Start Spreading the News

When your campaign or video “goes viral,” as was the case with the (ice) bucket challenge, it is great news. The word virus, etymologically, comes from a meaning of the flow of poison. It has come to mean the spread of something (for example an infectious disease or idea) by the means of replication. Replication is the key to understanding the virulent nature of viruses—they start small, microscopic, but then, as the Sinatra song goes, the news starts to spread.

 

Viruses penetrate inside the membranes of cells in order to replicate. A virus such as Ebola replicates inside the body of an individual by attaching itself to a host cell—using the proteins of the host to replicate itself—a million fold. Deception is a part of a virus’ modus operandi. It has to “pass” undetected to infiltrate. In the case of Ebola it disguises itself and then, snakelike, “uncoils, springs forward and penetrates the membrane, driving itself into the cytoplasm.”

 

Ebola, like any other virus has to find an opening, an entry point. The skin acts as a formidable barrier to most viruses. A small cut (or contact with an orifice of the body) allows the virus to enter. In order though for the virus to find the opening, the host must come close, be in contact with the infected person by caring for them or their body in life or after death. Empathy is one factor that spreads the virus—no wonder that many of the healthcare professionals who put themselves at risk and were infected work for Doctors Without Borders. The hallmark of empathy is to remove those barriers that keep us separated, unconcerned about the other. And here is the paradox. If I am going to walk in another person’s shoes who has Ebola, I better have thick socks on.

 

Those health care workers who travelled to West Africa were holding opposites; caring and touching those infected with Ebola virus while at the same time trying to contain the spread of the disease. In the debate over quarantining them and those who have been in contact with them, there is a parallel issue of opposing forces: containing the spread of a disease and empathy for those who have returned from the frontline of empathy.

 

Within the borders of some states those quarantined (who do not have symptoms) are allowed visitors or to walk their dogs. In other states the confinement is total isolation.

 

Kabbalah teaching informs us that we have to hold both propositions around barriers, borders and the skin. For empathy to survive it needs a host. For empathy to take hold it needs to replicate. What is being lost in the quarantine debate is that humanity needs to be in touch with those who are willing to be on the frontline of empathy. Empathy is the key to moving beyond the borders that we are comfortable with and yet, without any borders, a virus can infiltrate, replicate and kill. Would those who are being asked (or required) to be in quarantine feel less isolated if they were given a hero’s welcome and asked to be our teachers on empathy and learn for themselves the importance of living within borders that insure safety for others?

 

Skin, though a very effective barrier is porous. We are designed for protection and for empathy. Empathy with borders is a paradox (pair of docs) worth spreading.

 

Touched by a Torah

A few years back I received a call from then assistant Rabbi of Temple Sinai, Jay Tel-Rav, wondering if I could take a look at a manuscript. He was not sure what is was but he was definite: it was a Kabbalah text. I had a few moments between classes and he was but a minute away so I said, “Come over.” He arrived with a large, cylindrically matted manuscript. Unrolled, it covered the entire length of the upstairs classroom. I recognized one segment of it—a title of a Kabbalah book from the 16th century. My excitement attenuated when I received an email back from a Professor at Hebrew University who, after looking at photos I sent him of different sections of the manuscript, let me know that it was not what I thought it might be—a Kabbalistic manuscript from the 1500s.

 

The Professor was correct. It turned out that deciphering the small handwritten notes in-between text sections revealed that the manuscript was a compilation by a student of Kabbalah in the early 1800s. Apparently, he had traveled throughout the Ukraine visiting Kabbalah and Hassidic masters and copying, as many diagrams of the Tree of Life in books and manuscripts he could locate in their libraries. He was quite good at graphic art, less careful about textual accuracy.

 

Last week I was asked by one of our students if I could take a look at a manuscript she had in her possession. She knew it was in Hebrew but had no idea what it might be. Based on her description I thought it might be the scroll of Esther. She brought it to class this past Monday afternoon. It was wrapped in plain light brown paper and was marked “very fragile.” It was easy to identify–it was a segment of a scribal Torah on parchment—the parchment was soft, likely deerskin and the lettering, though meticulously executed by a sofer (scribe), looked as if it was printed. It was a section from the book of Numbers covering a dozen or so columns (a Torah scroll contains 248 columns) and had one other unique identifying mark: it was burned in several places. The burn holes disrupted the text. This sizeable Torah fragment had been in a fire. It had survived.

 

I shared the manuscript with a number of my classes this week—it had a palpable affect. Most wanted to touch the soft parchment—it feels like suede—and to get close to the scroll. One student broke down into a sobbing cry; he felt the pain that the burned Torah represented.

 

I have no idea, and may never know the origin of this Torah scroll fragment. The student only knew that her parents had purchased it—knowing it was a Torah scroll only increased the mystery—she was incredulous that her parents would have wanted to have , let alone buy, a religious item.

 

Nevertheless, it showed up the day before I was to give a presentation on the mystical significance of the Torah letters at Hebrew Educational Alliance. I had planned on asking the synagogue if I could use one of their Torah scrolls to show people the handwritten scribal letters. I didn’t need to. This Torah scroll fragment appeared—with neither rhyme nor reason, a burned, yet very intact segment of a Torah. It had survived the centuries against many odds for a special few days in Denver, Colorado; to be viewed, to be touched and to touch those who encountered it.

 

The Stopping Place

“There had to be a stopping place,” she said, “and this seemed to be the place for me to stop being pushed around. I had decided that I would have to know once and for all what rights I had as a human being and a citizen, even in Montgomery, Alabama.”

 

For Rosa Parks it took twelve years to find her stopping place on Cleveland Avenue bus #2857. Against Montgomery City ordinance she had boarded the front of the bus in 1943 and was escorted off by the driver and told to re-enter the bus from the back door. As she exited, the driver waited a moment and then drove off, leaving her in the exhaust of the bus and a soaking rain. On December 1, 1955 she boarded the bus (fate had it that it was the same bus driver) this time from the rear door, but moved up to sit in the white designated area. The rest is history.

 

Rosa Parks had found her “stopping place.”

 

Almost 60 years later Elana Sztokman boarded an El Al plane to find that she had taken the “wrong” seat. A Haredi (which means “God fearing”) Orthodox Jewish man was assigned the seat next to her. What ensued was not unfamiliar to Elana or any passenger on an El Al flight. The man either wanted her to relocate or to find another seat for himself. Sitting next to a woman was against his religious sensibilities. He was finally able to switch but causing a delay in takeoff of the flight from New York to Tel Aviv.

 

It is likely that this story would have gone the way of a common, recurring event—it happens on almost every El Al flight—except that Elana was returning to Israel following a U.S. book tour. The title of her new book: The War on Women in Israel: A Story of Religious Radicalism and the Women Fighting for Freedom.

 

Here is her blog report of the incident:

 

“The plane took off 20 minutes late because an ultra-Orthodox man was negotiating with passengers so as not to have to sit next to a woman—me—on the 11-hour flight. I asked myself if this was karma or poetic justice. After all, I had just spoken to hundreds of people about exactly these issues and the way women are made to feel like second-class citizens as a result. Part of me wanted to smile and hand out copies of my book. But I sat there silently for a long time, watching all this happen, witnessing all these men around me talking about me, without looking directly at me. I sat there, torn between my desire not to make a scene and my feeling that if I don’t articulate, right here and now, how all this affects women, how this affects me, who will?”

 

Elana did speak up. She spoke to the man about her feeling insulted by his action. Her words though were met with apparently deaf ears as she heard him say under his breath, “She doesn’t understand.” Elana fought back and said to him, “I understand everything, and don’t talk to me as if I’m not here.” She reports: “He ignored me, and all the other men turned their backs and did not respond or even look at me.”

 

Rosa Parks did not cry when the Montgomery police came aboard and arrested her. Those tears had long before been dried up by the soaking rain and bus exhaust. On returning to her seat, Elana burst into tears. She does not explain why she cried but implies that it was a response to sitting for a half hour “absorbing the insult.”

 

As Rosa Parks had done before her Elana refused to move. The insult though brought up feelings of being relegated to “sitting in the back of the bus” (Elana’s words). She exhorts women at the closing of blog “to respect themselves enough to say no to all this. I want women to allow themselves to feel the impact of the silencing. I want women to be honest with themselves and to look at their lives and the places where they are powerless or oppressed, and to acknowledge that. Better yet, I want women to say no, I will not be silent or servile. I will not continue to absorb the insult as if this is all OK. I want women to say that they deserve better. I want women to believe that they deserve better.”

 

Of course, Elana is talking to herself as well. What has not occurred to Elana is the stopping place inside her. Rosa Parks knew with every fiber in her that she was an equal. If she had sat in the designated white section of the bus and all that happened was that a white man refused to sit next to her she would have felt vindicated. She would still have found her stopping place. It would now be up to that white man to find his. Elana and all of us must remember those words of Dr. Martin Luther King: “A man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.”

 

A final word to Elana: “You stayed in your seat. It is his choice to move. That is your stopping place.”

 

david

 

P.S. On the issue of delaying a flight for the sake of a man relocating so as not to sit next to a woman others have suggested creating a separate men only section on El Al flights. The Israeli Supreme court already has ruled that such segregated sections are unconstitutional on public buses in Israel. I would suggest that Haredi men wear blinders or dark sunglasses and if that is not sufficient create a male version of the burka.

 

Blue Monday

“Let the past year and its cursed images end.” Is this prayer a naïve hope? Did we think that when we said this prayer on Rosh Hashanah, reflecting on the disturbing images of so much suffering this past year that this year would be different? Was it our intention that this year would bring us only images of compassion, blessings and solidarity? The cursed images have continued, almost seamlessly, from this past year: another beheading (British aid worker Alan Henning), mass graves of student protesters murdered by police in Mexico and the sick and dying from an ever worsening Ebola epidemic.

 

What then can we hope for? I suggested last week that we need to promote images of generosity, of caring and compassion and of acceptance of others. While there is so much hatred and violence being perpetrated, there is so much good being committed.

 

Knowing full well that the cursed images will continue, so we will see more of them the hope then is not, at this moment, for their cessation, rather for the outcry against these cursed acts. This coming Monday is Blue Monday on the Emory Campus in Atlanta. It will be a hopeful image.

 

Here are the letters from the University President and the Student Government Association

 

To the Emory Community:

 

It saddens me to report that the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity house, an historically Jewish fraternity here at Emory, was the target of crude, offensive graffiti, including swastikas, early Sunday morning, October 5, shortly after the end of the observance of Yom Kippur.

 

On behalf of our community, I denounce this abhorrent act. It is an offense against a Jewish fraternity and the Jewish members of our community, and it is a repugnant, flagrant emblem of anti-Semitism. It is also an offense against the entire university. Among the many pernicious things the swastika symbolizes, in the last century it represented the most egregious and determined undermining of intellectual freedom and truth-seeking. In short, its appearance on our campus is an attack against everything for which Emory stands.

 

Emory University will not tolerate such acts. Instead we must together pledge Emory University’s continuing commitment to raise awareness and prevent all forms of violence and discrimination; to foster openness and diversity of thought, experience, spirituality, and culture; and to seek positive transformation in our community and the world. We all have a responsibility to uphold the principles we hold dear as an academic community, and to create a community that is inclusive, open, respectful, and welcoming to all.

 

Sincerely,
Jim Wagner
President

 

The Student Government Association Executive Board condemns the reprehensible act of bigotry carried out against the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity, the Jewish community, and the entire Emory community. The individuals responsible have sickened us.

 

Emory students engage in conversations about our differences. In our classrooms, social clubs, athletic teams, and student organizations, we affirm each other’s identities. In everything we do, we strive for courageous inquiry. Used in this way, the swastika represents the systematic silencing and murder of human beings because of their identities. In this context, there is nothing courageous about a swastika.

 

We are committed to making sure that this moment of anger is a springboard for action, and that all people and all communities at Emory feel supported and safe on our campus.

 

We invite you to wear blue on Monday in support of Emory’s Jewish community and the rights of all people to live freely and safely.

 

An image in blue. That is not a naïve hope. Please join me in wearing blue this Monday.

 

Developing the Negative

There is an old and odd traditional prayer said at the beginning of the New Year—it is found in the Sephardic liturgy and it’s refrain is: “Let this year and its curses (come to an) end.” In the past we have heard of murders and rapes, we have listened to people’s accounts of atrocities and have created in our minds eye the accompanying images. All that has changed—and evolve even more. The promise of technology is a camera on every phone and soon to be on every head. Our awareness of the suffering of humanity and all other creatures on the planet will be in pictures, some of which we are unable to look at. At our Kabbalah Experience Rosh Hashanah service, entitled “From Despair to Hope” we started by creating a common bond of our despair in all the sad and sometimes horrifying events of this past year—all that carry images—seen or imagined. The traditional prayer concludes: “and now let the New Year and its blessings begin!” I would suggest that as a community we share images of kindness, generosity, courage, healing and community.

 

Here is the 2014 version of “Let this year and its cursed images conclude.”

 

The beheading of Foley, Sotloff and Haines

 

The bodies of Ya’acov Fraenkel, Mohamed Khdeir, Gilad Sha’ar, Eyal Yifrach

 

Let this year and its cursed images conclude

 

The police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner

 

The police beatings of Marlene Pinnock, Victor Hernandez, Kollin Truss

 

Let this year and its cursed images conclude

 

Ukranian dissidents: Yuriy Verbytskyi, Pavlo Mazurenko, Mikhail Zhyznevskyi

 

Yazidi men lying lifeless in mass graves

 

Let this year and its cursed images conclude

 

Bodies of Indian girls hanging from trees

 

A knock-out punch of domestic violence

 

Let this year and its cursed images conclude

 

Drowning victims Billy Kim, Jim Woo-hyuk, Park Suyehon on the Sewol ship

 

Thousands of corpses of the Ebola virus

 

Let this year and its cursed images conclude

 

Hate crime victims Reat Griffin Underwood, William Lewis Corporon and Terri LaManno

 

Hate crime victims of mental illness Veronika Weiss, George Chen, Christopher Michael-Martine

 

Hate crime victims Leroy Henderson, Ahmed Said and Dwone Anderson-Young

 

Let this year and its cursed images conclude

 

The deaths of Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams

 

Let this year and its cursed images conclude

 

Rape and murder victims: Sister Bernadetta Boggian, Sister Lucia Pulici and Sister Olga Raschietti

 

Newlyweds Sajjad Ahmed and Muawia Bibi murdered by her parents in family honor killing

 

Let this year and its cursed images conclude

 

And here is an image of kindness:

 

 

In our Denver community Dependable Cleaners has been cleaning prayer shawls (talis) for free for many years (it is a different type of interview).