Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

"Do Not Separate Yourself from the Community"

Planet Earth.jpg

(An opening note: Tis that time of the year when reading and editing clinical trials, lecturing and writing about the golden age of Hollywood and engaging in partisan politics must take a backseat to preparing for High Holiday services. And so, as is annually the case, I am turning one of my Rosh Hashana sermons into the basis of a weekly essay. Because I - for obvious reasons - despise the expression “killing two birds with one Stone” - let’s just say that this week’s post is serving a dual purpose . . .

Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, is the only Jewish holiday which begins on the first day of the month.  And unlike most calendars, the Jewish New Year does not begin on the first day of the first month.  Rather, the Jewish New Year begins on the first day of the  7th month, which is called Tishri.  The Jewish calendar is a monumentally complex document; while years (we are entering 5780) are reckoned on a strictly solar basis, months are strictly lunar - e.g., based on fluctuations of the moon. And unlike most New Year’s celebrations around the world, this one calls for far more contemplation than revelry; the “resolutions” it requires we make are far less fanciful or frivolous than most.  Year in, year out as I prepare for the new year, I reread and contemplate anew a handful of what I consider to be among the most important, the most crucial bits of wisdom coming from our literature.  Among them are:     

  • Lev. 19:14: לֹֽא־תְקַלֵּ֣ל חֵרֵ֔שׁ וְלִפְנֵ֣י עִוֵּ֔ר לֹ֥א תִתֵּ֖ן מִכְשֹׁ֑ל וְיָרֵ֥אתָ מֵּֽאֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֹֽה (Neither curse the deaf nor put a stumbling block before the blind.”)

    Lev. 19:16” לֹֽא־תֵלֵ֤ךְ רָכִיל֙ בְּעַמֶּ֔יךָ לֹ֥א תַֽעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ (“Do not be a talebearer *[a perpetual or compulsive liar]; do not stand by and watch other human beings idly bleed.”

  • The Ethics of the Sages (2:1) הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אֵין בּוּר יְרֵא חֵטְא, וְלֹא עַם הָאָרֶץ חָסִיד, וְלֹא הַבַּיְשָׁן לָמֵד, וְלֹא הַקַּפְּדָן מְלַמֵּד, וְלֹא כָל הַמַּרְבֶּה בִסְחוֹרָה מַחְכִּים. ובִמְקוֹם שֶׁאֵין אֲנָשִׁים, הִשְׁתַּדֵּל לִהְיוֹת אִישׁ: (“The Sage Hillel used to say: a A brutish man cannot fear sin; an ignorant man cannot be pious, nor can the shy man learn, or the impatient man teach. He who engages excessively in business cannot become wise. In a place where there few if any human beings  you strive to be a mentsch.”)

  • The Ethics of the Sages (4:1): :זוֹמָא אוֹמֵר, אֵיזֶהוּ חָכָם, הַלּוֹמֵד מִכָּל אָדָם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים קיט), מִכָּל מְלַמְּדַי הִשְׂכַּלְתִּי (The sage Ben Zoma used to say ‘Who is truly wise? The one who can learn from any and everyone.  For as it is written (Psalms 119.99) “I have learned from all my teachers.”

  • The Ethics of the Sages (2:4) אַל תִּפְרוֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר (Do not separate yourself from your community.”)

In concluding 5779 and heading into the Jewish year 5780, these 4 lessons can and should be of paramount importance. For this past year (or two or three) has made most of us angry, cynical, lacking in trust, and has brought about intense feelings of powerlessness. Hillel’s insight into the nature of brutes, boors and ignoramuses is so on the money as to seem like it was written just yesterday.  With few exceptions among those we know and love, people have become stupefied over how easy it is for those supposedly occupying positions of authority to turn their back or remain silent in the face of gross authoritarianism, cupidity and outright inhumanity.  We wonder at the gross inconsistency of public people presenting and proclaiming their religious bona fides to anyone and everyone who will watch or listen, and then turning both a blind eye and a deaf ear on the poorest, most vulnerable among us.  So which of the rabbinic and Biblical aphorisms and laws is most important in this day and age?  Certainly being a menstch  (Yiddish for “a substantial human being”) when so many others are acting like proster mentschen (the antithesis of a mentsch) is of great importance.  I have to believe that Hillel’s dictum about not separating ourselves from the community (הציבור ha-Tzibor ) comes in first.  Originally,  in using the term הַצִּבּוּר (ha-Tzibur, the community) Hillel was referring specifically to the Jewish community.  Today, after centuries and generations, I think we can expand ha-tzibur to mean “humanity in general.” That which ties all of us together into a single community - whether European, Asian, African or Pacific Islander is planet earth. This is the community that binds us all together.

In a medieval Jewish story, a wealthy landowner asks a simple-minded peon who works on his vast estate “What is the biggest thing in the world?” Deathly afraid to give the wrong answer - and certain he is incapable of giving the correct one, he blurts out “The biggest thing in the world is the earth itself!” Thinking over what he had heard, the landowner smiled and said “How right you are! Indeed, that is the only answer possible.” Think about it: could there be anything in the world larger than the world itself? 

This brings us back to Rosh Hashana and all the anger, cynicism and feelings of powerlessness which consume us as we enter 5780. What can we do to shake all the negativity and use it as positive fuel for the New Year? Certainly complaining, kvetching and endlessly arguing with those who see the world through different eyes is not the answer. Nowadays, attempting to change people’s minds is as about as futile and frustrating as trying to convince an elephant how much more sense it makes to be a donkey. No, it seems to me that perhaps the most potent prescription for the New Year is the one ascribed to Hillel in Pirke Avot (The Ethics of the Sages):

אַל תִּפְרוֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר (“Do not separate yourself from your community”)

In other words, don’t seat a back and merely curse the darkness; find a cause and do your part to repair a broken world. As I write these words, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg - the new face of a planet-wide climate change movement - has just finished an impassioned speech before the United Nations on the biggest thing on earth: the earth itself. In her “How dare you?” address, Ms. Thunberg told the nations of the world “You all come to us young people for hope. How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words, and yet I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. This is all wrong. I shouldn't be up here. I should be back in school, on the other side of the ocean." Citing more than 30 years' worth of scientific studies and warnings that greenhouse gases and other factors were establishing a dangerous new environmental trend, Thunberg criticized politicians for not developing solutions and strategies to confront that threat. She repeatedly reminded the various delegates that her generation - not theirs - will be the ones who ultimately have to live with the consequences of global warming.

In order to make an even greater point, Ms. Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to New York - rather than flying in an immense polluting jet aircraft. For her efforts at rallying young people the world over to the cause of climate change, she was greeted with warmth and thunderous applause. Perhaps not surprisingly, she was also castigated, called a “Socialist who’s part of an international conspiracy,” and put down for not understanding reality. In a sarcastic Tweet, the president of the United States (who did not attend that part of the United Nations gathering) mocked Ms. Thunberg: "She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!" he Tweeted.

Shortly after the speech, Thunberg and other young people filed a legal complaint against five countries, saying their role in climate change has violated a widely ratified U.N. pact on children's human rights.

"I and 15 other children from around the world filed a legal complaint against 5 nations over the climate crisis through the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child," Thunberg said via Twitter. "These 5 nations are the largest emitters that have ratified the convention."

Those countries are France, Germany, Brazil, Argentina and Turkey; they are accused of not curbing emissions and promoting fossil fuels, despite being well aware of the risks of climate change. Unlike most other signatories to the convention, the five countries have also approved a procedure for receiving complaints about potential violations.

The U.S. has signed the U.N. treaty, but has never ratified it. When Somalia and South Sudan ratified the convention in 2015, that left the U.S. alone in not being a party to the human rights agreement.

The young activists announced their complaint at a press conference at UNICEF Headquarters in New York — right across the street from the U.N. building where Thunberg spoke earlier.

The movement among the young is catching on. Already, students around the globe are taking off Fridays from school in order to make their concerns known to adults in both the world of politics and business - stressing that time is running out and they must put the needs of the planet above profit. For their efforts, their movement is growing by the week . . . as are the negative comments. But still fueled by youthful idealism - that which less than 2 generations ago ended the military draft, caused the voting age to be lowered from 21 to 18, drove a president from seeking reelection and ultimately ended a war - these teeners and tweeners are the living, breathing embodiment of HIllel’s dictum about not separating ourselves from the community.

And so, on this, the first day of 5780, I urge one and all to commit themselves to a cause or a project larger than themselves;  causes which will help repair the world. The ribono shel olam (“Master of the Universe”) has placed it in our hands to act as beloved stewards and caretakers of the world he/she created. There is so much work to be done and so little time in which to do it. For anyone looking for a cause, a campaign or an action who is a bit in the dark, please contact me and I will provide you with a list of possibilities. God’s planet needs us - now, more than ever.

אני מאחל לכם שנה טובה ומתוקה Wishing you a Happy and Sweet New Year,

הר אשר איעזר בן ר' אליעזר סטון (KFS)

411 days until the next election.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone