Rabbi Leder's Shabbat Message: June 5, 2020
Consider the ancient Latin proverb “Homo hominis lupus—man is a wolf to men.” The wolf is meant to invoke something predatory and without a conscience. Centuries later Freud asked rhetorically of that same proverb: “Who, in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion?” Two thousand years ago the Talmud claimed, “Without government and law, people would swallow each other alive.” Seeing a cop in Minneapolis snuff out human life as if stepping on a bug or watching opportunistic extremists in the aftermath prey on the innocent as if two wrongs make a right, it’s hard to argue against that damning proverb.
But there is a different view about human nature. On that other side is much of the Bible, Plato, Aristotle, Buddha, Aquinas, Dewey, Gandhi, Anne Frank, and so many others who believed that people are basically good and kind. Consider the selfless doctors and nurses during this pandemic or the powerful, honest, strident, peaceful, hope-filled protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and it’s hard to argue with any of them either.
We live both in the fictional world of Hollywood and Instagram and the real world of political posturing. Both spheres perpetuate a false dichotomy as old as humankind, positing good versus evil, us versus them. If only things were that simple. “The line between good and evil,” said the Soviet-era dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (who survived the gulag by eating rats and knew a good deal more than most of us about evil), “is not a line that separates us from them. It is a line that runs down the center of each of us.”
Why at times do I watch the news for hours, weeping inside for our nation, but at other times avoid it, preferring to bury my head in the sand instead? Because like all of us for whom empathy comes and goes, there are moments of light, many of them, when I can feel so keenly the suffering of others, and other moments when I am in a dark too dark to see and can think only of myself.
The ancient rabbis in their imaginings about the Ten Plagues in the Bible ask how dark was the darkness described in the ninth plague. They answer that it was so dark the Hebrews and the Egyptians could not see the humanity in each other. When that police officer in Flint, Michigan took off his helmet and asked the protestors, “What do you want?” they answered “Walk with us,” and he did. In that instant, the protest changed from confrontation to solidarity because each side stepped into the light and saw the humanity in the other.
This week’s Torah portion begins with the words, “Lift up your heads!” This is the moment for us all to pull our heads out of the sand; to look, to see, to really, truly see the other, and then, to act. If you have not looked deeply within yourself and asked how you can address your own prejudices, even those you hide from everyone, take that unflinching look now. If you have never been a part of our work with our sister church Faithful Central Bible Church in Inglewood, you should be. If you were not planning on being a part of our Shabbat service tonight at 6:00 p.m. when I will be in conversation with Bishop Kenneth Ulmer of that beautiful, soulful church, change your plans and join us (click here to watch). If you have not signed up to volunteer at the Karsh Center to help our city’s most vulnerable, the overwhelming majority of whom are people of color, you should. If you have not spoken up when witness to a racist slur or behavior, you must. If you have not supported an organization that advances the cause of racial justice and equality you should. Hear the Torah’s mandate, lift up your head, and do something!
Schopenhuare asked this question. How is it that an individual can respond to the pain and suffering of another as though it were his own pain and suffering? How is it that an individual can forget his own safety and fly to the help of another at the risk of his own life? Schopenhauer’s answer is, this emotion of compassion is the experience of a truth that you and that other are one. That the experience of separateness is secondary; that when we help another human being, when we affirm the oneness of us all, that is when we are closest to God. The first law of biology is self-protection. The first law of the spirit is compassion.
There is no guarantee in America that we will live together in peace. It is surely not enough simply to be anti-racist. It is not enough to be against something. We must be for something. The fuel of compassion is commitment; showing up for each other when sorrow comes, celebrating joy in the morning. We must sing together. We must eat together. We must weep, laugh, and pray together. We must march together and mostly, lift up our heads and really see each other.
Love and Shabbat shalom,