Thursday, February 3, 2011

Behaving Like We Should or Like We Have To….

Today, I will begin with a story. It’s one of my favorite educational anecdotes from my storehouse of wonderful experiences teaching and learning with my students. Years ago, I was working in an elementary school and we were talking about the laws of warfare as found in Sefer Devarim. One insightful eight year old raises his hand and explains in an exasperated voice, “I don’t understand, we already learned ‘do not take a life, do not murder, do not kill’ in our study of Torah. Shouldn’t the text say ‘In case of war see above and do not get involved’?” A most provocative thought to be sure! Within a moment another child raises his hand and states as follows, “You see, there are two sets of laws in our Torah, one tells us how to behave when everyone else does, and the other tells us how to behave if no one else does and what we HAVE to do in such situations.” I was certainly happy with this answer and decided I would continue to use it in my own future discussions of such difficult situations and give credit to my eight year old second grader in doing so.

So, here we are watching with bated breath what is going on in Egypt. We are all concerned on so many levels and I am thinking of my student from so long ago and his wise understanding of Jewish law and our sources. I am also reminded of the painful disengagement from Aza/Gaza several years ago during which I was in Israel. I remember well the screaming, the name calling, the horrible feelings, and the contention amongst Israelis. But, most important, I also remember the falling into each others’ arms after it was all finished, the crying, the apologies, the coming back together in the face of such a difficult situation and the fact that no one was killed in the process. It was horrible and painful and this is not to be minimized, but through it all, I wonder if people intuitively understood what my student of so long ago taught me – that there are circumstances that require behaviors that are not the ideal, but in the end we come back or at least try to come back to that ideal as much as humanly possible given the reality of the difficult situations that confront us.

In this past week’s Parsha of Eleh Mishpatim, we read among many laws and codes of behavior, about how we are to engage in humane treatment of our enemy. In Chapter 23, verses 4 – 5, we read about returning our enemy’s property and that we are OBLIGATED to do this, regardless of how we FEEL about this person. As explained in the collaborative commentary found in Etz Chayim (p. 471),

“The Torah commands us neither to love nor to hate our enemy. Generally, the Torah commands behavior, not feelings. Its goal is justice, which is attainable – as opposed to loving everyone, which is an emotion-based attitude that cannot be commanded. We are to avoid malicious acts and treat everyone decently.”

There are many jokes that run as follows: “You know you are in Israel when…..” with one of the endings being something to the effect that “you scream and yell and call each other horrible names and then embrace and apologize.” I have seen this happen many times. Remember, we cannot command emotions – not what we feel towards others, nor the frustration that we feel within ourselves. That being said, we have a standard of behaviors that we are to show towards ALL PEOPLE – our friends (whom we are told in VaYikra to love as ourselves) and our enemies, towards whom we are to act in a decent and honorable way, as our text in Shemot as indicated above teaches.

I really do think that while we do not always meet the standard, we are aware of the standard of behavior enjoined here and do our best, within the parameters of our human weakness and emotions.

Irshaad Manji, author of The Trouble with Islam, explains in her book that she is frustrated that Islam does not have a processing of Koran text in the same way that is found in Jewish tradition and she states that she believes that this is why so many extremists take it upon themselves to look at the raw text and interpret it for themselves, allowing themselves to engage in and instigate BEHAVIORS that may not actually be the intent of the original text. She bemoans the lack of a check and balance system for engaging in such a personalization of religious behavior that she feels is not the case (not to the same degree at least) in Judaism. I love that we sometimes learn such important lessons by the reflections and thoughts of others not in our loop. I think she is correct.

This is not to say that in the Jewish community we always meet the standard of measurement set for us. CLEARLY WE DO NOT! However, we are often enough aware of what it is and often return to strive for it, are often aware of when we miss the mark, and are conflicted by its requirements within the reality of the world which we confront and challenges us in turn.

If all peoples in our world could attain this level of conscious accountability, maybe we would be dealing with a different world. In watching what is going on in Egypt today, I am many others are so pained. The complicity of sending thugs to cause violence and further compromise an already problematic uprising, and then once the problem is so severely exacerbated, making a show of police involvement and protection; looters taking advantage of a horrible chaotic situation; people losing their lives and being critically wounded…. All of this is so hard to absorb. I think back to the disengagement from Aza; the peaceful transition, including many nighttime show humorous takes on the famous election troubled in this country by “faulty chads” and other examples of negotiating a difficult situation in which we agree to disagree and try to figure out how to live together.

Is there any hope for such processing in Egypt? What is the standard to which all hold themselves accountable? How do people in this impossibly horrible situation behave when no one else does?