This is usually the Shabbos where we try to keep things light, it’s the Shabbos before Purim, a time of joy and happiness. This year was not supposed to be an exception; I had big plans of going all out today. But as I walked into my office on Friday morning to collect my thoughts, having just read the news, I felt very stuck. I felt very stuck until a well-known poem popped into my head. And as I thought about that poem, in light of everything that has happened this past week, the poem morphed into something new. And I apologize, I know, I am not a poet, but I’ll share it nonetheless.
First another man was killed in downtown Baltimore, and I scrolled to the next news item-
Because I was not black.
Then an Ethiopian plane crashed, killing 157 passengers, and I scrolled to the next news item —
Because I was not an Ethiopian.
Then they massacred 49 Muslims in New Zealand, and I scrolled to the next news item —
Because I was not a Muslim.
Then they came for me—but I was too busy scrolling and I did not even realize.
The Brisker Rav, Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Halevi Soloveitchik, once said, that at the end of days, “Mi she’hu ba’al regesh, someone with a sensitive soul, eino yochol lichyos klal, won’t be able to live with themselves, she’sh’muah rodefes sh’muah al hatzaros v’al hag’zeiros, because one bad piece of news follows another.”
The only way anyone can survive, he suggests, is to just shut off your emotions. (H/T R’Joey Rosenfeld)
And so we read a tragic headline. And we scroll.
We read another headline. And we scroll.
But we never sit with that hurt. We never taste or experience the pain, that any normal sentient being should be feeling when reading such news.
Today we read Parshas Zachor, a section of the Torah that reminds us to obliterate a nation called Amaleik. Now this nation Amaleik is no longer around. They got swept up in the tide of history. But we still read this passage every year. And the reason we do so is because Amaleik represents the notion that there is evil in the world which has to be fought. In telling us how to remember Amaleik, G-d says, Zachor! remember that evil exists, and then, Lo tishkach! and never forget it. That is not repetitive. To remember something means that you see it, you read it, but the next moment, you forget it. Lo Tishkach, says G-d, when we read about evil, when we read about tragedy, we must sit with it, we must never forget.
You know, I used to hate moments of silence. The contrarian in me has a hard time with ceremony. But I’ve come to appreciate that to stop and to think about whatever it is you’re memorializing; to not just touch it at the surface but to let it sink in, that has the potential of being overwhelmingly powerful. So maybe not a full minute, but perhaps, when we read something tragic, when we read about the evils that exist in this world, we sit with it, for 30 seconds, maybe twenty seconds, before we scroll on to the next item. That’s what it remembers to not forget.
This idea is true and important on a macro level, but even more important and relevant to us in our individual lives and communities. There’s this incredible irony – As a society, I think it’s safe to say that there has never been such a self-aware population in history – something I hope to get back to in a few weeks. We know ourselves really, really well. But that depth seems to only go in one direction.
We don’t use that same depth to understand others, to feel the pain of others and to sit with it.
In the school my wife works at, as a lead up to Purim, they wanted to give the students a fun activity. And so last week, they had something called a Silent Dance Party. Apparently, this is a thing. It’s done in clubs across the country. The way it works is this: each student gets a pair of headphones and they get to choose whichever song they want to listen to – full volume. But no one else can hear it. So if you were to walk into a silent dance party, you’d see every student wearing headphones, listening to their song of choice, and dancing side by side.
What a perfect image of our society; It looks like everyone’s dancing and laughing together. But really, what’s really going on is that everyone’s just listening to their own song.
We’re not paying attention. “Uh huh” Scroll. “uh huh” Scroll. “uh huh”
Our Sages have a beautiful term they use to describe our concern for others, nosei b’ol im chaveiro, to carry the yoke with one’s friend. A yoke is something that weighs us down. And that’s the litmus test. When we become aware of the lack that our friend is experiencing, does it weigh us down – even just a little bit? Or do we just move on the next conversation?
To be nosei b’ol im chaveiro means to notice when someone looks like something’s troubling them and to check in.
To be nosei b’ol im chaveiro means to notice when someone is not in shul or at work or wherever they’re supposed to be and to follow up with them, to let them know they were missed.
To be nosei b’ol im chaveiro means that when we speak to others, we are thinking about how they are hearing what we’re saying, using our deep emotional awareness to understand not only ourselves, but others. To make sure that we are not coming across in a way that offends, or that is insensitive.
I’d like to conclude with a powerful idea that I heard this past week from Rabbi Joey Rosenfeld. The Talmud teaches us that someone who is drunk is not allowed to pray. The simple understanding of that is that praying while intoxicated is disrespectful. But there is an additional layer to this law taught by one of the great Chassidic thinkers, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, otherwise known as the Izhbitzer. He taught as follows:
Conceptually, to be drunk or to be high means that you have transcended the worries, the cravings, the lack in this world. To be high means you’re floating above it all. That’s why the addict gets high. They don’t like the drugs or the alcohol. He or she is attempting to escape the brokenness of the world.
But tefilah, prayer, the essence of our connection to our Creator, stems from a place of brokenness. We can only reach out to G-d, and we can only reach out to a better version of ourselves, when we’re sober; when we recognize how the world is not whole, how everything is not the same, how lacking we are, and how lacking the people around us really are.
But tragically, we’re all shikuur, we’re all drunk, in that we’re floating above the the pain of this world, and we refuse to acknowledge that there’s anything beneath the surface.
The mystics explain that Megilas Esther should be read as megaleh ha’hester, it is meant to reveal that that is hidden, that that we normally scroll over. Megilas Esther, literally the scroll of Esther, is in actuality, the anti-scroll. Look beneath the mask. Live beyond the surface.
What the Izhbitzer is teaching us is that to, so to speak pray, to live a spiritual life, one needs to sit – to sit in silence – with the fact that over 300 people will most probably be murdered in downtown Baltimore by the end of the year. To sit in silence with the fact that 159 people on a regular plane, lost their lives in a blink of an eye. To sit in silence with the fact that 49 innocent religious men and women were mowed down while they were doing exactly what we’re doing here today. To sit with that. To feel it.
To live a spiritual life means that we recognize the brokenness of the world, within and without.
And with that sober view, we strive, with speech, with prayer, and with action, to do whatever we can to change it.