A year ago, at the onset of the pandemic, I recalled the story in the Talmud of Joseph, the son of the sage Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, who became deathly ill and was thought to have died. He suddenly recovered and regained consciousness. It was as if he had returned from some far-away place. As he regained consciousness, his father said to him:
‘What did you see?’ Joseph said: ‘I saw an Olam Hafuch (a world turned upside down). What is above was below and what is below was above…’ His father said to him:
‘My son, you have seen an Olam Barur (a clear world), you have seen the world clearly…’” (Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 50a)
We could rephrase the father’s comment with the contemporary ‘My son you have seen the new normal, where nothing can be taken for granted, there’s only a sense of confusion and uncertainty…’
A year later I can only say-This is our topsy-turvy reality; even more scary in the way variants of the Coronavirus, Covid-19, are spreading so rapidly; more grievous in the way it has transformed the lives of billions; more startling to know we can’t just get up and travel to Jerusalem for Pesach or across the world for a family simcha.
The source for Olam Hafuch may well be the story of Esther with its two-word description of the swift change of events as “Venahafoch hu” (Esther 9:1-2), a reversal of all expectations. The message and motto of the festival of Purim, which we celebrate in a fortnight,could be: Expect the unexpected.
Indeed, we are living in Purim times where, as Rav Soloveichik asserts, the key element is one of vulnerability and unpredictability.
Purim, after all, means lottery, a game of chance and happenstance. He notes the similarity between Purim and Yom Kippur which is also referred to as Yom Kippurim – a day like Purim. One of the key rituals of Yom Kippur was the “goral” or lottery of the two goats, one for the Temple, one for Azazel. Both days, he notes are characterized by a deep awareness of our human fragility.
One thing that has changed or at least been dramatically exacerbated during this past year is the polarisation; the deepening divide between people of different views, the growing gap between the haves and have nots, the distance between racial and perhaps religious groups. I often feel like I’m living in an alternate reality. I just don’t get where so many people are coming from with crazy conspiracy theories, unfounded grievances, unfiltered utterances and unchecked aggression. And their willingness to embrace unstable and even fascistic leaders. Perhaps this is just the stuff of uncertainty, the fabric of fragility…we balance on so fine a cobweb called the world.
The pandemic may have made us more aware of our interconnectedness. It has, however, also sharpened our separateness. Behind our masks, we hide a fear of the others; stranger- danger has taken on a new meaning – they could be carriers of the virus, their very breath carrying airborne particles of disease and devastation…
How do we counter this pandemic of polarisation? The answer lies in this week’s Torah reading: through the power of empathy. In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, if there is one command above all that speaks of the power and significance of empathy, it is the line in this weeks Parasha: “Do not oppress a stranger, because you know what it feels like to be a stranger; you were strangers in the land of Egypt‘’( Ex.23:9).
It takes courage, it takes character, to reach out to an opponent or stranger. It is, however, the only way forward, our only hope, our only chance for survival in a dangerous world. Empathy isn’t just a feel-good emotion or a nice add-on to life. We need to push ourselves to listen to the other side, no matter how frightening or simply ridiculous it may seem.If we wish to find alternatives, to show our opponents that there is another way, we need to understand their way. We, as Jews, should understand this better than anybody else. We, who have been relegated so often to the subhuman or hated alien status, know the cost of xenophobia in our very bones. We understand that dislike of the unlike is as old as humanity itself…
To quote Sacks again: ”The only genuine, non-violent alternative is to enter into the pain of the other in such a way as to ensure that the other knows that he, she, or they have been understood, their humanity recognised, and their dignity affirmed.”
There is another verse in the Parasha that expresses the energy of empathy: “If you see your enemy’s donkey struggling under its burden, you shall not pass by. You should surely release it with him” ( Exodus 23:5).The Torah is not unrealistic, it does not call upon us to love our enemy, but it is pragmatic in its recognition that you can learn to respect and know your enemy and perhaps in this way change his or her very behaviour.
A great exemplar of this approach was Nelson Mandela. When in prison, he decided to learn the Afrikaans language, memorised Afrikaans poetry and read deeply in Afrikaner history .On Robben Island he would tell his sceptical comrades that Afrikaners were Africans too. He once famously said about the art of persuasion: “Don’t address their brains. Address their hearts…” .When you speak the language of the other you go straight to their hearts. Some Israeli politicians who have downgraded the learning and promotion of Arabic in Israel could learn well from this. Mandela also counselled that when you have won over your enemy you should not gloat. Let them, in fact, save face.
And then, Mandela said you will have made your enemy your friend. In this he was echoing a fabled piece of Jewish wisdom: “ Who is a hero? One who turns an enemy into a friend.“( Avot deRabbi Natan, 23.)
It may be an upside-down world but it doesn’t mean our morality and ethics need to be inverted. Sometimes God turns our world upside down so that we can live it right side up.