Finding Common Ground by Mastering Our Fears

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
February 26, 2016 / 17 Adar I, 5776

Yesterday I had the privilege of addressing the state Senate and offering some non-sectarian words of prayer before the floor session began. Let me publicly thank my friend and Neveh member, Senator Elizabeth Steiner Hayward for inviting me to give that invocation. It was also my first time in Salem, and I was grateful to explore our state capitol building a bit.

Below you will find the prayer message I shared with our legislators. Not surprisingly, my focus was on being able to hear and understand those who think differently than we do, without demonizing and belittling them. The example I used comes from the fierce intellectual sparring that characterized Hillel and Shammai’s legal relationship, but that in no way affected the personal esteem in which they held one another. In these polarized times, referring back to some ancient Jewish Sages who lived almost two thousand years ago might seem like a romantic idealization. After all, history presents just as many examples of countries where the political process went awry, and where “circus” replaced sober leadership.

Yet the example of Hillel and Shammai is hardly restricted to the ancient past. One of the most remarkable stories of putting people before ideas just ended. Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were famously close friends. They could not have been further apart ideologically; each understood the Constitution in drastically dissimilar ways. Yet they could see beneath those very real and important surface differences to their shared love of and commitment to the Constitution. This requires a rather mature sense of self that is under attack in contemporary America for reasons too complex to address here.

Speaking about this and dialogue, I feel a bit like a broken record. Rodney King’s famous question-statement rings in my ears. “Can we all get along?” I think we all will acknowledge or give lip service that we ought to listen to all sides of a debate. I suspect we all want to view ourselves as open-minded, even though in quiet moments we also can recall when we failed to live up to this standard. But as I am wont to say, wisdom isn’t knowing what to do, it’s the capacity to live out what we know intellectually. Wisdom is applied knowledge. How often we fall prey to believing that the ends justify the means, and that winning is all that matters! There is something short sighted in all this, just as there was something short-sighted in how Detroit’s focus on short term profits destroyed the quality of American cars for several decades. Polarized victories, I am arguing, normally produce bad results for everyone in the long term. It is the downward cycle of violent speech.

The reason why I sound like a broken record to myself is because there is another, more insidious, broken record that dramatically pulls us in and absorbs our attention. Fear. The fight or flight mechanisms of our brains are so deeply wired, that it takes continual effort and reminders for us to turn from fear to hope and from antagonism to cooperation. We scan the environment and readily see what is wrong, not what is right. Fear produces bad outcomes in most cases. It allows us to be manipulated by the unscrupulous, who play on our emotional weakness. Fear prevents us from properly assessing risk.

When it comes to dialogue and understanding, we need to be able to persevere through our discomfort. We need to develop resilience to our fears, not avoid them. Our societal anxiety around emotional triggers and micro-aggressions actually produces an environment where we become less and less safe emotionally, and where ever slighter insults set off our misaligned moral radars. We like to blame our politicians for gridlock and polarization.

We’d be better off mastering our own propensity to do the same before we blame others.

God of the Spirits of All Flesh: An Invocation to the Oregon Senate

Atik Yamin, Ancient One of Days, today I invoke You by one of Your most venerable and profound names, Elohei HaRuchot L’khol Basar-God of the Spirits of All Flesh.

In that name, we are reminded that You are connected to us all, and that it is Your nature to love diversity and difference. We witness this in the natural variety of your world: its animals and its peoples, its mountains and its plains.

In your great name of connection and diversity, let us recall two of Your great Sages.

Hillel and Shammai would sit in court and argue passionately about Your law all the day. Rarely did they see the world the same way; they did not even agree on which foods were permitted. Yet at end of day, they would leave court arm in arm. They would dine at one another’s homes and share one another’s food.

Their sons and daughters married.

Through their example, God, help these Ladies and Gentlemen to maintain their commitments. Let them argue ideas but not demonize people.

May they use their differences as bridges of connection, rather than impediments to understanding. Let them not use procedure as a cudgel.

As you are the God of the Spirits of All Flesh, help this august body to seek points of commonality. May they live up to your example as an advocate for all peoples-for the widow, the orphan and the stranger, along with those who are blessed with power and influence.

May we have the humility, as Hillel and Shammai did, to engage in genuine conversation–
knowing that no mortal has a claim on truth.
As the wind of spirit blows through each of us,
May our ears have the wisdom to hear Your presence
So that these men and women can lead and serve serve
As true representatives of all Your people
In this great state of Oregon.     Amen.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

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