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'From the place where I am right'

By Jonathan Freirich 

“From the place where we are absolutely right, flowers will never grow in the spring” and that place “is trampled, hardened”. The great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) depicted this place and then offered this poetic solution: “Doubts and loves make the world rise like dough.”

We are in the process of destroying one another with our insistence on being right.

We need “doubts and loves.”

Particularly in the wake of attacks against Jews and other minorities and other churchgoers and people of every religion, ethnicity and belief across the world, we need to doubt and to love. And we need to start with ourselves. Self-doubt leads to the reclamation of the destroyed home and the reseeding of the parched field that also appear as the results of “the place where we are right” in Amichai’s poem.

Just as all of us, every person and every people in our City of Buffalo and our country and our globe needs to recognize that a threat to any of our safety is a threat against the safety of everyone.

We are all in this together and “none of us are getting out alive” as Nanea Hoffman quipped. We had better work together if the time frame for our lifespans will be measured in decades as opposed to single years or months.

We live in a world that is overcome with mentalities of “divide and conquer.” and “you’re either with us or against us.” These are the places where we are all attached to being absolutely right.

When was the last time any of us was absolutely right?

I can tell you that I have attempted to assert being absolutely right with my children, at weak moments. It may work in the short term. Kids will figure out that there are holes in our arguments sooner or later – probably sooner than we hope. Bringing a child into a conversation about the complexities of things takes extra effort and it leads to long-term results. The outcomes that we are looking for include caring, compassionate and thoughtful people with whom we have interesting and fulfilling relationships.

When I grow attached to my rightness, I have abandoned the conversation and there will never be any more progress on that issue with that person.

Let’s understand this clearly. To insist that I am right begins to destroy my ability to have a relationship with another person.

When I insist that I am right, absolutely right, then I deny the other person’s ability to ever be right in any way. When I deny another person’s possibility for offering a good idea, I have begun to deny their personhood, their humanity, their value.

We are our relationships. We are social beings and when we deny that by refusing to admit that we could be wrong, we erase our own humanity, our very existence. To insist that I am right destroys my own ability to be in relationships and be a person. We are participating in communal self-destruction.

And we are doing this over and over again, every minute of every day.

The results are devastating.

As I wipe out the presence of other people’s humanity I begin to see them as expendable, as exploitable, as obstacles that are in my way. When we do this, insist upon our rightness, we turn the world into a place filled with non-persons who only serve us for a purpose or prevent us from pursuing our purposes. This allows us to treat our neighbors badly, declare that people who don’t think like us or look like us are the cause of all of our problems, and then we get to dismiss their needs.

This is not a right or left, conservative or liberal position; this is the attitude of all of us on all sides who have at some point or another written off another person as beyond our ability to talk to or reason with. We cannot afford to write people off. Every time we do so we diminish that other person, we diminish our own selves, and we create a world where nothing will every grow again, and all people will be objects to be used or discarded or moved out of the way – ourselves included.

Instead, we must drastically challenge ourselves to do better. To extend sympathy and understanding. To listen. To be proven wrong. I admit, this is difficult to do.

Let’s start with doubts and loves. “I accept that I might not be right” is the doubt that allows me to accept that you might be right, which allows me to see you as a real person, with whom I might have a real relationship, so that there can be love between us. The “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) kind of love that we talk so much about and have so much trouble implementing.

When confronted by an argument we must sympathize first. Instead of getting our hackles up, let’s try: “You have a point.”

Think about it. The last time we braved a conversation about a topic of substance, something that really mattered, meaning something that we would argue tooth and nail about, with someone with whom we don’t agree, what happened?

What might have happened had we conceded from the very beginning that our fellow human, the one arguing with us, had a valid perspective?

This is a simple thing to do, and like all simple ideas requires a lot of effort and attention to keep on going in the face of greater and greater difficulty because it is not going to work right away. It may take a lot of practice to make it work at all.

“You have a point.”

This is the start of doubt and it springs from the belief and hope that there might be neighborly love down the line.

“You have a point.”

I ask us all to embrace this response when confronted with an argument. We need to start here. There are so many other places that our argumentative selves will take us.

There are so many other paths that lead to the place where “flowers will never grow.”

Let us step onto a new path paved with doubts and love.

Let’s do it together. Please. Our future depends on us now.

Rabbi Jonathan Freirich has served at Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo since 2016.

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