Friday, October 22, 2010

Seeing the Good - Parashat Vayera

It is a scorching day.  The desert sun beats down on the tent making it unbearable to be inside.  Outside is no better as the temperature of the day continues to rise.  Avraham sits near the Alonim trees, which give off just a bit of relief both from the shade they produce and the bit of moisture they add, gazing out into the vastness, into the void.  Where others see desolation, Abraham sees possibility.  Where others see emptiness, Abraham perceives the Divine.  These days have been a series of trials, one after the other, and it is not clear at this moment, sitting outside in the arid heat, that the trials are over.  In fact, they are not.

For Abraham the list of challenging tests seems endless: leaving the ancestral home; making a place for a nephew along the away; brit milah at an advanced age; promises unfulfilled; constant wandering; domestic struggles; childlessness followed by sibling rivalries; and, ultimately, child sacrifice only narrowly avoided.  Each one of the trials is difficult on its own.  Combined, the picture Avraham could paint is one of pain, darkness, negativity and hopelessness.  This could be a setting where only evil and pain were perceived.

In almost every instance, however, Avraham has the uncanny ability to see things differently.  Wandering will lead to a homeland promised by God.  Childlessness will lead to generations of descendants so great that they cannot be counted just as the stars cannot be counted.  The promise of the destruction of cities leads to the chance for a deep encounter with God, an encounter that is not one-sided, where there is a possibility for a different outcome.  Why does Avraham choose to see things differently?  How can he see the positive and the possibility where most others would see only darkness?  How, in the midst of the heat of the desert day and the pain from recovering from his own brit milah does Avraham have the energy to get and run to the travelers he sees, to the Divine he perceives, and to the possibility of good that he knows travels with the wanderers?

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, in his commentary on the Torah known as Kedushat Levi, provides us with one possible answer:

“And he saw them and ran toward them” - And the issue is that the Tzaddik - the righteous person - when he sees a person, is able to distinguish whether that person is good or not.  That is to say, when the Tzaddik sees a person and brightness (or clarity) and a great light comes to him, then this is a good person and if not, then not.  

Avraham, the tzaddik, sees good where others might not be able to perceive it.  He basks in the goodness of others and creates opportunity for more good.  Moreover, he acts, even when in pain, to increase good in the world.  Far from a pollyanna, Avraham is a realist with a  default position to perceive good, to seize the moment, and to bring more good.

As the days get shorter and the city is shrouded in growing darkness even at midday, it is challenging to see good, to see possibility for good.  In place of the desert heat, we have the Midwestern cold with temperatures dropping each night.  With each passing day, it will grow harder to get up, to run to welcome others, to help them.  It will be easier to stay inside, to watch passers by, or to walk briskly past people who need help because it is oppressively cold.  As the winter draws near, the challenge for each of us it to be like Avraham - to see light in the midst of darkness; to make our spiritual homes even more welcoming to the wandering traveler; to see the goodness clearly and brightly.  And then, it is our job to increase that brightness, to be tzaddik-like in our conduct toward ourselves, toward others, and toward God.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Noah and Ham, Tyler and Dharun

Imagine this scenario:  “Joe,” either accidentally or intentionally, observes “Frank” in a very compromising position.  Rather than apologizing, Joe brings others to observe the same embarrassing moment.  As a result, “Frank” is shamed not only in the eyes of one but of many people.  In the end, Joe is marginalized or punished by society while Frank is embarrassed and feels diminished for what must feel like an eternity.  Can you imagine such a situation?  Does it sounds vaguely familiar? It should.

This week, after surviving the destruction of the world by Divine Flood, disembarking from the Ark he built and receiving his charge from God to rebuild and repopulate the world, Noah plants a vineyard.  He harvests the grapes and drinks far too much of the wine.  What happens next is stunning: Noah’s son, Ham father of Canaan, “sees” him drunk in his tent.  What Noah is doing in the tent, whether or not he is clothed, etc, is not clear but the tone indicates that he is doing something a parent would not want their child to see.  

The midrash is rife with speculation as to what Ham does next.  What he does not do is clear: He does not avert his eyes or move to prevent further embarrassment to his father.  Instead, Ham tells his two brothers, Shem and Yafet, what happened.  In trying to explain Ham’s actions, the Pesikta Zutra, an 11th century collection of midrashim, asks:

And what could Ham have done?  He “saw” intentionally and of his own will when he could have hid his eyes and chosen to avert his gaze.  “And he told them...” in mockery and with revelry.  Therefore, he was punished...  

Long before digital video cameras and cell phones with cameras and the internet, one person discovered another person in a compromising position and rather than choosing to prevent shame chose to increase the shame and humiliation by inviting others to join in the mockery.  In the eyes of the Torah, and in a world with only a few people, such shaming was punished with eternal servitude which I think all would agree is a strong consequence designed to  teach something about the severity of humiliating another.

Noah’s world was small, just a handful of people.  According to the Census Bureau, our world is just shy of 6.9 BILLION people.  If Ham lived today, he would have discovered his father in a compromising position, taken out his Flip camera, shot the footage and then sent it to his brothers via e-mail.  Not stopping there, Ham would have posted the video on his blog via YouTube, sent out tweets with a link to the site, and put up a note about it on his facebook page.  In the blink of an eye, before his brothers even had a chance to open the e-mail let alone call Ham and tell him to take the video down immediately, before they chastised him, millions of people might have seen the video because it was “forwarded” to them by a friend, moving the shameful incident from a private family matter to a world-wide humiliating phenomenon.

This past week, Tyler Clementi, a talented musician and student at Rutgers University, leaped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after his private sexual encounter with another male student in his dorm room was transmitted across the school by his roommate (Dharun and another person) who, from another room, activated a webcam and then sent the video message to others.  Shamed and despondent, Clementi chose to tragically end his young life rather than endure the public humiliation started by his roommate and irretrievable once put on the internet.  This was another recent suicide caused by people using the internet to damage and harm others in a public sphere that, if it “goes viral,” can literally be viewed over and over again by hundreds of millions of people.  

In an article in the Huffington post, Daniel Solove cites studies indicating that

...more than 40% of young people claim to have been victimized by cyberbullying at some point in their lives. Countless victims suffer emotional distress, leading to mental breakdowns and a number of suicides.

He argues, and I agree, that the reasons for the increase in cyberbullying and its consequences are many:

One of the reasons this is occurring is because we aren't doing a sufficient job combating cyberbullying. Another reason is that we are failing to educate young people about privacy and the consequences of self-disclosure and revelation of information about others. The members of the generation growing up today -- what I call "Generation Google" -- must live with extensive information about themselves online, available anywhere in the world by doing a simple Google search. Their lives are being affected in profound ways, and they are not being given adequate guidance and education about privacy.

Not only are we not doing a good job as a society of training our young people, we send very mixed messages about privacy and self-disclosure, as Daniel Solove reminds us, for children and teens today

Various websites urge people to share more. In many subtle and not-so-subtle ways, sites are encouraging people to disclose more intimate information. Despite occasional weak warnings such as "Think before you post," the predominant message is "Please share everything about yourself"...Information about young people can readily be used by kidnappers, molesters, and others bent on doing them harm. It can also be exploited by identity thieves...

As parents, adults, friends, we have an obligation to teach our children about the power of words, about the power of technology, and about the power of humiliation, self-humiliation and the humiliating of others.  No website or school training program can ever be as successful as we can at instilling good judgement in children.  And when they make a mistake in this arena, we need to apply clear, strong consequences so that the lesson will be learned.

This Shabbat, when sitting down to dinner, I hope that you will join me in talking about Noah and Ham and what happened that night at the tent.  I hope you will  talk about the wrong response - shaming - and the proper response, that of Shem and Yafet of defending the person being bullied, standing up and stopping the cyberbullying.  I hope you will talk frankly about bullying, both in-person bullying and cyberbullying, and reinforce the clear messages and expectations for online conduct I am certain you regularly send to your children.  And I hope you will remember Tyler Clementi, Phoebe Prince, Alexis Pilkington and the thousands of others who have been victimized by cyberbullying.  Who knows?  If these  conversations take place at family dinner tables all over the country, perhaps we can help can bring an end to this scourge or at least make our own children think twice or three times before putting something up on the web that will embarrass themselves or others, or maybe by opening the door through such conversations, we can prevent a suffering child, one we don’t know is being cyberbullied, from cutting their own life short, as the Sages remind us:

One who saves one life is as if she or he has saved an entire world.

Shabbat Shalom.

To read Daniel Solove’s article, The Clementi Suicide, Privacy, and How We Are Failing Generation Google

go to:

An excellent resource on the web concerning bullying, teasing, and parenting in a digital world can be found at

Here is another helpful resource for preventing cyberbullying: