Reality: undone & rebuilt
Parashat Vayishlach 5778
Last week, I had an exchange that has stayed with me. Liz, Lior and I had just landed from our return Thanksgiving flight. We flew into Bradley, and with so much baby gear, I left Liz and Lior at baggage claim, while I went to go fetch our car from the off-site parking lot. I pulled up to the cashier’s booth, handed the cashier both my ticket and credit card, and we exchanged basic niceties.
Then she looked at my credit card, looked at me, and said “Oh, you must be a Member of the Tribe.” She caught me off guard. This was not the conversation I was expected to have. In that brief comment, my mind flashed through several possibilities: Is she Jewish? Is she a Jew for Jesus? Is she not Jewish, and really anti-Semitic, and is trying to out me right now? Could it be that I could be confronted by someone who doesn’t like me because I’m Jewish? I’m just trying to get my car out of the lot to go pick up my wife and child and get home after a long day of traveling. Do I have to be having this conversation right now? One’s mind flits about with such alacrity.
While my mind raced, my words didn’t come smoothly. The cashier continued, “… because I’m Jewish too. I’m a Member of the Tribe. My family is of Russian stock. With your last name, you must come from a German family. Is that right?” I told her that it was. She handed me the receipt. She said, “It’s always nice to meet other people who come from the Tribe, especially when I’m sitting out here by myself all night. Have a great night!” Now she was making me smile. I thanked her, pulled away, and went to go pick up Liz and Lior.
This interaction has stayed with me. Why did I assume the worst—she must be an anti-Semite—rather than look for a moment of connection?
Because of stereotypes.
She was not the person I expected to meet in a cashier’s booth at an off-site airport parking lot. “Our worldview is built on a bedrock of stereotypes, not just about people but also about the way things work,” writes Brooke Gladstone in a powerful little book titled The Trouble with Reality, “The power of those stereotypes—vital to survival in this unfathomable world—is as profound as it is inescapable.” We need stereotypes to organize our existence in the world, and when we encounter something that does not match our expectations, our reality is punctured. “In the end, stereotypes create the patterns that compose our world. It is not necessarily the world we would like it to be… it is simply the kind of world we expect it to be” (9). This wonderful woman did not meet my expectation of who would be sitting in that booth. Her kindness and gregariousness did not match who I was expecting to have a brief encounter with.
How often do we bump into people who push up against the stereotypes we walk around with? We craft stories about others, and then, reality gets in the way. The way that person is, the manner in which they treat others either confirms or destroys the stereotype we have constructed of them.
In July 2013, Rolling Stone ran a cover piece on Jahar Tsarnaev, who we have come to know as one of the Boston Marathon bombers. The cover photo was a selfie that Tsarnaev took and had posted to Facebook. In that selfie, Tsarnaev was creating the reality he wanted his friends to accept about him.
Ty Burr, the Boston Globe’s movie critic, describes the intention behind the selfie in the following way: “You are engaging in persona management: the creation of a cuter, cooler, more glamorous you. There’s a reason that adolescents take selfies at the rate of about 100 per minute. They’re trying on masks. And the ones they release to the world are the masks they want us to see.”
The selfie is creative in that both the subject and artist—being one in the same—create a reality about him or herself that they push on the rest of their social network. So, when that reality doesn’t match with the individual’s action, friends and family are confused.
In the Rolling Stone article, Tsarnaev’s friends and family all reported that they could not believe that he could commit an act of terrorism. “I felt like a bullet went through my heart,” his coach recalled. “To think that a kid we mentored and loved like a son could have been responsible for all this death. It was beyond shocking. It was like an alternative reality.” Those who had been around Tsarnaev thought they knew him, but apparently they didn’t.
“Reality is personal,” writes Brooke Gladstone (2), and we internally fight the reality with which we are confronted when it seems mismatched with our prior constructs. After all, “Who would choose violation over validation? The very wiring of your mind and body rebels against that choice. Yet any sincere reckoning with reality demands that you strain, violently, against the natural lifelong limitations [of your mind]” (16).
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, we read about two brothers who reunite after a period of estrangement. Jacob, having stolen his twin brother’s Birthright and blessing, has not seen Esau in some time. After Jacob’s theft, Rebekah—their mother—encouraged Jacob to flee. “Esau surely would have killed him once Isaac died, since he seemed consumed by hatred” (Rabbi Norman Cohen, Self Struggle & Change, 111).
Twenty years later, Jacob readies himself to move into territory in which his brother lives, with the connection to his brother seemingly fully severed for many many years.
Jacob sends a messenger out in advance of seeing Esau. The messenger comes back, saying, “We came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him” (Genesis 32:7).
Jacob’s mind begins to run: Is Esau coming to meet his brother with aggression or in peace? “Although Esau’s intentions are not clear (perhaps he meant his brother no harm and his entourage is simply a way of greeting Jacob), the fact is the news added to Jacob’s anxiety, and he is forced to prepare for the worst” (Cohen, 112). Jacob divides up his possessions and entourage into two camps, so that should Esau attack, the other camp could still escape.
Jacob sends the others with him over the river, and he stays at the other side by himself for the night. Jacob then wrestles with an angel, he survives though not without a wound, and a blessing, being renamed Israel. And after that, encounters his brother, Esau. At the beginning of chapter 33, we read, “Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men” (33:1). As Jacob approached his brother, he bowed low seven times. And Esau ran to greet him, hugging his brother, embracing, grateful to be reunited.
Jacob’s reality—my brother must despise me for what I did—is not Esau’s reality. Esau misses his brother. Esau forgives his brother. Jacob continues to carry a reality that does not mesh with what Esau presents to him. A case of being pleasantly surprised, like the cashier in the airport parking lot.
Yet, returning to other contemporary cases, as of late it seems as if we have been confronted with facts that puncture and destroy the reality with which we live. As more and more men in public roles are outed and fired for sexual harassment, assault, and other acts even worse, our realities are challenged. How many of us watched the Thanksgiving Day Parade the other day, watching Matt Lauer anchor the event, and think, “He seems like such a nice guy”? How many of us had tickets to go see Garrison Keihler at the Colonial this week? Each act of abuse, aggression, and depravity challenge the realities with which we operate. We become suspicious of the establishments which these individuals represent. If these men act this way, then what?
The new realities prompt us to migrate that information into our own understandings of our world. One reality is punctured, and in that another emerges. And in the face of unappetizing realities, we—the community in the new reality—move forward, holding fast to one thing we have in the face of the unforeseen, our morals and our reasoning.
Jacob expects Esau to go to war with him. Instead, his brother embraces him. They move forward. But not all next chapters are so easily written. Several years ago, I was hanging out in the lobby of my former congregation on a Sunday morning during Religious School drop off. One parent, who was also a leader in our racial justice work, came up to me a little shaken. “Rabbi,” she said, “There is a homeless man wandering the school hallway.” I went to go look, and the man she identified was a new parent, dropping his daughter off in the kindergarten classroom. He was a person of color, a Jew by choice, and was dressed in his lawn clothes. He had been gardening earlier that morning. The other congregant was horrified at her presumptuousness, as was I. What she failed to imagine was that we had Jews of color as a part of our community. What she did not consider was that that community was multi-racial and multi-ethnic.
Next week, when our Reform Movement gathers for its Biennial Convention, delegates from congregations will vote on resolutions that establish the written positions for our community. One resolution is about our community’s continued pursuit of racial justice. For decades our community has been committed to the pursuit of racial justice. For decades we have spoken about it in terms of how the Jewish community can partner with communities of color. We have been strangers in a strange land, and lest anyone else should feel that way. And so we want to help them. This new resolution proposes a change to the mental model as to how we approach our commitment to make the world more just for everyone. It encourages us to look inward, to study our own synagogue’s practices, and to make sure that we are making ourselves inclusive of Jews from every background. We Jews do not all descend from Ashkenazi stock out of the Pale. We are Mizrachi, Yemeni, Persian, and Black. There is no us helping them. There is only our we, in which we as a Reform Jewish community are—in truth—multi-ethnic and multi-racial.
Reality is personal. Stereotypes construct a real world for us until reality punctures our presumptions. Sometimes our presumptions are pleasantly surpassed by a simple interaction with another human being. Sometimes news breaks which confounds our preconceived notions about a person, which we then have to migrate into our understanding of them, of ourselves, and of our world. When we encounter the new information, “we can’t simply retreat back into our own realities after what we’ve seen,” writes Brooke Gladstone. “Though we are quiet adept at not seeing, *unseeing* is an altogether different matter…. Now our reality is going to need some tweaking” (85).