If you’ve never “googled” yourself, you might be surprised with what comes up. I was working on maybe the hundredth iteration of my website, and after recycling the same two professional headshots for the past 10 years, I wondered whether there were any serviceable pictures of me online that I didn’t know about. When I searched for images under my name, a portrait of a woman named “Chana Gross nee Perlberger” popped up, and I recognized the photograph from an old file in my husband’s papers. As if seeing this picture for the first time, a myriad of impressions washed over me — her lively and sensitive expression that was both softly romantic and innocently open, the coquettish tilt of her head, her graceful stance, the tender whimsy of the fresh chrysanthemums decorating her hair, as well as the originality and artistry of the geisha girl motif (I mean who had access to a kimono in Wieliczka)?
I wished I could have known this Chana Perlberger, mother of two boys, and by written account, liked and admired by Jews and non-Jews alike for her intelligent and kind personality. In the freezing Polish winter of 1942, however, this Chana Perlberger, along with her mother, and G-d knows who else, were murdered — executed by firing squad.
A Few Inconvenient Truths
If we are to live into the fullness of our humanity, there are certain truths we must embrace, however inconvenient they may be. Humans must be cognizant of the difference between automatic processes and conscious behaviors, unintentional actions and intentional choices.
Breathing and the beating of our hearts are automatic. Hoisting a rifle to one’s shoulder, fixing one’s gaze down the long barrel through the site aimed at an innocent woman, and squeezing extra tight a trigger sluggish from frost is not. The cold-blooded murder of Chana Gross nee Perlberger was not accidental. The Holocaust was not inadvertent. And, no, Mr. Zuckerberg, Holocaust denial is not unintentional; neither is it “honest,” nor a “mistake.”
As for your stance for the right to promulgate and disseminate false information, repugnant as it may be, please don’t quote the First Amendment to me, Mr. Zuckerberg. It is not an inviolable right. Everyone knows there is no Constitutional protection for someone to yell “fire” in a crowded theatre (assuming there is no fire) because the right to use false speech ends when it bumps up against the rights of others to live free from the intended harm that ensues. It is not a moral society that throws people under the bus and then worries about protecting the bus driver.
So here’s another inconvenient truth. We live in a relational world of interconnection; that is why rights of the individual are always balanced against the competing rights, needs and interests of others; in a word, society. Sometimes the individual wins, as in it being it better for ten guilty men to go free than one innocent man to be is incarcerated. Other times, the needs of the general populace prevails; in other words – the duty to pay taxes. Who prevails and where the lines are drawn shape our culture and community identity. Even Mr. Zuckerberg would agree, because Facebook purports to have a “community standard” that it protects, with its policy that doesn’t permit hate speech, or attacks on individuals or groups based on ethnicity, national origin, religion, etc. So let’s see how that works.
Years ago, believing that an “I Hate Israel” page fell squarely within those parameters, I joined thousands of people in asking Facebook to take it down. Facebook replied that my request was reviewed, but that “I Hate Israel” did not violate “community standards.” And neither, apparently, does Holocaust denial. So who decides these standards? And what kind of community are we talking about here? Because any community whose sensibilities are not violated by the devastating virus of Jew-hatred is certainly not a community of mine.
The Need to Belong
Why do we want to belong to a community anyway? Apparently, it’s a fundamental, innate and hard-wired need that we have, this “need to belong,” and to belong to something bigger than ourselves. According to Abraham Maslow, all humans have five needs, but they are hierarchical. After the basic, bottom needs of physiological survival and safety are satisfied; the next human need is “love and belonging.”
Belonging feels safe and good emotionally. Practically, we couldn’t survive without sharing the resources, strengths and skills and others. And psychologically, belonging to a community can give us a sense of identity, direction, perspective and moral strength. So there’s nothing wrong with the need; rather, it’s how we go about satisfying it that matters. We have to be careful and conscious about what and to whom we attach ourselves.
Some communities inspire and promote individual growth and potential while providing the means to serve something greater than us. Other communities act as a mechanism to keep people mired in conformity and a mob mentality, furthering the cause of hatred. In such communities, like the so-called “Facebook community,” it is not a “community violation” to publically stand for “hate.” Other communities take it further and applaud and honor hatred as an ideal state of being.
Being Fully Human Is to Be Guided by Divinity
Hillel encapsulated the Torah with the famous phrase, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others; now go and learn.” Sadly, for many people, inhumane, brutal and sick behavior is not hateful. It would be simplistic to believe that they simply lack a moral compass. Or worse – that they are amoral sociopaths unable to know the difference between right and wrong. To the contrary – violence is a calculated means to serve their mission. And when supported and applauded by the community, violence is more than a distorted virtue; it’s a “moral” obligation.
Thus, it is not a foregone conclusion, and so Hillel is urging us to “go and learn,” what in fact should be hateful to a properly-calibrated human being. We can’t forget that there is a spiritual component to the need to belong. How do we meet that need, however? Says Hillel, “Go and learn Torah,” because, to live the fullness of your humanity, you must let yourself be guided by Divinity.
In the Torah portion, “Eikev,” Moses, who is but a few weeks away from his death, is instructing and cautioning the Jewish people about the upcoming challenges of facing life in the Land of Israel. In the desert, God was palpable. Daily, overt miracles satisfied all of our needs. And, we saw strict judgment in action. Mess with God, and you were zapped. Mess with the Jewish people – and you went down. Evil was summarily dealt with. There was clarity.
Once we would leave that cocoon to live in the “real world,” however, that clarity could fade. We could forget God as the source of our blessings, and the source of ultimate reality. And then we would be vulnerable to internal confusion and beset by external enemies.
And that is why Moses was stressing the importance over and over to love God, to attach ourselves to God, to emulate God and to walk in His ways. “Be kind to each other, take care of the needy, the orphan, the poor, the widow….” Because the more we learn and emulate what is holy and shun what is hateful, the closer we are to God. And the closer we are to God, the more palpable His presence.
The idea is to create “desert clarity” now, in our everyday lives, and to create the channel to bring down the Divine protection that was given us in the desert. In Eikev, Moses tells us flat out – Heed my words, and your enemies will vanish. You will tread where you will, and no man will stand up to you. Really, could this advice be any more timely than today?