We didn’t start the fire but we can start to put it out
Rabbi Evan Moffic – Rosh Hashanah 5779 (2018)
Once upon a time a man named Abraham was walking through a forest. He came into a clearing and saw a big house. He looked more closely. The house was on fire. He looked around and asked himself, “Where is the owner of this house? Why isn’t he doing anything?”
Then the voice of God replied, “I am the owner of this house.” And that voice said nothing more. At that moment, Abraham could have run away and pretended he never saw anything. But he did not. Abraham realized he’s responsible for putting out the fire. Even though he didn’t cause the fire—even though, to paraphrase Billy Joel, who just played in town said, he didn’t start the fire —he has to act. According to the Jewish sages, it was at this moment of realization that God chose Abraham to be the father of a new religion. God said to him, Lech Lecha—go forth. Go on this journey to repair this world—to put out this fire—with me.
As we look around this world today, we see that it is still in flames. Parts of the country have literally been in flames. But we also see the fire of hatred and indifference at the border. We see the flames of gun violence in our city. We see the ashes of pollution on our beaches and our countrysides. We see the smoking craters from of endless war in the Middle East. And every day we see and hear the fiery, divisive language of our highest political leadership.
Are we going to pretend everything is okay? Or are we going to be like Abraham—and pay attention and try to put out the fire? Are we doing to sit idly by? Or are we going to hear God’s voice above the din? Perhaps God is calling out to each of us to Lech Lecha, to go forth, to put out the flames of injustice, of hatred, of incivility, that are spreading across our country. How do we answer that call?
Well, there are a few ground rules. One thing we need to avoid is contempt. Contempt is different than disagreement. Contempt is a form of dehumanization. In the words of the famous marriage therapist and son of a rabbi, Dr. John Gottman, contempt is the feeling that “I’m better than you. I don’t respect you.” When contempt enters political discourse, reasonable discussion is impossible. Contempt is when we demonize someone because they disagree with us. Contempt is when we assume a person is bad because they don’t think like us. It’s happening too much, and we need to avoid it. When we show contempt for another, they will always show contempt for us. Contempt accomplishes nothing. It ensures a vicious cycle.
One way to avoid contempt is to always assume we can learn something from others. In Hebrew the word for an argument is Machloket. It comes from the root chelek. Chelek means “part.” It’s a pretty ingenious root. Each side of an argument only is a part of the truth. Real argument can lead to truth, but we err when we mistake a part—our own views—for the whole.
Another way to avoid contempt is to look to ancient models. Politics was not always like it is today. Once upon a time—even during the lifetime of the late Senator John McCain— it was more like Hillel and Shammai. Hillel and Shammai were two Jewish leaders lived just before the beginning of the common era. They debated everything: the right way to light the Chanukah menorah, how to place a mezuza and so on. Hillel won most of the debates. But Shammai’s view was always recorded. They always kept talking. They differed in their points of view. But they shared a moral universe.
But here’s the problem—and I think it’s something many of us have realized over the last few years and during the 2016 election. In our complex divided society, the extreme voices often win. Not only do they set the basis for what is legitimate—they establish orthodoxy. Somewhat paradoxically, the more interconnected and diverse a society becomes, the more prominent extreme voices become. Earlier this year I read a fascinating book on this topic by Nassim Taleb. He is an NYU professor and most famously wrote a book called Black Swans, which is about unexpected events in financial markets.
This year he published another book called Skin in the Game: Hidden Assymetries in Modern Life. It’s a fascinating book with lots of important arguments, but one that jumped out to me is found in a chapter entitled The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dictatorship of the Small Minority. He talked about how a small hyper-focused group can shape a culture. He gives some relatively benign examples. Let’s say you’re having a dinner party. You invite five couples. One is vegan. So you might serve only vegan food. That couple sets the basis for all the event. That’s okay. We’re sensitive. But in a complex interconnected society, it can find less benign expressions: Here’s what Taleb discovered.
“It suffices for an ideologically intransigent minority –a certain type of intransigent minority –to reach a minutely small level, say three or four percent of the total population, for the entire population to have to submit to their preferences…” So what does that mean for our wider culture? On issue after issue, an extreme opinion shared by a small percentage establishes the baseline for the debate. In regards to the second amendment, for example, the most extreme gun rights advocates set the baseline for what kind of gun laws are considered legitimate. In Israel, the most extreme voices set the baseline for what kind of religious politics or peace deals the state will pursue. (We’ll learn a little more about this on Yom Kippur morning) We can name tons of other examples—taxes, campaign finance, immigration, and so forth. In a democracy, an ideologically intransigent group exerts disproportionate influence because, as Taleb puts it, intolerance is leverage. They are the loudest and most persistent voices. Social media only elevates these voices.
Now I’ve cited views from one side of the political aisle, and as a congregation, we are not partisan, and we need to recognize there are also extreme voices on the other side. Consider those, for example, who argue that Israel is an apartheid state. It’s horrific, but it also becoming increasingly mainstream on college campuses. The flames of extremism are growing higher everywhere.
Now of course this is not the first time American society has been extremely divided. When I gave him a draft of this sermon, my dad reminded me that America was deeply divided in the 1960s as well. I wasn’t alive then, but I’ll take his word for it.
That still leaves us with the question: what do thoughtful concerned citizens do? Do we fight extremism with more extremism? Or, to phrase the question differently, how do we avoid contempt when challenging extremists? And what wisdom does our Jewish tradition offer? One critical truth is the need to think long-term. While extremism may win in the short term, a patient reaffirmation and commitment to our core values ensures our survival and success in the long term. In other words, we need to maintain civility even though incivility sometimes wins. We need to talk with others even if we passionately disagree with them. We need to keep a level head even when anger tempts us. If we lose our values, we lose so much more…
But—and here I’m going to sound like Tevya in fiddler on the roof, when he says, on one hand, on the other hand…
So, mindful of our need to avoid contempt, to listen to the other side, to compromise, we also need to condemn wrong when we see it. We need to stick up for what we is right.
That can be hard, but we have all faced those times when we had to go against the flow and do what was right and hard in our personal lives—times when we could have lied or just been dishonest by omission if not commission. Times when we could have taken the easy way instead of the ethical way. But at this moment, I wonder what it takes to do the hard thing as a people, as a community.
How do stick up for our values—our caring for the immigrant, the stranger, the poor, the outsider, the mentally ill, the vulnerable? How do we go against the tide when we know the tide is moving in the wrong direction?
In asking this question, I think we can learn from the Danish during World War II. In April of 1940 the Nazis invaded several Northern European countries. The leadership of most of these countries helped the invading Nazis. They gathered, relocated and eventually murdered almost their entire Jewish populations.
Denmark, however, responded differently. They sought agreement with the Nazis, and in exchange for Denmark’s surrender, the Nazis agreed to not force any of Denmark’s 8000 Jews to have special identity papers or wear the infamous yellow star. But then, on Yom Kippur Day of 1943, the Nazis broke the agreement and resolved to “cleanse Denmark of its Jews.” They imposed martial law and began breaking into homes and rounding up Jews.
With support from the Danish king, however, the citizens of Denmark did not acquiesce. They did not help the Nazis. Thousands of families hid Jews in their homes. And then, in a remarkable operation, they smuggled them onto boats of all sizes and ferried them across the narrow straits to safety in neutral Sweden.
You may have heard the story that the king of Denmark wore a yellow star in solidarity with the Jews. It turns out that is a bubbameisa, a fanciful legend, though the king did oppose the Nazi order to arrest the country’s Jews. But the fact that it was not primarily the king—it was the people themselves who stood up—makes the story all the more remarkable.
Herbert Pundik, who was one of those who got away to Sweden, wrote 55 years later: “The rescue of the Danish Jews shows that often you can do something. People can accomplish something—even fight against a superior power—if only they dare make a choice.”
We have the power to make a choice. As a congregation, we have a choice. As a Jewish community, we have a choice. As concerned citizens, we have a choice. We can choose to act and address our problems head on.
This is the challenge of our time. When I was in high school, I did policy debate. It was my obsession. I traveled around the country and learned so much from it. One of the techniques we used to prove an argument was to say if you don’t follow our proposal, you will spark a war, or an arms race, or ultimately, the nuclear destruction of our world. It was constant worst-case scenario thinking in order to persuade. While we occasionally stretched our limits of plausible belief back then, it is not unwarranted to consider these possibilities today. What will our world look like if we don’t act?
We get a sense of the answer in another fascinating book I read this past year entitled The Watchman’s Rattle, by Rebecca Costa. She looks at what leads to the collapse of strong civilizations. Among her most timely chapters is on the collapse of the Mayan Empire. For three and a half thousand years the Mayans dominated much of Central America. They had water infrastructure, a sophisticated calendar, weavers, farmers, architects. Perhaps you have visited parts of Mexico where you can see some sites—it was an astounding civilization.
But then, for reasons hard to pinpoint, the civilization fell apart. Sometime between the middle of the eighth and ninth centuries, the majority of the Mayan people simply disappeared. Some say it was a drought, food shortages or some other event. But Costa suggests the civilization simply stopped addressing its challenges. It had become so complex that it became as easier to ignore problems than to solve them. She says the process of collapse manifested itself first with gridlock, then irrationality, and then angry outbursts leading to violence and civil war.
Sound familiar? We see the warning signs here, now, today. Will we address them? As Jews—or simply as people connected and shaped by Jewish wisdom—we must. See, the Jewish people has survived through the collapse of various civilizations by remaining faithful to our convictions: we did not let instinct and anger take over our actions. We did not take refuge in the irrational or comfort in the absurd. We kept talking even, perhaps especially, with those with whom we disagreed. Recently Jim Wallis, a liberal Christian writer, gave a talk at Stanford University in which he said, “When I was growing up in my Christian world, I was told the greatest battle of our time is between belief and secularism, but I now believe that the real battle is…between cynicism and hope.”
As we enter into the Jewish New Year—five thousand seven hundred and seventy nine—let us remember that our people have always chosen hope. And today, our history calls out to us. The house is on fire. It is on fire because those with the flamethrowers have climbed up the trees, shouted the loudest, and drowned out the voice of reason, justice, humility and peace. But that’s our voice. That’s our message. That’s our challenge.