Take Down The Flag – Why Symbols Matter

In the wake of the senseless killing of Reverend Clementa Pinckney and eight others in a historic African American Church, new calls were made for the removal of South Carolina’s Confederate flag.

Removing the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s State Capitol has been a long standing debate but the controversy was reignited by the fact that while the U.S. Federal flag was lowered in response to the recent tragedy, the Confederate battle flag remains high, literally padlocked into place.

For some, the Confederate flag represents an important part of Southern pride and for others it’s a painful reminder of the past bigotry and slavery of the South, as well as some remaining white supremacy and racial intolerance. Personally I agree with South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s call to remove the Confederate flag, and with President Obama’s statement that it belongs in a museum. I hope it will be soon laid to rest. 

But you could ask — why is EVERYONE talking about this?

CNN, The New York Times, Fox News and my favorite, John Oliver, are just a few of those weighing in. So, does it really matter? Why all the fuss over a flag – after all, it’s just a bunch of stars woven into a piece of fabric, right?

Wrong. It actually does make a difference. Whatever your take on the Confederate flag, one thing is clear: symbols matter.

Symbols, in the political arena or anywhere else are powerful ways to evoke feelings and passions. One small image, like a swastika can arouse such animosity, and a Star of David such pride. Symbols – the inanimate objects and images we surround ourselves with – have the power to shape us. This is probably why the Jewish faith is replete with images and symbols, all of which are intended to educate and inspire.

Take for example the Mezuzah; the rolled up parchment encased in a beautiful cover containing the first paragraph of the Shema which Jews affix to their doorposts. It is not just a pretty ornament intended to let people know “Jews live here.” Some suggest that the Torah commands us to post the Mezuzah as a way of reminding us of our belief in God and of our very purpose and mission in this world. You may ask: if you believe in God and in Judaism’s teachings, then you believe – why the need for a reminder? Because a symbol allows, or even on some psychological level compels us, to reflect on our beliefs in a way nothing else can. A home in Jewish tradition is not merely a place to live, in the purely physical sense. It is the place or the context within which we carry out our very purpose in this world. It’s where we build our most intimate relationships, where we raise our families, where we pray and observe the Sabbath. The very sight of the Mezuzah triggers the thoughts and feelings that are vital in using our homes to carry out our Divine mission in life.

And so the Menorah, Shabbat candles and Jewish books we have in our homes are not merely relics of an ancient tradition used for perfunctory rituals – they actually have a direct effect on the way we go about our lives today and the people we become.

A symbol – be it a flag, a logo or a piece of Judaica – holds energy that impacts us day in and day out on both a conscious and subconscious level. Indeed images have surfaced of the man who took the life of Reverend Pinckney and the eight other victims, proudly holding the Confederate flag.

Symbols matter. Let’s make sure we surround ourselves with the right ones.

And yet I would be remiss to not mention the dangers of placing too large an emphasis on the role of any one component in a tragic event. The swastika did not perpetrate the Holocaust – the Nazis did. A flag did not senselessly shoot the innocent church goers – a person did. Though symbols inherently hold power, it is what we DO with them that really matters. It is how we use them and what we let them become.

So, let us not allow this flag to become a distraction from the matter at hand. Let it instead serve as a reminder of the discussions we MUST be having – about racial intolerance, gun control, and mental illness. No crime is committed in a vacuum. Let US use symbols – not the other way around.

A CALL TO ACTION… #ShabbatOfSolidarity

Speaking of symbols, take a look at this iconic image. This photo is one of many reminders that the Jewish community marched with Martin Luther King Jr., and that we will always stand with those who fight for equality and against intolerance.

This Shabbat, 13 Jewish organizations are calling for a “Shabbat of Solidarity” with the Black community as a protest against racism and discrimination. MJE will be joining the list of communities participating.

This Shabbat, I call on my students, readers and entire community to not just participate superficially, but to truly pray in solidarity. Pray for the healing of the families, friends, and communities of the victims. Pray for the voices calling out against intolerance to be heard. Pray for an end to senseless killing. 

But most importantly – let’s lower “the flag” within ourselves. Let us look deep inside and recognize where we have padlocked “flags of intolerance” – intolerance for other communities, for our co-workers, our neighbors, and even our own families. Take down those flags and let us lay them to rest.

Why Richard From Silicon Valley is a Total Mensch (Spoiler Alert!)

richard hendricks silicon valley hack mensch life“Richard; do the right thing here — [Dramatic Pause] — lie on the stand,” says Erlich Bachman, part owner of tech startup Pied Piper, in this Sunday’s episode of the hit HBO comedy series Silicon Valley. This is Erlich’s under the circumstances “reasonable” advice to Richard just moments before he is called to the stand.

Quick context for those who don’t watch: the evil tech giant Hooli has brought an absurd intellectual property lawsuit against protagonist Richard and his brilliant but floundering startup Pied Piper, in a low blow effort to tie them up in legal fees so they can beat Pied Piper’s much better app. Hooli really has no case, until the prosecution realizes that Richard did in fact make one tiny mistake, having used a Hooli company computer during his time there to perform some small and insignificant test for his app.
Hooli has no real proof. All Richard has to do is tell a little white lie on the stand. Most viewers watching Richard take the stand are probably praying he’ll take Erlich’s advice and just lie. We nervously watch and laugh as he awkwardly struggles through the prosecution’s line of questioning, and just when you think he might actually do the “right” thing in Silicon Valley speak – he does the Mensch thing instead. He admits to his one small mistake and gives the prosecution a real case.

I just wanted to be different…but if this company is built on lies, then we’re really not that much different from Hooli. The law says that I lose everything – my whole company, everything that I worked for, because I used one Hooli computer to test and modify one block. Is that right? I mean, is that fair? To me, if the system says that’s fair, then I guess I’m probably not meant to be a part of it…”

This is the genuine and vulnerable speech Richard makes in one of the few sincere moments the show has ever had.

In the world of Silicon Valley – both in the show and real life – lying, cheating and doing whatever it takes to get ahead are not just a way of life – they are seemingly admirable moves.  “Business is business” is a phrase we proudly use to justify otherwise unethical behavior. Sacrificing morality for monetary or personal gain has almost become an accepted aspect of the American dream. Why? Perhaps because it demonstrates our great ambition and our willingness to do anything to get ahead and even if deep down we know it’s wrong, since it’s become so accepted, it doesn’t seem quite as bad. Our protagonist Richard sticks out like a sore thumb in his world because he refuses to adopt this attitude. Time and again he does what he knows is right, even if it means sacrificing success and losing a short term battle for himself or his company.


But what about the bigger picture? What about on the soul level? 

Just because we have become numb to our world’s “business is business” attitude doesn’t mean something else isn’t happening internally or to the development of our personality. Judaism teaches that every action we take, positive or negative, has a real and significant impact upon us. Whereas the French philosopher Rene Descartes believed: ”I think, therefore I am”. Judaism teaches “I act, therefore I am”. Ultimately we are the bi-products of our actions and behavior, whether we feel it or not. This is why classical Judaism is mitzvah-oriented – 613 do’s and dont’s – because although thoughts and beliefs are important, it’s ultimately what we do that develops us into who we become. This is why the bulk of Judaism’s mitzvot pertain, not simply to religious ritual, but to our everyday lives since that’s what forms us as people. The Torah therefore prescribes a certain diet (Kashrut), what is considered appropriate or inappropriate speech (lashon hara), laws pertaining to commercial dealings, modest dress (tzniut) and special sensitivity to the widow, stranger and orphan because the impact of the way we speak, eat, dress on our souls and on our personality is huge. The good news is that the good we do, whether known publicly or not, plays a tremendous role in our personal development. Back to our mensch of the hour – he may repeatedly make what society considers bad business moves — but he is doing right by his soul and the universe at large.

Silicon Valley writers have, of course, left this episode with a major cliffhanger: what will the judge decide? Will Richard’s menschy compulsions pay off or will they be forever stuck at the bottom of the valley? It is a comedy after all, so things will probably work themselves out — but in real life doing the right thing, even at the expense of personal gain, can make or break the kind of people we ultimately become. 

One more difference: our lives are not a predictable 10 episode season scripted by other people. In real life, we write our own scripts and all we really know is that every action we take directly impacts the long-term narrative for our soul.

Bibi in DC: Purim All Over Again

Yesterday on my trip back from the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington DC, I was thinking back on the events of the past few days, and on the upcoming holiday of Purim. I had just heard (on TV, not in Congress) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deliver his historic speech before the US Congress. This speech was controversial because some felt –Jews and non-Jews that he went to congress without the approval of the President of the United States. Some felt it was controversial because he openly spoke out against the current policies of the President of the United States in his negotiations with Iran over their nuclear weapons program. And yet Bibi pushed forward and delivered his speech despite these objections because he believes that Israel is in mortal danger, and that if the deal being proposed by President Obama with Iran goes through that the very existence of Israel will be in jeopardy because this bad deal will allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. The religious leader of Persia, Ayatolla Khamenei has vowed the destruction of Israel, and is actively trying to achieve the means to follow through on his threat by pursuing the development of nuclear weapons.

Our Jewish tradition reminds us that this is not the first time that the rulers of Persia have vowed to destroy the Jewish people. Over two thousand five hundred years ago the viceroy of Persia, Haman devised a plot to destroy the Jewish people with the sanction of King Ahashverus. And to prevent this genocide from occurring, Mordechai, one of the Jewish leaders had to take a stand. He had to go against popular opinion. He would not bow down to Haman, inciting his ire. Then he had to implore Ester, the Queen of Persia who had hidden her Jewish identity to seek an audience with the King even though she was not invited. Then Ester would have to openly speak out against the newly adopted policy of the King to prevent a massive attack against the Jewish people.

The genocidal danger against the Jewish people coming out of Persia, Jewish leaders having to take a stand and act in a way which might get people upset, to speak out in a way which is unpopular and would have detractors, and to take a stand with the non-Jewish leaders to get them to change their policy, does any of this sound familiar? This is the story of Purim in the Book of Ester, and it is the story of Purim 2015. Our Torah tells us that the confluence of events in our lives and in the world is not coincidence. We learn from the Megilat Ester that the Almighty directs the events in the unfolding of the destiny of the Jewish people and in the world to help bring about the salvation of the Jewish people and of righteousness. The fact that Netanyahu’s speech to Congress came the day before Purim is no coincidence –it was planned to coincide with his appearance at AIPAC policy conference. But it perhaps there is deeper plan, a plan by the Almighty to send us a powerful message. There are moments when we need to speak out and to take a stand even when it might be unpopular or even dangerous –to stand up to evil and call on others to do so as well, as Mordechai and Ester did in ancient Persia, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did yesterday in the United States Congress, and as each of us need to do with our elected representatives and those will hear our message. And we also need to turn to the Almighty to ask for His help to continue to direct the unfolding of events to help us be victorious over our enemies like when Ester asked the Jews to fast and pray. Today is the fast of Ester, which commemorates Ester’s call to the Jewish people to fast and pray for G-d’s help in the success of her plan to save the Jewish people. It is a wake-up call for us on this Purim to realize the danger facing Israel and the world, and to remember that our celebration and prayers on this Purim and our prayers and the vehicle through which we merit the salvation of the Jews of Israel against our evil Persian enemies. Happy Purim!