Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775
Stephen Dunn is a Pulitzer Prize winning poet. Here’s one of my favorites of his entitled Pedagogical.
In a history paper in college I said the period
between the tsars and Leninism was a period
of transition, and my professor wrote in the margin,
“All periods in history are periods of transition.”
I learned nothingfrom that, except that he was a wise guy,
a show-off, someone I would not take again.
Two years later, In a course focused on Stalin
called the History of Power, I wrote passionately
and I thought persuasively
that much of what ‘he’s done was “in human.”
In the margin, the response that may be the beginning
of my intellectual life: “Stephen, when it comes
to things like that, human will do just fine.”
I’m challenged by this simple, yet very dark poem. Do I really agree that the mark of serious thinking is coming to terms with the idea that inhumane actions are central to being human? We’ve seen some horrifying news stories in recent months, so like Stalin’s brutality, do we categorize them as inhumane or all too human.
The beheading of journalists and aid workers, 200,000 dead in Syria, a passenger plane shot from the sky, kidnapped school girls, murdered Yeshiva students on their way home from class; and then as retaliation the killing of a random Arab youngster on his way to prayers. But let’s not just look overseas for examples of inhumanity. While not of the same proportions and caliber we’ve had our series of troubling headlines: harassment of refugee children, police brutality, gun violence, domestic violence, date rape.
These images from recent months are certainly not ones you wanted to be reminded of as we come together to celebrate and greet the New Year. After troubling, at times barbaric stories you were probably wishing I had started my sermon by showing some pictures of my new grandson; not overwhelming you with the realities we encounter in the news. Perhaps about now you’re saying to yourself – I should have gone to the beach.
But let me suggest this evening that the Holy Days that stand before us temper the realism of the day with an inherently optimistic celebration of the human spirit. Cruelty maybe part of our world and even though as a society and as individuals there may be a proclivity to live out baser instincts, such behaviors are not our destiny. These days are here to remind us that our nature is not pre-determined.
In our daily liturgy each morning we can affirm elohai nishama sh’natata bi, t’horah hi — “the soul that you have given me is pure” so that each day, and all the more so each year, we can begin anew with an image of our nobility, even as we are forced to acknowledge that all around us neither the world, nor we; has not, has never lived up to what God intended us to be.
From the earliest chapters in Genesis, we learn that God was clearly vexed by Cain. According to the Biblical story, Cain was the first human to be born by natural child birth. Cain was disturbed because God rejected his offering, but had accepted that of his brother Abel. “Why are you distressed and why is your face fallen,” God asks. “Sin is like a wild beast. It couches at your door, but you can master it.”
Cain of course chooses not to. Acting on his jealousy, he invites his brother, Abel out to the field and murders him. As the story unfolds, Cain goes on to compound the crime by his lack of engagement in what he has just done. “Where is your brother Abel?” God asks. And Cain responds in a famous line, reflecting haunting indifference, “How should I know, am I my brother’s keeper.” To this it is important to note – that God does not reply. Either the answer is so self evident that it needs no response or God begins to see and sense the complexity and emerging capacity for evil in this human creation. Some commentators suggest that even worse than the murder, the root of Cain’s evil was his indifference.
Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen doesn’t like the word evil to describe inhumanity and cruelty because it implies a person possessed by some supernatural force. Instead he prefers to focus on indifference and empathy as the continuum by which to consider good and evil. Baron-Cohen defines empathy as the ability to identify what someone else’s thinking or feeling and then to respond to with an appropriate emotion. In other words, are you able to extend concern beyond your immediate circle of self-interest, and consider someone else’s needs, wants and wishes even if they are different from your own. He says that is where empathy begins.
But, if you are indifferent to the concerns of others, if you are unable to allow for the possibility that the needs, thoughts, feelings – the humanity – of another can impact your own behavior, well, that is the erosion of empathy. And when you arrive at the point, where you are so absorbed in your own beliefs and ideology and are so indifferent to the humanity of another, that is where evil (minus all the supernatural stuff) begins to be found.
As the British philosopher Edmund Burke famously explained, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” It is a rather simple calculus, but it is a remarkably accurate litmus test by which to track man’s inhumanity over the course of human history.
Noble laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel challenges us all: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented… there may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
Jewish history has other examples of individuals who chose to respond to this kind of evil by asserting empathy. Think of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who narrowly escaped the Shoah, and lost nearly his entire family. His response, significantly, was not to freeze up, not to turn solely to parochial concerns. It was his awareness of humanity’s indifference to the plight of the Jews in the Shoah that drove him to fight against injustice, to march (50 years ago this summer) with Martin Luther King, to rage against what he called the evil of indifference.
In Heschel’s famous terms when he marched in Selma, his feet were praying. My friend and colleague, Susan Talve, a rabbi in St. Louis did the same this summer. Her empathy for the grief of Michael Brown’s mother and her realization that race and class have created two sets of rules for young men in our society led her to join the peaceful protests in Ferguson. But she has a personal connection as well.
She wrote, “I marched with a tall black 16 year old who lives in Ferguson and celebrated his Bar Mitzvah and confirmation in our synagogue. As we were marching together, I heard a shout from the side of the road. It was a white ex marine St Louis City police officer who had come to help keep the peace. Rabbi Talve! Don’t you remember me? You did my Bar Mitzvah!
“So there I was marching between two young men who shared common ground in Torah, one a kid of color from Ferguson who just wants to get back to school and the other a police officer whose job it is to keep him safe.” Relationships can do a lot to blur the lines of separation, but even from afar we can move beyond indifference. Our tradition teaches; do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds. If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it. You must take it back to your fellow…You shall do the same with anything that your fellow loses and you find: You must not remain indifferent. (Deut. 22:1-4)
These verses aren’t just about accidents and lost property; they are an ethical code of conduct for us all, legislation cautioning us against the willful denial of social responsibility.
These days sins of omission, becoming less empathetic and more indifferent may actually be occurring because of the overload of awful stories we see arrayed before us. It’s so easy to see our world as broken and feel hopeless about fixing it.
24/7 news coverage from every corner of the globe can cause a bit of compassion fatigue. There were many comments early in the year about CNN’s non-stop coverage of the disappearance of the Malaysian air craft. And while not an example of the cruelty in our world about which I’ve been speaking, it was an example of the how compassion fatigue sets in. I found myself waiting hopefully for another tragic event to take place so I wouldn’t have to deal with the details of the search and most poignantly the grieving families. Almost in neurological terms it seems that the more a nerve ending is stretched, the less capable it is to feel. Clicking the remote to a ball game or to comedy central became something I just had to do.
Earlier this year I listened to a podcast of Krista Tippett’s show On Being where she interviewed Nicholas Kristof. Those readers of the Times know that he makes it his business to be in some of the most dangerous, most appalling places on earth to witness and report the worst that humankind can do to itself. He’s also taken a look at the neurology and social psychology research on what makes people care. Scientists have shown that it’s the emotional part of the brain that lights up when people are making any kind of moral decision. And what makes the brain light up most is stories about individual people, not numbers and statistics. Large numbers actually turn people off.
He said, ” but what the research has shown that is kind of devastating is that the number at which we begin to show fatigue is when the number of victims reaches two.” He goes on to tell the story of a psychological experiment in which people were shown a photo of a starving seven-year-old girl from Mali, called Rokia, or a picture of a starving boy named Musa. People would want to donate a lot of money when they heard Rokia’s story or Musa’s story, but “the moment you put the two of them together, and asked people to help both Rokia and Musa, at that point, donations dropped. By the time you ask people to donate to 21 million starving people in West Africa, nobody wanted to contribute at all.”
At the end of the interview Krista Tippett says, “You know you’re a lot less depressing than I thought you’d be,” and he just laughed. He said that though he’s seen very dreadful things in his life, he always ends up focusing on the people who step forward to help.
We do not have to beat ourselves up for not being Wiesel or Heschel, or Kristof or even Jill Tarlov our amazing congregant committed to so many right causes whose funeral took place this morning, but do we do have to recognize and remember the empathy- indifference continuum. And with our emotions, our check book, our votes and our activism use the ability we have to care and do good in the world.
In the Jewish view, people made in the image of God cannot fundamentally evil. In the psychologists view, evil is not a supernatural force possessing us to do the unspeakable. In both views, within human being there is the capacity for expressions of narrow-mindedness and incredible generosity; cruelty and kindness; hatred and sensitivity – indifference and empathy.
Tonight in keeping with the central message of this day of these days – we consider our responses to a world that so often seems inhuman – but has the capacity for goodness and love. As we consider our own world and the myriad of problems, we shine the spotlight on ourselves, and our sins of commission and omission. Our task has long been even in a year of horrific stories, to light a candle against the darkness. Or at least plug in a nightlight. Anything to keep the monsters at bay.
The Rosh Hashanah message — even in the wake and embrace of inhuman headlines, the New Year is about hope and never squandering the opportunity to care more and do more — to change ourselves, to engaging the world with humanity, empathy and love.
Dunn, Stephen, Lines of Defense, W.W Norton and Co., New York, 2014, p.65
Baron-Cohen, Simon, adapted from a Ted Talk, The Erosion of Empathy
Wiesel, Elie, Nobel Prize acceptance speech
Talve, Susan, Find YOUR Ferguson — and Heal It
Kristof, Nicholas being interviewed by Krista Tippett