Where Are We? And How Did We Get Here?

A number of years ago I was working with one of our students as he prepared to become a bar mitzvah. He was reading from the Torah during the final rehearsal – and doing a fine job of it, I might add — when he lost his place. He was unable to locate the first words of his next aliyah and before I realized what was happening before I could help him locate the spot, he put down the yad, threw up his arms, and said, “God, where am I?”

That young man’s words do a rather nice job of capturing this moment and expressing what many of us feel. Whether we are conscious of it or not, and whether we are using those specific words or not, I suspect that most of us are asking the same question- “God, where are we?”

And then, of course, there is the corollary, “How did we get here?”

Shortly after the Biblical floodwaters recede and Noah and his family leave the ark, we are presented with the story of the Tower of Babel. According to the text, the people came together to build a tower- a ziggurat- that would ascend to the heavens, potentially challenging God’s dominance.

The work proceeded quickly. After all, according to the text of the Torah, “

וַֽיְהִ֥י כָל־הָאָ֖רֶץ שָׂפָ֣ה אֶחָ֑ת וּדְבָרִ֖ים אֲחָדִֽים׃

Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.

Simply stated, the people working on the tower really got one another. They could speak in shorthand to make the project go faster. They looked, and acted, like… a community.

But things were not as they appeared.

According to the Midrash:

The tower had seven levels on its east and seven on its west. The builders brought the bricks up on one side and came down on the other. If a man fell down and died, no heed was given to him, but when a brick fell down they stopped work and wept, saying, “woe unto us. When will another be brought up in its stead?

The task of building the tower had become an end unto itself. And in the process, the people lost sight of one another’s humanity. They lost any sense of responsibility for one another.

If people were maimed or killed, that was simply the price of doing business, and the only consideration was whether it would slow progress down.

Looking at the tower, which grew taller each day, one would never have known that it was built on a foundation that was ugly, callous, selfish, and inhumane.

And while the story is ancient, the lesson we take from it is timeless. Any society that ceases to value the life of each and every person… is a society that will, at some point, value a brick over human life.

And we are already more than 200,000 bricks into this pandemic.

“God where are we?”

Sadly, in many respects, we have become like the builders of the Tower of Babel. A shared sense of communal responsibility is in increasingly short supply. And human life, which should take primacy in our values system, is increasingly devalued. And that is particularly the case for the most vulnerable among us.

When a society’s sense of covenant is replaced by a transactional consumer mindset… Professor Krista Stevens of the Department of Theology at John Carroll University writes-

People become nothing more than tools to be used or dismissed, depending on their ability to help our quest for wealth. The culture of influence perpetuates a lie of stability and harmony, while in reality an increasing number of people live in poverty and suffer from hunger, homelessness, and lack of access to quality education and healthcare. These people – the un-affluent, sick, poor, and disabled – are deemed disposable to the culture of affluence because they remind us of our own vulnerability and fragile economic positions.

“God, where are we? How did we get here?”

There is a popular children’s book that begins with a boy and his best friend- a mature apple tree. The boy climbs the tree. He enjoys the tree’s apples. He rests in the tree’s cooling shade.

The boy and the tree are both happy.
But eventually, the boy is unsatisfied. He wants more.
The tree offers its branches. The boy takes them.
The tree offers its trunk. The boy takes it.
The tree gives. The boy takes.
The tree gives. The boy takes.
The tree gives… until it is reduced to just a stump.

After many years, the boy, now an old man, returns.

The tree, now a stump, thinks it has nothing left to give.

Until the old man sits down on the stump to rest. And the tree is happy… again.

In Shel Silverstein’s story, the tree gives everything to the boy and the boy is more than willing to accept it. As time goes on, the boy begins to expect the tree to do more and more for him. And the tree does. Until it has nothing left to give.

On the surface, it may have seemed that the boy and the tree had a relationship, but there was no relationship.
The tree gave.
The boy took.
Again and again and again.

The tree sacrificed everything.
The boy sacrificed nothing.

For the boy, it was all about what the tree could do for him. The connection was transactional, so he felt no responsibility to the tree or for its well-being.

Contrast that with a covenantal relationship. Such a connection depends upon mutual care and responsibility, and it REQUIRES personal sacrifice. And yet we live in a country in which the citizenry is rarely if ever, asked to make any personal sacrifices.

Imagine where we would be if, six months ago, leaders from across the political spectrum had come together, laid out the harsh reality of what it would take to address this virus, and then called for a unified national response?

What if, from the beginning, they had put partisanship aside, stood together in front of the nation and told us “We’re wearing masks right now because your lives matter to us. That’s what it means to be American, to be human… that’s what it means to look out for each other.”

But that didn’t happen. And it is a stark reminder that any family, community, or nation requires its members to give of themselves because if they don’t, they aren’t a family, or a community or a society… they are just a collection of people… people who are easily traded for a pallet of bricks.

“God, where are we? How did we get here? And what can we do to fix it?”

Apparently, I am not the only person who finds Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” disturbing. A new version, created by Topher Payne, is entitled, “The Tree Who Set Healthy Boundaries.” The story begins the same way, but when the boy asks permission to cut down the tree to build a house, the tree has had enough.

The tree refuses and then takes the time to explain to the boy the importance of mutual respect. It helps the boy understand that, if people – or trees – take care of each other, everyone benefits.

At the end of the revised story, the tree is healthy, the boy has become a pastry chef who bakes the most delightful apple pies, and for generations to come, the boy’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren take care of the tree and benefit from it.

That is what can happen when the covenantal relationship replaces the transactional one.

But we are living in a society that is so hyper-transactional that any time someone talks about the social contract – you know, our responsibilities to one another – somebody else inevitably labels it as socialism and the entire conversation gets derailed.

An ancient rabbinic teaching states,

The people of Israel are similar to a ship. If there is a hole in the lower hold, one does not say, ‘Only the lower hold has a hole in it.’ Rather they must immediately recognize that the ship is liable to sink and that they must repair the hole down below.– Tanna De Bei Eliyahu Rabbah (10th c.) Chapter 11

Another teaching offers a slightly different take. It states:

A group of people was traveling in a boat. One of them took a drill and began to drill a hole beneath himself.

His companions said to him: “Why are you doing this?” Replied the man: “What concern is it of yours? Am I not drilling under my own place?”

Said they to him: “But you will flood the boat for us all!” (Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra 4:6).

These teachings elucidate one of the fundamental reasons we are in the position we are currently in. In a world that needs covenantal relationships, we have all but perfected the transactional.

If it is my boat, I have the right to drill a hole in it. But acting upon that right reveals a total lack of concern for others. But why should I care if, to me, other people are simply bricks?

By contrast, Judaism is based on community. It is rooted in mutual responsibility. At its foundation, it is a covenantal world-view in which we recognize our interconnectedness with one another.

My friend, scholar and Hartman Institute lecturer Yossi Klein Halevi, said this about the covenantal nature of Judaism.

Kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh: which doesn’t only read, as it’s usually translated, “all of Israel is responsible for one another” but really, “all of Israel is implicated in each other’s actions”: If one Jew sins, it affects the well-being, the spiritual immunity, of the whole people.

A covenantal worldview obviously extends this responsibility beyond the boundaries of our Jewishness to include all people, but the point remains the same. The contrast – and conflict- between the two worldviews could not be more clear.

In a transactional world, if I don’t feel like wearing a mask, I’m not going to wear a mask unless I see a direct benefit for me.

In a transactional world, it doesn’t matter if people stand in lines for food for hours at a time as long as the stock market and my portfolio are up.

In a transactional world, I will insist on going to worship in person because that’s my right regardless of the risk it poses to myself or others.

In a society based on a transactional mindset, I feel no personal responsibility for you and even less for people I don’t know. And you matter to me only to the extent that you are in a position to do something that benefits me.

Contrast that with a society that is rooted in a covenantal mindset. In that society, each individual feels protected AND feels obligated to give back in the best way he, she or they is able.

In a covenantal world, we would wear a mask because it is the best way to protect others. And we would expect them to do the same for us.

In a covenantal world, we would willingly sacrifice our own preferences and priorities in order to ensure the well-being of others.

In a covenantal world we would not worry about people having our backs… we would know they do.

That’s what it means to live in a covenant. And that notion of covenant is central to the entire Jewish endeavor. It was central to the functioning of this country for a long time, but we didn’t call it a covenant. We called it a social contract. And without it, our nation is a far more dangerous, far less welcoming, and far less soulful place.

In his book “The Prophetic Imagination,” Old Testament Scholar Walter Brueggemann explores the role the ancient Israelite prophets played in shaping their society. Throughout the prophetic books, he notes, we see these “messengers of God” reaffirm the importance of justice and strive to instill a sense of hope at a time when the members of the dominant culture had lost sight of the importance of their relationship with God and with each other.

The prophets saw a world that reminded them of the Tower of Babel. It was a world in which relationships and a sense of covenantal responsibility for one another had been replaced by rampant materialism and the search for power. They saw a society in which people were devalued to the point where a brick was worth more than a life. The prophets saw what was happening and they spoke out. The Haftarah portion Cantor Moses will speak about during tomorrow’s service includes Isaiah’s call for a fast that leads to greater kindness and equity within that ancient society.”

The first step is to ensure that we remain a strong community. Too many forces are in place that runs counter to cohesive community and our primary task is to push back against the dominant, transactional culture. The first step in righting this ship is to make sure we remain true to who we are.

From there were can speak out. When we speak out in a unified voice, we can have an impact. It may not happen immediately but eventually, it will.

And finally, be ready to take action. Too much is on the line.

We need to be like the prophets and speak out. We need to willingly sacrifice in order to ensure the well-being of others.

We need to have one another’s backs and trust that others have ours.

We need to embrace a covenantal relationship and recognize that we truly are all in this together.

But knowing the issues and getting actively involved in trying to address them are two entirely different things.

And if ever there were a year for us to boldly stand up and speak out, this is that year. It is past time for us to follow the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and pray with our feet. And, step by step, brick by brick we can begin to build a more equitable world.

This sermon was delivered to my congregation, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel on Kol Nidre 5781.    https://vimeo.com/463607112

About the Author
Rabbi Daniel Cohen was ordained in 1993 by the HUC-JIR and has served Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel since 1993. An avid technology geek, for fun he writes for the tech blog Gear Diary.
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