House Conversations: Really, nothing new in the news?
January 22, 2013 | Jewish Tribune
“I confess my sins today.” – The Chief Butler to Pharoah, Genesis 41:9
I don’t think I’m any more jaded than the next guy. I try not to be; it’s on my agenda for personal improvement. So I’m pretty upset about what I did last week.
Infrequently, I flick through the news on my Android. I did it at the end of last week. Nothing really impressive: The US is at the precipice of financial meltdown, Israel is being condemned. The usual, you might say. Some celebrity is in hot water, another is taking stands on a political issue. Par for the course. And then the random acts of violence. Two killed here, gun raid. One dead, stabbing.
Canadian couple killed in Florida.
My eyes glossed over the headline, and promptly slipped to the next one. “Ooo, a platinum coin you say?” and I didn’t think myself the worse for it. Sure, murder is the utmost, heinous and senseless expression of evil. It’s also incomprehensibly common. If I cried every time I heard about the murder of people I didn’t know, I wouldn’t have tears left. Such is the condition of modern man.
Monday morning, I found myself in the place where I learn. I want to keep the “sword sharp” so to speak, so I’m up before dawn every morning, getting a jump on the day. In the coffee room (obviously), I hear two guys playing Jewish geography – which is normal, among Jews (I should write a column on why that is). But this was a special, and particularly horrifying version of Jewish geography: they were playing it with dead people. The couple murdered in Florida.
As I learned over the next couple days, this “random couple” was part of my community. I am two degrees removed from them, in at least three ways. Someone had to walk out of a class I was teaching early to attend their funerals. This couple was no longer nameless, no longer the stuff of newspapers.
And now I could cry.
I am reminded of a humorous and meaningful passage from a book I enjoyed a lot, Imagine: John Lennon and the Jews, by Zev Maghen. The author is seated at a restaurant, munching on malwach and chicken with hummus and charif, when he hears from a TV in the background that 230 people died in an airplane crash in Indonesia. That’s terrible, he thinks, continuing to munch, lazily. “That’s really awful.”
He suddenly becomes disturbed that the news of 230 deaths doesn’t affect his appetite at all, and plays a thought experiment. He changes the headline to: 230 Israeli soldiers died in a plane crash in the Negev desert. “Oh my G-d....” He immediately loses his appetite, even becomes nauseous, thinking of 230 families crushed, each one finding out the news, discovering that a lifetime of hopes and dreams had burned up in an instant.
Maybe we’re wired this way. Next time you’re stuck in an elevator, you can google ‘Dunbar’s number’ and the attendant theories – how humans can only maintain relationships with and empathy for around 150 people at any given time. But the truth is that we’re wired a lot of ways that conflict with our sense of right and wrong, and all of Jewish life is a call to rise above our basic evolutionary instincts. Is this instinct – being emotionally desensitized to people we don’t know – one that we can afford to transcend?
Right now, I’m too consumed with sadness for the families of Donny Pichosky and Rochelle Wise to answer you.
Rabbi David Pardo is the Educational Director of the House. To grab some tea and share a story, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.