abandon dead bodies; we go in groups with them to the grave and put it gently in the earth.
  5. “Escorting them is even greater” – When I accompany a stranger, I walk alongside them through their experience. It is their experience, not mine, so mostly I listen and look and keep them company. As Maimonides teaches, this is one of the greatest gifts we can give to a person who is suffering from estrangement: we can simply be with them.

How do these texts translate into actual help? Here are eight things we can do when we are faced with someone who is suffering:

  1. FIRST, DO NO HARM. No matter how badly we want someone to stop hurting, leaping to solutions isn’t helpful. I find that sometimes I have to remind myself as I listen to someone, “NO FIXING.” Since I have no magic wand, I cannot do or say anything that will magically make them feel better. Even if I had a magic wand, it could not repair the damage done by the experience of trauma.
  2. OFFER WATER. People who have lost a lot of fluid through sweating or crying need water. They may be so lost in pain that they are not feeling thirst. If they ARE thirsty, then so much the moreso I should give them water to drink!
  3. OFFER FOOD. “I’m fixing/getting a sandwich – want one?” is a way to offer food without stirring up feelings of indebtedness. This helps people on a multiplicity of levels, from needed nutrition to a feeling of social connction. This is not a time for a nutrition or (God forbid) weight loss lecture. “I’m having something – want some?” is a way to build a bridge back to a tiny oasis of normalcy.
  4. OFFER A SAFE PLACE. If you have the privilege of offering a guest room, that can be great. But that “safe place” can be a ride to a destination, a seat next to you, an afternoon at your house, or an invitation to your table for Shabbat dinner.
  5. OFFER SILENCE. Sometimes “receiving them” to a safe place can mean offering them the opportunity to be in your space without having to talk about the disaster at hand. The tradition teaches us to support mourners at shivah by being silent until they speak first, and letting them set the topic. When much of life seems like chaos, a quiet place with no demands can be a real haven.
  6. LISTEN. If they want to talk, listen to them. Make eye contact and pay attention. You are a witness to their experience. Resist the urge to say much. If they are a person who “thinks out loud” they may need to sort through their thoughts, and what they say may not make much sense. Do not interfere or advise unless they talk about a dangerous plan (e.g. “I’m going back to the fire zone to see my house – I don’t care what anyone says!”)
  7. MAKE REFERRALS. I think the most important thing I learned in my pastoral counseling classes was to make referrals. After you have really heard a person out, if you know of someone qualified to help with some aspect of their situation, put them in touch. There may be more “escorting the stranger” to do here: if going to the therapist, or the police, or the FEMA website is overwhelming to them, offer transportation or a chair next to you at a computer to do what needs to be done.
  8. BE A COMPANION. For however long or short your interaction, remember that you are neither their child nor their parent. Don’t make a suffering person take care of you, and don’t tell an adult what to do. Walk alongside them. Be good company as they traverse a strange landscape.
  9. REST. – No one can be a high quality helper 24/7.  When we are tempted to give advice, to meddle, to scold, or something else inappropriate, it is our sign that we are overdue for a break. Self-care is an important part of being a caring person. There is no shame in handing an unhappy person along to someone who is better equipped to deal with them right now.

None of us are Superman. We are each limited in some way. What we have to offer is our humanity.  May each of us rise to the challenge when the need arises!

Three Ways To Help Puerto Rico

Image: A man rides his bicycle through a storm-damaged road in Toa Alta, west of San Juan, Puerto Rico (Richard Arduengo/AFP/Getty)

The news from Puerto Rico is horrible – a week after Hurricane Maria, the people lack water, food, gas, and power. The mayor of San Juan, Carmen Julín Cruz, appeared today on mainland TV, begging for water and frankly furious at the tangle of bureaucracy.

Many of us watch the news and say, “What can I do?”

Here are some ideas:

  1. CALL your Representative and your Senators in Washington, and ask for a temporary suspension of the Jones Act, officially called the Merchant Marine Act of 1920. According to the New York Times: “Section 27 of this law decreed that only American ships could carry goods and passengers from one United States port to another. In addition, every ship must be built, crewed and owned by American citizens.” In other words, it’s snarling things up for no pressing reason. This will help not only Puerto Rico but also the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  2. SEND CASH to any of several organizations who are organized to help, including:
    1. United for Puerto Rico (organized by the first lady of Puerto Rico)
    2. One America Appeal (organized by the living ex-POTUSes)
    3. Catholic Relief Services
    4. Hispanic Federations “Unidos” Page
    5. ISRAid via Global Giving
    6. Direct Relief (accepts PayPal)
    7. Charity Navigator is a good way to check out charities. They also offer a page of organizations working to assist victims of Hurricane Maria. They also offer a page on charities providing aid to those affected by the earthquakes in Mexico.
    1. Help spread the word about the Jones Act and about places to send cash.
    2. Once things are stabilized on the islands, they will need volunteers for cleanup and rebuilding. The place to follow for that information is Puerto Rico Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD).

Jews traditionally give tzedakah before festivals and holy days. This year the needs are enormous. Let us hope and pray that 5778 will see no more such disasters!

A Rabbi’s Take on #TakeAKnee

Image: Oakland Athletics’ rookie catcher Bruce Maxwell was the first Major League Baseball player to #TakeAKnee during the national anthem during their game Saturday. (Image Source: YouTube screenshot)

I am not a football fan. The only pro sport I follow with interest is baseball.

Colin Kaepernick, the former 49ers quarterback, now unemployed, began to kneel during the National Anthem last year as a way of protesting systemic racism in our society. He found a respectful, high profile way to speak his mind, as is his right. People I know who care about football say that speaking his mind has something to do with his state of employment. Whatever the truth, it was no longer a news story.

This past week, President Trump said some vulgar things about several sports stars including Mr. Kaepernick. He said them at a rally in Alabama, then tweeted more trash-talk. First it became a Twitter brawl, then it turned into a big news story.

Here’s the thing: Mr. Kaepernick’s protest was last year’s news until the President saw fit to breathe new life into it by bringing it up.  Now the NFL is involved, all the sports fans are involved, and even one baseball player (Bruce Maxwell from my beloved Oakland Athletics) is involved.

But let’s focus on the real news item here: none of this was news until this weekend, when the President went out of his way to make it news.

Others have pointed out that the President should be busy with more important things: the human crisis in Puerto Rico, where American citizens are dying from lack of assistance, the looming nuclear threat in North Korea, and the upcoming vote on an unpopular healthcare bill. All these things are his job, the job the American people hired him to do.

Mr. Trump wants us outraged and polarized so that we won’t pay attention to other things – things like Puerto Rico, the nuclear war looming with North Korea, and the healthcare bill that could pass next week and kill citizens just as surely as the nuclear war would. He has learned that he can push the racism button and get a reaction every time. His supporters love it, and the lefties hate it. Either way, it works.

Don’t allow yourself to be derailed. Have your opinion about the NFL mess, sure. But call your Senators to express your feelings about the Graham-Cassidy healthcare bill. That bill is opposed by the American Medical Association, the American Heart Association, the March of Dimes, and 14 other medical associations. Even if your Senator is a Democrat, call. If your Senator is a Republican, call and call and call – unless you don’t care about your future access to healthcare and that of your family.

THEN – take action against racism, which is what this #TakeAKnee protest is really about. Let’s lower our defenses and educate ourselves. Knowing that Rabbi Heschel marched in the 60’s is NOT being sufficiently educated about racism. Thinking that we have no dog in that fight is a sure sign that there’s more to learn; we all have a stake in systemic racism. Where to look? I suggest reading anything by TaNahisi Coates to begin. Even if you finish reading and still disagree with me that there is systemic racism in America, you will have an educated opinion. Then come back and argue – I welcome a good machlochet l’shem hashamayim, an argument for the sake of heaven.

For those who are saying to themselves, Rabbi, quit the politics: this is not about politics. The health care bill and racism are moral issues. I have a duty as a rabbi to address them, for they are quite literally at the heart of Torah. If you don’t believe me, take a look at Leviticus 19, the chapter that is in the center of every Torah scroll.

I look forward to the day when I can go back to worrying about my baseball team.

May 5778 be a year of peace and health for the citizens of our country and for all around the world. Until then, let us use our phones.



Compassion or Indifference? The Choice is Ours.

Image: Protestors in Denver hold up a sign: “Dreamers will be deported – What will YOU do?” Photo by Astrid Galvan, Associated Press.

One Hebrew word for mercy is rakhum (rah-KHUM.) It is closely related to the word for womb, richam (ree-KHAM.)

One of the oddest things about becoming a mother, for me, was finding out that even after someone has cut the umbilical cord, I remained connected to my children. There are very real ways in which the spiritual challenge of parenthood for me has been to accept that Aaron and Jim are no longer physically a part of me. When they were little, I took pride in everything good they did, and when they did something bad, I felt like I had done whatever it was.

That sense of connection to a parent keeps babies alive. Little babies would not survive if some adult did not put their needs first. One clever way our biology does that is by making mom a bit confused about where she leaves off and the new person begins. By the time she’s sorted it out, they are quite big and capable of foraging for themselves!

But back to rakhum: it is a quality that the Torah identifies as an attribute of the Holy One. During the High Holy Days, we repeat the words of Psalm 103 again and again in various forms:

.רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן יְהוָה;    אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב-חָסֶד

Rachum v’chanun Adonai; erekh apa’im v’rov-chesed.

The LORD is full of compassion and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. – Psalms 103:8

Remembering the connection to womb, it makes sense: the Holy One created us, and a connection persists, like the connection between a mother and infant.

The opposite of compassion is indifference. Indifference says “You have no connection to me whatsoever.” Indifference does not care what happens to the other being.

The Shoah (Holocaust) brought us terrible lessons about the meaning of indifference. Survivor Elie Wiesel famously said:

The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.

Indifference is a fact of nature. People as diverse as Adlai Stevenson, Carl Sagan, and Galileo have all commented on the indifference of nature to human frailty.

Nature is indifferent to the survival of the human species, including Americans. – Adlai Stevenson

The storms, earthquakes, and heat wave we have recently seen in the Western Hemisphere are examples of the indifference of nature. Hurricane Harvey didn’t care who drowned or became homeless. Irma had no mercy on the people of Barbuda. The earthquake in Mexico killed dozens of people in a few moments.

I remember the wreck of my own home in the 1989 earthquake in California. Suddenly the things I counted on to be stable (the GROUND! my HOUSE!) were in motion, the china cabinet walking across the floor, the framing making a noise like a scream. Then the whole thing sagged off its foundation, and to this day I am grateful that none of us were badly hurt.

The earthquake didn’t care about us. It was a fact of nature.

This week we have also seen human indifference, something more horrifying than any storm or earthquake. The Trump Administration saw fit to put an abrupt end to DACA, Deferred Action to Childhood Arrivals. The President claimed to feel for the young people whose lives were suddenly thrown into chaos, but blamed the Congress. Like Pontius Pilate in the New Testament, he simply washed his hands. The Attorney General made it clear that he didn’t care about DACA youth (“Dreamers”) and didn’t want them here. “We cannot admit everyone who would like to come here,” he said, ignoring the fact that none of the DACA youth asked to come; they were brought here without their consent as minors. They know no other home.

The lies that other uncaring people told in the press and in social media were astonishing: that the DACA youth were criminals, that they were here to “get handouts.” No one was admitted to DACA without a careful vetting process. Their records had to be squeaky clean. They had to be pursuing education. They were not eligible for benefits like Social Security, even though they had to pay Social Security taxes. The people who repeated those lies did not care enough to fact-check them: they were indifferent.

This is how evil works. It may claim to be practical, or logical, or even to care, but when you look at its works, what you will see is indifference.

In Parashat Ki Tetzei, we read:

If you see the ox of your fellow citizen gone astray; do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow citizen.  If your fellow citizen does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow citizen claims it; then shall you give it back to him… and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow citizen loses and you find; you can not remain indifferent. – Deuteronomy 22:1-3

Torah teaches us to care even about lost livestock. How much the moreso must we care about young people who have been put in a difficult situation by forces beyond their control?

Rakhum, mercy, is reckoned a virtue in Jewish tradition. We are human beings, not mindless forces of nature like earthquakes and hurricanes. As such, we have a duty in Torah to treat those we encounter with kindness. Maimonides teaches that even when we have nothing to give, we must speak kindly to the hungry person who asks us for food.

I hope and pray that the Congress will see fit to correct the evil that the executive branch has done. I have written to my Senators and representative; I will continue to write and call until this matter is resolved. I hope my readers will too.