Sermons

Rosh Hashanah 5782: Mustaches and Moral Injuries – Resilience in Divisive Times

Shanah tovah.  I hope your 5782 is dawning bright and strong.

Last night we introduced our theme of strength (gevurah) – wise structure, healthy boundaries and moral direction.  Gevurah calibrates impulses, sees better worlds out of turmoil and chaos, and even can transform walls into springboards.  As we saw in last night’s tribute to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburggevurah can power our reach – inward despite resistance, and outward from authenticity – across chasms of conflict and hurt, toward transforming the world.

Today we harness gevurah as resilience – our capacity to rebound and adapt after disappointment, hurt, stress or loss.  Without resilience, hurts and hurtful behaviors can fester and calcify – and keep us stuck.

To journey into resilience, let’s meet a guy we’ll call Greg – a police officer serving a community in a northern state.  Last year it came to light that Greg had in his work locker a photo of the Nazi chancellor during World War II – the mustached genocidal dictator, the personification of such evil that I won’t speak his name from this pulpit. 

The news about Greg galvanized meetings, petitions and a social media avalanche.  Jewish residents called for Greg’s removal.  When his supervisor declined, they called for the supervisor’s removal, then the ouster of elected officials.  The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) joined in, saying that people of color felt unsafe in a community where hate wears a badge and has a home.  Some said Greg stopped mainly dark-skinned drivers.  Some said Greg hid a copy of Mein Kampf in his locker.  Some said the whole police department was in on it – a “blue wall” conspiracy.

It wasn’t long before protests started.  Then came counter-protests.  Most anyone with a cause – Native American rights, LGBT rights, outsourcing jobs and more – connected themselves to one side or another.

A once bucolic town seethed with rage.  The state attorney general got dragged in.  Investigators investigated investigators.  Clergy urged compassion and calm, and some people got angry at them.

Months later, public reports proved that there was no Mein Kampf.  There was no trend of racially disparate traffic stops or arrests.  There was no conspiracy, no “blue wall” – and Greg had a spotless 25-year service record.  What Greg did do was put in his locker that photo, poking fun at a clean-shaven colleague who had decided to grow a mustache.

The “gag” was not funny.  The picture was in terrible taste.  It was abysmally poor judgment, especially for a police officer, for anyone who holds a public trust.  Greg admitted that.  He acknowledged that he broke public trust by not considering how others might react, especially given the sensitivity of his public role in numerous communities.  Greg publicly apologized.

But the moral injury – the felt sense of harm to morals, ethics and values, the offense to conscience – ran deep.  People on all sides had spent months feeling indignant and betrayed, and now simmering hurt kept the fire burning.  Greg’s apology triggered more outrage and counter-outrage, more recriminations, more protests, more vitriol.

Does this story feel familiar?  It’s a microcosm of society in this era of rage and outrage.  It’s just one town’s example that what we hear, what we believe to be true, sometimes can turn out not to be quite so.  It shows how we can be siloed into echo chambers that amplify conflict by amplifying what we believe – all while reinforcing our sense of rightness.  It suggests how far apologies can go,  and where apologies without more can seem hollow.

The moral injuries of this era – the harm to our felt sense of safety, trust, values, rights and way of life – have been huge.  Many people feel raw and hurt.  Tempers are frayed.  Folks are quick on the trigger.  And there are real reasons why: racism, structural injustice, antisemitism, Islamophobia, misogyny, homophobia, corruption – oh, and a global pandemic.  All of these are moral injuries.  They hurt our sense of right.  They can hurt even more than broken bones, which tend to heal faster and stronger than wounds of indignation, prejudice and fear.  If you felt agitated hearing about Greg, it was a moral injury for you, too.

And it’s a vicious cycle, hence the adage “hurt people hurt people.”  Toxicity turns out to be another contagious virus.  Each moral injury puts us on guard for the next one.  Anxiety is like that – it’s contagious – but it’s not just “in our heads.”  Every breach of norms really does shift the boundary of what seems acceptable, at least to some, which makes the next breach just a bit more likely.  No wonder so many people feel angry, sad, hurt, hopeless and tapped out. 

Our ability to feel moral injury is part of what makes us human.  It’s part of our conscience, our instinct to align with rightness.  It’s a form of gevurah, sacred power, that enlivens the Jewish ethical tradition and social justice movements around the world.  Our capacity to feel moral injury can impel us to do all we can to help repair this broken world.

But moral injury also poses a problem.  Moral injury doesn’t necessarily need clear facts or bad motive to stoke anger, pain or fear.  Triggered perception and memory are enough.  Nor does moral injury tell time.  Today’s hurt might reflect a perceived moral injury today, or last week, or last year, or decades ago – or even in ancestral time before we ourselves were born.

In Greg’s town there was no evidence of police antisemitism, but Jews still felt unsafe.  There was no evidence that Greg’s photo was about police racism, but people of color still felt unsafe.  There was no telling them otherwise – and, who can blame them?  After decades and centuries of cruel societal assaults against safety and justice, it didn’t take much to trigger wounds that run deep.

And on the other side, in Greg’s town there was zero evidence that Jews or people of color were trying to target Greg or “take over,” but some still thought so.  There was zero evidence of a vast left-wing “thought police” conspiracy, but some still thought so.

This story doesn’t come to relativize positions: there is right and wrong in the world.  And there also is such a thing as facts.  As New York’s late great Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan presciently observed decades ago, “People are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.”  We can imagine what Senator Moynihan might say today.

This story also doesn’t come to cast aspersions on politics – far from it.  Our civic space, collectively deciding and doing what’s best to move society forward, is sacred to me and to many of you.  Civic life needs all the smart, principled advocacy it can get – especially now.

Nor does this story suggest that everything is okay and that all moral injuries are overblown misunderstandings.  So much is not okay.  Atop a physical virus, we face the social viruses of hate, bias and corruption.  We must stand against them with all we’ve got: that’s gevurah, too.  But gevurah can go too far when a fight – even a worthy one – become foremost about the fight itself.

Rather, Greg’s story keys up a core Rosh Hashanah principle: we humans can get it wrong, especially when we fervently feel we’re right.  This truth describes some of our society’s moral injuries, and also some of our individual ones – the person who offended, who stole, who lied, who gossiped, who did X or said Y.  As sure as we might be about what someone intended, sometimes we don’t have the full story – and it takes great resilience of spirit to acknowledge that possibility, and then act accordingly.

But why resilience?  Because as right as we feel – as right as we might well be – often we need to feel right.  It’s part of our defense against moral injury.  And the more right we feel, often the harder it becomes to imagine otherwise, much less hear someone out with an open mind and an open heart.  It can take tremendous inner resilience to bounce back after moral injury, and question what we think we know about what someone intended, or even what happened.

Maybe that’s why both our Torah and Haftarah readings for Rosh Hashanah depict spiritual ancestors who got facts wrong but still felt righteously indignant.  In Torah, Sarah saw Yishmael מצחק with her son, Yitzchak, and thought Yishmael was “teasing” Yitzchak.  Instantly Sarah said to banish Yishmael and his mother, Hagar – except that מצחק also can mean, simply, “playing.”  Maybe the brothers were just playing?  

In Haftarah, Hannah is misunderstood not once but twice.  Her husband, Elkanah, thinks he understood Hannah enough to ease her pain – and he said that he himself should be enough to ease her pain – but Hannah yearned for something else.  Then a priest, Eli, saw Hannah fervently praying in silence, and he scolded her for being drunk in Temple. 

In each case, writes Dr. Ora Horn Prouser – dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion where I teach now and R. Shohama served as dean and then president: “A Biblical character speaks or acts [on dubious if not flat wrong] assumptions and, most of the time, causes further harm either to themselves or to others.”

And that’s the Bible!  How about us?  How often might we get it wrong, exactly when we most feel right?  It takes real resilience of spirit, great inner gevurah, to feel moral injury and yet still make space for curiosity and empathy – not paralyzing self-doubt, not relativizing every view until there’s no right or wrong, but merely affirming another’s humanity and the possibility of a story that maybe we don’t know or got wrong?

What does that kind of principled inner gevurah look like?  Let’s get back to Greg. 

People on all sides gathered for a series of facilitated sessions, in which folks could say what they felt and believed.  They were taught to use “I”-language and avoid attacks and blame – standard tools of conflict transformation.  How do you think it went?

It was a mess, at least at first.  Folks rehashed their own views and talked past each other – “I feel afraid,” “I feel censored,” “I feel unseen,” “I feel betrayed.”  People nearly came to blows.

Finally, a woman of color stood and said: “I never stopped to think how Jews felt.”  A bit of empathy – not agreement, but acknowledgment.  Another interrupted empathy with anger: “Why can’t you just forgive him?  Greg apologized.  He really did.  He feels awful.  He didn’t mean anything by it!”  She answered, “I can forgive Greg, but it would help me to feel that Greg at least tries to understand the impact on me.”

The tide turned.  Not everyone agreed, but they didn’t need to.  Moral injury doesn’t always need agreement.  What moral injury most needs is empathy, and with it the understanding that intent might not match impact.  What moral injury needs, first and foremost, is empathy for impact.

This kind of resilience – to rebound from hurt and also, ironically, from the sharpness of being right – is a choice.  No matter how right we think we are, no matter how hurt we feel, we still can choose.  

Victor Frankl, a psychologist who nearly died in Auschwitz, showed that even there, people still could choose empathy for each other and – incredibly – for some Nazi guards trapped in a cycle of cruelty they would not have chosen.  Can you imagine that?  Jews in Auschwitz, having empathy for their tormentors?  Even in the Holocaust, even in the shadow of death, Frankl observed that everything can be taken away except one thing, “the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

This Rosh Hashanah, in this moral-injury era of rage and outrage, we still can choose our own way.  We can choose to try empathy exactly where we think we’re most right – not to give up our values, not to accept the unacceptable, not to turn from worthy and necessary battles to right the wrongs of the world.  Rather, we can try to choose empathy: people are humans who usually behave for reasons – even if wrongly.  “Hurt people hurt people.”  We can choose resilience to be inwardly curious, to question what we think we know of another’s intentions and actions.  After all, as Greg’s community learned the hard way, we don’t always have it so right as we might think. 

Empathy helps heal.  When we receive empathy, when we feel understood, our hearts can begin to calm after the bruise of injury.  That’s why Judaism’s sacred journey of teshuvah (seeking forgiveness) first asks awareness and then empathy for the impact of our words and actions.  

But empathy isn’t only for the penitent.  Empathy is so potent that, incredibly, it doesn’t need to be reciprocal to help bind wounds.  Even when we ourselves are hurt, empathy – both for ourselves, and for the other we think said X or did Y or meant Z – can begin to salve our own hurt by freeing us, just a bit, from the snare of our own inner tightness.  Even if we feel another doesn’t deserve empathy, even if we can’t communicate it safely, empathy for another ultimately helps us.

Empathy isn’t everything.  A hate monger who “empathizes” but continues to spew hate is doing it wrong.  Empathy alone won’t redress systemic injustice, or shatter glass ceilings, or stop religious intolerance, or celebrate love, or shut off the mania of social media conspiracies.  But   we won’t get to any of those places – or anywhere better with freighted relationships in our lives – without the resilience to empathize.

After the year we’ve all had, we deserve to heal in every way we can – not by caring less for principles and political values, but by caring more for each other.  Especially now, the inner resilience of empathy is a great gift we can give others, even if we’re sure they’re wrong… and an even greater gift we can give ourselves.  And if empathy sometimes challenges us to question our rightness, it might be just what the doctor ordered.  After all, as Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote:

From the place where we are right,
flowers will never grow in the spring.
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled, like a yard.
But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, like a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined house once stood.
מן המקום שבו אנו צודקים
לא יצמחו לעולם פרחים באביב.
המקום שבו אנו צודקים
הוא רמוס וקשה כמו חצר.
אבל ספקות ואהבות
עושים את העולם לתחוח
כמו חפרפרת, כמו חריש.
ולחישה תשמע במקום
שבו היה הבית אשר נחרב.

From my heart to yours, I wish each of you a shanah tovah of sweet goodness, resilient gevurah, inner curiosity, gentle empathy and – at long last – healing in every possible way for all of us, our nation, and our world.

Sermon given at Temple Beth El of City Island, 2021.

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