Thursday, April 24, 2014

Taking Responsibility in the Extreme Situation

I’ve always associated the notion of the captain going down with the ship with the Titanic disaster of 1912 and that ship’s captain Edward Smith (who did indeed go down with his ship), but it turns out that the expression dates back to a novel published eleven years earlier in which a packet of letters was entrusted to a woman on board a passenger liner rather than to the captain because, as the author, Alix John, wrote, “…if anything goes wrong a woman may be saved, whereas a captain goes down with his ship.”  But even if the expression has its literary origins in a long-since-forgotten novel, the bottom line is that the notion itself—that the captain of a ship must look to the safety of the passengers and crew before fleeing a sinking vessel and securing his or her personal wellbeing—is understood by most to constitute perhaps the most basic of obligations of the captains of ships towards those who place their lives in those captains’ hands. That much seems obvious. But what about others whose responsibility towards passengers on a sinking ship is less obvious? That is the murkier question I want to pose and attempt to answer in my letter to you all this week.

History is replete with captains who chose to put their own wellbeing last and instead to risk their own lives for the sake of those whose safety was entrusted to them.  There are also, of course, many examples of captains who behaved less well. Until last week, the best known recent example of the latter would probably have been the captain of the Italian cruise ship, the Costa Concordia, which sank in January 2012 off the Italian coast. (Although leaving a sinking ship is not per se a crime in Italy, the captain was later charged with manslaughter and causing the loss of the ship. The outcome of the trial is pending.)  But that was then…and now the most famous captain to abandon his ship rather than to remain with his passengers is surely Lee Jun-Seok, the captain of the Sewol ferry that sank on April 16 about sixteen miles off the Korean coast, and among the first to flee the vessel once it began to capsize. Unfortunately for Captain Lee, Korean law explicitly forbids captains to abandon their ships, as a result of which he was arrested two days later and charged with “abandoning the boat and its passengers in a time of crisis.” It hasn’t helped the captain’s case that a photograph of him safely leaving the boat, thus abandoning hundreds to their fate, went viral shortly thereafter on the internet. Nor has it helped that the president of Korea, Park Geun-hye, felt free to opine publicly that the captain’s behavior was tantamount to murder and that she found it was legally and ethically incomprehensible. Of the 476 souls on board, most of them high school students, only 174 were rescued. 159 are confirmed dead and it is unclear how any of the remaining 143 passengers could possibly still be alive. Probably, none is. The coming days, no doubt, will bring even more grim news with them.

What Captain Lee’s fate will be, none can yet say. But I write today not to evaluate the captain’s behavior, but to discuss instead the behavior of a different party entirely, one Kang Min-kyu, the vice principal of Danwon High School who survived the ferry disaster and then chose to take his own life as the ultimate expression of remorse for his role, such as it was, in the tragedy. But what exactly was his role? Kang, age fifty-two, was the chaperone of the high school students on board, the school official to whom those students’ parents had entrusted their children for the course of their outing on a school-sponsored trip. He wasn’t the captain of the ship. No one had any reason to imagine he knew anything about boats at all. (When my own mother served as “class mom” when our sixth grade class went to the Bronx Zoo in the spring of 1965, I can’t imagine anyone supposed she knew how to drive a school bus!) He was thus responsible for the children, not the boat. But the weight of responsibility in the wake of disaster was apparently too heavy for the man to bear. When they cut him down from the tree from which he was found hanging near a gymnasium where the students’ families were gathering to await the worst news, a note in his wallet read, “It is too much being alive while more than two hundred of my students are missing. Please place all the blame on me because I was in charge of the trip. Please cremate my body and scatter the ashes where the ship sank. Perhaps I should be a teacher for those missing children in the other world.”

There’s a lot to take apart in those words.  Part of me thinks that any suicide prompted by despair is by definition an act of futility and that people who take their own lives are by definition acting irrationally and wrongly. Most of me thinks that, actually. Surely, our Jewish tradition forbids suicide even as an ultimate expression of remorse. If Vice Principal Kang had come to me personally for counselling before making his decision, I would have encouraged him to find a less self-destructive way to channel his sense of responsibility for the children who died on his watch, one that would honor both their memory and his sense of personal, if legally unreal, responsibility for their fate. But another part of me is moved almost beyond words by Vice Principal Kang’s need to step forward and take responsibility for the unimaginable loss of hundreds and hundreds of young lives. No one would ever imagine that he was personally blamable for what happened. I certainly don’t. Who rationally could? And yet…it’s impossible not to be moved by the man’s need personally to follow the children in his charge to the next world and there to watch over them in a way he was unable to manage in this one. Is it possible not to approve and yet to admire?  That is the question I find myself uncertain how to answer.

Let’s talk about that note. Do we believe that that’s how it works, that people leave this world for another place that actually exists and in which deceased teenagers are posthumously enrolled in ghostly high schools in which they are taught by the spectral teachers who have followed them to Sheol? Korean folk belief does entertain a concept of the afterlife along those lines, but most of us would say that our endless talking about the World to Come is just so much poetry laced with a bit of mythological wishful thinking. And yet…what precisely do we mean when we talk about saying Kaddish “for” the dead or when we light yahrtzeit candles for the elevation of the soul of someone whom we loved and lost, or when we pray that a relative who has died be bound up in the bond of life everlasting? That the notion that the dead live on is a key element in our thinking about the way the world works seems obvious…but even so the vice principal’s response seems tragically misguided. But there is also something moving to me about a man who understood responsibility for others on that visceral level, about a man for whom what mattered most was not behaving rationally or reasonably but stepping forward personally to expiate with his own death a tragedy that he felt himself responsible—even irrationally—for having failed to avert.

As I contemplate Vice Principal Kang’s death, I find my mind wandering to the story of Henryk Goldszmit, better known by his pen name Janusz Korczak. He was a pediatrician and an author of children’s books, but primarily he was an educator and the director of a Jewish children’s orphanage in Warsaw during the dark years of the German occupation. Although it is widely believed that he personally could have sought sanctuary successfully on the Aryan side of Warsaw, he chose to remain with the almost two hundred orphans in his care, ultimately accompanying them to Treblinka where he and they were all murdered on August 6, 1942. The stories are not the same, obviously. Korczak sacrificed himself for living children, choosing to give them the comfort of a familiar chaperone on what he, but possibly not they, knew was to be their final journey. He died nobly, laboring in the most extreme situation imaginable to do good in the world and to serve the children fate had entrusted to his care. I could not possibly admire Korczak more for his selflessness and his sacrifice. In a world of too few heroes, he was the real thing, a true hero whose bravery was a function, not of foolhardiness or self-aggrandizing bravado, but of the simple refusal to look away from the responsibility he perceived himself to bear towards the children in his charge…and his willingness to pay with his life for doing so.

To say that the vice principal acted foolishly only makes sense if he was wrong about there being a possibility of him watching over the children who were entrusted to him in the next world. I can’t condone what he did. As noted, if he had come to me for advice I would have advised him to find a less self-destructive way to express his grief. That’s the party line and it’s also what I truly do believe: that life is a gift from God that may never be rejected by people possessed of faith in God’s goodness. And yet, as noted, in a world in which so few take seriously the responsibilities life lays upon their shoulders, it also feels impossible not to admire a man who—apparently believing that there remained a role for him to play in the posthumous lives of the children who drowned on his watch—chose to follow his children to Sheol, to Hades, to what the Koreans themselves widely imagine to be the world to which the dead travel and in which they live on in some spectral version of the world they by then have left behind to the living.

To judge the man based on his own beliefs seems reasonable. I find myself, therefore, abhorring the deed but at least slightly admiring its doer. To dismiss his act as one that “must” have been a function of his own mental unbalance without ever having met the man seems hard to justify. Perhaps he was unbalanced at the very end, as he found in death the only rational response to the tragedy he survived but in which so many others died. Perhaps his final act—the taking of his own life—was only an act of irrational despair. Or perhaps the man was following through on beliefs he truly held…and living up to responsibility as he perceived it to be. It’s hard to say. It would be wrong to judge. But to treat the man dismissively merely because he saw no path forward other than the one he took—that also seems wrong and unduly harsh. In any event, I pray that he rests in peace and that the families and friends of all those who lost their lives on the Sewol find some comfort in the contemplation of one man’s effort to keep faith with the dead.

Thursday, April 17, 2014


It would be easy to write off the whole Kansas City thing as nothing to take too seriously. The guy was an old coot. (Did you hear those clips of him sounding crazy on Howard Stern?) He was motivated by anti-Semitism, but his victims weren’t even Jewish. (That makes his crime no less heinous, obviously, but it does make it bizarre and random…thus slightly less terrifying than it might otherwise have been.) He must have been crazy. (Did you hear his homage to Hitler from the back of the police cruiser? What kind of person who is already possibly facing the death penalty should he be convicted on the state level of capital murder would invite federal hate crime charges that could lead to a lethal injection all on their own?)  And, of course, as these things go in America of the twenty-tens—he only murdered three people. And that, regretfully but honestly, is the truth—if he hadn’t shot up a Jewish Community Center and a Jewish assisted living facility, but had only killed three people while robbing a gas station or a convenience store somewhere…would the story really have ended up (as it did, at least eventually) on the front page of the New York Times?

But writing Kansas off as an aberration would be an error of judgment. That there are still people out there who hate Jews to the point of being willing to trade in the rest of their years and their personal liberty for the possibility of murdering some few innocents arbitrarily chosen for death by virtue of their mere presence in a Jewish place is not something to pass by too quickly. We never tire of asking how the Jews of Germany could possibly have not seen the writing on the wall once anti-Jewish violence was on the rise seriously in the years before Kristallnacht made it impossible not to see what was coming. But this was precisely how things started, with violence at first contained and illegal…and then slowly legitimatized, then made more normal (and thus concomitantly less noticeable or newsworthy), then eventually made fully acceptable…to the extent that it seemed strange, even disloyal and unpatriotic, for “regular” Germans to oppose violence directed against Jews.

Now is hardly then. We live in a country that has the eradication of senseless prejudice, the preservation of religious freedom, and the preservation of the civil rights of the individual as among the most foundational of its beliefs. But there are numbers worth noticing nevertheless. According to the FBI, 65% of religion-prompted hate crimes in the United States in 2012 were directed against Jews. That seems like a very high percentage for a group that constitutes, when the wind is at our backs, maybe 2% of the population. Even that sounds like something we can safely and reasonably ignore—we can soothingly tell ourselves that the FBI only analyzes hate crimes formally reported to the bureau, a mere 6,573 in 2012, and only a fifth of those were motivated by hatred directed against victims because of their religious affiliation—but when set against the background of ever-more-normative anti-Jewish legislative efforts in Europe aimed at outlawing circumcision or kosher slaughter, and the willingness of even normally decent people to look past anti-Semitism—and even to justify it as rational—when it comes cloaked in the politically-pious aura of anti-Israelism, the situation seems more worthy of our serious attention.

Maybe it’s just the wrong season for me to feel complacent about complacency. We had great s’darim this year, each featuring the traditional over-eating and over-drinking all too characteristic of Passover at its least healthy but also filled with interesting, provocative discussion.  Partially motivated by the events in Kansas, I chose to make a similar presentation to my table-mates each evening and invite them to respond. How old, I asked innocently, was Joseph when he was kidnapped into slavery? That one, everybody seemed to know—he was seventeen, a mere lad only older in his family setting than Benjamin, his only full brother.  And how old was he when Pharaoh sprung him from prison? That one too is easy—this was a fairly learned crowd we had gathered for our yontif meals—because the Torah gives the answer explicitly: “And Joseph was thirty years old when he stood before Pharaoh, king of Egypt.”  But then we have to move into the realm of conjecture. There were, so Scripture, seven years of plenty during which Joseph was personally responsible for storing up enough grain to feed the nation during the famine that would follow. So that would make him thirty-seven when those seven years ended.

Moving along, I asked my guests how old he was when his father and brothers came finally to Egypt. That too seemed simple to answer because the answer is right there in the text: Joseph specifically invites his brothers to notice that only two years of the famine have passed and that five are yet to come. So that would make Joseph thirty-nine years old when his family arrived and, presumably, forty-four when the famine ended.  Surely, the concept should have been for the Israelites to return home once their reason for being away from home no longer existed…but that’s specifically not what happens in the story as told. The next relevant number in fact, comes in contiguous chapters, one ending Genesis and one beginning Exodus. The first—which is the final verse of Genesis—notes that Joseph was 110 years old when he died. And the second, in the next chapter of Scripture, notes that the Israelites were eventually enslaved by a new Pharaoh, a “king over Egypt who knew not Joseph.”

So that would be more—probably well more—than sixty-six years later. (There is no specific reason to suppose that this new Pharaoh who knew not Joseph came to power immediately after the Pharaoh who welcomed the Israelites to Goshen. There could have been several Pharaohs who reigned between those two for many years, thus making the number of years between the end of the famine and the enslavement of the Israelites even greater.)  So the question I posed to my young audience was why they thought it was that the Israelites didn’t simply go home after the famine ended. The storm clouds must surely have begun to gather long before it was too late effectively to dissipate them! It seems hard to imagine that the Pharaoh who enslaved Israel simply woke up one morning and decided on the spot and totally out of the blue to deprive millions of their freedom. But if that was the case…then why exactly didn’t the Israelites just pick up and return to the land that was, after all, their eternal patrimony as per the divine promise to Abraham that even today rests at the heart of our Pesach narrative as liturgically presented in the Haggadah and of which it’s impossible to imagine that the Israelites in Egypt themselves were not fully aware?

The answer, I suppose, is that the situation didn’t seem serious at first, or at least not that serious. Yes, there were hooligans out there who didn’t like their Hebrew neighbors. And there was, I’m imagining, surely the occasional incident of violence directed against one of the Hebrews on his or her way home from work or out alone on a dark night for an ill-conceived walk through the wrong neighborhood. But, on the whole, things seemed reasonable…until they didn’t. And that was the scenario I invited my people to contemplate as we sat around our table and, as per the biblical command, told the story of our ancestors’ flight to freedom by focusing it through the triple prism of history, reality, and destiny.

We did a good job. Everybody ended up agitated, at least a little. (What better sign of a good discussion could there possibly be, and particularly at the seder?) I was the first to say clearly that I am not even slightly afraid to live in my own place. Just to the contrary, I feel secure and safe at home and in the street…but I’ve also got Kansas on my mind. I remembered aloud how in tenth grade biology class, our teacher showed us—this must surely be illegal now or at least not common practice—how she showed us that if you put a frog in a petri dish filled with water and then proceeded to heat the water slowly enough for the ever-mounting temperature to escape the frog’s notice, you could immobilize the frog, then eventually boil it alive, even though there was nothing at all keeping the frog from just hopping out of the dish and saving itself with almost no effort at all. I can remember almost nothing of my science classes in high school—and, for some reason, tenth grade biology least of all—but that experiment has stayed with me all these years. Some readers will have heard me reference it from the bimah, as I have occasionally over the years. And so, every single year, when we get to the second plague, the one involving frogs, in our retelling of the story, I have the very same thought: the frogs were the instruments of a plague directed against the Israelites’ masters, but that the Israelites themselves too were frogs…who could have saved themselves simply by hopping off to freedom before the water was finally too hot for them to do anything other than, as the text says, call out to God for rescue.

What is called for here is vigilance, not paranoia. In 2007, the Anti-Defamation League published a study that concluded that about 15% of the American population hold views that could reasonably be categorized as anti-Semitic. The good news was that that figure was down from 29%, a figure from a similar study in the early 1960s. The bad news was that 15% of our American population is about fifty million people.  The vast majority of those people, I suppose, are non-violent types from whom we have nothing specific to fear in terms of our physical wellbeing. But it also feels like too large a number to ignore or to slough off as a mere detail.

The Torah calls for the first night of Pesach to be a leil shimurim in every generation, a phrase usually translated as “a night of vigilance” or “a watchful night.” The Mekhilta, our oldest collection of rabbinic comments on Exodus, comments that the phrase is meant as a call to all Israelites to pledge on that first evening of Passover to be responsible for their own welfare rather than to look elsewhere, presumably even towards heaven, to secure their own security. That would have been a good plan for the Israelites in Egypt for all those many decades when they could have secured their own future simply and easily…and it remains a good plan for the House of Israel in our own day.  It seems doubtful that Thomas Jefferson actually commented that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. If he did say it—and it remains unrecorded among his essays and speeches if he did—he was probably cribbing the idea from an Irish lawyer and judge named John Curran (1750-1817), who wrote in a speech that “the condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.”  Those were the words that were ringing in my ears as I sat back at my seder table on the evening Scripture ordains be a leil shimurim in every generation and pondered Monday’s events in Kansas.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Pesach 2014

Other than Jewish parents and a healthy respect for American optimism, one of the few things I can say that I truly have in common with Franz Kafka is our shared fondness for, of all books, Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.

Maybe I should set that thought in its fuller context. It was 1913. Here, Grand Central Station had just opened and the federal government had just granted itself the right to collect income tax. But in Prague, one of the last century’s true greats was sitting down to write his first novel, one he personally called Der Verschollene (“The Disappeared”) and never quite finished, but which was eventually published anyway under a title his literary executor thought would be more appealing: Amerika. And, indeed, the book is set mostly in New York and a little bit, unexpectedly, in Oklahoma.  Good authors, I suppose, can write successfully about places they haven’t been personally—think, for example, of Robert Harris’s terrific lawyer-novels set in ancient Rome—but when Kafka’s friends asked how he could set a book in a country he hadn’t ever visited, his answer was simply that between reading Ben Franklin’s Autobiography and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, he had more than enough information to work with. (It was at the end of that same sentence, by the way, that Kafka mentioned that he specifically admired the American people because of their robust health and their native optimism.)

Nor were/are Kafka and I Franklin’s only Jewish admirers. One of the great works of Jewish moral literature of the nineteenth century is Menachem Mendel Lefin’s 1808 book, Sefer Ḥeshbon Ha-nefesh, in which the Galician rabbi—himself an early associate of Moses Mendelssohn and a pivotal figure in the intellectual history of Polish Jewry—consciously bases himself on the ethical program set forth by Franklin in his autobiography. (Lefin’s book is very readable and I recommend it to my readers as an excellent text for study and contemplation. I have a heartbreaking edition that was published in 1936 in Kedainiai, Lithuania, by people who obviously had no idea that the entire Jewish community in that place—numbering more than 5000 souls—would be murdered by the nation’s German occupiers and their local collaborators just five years later and on one single day, August 28, 1941. Non-Hebrew readers can profitably use Shraga Silverstein’s English translation, published by Feldheim Publishers in 1995 and still in print and easily available.)  And it wasn’t only their ideas that overlapped—their lives did as well: Lefin was born in 1749 when Franklin was thirty-three and outlived him by thirty-six years.

Much has been made of Ben Franklin’s influence on nineteenth-century Jewish thought through the medium of that specific book. Interested readers can very profitably begin with Shai Afsai’s essay, “Ben Franklin’s Influence on Judaism,” published in the winter/spring 2012 issue of The Early America Review (and available on-line at or Nancy Sinkoff’s “Benjamin Franklin in Jewish Eastern Europe: Cultural Appropriation in the Age of Enlightenment,” published in the January 2000 issue of the University of Pennsylvania Press’s Journal of the History of Ideas. But I write today neither to expatiate about the autobiography—which I have read and reread over the years and enjoyed thoroughly each time—nor specifically to write about Menachem Lefin’s book, but rather to talk, in pre-Pesach mode, about a topic that both authors raise for discussion, and which I feel engaging me too as we just a bit paradoxically prepare to celebrate our liberation from bondage by working like slaves to make ready our homes for the oncoming festival.

At the core of Franklin’s book is the notion that life itself is made meaningful through the effort to embrace virtue. But because virtue itself is not actually a character trait one may actually adopt—any more than one can speak in “language” itself as opposed to some specific one among the world’s languages—he set himself to enumerating the specific moral traits that he felt, taken together, embody the concept of virtue in practical terms. There are, in sum, thirteen that Franklin identified: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, chastity, tranquility, and humility.  They have weathered the test of time differently, these thirteen attributes of the virtuous individual. Some, for example, would be on all of our lists of desirable character traits; others, perhaps only on some of our lists. I would, in fact, like to address myself to any number of them in future letters, but today, as we prepare for the most labor-intensive of all Jewish holidays, I am drawn to considering specifically the sixth of Franklin’s virtues: industry.

We live in a world that mostly treasures leisure. And, indeed, the notion that the reward for a lifetime of work is the gift, if that’s the right world, of retirement from work is one of the cornerstones of the way Americans think about labor. We obviously try to choose jobs that suit us. The fortunate among us, like myself, find positions that make them feel useful, creative, and productive. But even rabbis are expected, at least eventually, to retire! As are all sorts of people whose work is, at least ideally, deemed fulfilling and desirable. The Torah commands us to work for six days and to rest on the seventh…but even among the punctiliously observant the second of those commandments is generally considered far more sacrosanct than the former. Indeed, I don’t actually know of any authority who forbids retirement on the grounds that Scripture commands us to work six days out of seven. Nor, I think, will that opinion ever be seriously put forward…or at least not by any rabbi who wishes to keep his job in the congregational world.

Franklin, on the other hand, valorizes industry in a way that will possibly sound foreign to at least some readers. He pairs it with frugality and writes openly that by cultivating both, he personally acquired both the means to be useful to society and the right to be considered a man of repute among the learned of his day. And, indeed, the man’s whole story as told in the autobiography is one of ferociously hard work to establish a toe-hold in society and then to flourish as the result of his own labor. The notion that pleasure in leisure derives directly from having personally created the context for that rest by having previously working oneself to exhaustion is an idea that will resonate with most moderns only theoretically: we value hard work because it seems that we should, not because any of us actually wishes to exhaust him or herself through the kind of backbreaking labor that we in our world connect with the kind of jobs people take when they have no less strenuous options to consider.

Lefin takes much the same tack, devoting a full chapter to z’rizut, the name he assigns to Franklin’s virtue of industry. The human soul, he writes, has higher and lower elements in it. The lower part, which he labels “bestial,” is the part that longs for indolence, that wants nothing more than to seek and enjoy pleasure in life, and which rejects the notion that both pleasure and leisure have to be earned truly to be savored, or even savor-able. The higher part of the soul, which Lefin labels the “insightful” part (that is, the part able to reason thoughtfully in a way the bestial part of one’s soul simply cannot), is the one that understands that the boredom that derives directly from excessive inactivity is not just unpleasant but ultimately harmful in the extreme: it is, he writes, the pleasure of work that keeps the mind agile and the body healthy, both obvious prerequisites for happiness in life.

Both authors provided handy tables for people to use in charting their progress. Franklin explains how it works: “I made a little book,” he writes, “to which I allotted a page for each of the virtues. I rul’d each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns, one for each day of the week, marking each column with a letter for the day. I cross’d these columns with thirteen red lines, marking the beginning of each line with the first letters of one of the virtues, on which line, and in its proper column, I might mark, by a little black dot, every fault I found upon examination to have committed respecting that virtue upon that day.”  Lefin reproduced the same table in his book, changing (for some reason) Franklin’s order, but basically suggesting the same concept, that people copy out the table, choose one specific virtue to concentrate on per week, then note how many times they deviate not from other people’s expectations of them but from virtues that they themselves claim to wish to embrace as their own.

I should admit up front that I do not carry the table around with me so as the better to be able to chart my own moral progress through life. Perhaps I should. Perhaps we all should!  But I write today to remind you—and to remind myself—that the labor connected with getting ready for Pesach—the cooking and the cleaning, the shopping and the whole chametz-eradication thing—should not be dismissed as the irritating prelude to what we all eventually experience as one of the peak experiences of the Jewish year. Instead, what both authors suggest, particularly when read in each other’s light, is that the labor of making Pesach is, in a very real sense, its own reward. Even that expression—so natural to speakers of Jewish American English—itself, “making” Pesach, implies that the festival is not something that floats down to us from heaven like manna, but something we are called upon annually—and then over and over throughout the years of our lives—to make, to fashion, to create…in our homes and for our families, but also for ourselves and for the benefit of our own spiritual wellbeing.  Industry itself, they write, is a virtue…and, at that, one that by its very nature improves us and makes us more ready than we otherwise might be to feel drawn into the story of our ancestors’ redemption from slavery in Egypt.

So the moral of the story is to embrace the effort and not dismiss it as the unavoidable but otherwise unwanted road we must travel into the ḥag. Being so beat you can’t stay awake for the seder is not the point, nor should it be anyone’s goal. But feeling drawn into the narrative through the intensity of our preparatory labors is precisely what our goal really should be. By “making” Pesach as it should be made, we also make ourselves into the kind of men and women who can easily obey the Haggadah’s injunction to think of ourselves as though we ourselves left Egypt beneath the beneficent protection of God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm. And that, I think, is precisely the point of the whole undertaking!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Flight MH 370

There is a profound distinction between humility and humiliation. The latter, a bad thing, occurs when someone undertakes the conscious effort to make you feel that you are unimportant, that your opinions are negligible, that your presence (in an organization, in a family, in the workplace, etc.) is unnecessary, perhaps even unwanted. The former, on the other hand, is a good thing: it is the realization that visits all of us occasionally that we are less powerful, less influential, and less essential to the smooth running of the universe than we all enjoy fantasizing in our more self-absorbed moments to be the case. The latter is something that is done to us by meanspirited others; the former is an emotion that wells up within our human breasts when we are forced, generally unexpectedly, to take stock of how things really are in the world and what our actual place in the greater scheme of things truly is. Neither experience is exceptionally pleasant, but we become embittered (if not enraged) through the one and wise through the other. In the end, they only sound alike…but aren’t really very similar at all.

Humility is something worth cultivating. We all know that sometimes medicine, including life-saving medicine, has a bitter taste to it…but the wise swallow it down anyway, preferring long-term gain over the momentary avoidance of a bad taste in their mouths. But how exactly to cultivate the kind of humility that ennobles and makes us into finer people…and that specifically cannot just be swallowed down in pill-form—that is the question.

Like all of you, I’ve been watching the search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370 as it has dragged on over these last weeks with some strange combination of curiosity, dismay, and apprehension. I have been on big airplanes more times than I can count. I’ve flown over the Atlantic dozens of times. I don’t love flying particularly, but I think that has to do more with my dislike of confined spaces than with any actual fear that the flight might end in disaster. And I speak in that regard as someone who actually has been in an airplane accident, although a minor one that hardly bears referencing as such. Still, I have left an aircraft at least once by sliding down the rubberized emergency-door chutes and been told by the crew to run away from the aircraft as quickly as possible, presumably to avoid incineration if the plane were to blow up. Perhaps I’ll write to you about that whole experience some other time—it was the same day in 1979, by the way, that (albeit hours later) I met Joan—but here my point is that I’m the guy who tells himself over and over that air travel is safe, that the dangerous part of the journey (at least in terms of the odds of coming to harm in an accident) is the drive to the airport not the flight to wherever you’re going, that year in and year out more people die on motorcycles than in airplanes. Many more!

Layered over those reassuring statistics is the sense of the world as being wholly wired, as privacy (not publicity) being the elusive thing in a modern society obsessed with surveillance. We’ve gotten used to security cameras in public places. We’ve adjusted to the government’s newly-exposed hobby of monitoring citizens’ phone calls, e-mails, and internet site visits. (This is not at all the same thing as approving of it or worrying about the constitutionality of the NSA programs revealed by Edward Snowden last year. That is another issue entirely…but what surprises me far more than the existence of those programs is the docility, bordering on passivity, of the citizenry in their regard now that their existence is common knowledge. I’ll write more about that another time as well.) We could debate some of the above, but the basic sense we all have is that we should always be smiling because we're always on camera.

And now both those assumptions meet in the story of MH 370. Vast stretches of the world’s oceans, it turns out, are unmonitored, including not by radar, satellite surveillance, or the vigilant gaze of the world’s air traffic controllers.  That the Indian Ocean is vast I already knew. That the southern part of the Indian Ocean, the part due west of Australia, is an endless, uncharted sea over which no one watches too carefully…I also knew, at least theoretically. (That is to say, if anyone had asked me…I would have guessed correctly.) That an airplane, large and mighty-looking on the tarmac, could prove either unfindable or almost unfindable in the context of the vast, raging sea…and all the more so if it were not somehow visible as flotsam on the water’s surface but resting, either intact or in pieces, on the ocean floor wholly invisibly—that I would have said I knew as well. So I must be a very smart person because I knew all of those things! And yet…when the story of MH 370 became front-page news almost a month ago, I was amazed, joining the whole world in asking bewilderedly how this possibly could have happened.

I felt the same way after 9/11, at least after the initial shock of what had happened wore off. My questions were, if not identical, then similar. How could this possibly have happened? Don’t we have people in place charged with preventing terrorism, with protecting our nation’s cities, with watching over our coast line precisely so as to make impossible the kind of attacks we sustained on that terrible day? Isn’t that what the Coast Guard does, guard our coasts and prevent attacks on our coastal cities? I’m sure we all felt that way…but the correct response to 9/11 was not to despair of repairing the breaches in our defenses any more than the proper response to MH 370 is to give up hope of feeling safe on airplanes ever again. Neither of those responses would be productive or useful…and yet, in addition to working to prevent future attacks and future airplane crashes in the under-surveilled reaches of the world’s oceans, it would be meaningful for us to feel—in addition to all the other emotions vying for primacy of place within us as we contemplate events like these—it would be productive for us to feel humbled by our own vulnerability. Not acquiescent in the sense that we decide no longer even to bother to attempt to make safe the world and its people…but newly, even if painfully, aware of how inadequately we can predict the future, how wholly unable we are to leave no stone unturned when attempting to provide security in an insecure world for ourselves and our children, how much at the mercy of happenstance we invariably are, and how poor we are at anticipating the deeds of wicked so as to be able always to head villains off at the pass and prevent their nefarious plans from coming to fruition.

What really happened to the airplane, who knows? I’ve heard all the same theories everybody has, including the ridiculous ones concerning aliens and black holes. Whether this was a man-made disaster or one that “just” happened…that will, I suppose, one day be known. Strangely, both possibilities seem both likely and unlikely. For what it’s worth, my own sense is that the ultimate answer lies in some sort of combination of those two options. In the meantime, and given how little we actually know, the only truly rational response is to wait for more information to surface before leaping to any conclusions. But, also in the meantime, it would behoove us all to grow from the larger experience by feeling not humiliated by the experience of not knowing what happened but humbled by it.

Many years ago, Alan Watts published a book called The Wisdom of Insecurity. Watts was a remarkable man. British by birth but eventually a Californian and one single year older than my own father, Watts started out as an Episcopal priest, then eventually abandoned Christianity for Zen Buddhism, regarding which he published many very interesting books, including his very well-known The Way of Zen. I read that book in college and many others of his books while in rabbinical school, but The Wisdom of Insecurity, first published in 1951, is the one that has stayed with me the most meaningfully over all these years and I still recommend it regularly to others. It isn’t a long book—a mere 150 pages in length—but it can be read as a profound recommendation that insecurity—and particularly of the unsettling variety that settles upon us when we contemplate unexplained disasters exactly like the missing airplane—is, in and of itself, not a bad thing if it shakes us free of our general arrogance regarding the world and instills a kind of humility in us that we might otherwise find it difficult to cultivate. Indeed, even as we mourn the loss of so many innocents, we should be able to grow from the experience of contemplating their fate by learning something deep and meaningful about the world.

The idea should be familiar to students of the Bible, and particularly to students of the Psalms.  How many of our ancient poets, after all, write about themselves as being ill—even sick unto death, some of them—and yet who seem to have found in their own vulnerability and lack of security regarding their own prospects to heal and become well not a justification for rage or sour disappointment, but a foundation for seeking solace in faith and comfort from confronting the fragility of the human condition head-on? These psalms are more or less entirely absent from our liturgical calendar for some reason—the only people who read, say, the twenty-second psalm or the eighty-eighth are people who study the Psalter or who turn to its poetry for succor or consolation—and yet, it is in precisely those poems that is to be found the wellsprings of humility that transform insecurity from a dam in the face of faith into, paradoxically, a wellspring of security regarding the goodness of the world and its Creator. For readers unfamiliar with the chapters of the Psalter that do not appear in any prayerbook, encountering them for the first time will be a rare treat: these are the words of ancients who faced the same wrenching insecurity about the world and about their places in it that we know all too well from modern life, yet who grew profitably from their own inability to predict the future, to know their own destinies, to understand why and how things, including very bad things, happen from time to time to people who do not even remotely deserve to suffer their consequences. One could profitably read the 103rd psalm in that regard as well.

It is, to say the least, bracing to read these psalms, as it is to encounter The Wisdom of Insecurity for the first time. As we wait to learn more about that unfortunate flight and its poor passengers, the challenge is not to rage against the unknowing but to harness the story and its larger implications…and to allow it and them to make us neither terrified nor enraged, but humbled in the face of yet more evidence that we cannot control the world, and certainly not to the extent any of us would naturally want. These are dour lessons that no one particularly wants to learn. But, just as is the case with bitter but life-saving medicine, sometimes the wisdom lives more in the swallowing than in the savoring.