Friday, November 16, 2012

Boycott Black Friday

This entry was originally posted in 2011. It has been updated for time and circumstance.

It happened for the first time in 2009. Customers, lined up since 9pm the night before, literally burst through the Wal-mart’s doors at 5am, and trampled an employee, Jdimtyai Damour, to death.

This year, a women pepper-sprayed 20 others in the face. Her reason? To clear a path to the Xbox display.  A 63 year man collapsed in a Target when his heart failed. Shoppers stepped over his fallen body so they could continue shopping. He later died in the hospital.

Largely in order to deal with these incidents, retail chains started opening for 24 hours on the Friday after Thanksgiving, meaning that their employees leave their Thanksgiving tables to go straight to work, or lose their jobs.

Societies are defined not only by the values they promote, but also by those they tolerate. The toleration of the culture that Black Friday has spawned is one of the worst insults we can level at ourselves. What we allow is the statement, yearly, on our national day of gratitude, that the consumption of non-essential goods at rock bottom prices far outranks our valuation of human decency. Don’t believe me? Here’s how we feel about towels. 

I have a paperweight that reads, “kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh” – all of Israel is responsible for one another. It’s from the Talmud - a lovely sentiment, just looking at it.

But the dirty little secret of the phrase is that, in context, it means that all of Israel is legally responsible for one another: that is, we bear culpability for each others actions simply through because part of the same nation. What our neighbors do reflects upon us.

This is deep wisdom about what it means to be a nation, about the impossibility of eschewing mutual responsibility, and it is true here as well. What is allowed to happen on Black Friday speaks volumes about us all, and is destroying the only truly ecumenical holiday in this country. It’s time for the end of Black Friday.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Power of Fear

Parshat VaYera
17 Heshvan, 5772
November 2nd, 2012

People who live in safety enjoy putting themselves in danger.

Well, maybe not in danger – more like next to danger. You know what I’m describing: boxing, surfing, skydiving, rock climbing, backpacking, scuba-diving, skiing; what links them all is exhilaration and the possibility of getting messed up in the process.

I won’t criticize too much – I’m one of these types, suburban born, seeking opportunities to leave safety behind.

There is a method behind this modern madness; sitting next to danger is a way of choosing healthy fear.  While we’re alive, fear cannot be banished. Instead what one can do is respond well in its face. And one can choose which kinds of fear dominate one’s life.

Fear is all around us. Unfortunately, most of it is stupid: the fear of parents who worry that their child may not be eternally exceptional (and blackmail teachers to make it so); the fear of young professionals who fret whether we’ll leave the right kind of mark; the fear that those from different social and national strata will somehow invade our lives for the worse. We are gripped by useless fear.

And what I can tell you is that, when in the clutch of dumb fear, getting hit in the face is a wonderfully clarifying experience; being tossed off a wave prioritizes life beautifully.

Within Torah communities, people talk about yirah – fear – quite positively. To have yirat shamyim (fear of heaven) is a virtue. Most moderns view the idea with distaste: what kind of God would want to be feared?

But I think we miss the point. To say someone has yirah means that she has chosen what to fear: not the boss, nor the opinion of neighbors, nor the kids’ academic future. Yirah is fear of two things: what account she will give to the Creator, and whether the Master of the World will bring life-threatening danger in her lifetime.

No one asks for a hurricane, but there is something set free in the soul when communities make sure that people have food, clothing, power, safety, and medical care: real things. God bless those who are afraid for their neighbors’ in Sandy’s aftermath.