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.

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