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bubkis or oy vey? 2019: A time to shift perspectives

A few weeks ago, I was driving to temple and listening to the news.  The commentators were discussing the infamous redacted Flynn memo.  One mentioned Mayor Giuliani’s comment that there was “bubkis” in the memo.  “On the other hand”, said another,  “you could look at the memo and say ‘oy vey’.”  The news story changed to that of the funeral of former President George H.W. Bush.  The newscaster kept the Yiddish chain going.  “In this ferstunkener world filled with tsouris, today is an opportunity to do a mitzvah.”  I chuckled to myself.  You may think this was a Jewish news station or Yiddish news, but it wasn’t.   

The story stuck with me, particularly the contrast between Mayor Giuliani’s summary of the memo as “bubkis” while the commentator looked at it and said “oy vey.”  So much of how we see things in life is a matter of perspective.  Like the famous M.C. Escher sketches, where the river flows up or down, depending on how you look at the picture.

We are now reading the story of the 10 plagues in our Exodus Torah reading cycle.  These plagues that are visited upon the Egyptians by God, in order to convince the Pharaoh to free the Israelites from slavery.  For the Egyptians, the plagues of blood, frogs, lice, insects, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and of course the death of the firstborn, were destructive phenomena that caused horrible suffering.  For the Israelites, they were the vehicle of their deliverance from slavery.

One of our great challenges in our world of divisiveness and polarization is our inability to see things from another’s perspective.  We are so certain of the correctness of our viewpoint that we cannot see another’s, much less empathize with their story.  A few months ago, I participated in a 2 day seminar called My Neighbor’s Keeper, which brought together Evangelical pastors, Muslim Imams and Rabbis at the University of Miami – a motley crew we were.  We told each other our stories in small discussion groups of 3.  Admittedly, this wasn’t easy.  I sat with two men who come from cultures where women generally do not assume the kind of leadership position I hold.  But we started on the basis of mutual respect and understanding and that allowed us to talk through stereotypes and misconceptions and appreciate our commonalities.

The most powerful part of the day came when we sat in groups of our own kind.  We were given the assignment of writing down stereotypes of each of the other groups and of ourselves, and then countering that with what we perceived to be more accurate statements.  As rabbis, we naturally disagreed about a lot, particularly about the way we perceived ourselves.  The activity was a sobering one.  It forced us to name ugly and painful stereotypes and to admit to our own implicit biases about others and ourselves.  Sitting across the table from each other helped us to see human beings with real life struggles and hardships, not just labels we stick on people to simplify things.

Shifting perspectives is challenging, especially when it requires taking apart long held and maybe even cherished beliefs.  I recently heard Malcolm Gladwell on a Ted Talk podcast unraveling the entire premise of the treasured biblical story of David and Goliath.  First he talked about how much we underestimate David the shepherd boy and the potency and power of the ancient slingshot.  Slingers were valuable warriors and David’s slingshot was not just a boy’s toy but a lethal weapon with a dense stone traveling as quickly and forcefully as a bullet.  Then Gladwell sheds new light on Goliath, who the Bible describes as standing head and shoulders over everyone but moving slowly.  It’s likely, claims Gladwell, that Goliath suffered from a form of giantism called acromegaly, which often causes near sightedness or double vision.  Though Goliath wore armor and had a sword, javelin and spear, according to Gladwell, he didn’t stand a chance against the quick moving and skilled slinger, David.  How’s that for turning a story on its head?

If Malcolm Gladwell can shed new light on this ancient story, how much the more so, might we challenge ourselves to shift our perspective on what we cling to with certainty.

Every year we read the story of the plagues and re-enact them at our Seder tables, celebrating the freedom they brought to our people.  But a midrash from our tradition chastens our victory.  We are told that when the sea swallowed the Egyptian army, God’s angels cheered and celebrated the Israelites’ deliverance.  “My people are drowning and you are celebrating?” God reprimands them.  Those Egyptians who drowned were the Israelites’ enemies, but they were nevertheless children of God.  This is why we remove a drop of wine from our cups for each one of the plagues God visited upon the Egyptians.  Yes, the Israelites were delivered, but only at great cost to humanity.

Through this midrash about the angels and the tradition of spilling wine from our cups, Judaism is teaching us a more nuanced way to appreciate how we see the world.  It is often not black and white, “bubkis” or “oy vey”, but rather some shade of both.  This new year of 2019, as we are resolving to eat healthier and exercise more, let us also resolve to keep our minds open to seeing new perspectives and our hearts open to understanding each other.  Only then, will we truly renew ourselves.  Wishing everyone a year of growth, new insights and joy.

Mon, July 15 2019 12 Tammuz 5779