Rabbi’s D’Var Torah

“Why Have Americans Become So Mean?”

By Rabbi Joel Mishkin

Here is a question for us to ponder on this second day of Rosh Hashanah? Why have the citizens of our nation become so mean? Perhaps you disagree. However, before we try to answer that question, let’s just cite a few recent examples as we consider the rise of meanness in this country.

There is a restaurant owner who recently complained that he has to eject a customer from his restaurant for rude or cruel behavior at least once a week – something he said never used to happen to him. Or there is a head nurse who complained that many on her staff are leaving the profession because patients have become so abusive. And we all know what happens when somebody decides to drive the speed limit on the Garden State Parkway! I’m no longer a human being, I’ve become strictly an impediment to this person behind me rushing to his destination. The names they will call me and the fingers they will raise up to me! These are things that threaten to get out of hand.

And those are just the more innocuous situations. Consider these statistics: Hate crimes rose in 2020 to their highest level in 12 years. Murder rates have been surging. Gun sales are off the charts. Social trust is plummeting, and people keep getting killed for driving into the wrong driveway or knocking on the wrong door. And it’s not just violence and rudeness. Here’s one more statistic to make you wince. In the year 2000, two-thirds of American households gave to charity; in 2018, fewer than half did. And the words that even define our age now reek of menace: conspiracy, polarization, mass shootings, trauma and safe spaces. So, what on earth is going on today?

David Brooks, in a thoughtful article featured in the Atlantic this month asks, “Why Americans Are So Awful to One Another,” and then he gives us what he considers is the essential reason for this new spirit of meanness. “The most important story about why Americans have become sad and liberated and rude, I believe is also the simplest: We inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration. Our society has become one in which people feel licensed to give their selfishness free rein. The story I’m going to tell is about morals. In a healthy society, a web of institutions – families, schools, religious groups, community organizations and workplaces – helps form people into kind and responsible citizens, the sort of people who show up for one another. To put it succinctly, we live in a society that is terrible at moral formation.”

Now, that was not always the case. As recently as the early 1920s, school textbooks not only taught students how to read and write; they taught etiquette, and featured stories to illustrate right and wrong behavior. There were thriving school organizations with morally earnest names that might sound rather dated today – the Courtesy Club, the Thrift Club, the Knighthood of Youth. Add to those the YMCA, Sunday School movement, Boys and Girl Scouts. There were also professional organizations which enforced ethical codes and unions and workplace associations which in addition to enhancing worker protections, held up certain standards of working-class respectability. And of course, by the late 19th and early 20th centuries many Americans were members of religious communities, churches and yes, synagogues. While we all know that religious faith doesn’t necessarily make people morally good, living in community orienting your heart and minds to something bigger and greater than yourselves tends to have a positive impact on one’s moral conduct.

Brooks notes an extremely significant caveat to this progress. He tells us that it is necessary to recognize that “while these important moral values were taking shape, they also prevailed alongside all sorts of hierarchies that we now find rightly abhorrent: whites superior to Blacks, men to women, Christians to Jews, straight people to gay people. And the emphasis on morality didn’t produce perfect people. Moral formation doesn’t succeed in making angels – but it does try to make them better people than they otherwise might be.”

And he makes one other assumption: “Emphasizing moral formation meant focusing on an important question – – namely, what is life for? and teaching people how to bear under inevitable difficulties. A culture invested in shaping character helped make people resilient by giving them ideals to cling to when times got hard. And in some ways the old approach to moral formation was, at least theoretically egalitarian: If your status in the community was based on character and reputation, or as our sages would call it, “A good name,” then a farmer could earn dignity as readily as a banker. This ethos also came down hard on self-centeredness and narcissism. It offered practical advice on how to be a good neighbor and a good friend.” In many ways we might remind ourselves that we could easily substitute this moral formation with the life of religious formation. And yet, whether it is morality or religiosity that you opt for, the truth of the matter is that our present society seems to be sorely lacking in both.

How could this come to be? Well, interestingly enough, one answer for this deterioration of values can actually be found in a philosophical notion that first came to light exactly one hundred years ago. In 1923, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber presented a groundbreaking thesis in his seminal work, called I and Thou. There he grappled with the way that humans treat each other. Buber wrote this after the experience of the First World War, a global conflagration that tested man’s inhumanity towards man. Buber wondered, how could people treat each other in this way? Buber’s response was sobering; if the only way that human beings can interact with each other is as, objects for gain, purpose and exploitation, then humanity, as we know it, will eventually cease to exist. Imagine, he’s writing these words one hundred years ago. So, what is his solution?

He explains that in life, human beings relate with each other in two basic forms; One is, – I – Thou, where the other, Thou, is the subject/ or, I – It, where the Thou becomes the It – an object. The premise of Judaism is that God approaches us as a Thou, not an It, and that we are bidden to do the same with all humanity. But what has prevailed in modern society is namely the treatment of others as objects to advance personal and collective interests. These are I-It relations. If you find this notion murky and hard to comprehend, don’t panic. It is philosophy and yes, philosophy is tough, but philosophy also can open the windows to our souls.

In fact, we can see for ourselves this stark transformation from Thou to It, and back to Thou again, dramatically and powerfully played out in the Torah reading this morning. At the outset of our Torah portion, we see that there are two human beings, a father Abraham and a son, Isaac. These two should clearly be seen in the terms of I – Thou. Abraham is the I, and Isaac should  be the Thou. However, when God approaches Abraham and tells him what he must do, God transforms that relationship because God says to him, “Take your son Isaac and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” We might wonder how on earth could Abraham do such a thing – how could he ever contemplate sacrificing his son. But if Isaac is no longer a Thou, but only an It – he is no longer the son Abraham loves. He is just the sacrificial offering that Abraham is commanded to sacrifice. By objectifying Isaac as the It, Abraham puts himself in an almost catatonic state to fulfill Gods wishes. That is why the text is so strikingly stark and bare.

Close your eyes for a moment and listen to the words. “And it happened after these things God tested Abraham. And He said to him, “Abraham!” And Abraham said, “Here I am.” And He said, “Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac and go forth to the land of Moriah and offer him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall say to you.” And Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey and took his two lads with him, and Isaac his son, and he split wood for the offering, and he rose and went to the place God had said to him. On the third day Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from afar. And Abraham said to the lads, “Sit you here with the donkey and let me and the lad walk ahead and let us worship and return to you.” And Abraham took the wood for the offering and put it on Isaac his son and he took in his hand the fire and the cleaver, and the two of them went together. And Isaac said to Abraham his father, Father! And he said, “Here I am, my son.” And he said, “Here is the fire and the wood but where is the sheep for the offering? And Abraham said, “God will see to the sheep for the offering, my son.” And the two of them went together. And they came to the place that God has said to him, and Abraham built an altar there and laid out the wood and bound Isaac his son and placed him on the altar on top of the wood. And Abraham reached out his hand and took the cleaver to slaughter his son.”

Take note of all that the text is missing – there is no emotion in Abraham. No debate. No dissent. No discussion. And guess what is also lacking – humanity? Remember, Isaac and Abraham are together for three days, and the only words spoken between father and son are when Isaacs asks his father what the wood and the fire is for? For three days, Abraham looked upon Isaac, not as his son – a Thou, but as an It – only an instrument, the tool to perform God’s will. Now, our ancestors looked upon this act as a great act of faith, but the modern mind is repelled by such a notion – how could a father sacrifice his son? Only if his son, who was a Thou – an infinitely valuable human being, has been transformed to an It, an object of sacrifice. That is why there is an angel and that is why there is finally the moment that we are all grateful for  – “And the Lord’s messenger called out to him from the heavens and said, “Abraham! Abraham! And he said, “Here I am.” And he said, “Do not reach out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him.”

As Rabbi Yitzchak Greenberg argues, “In the final analysis, “the Akedah is not about total submission, but about total rejection of the regnant model of sacrificing everything – including morality and deepest human feeling- at God’s demand.” It’s almost as if Abraham awakens out of a trance and realizes that his son is not an It – an object for sacrifice, but a Thou – a human being created by God for development and love.

The question, then for us today, is can we also do that? Can we actually change the way we look at another human being? Can the guy who’s in back of my car look at me, not as an it – an impediment preventing him from getting to his destination as quickly as he had hoped, but as a human being for whom he has no idea why I’m driving the speed limit? That is, can we look at each other, not as an It, that is, something to be obtained, exploited, or overcome, but as a Thou – someone who is infinitely valuable, unmistakably precious – wholly unique, no, not perfect – but always striving to be better than before.

I know that it’s a tall order, but if we all could turn our heads in that direction in the coming year, then maybe, just maybe, there would be a little less strife and a little more light, love and peace in the days to come. May this be the year we accomplish that and to that, let us say Amen.


“The Problem of Loneliness”

by Rabbi Joel Mishkin

I know there are times when congregants want the rabbi to start his or her sermon with a joke. And that very well might be a smart strategy. But I have been thinking that these past few years have been very serious years, and while a brief spot of humor might be nice, I decided I did not want to waste your time. There are plenty of good jokes out there and you probably know how to access them better than I. You see, we have about twenty minutes or so to spend together and I want us to make the most of it. So, I will begin not with a joke, but with the oldest of stories and see what lesson if any, it might hold for us today.

That story is about the creation of the world as we know it…after the light and the darkness, the sky and the water, the dry land and the sea, the vegetation, the birds, the creatures of the sea, and the livestock – our Torah tells us that there was the creation of the first human being – God formed the human from the earth – Adam from the Adamah – And then following that creation, God offers the observation, וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֔ים לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ אֶֽעֱשֶׂה־לּ֥וֹ עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ׃

“It is not good for the human to be alone; I will make a fitting counterpart for him.” And so, what does God do? God arranged all the wild beasts and birds of the sky and brought them to the first Human to see what he would call them; and whatever the Human called each living creature, that would be its name. And the Human gave names to all the cattle and to the birds of the sky and to all the wild beasts; but no fitting counterpart for a human being was found. So, God יהוה cast a deep sleep upon the Human; and, while he slept, [God] took one of his sides and closed up the flesh at that site. And according to our Torah – there came a woman.

According to the Midrash, “the divine resolution to bestow a companion on Adam met the wishes of man, who had been overcome by a feeling of isolation when the animals came to him in pairs to be named.” Adam thinks, “If the animals deserve partners, why shouldn’t I deserve mate of my own?” Makes sense. Imagine the scope and profound intensity of isolation in a world filled with lush vegetation and animals, but nothing in the form of human companionship. And from that time forward with the advent of Eve, Adam was no longer alone.

In a sense, from that day, it was recognized that human beings crave relationships – that we were not intended to live isolated, to be entirely on our own, but that just as oxygen is required for breath, people are meant to be together – regardless of personality or proclivities, extrovert or introvert – We were not meant to be alone. We learn this from the most ancient of stories – in the book of Genesis. We know this to be true.

And yet…. Today we live in a world where loneliness ironically enough is the sole companion for far too many people. In May of this past year, the Surgeon General Vivek Murthy published an advisory, warning that a growing “epidemic of loneliness and isolation” threatens Americans’ personal health and the health of our democracy. Murthy reported that, “even before COVID, about half of all American adults were experiencing substantial levels of loneliness. Over the past two decades, Americans have spent significantly more time alone, engaging less with family, friends, and people outside their home. By 2018, just 16% of Americans said they felt “very attached to their local community.”

The statistics are sobering, to say the least – “The rate of young adults who report suffering from loneliness went up every year from 1976 – 2019. From 2003 to 2020, the average time that young people spent in person with friends declined by nearly 70 percent. And then the pandemic hit – and that just “turbocharged our isolation.”

Just how serious is this problem and what are its consequences? It’s real serious and it’s a real problem. Murthy adds, “Loneliness is more than just a bad feeling. When people are socially disconnected, their risk of anxiety and depression increases. And the physical toll is breathtaking. Heart disease increases (29 percent), dementia increases (50 percent), and stroke increases (32 percent). The increased risk of premature death associated with social disconnection is comparable to smoking daily – and may be even greater than the risk associated with obesity. Loneliness and isolation hurt whole communities. Social disconnection is associated with reduced productivity in the workplace, worse performance in schools, and diminished civic engagement.

And like an avalanche that gains momentum as it speeds down the side of a mountain, the results can be even more damaging – for, “when we are less invested in one another, we are more susceptible to polarization and less able to pull together to face challenges that we cannot solve alone. As it has built for decades, the epidemic of loneliness and isolation has fueled other problems that are killing us and threaten to rip our nation apart.” That’s from the surgeon general.

And so, what are the accompanying ailments that go hand-in-hand with this? Just consider the proliferation of mental health issues that trouble not only middle-aged adults and seniors, but also those who are younger. According to the sociologist, Jean Twenge in her book, Generations, “In recent years there has been an undercurrent of depression among the age group classified as Millennials, those born between the years, 1980 – 1994.  Millennial 12th graders were more likely to report having trouble sleeping, having trouble remembering things, and having trouble thinking – problems many people do not realize are symptoms of depression. More Millennial entering college students felt overwhelmed by all they had to do. As teens, Millennials resembled ducks – placid on the surface while paddling madly underneath. And when adulthood came, rates of depression among this group started to soar. The ebullient happiness of Millennial adolescents was beginning to shift into depression among Millennial adults. The dream was beginning to fall apart.”

To amplify this loneliness, we find a dearth of stable marriages, the deterioration of affiliation with religious institutions of all faiths, and an end to many of the common social outlets people were accustomed to leveraging for a sense of togetherness.

Dr. Twenge asks, “What makes you happy? For most people, its spending time with family and friends and feeling like a part of a community. As people are less likely to be partnered and less likely to belong to a religious community, more are cut off from what historically have been people’s main sources of social interaction. At the heart of many of these trends is the individualistic culture that seems so integral to modern living. Individual freedom becomes preferable to the tight social bonds of institutions like marriage and religion. Although individualism had many upsides its risks include isolation and loneliness and their bedfellow’s unhappiness and depression. The lone self is a weak foundation for robust mental health: For the millennial generation, Twenge sums it up like this, “humans need social relationships to be happy and fulfilled in life. That is especially true as people age past young adulthood. This might be why Millennials were happier as teens but not as adults – individualism and freedom feel good when you are young but empty when you are older.”

Think of our Torah reading today. We see a family that, admittedly faces the challenges of its blended composition. There is a father, two mothers, and two half-brothers. When one mother Sarah decides that her maidservant, Hagar and Hagar’s son, Ishmael must leave – the father of both Ishmael and Isaac, Abraham is placed in an impossible position. He listens to his wife – but “the matter concerned Abraham greatly because it concerned a son of his,” – we know that his heart is breaking. And yet he is reassured by God – God tells Abraham, “Do not be distressed over the boy or your slave; whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you. As for the son of the slave-woman, I will make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed.”

And so out into the wilderness go Hagar and Ishmael. The Torah tells us, “that when she runs out of water, Hagar flings the child under one of the bushes and sits down at a distance from him – for she thought, “Let me not see when the child dies.” And so there you have it. Hagar is alone. Ishmael is alone. And yet, the Torah also tells us that they remain apart by only the distance of a bowshot. You see, they are right next to each other, and yet they still feel alone.

And maybe that’s what has been happening to us. We are experiencing a state of perpetual loneliness. And yes, that loneliness was significantly heightened by the pandemic. But if we are to be honest, while these past few years put us at a crisis level of loneliness, – there is chronic loneliness for some that never wanes. Even as the pandemic waned – people still feel alone. Even when we are surrounded by others we still feel alone. Even when we are together, we feel alone.

How is that possible? Well go out one evening to a restaurant and watch couple after couple sit across from each other – each one obsessively staring at their phone – there is no conversation – there is no listening – there is no give and take – are they really having dinner together? It might look like that, but I would beg to differ. They are very much alone.

And guess what? Rabbis are also not immune from this. Just the other week, I sat at a meeting with several rabbis from the New Jersey area and I silenced my phone and deliberately turned it upside down. Guess what – I was the only one who did that. And I’ll admit I’ve been to plenty of meetings where I didn’t do that. But at this one I made it a point. Now, at this meeting the mayor of one of the townships was addressing the rabbinic community about security concerns and looking around the room I noticed that the other rabbis in attendance were constantly being directed away from the conversation because something on their phone proved more compelling than the person sitting right in front of them!

So how do we address this problem? Well, on a macro level, that might be beyond our grasp? But I would like to suggest that we could make some genuine progress in this situation on the micro level, on a personal level, which perhaps is within our reach, if we only begin to change some of the habits that we have grown so attached to.

And to understand how we might do that, let’s return to the individuals we spoke about earlier from our Torah portion. You know, in the chapters preceding the Torah readings of the High Holy Days we are first introduced to Hagar as Abraham’s maidservant in the sixteenth chapter of Genesis. There we read about the first time Sarah causes Hagar to run away to the wilderness. Sarah is barren and decides to give Hagar to Abraham in the hopes that Abraham will have the child for whom they both long. But when Hagar conceives, we read that “Sarah becomes lowered in her esteem – that is, Hagar thinks less of Sarah because she can do what Sarah cannot. And so, Sarah expels Hagar for the first time into the wilderness, and there she is, isolated and alone.

However, as Hagar sits in the wilderness an angel from God tells her that she must return to Sarah. Why? God has heard her suffering and reveals to her a prophecy that she will have a child. Hagar responds to the news by giving God a new name – El Roi – or in English – the God who sees me. A modern commentator explains the power of this name – Rabbi Avital Hochstein, “The name that Hagar supplies, El Roi, describes how it feels to have her existence recognized – to be seen, rather than to be invisible… the experience of just being seen by God infuses Hagar with the sense “there is value to my existence, my being.”

And that, when it really comes down to it, that is enough for Hagar not to feel quite so alone. God sees her!  Maybe what we are really saying here is, we need, like the God of El Roi, to actually begin to see each other – to pay more attention to each other, to matter to each other, so that we not feel so alone. Because, the truth of the matter is that we really don’t have to feel that way, if we put down the screens, if we break down the walls, if we remove the emotional barriers that seem to close us off from one another, and if just put down our phones for a moment, and look each other in the eye – see the person in front of us – physically or yes, when necessary, virtually – we can make each other feel less invisible – and we can begin to feel different about ourselves, our families and our communities. So, go my friends, listen to each other. Look at each other. Feel for each other, and you won’t’ feel so alone. May that be our promise to one another in the coming year, and to that we say Amen.

Congregation Beth Ohr
70 County Rd 516, Old Bridge, NJ 08857
732-257-1523|Email Us