Sep 24 2015

Cast Out. . .



Rosh HaShanah begins, joyously and appropriately, with the story of the birth of Isaac. A beautiful metaphor for all the possibilities of a new year. And yet, something is drastically wrong. If we look just below the surface, there is a sub-text of bullying and exclusion.

First, there is this reference in Genesis 21:9- “Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, who was born to Avraham, metzachek- playing.” What’s so bad about that? Isn’t that what children are supposed to do? Play? You will recall that Hagar was Sarah’s servant, whom Sarah encouraged to conceive a child with her husband, Avraham, when Sarah could not conceive. Whatever it is that Sarah observed, or thought she observed, she felt that it threatened her son, Isaac.

The midrash goes to great pains to justify Sarah’s behavior, suggesting that Ishmael, who is not even named in this verse, was violating all three cardinal sins- murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality.[1] Perhaps Ishmael WAS bullying Isaac in some way? Yet, the simple meaning of the text is that he was playing, and, frankly, it is not too hard to imagine that Sarah was simply jealous.

Sarah requests of Abraham that he “cast out that slave woman and her son,” (Genesis 21:10)- again, neither one even receives the dignity of a name. Sarah cannot see Hagar and Ishmael as individuals, with their own names, deserving of respect. She sees them only in terms of their perceived threat to her and her son Isaac.

To his credit, Abraham is disturbed by this request. Shockingly, God tells Abraham to listen to his wife, and Hagar and Ishmael are banished. Ultimately, they do return to the household. However, the damage is done and it can be argued that we are still reaping the negative consequences of this banishment in the estranged relationship between the descendants of Isaac and the descendants of Ishmael.

Fast forward to 2015. We are still casting people out of our community- just ask Caitlyn Jenner and Monica Lewinsky. Like Sarah, it is all too easy for us to feel threatened- just ask millions of hardworking undocumented Americans. Just ask hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East. Yet, we must rise above our fear of difference and open our hearts and our communities to embrace the diversity of humanity.

I was attending my Army drill a few months ago, and there was a group staying at our hotel called, “Soft Heroes,” a support and networking group for families of individuals who have an extra chromosome. I happened to be sharing the table with a veterinarian- I serve in a medical command- and I asked him how this medical phenomenon of an extra chromosome occurs in the animal kingdom. He replied by telling me about a calf he had delivered recently who was born with an extra set of legs growing out of its shoulders. A simple surgery corrected the anatomical anomaly, but it was his next comment that struck me. After describing the appearance of this calf, he added, “And no one made fun of it.” The implication was clear. A human being who looked so radically different would surely be bullied. That was his immediate thought. So much for our vaunted human superiority.

Monica Lewinsky has been roundly criticized for her TED talk that came out this year, in which she talks about “the (internet) click that reverberated around the world. . . (causing her to lose her) personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously.” Critics suggest that she has only herself to blame for the ire heaped upon her. She describes a deep shame at “the worst version of (her)self. . . (that) led to a “public humiliation that was excruciating”. . . and a life that was “almost unbearable.”

Lewinsky chose to insert herself into the public eye once again this year in order to bring attention to the epidemic of cyberbullying, hoping that her experience will shed light on what she calls, the “marketplace. . . where public humiliation is a commodity and shame is an industry.” She quotes Brene Brown that “shame can’t survive empathy,” and pleads for compassion as the antidote to the culture of shame.   And she offers the encouragement of her own example to those who experience bullying- that you can survive.

When I listened to her TED talk, I thought of the words of Naomi Ragen, “. . . you don’t die of shame. Only one thing kills you, only one: death. Everything else, you can survive.”[2] But, it’s hard to hang on to that hope when you are experiencing the torment of bullying.

I was meeting recently with one of our upcoming Bnot Mitzvah. When I sit with students at Starbucks, we often play the Ungame, a series of open-ended questions that help us get to know each other. She picked up the question card that asked, “When do you feel embarrassed?”, and proceeded to tell me about her miserable year in school with all of her friends in a different class than hers. The popular girls who were in her class and who tormented her, were charming and sweet in front of parents and teachers, and vicious behind their backs. Her parents got involved, the school got involved, and she did, indeed survive the year. But what a culture we tolerate!

Another one of our Bnot Mitzvah who was bullied relentlessly, told me that she understood that there was some basic insecurity that led her tormentors to attack her. She displayed an incredible and rare sense of maturity in her perspective. But, as we enter these High Holidays, we as a community need to address this scourge head on and reinforce the value of rachamim- of compassion and kindness.

Exodus 23:9 tells us, “You know the heart of the stranger.” Yes, we do, but what are we doing with that information? We as a people know what it is like to be cast out. We should be voices for inclusion and acceptance of those who are marginalized.

When we choose to courageously speak out, to intervene on behalf of the disenfranchised, we fulfill the Biblical mandate not to stand idly by. (Leviticus 19:16) Our moral courage makes the world a kinder and more courageous place to live. Amy Weber was interviewed about her movie, “A Girl Like Her,” which was released in March. The film captures, “a million true stories of bullying.” When asked about the research that led to the film, Weber replied that, “At the heart of all this is this great pain. Whether I’ve been talking to abusers who have no feeling whatsoever when attacking someone at school, when bullying them relentlessly, pounding them into the ground, to get to the heart of the pain inside them, to have that light bulb go off? This is the way you express pain. To get in touch with that on that level, one on one with someone who would not show their true selves to anyone, and to have them open up. I have been humbled,” she concludes, “by what I have learned.”[3]

At the heart of all this is great pain. At the heart of our Torah reading is great pain. Imagine this pain on being cast out- “And Hagar (Now she has a name!) walked and sat herself the distance of a bowshot, for she said, ‘I don’t want to see the death of the child.’ So she sat at a distance, raised her voice, and cried.” (Genesis 21:16) The unimaginable pain of a mother contemplating the loss of her precious child. We see it every day on the news- our hearts break, and we must be advocates for those who are cast out.

Writing in Utne magazine[4], Katie Haegele reviews a book by Jon Ronson called, There’s a Fine Line Between Fair and Brutal: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.” The author writes about an individual who is “outed” for plagiarism, and goes overnight “from being a popular writer to an internet pariah.” He describes how the author was giving an apology speech at a conference, “while (being) forced to watch a live Twitter feed being projected onto a large screen in front of him. The feed provide(d) a near-constant stream of invective, directed at him from total strangers around the world. . . It (was) so ultramodern as to seem surreal.” Was the guy guilty? Sure. Yet, Ronson asks, “Is public shaming an efficient means of correcting misbehavior? Or is it just cruel?” Ronson concludes that, while he has written about other dark subjects previously, “none of them have left him with such a sickening feeling of dread as the topic of shaming, this casting out into “the wilderness” that happens on a daily basis now, sometimes seemingly on a whim.” From Hagar to the Internet, we still have still not learned the lesson of the terrible consequences of casting people out.

I’d like to offer one story that offers us pride and hope. It is the story of Matthew Kaplan, a student here in Phoenix, who created the Be O.N.E.- that is- Be Open to New Experiences Project, in response to his brothers’ being bullied. Matthew began to notice the small changes- Josh was quieter, smiled less, spent more time alone. Matthew was 13 and Josh was 10. Josh went from being a confident child to withdrawn. So Matthew took action. He spent the summer studying various anti-bullying programs and brought a proposal to his school. At the end of the program, “Matthew watched the kids who had sent cruel messages (walk up and apologize) to his brother.”[5] Here’s the part where we get to feel proud. Matthew is quoted in the article, commenting that his actions were based on a foundation of Jewish values. “In the Jewish community, Tikkun Olam translates directly to repairing the world. I sort of grew up with this idea of Tikkun Olam- meaning, it’s all of our jobs to make our part of the world a better place.”[6] I have to admit that it made my day to see the words “tikkun olam” in the Arizona Republic. Jewish values inspire our commitment to be forces for transformation in our troubled world.

We see these values reflected in the letter sent to the URJ Camp Newman community, which sensitively addressed inclusion of a transgender camper for the first time this past summer. Unlike Caitylyn Jenner, this young person will not have to wait until mature adulthood to be able to publicly embrace her core identity.   The staff spoke of Kehillah Kedoshah- the value of holiness in community; V’Ahavta L’Reyacha Kamocha- extending to others the love we wish to receive; Hachnassat Orchim- making guests feel welcome; and, Yichut Atzmo- fostering self-development and personal growth. Hagar and Ishmael were cast out. Perhaps as we read their story on this Rosh HaShanah, we can renew our commitment to break the cycle of painful exclusion which still plagues us in contemporary culture, perhaps even more so as fostered by the speed and anonymity of internet communication.

I’ll conclude with the words of Brene Brown, who writes that, “. . .courage has a ripple effect. Every time we choose courage, we make everyone around us a little better and the world a little braver. And our world could stand to be a little kinder and braver.” Let it begin with us in this new year of 5776.


[1] BT Sotah 6:6

[2] Ragen, Naomi, The Covenant, p. 50

[3] Goodykoontz, Bill, “Film Captures ‘A Million True Stories’ of Bullying, Arizona Republic, March 29, 2015, p. 7D

[4] Haegle, Katie, Utne Magazine, Spring 2015, p. 91

[5] Nanez, Dianna M., “Teen Stood Up For Bullied Brother, Ended Up Aiding Thousands,” Arizona Republic, July 16, 2015, page #?

[6] ibid., p. 13A

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