Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

by Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.

A guy goes in to watch a movie and when it starts he realizes that sitting next to the man in front of him is a dog that appears to be following every action in the movie. In fact, throughout the entire movie the dog appears to be totally engrossed in the story, growling at one scene, shaking his head at the next, and turning around in his seat with disapproval.

So, when the film ends the guy can’t help himself, he goes up to the dog owner and says, “Sorry to bother you but I couldn’t help but notice that it really looked like your dog wasn’t happy with the movie at all. He seemed to be following the dialogue, but it looked like he was disgusted with the whole story.”

The dog owner looks at the man with a puzzled expression and says, “I know and I am really surprised because he loved the book.”

Well we are the people of the book. And tonight we open our book – the Book of Life. And for the next Ten Days of Awe we are told we will write the spiritual story of our own lives. It’s our own search for meaning, the journal of the choices we have made over the past year and the choices we hope to make in the year ahead that will hopefully change our lives for the better.

When Rosh Hashanah comes each year we are told Ze yom ha’din “This is the day of judgment” – this is the day when we are asked to judge ourselves, to hold up the spiritual mirror of our own failures and successes, our tragedies and our triumphs and then to remember that who we are is in our hands. Every day, at any moment, any one of us can choose greatness by the simplest act of kindness, or a moment’s spontaneous decision to open our heart to another.

Some of you may have been watching August 26th when the Little League World Series was broadcast across the world on TV. It was the final game – Japan vs. Tennessee. If you watched the game you know that Tennessee was totally out played by the Japanese team, who hit home runs in every inning. The Tennessee team was being badly beaten and was scoreless, when all of a sudden one member of the team finally hit a home run.

As he came in to home plate his team went crazy, surrounding him and pounding him on the shoulders and clapping as you might expect. What happened next, however, was something that nobody expected. The Japanese pitcher, off of whom the opposing player had just hit the home run came running right into the middle of the Tennessee team, right up to the new home run hitter, and high fived him with a big grin. High fived the opposing player with a big grin.

And when the game was finally over, and the Japanese team had trounced the Tennessee team, with all the home runs hit, with all the great plays played, with all the fantastic moments in the game, what one moment do you think the announcers held up as the highlight of the game? That’s right. The moment when that Japanese pitcher walked right into the middle of the opposing team and with a big grin gave a high five to the kid who had just hit the only home run he gave up all game. And do you know whatthe announcer said?

“Look at the great sportsmanship of that Japanese team! Look at the great sportsmanship of that Japanese team!”

What a fantastic life lesson! The “Team” got credit for great sportsmanship, and all because of the spontaneous act of ONE YOUNG BOY. One person made all the difference. And the difference was an expression of character. An act of genuine human empathy across languages, across cultures, across continents – one “high five” and the world will never be the same for either team. And what about the millions of people who were watching in awe at that very moment when one human being reached out to another? High fiveing his way into history, demonstrating what true sportspersonship is really all about. Yes, it has always been all about character. It’s about doing the right thing, it’s about putting aside petty jealousy, competition, and seeing the common humanity in us all.

Every year when the New Year arrives, I can’t help but think about all the people we lost since last New Year. And indeed, lots of people, famous and otherwise died this year: Neil Armstrong, Marvin Hamlisch, Gore Vidal, Sally Ride, Ernest Borgnine, Stephen Covey, Hal David, and Nora Ephron, among others. But believe it or not, the one famous person who died this past year whom I have thought of the most is Rodney King.

No, not because his videotaped beating and the subsequent trial of the police involved set off the tragic Civil Disturbances of 1992. I have been thinking about Rodney King because of his famous plea on camera in the aftermath of those terribly destructive LA riots. A plea that sounded to my ears at the time as so incredibly simplistic, that I remember watching him quoted on the news that night, and shaking my head at hownaïve he sounded.

What was this simplistic, trite comment that in my own arrogance I laughed at? You know! It was Rodney King looking plaintively into the camera and simply asking, “Can’t we all just get along?” CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG?

And I laughed. And I thought, “How silly. How naïve.” And tonight I say, “How utterly foolish of me.” Just look at where we have gone from there. We are a United States of America that is anything BUT united. A Supreme Court where the majority of decisions now seem to be decided one way or the other, by a vote of 5 to 4 almost every time. A US Congress so divided and polarized that when the Democrats held a majority right after the stunning election of Barack Obama they argued among themselves so much that they were frozen into inaction. Then the Republican party took over after midterm elections, and the polarization between the parties was so deep and corrosive, that the Republican Leadership announced to the world that its number one goal was not passing any legislation at all, but rather simply to do whatever necessary to make sure that Barack Obama was a one term president. Period.

“Can’t we all just get along?” Doesn’t sound so foolish to my ears any more. 18th Century British Author Samuel Johnson once said, “When once the forms of civility are violated, there remains little hope of return to kindness or decency.”

What has happened to us? Israel is such a hot button issue in the Jewish community that the divide between AIPAC and J-Street has people literally accusing each other of treason against the Jewish people. Every time I see another political ad on television not even pretending to present a reasoned discussion about any issue of substance, but merely attacking the personal character of President Obama or Mitt Romney as if one or the other is evil incarnate and deviously plotting the ruin of our nation, I simply want to scream.

“Why can’t we all just get along?” Indeed.

The political commentator Robert Orben said the essence of America can be summed up in this father/son conversation: A father tells his son that all Americans belong to a privileged class. The son says, “I disagree.” And the father says, “That’s the privilege.” Yes, that is the privilege – it’s to learn to disagree without having to be disagreeable.

We should be celebrating our differences and not trying so desperately to make them all disappear. Last month I participated in a press conference with a young Muslim woman named Imane Boudlal who was bringing a suit against the Disney Corporation for harassment and religious discrimination. She was working as a hostess at a restaurant owned by Disney and because she wanted to honor her religion and cover her head with a scarf, her fellow workers and managers called her a “terrorist”, and “camel,” and ‘bomb maker.”

The entire press conference was Imane, her lawyers and me – the rabbi. I was there because of all people we Jews have thousands of years of history experiencing what it is like to be attacked and pointed at, accused of invidious wrongdoing simply because of our religious traditions and I wanted Imane and all Muslims who were watching and supporting her to see that it was a rabbi who stood with her in her moment of anguish and despair.

“Can’t we all just get along?” I stood with Imane because I believe that human beings are fundamentally the same regardless of race, regardless of religion, regardless of language, regardless of culture. I believe that is what the Torah means when it says we are all created btzelem elohim – in the image of God. I have said it all before: The Torah has no “excepts” in its text. It doesn’t say we are all created in the image of God exceptMuslims, except people who speak Arabic or Spanish, except people of another race, or people who are poor, or people who are gay, or illiterate or of the other political party.

Too often we have lamented the apparent lack of moderate Muslim reaction against the extremists within the Muslim world and some use it as an excuse to paint all Muslims with the same extremist brush. Just two weeks ago in an historic breakthrough, an article appeared in the international press with the headline, “Jewish, Muslim leaders fight bigotry in Europe” describing a meeting of 70 European Jewish and Muslim leaders who pledged to show zero tolerance to hate preachers of any faith, including their own. Their message could not be clearer: there must be no room for religious intolerance anywhere in Europe.

The world has often seen lack of willingness for religious leaders to speak out against their own group when adherents perpetrate acts of violence. This gathering of imams, rabbis and community leaders represented 18 countries!

And then the tragedy of this past week strikes and once again we are plunged into the mindless anti-American, anti-West hatred of radical Islam that erupted in more than 12 countries across North Africa and the Middle East. Hatred matching hatred – a movie posted on YouTube called “The Innocence of Muslims” depicting Mohammad as a womanizer and child molester, and the US Ambassador and two US employees are murdered in Libya, and from Cairo to Sudan, Tunis to Kuala Lumpur the anger, hatred and violence overflows. “Can’t we all just get along?” – can’t we instead match tolerance for tolerance, respect for respect, and rise above anger, resentment, bigotry and hatred?

Left wing progressive or Tea Party Republican, Ruth Bader Ginsberg or Clarence Thomas, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, Bibi Netanyahu or Shimon Peres, everyone wants a voice, everyone deserves to have a place at the table, everyone has a right to our respect, to be treated with dignity, because in our tradition that’s how God would see them all.

Everyone wants to be somebody and to have an identity and to belong. When William Howard Taft’s great-granddaughter was asked in the third grade to write her autobiography as part of a class lesson, the young lady responded: “My great-grandfather was President of the United States; my grandfather was a United States senator; my father is an ambassador; and I am a brownie.” Everybody wants to be recognized for who they are, regardless of age.

A mental patient was discharged after many years in an institution but was very unhappy about it. “But you are cured,” said his doctor. “Some cure,” the man pouted. “When I first came here I was Abraham Lincoln. Now I’m nobody.”

Nobody wants to be nobody. And everybody deserves to be somebody. Hayom Harat olam – Today is the birthday of the world we teach. And every birthday is a new beginning for the world and for us. That is the point of Rosh Hashanah – to start over.

Because that is what Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year is ultimately all about. Remembering that the choice is ours right now and every right now. Remembering that we don’t ever have to be defined by our worst moments in life, or by our past mistakes, or by our poor choices because right now, this moment, every moment we can choose again. And choosing how we live our lives is what character is all about, what living your best life is all about, what these High Holy Days are all about.

On Yom Kippur we will read from Parashat Nitzavim in Deuteronomy and once again echo the ageless challenge where God tells each and every one of us, “I set before you this day life and death, good and evil, blessing and curse, therefore choose life that you and your descendents may live and thrive.”

That simple message, “Choose life,” “Choose Blessings,” which seems so obvious, is perhaps the single most difficult, most challenging of all the choices we make in life. Why? Because who is to say which of the experiences, opportunities, relationships in our lives will turn out to be the blessings, and which will turn out to be the curses?

If it were so easy, so simple, so self-evident which was which, wouldn’t we alwayschoose blessings? Of course we would. But it isn’t so simple, and it isn’t always so clear, and it isn’t always so easy to tell the difference.

I am willing to bet that every one of us here tonight has a personal story that would bear this out. Twenty-seven years ago I was living in the valley and looking for a job, interviewing at any synagogue that was available hoping to be hired as their rabbi. Then, the perfect pulpit opened up at exactly the right time in exactly the right place –Northridge.

I knew I was perfect for the position. I was already in the valley and had already been working as the associate rabbi for six years at Temple Judea. I was pretty sure I had earned a reasonably good reputation as a rabbi by that time. I was fairly well known in the valley, I had just gotten an award from the Jewish Federation for starting the largest full-service homeless shelter in Los Angeles, I had lots of congregants who were already living in Northridge, and to top it all off, I even knew someone on the search committee.

What could be more perfect? Perfect job, perfect opportunity – I wouldn’t have to move, custody with Gable would remain the same, one blessing after another. In fact, they were looking for a cantor at the same time and I was so confident of getting the rabbi position that I encouraged a cantor friend of mine to apply as well so we could end up working together as a team. I went to the interview with total confidence and knew it was a slam dunk.

Sure enough, they hired my friend as their new cantor, and they hired my classmate from rabbinic school to be their new rabbi instead of me. I was devastated. Actually wewere devastated. Life had certainly not turned out the way I expected. I remember the despair, the sense of failure, the self-doubt, I was certain I was in line for the blessing of a new job and a new life, and instead I got the curse of rejection.

And then this small Reconstructionist congregation in Pacific Palisades called Kehillath Israel announced they too were looking for a new rabbi. Yes it was only a couple hundred families in an old, fairly funky building, with a young 23-year-old cantor who had just started his first full-time job. It was a congregation with what appeared to be a huge turnover of professional staff – 3 rabbis, 3 cantors, 3 educators within 6 years. Didn’t sound very inviting, or stable, or clergy-friendly but I needed a job, and I needed to stay in L.A., so with heavy heart and a big sigh, I threw my kippah into the ring and applied for the position.

Who could have known that other than meeting Didi, it would turn out to be the greatest blessing of my life? Twenty seven years later, here I am. With Chayim starting his 28th year, the amazing Rabbi Bernstein sharing the pulpit with us both, and a congregation that has grown to 1,000 families, the largest Reconstructionist congregation in the world.

Blessings and curses. Which is which? A relationship falls apart and that leads to meeting your beshert your “soul mate.” A job you lose leads you to a new career or position you never would have tried or perhaps even considered. A school or college you didn’t get in to ends up leading you to another setting where you find your life’s passion. I’m sure there are a hundred other examples that each and every one of you here tonight if pressed could think of on your own. This is why our tradition teaches us to choose life in all its messiness and insecurity.

And that is why I want so badly for all of us to do our part to help heal the world this year by reaching out to someone who thinks differently than you do. Open your hearts, open your minds, open your souls to those who see life through different lenses and trust that seeing the world through someone else’s eyes can only expand your field of vision. And that would truly be a blessing.

“Can’t we all just get along?” So simple and yet so profound. Together, let’s give it a try this year.