Blinded by Fear – Rosh Hashanah 5775 (first day)

Today is the day when Jews around the world celebrate the new year, so it is a good time for us to take stock of how things are going around the world for the Jewish people.  Let us start with a place where things are great for the Jews – Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan is one of Israel’s closest allies.  In 1991, when Azerbaijan declared independence from the U.S.S.R., Israel was one of the first countries in the world to recognize it.  A community of around 10,000 Jews live there, with the Mountain Jews tracing their roots back 1500 years.  The Jewish Agency has had a school in Azerbaijan since 1982.  There is very little antisemitism, and Jews there are an important part of society.

Israel and Azerbaijan have close diplomatic relations.  Trade connections are strong and growing.  Israel is one of the major providers of military equipment, and has helped modernize Azerbaijan’s armed forces.  They have cooperate closely in intelligence gathering and in the fight against terrorism.  If Israel ever has to launch a strike against Iran’s nuclear program, it is likely that the plan will involve the use of an Azerbaijani airfield.

In 2010, the Azerbaijani President banned the issuing of visas at the airport for visitors from every country in the world except for two, one of which was Israel.  The majority of the population of Azerbaijan is Muslim.  So there is one shining example of sanity in our world.

Of course, much of what our people have experienced around the world has not been so positive.  Our brothers and sisters suffered through a fifty day war with Hamas this summer.  Incidents of antisemitism have been on the rise in Europe.  In Belgium a few months ago, four people were murdered at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, by a suspected Frenchman of Algerian descent who had come back after a year fighting with ISIS.  Just a couple of weeks ago, there was an arson attack against a synagogue that was also firebombed back in 2010.

Two Muslim girls were recently arrested for plotting to blow up the Great Synagogue in Lyon, France.

A cell phone store in Istanbul recently posted a sign which read “The Jew dogs cannot come in here.”

European synagogues typically station armed guards outside for weekly Shabbat services.  If you visit the website of many European synagogues, you will see something like “To attend services, please bring photo identification or fax a copy of your passport.”  Jews in Europe are feeling less and less safe.  Perhaps that is why the rates of aliyah of Jews from Western Europe increased by 35% in 2013, and are continuing to increase this year.  It is too bad for Western Europe.  Historically, nations who expel their Jews tend to go downhill shortly afterwards.

So…  Did you pay more attention to the good news or the bad news?  Which evoked a stronger emotional reaction – Azerbaijan or Europe?  I am going to guess that it was the latter.

Fear is an extremely powerful emotion, one that blinds us to the blessings that stare us right in the face and often leads us to behave irrationally, bury our heads in the sand, or adopt fatalistic attitudes about the future.

If this is the time of year for taking stock of our lives, for conducting a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls, then it behooves us to look both inward and outward with open eyes.  Accountants, after all, need accurate data to make their calculations.

In the Torah portion for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, fear leads to nearly disastrous consequences.  At Isaac’s weaning celebration, Sarah sees something that terrifies her.  Ishmael, her handmaiden’s son with Abraham, is playing with Isaac in a way that causes her to fear for her son’s future.  To ensure that Isaac will not have to deal with his half-brother, she demands that Abraham banish Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness.  Although troubled, Abraham complies after God assures him things will turn out okay.  He gives the unfortunate mother and son provisions and sends them away.

When the food and water run out, Hagar begins to despair.  Thinking the end is near, she places Ishmael under a bush so that she will not have to watch him die.  Then she bursts into tears.  She is despondent and passive.

The boy is also wailing, and his cries reach heaven.  God sends an angel to Hagar, who scolds her: Mah lakh Hagar?  Al tir’i – “What troubles you, Hagar?  Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.  Come, lift up the boy by his hand for I will make a great nation of him.”  (Genesis 21:17-18)

Then God opens her eyes and shows her a well of water.  Ishmael survives and grows to become the father of a great nation.

How is it possible that Hagar could have missed a well of water that was right there all along?  In the desert, wherever there is water, there are signs of it.  Plants grow where springs bubble up from the earth.  How could she not have seen it?

And how could she not have seen her son’s greatness, his destiny to become the father of a great nation?

It was fear.  The angel recognizes it instantly.  “What troubles you, Hagar?  Fear not…”  Fear blinds her to the blessings that are in front of her.

This story presents two different responses to fear.  Sarah reacts to her fear by lashing out.  Hagar’s fear leads her to bury her head in the sand, abandoning her son in his time of need.

Edmund Burke, the eighteenth century Irish statesman and supporter of the American Revolution, once said:  “No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.”

How much are our lives controlled by fear!  Fear-filled messages surround us.  They are so ubiquitous that we do not even notice them.  Here are a few examples.

The cosmetics industry.  The marketing of makeup, hair products, age-defying skin creams and the like, is based on the premise that we should be afraid of our bodies getting old, as if that is something than can be prevented.

The organic food industry is growing at a rate of approximately 14% per year, driven by fear.  We pay more money to ostensibly protect ourselves and our children from pesticides, growth hormones, and genetically modified organisms.  Milk containers often include the following two contradictory statements:  “This milk is from cows not treated with rbST,” implying that rbST is something we should be worried about, and “The Food and Drug Administration has determined there is no significant difference between milk from rbST treated cows and non-rbST treated cows.”  So is rbST safe?  I have absolutely no idea… but am I willing to risk it for myself and my family?

Politicians are notorious for using fear-mongering to attract votes and raise funds.  To avoid setting off any partisan debates with a contemporary example, let’s go back fifty years.  The famous “Daisy” ad of 1964 features a cute little two-year-old girl standing in a field, picking petals off of a flower while she counts to ten.  As soon as she reaches nine, an ominous male voice starts counting down.  “Ten, nine, eight…”  The camera zooms in to the girl’s face and her eyes open wide as she sees something alarming in the distance.  When the countdown reaches zero, we are shown the image of a nuclear explosion and its billowing mushroom cloud.  Lyndon Johnson’s voice then warns, “These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.” Then another voice summons us to “Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”  The ad was only shown once before it was pulled, but it left its mark.  Fear attracts votes.

In reporting the news, it is accepted as an ironclad law that good news will not sell more papers, but a headline about the latest ISIS attack, the spread of the Ebola virus, or the most recent grisly murder in San Jose will.  The growth of the internet and social media, and the change in the news business, have only exacerbated this.  Information moves so fast, and there is so much competition, that those who hope to share information are pressured to use any means possible to get attention, and that means fear.

Do not think that we Jews are above it.  Jewish organizations frequently use fear to garner support, whether we are talking about the the existential threats facing Israel, worsening cultures of antisemitism on college campuses, declining rates of Jewish affiliation, and so on.

The pervasive messages of fear that inundate us leave their mark.  Our world feels like a dangerous place.  The United States no longer has the influence and clout that it once enjoyed.  Our economic recovery is precarious.  Terrorism is on the rise, along with violence against women, human trafficking, illegal immigration, economic inequality, rising sea levels, pollution, drought, disease, war…  The list goes on.

Nevertheless, I am happy to report that things have never been better.

Fact:  On a global scale, we are living in the safest, freest, most peaceful time in human history.

Before we go any further, let us acknowledge that war is tragic, and violence produces real human suffering.  Nearly two hundred thousand people have been killed in the civil war in Syria, and millions have fled as refugees.  In Nigeria, Boko Haram takes schoolgirls captive and terrorizes through rape and murder.

As a people, we know what it means to be the victims of persecution and discrimination.  It has sadly been part of the Jewish experience for thousands of years.  During the Holocaust, the Nazis murdered nearly two thirds of the Jews of Europe, representing more than one third of Jews globally.  This cannot be minimized.  We must never trivialize the loss or suffering of anyone who has been the victim of violence, whether war, genocide, domestic, or other.

But speaking about humanity as a whole, we have allowed fear to blind us to the many blessings of our world.

Profesoor Steven Pinker, a Pyschologist at Harvard, wrote a book a few years ago called The Better Angels of Our Nature, in which he looks at actual data about violence throughout human history and finds that the twentieth century was the safest, most peaceful century in human history.  So far, the twenty-first is looking even better.

But what about World War One, World War Two, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur, Syria, Ukraine?  Conventional wisdom says that the twentieth century was the bloodiest, most violent ever.  The problem with that claim, Professor Pinker points out, is that nobody who makes it looks at evidence from any other century.

Previous centuries saw wars with names like “The Thirty Years War,” “The Eighty Years War,” and “The Hundred Years War” (which was actually 116 years).  Five hundred years ago, the Great Power nations typically spent about 75% of their time in a state of war with each other.  There has not been a Great Powers War since 1945.

Contrary to what all of the experts forecasted during the Cold War, America and the Soviet Union never went to war against each other.  Nuclear weapons were not used since the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The truth is, the overall trajectory of human history demonstrates a falling likelihood that any given person would die a violent death.

Professor Pinker starts at the beginning.  Looking at the archaeological remains of prehistoric human skeletons around the world, it turns out that approximately fifteen percent of them show physical signs of having died by human caused violence.

In Europe and the United States through the entire twentieth century, including both world wars, approximately .6% of deaths resulted from violence.  Globally, during the twentieth century, violent deaths, including those resulting from man-made famines, account for about three percent of all deaths.  In the year 2005, .03% percent of deaths globally were the result of violence.

Violence within societies has also fallen dramatically.  A person living in England today has about 1/35 the chance of being murdered as his or her medieval ancestor.  This is true in every European country for which we have data.

Corporal punishment, once common, was outlawed in the United States by the 8th Amendment, which banned cruel and unusual punishment.

Although the US is the only country in the western world that has not abolished the death penalty, our execution rate is only about 45 per year in a country with almost 15,000 homicides.

Violent crime has been steadily declining for decades in both per capita and absolute terms in every single category, including murder, robbery, rape, assault, property crime, and so on.  Society is getting more peaceful.

Slavery was legal everywhere on earth until the middle of the 18th century.  As of 1980, when Mauritania abolished it, slavery is now illegal in every country on the planet, although it does persist as an underground problem.

Extreme poverty is also declining globally.  In 1990, 43.1% of human beings lived on less than the equivalent of $1.25 per day.  In 2010, it was down to 20.6.  We still have a long way to go, but that is a remarkably fast improvement.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the average global life expectancy was 31.  In 2010, the world average was 67.2.

Globally, 84.1% of people fifteen and older know how to read and write.  Under the Millennium Goals, between 1999 and 2007, the percentage of children enrolled in primary schools in sub-Saharan Africa increased from 58% to 74%.

Freedom is spreading also.  Approximately half of the world’s population now lives under some sort of democratic rule.

Women’s rights have improved dramatically.  While domestic abuse is still a problem, it is nearly universally condemned in the US today, as we are currently witnessing as the NFL is trying to address domestic violence by professional football players.

Gay rights have expanded at a very quick pace, with nineteen states plus the District of Colombia and the federal government now recognizing same sex marriage.

What has caused all of this improvement?  It is not because human nature has changed.  Pinker identifies several factors.  One is the expansion of international commerce.  It is in everyone’s best interest to have trade between countries, and that requires peace.  Literacy and education have also been huge factors.  The ability to read exposes a person to other ideas, other ways of living and believing.  And this expands what he calls “the empathy circle.”  If I can imagine what it might be like to stand in another person’s shoes, I am much less likely to take pleasure when I watch that person burned at the stake.

Societies comprised of people with more education tend to experience lower violence and less racism, and are more receptive to democracy.

Do not get me wrong.  Things are far from perfect.  There is still tremendous suffering, injustice, and inequality that requires a lot of focus.  Civil wars rage.  The spread of militant Islam cannot be ignored.  But as a human species, we must acknowledge that we have made incredible gains.  For vast numbers of people in the world, life has never been better.

What about in the Jewish world?

Again, I do not want to deny the seriousness of the threats facing Israel, nor of Jews in Europe who are dealing with often violent antisemitism, nor of the oppressive culture on many college campuses.  But let us take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

In his 2010 book American Grace, based on a massive survey of Americans’ attitudes about religion, the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam reports that Jews are the most admired religious community in America.  A 2009 study by the Anti Defamation League found “anti-Semitic attitudes equal to the lowest level in all the years of taking the pulse of American attitudes toward Jews.”  (http://forward.com/articles/133047/robert-putnam-assays-religious-tolerance-from-a-un/)

Reacting to the good news, Abraham Foxman, the National Director of the ADL, said that “…the significant diminution of widespread prejudice against Jews is tempered by the manifestation of violence, conspiracy theories and insensitivities toward them.”  (http://archive.adl.org/presrele/asus_12/5633_12.html#.VBn32Uu7uoo)

Can’t we just be happy that they like us?

As Abba Eban once said, “Show us a silver lining and we will search for the cloud.”

I am sure that you have probably received dozens of emails listing all of Israel’s extraordinary accomplishments.  Let me mention just a few to make the point.  Israel produces more scientific papers per capita than any country on earth – by a lot.  It has the highest concentration of high tech companies in the world outside of Silicon Valley.  Israel is number two in the world for venture capital funds, behind the U.S.  It is the only country in the world that entered the 21st century with a net gain in trees.  It has developed dozens and dozens of life saving medical devices, not to mention all of the other high tech innovation.  Israel is a leader in solar power and water desalinization technology.  Israel has more museums per capita and is second in books published per capita.  Israel is the one country in the Middle East in which Christianity is growing.  It is the only country in which women can travel freely without the permission of a male guardian.  (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-steven-carr-reuben-phd/imagine-a-world-without-i_1_b_5706935.html)

And so on…

But isn’t Israel a dangerous place?  That is a question that people ask me all the time.

In 2013, the rate of violent deaths per capita in Jerusalem was slightly less than that of Portland, one of America’s safest cities.

In the more than 100 year history of violence between Israel and its Arab neighbors, there have been 70,000 fewer deaths than in the Syrian civil war of the past three years.  In 2013, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict claimed 42 lives, about the monthly murder rate in Chicago.  (http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/183033/israel-insider-guide)

Even in this summer’s fighting, the enormous lengths that Israel undertook to minimize civilian deaths on both sides of the border were extraordinary.  Can you imagine how that war would have gone if any other country had been in Israel’s position?

Some will call it naive, but Israel is doing pretty good.

But in the words of the Israeli author S. Y. Agnon upon receiving the Nobel Prize: “Who remembers the blessings?  I have received so many.  I remember those who did not bless me.”

As we celebrate the beginning of the year 5775, let us start to look for the blessings.  Let us recognize and be thankful that we live in one of the most diverse, tolerant, and affluent communities in human history.

Let us look with open eyes at this world that God has created.  Where have things gone well?  When have we reached our fullest human potential?  How have we made life better for each other?  What problems that used to cause suffering are now solved because we pulled together?  It should be a long list.

Then, when we look at the persistent challenges facing us today, let fear not cause us to hide, nor to overreact.

One hundred years from now, what global challenges of today will our descendants look back on and wonder why it took us so long to fix: rising carbon emissions, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, income inequality, lack of treatment for those with mental illness, oppression of women in the developing world, lack of universal access to safe drinking water?

Which challenges facing the Jewish people must we address?  There are communities in which our fellow Jews are struggling, where synagogues, because of real threats, station armed guards 365 days a year, not just on the High Holidays.  At anti-Israel demonstrations in Europe,  people shout “Death to the Jews.”  At some college campuses, 18 year old Jewish students must walk by people screaming at them as “baby killers” on their way to class.  Israeli children live under the threat of rocket attacks.

What are we doing to support them?  Not enough.

Fear gets in the way.  A sizable portion of the Jewish community responds by burying its head in the sand.  Why be tied to the fate of a people that constantly faces existential threats?  Another portion of the community responds with bellicosity, stifling debate and branding anyone who disagrees a “self-hating Jew.”

Where is the community solidarity that we demonstrated in the movement to free the Jews of the Former Soviet Union; the willingness of Jewish communities across America, including this one, to welcome refugees into their homes?  We need to bring the best of what Judaism offers to the challenges facing our people, and the challenges facing our world.

As Jews, we have learned much about building caring communities based on the values of Torah, passing Jewish tradition down to our children, and keeping our identity while engaging positively with a surrounding non-Jewish culture.  We have learned to succeed in science, medicine, art, politics, finance, philanthropy, and the pursuit of social justice.  As Jews, we have a lot of accomplishments.

So instead of always asking, “what is wrong with the world,” this year, let us ask “what is right with the world?”

L’Shanah Tovah.

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