י״א באב ה׳תשע״ד (August 7, 2014)
The Talmud in Tractate Pesachim (50a) tells the story of Yosef, the son of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, who had a near-death experience, but miraculously survived. When he came to, his father asked him what he had seen in Heaven. His son replied, “I saw an upside-down world. Those people we regard as important down here are seen as unimportant there, and vice versa.” His father replied to him, “My son, what you saw is not upside-down, it is the reality.”
Sadly this is often the case with the world we inhabit; our perception and the reality are completely at variance one with the other, yet we convince ourselves that the way we see it, that is the way it truly is. One of the hardest things for a person to admit is that they are wrong, even when the proof is right there in black and white. Humility is having the ability to accept a critique with equanimity, recognise it as being correct (if it is), and espouse it as your own opinion.
There is a beautiful story told of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem, known as the Baal Shem Tov, who had two groups of followers, the wise and learned scholars and the simple, unlettered peasants. Both groups were welcome in his home and both groups dined at his Shabbat table. On one occasion he noticed the scholars were looking askance at the extra attention he was giving the labourers, to those they considered ignorant and devoid of Torah knowledge.
After the meal he waited until the latter group had left to recite Tehillim (Psalms) in an adjoining room, and then he gathered his students in a tight circle. They placed their hands on their neighbours’ shoulders and went into a trance, where they felt they were being lifted above the Heavens. There they heard the sound of angels singing, with a sweetness and purity beyond belief, and they listened in a spiritual ecstasy. After a few moments, their teacher broke the circle and explained what they had been listening to – it was nothing less than the very words being recited in the room next door, by the group they considered unworthy of attention.
“The song you heard,” explained Rabbi Israel, “is the way their simple, honest and pure prayers are heard On High. Let this be a lesson to you.”
Perception and reality are often distant strangers.
In the world today we are witnessing a similar warping of reality; a perception which is in reality an illusion. The international community is up in arms, marching through the streets, waving banners, and promoting a global boycott of one small country in the Middle East; a country that has flourished despite the most difficult of conditions, and only wants to live peacefully within its borders, safely and securely. Round the clock coverage, social media saturation and large amounts of misinformation have made this small country, with its small but tragic conflict, the biggest item on the international agenda. This is at the top of the UN priority list, top of many countries’ foreign policy speeches, and is discussed daily by many on the planet. Everybody wants to get involved, either to help the suffering innocents, or to jump on the condemnation bandwagon.
Here’s the strange thing: In terms of global conflicts, this is one of the smallest; in terms of fatalities in conflict (despite the inherent tragedies) it doesn’t even make the top 50. Yet everyone knows about it, and everyone wants to protest.
Here’s something even stranger: As I write these words, a tremendous human tragedy is unfolding; a cruel, evil and frightening tragedy. In Northern Iraq, between 30,000 and 50,000 Yazidi people are trapped in the mountains, men, women and children, without food or water for the last 48 hours. Hour by hour they are dying of thirst and hunger; parents are throwing their own children off the mountain side rather than see them die slowly and painfully, as they look on helplessly. Every single one is a civilian, their only crime that they belong to a different faith than the ISIS troops who have chased them there, killing, plundering and stealing their women.
50,000 human beings, chased and starved to death … and the world hardly stirs. 1500 men were slaughtered in front of their wives and children, yet nobody cares, and up to a quarter of Iraq’s Christians are also fleeing for their lives as we speak. Here is a quote from Joshua Savitt, an IDF soldier:
Where are the tweets? Where are the Facebook statuses? Where are the memes? Where are the viral videos? Where are the demonstrations? Where are the reports? Where are the condemnations from global leaders? Where is the UN task force? Where is the UN Human Rights Council? Where is the round-the-clock coverage by CNN? The BBC? The New York Times? The photos of innocent victims? The eyewitness accounts of horror stories? Where are the pundits? Where are the celebrities?
Earlier this week Fiyan Dakheel, a Yazidi, and female member of the Iraqi parliament, cried hysterically for someone to stop the genocide of her people; she was so overcome with emotion that she fainted at the microphone. Jews know what it means to have nowhere to turn, to plead with the world to save your people, only to hear the heavy sound of silence.
So what happened? Why is one real genocide (one of many in the world) being ignored and falling on deaf ears, yet the conflict in Gaza is in everyone’s living room, so powerful that people are motivated to march and boycott? (Never mind that in Gaza there is a legitimate military campaign to rid Hamas of terror rockets and terror tunnels; never mind that civilians in Gaza are dying (tragically) only because Hamas is firing rockets from their schools, mosques and playgrounds.)
It is all about our perception, and the clever manipulation of it by the international media outlets. We all cry when a young child is killed, we are all horrified when innocent people die, and no one person is worth more than another, but that perception can be altered by heavy media bombardment. They convince us, by giving so much coverage of the issue, that one issue (of their choice) is more important than another. So the death of a child in Gaza is horrific (which it is) and the death of 10,000 children in Iraq is irrelevant (which it isn’t).
Here is a quote from Hillel Neuer, Executive Director of UN Watch, in July this year:
If in the past year you didn’t cry out when thousands of protesters were killed and injured by Turkey, Egypt and Libya; when more victims than ever were hanged by Iran; women and children in Afghanistan were bombed; whole communities were massacred in South Sudan; 1800 Palestinians were starved and murdered by Assad in Syria; hundreds in Pakistan were killed by jihadist terror attacks; 10,000 Iraqis were killed by terrorists; villagers were slaughtered in Nigeria – but you ONLY cry out for Gaza, then you are NOT pro-Human Rights, you are only anti-Israel.
In the parsha we read this week, Moses is about to leave the Jewish people as they enter Israel without him. In his final speech he cries out to them: And which great nation is it that has … this entire Torah, which I set before you this day? But beware … lest these things depart from your heart, all the days of your life, and you shall make them known to your children and to your children’s children.
Moses’ final plea to his people is not to forget their value system, as given by G-d on Mount Sinai. “As you enter the Holy Land,” he is telling them, “don’t lose your priorities, and don’t let others change G-d’s agenda for you.”
In the Jewish calendar we are now just after the Three Weeks of mourning, and entering a period of comfort and joy. Let us pray that we, along with the citizens of the entire world, find our humanity and correct our perception, so that we can put down the weapons and look one another in the eye and say, “We are all G-d’s children, let us live in His world in harmony, the way He intended.” Shabbat shalom.
Rabbi Zalman Lent
Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of Chabad of Ireland.