Just a bit ago, I posted on Facebook a famous vignette from the Talmud:
When Rabbi Meir was being harassed by men in his town, he went home and prayed for their deaths.His wife, Beruriah, chastised him. “You shouldn’t wish for their deaths, but for them to change. God says that “Evil will depart from the earth,” not “evildoers.””
It’s hard, but I try to be like Beruriah.
That was my from-memory rendering of a story in the Talmud, Berachot 10a, for what it’s worth. It was also a thinly-veiled reference to today’s news that President Trump, along with Melania, have tested positive for COVID. Since posting it, I’ve been reading the comments, reading other peoples posts about this topic (some in a very similar vein, some very different), and thinking about it quite a bit. A few thoughts I’d like to share…
First of all, as I hinted that when I said that I try to be like Beruriah, and made a lot clearer in some comments, this is much more an aspiration than a reality, as far as how I reacted to the news. My honest, initial reaction was a lot less gracious and pious than this. And, if I’m being really honest, I’ll also admit that I’m not even 100% sure that this represents how I want to feel. A not insignificant part of me could easily argue that more bitterness is warranted here. I wouldn’t blame or shame anyone if they felt that way, or expressed it.
You know, there is a famous Midrash that rabbis love to quote, in which God gets angry at our celebration at the Red Sea, when the Egyptians drown in it, and we go free. “How can you celebrate when My people are drowning?” God asks. It’s the “My” which is so important there. Even our greatest enemies, even the people who have done unspeakable evil to us, are still God’s people. Every person is created in God’s image – even the ones that we hate. Even the ones that we deserve to hate.
But, I just lied to you, a little bit. God doesn’t actually get angry when we celebrate the Egyptian drowning. God only gets angry when the angels start to celebrate, too. When we, human beings who have just been released from Egyptian slavery and savagery, celebrate their demise, God lets it go. It seems to me the message is that reveling in our enemies death and or suffering is not the ideal reaction (i.e. not with age what angels should do), but it is a reasonable reaction for us–limited, flawed humans that we are. I’ve always thought that offers a nice balance, giving us some grace when we aren’t so holy, but also giving us an ideal to strive for.
The other thought I keep coming back to is about why I think it’s important to at least try to not celebrate this news in any way. Because, let’s also be clear that my happiness, or lack thereof, about Trump contracting COVID has absolutely no effect on his health. I can pray all day for his recovery, or I can pray all day for his death. Neither action will make either result the least bit more or less likely. Nothing I do will have the tiniest impact on him, in any way.
But, it will most certainly have an enormous impact on me. How I choose to respond to this news will leave it’s mark on my psyche and, if you like, my soul. My attempts to not openly wish for his illness or death are not necessarily because I don’t want him to get sick, or to die. It’s because I don’t want to be the kind of person who wishes for someone to get sick, or to die. Because giving voice to those feelings, honest as they may be, will feed and nurture the meaner, darker sides of myself. Those sides are real–I’m not denying them, in the least. But, I also know that they aren’t the best of me. I’m not happiest with myself, I’m not proudest of myself, when I give them voice, or when I nurture them. They may represent some of who I am; they don’t represent who I aspire to be.
For what it’s worth, I think that this is something which my Christian and Buddhist colleagues are clearer about than most of us in the Jewish world. Jewish teaching (often for the good) tends to focus on our effect on the world “out there” more than on our inner world. Other religions are (in my limited experience) more likely to talk about the way our thoughts, speech, and actions have an impact on our own selves.
Like I said, there are very important benefits to focusing on the outer effects, rather than the inner. And, it’s also most certainly true that Judaism isn’t the least bit a stranger to the “make yourself a better person” approach. But, it’s a difference I’ve noticed, and it seems worth honoring my religious cousins who have taught me in this way.
Man, do I hope that Beruriah was on to something. I hope that, somehow, against every single expectation I have, our President comes through this moment and emerges a better, kinder man. But, that is completely outside my influence. I also hope that I come through this moment and emerge a better, kinder man. And, I know that I have something to say about that.