Sign In Forgot Password

Parashat Vayeshev: How Much Pain?

11/29/2018 10:23:31 AM


Rabbi Robinson

Parashat Vayeshev: How Much Pain?

What is an acceptable level of trauma? What is an acceptable level of pain? What is our comfort level with letting people suffer? I’m going to take a stab in the dark here and assume that the answer for us is “none”. There is no acceptable level of trauma, pain and suffering. For those of us who have experienced pain and suffering, and all of us have experienced pain and suffering, whether it’s emotional, physical, psychological, the very thought of a painful moment in our lives—an injury, an abusive encounter—is enough to put us in a tailspin. Some of us can heal and move forward from our injuries, but many of us find past trauma never really goes away. And we all know people like that. I have a friend in his 50s who played football in high school, and not at an especially high level, and he’s still dealing with knee issues from his time on the field more than thirty-five years ago. If we’re like most people, we hear that and shake our heads, intolerant of the idea of still dealing with pain from a past injury, at the same time feeling our own body or history for our own aches.

Accepting this idea, that there is no level of trauma that is acceptable, let me move on to the idea of moral trauma, especially bigotry. What is the acceptable level of bigotry for us as a society? Ethnic jokes? The use of misgendered names for trans individuals, or tired clichés about who wears the pants in a gay marriage? Is it redlining? Or pushing African Americans into worse housing loans, worse jobs, worse opportunities, or assuming their achievements are merely due to their skin color? Or shooting tear gas at people who are brown skinned? What is a healthy level of bigotry for a community? Again, I’m going to take a leap of faith and assume that, for all of us, the answer is “none”. The acceptable level of bigotry is “zero”. We recognize that expressions of bigotry, be they overt, like nooses left on a college campus, or subtle, like crossing the street when a man of Color comes our way, are unacceptable in a just society. We may be surprised to find our behavior turns out to be unintentionally bigoted—how many people use the word “retarded” because of habit, never once intending to demean those with learning or developmental issues, for example—and when we discover we’ve said something offensive we go through our cycle of defensiveness, embarrassment, and remorse and correct the behavior. At least, that is what is supposed to happen. Regardless, we recognize that to behave in this way is to cause real pain, moral trauma, and if there is no level of pain that is acceptable, then there can be no level of moral trauma that is acceptable.

So why is it, then, that when antisemitism comes up in discussion, the conversation quickly turns to the idea that there is some level of antisemitism that is acceptable in a free and just society? If you are a conservative, you should tolerate attacks on liberal forms of Judaism, the use of old canards and blood libels against opponents like George Soros and the like, so long as the conservative individuals in question support Israel (and we can have another conversation about what that means later). If you are a liberal, you should retain your fealty to the leaders of the Women’s March, and remember that their antisemitism—their expression of support for Louis Farrakhan, their accusations that supporters of Israel are not loyal to the United States—aren’t really antisemitism, that they are fighting for justice for all, and our supposedly white privilege and wealth means we should shut up and just support the cause. And if you think it is limited to politics, just bring up with your “friends” on the internet how you don’t celebrate Christmas and watch the fireworks explode. Or talk to any parent of kids, public or private, and ask them about the conversations they’ve had with fellow parents about how miffed they are that the school is closed for Rosh Hashanah, or that we are somehow undermining the education of children by even wanting the days off from school. If there is no level of pain or trauma—including moral injury—that is acceptable, why are we expected to grin and bear it?

I ask this pointedly, as I’ve been thinking a lot about something Linda Sarsour said, that has been coming up more on college campuses; that good liberals shouldn’t “humanize” Zionists, that to do so would be like asking black folk to “Humanize” members of the Klan. I can’t begin to tell you how freaked out and upset I get at this idea.

Let’s leave aside the comparison between Israel and the Klan for the moment. I’m troubled by this idea, that we should ‘dehumanize’ the people we disagree with, as if disagreement, even anger, is too milquetoast a response. How does dehumanizing my opponent help? First, does it give them room or space to learn or grow or make amends for their actions? Does it give you the space to see their perspective, their reality, their own human dignity? What does it accomplish other than making all of us, each of us, complicit in the defacing of God’s image in the world, denying the humanity and, by extension, the holiness inherent in everyone? We may disagree vehemently with the other, be angry at their choices, rage against the ways they undermine our sense of what is right, but they are, in the end, still people.

Of course, that doesn’t stop people, even in their humanity, from doing the wrong thing. As Donna Hicks points out in her book Dignity, while our humanity cannot to be questioned, our actions are always up for judgment. Look at our Torah portion. Joseph is introduced as a pretty awful character. He tells his father awful things about his brothers, and the question is raised whether he’s telling the truth or not. The favorite child, he rubs it in his brothers’ face by telling them about his dreams, dreams that make him the hero. Can we wonder why his brothers hated him, were angry at him? His actions are wretched. But his brothers don’t stop and correct the behavior, or just chew him out; instead, they gang up on him, tearing his clothes, flinging him into a pit, starving him, selling him into slavery, and finally rubbing his beloved cloak in sheep’s blood to suggest he was torn apart by a wild beast. Joseph’s behavior is bad, but his brothers’, response is to dehumanize Joseph, making him a slave and even replacing his physical body with animal blood. They deny Joseph his dignity, sending him to Egypt, an act that will have massive consequences, not the least of which Israel’s eventual 400 years of exile and servitude in Egypt. That, my friends, is the outcome of refusing to humanize the other; it will eventually result in our own dehumanization. And as a people who have been the subject of dehumanization, as recently as last month in Pittsburgh, we understand that threat intuitively.

There is pain and trauma in this world, a lot more than “none”. There is pain and trauma being caused by people claiming to do so in the name of American values, and I will resist that and do what I can to heal that pain and repair that trauma. There’s a lot of bigotry in this world, a lot more than “none”, and I will do everything I can to create a culture of peace and justice in this world. But demonizing the other will not help us heal pain, it will not help us create peace or justice. As we mark the end of sheloshim, the thirty days of mourning, for the victims of the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh, let us remember that there is no level of trauma, no level of moral injury or bigotry that is acceptable in a just society, and that any attempts to dehumanize the other must be met with all the resistance we can muster.


Thu, June 13 2024 7 Sivan 5784