I have a birdfeeder in front of my house. And, sometimes, when the birdfeeder is completely empty, a bird will go inside the plastic cylinder. And, it will not be able to figure out how to get out again. This morning before shul, I noticed this poor little bird had become panicked.
So, I climbed the ladder and removed the top of the feeder so that the bird could fly out. And, I felt pretty good about myself. I had saved a life. Were it not for me, this little bird might have been trapped forever. And, I was very touched by that.
This was actually my fifth bird rescue. And, it occurred to me that if I were a little more observant, I would notice when the bird feeder were almost empty and I would fill it. That would guarantee that a bird would not get trapped in there in the first place. Of course, then, I wouldn’t have the exhilarating feeling of saving a bird’s life. But, it would be a lot better for the birds.
The need to be needed is one of the most powerful human drives. The first prayer we say when we rise in the morning is Modeh Ani. “Thank you God for restoring my life and for having faith in me.” It’s another way of saying, “Thank you, God for needing me.”
This is a remarkable idea that God needs us. The midrash compares God’s call to Abraham to a king who is stumbling in the dark alleyways. The king’s friend opens a window from above and shines a light so the king can find his way. In this parable, God is the king, Abraham is the king’s friend. And, God calls Abraham to leave his home and start a new nation, because God is in the dark. God needs Abraham’s light in the world.
And, in the same way, each morning, each of us gets a call from God. By virtue of the fact that we have woken up, God is saying to each of us: I would be lost without you. I need your special light in the world. You are important to me. You have a purpose for being here.
We all need to believe that. We thrive on the belief that our life is significant, that we matter. And, for the most part, that is a very good thing. But, sometimes our desire for significance can have unintended consequences. The mere desire for purpose is no guarantee that we will choose the right one. We learn that from today’s haftarah about the birth of Samson which Jonah spoke about so insightfully.
Samson was endowed with a noble purpose even before he was born. His parents were told that he would grow up to rescue his people from the oppression of the Philistines. But, Samson’s belief that he mattered was transformed into something else.
God intended that Samson see himself as serving others. But, instead Samson became a person who always had to be the center of attention. He did things that would get his name into the headlines. Did he matter? Yes, he did. It was impossible to ignore him. But, his life was all about his needs and not the needs of others.
I thought about Samson when I turned on the news earlier this week and I saw yet another story about an African American shot and killed by a white police officer under suspicious circumstances. This time it happened in Olympia, Washington. The men were running away from the police and they were unarmed.
The Olympia community was gathering that evening in the local synagogue just to share their feelings in a safe place. The tv reporter interviewed two people on the way in to the synagogue. As it happened, they were both Jewish. And, when they were asked why they came out that evening, both of them said the same thing: “Because black lives matter.”
And, there was something about this that felt off to me. Of course, black lives matter. And, this kind of incident has happened too many times for us to dismiss it and say ‘it’s just an accident.’ Has racism disappeared from America? It has not. Should a person who is unarmed receive the death penalty because he is running from the police? He should not. Police work is very hard. And, mistakes happen. But, police restraint is the glory of American democracy. That’s what makes our country great. So, we have to fix this.
On the other hand, the victims of these shootings are not Medgar Evers. And, they’re not Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman. And, this isn’t the 1960’s. And, the racism of today is not the racism of Bull Conner.
Fighting what Martin Luther King fought for was truly a great cause. It endowed both blacks and whites with a feeling of noble purpose. Perhaps we miss that sense of purpose. But, we will not find that same sense of purpose in fighting racism in America. Because as Shelby Steele points out in his book “Shame”, America has moved on from there. We are not the country we were in 1960.
If we really believe that black lives matter, there are more important things we can do than fight racism. We could support the work of Geoffrey Canada in the Harlem Children’s Zone. Canada recognizes that slavery and segregation damaged the black family and the effects linger today. But, racism is not what is keeping black children back today, the way it was in 1960.
President Obama has said the same. The black underclass is filled with people who feel they don’t matter. And, Geoffrey Canada’s response is not to fight discrimination. It’s to provide education and counseling and emotional support from pre-birth through college. Does it cost money? Yes. Is it our responsibility? Yes. Because black lives matter.
There are other examples. A member of our congregation suggested to me that the reason Palestinian leaders take their cause to the United Nations is that at the UN they can be the center of the world’s attention. As long as they can portray themselves as the victim of oppression, they can garner the world’s sympathy. They can be somebody in the eyes of the world. But, they fear that if they were to accept Israel’s permanence and focus their attention on building their own state, they would no longer be a cause celebre. They would just be another tiny, insignificant state struggling to make it.
But, if Palestinian lives really matter, then the road to dignity and self-determination lies in letting go of their international celebrity status and letting go of their status as the world’s most famous victims. It means letting go of the hatred that has fueled their sense of righteous indignation, and accepting Israel’s permanence. It means doing the hard work of building the infrastructure of a new country.
So much has been written in recent years as the importance of a sense of purpose to living a fulfilled life. Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life” touched a national nerve when he wrote: “It’s not about you.” Martin Seligman wrote that a sense of purpose is the key to a happy life.
All true. But, what’s still missing from these analyses is that purpose alone is no guarantee of goodness. Suicide bombers are driven by a desire to make a difference in the world. Gang members have a need to be needed. People with a misguided sense of purpose can do infinitely more damage than people who are merely selfish.
Those who champion the BDS movement find a sense of purpose in the destruction of the State of Israel. For them, this is a righteous cause. We may miss the sense of purpose that we felt in fighting against apartheid. But, our need for purpose shouldn’t drive us to find apartheid where it doesn’t exist.
That’s why in our Tradition, we are cautioned to balance our need for significance with a sense of humility. We are taught that we should always carry a coin in our pocket. On one side it should say: “The world was created for me.” And, on the other side, it should say “Yet, I am dust and ashes.”
As important as it is to believe that we matter, it’s equally important that we have a healthy sense of our own insignificance. If we are humble, we will continually question whether we have the right purpose. If we are humble, when our righteous indignation is stirred, we will question whether this indignation is serving our own needs or other people’s needs.
If we are humble, before we march on Washington, before we say ‘hell no, we won’t go”, we will want to be very sure that the cause that is the vehicle of our life’s energy is truly the most worthy of our life’s energy.
Because black lives matter.
And, because all human lives matter.