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If I Am Only For Myself: The Toxicity of “Company Over Country” – Noah 5782

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי? וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי

[Hillel] used to say: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?…

Pirqei Avot 1:15

I was extraordinarily shocked this week to hear reports of the testimony from whistleblower Frances Haugen, who worked at Facebook in their “civic integrity department,” about how Facebook’s leadership has been aware, from their own extensive research, of potentially toxic effects of its products on its users’ mental health. Despite this research, showing, among other things, that the use of Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) increases thoughts of suicide and eating disorders among teenage girls, Facebook has done effectively nothing to prevent these toxic effects. 

But in particular, the thing that shocked me the most was that at Facebook meetings, CEO Mark Zuckerberg would often conclude by repeating the mantra, “Company over country.”

The accusation that weaves through Ms. Haugen’s testimony is that Facebook has, except in a few limited circumstances, consistently chosen to try to keep your attention focused on Facebook or Instagram or WhatsApp, because the more you keep your eyeballs on those products, the more money Facebook makes, regardless of the cost to our mental health.

We must ask ourselves, how many fewer people could have died of Covid-19 if no misinformation had been spread via Facebook and other social media platforms? How many fewer young women would be suffering from eating disorders or other emotional health issues without the influence of Instagram? How many of us would be spending better quality time with our children, if our noses were not permanently pointed at our screens? Would there have been a home-grown terrorist attack on the halls of Congress, the seat of American democracy, without these tools?

But the problem does not end with Facebook. The wider problem with the very idea of “company over country” is that it sounds like our social contract is broken, that the ties that bind us together as a nation are dangerously frayed; that we have lost the social capital in our society that holds us together, that we have forgotten that we are all in relationship with one another. It is easy for us to recall the first part of the mishnah from the great 1st-century sage Hillel, “Im ein ani li mi li?” If I am not for myself who am I? But perhaps it is more difficult to remember the second part: “Ukhsheani le’atzmi mah ani?” And if I am ONLY for myself, what am I?

And the challenge here is not limited to our social and emotional health. What about the warming climate? The microplastics in the ocean? The chemical contaminants that are now found in our drinking water, and throughout our ecosystem?

Humans are brilliant at manipulating our environment with our God-given intellect and abilities. We are always striving to create new technologies that help us do that even better and cheaper and easier. But we are very, very bad at anticipating negative long-term consequences of such manipulation. We all rush to embrace new technologies, because if something makes your life easier and better, why wouldn’t you? 

But we rarely have the patience or the collective will to determine how these innovations will ultimately affect us over years of use and exposure, how they will affect our brains, our bodies and our environment. And when that change is incremental – rapid in terms of geologic time, but very slow in human years – it is even harder to see and respond to.

Ukhshe-ani le’atzmi mah ani? What am I? Who are we? And what are we destroying by being only for ourselves, and not looking out for others? By focusing on company over country, by looking out only for number one rather than considering the common good?

Parashat Noaḥ opens with a general observation about the state of the world, of the people of his generation (Bereshit / Genesis 6:11):

וַתִּשָּׁחֵ֥ת הָאָ֖רֶץ לִפְנֵ֣י הָֽאֱ-לֹהִ֑ים וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ חָמָֽס׃

The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness.

Vatishahet,” here translated as “became corrupt,” could be better understood as “destroyed.” The Earth was destroyed before God, in the passive (nif’al) voice. Medieval commentators want to make it clear to us that people did this, we were the destroyers. God’s Creation did not merely corrupt itself, as the passive voice suggests. Ibn Ezra, for example, writing in 12th-century Spain:

The meaning of לִפְנֵ֣י הָֽאֱ-לֹהִ֑ים before God is that the humans acted brazenly, like a servant, who in the presence of his master, disobeys him and thereby shows that he does not fear the master.

And this is in the wake of God’s imperative to humanity, which we read last week in Parashat Bereshit (2:15):

וַיִּקַּ֛ח ה’ אֱ-לֹהִ֖ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּנִּחֵ֣הוּ בְגַן־עֵ֔דֶן לְעׇבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשׇׁמְרָֽהּ׃

God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it.

The first people had a mission: to take care of the world. And, only one parashah, a few chapters later, like deceptive servants with no respect for their Creator, they abused Creation for their own purposes.

So what does God do to remedy this unfortunate situation? A flood, to start again. To give (as our bar mitzvah said earlier) humanity a second chance.

Ladies and gentlemen, if we have no respect for what we have been given, if we have no fear or reverence for our Master and Creator, if we continue to take, to steal, to abuse, to manipulate, our future looks bleak indeed.

We are destroying. We are corrupting the Earth and ourselves once again. We have placed company over country, time and time again. And we cannot be sure that there will be a second chance this time. 

So what are we going to do about it?

We could wait until the flooding is so bad that climate refugees are streaming into Pittsburgh. We could just wait for another mass shooting, streamed to Facebook Live. We could wait for the troops of chaos mustered by white supremacist groups to cause democracy to crumble. We could inspire even more young women to feel inadequate about themselves. We could install air conditioning in our sukkot, to keep ourselves from sweating as fall temperatures rise, and just let the challenges continue to mount.

There are naysayers in the world, and I am hearing their voices more frequently, who are saying that we are doomed. That we will never be able to prevent the corruption of all life that will lead to the ultimate cataclysm.

Noah, the Eve of the Deluge – 1848, John Linnell

But here is where I prefer to be an optimist. And here is the solution, ladies and gentlemen:

Prayer. Tefillah.

But not like you think. Not necessarily to move God to act to save humanity from itself. But rather, the human side of prayer, prayer which brings us together. Prayer that focuses us and galvanizes us to act. Prayer that serves as the fulcrum of the arm of intention.

Worldwide prayer. Prayer across communities. Prayer across continents and timezones. Praying together in multiple languages, in multiple religious contexts.

We have to say words of prayer together so that we can think together and act together and understand that we are all in this together.

And of course, some of you are thinking, “Oh, come on, Rabbi. Religion is going to solve this?” 

Well, I have news for you:  People of faith are great at one thing: Gathering. We gather for community, to harness intent and to tap into our spiritual well. It is through gathering with a holy purpose that we can arouse the worldwide will to take on the intransigence of governments and corporations, who actually have the power to save us from ourselves.

We have many microcosmic prayer groups scattered all over the world. But people of faith – people who understand the value of religious traditions and teachings and reverence for what God has given us – have much more strength if we are united, so that we can stand together against the corrupt, destructive path of “company over country.”

Google announced this week, perhaps inspired by Facebook’s missteps, that they will no longer place ads alongside climate change denial. Many of the world’s automakers have pledged to turn their fleets electric in the coming decade. Some governments are coming around to the need to rein in the “company over country” model. Those are all good pieces of news.

But what will really make sure that we understand that we will only solve these challenges together? It will only happen if we can lead the world to a better place through shared meditation, shared words of peace and reverence and contrition, gathering together, however that might happen, to respect the qedushah / holiness in one another, to break bread together and sensitize ourselves to the needs of the other, to see humanity over company and country, and to seek the common good over myopic selfishness.

Ukhsheani leatzmi, mah ani? If I am only for myself, what am I?

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/9/2021.)

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The World is Burning – Re’eh 5778

I mentioned last week that I was out west two weeks ago. My son and I, along with my brother and my nephew, took an epic road trip that began in Phoenix. We spent Shabbat in Grand Canyon National Park, then moved on to Arches NP, Dinosaur NP (which has a Pittsburgh connection, by the way: it was initially excavated by Earl Douglass of the Carnegie Museum beginning in 1909; several of the dinosaur skeletons unearthed there are located in PGH at the museum); Devil’s Tower NP; and ending at Mt. Rushmore, with a few other destinations along the way. It was a long drive and a lot of fabulous locations to squeeze into a week, but it was my first trip out west (excluding California), and the scenery was almost overwhelmingly beautiful. The mountains, the rivers, the cliffs, the arches, the prairies, the unusual rock formations, the spacious skies, the amber waves of grain, etc.

Devil's Tower

It’s almost impossible to believe or understand how you can drive 90 miles between two intersections and not see a single home or store or even gas station, and barely any other cars on the road. There is a lot of space out there. And, given that we spent most of the time without wifi or mobile phone service, it was easy to forget about the world, to not be reminded of the Russia investigation, or the burning kites released into Israel from Gaza, or the anniversary of Charlottesville.

Except that there was one thing that we could not get away from, something lurking in the background pretty much wherever we went. Lurking in the background is this:

The world is on fire.

On the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, you can clearly see on the North Rim three wildfires. (Smoke by day, actual fire by night.) At several points along the trip, in Arizona, in Utah, and in Colorado, we saw signs and smelled the smoke of wildfires.

Smoke in Grand Canyon
The Adelson boys in the Grand Canyon. Smoke from wildfires can be seen over my left shoulder.

You may be aware that the currently-burning Mendocino Complex Fire is the largest ever recorded in California, having destroyed over 300,000 acres; another current fire, the Carr Fire, has killed 8 people and destroyed over 1,000 homes.

And it’s not just the American West. There are currently 1200 firefighters and 19 aircraft battling wildfires in southern Portugal. Wildfires in Sweden (!) destroyed 61,000 acres of forests in July. A wildfire in Greece killed 90 people in the last couple of weeks. There is an epic heat wave in Europe, such that the cattle who graze in the Swiss Alps are parched – helicopters are airlifting water to them. Sweden’s highest peak, the Kebnekaise glacier, actually dropped into second place because the heat melted the glacier, and it is now 13 feet shorter. There is a severe drought in Australia as well.

Ladies and gentlemen, the world is burning up.

Now, of course we cannot attribute any particular weather event to climate change; please remember that climate is not equal to weather. But when we consider that 7 of the 12 most destructive fires in California’s history have occurred in the last three years; when we consider that we are now losing polar ice at a rapid rate; when some climate scientists are concerned that we have already passed a global “tipping point,” beyond which we may never return to where we were, we have to ask ourselves, where are we headed? If we extrapolate this line, what will our future be?

And, as Jews, we must ask ourselves, what can we do right now to change the outcome?

Up front in Parashat Re’eh, right at the very beginning, is one of the clearest statements of the Torah’s understanding of theology (Devarim / Deuteronomy 11:26):

רְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה

Re’eh anokhi noten lifneikhem hayom berakhah ukelalah.

See, this day I set before you blessing and curse.

Look, says God, I have put before you today blessing and curse. If you follow My mitzvot, you’ll get the blessings. If you don’t, you’ll get the curses.

It’s very simple. Black and white. You do X, you get Y. If you don’t do X, you don’t get Y. That is also the theology described in the second paragraph of the Shema, and in many other places in the Torah.

However, that is not actually the theology that we hold by, we who live in 21st-century America. We know that God is more complicated than that. And that’s not a contemporary re-reading; even the rabbis of the Talmud (Bavli Berakhot 7a) observe that God does not seem to work like this. And I am grateful for all of the modern Jewish philosophers (Buber, Heschel, Kaplan, Gillman, etc.) who have enabled us to understand God differently.

But there is also something powerful here, embedded in this binary theological formula that cannot be ignored: that we still have to strive for blessings, and we have within our hands, at least in some cases, the potential to earn those blessings. We also have the potential to create curses. In endowing us with free will, God puts before us the power to create our own blessings and curses.

None of the classical commentators picks up on this, but note the presence of the word “hayom” (“today”) in that verse. Look, says God, I have put before you TODAY a blessing and a curse.

It is up to us today to make the choice. And every day we make these choices. Today is not just today; it is yesterday and tomorrow. In every moment, we can fashion the future.

So how do we maintain the blessing? How do we choose the good? How do we honor God’s Creation and make sure that it is there for generations to come? How do we ensure that we do not turn Scandinavia into a desert and drown Bangladesh?

It is that we make the choice today. And not just us, in this room, but all of us. The entire world.

Here is why the challenge of climate change is so hard for us to solve: we all have to cooperate to make it happen.

The reason that we are all here, ladies and gentlemen, gathered together in this building, in a city in North America, is because of the most salient ability of Homo sapiens: the ability to share ideas. Were it not for this remarkable talent, humans would never have passed the stage of nomadic hunter-gatherers. It was this intellectual revolution that enabled agriculture, trade, money, religion, nation-states, human rights, universities, the space program, etc., etc.

And you know what? As individuals, we can all spend all of our energies trying to minimize our carbon footprints, offsetting our transportation by planting trees, and so forth. We can stop eating meat. We can reduce, reuse, recycle all day long. But this will accomplish virtually nothing with respect to climate change – not compared to the 100 million barrels per day of crude oil that the world consumes.

The polar ice caps will continue to melt until every single government in the world commits to some serious legislation that will lessen the amount of greenhouse gases that we are pouring into the atmosphere. That was exactly the point of the Paris Climate Accords, through which the 196 signatories pledged to ensure that total global warming is limited to 2 degrees Celsius. (We are already halfway there.) It’s not enough of a limit according to scientists, but it is something.

Now, I know that there are always those among us for whom government is perceived to be the problem, rather than the solution. To you I offer a challenge: How can the private sector alone solve this problem? Is this something that the free market can solve? If so, I would like to hear those ideas.

Failing some other solution, I think that the only thing we can do is to implore our elected officials to push for legislation. The United States produces 15% of the world’s greenhouse gases; China produces 25%. Changing that will be hard.

But as California burns, I think we have to ask ourselves, can we afford not to do so?

Yesterday morning, I heard an interview with Pastor Ira Acree, who leads a Christian congregation on the west side of Chicago. He was speaking with an NPR reporter about violence in Chicago. The reporter noted that last weekend was especially bloody: 70 people were wounded in gun violence, 11 died. Toward the end of the interview, he quoted Proverbs 29:18:

בְּאֵין חָזוֹן, יִפָּרַע עָם

Where there is no vision, the people perish (KJV)

About half of the population of the world lives within 120 miles of a coast. Without a vision for reining in our production of greenhouse gases, many, many people will die, and for the rest, life will be unimaginably transfigured.

Re’eh anokhi noten lifneikhem hayom.

I put this before you today. Now is the time to act for blessings. Now is the time for vision.

Shabbat shalom.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/11/2018.)