Wednesday, October 19, 2016

How to Have Empathy When the World Is on Fire - Rosh HaShanah, Rabbi Shira Stutman

This past summer, my family spent a week rafting the middle fork of the Salmon river in Idaho. One morning, we unexpectedly found ourselves staring down-river into a forest fire. When our guides saw what was coming, they pulled us aside and said, “Here’s what we’re going to do: We’re going to crack open a six-pack of calm, and then paddle like there’s a python behind us. Stay in the middle of the river. Go.” (River guides actually talk like that.)
That’s what we did. We paddled through this fire--trees burning on the banks on the left and the right side of us, brush aflame, branches crackling off trees and falling into the water. It was only a few minutes, but felt like forever.
And then it was over. “It’s cool now,” the guides said. “As you were.”
So after paddling through a fire, we went back to talking about the upcoming elections. Which, in retrospect, was quite apropos.
This summer, this past year, has in some ways felt like a world on fire. Just when we thought we couldn’t understand each other any less, we couldn’t disdain each other any more; just when we thought that the other side couldn’t be even more of a basket of deplorables: here we are. Our country feels frayed not just at the edges but damaged at its very core. From unjustified and unbelievable police killings  of unarmed black men to painting Muslims or Hispanics as terrorists or degenerates; from the surfacing of anti-Semitism in our cities and on our college campuses to the demonizing of Israel seemingly everywhere; from terrorism on our shores to the despair and rage of poor Americans whose burdens continue to increase. There’s a metaphorical forest fire raging, whole communities aflame with hatred, bigotry, anger. If we want to quell the fire, something needs to change.
Over dinner in camp, the night after we passed through the forest fire, our guides taught us about what it takes for a fire to erupt. Did you know, they said, that fire can travel slowly, underground, for weeks, jumping from root to root, before it rises above ground? Technology is being devised to sense when the pressure is building underground, so as to avoid a full-fledged fire.
When it comes to humankind, of course, we already have the technology to avoid a conflagration: it’s called empathy (or its more simple form: basic understanding of the other). In this room this morning, most of us can articulate whether we’re Democrat or Republican, progressive or conservative. Chances are good we’ve even given thought to our perspective. But as we face this historic election and the years that will come after it, I want to propose a different way of slicing the pie: are you someone who is committed to engaging with people who see the world differently than you do, or are you more interested in circling the wagons, and going to battle?  
We do not know each other anymore. Some of us in this room have taken to the streets to protest police brutality against people of color. And we should continue to do so. But how many have close relationships with police officers? Have had difficult conversations about implicit bias--theirs and ours--have listened to their real-life stories, have argued for justice? How many sit primly in our homes, believing that whole regions of our country are filled with uneducated ignoramuses, but don’t actually know anyone who grew up and still lives in those areas? This time last year, just about every single person I knew, every journalist I respected, would never have guessed who one of our presidential nominees would be. If the current election cycle is teaching us anything, it’s that we need to be in relationship with more people who are not us. There is too much at stake for us to continue to silo ourselves.
To state the obvious: no people in the universe is (at least in theory) better prepared to bring back the art of difficult conversation than the Jews. Two thousand years ago, we were divided into different groups called the Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes. The groups hated each other, couldn’t speak with each other, were embarrassed of the views that the other held. This hatred led, our tradition teaches, to the destruction of the second Temple and the Jewish exile to Babylonia. From the ashes of exile, however, a new group grew, one that would only admit other members if they learned the rules of engagement and agreed to disagree with each other. This group of people was called “the rabbis.” Together, the rabbis created a series of books called “The Talmud,” which contains 5,000 arguments, only 50 of which were resolved. One percent. It turns out that the rabbis’ goal was not to come to resolution but to be in conversation. To prove their own points, true, but to hear the other’s, as well. They honed the art of conversation with sharp questions, curiosity, and a drive for truth.
But note--these rabbis’ arguments didn’t last a week, or a month, or even a year. When we read a page of Talmud, and witnessing Rabba arguing a point with Rava, remember that they lived two generations apart from each other. These arguments continued over a life-time and beyond. Even underground, fires take weeks to start; they can’t be smothered in an hour.
For many years, our guides taught us, the forest service thought that the way to stop forest fires was to clear away the brush underneath the trees. We have learned over the years, however, that we need to permit small-scale forest fires in order to avoid the larger conflagrations. This is true for humans as well--we need to allow the our difficult conversations to burn, just enough, so as to avoid the explosion. But we’re afraid. We’re worried about being called a racist so we say nothing about race. We’re worried that we don’t know enough so we shy away from rigorous intellectual discourse. We let our fear get in the way of our learning, get in the way of moving conversations forward. And we are often too invested in being right to leave open the possibility of truth that lives outside of us, as uncomfortable as that may be.  
This past year, Sixth & I brought Resetting the Table, an organization dedicated to helping people have productive conversations about Israel and the Palestinian territories, to run a pilot workshop with 12 Sixth & I’ers. The goal was to speak about the conflict and learn more about the history, both from the Israeli and the Palestinian perspective.
The conversation was difficult. Some people knew more, some knew less--and some knew less than they thought they knew. Some were grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, and their personal family history of the powerlessness of European Jewry informs every opinion they have about Israel’s need to protect itself.  Some were grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, and their personal family history of the powerlessness of European Jewry informs every opinion they have about the oppression of the Palestinians.  
After four weeks of talking, we solved the entire conflict.
That’s a lie. But after one week of learning how to listen, then three weeks of discussion we created a space for thoughtful disagreement, constructive learning, and empathic listening. We  took a tentative step--an inch--forward. It was exhausting (and infuriating, and enervating, and inspiring) to listen to each other. This process takes much longer than writing an article for the Huffington Post or going to a protest. I just don’t know another way. We no longer have the luxury of retreating to our own corners while the world burns around us.
On festivals that occur on weekdays—including Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—and on Shabbat afternoon we add a special line to the service for taking out the Torah. It comes from the Psalms (69:14) and reads, in Hebrew: “Va’ani T’filati L’cha Adonai Eit Ratzon, Elohim B’rav chasdecha, aneyni be’emet yishecha.” “I offer my prayer to you, Adonai, at this time of favor, God in your great mercy; answer me with your saving truth.” Often, as today, it is sung three times. We also say this line, by the way, in the Mah Tovu prayer at the beginning of services. Clearly it is an important one.
But why? What do we mean by an “Eit Ratzon,” a “time of favor?” Most often it’s understood as a time when God is especially attentive to humans. In the ancient tradition, these would have been understood as transition periods (from one season to another as in the festivals, from Shabbat back to the rest of the week, to the beginning of services) were assumed to require divine approval.[1]
We too, in this society, can see ourselves in a transitional moment. In the words of Krista Tippett,
...We are struggling, collectively, with divisions of race and income and class that are not new but are freshly anguishing. Here’s what is new: a surfacing of grief. It’s not a universal reckoning, but it’s a widespread awareness that the healing stories we’ve told ourselves collectively are far less than complete. There’s a bewilderment in the American air--both frustrating and refreshing for its lack of answers. We don’t know where to begin to change our relationship with the strangers who are our neighbors--to address the ways in which our well-being may be oblivious to theirs or harming theirs. We don’t know how to reach out or what to say if we did. But we don’t want to live this way. I don’t want to live this way.
The eit ratzon--the period of transition--it could be right now. It is difficult to imagine, but it is possible: a world in which we take in each other’s stories, even when we wholeheartedly disagree, in which we judge individual opinions but not individual people. That is the world that we must bring in fits and starts.
And--and, at the same time, even as we endeavor to engage across difference, we must also be clear that morality is not relative, that our values are real and important. Our job is not to agree with the theoretical other who thinks that Muslims should be forbidden to enter America but instead to be curious about why she came to that conclusion, to be thoughtful about your response, to continue the conversation, to find the areas of overlap (“You’re scared of terrorism? I’m scared of terrorism, too.”), to tease out areas of disagreement. We must also acknowledge that there are those who will never be open to conversation, who live with hatred in their hearts, in sadness and alienation. These people, like the Israelites who left Egypt but never made it to the promised land, may live the rest of their lives in this broken mentality. They may never change, and, like the Israelites, may die in the desert.
But we, in this room? We have a choice.
When we have discretionary time, it is understandable to want to spend it with people who are like us. It’s easy, it’s comfortable. We curate our lives to only be around people like our own selves. It’s like we’ve consciously put ourselves into our own Truman Show. We dread difficult conversations and actively work to avoid them. Who wants to spend time at Thanksgiving dinner with Aunt Jane’s boyfriend, who thinks that immigrants are the root cause of America’s ills? Who wants to discuss politics with that colleague with the “Obama don’t take my assault rifles” bumper sticker? This year, though, I beg you to see these conversations not only as a burden but also as a civic obligation. Find those hard-won moments of holiness, when we make the affirmative decision not to “live out our inherited predispositions of team aggression against our fellow human beings.” When we try to find the places where our truths overlap even though our facts don’t; our facts overlap even if our truths don’t. When we realize that police officers are not, by definition, the enemy. That poor people are not, by definition, the enemy--including people in Ward 8 and in Appalachia. People of different races are not the enemy. People voting for the other candidates are not, by definition, the enemy. Fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, people who support BDS or Israeli settlement expansion--they are not, by definition, the enemy. If we want America  to continue to move towards justice, and not to burn up in flames, we have no choice. Make 5777 an eit ratzon, an auspicious time of getting to know the other.
The election will be here before we know it. For the next few weeks, perhaps, in our rafts as we dash between the flames, we need to paddle like there’s a python behind us and fight for the soul of America as the country we know it can be. Join Sixth & I this Sunday as we register Virginia voters, or find your own voter registration drive. Make sure that people who are newly registered understand what forms of identification they need to bring with them to the polls. Join Sixth & I on election day, as well, as we help to get out the vote.
At the same time, however, please keep in mind: right now we are paddling through a fire, but we are also in the middle of a river that has flowed for thousands of miles behind us, and will continue to flow for thousands of miles beyond, as well. May we also crack open a six-pack of calm and model the ancient Jewish art of nuanced, intellectual, empathic argument. Listen to each other’s stories. Start difficult conversations. It might be the most patriotic thing you ever do.
May we all be signed and sealed for a year filled with tough conversations, unexpected allies, and eit ratzon--auspicious times of connection. Shanah tova.  

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