Wisdom Wherever You Find It
I only killed one human being in Vietnam, and that was the first man I ever killed. I was sick with guilt about killing that guy and thinking, “I’m gonna do this for the next 13 months, I’m gonna go crazy.” Then I saw a Marine step on a “bouncing betty” mine. And that’s when I made my deal with the devil, in that I said, “I will never kill another human being as long as I am in Vietnam. However, I will waste as many gooks as I can find. I will waste as many dinks as I can find. I will smoke as many zips as I can find. But I ain’t gonna kill anybody.” Turn a subject into an object. It’s Racism 101. And it turns out to be a very necessary tool when you have children fighting your wars for them to stay sane doing their work.
I spend some time each week tending to people in public service. It’s the least I can do. I am a devoted patriot, and I subscribe to the notion that the blessings and freedoms we enjoy as Americans are secure only as long as they are defended. So I pay my taxes without complaint. I vote in every election, no matter how seemingly inconsequential. I join with others to seek redress of grievances. I defend the rights that are ours as citizens.
But I would not serve in the military, and I recognize that, all my life, that meant sending someone else to do my job.
I have known a lot of people who served honorably – my dad, an uncle, many friends and colleagues, and now, even some of my friends’ kids. But I am a coward, and cowards have no place in a circumstance that makes people dependent on each other to survive.
I am not bragging, by the way. I am just being honest. I have enough courage to speak truth to power, to say aloud uncomfortable facts and to hold to unpopular opinions even when surrounded by those who disagree. I have handled firearms. I have been in fights, though few and far between. But I would be no good in combat.
Part of it, most certainly, is self-preservation. I do not wish to be shot or blown up. I do not think that people in the military disagree with me, but I know that I actively imagine myself in harm’s way whenever I think about service, and it is paralyzing.
But part of it, too, is a conscious decision not to become the person John Musgrave describes in discussing his Vietnam experience in the Ken Burns documentary about that war. More than a fear of injury, I think I was afraid to lose my moral compass.
When I was a kid, my father would not discuss his service in World War II. He acknowledged that he shot and killed enemy soldiers, but only in a brief answer to a direct question. When I was a college student, I asked him if he ever thought he was shooting some other mother’s son during the war. He replied, without irony, “I wasn’t shooting anybody’s son. I was shooting Nazis.”
Turn a subject into an object. It is a necessary tool when you have children fighting your wars.
As I said, I have known a lot of people who served honorably. One was a high-ranking officer in Vietnam. He was one of the kindest people I ever met. Another was a combat-proven officer who eventually served as Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He holds every casualty in his heart. It is not necessarily the case that you lose your moral compass in battle. On the contrary – sometimes, it is the only place you can be sure you have it.
And I am not a pacifist. War may be obscene, but there are times it is a necessary obscenity.
Call it my moral shortcoming or my self-indulgent privilege or my character flaw, but I know myself well enough that I could not carry heavy arms and do my duty. My fear – rational or not – was that I would lose myself on the back end of a weapon. And that makes me a coward.
It makes me more grateful for those who serve. And more concerned.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
When you label something as “evil,” you create an inevitability of violence. Rev. Steven Paulikis
I sat down at a table while attending a conference with a lot of people I did not know. This guy in a clerical collar sat down next to me. We introduced ourselves and, before too long, were talking about evil. Occupational hazard.
I won’t do justice in these few words to the insights of Steven Paulikis, who has done a lot of thinking on the subject, but in one sentence – his – he sums up what he has concluded after much study and introspection. In a world that values Good (note the capital “G”), the enemy is Evil. And in a world that is posited to have begun with the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, baked into our perceptions is the notion that if we could just eliminate evil, all we would have left is good.
I have thought about that conversation a lot since then. The transition from Biblically-based theology to social behavior is as simple as the transition from a capital letter to a lower case letter. It is as simple as the difference between Good versus Evil and good versus evil.
It is important to make a distinction between other obstacles to goodness – injustice, falsehoods, ignorance, wrong behavior, lack of integrity, etc. – and evil. Evil is existential, organic. It cannot be corrected. It must be eradicated. Evil is a pollutant that poisons good. People of good will can correct an injustice, educate themselves out of ignorance, correct bad conduct. But evil is inherent. Like the bloody murder scene cleaned up with bleach on a TV show, the residual is always present and incriminating.
And therefore, evil must be eradicated. In some theologies, evil has an incarnation. It is depicted as a fallen angel, a collector of souls or the ruler of some netherworld. This demonic creature – sometimes called Satan or the devil or Beelzebub (literally, “lord of the flies,” feeding on offal) – cannot be converted, only defeated. And that defeat, in this world outside of the Garden of Eden, is always temporary. The struggle against evil is perpetual and unrelenting.
A human being who is in league with evil is therefore beyond redemption. Such a person must be eradicated.
I know, it sounds like the premise of “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer,” or any of a number of comic books or horror movie franchises. But those things didn’t come from nowhere. They are merely pop culture iterations of what some faith traditions and the cultures that emerge from them keep simmering in the background. Though the few adherents who carry on about the real presence of Mephistopheles in our world are viewed by most everyone else as fanatics or kooks, the powerful aversion to evil in our culture is not far below the surface for everyone.
Please bear with me as I embrace that notion for a moment. I was raised to believe in the dignity of every human being, created as we were in the image of God. That is, the imprint of the divine is on every person. In that sense (and only in that sense, to my way of thinking), each of us is an incarnation of the Holy One.
I like to think I strive to love God with heart, soul and might, as we are instructed to do. And that love demands at the very least respect for the image of God that has become animated in my neighbors near and far.
What, then, do I do with the paradox of a person I label as evil? Not the obnoxious neighbor, not the bigot, not the criminal, but the irredeemably evil person? Inevitably, unless I am indifferent to evil, I want to wipe it out. If it is a book, I would burn it. If it is a flag, I would destroy it. If it is a person…
What an irony – in my zeal to destroy an evil person, I become an opponent to the image of God imprinted on their soul. And what is the nature of opposing God? Of course, it is evil.
You won’t catch me arguing for moral relativism. Some behaviors, some ideas, some people are wrong, period. But they are not irredeemable. Thanks to my conversation with my accidental lunch partner, I have abandoned describing people as evil, and most things that people believe as well. Evil is contagious. You catch it from yourself.
EVERYWHERE I GO
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
Everywhere I go, I will be Black. Glory Aganze Barongozi
It was a small story in the “Washington Post” in May 2015. The author spoke of his time in Baltimore, a refugee from Uganda, and how ready he was to leave as his high school graduation neared. He felt small in Africa. He felt smaller in Baltimore.
Contained in his seven-word existential truth are two very different pieces of wisdom. One of them is an affirmation, the other a lament. Both of them proclaim an essential aspect of life: the importance of embracing who you are.
Even a narrow reading of Barongozi’s words is profound. For a poor person of color, disadvantaged in societies that privilege lighter skin, higher caste or economic affluence, there is no escaping the biases that pursue darker skin and emptier wallets. It has taken me a long time – much of a lifetime – to understand the immutable truth of his observation in a world in which the content of character is secondary to the color of skin. The truth of it is evidenced by the fury with which it is challenged. There is even now an organization that calls itself “liberal” that rejects the notion that race matters beyond overt racism. (Ironically, the potential to compromise hard-won Jewish privilege is their Exhibit A.)
Many years ago, I was responsible for inviting Rev. Jesse Jackson to speak at the convention of my rabbinical association. I was his “body man” at the convention, and therefore sat in on an interview with a talented Jewish reporter with a very identifiably Jewish surname. She pressed him on his emphasis on race in his politics. Seemingly as a non-sequitur, he asked her, “How do I know you are Jewish?” Flustered, she said, “Well, I told you.” “And how do you know I am Black?” he asked. While she stammered for a second, he placed his forefinger on his cheek.
So many communities, my own included, invest an exhausting amount of energy to persuade ambivalent members to be more open, more “out” about their immutable identities. For more than forty years, I have worn a kippah (yarmulke, skullcap) in public as a message that I choose for you to encounter me as a Jew. But all I have to do to recede into anonymity is reach up and swipe a piece of cloth into my pocket. It does not change how others perceive Jews – good, bad, or indifferent. It indeed changes how others perceive me.
Inherent in Barongozi’s words is the understanding that what is organic for him is a disadvantage. Even in the celebratory reading of his words – which, I reiterate, he did not intend – is the notion that his skin color makes him different. He will always be noticed first for how he looks, especially here in the United States, and will have to contend with another person’s biases before he opens his mouth, extends his hand or reaches into his pocket. Does a White person contend with perceptions as well? Yes, full stop. But no matter who you are, if you consider that an equivalency, you are playing a game of sophistry.
So it may come as a surprise to you that I want to conclude with a defense of the positive meaning of this statement in two different senses. First of all, I endorse the value of always being your whole self. I know how popular it is with some people to emphasize that the amount of difference from each other in our DNA is statistically insignificant. Look at nature, they say – one honeybee is essentially unrecognizable from the next, two blue jays are indistinguishable, a trout is a trout. Never mind that we don’t look at a penguin with a penguin’s eyes; it is precisely those tiny differences that allow us a sense of uniqueness. Mr. Barongozi deserves, no less than any human being, to encounter the world and be encountered by it with the fullness of who he is. As a person of faith, I will add “as God intended him to be.” Everywhere he goes, he should be Black.
And secondly, I endorse the practice of making others uncomfortable with their biases. I will admit that part of my advertising my Jewishness is something of a dare. Even if I run the risk of provoking a bigot into antagonism, I still want to make it clear that their prejudice will not define me. Indeed, if by confronting their own inclinations they are forced to reconsider them, then the world around me is a safer place for me and Barongozi both. And you.
It is fair to ask, then, why is it that I sometimes hide the symbol of my Jewishness in my hip pocket. I think that anyone who presents in a non-conforming way will understand: sometimes, I am just tired. (My wife can often spot someone who notices my headgear and starts heading toward me. She leans into my ear and says, quietly, “Incoming.”) It is an opportunity not everyone has. But it doesn’t change the fact for me or for anyone else. Everywhere you go, you will be who you are.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
That’s the trick of parenting – you can’t always lead by example. Reya El-Salahi
Recently, I became the oldest person in my immediate family, which is to say my mother died. My father is gone more than thirty years, cheated out most of the rewards of being a grandparent. My mother was more fortunate. She saw her three children and seven grandchildren in happy families of their own, and she met all (so far) eight of her great-grandchildren. She lived to inches short of 93.
Because of the circumstances forced on us by the covid pandemic, I spent a lot more time alone during the week of mourning prescribed by Jewish tradition than I might have in less complicated circumstances. And one of the things I spent time doing was thinking about parenting.
I thought some about the parenting I received. It is inevitable, of course. Aside from my own direct experience, conversations with my younger brother and much-younger sister were exercises in understanding how differently children in the same family are raised. It shouldn’t be such a surprise. Circumstances change. I was an only child for close to three years while my sister was the only one at home when our parents could see the light at the end of the childcare tunnel.
But mostly I thought about the parenting I gave. And I mean “I,” not “we.” I have nothing but admiration for my wife’s career as a mother. My self-evaluation as a father is a little less consistent. I think that I am like most parents when I admit that I hoped my kids would turn out better than I did and have an easier time getting there. Some of that is ego, I know, even if it is disguised as altruism. But some of it, too, is an honest appraisal of my internal landscape to know what mistakes I made.
For me, the hardest part of being a father was knowing how important it was to allow my kids to make their own mistakes while at the same time meeting my responsibility to keep them from unnecessary suffering. I know the consequences of wrongheaded behavior, and I also know the tactics to divert attention from it. I used to say to my kids, “You can’t lie to me, because I’ve done whatever it is you are lying about, and I will see right through it.” Even when I said it, I knew it wasn’t true (they could indeed lie to me, as all children do to their parents, and I was nowhere near as delinquent as I pretended to be).
But there were times that my experiences as a little kid, a pre-teen, a teenager, and a young man were indeed relevant to my offspring’s behavior. Sharing my personal history, that is, leading by example, was often not the right choice. In fact, it was often the very wrong choice. When I offered advice or discipline, implicit or explicit was always the question, “How do you know that?” And if you are a parent, I don’t have to tell you twice that you don’t always want to answer that question. In fact, you almost never want to answer that question.
Why that is I can only surmise. It is some combination of shame, embarrassment, insecurity and, again, ego, I am sure. But whatever it is, as El-Salahi says, that’s the trick of parenting – you can’t always lead by example.
Eventually, you discover how effective you have been as a parent. In the large sense, you see your kids living out the values that they have internalized. They may not live the life you would have chosen for them (okay, they NEVER live the life you would have chosen for them), but the way they live their life is their distillation of what you have communicated. That fact sometimes makes you feel good, and other times not so much.
I learned this lesson all over again when I made a wrong decision for what I convinced myself were the right reasons. My children were not having any of it. And, as I might have done to them when they lived under our roof, they confronted me about it. Dealing with some combination of shame, embarrassment, insecurity, and ego, I was pretty defensive. Eventually (and it was not a very long eventually), I came to recognize that just because you can’t always lead by example, it doesn’t mean you can never lead by example.
There’s a very famous story in the Talmud about the rabbis in the study hall ganging up on God and using God’s own instruction to reject God’s argument in a debate. As the legend goes, an eyewitness in the heavenly realm was asked what God’s reaction was to losing. “My children defeated me,” was the proud response.
I’m not God, but I had some small sense of the lesson God learned, if you can say such a thing. You can’t always lead by example. But, as it turns out, mostly you do.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
We care for people not because they are Catholics, but because we are. James Cardinal Hickey
My professional life has been in the interfaith world for a number of years, and if this short essay doesn’t prove it, nothing will.
The word “davka” is Hebrew and defies explanation. It was the first word I struggled to understand in seminary, where my teacher translated it in the Talmudic text as “specifically” and the dictionary offered “exactly.” In usage, however, it is best spoken while holding your index and middle fingers together on one hand and making a circle in the air, ending with an emphatic point in front of you.
The most misunderstood faith community in America, in my opinion, is the Sikh community. First of all, we pronounce their religion to rhyme with “peek” because the actual pronunciation – rhymes with “stick” – confuses us. Their ritual devotion includes unshorn hair, turbans, and the presence of a symbolic sword (kirpan) always on their person, which the uninitiated and TSA consider to be threatening. And because of stereotyping, uneducated Americans frequently mistake them for Muslims, with sometimes fatal results, putting all of us in a double-bind explaining they are not Muslims, but so what if they were.
To me, the most admirable aspect of Sikh religion is radical hospitality. Anyone who is hungry will find a meal and welcome at a gurdwara, a Sikh temple. Millions of people are fed regularly by Sikhs around the world. They do not do so because the hungry are Sikhs, but because they are. Davka.
Speaking of Muslims, in a Virginia community not so far from where I live is a guy named Qasim Rashid. He has run for office unsuccessfully couple of times at least as much because he is a member of the minority party in his jurisdiction as anything else. But as a “public Muslim,” he was prepared for the kinds of attacks on his identity that are some voters’ idea of appropriate political discourse. One such correspondent’s condemnation was among the grotesque (Rashid’s word) messages he received. Rashid looked into his antagonist’s public declarations and discovered that among the objectionable messages was a GoFundMe campaign to pay off more than $20,000 in medical debt. Rashid made a contribution and encouraged his followers to do the same. The debt was retired.
Did he win the guy’s vote? The answer is irrelevant. A faithful Muslim’s response to suffering is to offer mercy and support. He provided comfort not because his offender was a Muslim, but because he is. Davka.
Among the groups in our various coalitions are those that represent avowed secularists. For some of them it is a matter of principle and for others the equivalent of faith. That is to say, some of them believe our American statutes and practices should be entirely neutral toward any and all religion, and others are atheists. They are among the staunchest defenders of the First Amendment rights to conscience and separation of government and religion in the interfaith community. And they do so even for religious folks who would disqualify them from certain kinds of discourse and service to the country. They do so not because their critics are accurately reading the Constitution, but because they are. Davka.
All of these examples are admirable to me, and I hope to you as well. They are more admirable to me still because none of the folks whom I describe has anything to gain for themselves by their conduct. In fact, just the opposite is true. Sikhs could retreat into their quiet life of making a living and cultivating a calm sense of place in the universe. Muslims, not only Qasim Rashid, could more than occupy themselves with prayer five times a day and less outward-facing upholding of the five pillars. Secular activists could devote themselves to securing their own rights and take the weekends off. The vast networks of Catholic charities that tend to the impoverished, marginalized, disenfranchised and lonely could use those resources to rehab crumbling churches and hire more teachers in parochial schools.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner described love as the willingness to act for another’s benefit against your own interests. When I look at the adherents of the 75 or more communities of faith and no faith on whose behalf my professional life is devoted, it is what I see wherever I look. They offer their time, talent, and treasure on behalf of others because that’s what their belief system demands of them – their God, their Scripture, their philosophy, their mentor. Not always, of course. Not only, of course. Not to the unmitigated satisfaction of others or even themselves, of course. But also, not because there is something in it for them.
They care for people not because those people are just like them. But because without that caring, they themselves would not be authentically who they are. Davka.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
If we can’t learn from our mistakes, we’re not a living tradition; we’re a bad habit and we ought to disappear. Rev. Terry Kyllo
There is a natural resistance to change among those who uphold a culture of tradition. And since most of us uphold such a culture in one context or another, there is a natural resistance to change for most of us.
Our traditions ground us, and even when we recognize that parts of it run counter to the values we want to uphold, snapping off a piece of that infrastructure can feel like we have betrayed something that has been unshakably loyal to us, or like we are denying to those who follow us that which has sustained us.
For example, generations of traditionally observant Jews have faced a dilemma in observing Shabbat. Especially in colder climates, the strict prohibition of lighting or maintaining fire held the potential to threaten life and well-being on frigid Saturday afternoons. The solution was to engage a non-Jewish neighbor to stop by after lunch to stoke the hearth each week and partake of some of the food kept warming. In that way, the neighbor was not violating the additional prohibition against forcing others to conduct impermissible labor, just meeting their own needs and generously including the Jewish household. In addition to physical warmth, the result was social warmth between the two communities. Frequently, especially in the American urban centers that succeeded the European villages, the non-Jew, often a young person, was given a coin or two during the week in appreciation. Many an unlikely Yiddish-speaker (like Gen. Colin Powell) also got a bilingual education.
The person, called a “shabbes goy,” by right should be a phenomenon of the past. So much of life has become automated – I don’t know a home without a thermostat – that exploiting an outsider to enable sacred conduct is really no longer necessary. Yet, there remain practices among contemporary traditionally observant Jews that facilitate the violation of Shabbat restrictions by counting on the good will (and expectation of compensation) of non-Jews. I understand the logic, but not the result.
This ritual workaround probably feels quaint. And other than a perception, accurate or not, that the non-Jews have the misfortune of not enjoying the blessings of a full day of rest, no one is really harmed.
But it does seem like the flip side of medieval times when money-lending within a community by Christians was similarly prohibited (based on the Bible), and so Jews were imported by feudal lords to handle such transactions. The result was not simply a practical banking system that preserved one community’s claim to piety. It also produced some of the most damaging perceptions of Jewish character values that persist to this day.
I believe that the “less-than” perception of the shabbes goy is a similar phenomenon.
Of course, both things are rationalized by a devotion to a culture of tradition. Can you chip off the noxious piece without undermining the positive and pervasive infrastructure? And, more to the point, if the practices are justified by some perception of divine authority, are modern perceptions determinative if they run counter to that culture of tradition?
A living tradition is one that is not ossified by the practices of the past. Even among those who believe in the literalness of divine instruction, there is a post-revelatory moment (almost always hundreds or thousands of years later) in which the struggle to interpret that instruction is deemed no longer legitimate. But that moment is too late; it affirms we will never progress beyond the past. And we, in our age, who see the evidence of bad habits with religious imprimaturs, ought to have the integrity to do something about it.
Name your issue: slavery, status of women, sexual identity, equality, mental health, equity…the list is extensive. In the name of faith and faithfulness we have developed bad habits, sometimes out of ignorance and sometimes out of cultivated malice. Anything living is dynamic – it changes, difficult though it may seem. And anything that does not change is not living.
The phrase “the custom of our fathers is in our hands” is used in Jewish tradition to rebut the notion that we should do things differently, even where change is indicated. It is only valid when it brings our forbearers honor.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
Home is not where your grandparents are buried. Home is where your grandchildren will be raised. quoted by Namira Islam Anani
Most adults in the United States remember a close relative who was not born here. My family emigrated from the region alternately claimed by Ukraine, Poland, and Russia. Yours may have come from Italy, Morocco, Guatemala, Ghana or, like Anani, Bangladesh. They brought with them more or less of their material wealth (I’m guessing less), but a heart filled with memories.
Mostly, those relatives were grateful to be here. Even if they did not arrive while fleeing persecution, they came expecting opportunity. And not including those whose immigration was involuntary, most did not regret that decision.
But the Old Country is hard to let go of. Everything there is familiar, even the pain. So it is not unusual for new arrivals to America to hold fast to what they left behind even as they find their way into the new normal. For my Ashkenazic Jewish ancestors (according to 23-and-Me that’s 100% of me), that included Yiddish and synagogues that followed European customs and “benevolent associations” (in Yiddish “landsmannshaften”) that existed for mutual support and social opportunities.
But where was home? The answer to that question is not as easy as deciding where you would prefer to live. Lots of speculation peppers culture on the subject. Some would claim home is where the heart is (Pliny the Elder). Some would declare that any place I hang my hat is home (Arlen and Mercer). Some would insist that home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in (Frost). When I am asked about my hometown, I don’t answer “Alexandria,” where I have lived for more than half my life, nor even “Wilmette,” my address through most of my childhood. The answer is “Sweet Home Chicago” (Johnson, then Les Freres Bleus).
I think that people associate home with authenticity. That doesn’t necessarily mean the place of personal origin, but it does mean the ethos in which a person feels most real. Especially here in America, my home sweet home (Berlin), where the government of the people, by the people and for the people (oh, you know that one) does not have deep roots, we have recreated the gardens in which our roots are deep. Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago is almost as Polish as Warsaw. San Francisco is first among cities in which Mandarin is spoken among neighborhood businesses. The Portuguese population of Danbury, Connecticut was eventually supplanted by the Hmong community. And if there is a less likely place to find a fully formed Somali culture than Minneapolis, I’d be hard-pressed to name it.
There comes a time when a home like that is only a memory. The Chicago of my first grade does not exist anymore, even less so the Horochow or Mozir of grandparents and their grandparents long since dead. And even if there is still a town called Berdichev, or a city named Lviv, the stories handed down of when those places were actually, really home can no sooner be replicated than Mr. Simon, the old greengrocer on Devon Avenue, can reach into a tall glass jar and hand me a foot-long pretzel stick.
Expressing a longing for the best of what used to be is natural, but the context has evaporated. The decision to leave behind that used-to-be home – one that many make geographically, and all make temporally – creates a void that needs to be filled. Even if you go back, you have to start again.
Namira Islam Anani is contending with a situation every American has faced, save those who are native to this land. Blessed though we are, eyes look with longing and expectancy to the place we believe is authentic, the place we call home. The immigrant community into which she was born as a United States citizen is grateful to be here, but it is hard for them to let go of the Old Country. The advice she heard her imam offer his Bangladeshi community is just as true for the contemporary descendants of the passengers on the Mayflower.
One more observation, perhaps not so small. The pleasures of home are not outside the trials and tribulations that push us all into our new worlds. Sometimes, when we can’t find familiar pleasure, we look for familiar pain. That’s a memory for a different day.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
If victims were the only ones who understood oppression, who would help them? Leon Wieseltier
Almost everywhere I turn, I bump into something smart that Leon Wieseltier said. That’s not to say that I always agree with him, but I admire his clarity of thought. He belongs in a cohort of public thinkers like Ellen Goodman, Michael Gerson, Michelle Singletary, Ta-Nehisi Coates and George Will (among others) whose ideas demand consideration. This question he posed does not come without context, both spoken and unspoken. But my perspective or yours on those contexts does not change the worth of the question out of any context.
Maybe the earliest illustration of this insight is the Biblical story of liberation from Egypt. When we tell the story, especially in the rituals of Passover, we put a lot of emphasis on the standoff between Moses and Pharaoh, presuming them to be proxies for the Israelites and the Egyptians, respectively. And we acknowledge the suffering of the people of Egypt when we spill drops of wine from our otherwise full cup of joy as we recall the plagues that befell all of Egypt (but none of Goshen, where the Israelites lived).
However, we generally gloss over a moment in the story that enables the liberated slaves to survive in the wilderness. The Israelites are instructed by God through Moses to go to the Egyptian population and ask for valuables (Exodus 11:2-3) just before the final and most horrifying plague. The Egyptians respond beyond generously, heaping jewels, precious metals, cloth and more on their departing work force.
The significance of these gifts is profound in two ways. From a practical point of view, the Egyptian population is facing an economic crisis. The work force is going to disappear overnight, and the economy will have to be reimagined. Giving away the family valuables – the equivalent of emptying their savings accounts – leaves the people on the brink of ruin. For generations, some necessary tasks have been handled by a slave labor force. Now, the people themselves will take over absolutely everything they did, from construction to childcare. Their gold and silver, rubies and sapphires are the reserves that might have made the difference between survival and starvation.
From a social point of view, the Egyptian people were collaborators in the oppression of the Israelite people. Let’s give them the benefit of every doubt and say they were benign masters. But they were masters nonetheless, no less complicit in enslavement than the example closer to home in American history. The gifting of their wealth to the departing Israelites – done with “favor,” reports the Bible – indicated however belatedly an acceptance of their culpability. Reparations would not bring back generations of unrealized freedom, never mind babies tossed into the river. But even a belated awakening to the suffering caused by their willingness to accept the system is welcome.
I would go so far as to suggest that they just may have come to understand themselves as perpetrators, wherever they were located on the scale of immoral behavior. Even if I am being too charitable, it is clear that their help came as they understood oppression.
It is sometimes mystifying that the Bible is kind to the Egyptians after the incident at the Sea. Some tribes – Amalek, Moab, others – are negatively portrayed and perpetually excluded from affection and allyship. But the people responsible for our defining trauma are protected from our wrath and even, at points, embraced. Historians attribute some of that approach to the political circumstances in later years when the text of the Torah was redacted. But the guidance to the morality of the people that emerges is this: perpetrators have the ability to change their lives if they awaken to their transgressions, and that change should be welcome. Otherwise, oppression imprisons victim and victimizer alike.
Listen, this is not a suggestion that those who have been injured should be patsies or Pollyannas. A basket of trinkets, even sincerely offered, is not compensation for lost life and dignity. Instead, it is a suggestion that the calcified shell around the human heart can be softened and removed by the witness of the oppressed and – most important – the willingness of oppressors to accept past mistakes and participate in building a better future for their victims.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
There ain’t much to being a ballplayer, if you’re a ballplayer. Honus Wagner
I have the very good fortune of knowing the United States Senate’s biggest baseball fan, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio. Among the books he keeps close at hand is an edition of Baseball Almanac so that he can be prepared to settle any argument over America’s pastime.
I don’t remember the exact context in which he pulled out this statement from Honus Wagner (one of the original inductees to the Hall of Fame), but it did not have to do with baseball. Rather, it was a comment on someone who was dismissive of complaints from one of the many constituencies that Sen. Brown serves. The indifferent comment was some version of “how hard can it be?”
Wagner’s folksy aphorism probably came in response to someone who was scoffing at his prowess on the field. As a ballplayer, he made the game look effortless. In the process, he likely inspired a gazillion kids to take up the game – especially in Pittsburgh -- and imagine themselves to be the Flying Dutchman.
Wagner was surely a natural athlete, but he put in the time necessary to learn to play the game. Actually, he didn’t just learn to play. He learned the game. (Once, when he was called safe when stealing second base, he stepped between the umpire and the objecting shortstop and said to the ump, “Of course I was out. They had me by a foot. You just booted the play, so come on, let's play ball.”) His status as an all-star was earned, unlike the kids who pretended while they tossed a ball in the air in their sandlot.
And Wagner was something else, too. He was White. Had he not enjoyed the privilege of being of good Dutch stock, his talent would have gone unnoticed outside of his neighborhood. For some, I guess it’s the definition of lucky. But for those people for whom such “luck” was forestalled by their race, religion or origin, no amount of training or study could have put them in the company of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth in the first class of Hall of Famers. That wouldn’t come for a generation.
Sen. Brown was acknowledging both sides of Wagner’s observation in describing the dullness of his Senate colleague. Whether the object of derision was a group of working-class people or payday borrowers or any of the other underdogs that the senator from Ohio champions, the rebuke was pretty effective. Hard work and natural talent go a long way, but they are all for naught if the road to success is closed to traffic from your neighborhood.
If Honus Wagner was anything like his contemporaries, he probably did not consider the matter of privilege when he coined the phrase. Try substituting any occupation and you will see the inside-baseball wisdom of any group of people – plumbers, attorneys, dancers, farmers. It is a put-down to scoffing outsiders and a caution to lazy insiders. But be a little cynical and try it with something less voluntary. It changes things significantly.
At my advancing age, I am learning not to be too smug about what I am already. After all, there ain’t much to being me, if you’re me. But I ain’t no ballplayer.
MY NEW PROJECT – Wisdom Wherever You Find It
For quite a few years, I have carried around a small black notebook and used it to record wise things I have heard (or read). Mostly, they are words that take me by some small surprise – spontaneous observations, the introduction of an apt quotation in a conversation, or some words that may be practiced but resonate in an important way.
Over seven years, I have collected close to 150 such testimonies. That’s either a lot or a little, given the number of conversations I have each day. They range from three words to almost 150, from a sentence to a paragraph, from a tickle to a dagger. But each contains some nugget of truth, most of them unconnected to my usual source of wisdom and inspiration: Jewish text.
So for a while – perhaps as long as three years, given the number I have collected so far – I will share one quotation each week with a reflection on why I wanted to write it down and not trust to memory. Most of the speakers are identified by name, not by title. If you like what someone says, look ‘em up and find out more. More of the speakers are men than women. That part was a revelation to me as I prepared my list, so it’s obvious I need to start listening to a more diverse group of people.
And if you and I speak or correspond regularly, please don’t be insulted if you don’t turn up in these short essays. As Bishop Larry Campbell said, “Some stories are so intimate that if you tell them, they lose their intimacy.” Somewhere down the line I will reflect on that one.
My advice is to get your own little black book and a fine-tipped pen. Then you can preserve wisdom wherever you find it.
Coming soon to an inbox near you.