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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 Great Divide (You Are Needed) – Ki Tetse 5778

I read with great interest a few days ago about the efforts of some tech companies to prevent the use (or abuse) of social media to foment political division. In case you have no idea what I am talking about, here’s a brief summary:

Foreign powers like Russia and Iran have created fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms for the purposes of creating division in our society. The way it works is something like this: they create what look like activist groups by posting items of interest around certain hot-button causes – racism, for example, or gun ownership, or abortion. They attract followers, and then amp up the message by posting items that promote violence and hatred against those who disagree with them. Then they make connections with other, actual groups who have similar views, and convince them to host protest activities. One protest in Houston in May of 2016 called “Stop the Islamization of Texas” was not only organized by one of these fake groups, called Heart of Texas, which had 250,000 likes on Facebook, but also that protest was met by a counter-protest that was also organized by Russian trolls. Interestingly, nobody from Heart of Texas showed up, because it has no actual members, only Facebook likes.

stop the islamization of texas

The goal here is to disrupt us, to make us all angry, to make it seem like we are not all on the same team.

We are apparently all being played this way. Some of the platforms (Facebook and Twitter) are now working harder at taking these things down, but they are not necessarily easy to find. Also a few days ago, Microsoft announced that they thwarted Russian attempts to hack into the US Senate and two right-leaning think tanks.

In a few weeks, over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I will be speaking about love: love of self, love of family, love of community, love of the world. These are all essential things that we need more of, and we will be discussing sources in our tradition that point to to the imperative to love. But even before we get to that point, we have to understand as a society that we are all in this together. Perhaps we have lost that sense.

In thinking about this, it occurred to me that a curious, obsolete law in today’s parashah (Torah reading), Ki Tetse (BTW, the Wikipedia entry on this parashah offers seven ways of spelling its name!), suggests something relevant to us today. It’s about the situation in which a man has two wives, and he loves one and hates the other. (In biblical times, perhaps this was a common occurrence; divorce is permitted in the Torah, but generally due to some kind of perceived flaw — this also appears later in Ki Tetse). The man’s firstborn son, who inherits a double portion of the man’s estate, was born to the unloved wife. The man is not permitted to favor the son of the wife he loves; he must follow the laws of inheritance despite his personal preference.

What we might find in this is the following: our personal feelings about others around us do not matter. Their politics, the things that others do that we do not like, these things are irrelevant. We still have to cooperate with them, interact with them, and maintain societal norms with them. With respect to the law, we cannot favor those whom we like.

About two years ago, the New York Times published a captivating op-ed by the Dalai Lama and Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute about contemporary anger, discontent, and anxiety in the wealthiest nations of the world. Their suggestion was that not enough people feel useful – that is, that the nature of our society is that too many of us feel not needed, and that for humans and society to thrive, we have to feel needed. They said the following:

Virtually all the world’s major religions teach that diligent work in the service of others is our highest nature and thus lies at the center of a happy life. Scientific surveys and studies confirm shared tenets of our faiths. Americans who prioritize doing good for others are almost twice as likely to say they are very happy about their lives. In Germany, people who seek to serve society are five times likelier to say they are very happy than those who do not view service as important. Selflessness and joy are intertwined. The more we are one with the rest of humanity, the better we feel.

One of the primary goals of halakhah, of Jewish law, is to set up an interdependent society in which people take responsibility for each other. And an essential part of that is to understand that everybody, and I mean everybody, is a part of that. Not just your friends. Not just your family. But all of us. That’s why the Torah exhorts us multiple times to take care of the orphan, the widow, the stranger among us. That is why halakhah is so all-encompassing, framing every aspect of our lives in holiness.

The Dalai Lama and Mr. Brooks go on to suggest a plan for how to improve everybody’s sense of being needed:

What can we do to help? The first answer is not systematic. It is personal. Everyone has something valuable to share. We should start each day by consciously asking ourselves, “What can I do today to appreciate the gifts that others offer me?” We need to make sure that global brotherhood and oneness with others are not just abstract ideas that we profess, but personal commitments that we mindfully put into practice.

Does anybody hear anything in that passage that exists in Jewish tradition? Neither Arthur Brooks nor the Dalai Lama are Jewish. And yet, how do Jews start each day? By expressing gratitude for everything: Modeh ani lefanekha. Grateful am I to You, God, for putting my soul into my body this morning. And then we continue with a whole litany of thanks known as Birkhot HaShahar, the morning blessings, which we recited here just a short time ago.

And I can point to a myriad of ways in which our tradition reinforces the idea of oneness. What does Hanukkah teach? To cast light in this world. What does Pesah teach? To bring people out of oppression. What does Rosh Hashanah teach? To remind us of our equality and humility before God, across all of Creation.

What does daily prayer teach? That a minyan, a quorum of ten Jews, is needed to get going. That we need you to make it happen. That we are all in this together.

veahavta.png

In a greater sense, we all need each other if we are going to tackle the great challenges facing our society right now. We need everybody to be on board in trying to do something that is really hard: reaching out to others.

It is a natural human inclination to favor the ones we love, and particularly the ones we like. But we need everybody. We cannot allow divisions to be created. We are all on the same team: Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, poor and rich, black, white, brown, young and old. We cannot allow division to be sown.

You count. You are needed.

And here is what we all need you to do:

  • Before you click the “Like” button or retweet any content on social media from any activist group, do the best you can to verify that it is a real organization.
  • Get out of your information silo: If there is a newsworthy item that concerns you, it is worth checking out how is it portrayed in various news outlets — not necessarily to change your mind, but to better understand the flip side of arguments or just to see how people you disagree with see the world and why.
  • This is an old debate-team trick: try to argue the other side’s opinion.
  • Seek ways to widen the circle of people you interact with.

A final note: one of the special things about houses of worship, like synagogues, is that they bring together a whole range of people: people with diverse opinions, people from different backgrounds and economic strata. We need you to be here, but even more so, our society needs gathering places like this that build social capital, where we can come together for holy purposes and, even when we disagree, understand that we are part of something greater.

The future of our society depends on you: your willingness not only to understand that you are an essential part of the universal whole, but also that your neighbor is not your enemy. Ve-ahavta lereiakha kamokha (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:18). Love your neighbor as yourself.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/25/2018.)