Friday, June 15, 2012

Mountains and Molehills

Parshat Shelah
25 Sivan, 5772
June 15th, 2012

In New Orleans, it’s a huge deal. The Times-Picayune is stopping its daily print editions, opting for a more internet-heavy publishing approach.

This is not small. The Times-Picayune, which has been in publication since 1837, actually kept writing during Katrina with only three days of online-only coverage.

However, the newspaper laid off about 600 people yesterday. By any means, the layoff is a tragedy for the New Orleans community, and a troubling sign of more to come in journalism.

It is not, however a national disaster.

Mark Schleifstein, one of the reporters who shared the Pulitzer for Katrina coverage, referred to the layoffs and publishing shift as, “a sort of Katrina without water.”

And I have a serious problem with that simile.

I have noticed that, when serious trauma affects a community, the memory of that trauma gets trotted out at the most insignificant, inappropriate moments possible.

A couple of colleagues, recounting staffing crises in their synagogues, told me that various people had said to them over the firing or leaving of a clergy member – and I quote literally – “this is like the Warsaw ghetto,” and “if more people had spoken up, the Holocaust would not have happened.”

Now I’ve beat this hobby horse of mine to death before, but it was not like the Holocaust. Inter-synagogue politics, no matter how nasty, are not like the Ghettos. Firings at a newspaper are not like the worst American civil disaster of our time.

The Talmud teaches, “[Rabbi Meir] said to [Akher], ‘everything that God created, God created something in opposition to it: God created mountains – and created hills; God created seas – and created rivers…” Bavli Hagigah 15a.

Though it may seem obtuse, this is a very important point. Rabbi Meir teaches that meaning is creating by treating distinct objects differently from one another. The point is not academic: when one conflates big with small, one actively destroys the meaning of both, and people become unable to respond well to either. To call a firing a “Holocaust” or a “Katrina” means stopping the atrocity, not resolving an employment conflict. To continually wear down the sharpness of a disaster may leave people unable to respond when actual tragedy hits.

The first thing that Adam haRishon (the first person) did when created was to call God’s creatures by their true names. It’s an action worth emulating.

No comments:

Post a Comment