Saturday, November 9, 2013

Surely, God Was In This Place and I, I Did Not Know

I'm not the biggest of sports fans.  I don't mind watching sports, but I don't rabidly follow any team, and  I don't make a point of keeping up with players or statistics in the manner of a true fan.  But, when I was growing up in Miami, in an era before the Marlins or the Heat, one could not help but have some awareness of the Miami Dolphins.

The Dolphins came back on my radar screen recently when they made an unfortunate leap from the sports pages into national news.  Richie Incognito, a leader of Miami's offensive line, was accused of harassing his teammate, Jonathan Martin, an offensive tackle.  Apparently, the abuse was so upsetting to Martin that he took a leave of absence from the team to seek treatment for "emotional distress."  In recent days, recordings have surfaced showing that Incognito racially harassed and intimidated Martin. Incognito has been suspended from the team indefinitely, and will likely be cut.  There is some evidence that other players besides Martin were victims, and that coaches may have encouraged Incognito's actions.

Some sports fans will argue that Martin needs to "toughen up," that such "hazing" comes with the territory when one chooses to play professional sports.  I'd rather, though, that we called it what it is: bullying.  Bullying has no place in any setting, even among "tough men" who play football (refreshingly, this high school coach in Utah agrees).

Unfortunately, our patriarch Jacob was also a bit of a bully, at least in his younger years.  True to the etymology of his name (Ya'akov comes from the Hebrew word meaning "heel" and the pun works in Hebrew as well as in English) Jacob is indeed a "heel."  He fights with his twin brother Esau in the womb; he takes advantage of Esau's hunger and compels him to relinquish his birthright; he tricks his elderly father in order to secure the blessing that should have been reserved for the firstborn.

But in this week's Torah portion, Vayetze, Jacob comes to a crossroads, literally and figuratively.  Having fled his home, he finds himself in the desert.  He has his famous vision of "Jacob's Ladder," and when he awakes, he proclaims: אכן יש יי במקום הזה ואנכי לא ידעתי- Achen Yesh Adonai BaMakom HaZeh Va'Anochi Lo Yadati, Surely God was in this place, and I, I did not know.  The majesty of this apparition shakes Jacob out of his self-centeredness, and he is able to finally acknowledge that others around him have needs and feelings.  Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, in his book God Was in This Place & I, i Did Not Know, parses the meaning of the seemingly extraneous "I" that appears in the Hebrew through the lens of different rabbis from Jewish history.  Kushner cites the work of Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk to teach that until we let go of our own "I"- our ego- we cannot possibly make room for God.

In addition to the continuing unfolding of the story from the Dolphins' locker room, another story has more quietly made its way through the internet this week.  On the Q train in New York City, a young black man boarded the train, lay his head on the shoulder of the Orthodox Jewish man sitting next to him, and fell asleep.  When a fellow passenger offered to wake the man, the other man replied, "He must have had a long day; let him sleep.  We've all been there, right?"

The other passenger, moved by the sight, snapped a picture with his camera phone.  It made its way through various social media sites until someone finally identified the Orthodox Jew as Isaac Thiel.  Thiel's daughter was quoted as saying that this was not out of character for her father.  She noted, "Who [else] lets a random stranger sleep on his shoulder in germ-filled New York City?"

But, as some commenters have pointed out, perhaps this should not be such an out of the ordinary occurrence.  Perhaps we should be more willing to open up to others around us with compassion.  As Richard Renaldi discovered in his photos that I wrote about previously, sometimes all it takes is forcing ourselves to go beyond our comfort zones to recognize the humanity and innate value in others.  The Thiel story intrigued people because of the race and backgrounds of the two individuals, but it really could have been (and should have been!) any one of us.

When we learn to open our hearts and minds to others, then we can come to recognize, as Jacob did, that God is among us- and hopefully, we will know it.

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