Tag Archives: tikkun olam

New Music: Eric Komar, “Justice, Justice”

It’s no secret that justice is a big deal for me. I have the quote from Micah right there on the front of this blog:

He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord demands of you; to do justice, to show mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:8

That’s sort of in-your-face, wouldn’t you say? If you needed a commandment that sort of encompasses the idea of tikkun olam, I can’t find a better place to start.

Well, in the last few weeks, I’ve been expanding my Jewish-and-Hebrew music collection. In a search for recordings of the Shehecheyanu, I discovered Eric Komar. Unfortunately, his music isn’t available on YouTube, but you should definitely look him up on his own page at http://www.komarmusic.com/merch.html, or at iTunes or Spotify. And the first song of his you should look for and listen to is “Justice, Justice,” from his album Two Life.

I’ll just put the lyrics here.

Justice, Justice
Eric Komar

Too many hungry families sleeping on the street
Tirdof tzedek, tzedek
Too many addicts trying to get back on their feet
Tirdof tzedek, tzedek
Too many tyrants wreaking havoc on their lands
Tirdof tzedek, tzedek
Too many helpless victims of destructive plans
Tirdof tzedek, tzedek

Do justly, love mercy
Walk humbly with your God
Justice, justice shall you follow
Tzedek, tzedek tirdof

Too many jobs denied because of greed or race
Tirdof tzedek, tzedek
Too many laws defied; the wrong side wins the case
Tirdof tzedek, tzedek

Do justly, love mercy
Walk humbly with your God
Justice, justice shall you follow
Tzedek, tzedek tirdof

Too many young and feeble heartlessly snuffed out
Tirdof tzedek, tzedek
Too many old and sick nobody cares about
Tirdof tzedek, tzedek
Too many selfish interests trump the common good
Tirdof tzedek, tzedek
Too many messages not being understood!
Tirdof tzedek, tzedek

Do justly, love mercy
Walk humbly with your God
Justice, justice shall you follow
Tzedek, tzedek tirdof
Do justly, love mercy
Walk humbly with your God
Justice, justice shall you follow
Tzedek, tzedek tirdof
Tirdof tzedek, tzedek
Tirdof tzedek, tzedek
Oh… justice, justice!

Tirdof tzedek, tzedek.


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Filed under Conversion Process, Day-to-Day, Jewish Practices

On Robin Williams and Depression

This post might look like it has nothing to do with Judaism, but bear with me. It does.

Ever since I found out about Robin Williams’ death yesterday I’ve been sort of in a state of shock. The man who created Mork, Garp, Airman Cronauer, the Genie, John Keating, Armand Goldman, Peter Banning/Pan, and Vladimir Ivanoff dead? Impossible.

But even worse: his death was by suicide? Incredible. Unbelievable. This brilliant, vibrant, funny, successful man killed himself? How can that be?

And yet. And yet.

Finding out that he suffered from depression makes all of that completely believable – both his successes and his death.

You see, I have depression. I have always had it. I always will have it. It doesn’t go away. It doesn’t disappear. And I have heard that inner voice saying in a very calm, rational, completely believable way: “Nobody would miss you if you died. They’d celebrate if you were gone because you’re a waste of space, energy, and air. You’re worthless. You’re pointless. Anyone could have done the things you did. You’re not that special. You deserve to feel this way because you are scum. Your partner could do better, and probably is doing better. Your kids are ashamed to be seen with you. Your family thinks you’re an embarrassment. So why don’t you just give them all a break? The knife is right there on the kitchen counter. The pills are in the medicine cabinet.”

Life with depression is a constant fight against that voice, because that voice never shuts up. I’ve had three suicide attempts in my life. The first one was when I was fifteen. The second one, I was sixteen. The third one was in my thirties and very few people knew about that one until just now. Thankfully none of them were successful, but at the time I was just disappointed (and ashamed) that I couldn’t even kill myself correctly.

It. Never. Stops.

If you have depression you find ways around it. You find ways to shore yourself up against it. Comedy is a big one. Music is another. Publishing a book. Writing a screenplay. Getting a doctorate. All of these are bulwarks against depression and the lies that it tells. But even those ways don’t always work. Sometimes the levees break. Sometimes the foundation crumbles.

To this day I still have far too many times when I don’t think I’m a very good or important person. Despite all my accomplishments, I still have depression living in my skin. It tells me that my doctorate is no big deal, that the students I’ve reached would have succeeded anyway, that my family and friends see me as a bother rather than a blessing. Sometimes I believe it. Sometimes I fight it. Not always.

If you have never known true, clinical depression, be thankful. It is worse than being sad. It is worse than being “blue” or down in the dumps. It is worse than feeling grief when a loved one dies. Depression is the sense of total worthlessness, of feeling that you deserve every bad thing that happens to you and that you don’t deserve any good that is part of your life. Depression is an endless black hole of suck, like a tar pit. On a good day you might be able to claw your way up to only waist-deep in it. On a good day you might be able to draw a few breaths thinking that you will be able to keep breathing without a struggle tomorrow.

But it never goes away. Medication can help manage it for some people. Therapy can help manage it. Learning strategies to cope like cognitive behavioral therapy can help manage it. But it never. goes. away.

Robin Williams’ death and the circumstances surrounding it serve as a stark reminder that we must address this problem as a national public health issue, just as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death reminds us that we must address addiction as a national public health issue. But in the meantime, until our policymakers get off their collective asses and start doing something about depression, here’s what I have for you. And here is where Judaism informs my approach. When I am in pain nowadays, when that low, rational voice is telling me that I’d be better off dead, I turn to G-d as well as to my friends. I cry out for help instead of holding it in. I pray. And when I see someone else in this kind of pain, it is a mitzvah to reach out to them and help.

If you have a friend in pain, reach out to them. Reach out to them. Reach out to them. Send them a note, an e-mail, give them a hug or a phone call. Take them to a movie or out to lunch. Don’t let them struggle alone in the endless black hole of suck that is depression. And don’t be fooled by their shiny happy exterior – it’s a front. Let them know you’re here. Let them know you care. Let them know they matter. And say it again, and again, and again, because depression can be louder than you are.

If you are in this kind of pain, if you think that ending it would be better than going on, if you can’t see the point any more, please, please get some help. Please reach out. Please call a suicide helpline –http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ even has an online chat program if you can’t handle a phone call. But don’t wait. Don’t give up.

Because my life is better because you’re in it.


Filed under Day-to-Day

Tikkun Olam and the Kindness Boomerang

4 Av 5774

I sign a lot of online petitions. I’m a slacktivist – I sign, I repost the link to my Facebook, and I do what I can to make my voice heard. I draw the line at “let us know you called” petitions because I can’t hear on the phone very well, so I avoid the phone generally. For a while, I blogged politically for the things I thought were important: marriage equality, anti-poverty programs, education funding, a few other things.

The problem with signing these petitions is that it gets you onto email distribution lists. And then you get emails. Lots and lots of emails.

Right now, almost every email I get from a political organization is asking me for money to help with some issue or other. And how I wish I could, but it’s money I don’t have right now. It’s summer, work is over for most teachers, and I’m living carefully until school starts again and I have some assurance that my classes will remain populated for me so that I’ll get paid for them. It’s a shaky life at best.

But the issues – man, the issues! There are more than you can shake a stick at, and all of them are important, and all of them are interlinked, and how will we ever find our way out of this morass?

Just off the top of my head, here’s a few of the issues that these groups are emailing me about:

  • Gaza and Israel
  • The refugee children coming up here from war-torn Central America
  • General funding for different progressive candidates’ midterm races
  • The GOP lawsuit against the President
  • Comcast’s attempt to kill net neutrality
  • Attacks on servicemembers’ rights to their own religious practices in the military
  • Constitutional amendments to overturn Citizens United and McCutcheon, the Supreme Court decisions that gave personhood to corporations
  • Campaign finance reform
  • Marriage equality fights across the nation
  • Veterans’ health and disability funding
  • Unemployment funding renewal
  • The adjunct crisis and funding for higher education
  • Protecting James Risen, a reporter for the New York Times who is refusing to reveal a confidential source and is now facing prison time, in blatant violation of the freedom of the press
  • Fracking in California, where I live
  • The drought in California, where I live

And on and on and on. It’s overwhelming. There’s just too many issues and I can’t process, let alone handle, all of them. And this is just a sampling – it’s certainly not every issue that has hit my inbox in the last 72 hours.

There are times I get really discouraged about this stuff. There are times I think that as a human being – never mind as a Jew-ish person, just as a human being – it’s my responsibility to fix it all. Tikkun olam, you know? Heal the world? But how can I do that with only 16 usable hours in a day? I do need to sleep, you know.

When I get into this kind of I-must-fix-the-whole-world despondency, it helps me to remember a passage from one of my favorite books on medicine: Psychward, by Stephen B. Seager. Seager is a white, middle-class, originally-from-suburban-Utah physician who spent nine years as an ER doctor and is now entering psychiatry due to PTSD from having worked in the ER too long. The book is about his first year as a psychiatric intern in The Bin (Los Angeles County General Hospital), which is located in the heart of the ghetto. Seager gets education on more than just psychiatric terms and medications; he gets an education on what it’s like to be blindingly poor. He has to interact with the homeless and turn them away from the hospital on a daily basis during triage because they don’t have mental illnesses. He sees grinding poverty and the anguish that goes with it.

And at some point, it overwhelms him.  On the day he finally reaches his breaking point, he sees a five-year-old who found his parents’ cocaine stash and tried a few lines, resulting in a cocaine overdose. He has to help other people who have problems bigger than he can handle. The last straw comes when has to deal with a woman who is both a cocaine addict and who admits to having sold her children to the “baby man” in exchange for cocaine. He can’t handle it. He leaves in the middle of his shift and goes home to his suburban middle-class house in a nice part of Los Angeles. The next morning, over breakfast, he tells his wife he can’t handle the job any more. The issues are just too big.

On her suggestion, he goes back to tell everyone that he’s leaving, to apologize for leaving in the middle of his shift, and to pick up his stuff. And it turns out that his wife called in one of his friends who works on the ward to cover for him, and told the people at work that there was an emergency at home. Him leaving call blows over, and that same friend, a brilliant doctor named Glen Charles who grew up in and still lives in the ghetto, takes him to lunch.

This is where Dr. Seager gets a lesson in how much (and how little) we can actually do about the big problems. I’ll quote from the book here.

“Everything comes to a head,” [Glen] continued, “when we realize the ghetto exists not because ‘they’ tolerate it but because we ourselves tolerate it, you and I. This place is like it is because we allow it to be so. That’s the conflict,” Glen said. “The kernel for the explosion. How can this place be, and why did I permit it? That’s a heavy cross to bear.”

I felt like running from the room or punching Glen. He’d found a sore spot and was leaning down hard. I think I actually pulled at my shirt collar.

“There is a way out, however,” Glen said with a reassuring look. “Since you were part of the problem, you have to become part of the solution. Not the entire solution, just your part.”

“What’s my part, Glen?” I said, thinking back to the overwhelming rush of emotion I’d felt while driving through the ghetto streets.

“Your part,” Glen continued, “is to take it one person at a time. To realize that all these people are human beings […] That they didn’t ask for this, just as you didn’t ask for the troubles in your life. Do the best you can for each patient that crosses your path and you’ve done your job. The larger issues here are too much to comprehend. But the little ones we can handle. And if enough little ones go away, one day so will the big ones.”

Seager, Stephen B. 1991. Psychward. New York: Berkeley Books.

The value of tikkun olam often feels to me (and, I’m sure, to other Jews and Jew-ish people) like we have to fix everything, right now, all at once. I know that when I point out to my students that there is no one right answer, and that there is no one quick fix – that higher taxes are linked to how we get people out of poverty, and that poverty is linked to a lack of education, and that education isn’t as much of a help as it used to be because we’ve culturally devalued knowledge and value ignorance, and that that ignorance leads to discrimination against people who are different (non-Christian, nonwhite, female, poor, queer), they get really uncomfortable. They ask me “Then what’s the answer?”

The answer is exactly what Glen Charles said it is. Take it one person at a time. Handle the issue you can handle, today, now. Make the world a slightly better place where you are, and let the rest go, because we are human, not superhuman. Reach out in kindness to the stranger. If you can help someone today, help them. If you can say a kind word, say it.

Research has shown that acting kindly towards others makes you feel better about yourself. But it’s also shown that it acts as the start of a kindness boomerang for most people who witness or experience someone else’s act of kindness. A perfect example is this video from Live Vest Inside:

As a Jew-ish person, my job is to be a light to the world, to be an example. So today I’m going to make a point of thanking people for their help. I’m going to make a point of helping people who need it if I can provide the help. I’m going to try to set off kindness boomerangs everywhere I go.

If you do the same, we can make the world a better place, one person at a time.

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Filed under Jewish Practices, Judaism

“Deserve” is a Toxic Word

22 Tamuz 5774

Ursula K. Le Guin, an author I admire tremendously, has one of her characters say this in her book The Dispossessed:

“We each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever piled in the tombs of the dead kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate? No man earns punishment, no man earns reward. Free yourself of the idea of deserving, of the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.

In the scene in question, the speaker is quoting Odo, the founder of the anarchist community on the planet Anarres, which has rejected capitalism for communalism. Much of the book’s description of Anarresti life looks a lot like the life of Israeli kibbutzim, so to me this is a special book. But that quote above, especially, resonates with me.

We use the word “deserve” in a toxic way far, far too often. Many times, recently and not-so-recently, I’ve seen the word used towards a group as if each person in it were homogenous and exactly like all the other members of that group. I’ve seen that word used to exclude, to shut out, to oppress. The Palestinians in Gaza “deserve” to die from Israeli bombs because they were warned the bombs were coming and they refused to get out of the way; the Israelis “deserve” to be called murderers for defending their borders against Hamas’ terrorism (although the news media often conflates Hamas and the Palestinian people – an inaccuracy that enrages me every time I see it). In the United States, poor people “deserve” their fate because they’re somehow “lazy.” New college graduates “deserve” low-paying jobs because they should have to “earn” their way up. I’m sure you can think of other examples, none of them flattering. And let’s not start on the comment threads on these news items, okay?

I’ve also seen that word used to encourage people to buy things, not because they need them or because the things are especially useful, but to show off how special they must be if they own one of these things. You “deserve” that new car, that diamond ring, that new house, that expensive meal. Why? Because you are rich enough to afford it, and you should be ostentatious about it.

Can the word “deserve” be used in any positive way? I don’t think it can. It’s inherently a value judgment, and a negative one. It’s not based on the individual human being’s personal traits or their actions, but on their group identification or on their material circumstances (which, most of the time, they have only limited control of). And I think this ties into one of the big differences between Jewish thought and non-Jewish thought, for me. Remember that whole thing about “thoughts are not sins, only actions can be sins”? That means we should only be held responsible for our actions, right?

The poor rarely did anything to be poor. Many of them were born into poverty. Many others were victims of unpredictable economic shifts. Those who are members of marginalized groups rarely chose to be part of those groups (converts being an exception). And nowadays, there are very few self-made rich people, either. Most of them inherited their wealth, so they didn’t do anything to “deserve” their wealth. They just got lucky in the birth lottery.

And yet, more and more, our Western societies insist on the “deserving” poor being the only ones who “deserve” to get any help – if any – at all. Who are the “deserving” poor? Apparently, they’re the people who show enough shame at having to use an EBT card to buy their groceries, who drive crappy cars, and who have no internet-worthy machines (smartphones, computers, etc.). If they have an iPhone, they don’t “deserve” any help, apparently.

In what world does the word “deserve” show even the slightest bit of compassion? In what world is the word “deserve” worthy of any consideration?

We all “deserve” an adequate standard of living because we are human beings. We are the children of G-d – Jews and gentiles alike. Life and the support of life should be our birthright. And if it is not, for some reason, then it is everyone’s job to make it so.

I challenge you to go a week without using the word “deserve” or any of its related synonyms. See what it does to your ability to be compassionate when you stop using that word for other people’s situations – and your own.



Filed under Jewish Practices, Judaism