Monday, February 06, 2012

Between Syria and the Super Bowl

After two weeks of waiting, it was finally here. Like millions of football fans, I couldn’t wait for the 6:29 P.M. on Sunday night, when the Patriots and the Giants finally took the field. And the game did not disappoint. It was a true classic, and my heart raced until the last play of the game. Ecstatic that the underdog Giants had won, I rushed to Twitter to tweet about the game. It was then that I discovered the following message from The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg: “My twitter feed is half Super Bowl, half Syrian slaughter. Seems obscene.”

This tweet punctured my good mood; I immediately felt guilty. After all, while civilians were being massacred in Syria, I was celebrating the triumph of a group of hulking millionaires in a child’s game. China and Russia had vetoed a resolution that might have stopped the carnage in Syria, but I sat comfortably in my den, watching 22 grown men chase after a pigskin. As the child of a Holocaust survivor, I am well aware of how American Jewish leaders had looked away while their brethren in Europe were massacred. When members of the Polish underground tried to pass on information about the Holocaust in an attempt to rouse Jewish leaders to action, they were often met with indifference. One of them described the experience of speaking to Jewish leaders this way: "Jewish leaders abroad won't be interested. At eleven in the morning, you will begin telling them about the anguish of the Jews in Poland, but at one o'clock they will ask you to halt the narrative so they can have lunch. This is a difference which cannot be bridged. They will go on lunching at the regular hour at their favorite restaurant, so they cannot understand what is happening in Poland." Yet amidst all the suffering in Syria, I sat down in front of a flat screen TV to watch football. Was I any different than those feckless, lunch-eating Jewish leaders?

My guilt feelings aside, it’s overwhelming to live a life of constant sensitivity. There have always been hot spots of oppression and brutality. If we’re obligated to be perpetually conscious of suffering around the world, we’d never drink a beer or laugh at a joke. Life would become an unremitting loop of earnest seriousness. Must we be forced to choose between laughter and compassion, between caring about Syria and caring about the Super Bowl?

Clearly, a happy medium must be found. The Talmud (Taanit 11a) makes it clear that there are times when joy must be put aside, because we need to participate in the pain of the community. It is simply distasteful to go on with life as usual when the rest of the community is grieving. And of course, if you can actually make a difference in the battle against genocide, don’t break for lunch.

But there also times when we must put sad news aside as well. As much as we might like to, we simply cannot feel the pain of every victim; otherwise we’d fall victim to “empathy fatigue”, and we’d burn out before we could be of help to anyone else. The Talmud (Ketubot 50a) wisely places limits on one’s generosity, saying that charitable donations cannot exceed a fifth of one’s income. Otherwise, people could potentially become victims of their own generosity. Compassion too must have its limits, otherwise we’ll end up traumatized and heartbroken.

Yes, it’s o.k. to watch the Super Bowl, even when there is so much tragedy in the world. Yet I’m glad that Goldberg’s harsh tweet made me feel guilty.

The custom at Jewish weddings is to break a glass during the ceremony. This purpose of this custom is to remind the young couple that the even as they celebrate, the world is still broken and in need of fixing. We want the couple to pause their personal joy for a moment and reflect on their obligation to make the world a better place. This lesson is necessary all the time, at every celebration. Even if we want to party, we need to pause for a moment and remember how broken this world is, from Syria to North Korea to the homeless on the streets of Montreal.

Even the Super Bowl needs a moment of “broken glass”, a reminder that what’s happening in Syria is obscene, and we have to do something about it.

What Freedom Sounds Like

Pesach is no time for speechlessness. The Passover Seder, which is structured around the Haggadah, is an evening of talking. And telling the story of the Exodus isn’t quite enough; you’re supposed to speak about the slavery and freedom as much as possible, until you fall asleep at the table. The Passover Seder is an outburst of speech and song, a full evening performance of dialogue and discussion. Indeed, the great Kabbalist, the Arizal, says that the word Pesach should be broken into two words, “peh sach”, which means a speaking mouth, because Passover is a time for talking.

Freedom is always a noisy cacophony of voices. That’s why the Seder features conversation; we celebrate the evening by asserting our freedom of speech.

Slavery, on the other hand, is about silence. As Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik puts it: “Before Moses came there was not even a single sound…..The slaves were gloomy, voiceless and mute”. A slave keeps his mouth shut; he forever stands in fear of his master. Silence suits the slave, who sees no point in complaining and no possibility of change.

We can see a reflection of the slave mentality in today’s totalitarian governments. Citizens may speak, but only what’s approved by the regime; their own thoughts must be silenced. Nicholas Kristoff describes a visit to North Korea he took in 1989: “I stopped in a rural area to interview two high school girls at random. They were friendly, if startled. So was I when they started speaking simultaneously and repeating political lines in perfect unison. They could have been robots.” These girl’s robotic responses were the words of slavery. In them you hear a soul too frightened to express itself or even dream of hope. The heart of the slave is silent, unable to express its’ own thoughts. In the slave’s silence you can hear the sad sounds of hopelessness and resignation.

The Zohar says that when Moshe arrived in Egypt, the voice of the Jewish people appeared. Moses, at first too frightened to talk himself, eventually finds his voice; and with the voice comes freedom. And since Moses, Jews have never lost their voice. And as we sit around the Passover Seder, we should remember that a direct line connects Moses’ call of “let my people go” to the powerful words of Isaiah, and on to the words of Theodore Herzl, David Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin.

Perhaps the most remarkable characteristic of Jewish history is how the Jews never lost a sense of self-determination in years of crushing exile. Unquestionably, the Passover Seder kept the minds of the Jews free, even when their bodies remained in chains. Even during the Holocaust, Jews could speak to each other of freedom, and remain free in their hearts. Yaffa Eliach recounts an improvised Seder in Bergen Belsen. Rabbi Israel Spira,the Bluzhover Rebbe, spoke to the children and quoted Isaiah's messianic vision: "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned". He told the children they too could hope for redemption, to walk out of darkness into light. Even in Bergen Belsen, Jews continued to speak of freedom. Even in the hell of the Holocaust, a few whispered words at the Seder could keep the dream of freedom alive.

At many Seders, the Haggadah is an impediment, something that gets between us and the brisket. But when you feel the urge to ask “how long will it take to finish the Haggadah?”, remember that it’s words, and in particular the words of the Haggadah, that have changed the world.