Tuesday, June 22, 2004

“The Point of it All”

““It’s all pointless; who cares what I do?”.

It was the first crisis of my young rabbinic career. I was 22 years old, and a summer intern at a California synagogue. I was on the phone with J.K., a young man who had attended several of my classes, when he started to tell me that his life was awful, his finances disastrous and his family bitterly dysfunctional. He was planning on solving all his problems by swallowing a bottle of aspirin. And he was confiding in me, (an extremely inexperienced Rabbi to-be), his grisly plan. (A call to the psychiatric hotline prevented J.K.’s suicide).

To this day, these words ring in my ears. I felt that I dropped the ball when I spoke to J.K.. With all my Rabbinic training, I wasn't able to answer a basic question: Why not commit suicide?

So let me try again.

Indeed, a long philosophical tradition endorses suicide for the distressed. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus writes: “Above all, remember that the door stands open. Do not be more fearful than children. But, just as when they are tired of the game they cry, "I will play no more," so too when you are in a similar situation, cry, "I will play no more" and depart”. Voltaire, Hume and Schopenhauer are all advocates of suicide. Today, Dr. Jack Kevorkian is the leader of those who believe in a “right to die”.

Philosophy aside, I get the gut feeling that a cavalier attitude towards suicide is often based on the nihilistic belief that “it’s all pointless”. If there’s no point to it all, there’s no reason to bother with a difficult life.

That’s why in Judaism there is no right to die. Life is a sacred gift, and we must survive, even in hellish conditions. Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, the Rabbi of the Kovno ghetto, was asked if it was permitted for someone to commit suicide rather than watch his family be murdered. Oshry’s response, (while filled with compassion), was absolutely not. Indeed, Oshry takes pride in the fact that there were few suicides in the Kovno ghetto, despite the enormous suffering.

Now life in the Kovno ghetto was pure torture. So why is Oshry so fanatical about suicide? Because he realized the value of life. The economics of suicide ordain that life is less valuable than suffering. And that is simply not true. If there is one lesson of Jewish history, it is that a life filled with ideals is worthwhile, even at the cost of suffering. That is why we still have Jews today, despite generations of persecution.

So, this is my belated response to J.K.

Rabbi Oshry and his compatriots suffered more than anyone else in history. Yet, despite their suffering, they persevered because they knew that the future of humanity depends on people who follow their ideals, no matter what the cost.

J.K., that’s the point of it all: idealism. Because life in the service of ideals is worthwhile, despite the suffering.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Free Hugs, and the Road to Redemption

It was probably meant to fill the editorial quota of quirky human-interest stories.

On May 10th, the New York Times had an article about two young men, Jayson Littman and Sipai Klein, who spend their Sunday afternoons in Washington Square Park in Manhattan giving out free hugs.

As you can imagine, giving out free hugs to New Yorkers can be difficult. They get rejected - a lot. The article describes some of their struggles:

“"How about a free hug?" he hollered at a man, woman and small boy dressed all in black. "How about not?" the boy shot back.

"I'm trying to cut down," said a banker from Kenya.

"Nothing's free," said another man, as he brushed past with his golden retriever.”

But these two quixotic huggers soldier on, hoping to start a worldwide hugging movement.

At this point you’re supposed to laugh, and dismiss this story as the comic antics of two guys with too much time on their hands. But I couldn’t dismiss this story. I felt these two guys might be on to something, and that there is a deeper truth to hugging that we often overlook. So I took out my Tanach (Hebrew Bible) to investigate the phenomena of hugging.

In fact, only one character in the Tanach ever hugs: Jacob. And he actually ends up being a bit of a hugger, hugging on three different occasions.

The first time Jacob hugs is when he runs away from his brother Esau to his mother’s ancestral home. There he meets his uncle Laban, who greets him with open arms.

The second time Jacob hugs is when he returns home, and his brother Esau, who has long promised to kill him, is coming with 400 men to “greet” him. After some skillful diplomacy on Jacob’s part, a disaster is averted, and the brothers reunite with a hug.

The third time Jacob hugs is at the end of his life. His two grandchildren that were born in Egypt, Ephraim and Manasseh, are presented to him for blessings. Before he blesses them, he gives them a hug.

Each of Jacob’s hugs has a different purpose.

The first hug is a hug of reunion: Jacob hasn’t seen his uncle Laban in a very long time.

The second hug is a hug of reconciliation: Jacob and Esau have had bad blood for some time, and are once again true brothers.

The third hug is a hug of bonding: a foreign born grandfather, Jacob, tries to cross generational and culture gaps, and explain to his Egyptian born grandchildren what his family’s legacy is really about.

In each of these hugs, a barrier to relationships is shattered. Obstacles of distance, age and hatred are overcome, and love now finds a way. Jacob transcends distance to reunite with Laban, he transcends hatred to reconcile with Esau, and transcends cultures to bond with his grandchildren. The hug transcends all obstacles in its path.

Hugs best express this sentiment, because in it’s own primal way, a hug expresses friendship without reservations. Hugs are not for those with stiff upper lips or complicated hierarchies; rather, they are for any two people who want to bond because they share God’s divine image. It is a simple gesture of openess and acceptance.

So, the Tanach’s message is this: hugs redeem lost relationships. And that fits very well with Jacob’s general image as the patriarch of exile, the refugee who leads the Jews into their first exile in Egypt. As the patriarch of exile, Jacob has to look for the little pieces of a future redemption. And hugs are one of those little pieces.

Now, I’m not going on a hugging campaign. But Jacob teaches us that the road to redemption is found wherever two people manage to bridge social gaps and find a way to express friendship. So, say hello to someone new in the synagogue; smile at a stranger; and if you have to…….. give someone a hug.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

D-Day and the Little Guy

It is too easy to forget 60 year old heroism.

On June 6th, 1944, D-Day, 175,000 soldiers crossed the English Channel and stormed the beaches of Normandy. There, they encountered tripwires, land mines, flamethrowers and fortifications; by the end of D-Day, 2,500 soldiers were dead. But their sacrifice was not in vain. 11 months later, Europe, (and it’s concentration camps), was liberated from the Nazis.

The Allied soldiers were unlikely victors, a mixed multitude of (mostly)18 to 20 year olds. The army took everyone, from squirrel shooting rural boys to bookish big city scholars. Inexperience made no difference. Peter Masters, a Jewish refugee from Vienna, was in the British Army’s 10th Commando Brigade. When he enlisted, he was asked whether he could shoot a gun, handle a boat, or work a radio. He replied that he had once shot a bb gun, occasionally rowed a boat, and never used a radio. The army took him anyway! Remarkably, these amateur warriors developed into a courageous and powerful fighting force. And these average Joes are the true heros of World War II.

The Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle advanced the “great man theory of history”. According to this view, it is the exceptional people who decide the fate of humanity. The teeming masses are mindless followers, moulded by the great man in his image. Indeed, there is ample Biblical evidence for this theory. Abraham, Moses, Joshua and David seem to singlehandedly start religions, win battles and even stop the sun.

However, it’s usually the small, anonymous heros who save the day. The Book of Judges is filled with marginal characters who suddenly find themselves thrust to the forefront. Gideon, Jepthah, Deborah are everyman heros, the little guy filling a void in leadership. In Hasidic lore, God listens closely to the peasant woman’s sigh and the ignorant shepherd’s flute, and saves the world because of their simple petitions. The grandiose prayers of the great man cannot compare to the sincere words of the little guy.

D-Day was a triumph of the little guy. It was they who risked their lives, fought courageously and liberated Europe. General Dwight D. Eisenhower reported how he went to see the 101st Airborne division before they took off for D-Day. He says on the runway, he saw a short private, “more equipment than soldier” who turned to him and saluted. Then the private turned in the direction of Germany and said: “look out Hitler, here we come”.

It is because of privates like these that Europe was liberated.

Great men arrive all too infrequently; the rest of the time, it’s up to everyone else to rescue the world. As we find ourselves increasingly embroiled in an international war against terror, it’s time once again for the little guy to come to the rescue.