Friday, November 20, 2015

Danger is real, but fear is a choice

This has been a rough week for our world. A week ago today Islamist terrorists staged several simultaneous attacks in Paris and killed 129 people. Yesterday in Eretz Yisrael, Palestinian terrorists killed five people in two different attacks; one of those killed was an 18 year old American student, Ezra Schwartz of Sharon, Massachusetts. Ezra z’l was a graduate of a Jewish day school and an active member of USY who was spending a Gap Year in Israel between high school and college. This morning, again as I write, US and other forces are responding to an Islamist hostage-taking at a Radisson hotel in Bamako, Mali.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said “the entire world is a very narrow bridge, but the important thing is not to fear at all.” A more recent version of the same idea was stated by Cypher Raige, the character played by Will Smith in the movie “After Earth.” Cypher tells his son “fear is not real. It is a product of thoughts you create . . . danger is very real. But fear is a choice.”

We live in a dangerous world and many of those dangers are out of our control. But how we react to danger is always in our control. In the wake of the Paris murders and the revelation that one of the terrorists may possibly have slipped into Europe using a fake Syrian passport, our American politicians are falling all over themselves rushing to protect us from the threat of Syrian refugees coming to our country. This despite the fact that the U.S. process for gaining refugee status takes a minimum of 18 to 24 months and includes the most stringent security checks imaginable; despite the fact that in the history of the refugee resettlement program not a single refugee has ever participated in an act of terror in the United States. (The Tsarnaev brothers who committed the Boston bombing were not refugees. They came here as children with their parents on tourist visas and later received political asylum derivatively through their parents -- a completely different process which takes place in the USA, not overseas.)

Fear is a choice. The most important thing is not to fear at all. Ezra Schwartz did not fear. He chose to spend a year in Israel despite the very real danger. While in Israel, he chose to go to Gush Etzion to visit a memorial to the three young men kidnapped and murdered last year, and to deliver food to “lone soldiers” (Israeli soldiers without parents or other family in the country) on an army base. While the car in which he was riding was stuck in traffic, he and the other inhabitants were murdered by an Uzi-wielding Palestinian terrorist.

Yes, if Ezra Schwartz had given in to fear he would probably still be alive. But that is not our way. The whole purpose of terrorism is to make us change our way of life, to be afraid to do normal everyday things like go shopping, go out for coffee, help our neighbor, or live by the generous ethical standards of both Judaism and Americanism. It is to paralyze us and fill us with fear. I for one refuse to live that way.

In Pirkei Avot chapter 4, Rabbi Matya ben Charash says “be a tail of lions and not a head of jackals.” Which will we choose?

Friday, November 13, 2015

Starbucks and Christmas

You’ve probably heard something over the last few days about the controversy that may or may not be swirling around Starbucks’ holiday coffee cups. Every year around this time, Starbucks introduces a new holiday themed cup, which is red and usually has snowflakes, reindeer, tinsel, snowmen, or Christmas tree ornaments. They are never explicitly religious. This year, they are simply red, and a “social media evangelist” posted an outraged Youtube video. The first time I watched the video I was not sure that it wasn’t a hoax, since the “social media evangelist” is named Joshua Feuerstein -- an unexpected name for a Christian evangelist. And predictably enough, Donald Trump weighed in on the controversy and promised that if he is elected President, we would all be saying “Merry Christmas.” One assumes that among those saying “Merry Christmas” would be Trump’s Orthodox Jewish daughter and her three children.

Although Starbucks has “holiday” themed and not “Christmas” themed cups, they do have a “Christmas blend” coffee which happens to be my favorite blend, and I usually buy a couple of bags of it.

You may perhaps know that the first Starbucks on the East Coast was located on Wisconsin Ave NW between Macomb and Newark Streets, and I would often stop in there on my way to my job as Hillel Director at American University. One of the baristas there was a young man named Tarek, an Egyptian-American Muslim who was a student at AU and had taken a course I taught as an adjunct in the History Department. On the day I came in to buy a pound of “Christmas blend” he paused for a moment and then let me know that they also offered the same coffee in a blue bag that said “holiday blend” and he offered to put the coffee in the holiday rather than Christmas bag. I told him that I was fine with the Christmas blend bag and we both had a little chuckle. It seems to me that if your faith depends either way on the presence or absence of the word “Christmas” on your coffee cup or bag, then Starbucks coffee is a lot stronger than your faith.