“It’s better to light one candle than curse the darkness”

JD east of edenMy favorite James Dean movie is East of Eden.  The story moved me so much that I decided to read the book by John Steinbeck.  I had the pleasure of visiting the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, CA, where I learned that Steinbeck considered East of Eden the culmination of his life’s work.  He struggled with it all his life because he wanted to truly understand the fundamental ability to choose light or darkness.

 

God said to Cain, “If you do well, shall you not be accepted? But if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. It desires to dominate you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:7)  Steinbeck’s East of Eden tells us that no matter what happens, you always have a choice.

The power to choose

There’s so much awful news: Tel Aviv, Orlando, the Stanford rape case, a British MP gunned down, and plenty more that I don’t know about.  In each case someone made a choice to do evil; they chose darkness.

Debates are raging right now about why these tragedies happened. I’m not qualified to give an opinion about changes that need to be made in society and I’m not going to try.  This post is about the power to choose.

Choosing compassion

The family of a police officer saw someone running from the scene of the Tel Aviv terror attack.  He was badly shaken and could hardly speak.  They brought him in and gave him water.  The officer ran to the scene and when he saw that the detained shooter was dressed exactly like the man in his house, he rushed back, fearing the worst.  Indeed, the family had sheltered the second shooter.  The officer arrested him in the living room.

This family chose to help someone who looked to be in shock.  Without a doubt, the situation could have ended tragically, but instead we have an example of what compassion to one’s neighbors looks like.

Unsung heroes

At Stanford, two Swedish graduate students pulled the rapist off of his victim and held him down until police arrived.  The victim was completely unconscious, could not defend herself, and likely would not have been able to remember the events of what happened in order to bring her attacker to justice.

It was late at night.  The two students could have passed by and done nothing.  Instead, they chose to protect a young woman in a horrible situation.

Choosing to stand together

Sometimes you can’t save the person in danger, but you can stand beside the mourners.  Two stories I came across – and surely there are many more – remind us that it’s fine to “Je suis …” and change your profile pictures, but actions are so much more powerful.

A rabbi brought members of his congregation to grieve with mourners of the Orlando terror attack.  Just showing up was enough.

A flight crew found out that a passenger was on her way to her grandson’s funeral.  He was one of the victims in Orlando.  All the passengers wrote notes and when they deplaned, every person stopped to personally give their condolences.

Shavuot in Israel – Standing together

This week also marked Shavuot in Israel.  Shavuot is the fiftieth day after Passover and marks the date that the Israelites received the Ten Commandments at Sinai.  It’s a pilgrimage holiday meaning that when the Temple stood, people came to offer sacrifices.  Today, we aren’t offering sacrifices, but we still stand together, raise our voices in song, and choose life.

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Here’s a video I took while watching the sunrise on Shavuot at the Western Wall

From a single candle, thousands can be lit

When I watch the sun rise over the people and hear them singing, I know that the world is going to be okay.  Some people choose to do evil.  This is a fact and we see plenty of evidence of it.  But more people choose to do good.  More people choose light.  Sure, there may be moments .of regret, but every day we have a choice.  We can choose light and keep choosing it until we break down the power of darkness.

Wishing all the fathers a Happy Father’s Day!

And remembering my Dad z’’l

Soldiers Remembrance Day (Yom HaZikaron)—Independence Day (Yom HaAtzmaut)

After Passover, Israel marks Holocaust Remembrance Day, remembering and honoring victims of the Holocaust.  The following week, the nation remembers fallen soldiers and victims of terror attacks.  Immediately afterwards, the streets are filled with joy for Independence Day.

It took a while for me to connect to this rhythm of honoring the memory of the dead and celebrating the birth of a country.  But I think the bottom line is that Israel loves life while not rejecting or denying the sacrifices made by others.

Maagan Michael 2001

The first time I experienced the 5-minute limbo between Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut, I was emotionally confused.  At Maagan Michael, these days are taken very seriously.  The kibbutz was around in some form or another since before the birth of the state, so their cemetery held soldiers from every war.  There were ceremonies.  The cemetery was cleaned and decorated.  People told stories, they honored the fallen, and they remembered.

Maagan Michael’s cemetery

And then as we gathered together to solemnly close the day together, we said a few final words, and then we stopped.  Five quiet minutes passed.  And then fireworks.  Now it was time to be happy.  Hoorah!  Independence Day!  Time to party!  BBQ tomorrow!

Honestly, it felt a little manic-depressive, but the other way around—solemn sadness and then within 5 minutes, joy and elation.  But I get it now.  Life is short and you cannot linger in the sadness forever.  Similarly, people continue to live their lives even in the shadow of terrorist violence, even when we were in the dark days of suicide bombings.

And now, it even makes sense to me:  it is important to remember and honor the soldiers who sacrificed their lives defending the state, and also to remember and honor the innocent civilians who were victims of terror; and the best way to do that is to live, to be joyful, to be courageous, and to celebrate.  But it’s also important to keep those days separate so that the commemoration and memory don’t turn into a celebration.  I think often of Memorial Day in the US.  If you don’t know any soldiers, it’s just a 3-day weekend to kick off summer with a BBQ or buy a mattress because there’s a big sale on.  Not here.

Tradition!

This is a little clip (19 seconds) from The West Wing describing how Israel remembers their soldiers.  I have one tiny little issue with it, though I understand why it was phrased that way.  Leo McGarry says that it happens on May 13, the day before Israeli Independence Day.  Well, in 19 seconds, it’s a little hard to explain that the date changes because Independence Day is celebrated according to the Jewish calendar, so Remembrance Day on the 4th of Iyar, whenever that happens to be on the Gregorian calendar.

And he’s right.  Here are a few snapshots of my television screen this year.  There was soft Israeli music playing in the background, not sad music exactly, but definitely mellow and understated.  As I watched the names change, I realized that every single name represented a family that lost someone.  This year, the number of fallen stands at 23,447.

Major Levy Feigenbaum z”l 1 July 1974

Staff Sargent Avraham “Bomi” Schwartz z”l 23 September 1974

On Yom HaZikaron, there are two national sirens, one at 8:00pm to signify the start of Remembrance Day for one minute, and one at 11:00am the next morning for two minutes.  The same behaviors apply as they do for Yom HaShoah:  everyone stops, people stand, and we do it all together.

For Independence Day, Jerusalem allows parties all night.  I didn’t go – I’ve been there and done that, and it’s usually a wild, drunken scene.  Still, I could hear the partying in the street from home and I had a perfect view of the fireworks.  On offer was a city-sanctioned “rave” downtown, folk dancing at the square by city hall, and many of the bars had some kind of Independence Day party theme.

Seriously, I didn’t even go outside for these.

The next day, the park was filled with youth groups, buses dropped off thousands of tourists in the area, and I happened to see a March of the Living group from Argentina.  (March of the Living groups usually visit concentration camps in Europe and commemorate Yom HaShoah there and then come to Israel for Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut.)

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The spring holiday cycle

So now this year’s journey is complete:  we began as slaves in Egypt and took 40 years of wandering to become a nation; we faced near-annihilation in the Holocaust; we built a state and to protect it and its citizens, soldiers sacrificed their lives and civilians lost their lives in terror attacks; and now we have arrived at Independence Day, when we celebrate the last line in the national anthem, “to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.”

The Underdog and The Anti-Hero

The point of this Friday post is not to list one bad event after another, but if I were simply to write about what happened this week, that’s unfortunately what it would look like.  Even though a few good things happened this week too.  Instead, here is the beginning of a theory I’m working on.

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The Underdog and the Anti-Hero

This theory is a work in progress, so please comment or refute.  It might be enough to write a whole thesis on, but I’m trying to present it as concisely as possible.

 

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke last week about the attacks in Paris and said:

There’s something different about what happened from Charlie Hebdo, and I think everybody would feel that. There was a sort of particularized focus and perhaps even a legitimacy in terms of – not a legitimacy, but a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, okay, they’re really angry because of this and that. This Friday was absolutely indiscriminate. It wasn’t to aggrieve one particular sense of wrong. It was to terrorize people. It was to attack everything that we do stand for.

I’m not trying to suggest government policy here, but rather ask a question about how people might see and understand the world.  Fiction, in all its forms – TV, movies, books, games, etc. – affects our daily lives.  Even the news we read is a “story” and has to be presented with a beginning, middle, and satisfying end.  As Kerry’s quote suggests, there is something we can understand about a focused attack on specific targets.

(It’s another full discussion to point out that Kerry seems to be saying that he can understand the rationale of focused attacks on cartoonists who insult Mohammed and the unmentioned Jews shopping on a Friday.  Using that kind of logic, we should also understand the rationale behind attacks like Timothy McVeigh’s in Oklahoma or angry teens perpetrating school shootings.  And is there actually a rationale for shooting people in cold blood?)

The Underdog 

Human beings often cheer for the underdog.  It’s the typical David vs. Goliath story.  We all cheer for David because if he wins then there is hope for all of us ordinary little guys. We too can overcome incredible odds and win against a seemingly invincible foe.

There is a theory called “underdogma” that suggests that people who believe in underdogma see anyone with less power as righteous and anyone with more power as wrong.  Thus the hero of any story is the one who overcomes incredible odds to defeat an overlord who is clearly corrupted by his or her absolute power.  And we cheer.

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The Anti-Hero

Some of the most popular TV and movie fiction brings us into the world of a somehow likable villain.  An early example is Tony Soprano.  He’s a mobster, a killer, a ruthless businessman, and he cheats on his wife.  But he loves his kids, he has anxiety issues, and he’s willing to face some of these things in therapy.  How about Dr. Gregory House?  He is a drug-addled misanthrope who likes to solve puzzles and hates people, but his actions find answers to medical mysteries and at the very, very end, he was a good friend to the only person who stood by him.  Dexter Morgan channeled his need to kill to vigilante executions of criminals who evade criminal justice.  He’s doing the world a service, right?  The list could go on and on.  I’m sure you probably have your own favorite anti-hero.  He or she does bad things for the “right” reasons and in the dark corners of our minds, we can relate to this anti-hero and admire the total disregard of standard behavior.  The anti-hero is also an underdog.

Of course, in real life, we wouldn’t want to be friends with any of these anti-heroes.  We wouldn’t admire them nor could we relate to them in any way.

Our fictional worlds are filled with stories of the weak winning against the strong and likable villains.  So when we see people who are giving everything they have to a single cause, willing to put their lives on the line for their version of justice, sending a message to a hegemonic power, we want to relate to them in some way.  And when the reporters write the story, they can bend the narrative.  No one wants to relate to a terrorist, but we are all freedom fighters.

Life is not a TV show

Real life is complicated and messy.  Events don’t have clear-cut beginnings, middles, or satisfying ends.  People are not clearly defined, relatable characters.  Leaving the vocabulary aside, in real life, if one human being shoots or stabs another human being, there is nothing to understand and there is no rationale.  If you try to rationalize the violence or relate to the perpetrator, then I suggest stepping out of the fictional world.

In my opinion, a universal human value should be to choose life.  If the underdog anti-hero says that he or she loves death, don’t try to understand it or rationalize it, believe it. This is not going to change in 40 minutes or 6 seasons and there won’t be a story arc showing character development and growth.  We are all human beings and it would be nice to relate to each other on that level.  But we don’t. Some choose life.  Some choose death.  At some point, changing the channel won’t be an option.