God and Rhinoceroses

“Good men make good rhinoceroses, unfortunately. It’s because they are so good that they get taken in.”

This is said by Berenger, the lead in a play called Rhinoceroses by the French playright Eugene Ionesco.

Berenger is an average unkempt man having a hard time with life. At the start of the play Berenger’s good friend Jean is trying to be Berenger’s life coach, teaching him how to be more cultured and refined, and therefore happier and more successful. Suddenly, their idillic country-side town is hit by a roaring wave of noise and shaking. It’s a rhinoceros. An ugly, heavy, brutish beast with horns, plowing through town and wreaking havoc. Their first response is to rationalize it. They debate about whether they actually saw what they think they saw, and when they’re about to deny that it ever happened, a second beast shows up— one so vile that it tramples a kind lady’s cat in its rampage. Now there’s proof! But they don’t engage, or react. They stay unemotionally involved, philosophizing over whether these rhinoceroses have one or two horns, and are therefore African or Asiatic.

More and more beasts show up, raising dust, making noise, bringing destruction, and the townspeople on stage begin to finally realize there may be a problem. Then, an office woman recognizes one of the rhinos— it’s her husband! The rhinoceroses are the townspeople. Somehow in this little town the decent human beings so high above animalistic behavior are quickly transforming into ugly horned beasts. Everyone, though initially critical of the behavior, the lack of civility, and the simple brutishness of the rhinoceroses, begins to transform, growing one and two horns, skin thickening and turning a greenish grey-color, and temperament becoming less and less civilized. Humanity in appearance and manner slips away. In their rhinoceros-ness, as the people transform, they begin to think that it is not being human, but being a rhino— a destructive beast —that is the pinnacle of civility. Berenger watches his good friend descend to beast-hood, and then his love, until ultimately, in a world of rhinoceroses, he is the only one left, refusing, against temptation and pressure, to join in this collective psychosis. Good men made good rhinoceroses. All but one.

I was at a meeting, a few months ago, where we were discussing rising Antisemitism and how we, the Jewish community, ought to respond to it. Someone briefed us on a successful program for bringing police officers to the DC Holocaust Memorial and instilling in them understanding for the Jewish condition, and the room filled with applause and good cheer. When someone then asked for other ideas in tackling Antisemitism, I, the trouble-maker, brought up what turned out to be a controversial suggestion. I said that perhaps we should take a page from the Palestinian playbook of aligning ourselves with other groups with whom we can share histories and compassion. Perhaps, we might show some empathy for another group in a similar situation, and through shared experience, build a positive relationship. If we care about them, if we have histories in common, then perhaps they’ll want to care about us.

Hear me out for a second: those running the BDS movement found it all too easy to ingratiate themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement. Palestinians suffer, and Black people  suffer. Let them stand together! Ought Jews not also join in with others with whom we can empathize and work together? Might there not be others in this nation facing prejudice and fearing for their futures?

Why should other minorities care about Antisemitism if we don’t care about them? Though a good argument can be made for why they should care, rhetoric only goes so far, and without more, it’s not obvious that it’s their problem. And while Charlottesville has brought us together, I doubt that its impact alone will keep us there. If we’re going to try to enlist the support of others, perhaps we might show at least an ounce of empathy towards them.

At this, I saw a few nods of support around the room. But then the meeting head spoke up. “Yes, but Antisemitism is different. There was nothing like the Holocaust.”

“There was nothing like the Holocaust.”

Maybe in scale. But has no one else ever faced genocide? A mass murder based on their genes, or religion, or orientation, or belief? Wrong. Genocides happened hundreds of times in recorded history before the Holocaust, and despite the claims of many in our community that we will never forget, some clearly have, because genocide continues to take place, to this day. No one went through anything close to what we did? How about when Ottomans in the early 20th century murdered nearly a million Armeninans, Assysians and Greeks? Or the Khmer Rouge murdering a quarter of Cambodia’s population? How many ethnic groups in the USSR were starved, displaced, or murdered under Stalin? The hundred thousand in Bosnia? Or Maronite Christians in Lebanon? Tutsis in Rwanda? Darfuris in Sudan? Or Yezidis under ISIS?

Granted, the Nazis beat out pretty much everyone else in scale — they murdered 11 million people in roughly a decade, including 6 million Jews. But others have suffered under similar diabolical plans, and in hundreds of thousands and more. Too many in this world have faced demonic violence, but, what makes it worse is that too many have turned their backs, rationalized inaction, or even found a way to make sense and be ok with the murders halfway across the world. Too many of us have grown skins too thick. Perhaps even grown one and two horns.

I think that my colleague from the meeting ought to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum himself. After all, the museum curators understand that a Holocaust exhibit is a waste of space unless they continue to apply its lessons. A division of their museum, the Simkin-Skjodt Center for Prevention of Genocide, is devoted to ensuring that the Shoah — with its murder, displacement, and stripping human beings of basic rights on a massive scale — never happens again.

There was nothing like the Holocaust? The Holocaust Memorial’s exhibition on 70s Cambodia says otherwise.

Earlier today we read from a different Torah text than the one to which we’ve been accustomed on Rosh Hashanah— the story of Ishmael and Hagar. Historically in Reform Judaism, we’ve read the Akeidah — the story of the Binding of Isaac  — on the first day, and B’reishit — the Creation story  —on the second. We read the Creation story, obviously, because we’re celebrating the birth of the world today, and the Akeidah to show us what true faith can look like, and what life can mean in the face of death — two important themes of these holy days. But some of you who have experienced other movements in Judaism know that these two readings were a chiddush—a change—made by the early Reform Jews. Until only relatively recently, we have in fact read what our new Machzor Mishkan HaNefesh has brought back — Ishmael for day one, and Isaac for day two.

There are many reasons we can find for bringing back the story of Ishmael. Both Isaac and Ishmael’s stories affirm life, as they both come close to death because Abraham listened to God, and in both, God comes through, ensuring life. Both stories teach us the difficulty of navigating family relationships and offer lessons for doing better.

But there is something else unique to Hagar and Ishmael’s story that I find particularly important for today.

One of my professors, Dr. Larry Hoffman, teaches that Rosh Hashanah is God’s way of saying that each one of us matters. It’s not the Exodus that our tradition celebrates as day 1, though this is when we officially became a people. It’s not Shavuot, the receiving of our covenant with God and the confirmation that we will be God’s holy people, that marks the new year. It is the beginning of everything that we celebrate today. The creation of the earth, the creation of flora and fauna, the creation of all human beings. It is a day that we celebrate not Jewish history, but world history.

And we observe, today, in reading Ishmael’s story of being saved from dying of dehydration in the wilderness after being cast out by Sarah and Abraham, that before God saves Isaac’s life in the next chapter, the man whose descendants will be Jewish, God first saves and blesses another young man. A non-Jewish man, who, our traditions teach, will be ancestor to the Muslim world.

Our Torah portion’s message, this Rosh Hashanah, is that God cares about everyone, Jewish and not-Jewish. Let’s make a list in our heads, right now, of every group of human beings we can think of that does not include us….  Who made it on the list? People different in religion, skin color, nationality? Gender? Guess what?  God cares about them too!

And while we’re discussing Torah readings, let’s jump ahead to Yom Kippur, when we’ll read from Leviticus 19, the Holiness Code. It says, kedoshim tihiyu, ki kadosh ani, adonai eloheichem. Holy shall you be, because I am Holy, Adonai your God.

In all our endeavors, we are commanded to do as God does. To be sacred human beings with sacred behavior. This means that just as God cares for all human beings, and just as God acts, in our Torah reading, to help all human beings, so too must we.

It is this drive to be holy —to be human, and not animal— that Berenger so desperately holds onto, the drive, which differentiates us human beings from the animal kingdom. And it is when we close ourselves off to others and when we ignore their plights, that we good-meaning people become good rhinos. We stand by our pack and remain safe with our great strength, our sharp horns, and our collective thick skin, but we become no better than the nations who simply sought power and growth that we have known throughout history. When we become content as beasts, we become an insensitive and destructive people. A people akin to that which Antisemites themselves throughout history have described.

Remaining a good human being and a good Jew does not mean completely abandoning one’s tribe or family. Rightly, we Jewish people live by the saying, Kol Yisrael Arevim Ze L’Ze. Every Jew is responsible one for another. We must look out for and do everything we can for the people in our lives. But, Rosh Hashanah reminds us, after caring only for our own, we may not say dayeinu. Dayeinu may only come when we’ve felt compassion and acted upon it for people from all backgrounds. When we’ve cared for people completely unlike ourselves, possibly those whom we have feared, and when we’ve reached out in support. This caring begins with empathy. With understanding that a person’s feelings are not determined by our own experiences, but exist in their own right— that a person who has survived the murder of 600 members of his community may be in just as awful a place as a Holocaust survivor. Suffering, in any form, is unacceptable. Believing otherwise is a relinquishing of one’s humanity, and one’s religious duty.

This year the demonstration in Charlottesville and other hate rallies have shown us that the fate of the Jewish people is deeply intertwined with the fates of other minorities. The hate groups who came together made it all too clear that if your skin was not white you did not belong in their America—you were an ‘undesirable,’ and if you were Jewish, you were an undesirable too. All of us minorities, all of us human beings in need, are somehow less than human in the eyes of those who inclined to hate. If we are to survive, if we are to thrive, if we are to be sacred and human, we must stand up with each other. We must connect, and band together, and push with everything we have for what is right. We must draw empathy from the wellsprings of our spirits, so that the trickle can become a mighty river and bring nourishment to this world.

Though the task is too great for any one of us, we must all take part. We can start off small. We can make a friend who is different from us, a friend who lives in a different neighborhood, a different socio-economic world, or who is part of a minority other than our own. Perhaps we might even make a friend directly from the stock of Ishmael. And we have just the program.

This year, we will be pairing interested households in our community with interested Muslim households. We’ve done enough of facilitating public conversations between faith leaders. We’ve gone as far as we can in interfaith-inter-community services where we shake someone’s hand at the oneg. It is time for meeting human beings as human beings and connecting in the most tried and true method we have: by breaking bread. Sometimes the fastest way to seeing past the thick gray skin and horns we’ve pasted on in our minds’ eye is actually to get to know someone, through conversation and food. Who are they? Where did they come from? What do they seek in life? What do they seek for their children? What are their passions, and concerns? What we’ll most likely find, is that the other is not so different from us. Sure, they have a different religion. A different cultural experience. But as with Sarah and Hagar, we all want our children to live, and we all want our families to thrive. Who knows: we might even make a new friend.

Outside, on the way out, you’ll find flyers for signing up your household. Please take it home, think about it, and then sign up. Join our community in connecting with others and binding humanity together in compassion. Join us in this really wonderful effort towards tikkun olam, and not only recognizing, but learning a few more times that all human beings really are made in God’s image.

By the way, we’re calling this program the Isaac and Ishmael Supper club.

I remember a time years ago, when I was a kid and waiting for the bus, that while wearing my kippah in an unfamiliar neighborhood, I was approached by an Arab-looking man. I was intimidated. He looked… foreign. He was bigger than me. And I had nowhere to run. He came over and then asked me, are you Jewish? I said yes. He said, what kind of Jew are you? I said, a Reform Jew. He paused, and a different kind of instinct kicked in. Perhaps the levitical one. I extended my hand. I’m Dave, I said. He shook my hand and said, I’m Mohammed. Then the bus came and we parted ways. It wasn’t dinner, but it was a start. I could have charged. I could have responded the way my apprehension pushed me, to intimidate and scare. Part of me wanted to. But, neither of us did. Instead, we acted upon our common humanity.

We are no community of rhinoceroses. This is a community of beautiful human beings, together, sharing similar stories, and yet each of us unique. Some of us will be Isaacs, some of us Ishmaels. We are all, though, loved by God, and therefore deserving of love from each other. Let us shed our thick skins and be open, this Rosh Hashanah, as we are with our own, to all of God’s children. The fate of humanity, and the Jewish people, depends on it.

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davidzvaisberg Written by:

David Vaisberg, originally from Montreal and Mississauga, Canada, serves as Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El of Edison, NJ and lives in Metuchen, NJ with his family.

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