Jewish Journal


July 17, 2013

Making the National Personal



Photo credit: abcnews.go.com

By Matt Shapiro

Yesterday was Tisha B'Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, on which we recognize numerous tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people through the centuries. We are taught that the destruction of the Second Temple, which happened on this day, occurred because of sinat chinam, causeless hatred between one person and another. I’m hearing that message, of how destructive thoughtless hate can be, echoed loudly this week. Over the weekend, with George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin, vitriol and vindictiveness are the order of the day. There are those calling for calm, but the eminently personal forums of social media enable our deepest emotions to come to the surface, and the dialogue is ugly. I feel my own desire to respond with rage and fear, the sense of helplessness fueling my desire to speak with anger.

As all this bubbles below the surface, I have an obligation to try to see my part. The words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel ring in my ears: "in a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible." This quote disturbs me on a number of levels. The first is superficial, and keeps me where I already am: somebody must be guilty here! Any situation has someone who’s guilty, so we need to hold that person to the fire. But that’s not what this teaching really has to offer me, the lesson that will move me forward. What this thought teaches me is that I too bear some responsibility here. I make judgments against people without thinking, I take action without playing out the consequences, and I hold prejudices and biases that I don’t necessarily work to overcome. As long as I have these parts of myself internally, how can I expect them to be overcome on a societal level?

One of the most frequently cited commandments in the Torah is to care for the stranger, since we were strangers in the land of Egypt. If I truly care for the stranger, not just those who are like me, but also those I would be inclined to see as “other,” then my eyes can be freed from the lens of prejudice, a lesson I need to internalize. Prejudices and biases are inevitably part of how I’ve come to see the world, and this larger situation is a reminder to me of my own obligation to move from a place of fear and distrust to a place of love and acceptance. This applies even and especially with people I might initially see as different from me, “strangers.” If I can’t do this for myself, how can I expect others to do so?

This is troubling for me, to see my own internal responsibility for what I have an obligation to work on, challenges that seem difficult, if not insurmountable. In this moment, I’m blessed to remember the teaching "lo alecha ha'mlacha ligmor, v'lo ata ben chorin l'hevatel mimenah." This translates roughly to "it's not your job to finish the work, but neither are you free to ignore it." I don’t have to completely fix myself all in one day, one month, or one year. I do, however, have an obligation to take on the work, one day at a time; otherwise I’m being negligent in what I have to contribute. Each of us can and, in fact are required to, commit to do our part, the work that we each have the capacity to do. Then, we need to try to have faith that what we’re each doing is what needs to done, both individually and collectively.

These texts, and others, help me grapple with the feelings of helplessness and frustration that I’ve been experiencing when I think about these events. This is relevant Judaism, as discussed last week. It's not a purely intellectual exercise, hiding out in rooms filled with arcane books; it's not a purely "spiritual" exercise, trying to connect mystically while removing myself from the world around me. It's about both searching the wisdom of our tradition for insights that can inform the situation in which I find myself today and utilizing those resources to see how that wisdom and the corresponding actions make me a better person than I would otherwise be. It also helps immensely to see that I’m not doing this alone, that this is a task and responsibility that we all share. I still feel a deep sense of sadness over not only the verdict in this trial, but in the loss that preceded it. By bringing the Jewish tradition into the conversation and seeing how this can connect me to others, at least I have some wisdom and hope to guide my actions as I move forward.

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