We’re All Looky Loo’s

Why is it we’re so fascinated by other people’s tragedy? Is it because we sympathize with those who are in pain or distress and we want to do something to help them? Is it because we feel fortunate that it is not our own suffering? Is it because, on some level, we place ourselves “in the shoes” of others and imagine how we would respond under similar circumstances? We see most of what’s happening in our local area and other cities and towns, even other places in other nations, almost instantly on television, like the tragedy on the train tracks in Oxnard, California early this week, the latest terror attack, the tragedies of war, poverty, economic oppression, the natural, capricious destructive forces of the world and so much more. “Reality” TV has made a business out of our tendency to be “looky loo’s”, voyeurs.

Is there a Jewish response to all this? Of course, there is! There’s at least one Jewish response (usually more!) to everything? Here are three Jewish values that come to mind for me immediately:

  •  Lo ta’amod al dam re’echa – To not stand idly by (the blood of our neighbor) [Leviticus 19:16]
    • Clearly, sometimes we literally see our neighbor bleeding and in such circumstances we are mandated to not just stand there but rather to help (or call in professionals who are trained how to help).
    • Other times, our neighbor (someone we know or don’t know) isn’t really bleeding blood, but they are “bleeding” dignity, integrity, self-esteem, hope, confidence and more. We’re mandated to come to their aid.
  • Halbanat Panim – the avoidance of publically humiliating someone, to respect the personal dignity of others (even in compromising circumstances. [various Talmudic sources such as Moed Katan 9b.
    • Taken to its extreme, public humiliation is considered tantamount to murder because people’s “good names”, that is their reputations, is the essence of their social lives.
    • On the other hand, our reputations may not be all we have, but we should still never humiliate someone because…
  • “Alakh s’nai l’khavrekh la ta’avaid” – What is hateful to you do not do to another” [Hillel the Elder in Shabbat 31a].

To which we should all say…“Amen!”

Just Because

My colleague Arthur Waskow has a great epithet for the Jewish people; he calls us “God Wrestlers”. You might be familiar with the image he uses as his basis: the famous wrestling match between Jacob and either an angel, a more generalized “divine being” or God (depending on how one translates the verse). In that verse it says that Jacob “struggled” with God/an angel and prevailed. It seems that the Hebrew word the Torah  chooses here for “struggled” is not by chance, but rather very purposeful – “sarita” (שרית). In that same verse, Jacob is told that his name will no longer be Jacob (Ya’akov, יעקב) but rather Yisrael (Israel, ישראלׁׁׁׁ). Rabbi Waskow and others (me, too) believe that the word Yisrael means “God Wrestler” because the name can be divided into “Yasar” (ישר) El (אל), literally “you will struggle with God”.

And so the Jewish people has, for several millennia. We’re good at it. We’re actually very comfortable with it. The famous Holocaust chronicler, Elie Wiesel, gives good description to this Jewish state-of-being when he says, “Jews can deny God, but Jews can’t ignore God.” It’s a strange condition to be constantly wrestling, constantly at-odds and to be comfortable at the same time.

Lately, during my morning prayers in particular, I’ve found a way to relax one part of my struggle and even though it is Jewish nature to never quite be satisfied, I’m pretty much there with this particular component of my wrestling match. There are several words in the morning prayers that always used to irk me a bit. First there’s the word b’chemlah (בחלה), meaning “with compassion”, as in the compassion with which God “returns our souls” to us in the morning. Later, describing how God gives light to the world and all its inhabitants, the word b’rachmim (ברחמים), with mercy, is employed. Recently, I was pondering those two words as I prayed them and suddenly came upon a translation for both of them that really works for me – “just because”. So, instead of God returning my soul to me being an act of compassion or giving us light out of mercy both things happen “just because”. I find that my gratitude for waking up in the morning and witnessing my little corner of the world glow in the morning light to be so much more pure when I think of them happening “just because”. I appreciate the new day “just because” I have the privilege of “getting another one”. I appreciate the light because of everything it does for me – and all of us.

Isn’t it all amazing – just because.