Responding to Tragedies and Connecting With Klal Yisrael
The following is an edited and abridged transcription of some informal remarks delivered by Rabbi Michael Rosensweig to his shiur on October 28, 2018. The presentation has been edited with minor revisions, but still maintains much of the oral character of the original presentation.
The full presentation, which includes more detailed analyses of certain passages in the Rambam (as well as other Hebrew text citations), can be found online at YUTorah.
A special thanks to Rabbi Rosensweig’s student Avraham Wein for his work on the transcript.
All of us are reeling from the events that took place on Shabbat in Pittsburgh — a truly horrific attack on innocent people who simply came to daven. Unfortunately, there are so many events that take place: acts of terror in the United States, acts that are directed particularly towards acheinu Bnei Yisrael, whether here or in Eretz Yisrael, to the extent that sometimes it is hard to absorb it all and it becomes very challenging to not become inured or desensitized due to the frequency or ubiquity of the events. That is part of the protective equipment that the Ribbono Shel Olam implanted in man, namely that man is very resilient and sometimes that resiliency can express itself in being desensitized, and therefore insensitive, to the really horrific things that happen around us.
But, part of our mission is to try, as much as possible, to cultivate a perspective and orientation towards the sanctity of life and especially towards Klal Yisrael where kol Yisrael areivin zeh lazeh (all of Israel are responsible for each other), and, unfortunately, we are tasked with challenges frequently. Klal Yisrael has been a target so many times throughout history, and even in our lifetimes. It promotes in us, for protective reasons, a very hard exterior that makes it difficult sometimes for us to feel and to be sensitive to what happens. You have to work very hard in order to overcome that.
The Rambam, in Hilkhot Ta’aniyot, explains that when things happen to the nation, we need to cry out, and certainly to engage in a very serious way. The Rambam speaks about physical catastrophes, but all the more so when we are discussing an attack on tzelem Elokim, human lives, that we have to cry out to God. You don’t just slough off whatever happened to the people who perpetrated it or to coincidence. You also don’t try to trivialize what happened by projecting all sorts of explanations that you can’t know are true, or in some cases are clearly not true; rather, what you do is try to perform introspection on your deeds. As the Rav used to say, a normative response is to try to use catastrophe or tragedy as a trigger or stimulus to reassess, introspect and recommit to the values that are important and that define us as a people.
The Rambam later describes reacting to heinous crimes by saying that they were a terrible thing, an irrational lone wolf or a movement that is outlying in terms of the general culture. While these are certainly valid, they still remain the easy way out. They absolve us from taking constructive action and looking deeper into the assumptions of society and the ripples of things that can inflame people who are insane or filled with hatred. Both of these things can be true and are not mutually exclusive. It is clear that the Rambam means that we should see the terrible, tragic and horrific things that happen, assess them in light of our values and see whether or not they can also be a catalyst for us to be more sensitive and even more committed to the values that contravene the events that take place.
Rambam’s language indicates to us that being a ben Avraham Avinu is the opposite of being a ben Sedom or a member of Amaleik. It requires that we never just say, “that is a terrible thing that happened,” but to always promote for ourselves, as difficult as it is, a sense of really being shaken by the tragedy. That is, again, very difficult, as you have event after event and you can’t live in a perpetual state of feeling embattled and in a state of depression. But, in some way, it is important to find an appropriate perspective. You are supposed to feel, when someone else is affected, that an entire world is gone.
It is really a very challenging thing to be a ben Avraham Avinu. Avraham figured out, even in the case of Lot, how to treat him as a brother despite everything. He jumped into action, took empathy, and turned it into sympathy, compassion and action. He really went to war for Lot. It is an art to be able to feel and do that constructively in many situations.
We have been spending the year learning Bava Kama. One of the things that should already be abundantly clear, and even self-evident, is that dinei nezikin (the laws of damages) aren’t just an interesting, intellectually-fascinating way of governing society in an effective, and legally and intellectually-impressive, manner. It really is about distancing ourselves from nezikin, and the sacrifices we make even in our own jurisdiction and autonomy for the sake of other members of Klal Yisrael. And we do this not out of a sense of pure sacrifice, but out of a sense of common destiny and being a mamlekhet kohanim ve-goy kadosh (a kingdom of priests and a holy nation). It is clear that the responsibility and obligation to protect others is part of the foundation of nezikin.
The truth is, it is hard to know what to do in these situations. We usually don’t know the people and it is somewhat distant. There is a sensitivity and art to knowing how to help as well. In the days that come we will find out if there is some way of being helpful and constructive.
Even beyond that, the bigger issues in society are things we also need to address in the small part of our community. This has to do with the use of heated language. There are of course outlying, irrational, dangerous people in the world. There always have been, and likely always will be. But there is also no question that at a time when people use rhetoric in a very irresponsible and crude way, and they inflame passions for political gain or it just becomes part of the partisan contest, a lot of it is just very inappropriate and unsettling. We should be strongly offended by, opposed to and really careful in our own world to combat that as well. We should be strongly offended by the crude use of language, as well as improper or heated language that is used to manipulate people. Moreover, we should be extremely offended by the cynical use of codewords and terminology in order to trigger people, who don’t need much of a trigger, to do terrible things.
We are right now living in a period where this issue is a big problem. Social media and the internet, which are supposedly democratizing mechanisms, have been demonstrated to be very dangerous. Though they obviously can be very helpful and constructive, their algorithms ultimately don’t promote mutual respect and an exchange of opinions. They cynically discern what your orientations are, and they use that information to add a lot of hyperbole and trigger words in the content they present to you. They suck you in deeper and can radicalize you. More and more has this become an apparent danger in the world and in society.
The halakhic system is very serious about proper speech. The looseness of terminology and the crudeness of language in our society is completely antithetical to halakhic culture. It is another one of those areas where we need to become more insular, but we also need to become a counter-force in the world and in society. Crude or simply manipulative use of language to inflame people’s fears and manipulate them into political positions — a behavior common to all sides of the debate — is something that we need to be very careful about in our own community. In addition, we need to be an exemplar for the rest of society, because the situation is eroding rapidly. So many headlines in the newspapers reflected that just this last week.
We need to recommit to being bnei Avraham Avinu, the father of all nations, who had an impact especially on Bnei Yisrael, but also on society. Avraham’s cosmopolitan impact was a crucial part of his persona.
So, even as we grieve and absorb another significant blow, it is important that we start to think about how it first starts with our own conduct and behavior internally. We must sanctify Hashem’s name and be a good example for others, fostering and changing the marketplace of ideas around us.
Photo Caption: SOY President Moshe Spirn speaking at YU’s vigil for the Pittsburgh victims.
Photo Credit: YU News