Finding Proper Perspective

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5782 Sermon

 Eve ate the apple. What seemed such a good idea at the time carried unforeseen consequences.  “The day you eat it, your eyes will be open and you will know good and evil,”[1] suggests the snake.  He was right: no sooner did Eve and Adam eat the apple then their eyes were opened, their capacities of discernment awakened.  They saw they were naked; using their new abilities, they realized they could solve the world’s first problem by sewing Creation’s first clothing.  Eve and Adam gained insight; the immediate effects of eating the apple were exactly as promised.  But the enduring effects we more complicated. If the apple afforded the capacity of moral judgement, the fruit hardly guaranteed moral clarity.  For all they gained in knowledge, far more did Eve and Adam—and all their descendants—lose in labor, toil, and suffering.

Low-hanging fruit, literally and figuratively, are the promise of easily attained reward.  The apples at eye level are what we pick first; it’s only if we are really hungry that we expend the energy to climb to the top of the tree.  Ever since Eden, grabbing what’s before our eyes has been human nature.  Our Torah teaches this story to caution us against such a facile manner of making decisions.  If we learn anything from our legend of Genesis, it is that sometimes the seemingly simplest of decisions carry with them the most complicated of consequences.

“What lessons have we learned from COVID?”  This question rings not only in our ears, but in sanctuaries throughout our world this Rosh HaShanah.[2]  After 18 months of pandemic, we are all trying to make sense of what happened to us, to figure out how these harrowing experiences should shape our future.  This reflective tendency is inherently human; the internet is filled with countless suggestions, endless advice.  The AARP published “15 Lessons the Pandemic Taught,” Columbia Public Health shared, “Ten Lessons from Our Year,” and Forbes taught “Four Lessons We Should Learn from the Pandemic”.[3]  The low-hanging fruit of pre-packaged pandemic solutions can be consumed with the click of a mouse.  We should pause before so quickly digesting these articles, ingesting their advice, and not only because some ancient story warns of the consequences of rash judgments.

Twenty years ago, this very week, our world witnessed an epochal event. I remember vividly that early September Tuesday morning: the sky in New York was a perfect, piercing blue.  I remember the incoming calls about planes and the World Trade Center; I remember the outgoing calls to my wife, who worked in Manhattan, calls that couldn’t get through.  I remember images of plumes of smoke, of fiery towers, of bodies falling from great heights.  I remember rescue missions that quickly turned to recovery.  I remember meeting with mourners.  I remember officiating at each of those funerals.  I remember the horror, the pain, and the tears.  I also remember rewriting Rosh HaShanah sermons.  I remember realizing that what I had written by September 10th was no longer appropriate.  I remember looking last-minute for lessons of Bible and Talmud that might moor us in a most uncertain time.[4]  I remember dipping into the deep wells of our tradition to find perspective after a powerful upheaval in history. I remember that at first I resisted rewriting my sermons, regardless of current events.  I remember my wife needed to remind me that failing to react to those events would be a major mistake.

I think about major mistakes in reacting to epochal events every time, these past twenty years, I go to an airport.  Far less memorable than September 11th, 2001, is December 22nd of that same year.  That December day was when a man named Richard Reid, on a flight from Paris to Miami, tried to ignite explosives hidden in his shoes.[5]  Effectively ever since, airplane passengers have been asked to remove their shoes at airports.  One of the lasting legacies of 9/11 is the creation of the TSA, either the bane of your airport existence or an inconvenient paywall PreCheck allows you to circumvent.  In two decades, this removal of shoes has become customary, if not custom.  Yet, soon, it is about to go away forever.[6]  And there are serious doubts that it ever prevented a single terrorist attack.[7]  20 years later, many think this whole business of bare feet at the airport was one major overreaction.

The rush to restore airport security was just one response to the events of 9/11. Others followed fast and furious.  Congress passed the Patriot Act, which sacrificed constitutionally-protected liberties in the name of security.  The President shifted resources of our law enforcement agencies almost exclusively to counter foreign terrorists.[8]  In Afghanistan, the Taliban, identified as perpetrators of attacks on American soil, were targeted in war.  Now we know, with the benefit of twenty years of hindsight, that all of these responses were overreactions.  After years of court challenges nullified much of it as unconstitutional, the Patriot Act finally ceased being the law of the land when it lapsed last March.[9] The flaws of a campaign exclusively countering international terror became horrifyingly apparent when domestic insurgents stormed our Capitol on January 6th; now even the Department of Homeland in Security, founded in response to 9/11, is turning its focus to domestic terrorists.[10]  With incredible sadness and human tragedy, the War in Afghanistan, having seemingly accomplished absolutely nothing except deepening heartache and misery, has finally come to a close.[11]

I am not playing armchair quarterback with difficult history.  In the wake of 9/11, it made sense to be talking about national security, foreign enemies, and military campaigns.  When Richard Reid tried to explode his shoes, asking all airline passengers to remove their own footwear was pretty low-hanging fruit.  When we imagined the Taliban’s involvement in the 9/11 attacks, attacking Afghanistan was a pretty easy response.  Minimizing the losses of individual rights in the name of national security was a simple consequence in a time when we feared more for our safety than for our freedoms.  What in 2001 were reasonable discussions about curtailing civil liberties or expanding military expenditures led to policies and practices that have either been seriously amended or abandoned entirely.  Since the days of Adam and Eve, low-hanging fruit are always the easiest apples to eat. 

But they’re not actually apples at all.  If we transport ourselves back—not to the Gates of Eden, but to our ancestors who originated the stories of Eve and Adam—we would see for ourselves that no apples grew in Ancient Israel.[12]  In fact, apples aren’t even associated with Adam and Eve until the 16th Century, when engraver Albrecht Durer first depicted Adam with apples; soonafter, the painter Titian pictured Eve under an apple tree.[13]  Ever since, icons of Western culture—from John Milton to Lord Byron though Kanye West—have mistakenly assumed that the apple was the forbidden fruit.[14]  But that’s simply not so.  Regardless of whether or not Eve or Adam ever walked the Earth, our ancestors who passed these stories down to us wouldn’t have known an apple if it bit them.

If there were no apples in Eden, what was the forbidden fruit? The Serpent simply speaks of trees; Eve only mentions generically, “The fruit of the tree in the middle of  Garden.”[15]  Even by the time of the Talmud, our Rabbis weren’t sure what this first fruit was: one suggests grapes, another the Etrog, and a third, wheat.[16]  In the end, there’s one convincing answer: the fruit was the fig.  Why the fig? When we read to the end of the story, we learn that once Adam and Eve see they are naked, they fashion themselves outfits… out of fig leaves!  If their eyes had just been opened to see their nakedness, it makes sense they’d grab the leaves of the very tree whose fruit opened their eyes.  As Rabbi Yossi says authoritatively to his colleagues whose incorrect conclusions come from mere guesswork: learn the matter from context![17]

Learn the matter from context.  This is a frame our Rabbis use making sense of Torah. Teaching us to find contextual clues that lead to correct conclusions, our Rabbis distinguish between two kinds of context: the immediate matter in front of us, and the perspective we gain from seeing how that matter comes to its end.  In interpreting tricky parts of Torah, they teach Devar Lomed MeInyano: we learn the meaning of a word from its immediate context. But, they also caution: Devar Lomed MiSofo, meaning is also discovered in the perspective of how the story concludes. When trying to unravel an obscurity, we need to understand a matter MeInyano, from its immediate context, as also MiSofo, from a wider perspective.  Context is important; it’s so important Judaism charges us to examine two kinds of context.

Context matters; so does perspective.  Immediate surroundings sometimes block the bigger picture; wider views allow us to perceive more properly.  We learn from immediately reality, but we also must imagine consequences of our context.  When presented with problems, we can only reach proper conclusions if we examine our immediate situation from a healthy, long-term, perspective.  It is hard to find lasting truth after tragedies like 9/11, pandemics like the COVID crisis.  We need perspective to get a sense of how to chart a path forward.  In Jewish tradition, finding that path is like drawing water from a well.  Rabbi Hanina teaches that our proverbial rope-and-bucket for acquiring truth are the twinned tools of immediate context and proper perspective. When we try to analyze difficult situations, we need both devar lomed meinyano and devar lomed misofo.  Combining current context with healthy perspective is our way to retrieve the deep, pure waters of truth.[18]

Finding healthy perspective.  These words sum up what I have been trying to do during our era of epidemic: finding healthy perspective.  Helping mourners who weren’t allowed to go to a cemetery find perspective on their loss.   Helping individuals who so deeply missed the physical presence of their loved ones find perspective on this massive absence.  Helping families sharing great joys in life—weddings, b’nei mitzvah—find perspective on celebrations in empty sanctuaries or vacant parks.  Helping parents see wider horizons when the needs of careers and children filled every hour and the same spaces in their home.  Helping people on the other end of the phone realize that, beyond the wall of their apartment, they weren’t alone.  In meeting after meeting, conversation after conversation, zoom after zoom, the best help we could provide during COVID was helping people find perspective.

Still mired in this seemingly endless epidemic, we need perspective now more than ever.  We need a different kind of perspective. I argue we need a particular kind of perspective, the intentionally future-oriented one demanded by our Jewish tradition.  As we look to lessons learned from COVID, we need to make sure we are looking past our immediate context and instead are oriented by the future we want to inhabit. On this anniversary of September 11th, I believe we would benefit from the perspective offered by comparative decisions made 20 years ago. As we reflect upon the last two years, I would hope not to make the same kind of mistakes of over-reaction or misdirected response we made in the past.  In order to make healthy decisions in any post-pandemic world, we need to learn from our immediate context and we need to try to see through to the end of the matter, to the consequence our current actions might bring.  As we imagine post-COVID times, I would hope that we could skip over low-hanging fruit and divine deeper truths.

We desperately need those deeper truths, those life-giving waters of the well.  This past year, major societal ruptures have been laid bare before us: massive divides amongst nations, vast disparities in appreciating science, horrific spikes in violent crime.  Seeking the best solutions to these problems cannot only be looking for quick repair.  Solutions that will hold for the long term are what we need.  “What did I learn from COVID? What did I in my own narrow, isolated experience, learn from COVID”: this is the wrong question.  Instead, we must ask ourselves: how do our individual and communal experiences of COVID inform the different kind of future we want to inhabit 20 years from today?  Planning for that future, thinking for the long term, imagining the end of the matter so our current context makes sense: this is the Jewish way to go forward from this trying time. Here’s how that might work.

If we have seen the potential for epidemic to cross international borders, we need to imagine a world fighting disease together, sharing science as well as resources. It is easy to build barriers between nations, whether through obstructionist trade policies or literal walls: those low-hanging fruit have long been dangled before American eyes.  If, as was famously quipped, our world is “flat”,[19] then we need to work internationally to flatten not only the curve of COVID, but the menaces of poverty, authoritarianism, and climate change as well.  Experiencing an international pandemic must lead us to work towards solutions that work not only here at home, but for all people, every person who is a part of our global community.

If we see a rise in anti-intellectual skepticism of science, we should work towards a world where all seek knowledge.  I understand the frustration—I really do—with those who refuse the vaccine, who prioritize individual freedom over communal health, who sow discourses of distrust in proven remedies.  But damning the opposition is no long-term solution.  It might be easy—it might be psychologically rewarding—but writing off nearly half the population is no way to create a better future.  Restoring public trust in communal institutions must become our goal; rebuilding a society that values education and truth has to be our aim.  I do not imagine, in an age of social media and those intentionally trying to spread disinformation, that rebuilding common trust will be simple.  But I nonetheless know we can only build a society that is safer for all if we do our best to work to incorporate every single person—skeptic and believer alike—into that all.

And then there’s the violence.  The senseless violence: saddening, frightening, almost impossible to accept even if we know so much of it is born of despair.  But Chicago, and other American cities also witnessing a painful rise in violence, must resist the low-hanging fruit of thinking the opposite of violence is law enforcement.[20]  The knee-jerk reaction of locking up criminals is tempting. Yet well we know the long-term effects of Mass Incarceration only lead to more despair, more misery—and counterintuitively but factually—to more violence.[21]  The opposite of violence is not enforcement; the opposite of violence is security.[22]  Violence, whether the gun violence plaguing cities or the opioid crisis tearing apart rural America, is rooted in hopelessness.[23]    Judaism teaches the sword enters the world because of justice delayed and justice denied.[24]  Thus our focus to end violence must be the long-term work of building a just society for all.  Our hometown is the model for anti-violence efforts that invest in individuals and communities: the Institute for Non-Violence on the West Side, CRED on the South Side, the Turn Center at Bright Star in Bronzeville; all demonstrate the positive impact of investing in communities, providing jobs and wrap-around services for those most at risk.  There is no doubt that proper, respectful policing, has its place; there’s also no doubt that we can’t incarcerate anyone out of despair.  Now is the time for long-term investment.  Now is the time to invest in people, in their bright, healthy, stable, secure, future.

Low hanging fruit are often as delicious to taste as they are easy to pick.  As we gather this Rosh HaShanah morning to engage in the work of Teshuvah, of reorienting our lives towards a better future, we need to be wary of quick fixes to thorny problems.  Our tradition reminds us that, in order to distill the deepest waters of truth, our problems must be examined not only in our current context, but against the background of where we want to be once these problems are history, their stories having come to their conclusion.  As we move into this new year, another year to be filled with difficult decisions, let us always arrive at solutions with the proper perspective, a perspective that takes the long view, a perspective that seeks solutions that work for all.  May we find that perspective, may we dedicate ourselves to that work of repair, and may our future selves thank us for the thoughtful path we chose.

 

[1] Genesis 3:5.

[2] See, for one example, this fascinating page generated when searching “what lessons have we learned from this pandemic” on Google:

https://www.google.com/search?q=what+lessons+have+we+learned+from+this+pandemic&sxsrf=ALeKk00mjaxpe-VTr5RYohhvS3QRKpki9w%3A1624378010111&ei=mgrSYIecBs_WtAbTjL6IAg&oq=what+lessons+have+we+&gs_lcp=Cgdnd3Mtd2l6EAMYADICCAAyAggAMgIIADICCAAyAggAMgIIADICCAAyBQgAEIYDOgcIABBHELADOgcIABCwAxBDOgoILhCwAxDIAxBDOggIABCxAxCDAToLCC4QsQMQxwEQowI6AgguOgUIABCxAzoECAAQQzoFCC4QsQM6BQgAEMkDOgUIABCSAzoICC4QsQMQkwI6BAgAEApKBQg4EgExSgQIQRgAUI5OWMJlYOBsaAFwAngAgAFfiAHDDJIBAjIymAEAoAEBqgEHZ3dzLXdpesgBC8ABAQ&sclient=gws-wiz

[3] Various contributors, “15 Lessons the Coronavirus Pandemic Taught u,” The AARP Bulletin, March 4, 2021: “https://www.aarp.org/health/conditions-treatments/info-2021/lessons-from-covid.html

Stephen Morse, “Ten Lessons from Our Pandemic Year,” Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, March 15, 2021: https://www.publichealth.columbia.edu/public-health-now/news/ten-lessons-our-pandemic-year

George Kell, “Four Lessons we Should Learn from the Pandemic,” Forbes, April 11, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/georgkell/2020/04/11/four-lessons-we-should-learn-from-the-pandemic/?sh=5815ba0e6370

[4] Looking back at that sermon, twenty years later, the teachings that buoyed me were Leviticus19:18, Isaiah 2:4, and Mishnah Avot 1:5, 2:5.

[5] Matt Meltzer, “A Brief (and Totally Fascinating) History of Airport Security,” thrillist, July 14th, 2015, https://www.thrillist.com/travel/nation/why-do-we-have-to-take-our-shoes-off-at-airport-security-history-of-the-tsa

[6] Joann Muller, “New airport screening tech: Shoes on!” Axios, June 14, 2021, https://www.axios.com/new-screening-tech-shoes-on-29be0f15-b4c1-4310-9ffa-0b894d4999f0.html

[7] Dylan Matthews,”The TSA is a waste of money that doesn’t save lives and might actually cost them,” Vox, September 11th, 2016,  https://www.vox.com/2016/5/17/11687014/tsa-against-airport-security

[8] David, Pollard, Ward, Wilson, Varda, Hansell, and Steinberg, “Long-Term Effect of Paw Enforcement’s Post 9/11 Focus on Counterterrorism and Homeland Security,” U.S. Department of Justice, https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/232791.pdf

[9] “Patriot Act,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patriot_Act

[10] Nick Miroff, “The agency founded because of 9/11 is shiftingto the threat of domestic terrorism,” Washington Post, February 14, 2021 https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/dhs-domestic-extremism-threat/2021/02/14/41693dd0-672f-11eb-bf81-c618c88ed605_story.html

[11]David Zucchino, “The War in Afghanistan: How It Started and How It Is Ending,” The New York Times, July 24, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/article/afghanistan-war-us.html

[12] Apples originated in Asia, and only made their way west along the silk road.  Thus apples didn’t make their way to Israel until after the era of Alexander, in approximately 130 BC.

“Exploring the Origins of the Apple,” posted on Science Daily, May 27, 2019, courtesy of the Max Planck Institute: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/05/190527094118.htm

On the Silk Road Arriving in Israel in the Hellenestic/Roman period, see “Silk Road” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silk_Road

[13] “The History of the ‘Forbidden’ Fruit,” Rebecca Rupp, July 22, 2014, National Geographic, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/history-of-apples

[14] In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan boasts: “Him by fraud I have seduc’t/from his Creator, and the more to increase/Your wonder, with an Apple” (10.485-87)

“What if Eve made apple juice?,” Kanye West, “Everything We Need,” from the album Jesus is King.

Lord Byron, in Don Juan, alludes, humorously, to Eve’s transgression (“Since Eve at apples, much depends on dinner” [13.99.8].

[15] Genesis 3:3-4.

וַתֹּאמֶר הָאִשָּׁה אֶל־הַנָּחָשׁ מִפְּרִי עֵץ־הַגָּן נֹאכֵל׃

וּמִפְּרִי הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר בְּתוֹךְ־הַגָּן אָמַר אֱלֹהִים לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִמֶּנּוּ וְלֹא תִגְּעוּ בּוֹ פֶּן־תְּמֻתוּן׃

[16] Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 15:7.

[17] Bereshit Rabbah 15:7.

רַבִּי יוֹסֵי אוֹמֵר תְּאֵנִים הָיוּ, דָּבָר לָמֵד מֵעִנְיָנוֹ,,

[18] Midrash Leqah Tov to Ecclesiastes 12:9

אמר חנינא משל לבאר עמוקה שהיו מימיה מתוקין וצונין ולא היה אדם יכול לדלות ולשתות מימיה בא פקח אחד וקשר חבל בחבל ודלה ושתה.

כך דברי תורה מדבר לדבר דבר למד מענינו ודבר למד מסופו ממשל למשל עד שעומד על דבר תורה לכך נאמר תקן משלים הרבה לשון שול תשולו לה כך הם המשלים מושך דבר לדבר וכן הוא אומ’ באיוב ויסף איוב שאת משלו ויאמר. היא חכמתו אל תהי קל בעיניך שעל ידי משל האדם עומד על דברי תורה.

The words of torah are all linked to each other… stringing them together allows us to descend into the deep wells to drink crystalline waters.

[19] Made famous by Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat.

[20] My thanks to Edwin Eisendrath for sharing this thought with me that fit perfectly into this sermon.

[21] The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander; Policing the Black Man, Bryan Stephenson, ed.

[22] Similarly, although far more powerfully, Bryan Stephenson has taught: the opposite of poverty is justice.

[23] “Overdose Deaths Have Surged During the Pandemic, C.D.C. Data Shows,” Abby Goodnough, The New York Times, April 14, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/14/health/overdose-deaths-fentanyl-opiods-coronaviurs-pandemic.html.

“With Homicides Rising, Cities Brace for a Violent Summer,” Neil MacFarquhar, The New York Times, June 1, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/01/us/shootings-in-us.html

[24] Mishnah Avot 5:8.

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