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Shedding Light On the Dangers of Unkindness

The following will be published in Chicago Jewish News on Friday, December 13, 2019:

Our human spirit battles numerous enemies within, enemies which render us capable of great harm. Racism. Xenophobia. Misogyny. Homicide. Genocide. Inherent in these evils is not just an explosive kind of hatred but a more primitive kernel of unkindness, one that explodes into a radical and oft-lethal existence. Our parashat ha-shavua sheds light on the dangerous and powerful potential of this essential unkindness.

Parashat Vayishlach is a challenging portion because we witness in Jacob’s struggles our very own trials in life and how we grapple with them. Here, Jacob wrestles with the angel of God. A painful experience for Jacob indeed. The angel wrenches Jacob’s hip socket, leaving him permanently wounded. Perhaps more difficult for Jacob, he has to confront his most difficult emotional challenges. Who is he really? What has he done? What must he do to achieve the very best of his potential? What can he do to live up to the very best of his humanity? What sacrifices must he make? What amends? From what is he running? Which enemy must he truly confront?

According to 20th century Rabbi Morris Adler, the greatest enemy of Jacob is not Esau, his estranged twin brother. The greatest enemy of Jacob resides within himself: a well of hostilities and resentments; of conscious and unconscious hatred; of a pride which “destroys his capacity to discover truths beyond his own.”

Jacob’s struggle should not come as a surprise to us because his behavior and feelings reflect each and every one of us. It is not always so easy to come to grips with our own basic unkindness. Just like Jacob struggles to confront the hostility and resentment that is part of him, we often wrestle with the same responsibility.

The fact is we possess great potential to not only be close-minded and angry, but also indifferent. Busy with our own lives, we too often stand idly by while hatred persists, even if we are not so hateful ourselves. When we fail to rebuke what is wrong in the world, we become complicit in that wrong-doing.

Most of us do not consciously allow basic unkindness to escalate into pure hatred, or God forbid, radical evil. And yet, we still live in a world in which hatred and radical evil rage on. What then is our commitment to eliminate it? What can we do? How do we shape greater tolerance and respect inside our own souls?

Education is the first step. If we do not learn how to make ourselves right, how can we contribute to the healing of the world? A compelling anecdote from a web magazine called “Teaching Tolerance” brings this challenge to bear.

From its idyllic setting - on a wooded hill overlooking Sennebec Lake - to its folksy name, Appleton Village School seems to embody Maine’s small-town character. The K-8 school serves 135 children and presents, at first glance, a portrait of harmony.

Two years ago, Appleton educators became alarmed at the rising tide of ridicule and disrespect in student interactions. Seizing on any sign of difference, children found ample opportunities to demean one another, picking on poorer kids, mocking academic stars, putting down the underachievers, taunting classmates about uncool clothes and sassing teachers.

The atmosphere was thick with casual wounding: "Fat cow," "Queer," "Ho," "Hag," "Slut," "Retard."

Some Appleton teachers developed the habit of closing their ears when walking through the halls. "You get overwhelmed," says Appleton guidance counselor Rob Pfeiffer. "You’re constantly doing triage."

Finally, principal Debra McIntyre invited the Center [for the Prevention of Hate Violence] to conduct a series of workshops at the school. Teachers and students alike recall the "ear-opening" experience as a new beginning.

They credit the training for demonstrating that the smallest acts of unkindness have a poisonous cumulative effect. By the end of that first year, school officials noted a dramatic drop in teasing and name-calling.

"We don’t use that language anymore," says Eli, a plain-talking 8th-grader with piercing dark eyes and close-cropped black hair. One of 20 Appleton students trained in the Student Leaders Project, Eli observes that the simple message of the workshop hit home.

"Now," he says, "people really think about what they say.

[Rob Blezard. “We Don’t Use That Language Anymore: A leadership program helps Maine students confront the culture of verbal abuse. Teaching Tolerance. Issue 23. Spring 2003,]

Good for Appleton Village School. Kol ha-kavod! The great Elie Weisel asserts that we must continue to believe, for the sake of the future, that the answer to violence grows from human compassion and humanity's "quest for justice and memory." Saving even a single life, defeating even one injustice, defeats cynicism and gives reason for hope; a gift each of us can give to one another. This is how we change the world, one precious act at a time. And, of course, the converse of this effort is true, too. As philosopher Albert Camus asserts: "Not to take a stand is in itself taking a stand." The Appleton Village community remains a positive role model on how to stand strong, conscientiously changing the world with a discipline of kindness.

Sadly though, we haven’t nearly made enough progress since this powerful teaching moment in 2003. Sixteen years later, we still need to take more individual and collective responsibility. We still need to think about what we really say and do. Whatever basic insults fill our lives each day, we need to think twice before committing them. However, many small unkindnesses undermine the lives around us and diminish our own integrity, we must be ready to wrestle and defeat them. Developing this kind of sensitivity and then paying it forward should have a ripple effect on the world around us. Refraining from this personal and communal wrestling will make our lives more susceptible to enemies like hatred, violence and suffering.

On this Shabbat Vayishlach - as we approach Hanukkah, the Festival of Light, a sacred celebration of freedom - let us open our hearts and enlighten our minds. Let our human spirit not remain indifferent to the bloodshed inflicted on others - be it of the body or the soul. And, let us rededicate ourselves to a life of mentschlikeit - beginning with the elimination of small unkindnesses and injustices around us. Time is of the essence because people remain vulnerable near and far. Shabbat shalom! May all come to enjoy a Shabbat of peace.

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