Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Kol Nidrei 5773: You Must Not Remain Indifferent



I suffer from "information overload".  And I suspect that I'm not alone. 

Do you receives so many emails that you don’t have time to open, let alone answer, most of them?  Do you have difficulty deciding where to focus your energy -- sorting through all the mundane tasks that we face and prioritizing them?  Have you found that making choices, from the simple ones like what to eat for lunch, to the complex ones, like major purchases or family transitions, is becoming more and more difficult?  And what about volunteering your time or your money for charitable purposes?  Has that become more challenging?  

Are you as puzzled as I am by the number of choices of toothpaste varieties at the drugstore?

Our lives have become increasingly more complex; not only do we all carry a heavy burden of responsibilities related to work and family, we are also overwhelmed by choice.  I don’t have much free time in which, for example, to watch television, but when I turn it on, I am surprised by the continuously-growing number of TV channels.  There are infinite options on the Internet, which is open for business 24/7.  Every media outlet is vying for our attention. And let’s not forget about the constant digital assault from the smartphones that most of us now carry.

I think (and there is some academic literature to back me up on this) that this is making it harder and harder for us to concentrate.  With so many different offerings competing for our precious few free moments, it seems that our potential to focus on the most important things in life is becoming more and more diffuse.  Too many choices, too many distractions, too many interruptions (and, by the way, not enough sleep).  

And here’s an even bigger, related problem: if our ability to focus on the essentials is getting squeezed, how can we have any hope of focusing on those things that are important for others, for our community, for society at large?  If the demands on our attention continue to grow, how can we hope to ensure a just society, one in which everybody gets a fair shake?

The Torah teaches us that all of us are responsible for members of society that are less fortunate than ourselves.  Here is just one example (Deut. 15:11):
כִּ֛י לֹֽא־יֶחְדַּ֥ל אֶבְי֖וֹן מִקֶּ֣רֶב הָאָ֑רֶץ עַל־כֵּ֞ן אָֽנֹכִ֤י מְצַוְּךָ֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר פָּ֠תֹחַ תִּפְתַּ֨ח אֶת־יָֽדְךָ֜ לְאָחִ֧יךָ לַֽעֲנִיֶּ֛ךָ וּלְאֶבְיֹֽנְךָ֖ בְּאַרְצֶֽךָ׃
For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.

God expects us to take care of the poor, and the Torah refers more than thirty times to all those in ancient Israelite society who were likely to be destitute: the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, the Levites (who did not own land, and were therefore among the poor).  The reasons for doing so may be obvious, but just for good measure, and also in multiple places, the Torah gives us a justification based on our national history:
וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ וְאַתֶּ֗ם יְדַעְתֶּם֙ אֶת־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַגֵּ֔ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
"Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." (Exodus 23:9)

As Jews, we must have compassion for others in difficult situations, because we know, as a people, what that feels like.  This is so important that we commemorate our slavery in Egypt for eight days out of every year by retelling the story and eating the “bread of poverty,” the matzah of Pesah.

Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, leader of the famed Slabodka Yeshivah in Lithuania in the late 19th and early 20th century, an important figure in the mussar / Jewish ethics movement of that time, took this verse a little further.  Rabbi Finkel reads it as requiring us not just to sympathize with others, but to make an effort to feel the joy and suffering of others.  Referring to our obligation not to oppress gerim, strangers, he writes:

“Please do not explain these words according to their plain meaning, that we are forbidden to oppress a stranger because we too have been strangers and have been oppressed, and thus know the taste of oppression. Rather, the reason is that a person is obligated to feel and to participate in the happiness of his/her fellow, and also their troubles, as if they had afflicted him as well. "You shall love your fellow person as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18)- truly just like yourself. One's relationships to others are not found to be complete unless one can feel himself and his fellow person as being in the same situation, without any separation.”

If we do not focus on the needs of others, says Rabbi Finkel, we ourselves are not complete.

And the hardest part of maintaining this focus, particularly given the bubble of distraction in which we all live, is that it is all too easy to ignore the plight of people we don’t know who are far away from us, and even those who are close.  And yet, says the Torah, we need to pay attention to ALL of those around us, and engage with them.  For our own welfare, we cannot afford to ignore others in need.  A few weeks ago, in Parashat Ki Tetze, we read about returning lost items to your neighbor:

Deut. 22:3
וְכֵן תַּעֲשֶׂה לַחֲמֹרוֹ, וְכֵן תַּעֲשֶׂה לְשִׂמְלָתוֹ, וְכֵן תַּעֲשֶׂה לְכָל-אֲבֵדַת אָחִיךָ אֲשֶׁר-תֹּאבַד מִמֶּנּוּ, וּמְצָאתָהּ, לֹא תוּכַל לְהִתְעַלֵּם.
You shall do the same with his donkey; you shall do the same with his clothes; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent.

Rashi, writing in 11th-century France, tells us that “lehit’alem,” to remain indifferent, means “To conquer your eye, as if you do not see it.”  That is, to actively choose to overlook human loss or suffering that is directly in front of you.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are exposed to poverty, suffering, and the needs of others every day, and we usually do not see it.  Yes, these are complex, multi-faceted issues, and it is easy to be indifferent, particularly in the face of difficult, not-easily-solved problems.  However, it is incumbent upon us as Jews not to allow ourselves to “conquer our eyes.”  We cannot ignore others in need, whoever they are.

Here is a true story that appeared in the New York Times Magazine a year and a half ago:

The Tire Iron and the Tamale

by Justin Horner, a graphic designer from Portland, Oregon.  From March, 2011.

During this past year I’ve had three instances of car trouble: a blowout on a freeway, a bunch of blown fuses and an out-of-gas situation. They all happened while I was driving other people’s cars, which for some reason makes it worse on an emotional level. And on a practical level as well, what with the fact that I carry things like a jack and extra fuses in my own car, and know enough not to park on a steep incline with less than a gallon of fuel.

Each time, when these things happened, I was disgusted with the way people didn’t bother to help. I was stuck on the side of the freeway hoping my friend’s roadside service would show, just watching tow trucks cruise past me. The people at the gas stations where I asked for a gas can told me that they couldn’t lend them out "for safety reasons," but that I could buy a really crappy one-gallon can, with no cap, for $15. It was enough to make me say stuff like "this country is going to hell in a handbasket," which I actually said.

But you know who came to my rescue all three times? Immigrants. Mexican immigrants. None of them spoke any English.

One of those guys stopped to help me with the blowout even though he had his whole family of four in tow. I was on the side of the road for close to three hours with my friend's big Jeep. I put signs in the windows, big signs that said, "NEED A JACK," and offered money. Nothing. Right as I was about to give up and start hitching, a van pulled over, and the guy bounded out.

He sized up the situation and called for his daughter, who spoke English. He conveyed through her that he had a jack but that it was too small for the Jeep, so we would need to brace it. Then he got a saw from the van and cut a section out of a big log on the side of the road. We rolled it over, put his jack on top and we were in business.

I started taking the wheel off, and then, if you can believe it, I broke his tire iron. It was one of those collapsible ones, and I wasn’t careful, and I snapped the head clean off. Damn.

No worries: he ran to the van and handed it to his wife, and she was gone in a flash down the road to buy a new tire iron. She was back in 15 minutes. We finished the job with a little sweat and cussing (the log started to give), and I was a very happy man.

The two of us were filthy and sweaty. His wife produced a large water jug for us to wash our hands in. I tried to put a 20 in the man’s hand, but he wouldn’t take it, so instead I went up to the van and gave it to his wife as quietly as I could. I thanked them up one side and down the other. I asked the little girl where they lived, thinking maybe I’d send them a gift for being so awesome. She said they lived in Mexico. They were in Oregon so Mommy and Daddy could pick cherries for the next few weeks. Then they were going to pick peaches, then go back home.

After I said my goodbyes and started walking back to the Jeep, the girl called out and asked if I’d had lunch. When I told her no, she ran up and handed me a tamale.

This family, undoubtedly poorer than just about everyone else on that stretch of highway, working on a seasonal basis where time is money, took a couple of hours out of their day to help a strange guy on the side of the road while people in tow trucks were just passing him by.

But we weren’t done yet. I thanked them again and walked back to my car and opened the foil on the tamale (I was starving by this point), and what did I find inside? My $20 bill! I whirled around and ran to the van and the guy rolled down his window. He saw the $20 in my hand and just started shaking his head no. All I could think to say was, "Por favor, por favor, por favor," with my hands out. The guy just smiled and, with what looked like great concentration, said in English: "Today you, tomorrow me."

Then he rolled up his window and drove away, with his daughter waving to me from the back. I sat in my car eating the best tamale I’ve ever had, and I just started to cry. It had been a rough year; nothing seemed to break my way. This was so out of left field I just couldn’t handle it.

In the several months since then I’ve changed a couple of tires, given a few rides to gas stations and once drove 50 miles out of my way to get a girl to an airport. I won’t accept money. But every time I’m able to help, I feel as if I’m putting something in the bank.

****

 
What an inspiring story!  Would that we all could have such heart-warming interactions! Better yet, may we all be blessed with finding opportunities to create them.  When Mr. Horner was in need, he was helped by those who clearly understood what it means to need help.  He learned to appreciate those who are willing to help others, and translated that into his own willingness to reach out to strangers in their time of need.  

That is the very principle that the Torah is trying to teach us.  As a people, we must not remain indifferent to the needs of others, because we, the children of Israel, know what it’s like to be strangers in a strange land.

Ladies and gentlemen, the essential message of the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance that include Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is that we have the power to change ourselves for the better.  We can become more compassionate, more understanding, more forthcoming in our outward relationships.  

Fasting and afflicting our souls through abstention from physical pleasures on this day is not for its own sake.  Yom Kippur is not some kind of macho endurance test, or an opportunity to lose weight.  It is to remind us that we have obligations to everybody else, that the hunger we experience today is the hunger that too many experience every day, that we may not remain indifferent in the face of suffering.  

Although it is customary before Yom Kippur to say, “Tzom qal,” “Have an easy fast,” it is in some ways more appropriate to say, “Have a challenging fast.”  This day should be, in fact, a challenge to our values, a challenge to our daily routine, to our modes of comfort.  To face the challenge of fasting for 25 hours, and yet remain unchanged by that challenge, that would be an embarrassment before God.

Tomorrow morning, we will read the words of Isaiah in the haftarah (58:6-7):

“This is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke.  It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh.”

We cannot ignore the hungry, the poor, or the naked, says Isaiah.  I would extrapolate Isaiah’s line of thinking to include the homeless, the neglected, the abused, the emotionally and physically wounded.  And after four years of economic hardship, there are more of these kinds of people around us than ever before.  Recently-released government data showed that “food insecurity” is higher in New York State than it has been for the last decade.  In New York City alone, there are now 1.8 million people surviving on food stamps.  Thanks to the current political season, where the focus is jobs, jobs, jobs, we all know that the unemployment rate is still far higher than it should be.

We are surrounded by people in need, and we cannot remain indifferent.  

Why are we here this evening?  On this, the holiest night of the year, a night on which we focus on improving ourselves, a night on which we pre-emptively invalidate frivolous vows (that is the purpose of the Kol Nidrei prayer), we should consider making some vows that we will strive to keep:
  • To be aware of those around us who are in need of help
  • To reach out to them, whether directly, in person, or through all the various charitable organizations that do so
  • To think pro-actively about how we can make a difference in the lives of others
On this day of teshuvah / repentance, of self-denial and self-judgment, our task is to challenge ourselves not to succumb to information overload, not to tune out the ever-present challenges of poverty, of suffering, of those who have less than we do.  Lo tukhal lehit'alem.  It is upon us in the new year of 5773 to surmount our indifference and to turn it into action.

Gemar hatimah tovah.  Have not an easy fast, but a challenging fast.

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