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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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A Plague of Misinformation – Tazria-Metzora 5780

One of the key principles in Jewish life is that words have power. That is why we recite certain sets of liturgy three times every day. That is why the Torah itself urges us to recite the Shema before going to sleep and when we wake up in the morning. That is why the pre-eminent mitzvah in Jewish life is Talmud Torah, the study of the words of Torah. And that mitzvah does not just mean “study,” as in, read them and/or commit them to memory. Talmud Torah is about elevating the words of the Jewish bookshelf by interpreting, re-interpreting, disagreeing and yes, even arguing about the meaning of our ancient texts, and of course applying them to our lives.  Everything is under scrutiny; slight nuances of individual words, or even single letters or vowels, can lead us to different interpretations. And that is really the essential holy act of Judaism.

That is why, as you have definitely heard me say before, we are still here: because we have been using our words – living them and revisiting them again and again – for literally thousands of years.

And it is this essential devotion to words – written, printed, spoken, and so forth – that makes us understand all the more so the essential value of using words with care.

Just a few examples of ways through which we demonstrate on a regular basis the high stakes with respect to the use of words: 

  1. Whoever leads services in a Jewish context, a sheliah tzibbur (literally, “emissary of the community”) must be skilled at pronouncing the words of tefillah / prayer correctly. The one who mispronounces words, whether accidentally or deliberately, should be replaced.
  2. Whenever we read from the Torah, there are two people standing on either side of the reader to correct her or him in the event of a mispronunciation that changes the meaning of the word.
  3. We have in our tradition strict halakhah / law about what is acceptable vs. unacceptable speech. Just a few examples:
    1. Lashon hara. “The evil tongue.” We are forbidden, according to Vayikra / Leviticus 19:16, which read in Parashat Qedoshim next week, from being rekhilim, people who tell tales about one another, whether true or false.
    2. Nibbul peh. “Lewdness of the mouth.” The Talmud (Yerushalmi Terumot 1:6) tells us that the use of foul language is prohibited. The words that come out of our mouth should be as pure as the food that we put in.
    3. Motzi shem ra. Slander. Our bar mitzvah mentioned this earlier in his devar Torah. A subset of gossip, this is the spreading of malicious falsehoods.
  4. We have an obligation to speak the truth, for example from Shemot / Exodus 23:7: מדבר שקר תרחק / Midevar sheqer tirhaq. Distance yourself from falsehood. 

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, a rabbi from Belarus who lived in the 19th and early 20th century, is best known for the name of the book he wrote about lashon hara, called “Hafetz Hayyim.” The title is a reference to a line that we sang earlier this morning in Pesuqei DeZimra, from Psalm 34:13-14:

מִֽי־הָ֭אִישׁ הֶחָפֵ֣ץ חַיִּ֑ים אֹהֵ֥ב יָ֝מִ֗ים לִרְא֥וֹת טֽוֹב׃ נְצֹ֣ר לְשׁוֹנְךָ֣ מֵרָ֑ע וּ֝שְׂפָתֶ֗יךָ מִדַּבֵּ֥ר מִרְמָֽה׃

Who is the person who desires life, who desires years of good fortune? Guard your tongue from evil, your lips from deceitful speech.

If we truly desire life, says Rabbi Kagan, we will guard our tongues, and not spread falsehoods.

According to our tradition, we have a tremendous responsibility to make sure that our words reflect the qedushah, the holiness to which we aspire in all of our relationships. To do so reflects an honest desire to pursue life. Those that lie cause pain, suffering, and death.

And all of this is why the current moment is just so disturbing to me.

Let’s face it. We are all really, really anxious right now. Some of us are going a bit stir crazy, stuck in our homes, with few options for getting out of the house, other than to take a walk or go food shopping, the latter of which, in my experience, only causes more anxiety. (Nothing wrong with taking walks, of course; those of us who have dogs know that the dogs are clearly grateful for our presence around the house to take them for lots of walks.)

And aside from being cooped up in the house, everybody is anxious about the state of the world. As we watch the numbers of people with confirmed infections rise, and with them the number of people hospitalized, and those who die from the disease, we are all wondering: When will we see the peak? Will there be a second wave? What about all the people who have lost their jobs, their source of income? And perhaps most heartbreakingly, When can we resume our lives or reclaim some semblance of normalcy?

I, of course, have no answers to these questions, or even educated guesses. I certainly wish I did, but epidemiology was not included in my rabbinical school curriculum. Perhaps the closest approach I have to any knowledge of the spread of infectious diseases comes from the parashah that we read today, Tazria-Metzora, which of course describes the spread of an infectious disease, and frankly, it’s not so helpful (even though it does speak of regular testing and quarantine).

That disease, called in Hebrew tzara’at, has often historically been translated as “leprosy,” although I am told that anybody who knows anything about leprosy knows that the disease described in this part of Vayiqra / Leviticus cannot be leprosy, based on its description.

Nonetheless, there is an essential message here, related not to epidemiology but about a public health issue of another sort: that of misinformation.

You probably know what I’m talking about. There are many people spreading misinformation. Whether through malicious intent, or because they might be able to profit off people’s gullibility, or because they just do not know any better, repeating outright lies on social media is a transgression of the highest order. A few of the kinds of things that you might find out there are (a more extensive list of these things, courtesy of Ryerson University Ted Rogers School of Management Social Media Lab, is found here):

  • Promoting fake tests or cures. As of right now, there is no cure. Do not believe anything that presents as such.
  • Speculation on the origin. The virus was not created in a lab by some country to use as a weapon.
  • Dismissing the severity of the virus. Clearly a political move that comes from the honest desire that many of us have to see our businesses reopened and our jobs returned as soon as possible.
  • Racial, religious, or ethnicity-baiting. Perhaps the most tragic, because it demonstrates how easily many of us fall into blaming others for our situation. This type of malicious falsehood appeals to our basest fears.

And there are more. Ladies and gentlemen, this stuff is dangerous. Lies kill, just like some viruses do.

Unfortunately, one piece of news out there related to COVID-19 is that at a few of the anti-government protests intended to end state shutdowns, there were people displaying openly anti-Semtic signs. One, at a protest in Ohio, featured a cartoon of a blue rat with a Jewish star and a kippah on its head, flanked above and below by blue stripes similar to those on the Israeli flag, with the caption, “The Real Plague.”

Straight-up anti-Semitism aside, the danger here is simple: any kind of information that misleads people, whether intentional or unintentional, has the potential to cause more people to die. There has been dangerous misinformation about the malaria treatment, hydroxychloroquine, which in preliminary studies has not shown any effectiveness in curing people of the virus. The FDA on Friday (April 24th) issued a warning that this drug may cause heart arrhythmia in people with COVID-19.

And this should go without saying, but of course taking disinfectants internally is dangerous and ineffective. (And it’s just a little ridiculous that the company who manufactures Lysol had to issue a public statement to that effect.)

Part of the challenge here is the ease with which we can spread falsehoods today. While it used to be that you needed a printing press to promote misinformation, today anybody with a smartphone can put out lies to the entire world with a few finger taps. 

And that, in my mind, simply elevates the reasons that Jews have always been so invested in our words. Words can give life, as we have seen here today. But they can also, in fact, kill. 

And social media, when misused by anybody to promote misinformation, can kill as well. 

Hevreh, we have a responsibility right now, more than ever, to the truth – to scientific inquiry, to actual medical knowledge, to responsible, sober advice from people that actually know something. Drawing on Jewish tradition, please be discerning regarding what you post/repost. If you read something on Facebook or wherever that sounds like a cure, perhaps you should check it out before spreading it. Because, like the guy with the feather pillows, once it is out there, it cannot be taken back.

We who desire life must commit over and over to highlighting the importance of truth. And right now, anything less than truth can kill. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 4/25/2020.)