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Shirley Sherrod Provides Context

July 28, 2010 1:43 AM

Shirley Sherrod is a black woman who worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This past week, a right-wing activist posted on his blog a video of Sherrod speaking about an episode which transpired in 1986, while she was employed at a private advocacy firm, wherein she refused to help a white farmer simply because he was "one of them." The reaction to the video was quick in coming. Sherrod was castigated from all sides – from the director of the USDA to the president of the NAACP – and was promptly asked to tender her resignation. She did.

Not 24 hours later, the entire video of Sherrod's speech was released, and a bunch of apologetic politicians and journalists with egg running down their faces came to realize how important context is.For the unedited version of the video revealed that Sherrod did help the white farmer—going, in fact, to great extents to do so. Until this day she remains friends with that farmer and his family. Actually, the point she was trying to make by repeating the episode was the importance of racial harmony...

Context is so important in every area of life. Here are three areas that come to my mind:

Interpersonal relationships:

Belaboring this point is superfluous, because I don't think there's even one of us who can claim not to have repeatedly fallen into this trap. We'll hear or see something, or someone fails to come through for us in a certain area, and we immediately draw conclusions, pronounce judgment, and already map a course of action to redress the perceived wrong—only to later learn of the larger context, the extenuating circumstances, the exonerating details that emerge just a few hours later.

If we were never to reach conclusions – and implement accordingly – based on what we see and hear, we'd obviously be paralyzed into inaction. Imagine, for example, a business whose boss never takes disciplinary action because he's always giving his employees the benefit of the doubt.

But we must always bear in mind the following two rules of thumb: a) Never judge anyone before taking the time to investigate and evaluate all the relevant information. b) Even if all the information we have available indicates culpability, which requires us to act accordingly, it is never our business to mentally judge our fellow. In the back of our mind we must always be aware that there just might be a broader picture to which we are not privy.

Perspective vis-à-vis tragedy:

The following is an excerpt from a letter penned by the Rebbe in 1952 in response to someone who was struggling to reconcile G‑d's infinite kindness with the occurrence of tragic events:

...Suppose one encounters an individual for a brief period of time, finding him asleep, or engaged in some arduous toil. Now if the observer would want to conclude from what he sees during that brief period of time as to the nature of the individual he had observed, he would then conclude that the individual has an unproductive existence—in the first instance; or leads a life of torture—in the second. Obviously, both conclusions are erroneous, inasmuch as what he saw was only a fraction of the individual's life, and the state of sleep was only a period of rest and preparation for activity, and – in the second instance – the toil was a means to remuneration or other satisfaction which by far outweighs the effort involved. The truth is that any shortsighted observation, covering only a fraction of time or of the subject, is bound to be erroneous, and what may appear as negative will assume quite a different appearance if the full truth of the before and after were known.

Similarly in the case of any human observation of a world event. The subject of such an observation is thus taken out of its frame of eternity, of a chain of events that occurred before and will occur afterwards. Obviously we cannot expect to judge about the nature of such an event with any degree of accuracy. A volcanic eruption or earthquake and the like are but one link in a long chain of events that began with the creation of the world and will continue to the end of times, and we have no way of interpreting a single event by isolating it from the rest.

(Click here for the full [con]text of the letter.)

Self-Image / Introspection:

We are rapidly approaching Elul, the last month of the Jewish calendar year, a month traditionally devoted to soul-searching and grueling introspection.

Throughout the year, it is easy to live in the moment: impressive accomplishments are followed by euphoric self-back-patting; failures are routinely followed by depressing lows. Usually, neither of these sentiments are justified by the larger context.

Which is why we have an entire month to closely examine the larger picture. The clear picture that emerges from this context allows us to accurately assess ourselves and develop an appropriate plan of action to ensure that the new year is more meaningful than the one that has passed.

Stirred by an Earthquake

July 19, 2010 12:42 PM

This past Thursday morning, I was awoken by a curious event in my suburban Washington, D.C., home. At first, when I heard a loud noise and felt my house shaking at 5:04 a.m., I thought a car had crashed into the house. What else could cause such a loud noise and make my house shake like that? When the noise and shaking didn't stop so quickly, I realized we'd had an earthquake.

In Maryland, though?

My husband (who had slept through it) and I later heard the morning news confirm that a 3.6 magnitude quake had been centered only 20 miles from our home. There was no damage to anything in the area, but locals all had a lot of fun asking each other if we felt the quake. It was such a mild quake that many people, to their great disappointment, slept through the whole thing.

In a store later that morning, a clerk and I were chatting about the quake. After a few moments of lighthearted talk she said to me, "You know, this earthquake puts the Haiti earthquake into perspective for me. That was a 7.4 magnitude quake, which is about 1,000 times stronger than the brief jolt we felt here."

Our light attitude suddenly disappeared as we considered the relative power of these two quakes.

We each recalled the utter destruction and devastation in Haiti. Buildings, homes, utilities and more were shaken, destroyed and utterly razed to their very foundations. There was very little solid or organizational structure left in Haiti after that earthquake. The Haitian people had nothing to cling to, no place to call home. Devastated, homeless and hopeless citizens roamed the streets looking for something, somewhere that was still a place to live, a place to survive in. Much of the population moved into tents and other temporary dwellings in order to recover and survive. And Haiti still has years of rebuilding ahead of them to get back to how they were before the earthquake. My heart stirred, thinking about the pain of displacement and dislocation the families of Haiti much surely still feel.

And then I began thinking about the message of these two earthquakes for us, the Jewish people.

As a Jewish woman, I try to see all phenomena, including natural disasters, as a lesson to learn from. After all, G‑d doesn't communicate with us directly anymore as in the times of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem when prophets abounded and High Priests could ask questions directly of G‑d and receive answers. Instead today, G‑d sends us coded messages through personal and world events.

As we are approaching Tisha B'Av (starting at sundown tonight, July 19th through sundown July 20th), the anniversary of the destruction of both our Holy Temples, it seems to me that there is a message and a connection between the two earthquakes and the tragic events that happened, and happen, to the Jewish nation.

The Jewish people around the world have been experiencing an upswing in anti-Semitism: The attack on the Chabad center in Mumbai, and the kidnap, torture and beheading of a Jewish man in France. Synagogues and Jewish organizations are being defaced. In Europe, Jewish people have been attacked and beaten while trying to go to synagogue. In New York this week a man was distributing Nazi-like anti-Semitic literature right in front of buildings housing Jewish organizations.

Anti-Israel sentiments are also swelling. The recent Gaza Flotilla episode was designed to create terrible PR for Israel and it worked. Many countries around the world penalized Israel, and Jewish and pro-Israel organizations are feeling the heat.

Yet all these actions are like a 3.6 earthquake. We hear the roar and feel the rattle of our foundations. We talk about these events for a brief while. We pray for things to get better. And then we move on.

But, the destruction of the Holy Temple nearly 2,000 years ago, that was a 7.4 earthquake. It left the Jewish Nation homeless, without any structure, security, or stability for two millennia. We were utterly devastated as our earthly connection to G‑d's Divine Presence was totally gone. The leadership and guidance role of the holy Priests, which we had always counted on, was destroyed along with the Temple. This is the picture of devastation that the destruction of the Temple caused us.

Ever since then, the Jewish people has lived in metaphorical tents and temporary dwellings all over the world in order to survive. Today we have thousands of synagogues and yeshivahs and rabbis to guide us in prayer and study, and these institutions have helped us survive. But what we all really long for is another Holy Temple, where unity of the Jewish nation and direct connection to G‑d can resume.

This Tisha B'Av, let's use the imagery of devastation that we all recall from the Haiti earthquake to stir our hearts to feel sadness for the loss and destruction of our own Temple, 2,000 years ago. Our Jewish nation is still bereft, and we pray with all our hearts that we can one day soon rebuild.

World Cup Fever

Are You a Fan or a Player?

July 4, 2010

Wherever you turn, it's impossible to ignore—World Cup fever is here! And it doesn't matter whether you're a soccer fan or not. Talk of the World Cup seems to follow you where you go. It's in the advertisements. It's in the atmosphere. It's the talk of the town. Somehow, everything is connected to the World Cup.

What captured my attention about the Word Cup is the way it influences the lives of its viewers. I had naively assumed that because the World Cup is a sporting event, its influence should be most demonstrable in the areas of health and fitness. Ostensibly, it would raise awareness of the importance of leading a healthy lifestyle, cause a rise in memberships to sports and fitness clubs, and increase the consumption of health foods.

But we all know the real facts. World Cup season is characterized by the opposite trend. Vendors of couches, recliners and televisions have never seen better days. And the only increase in food purchases isn't happening in the health food stores—but rather in the pizza shops and fast food joints. Not to mention sales of beers, salted sunflower seeds, and other junk food...

As it turns out, people love the World Cup and soccer. But, at the end of the day, we are just fans. Spectators. We watch from the sidelines.

The game is played by the professionals. They are the ones who have to work hard practicing, eating healthy and staying fit. That's why we pay them the big bucks—so that we can sit back and enjoy watching them play.

This suddenly answered a question I've pondered for years.

Ethics of the Fathers relates the following story:

Rabbi Yossi tells: I was once traveling and met a man, and we greeted each other. The man said to me, "Where are you from?" "I am from a large city of scholars and scribes," I responded. He said, "Rabbi, would you wish to live with us in our place, and I will compensate you with thousands upon thousands of dinars of gold and precious stones?" I told him, "Even if you were to give me all the money and precious stones in the world, I would still choose to live in a place of Torah."

When I read this story I couldn't understand. If I had been in Rabbi Yossi's position, I would have jumped at the opportunity. And which rabbi wouldn't? Who wouldn't want to travel to a spiritually barren place and be given an unlimited budget and resources to spread the teachings of the Torah? How did Rabbi Yossi forgo this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?

The answer is that Rabbi Yossi's acquaintance had no desire to take part in the Torah study himself. He just wanted to be a fan or a spectator. "We want you to live with us in our place." I.e., you will study Torah in our stead. You will relieve us of this responsibility...

He was even willing to sponsor Rabbi Yossi and his learning. But to take an active role in the furthering of Torah values? No, that would be too much!

Judaism is not soccer. In Judaism, there are no fans and spectators. In Judaism, everyone needs to play, and no one can take someone else's place. Unlike soccer, in Judaism everyone is integral to the game.

What's the latest news? For that information, check your local or national news outlet. In this blog we will discuss the "why?"

Not "why did this event occur?" but "why did I find out about it?" There must be a reason. It must contain a lesson I can use to better myself and my surroundings. Together we will find the lessons...
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