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The Way Back from Exile

–A brief reflection on friendship in times of darkness

Today is the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the Jewish day of national mourning.  All around the world, Jews are sitting shoeless on the floor, reciting lamentations, enduring 25 hours without food or water.

Why?

To reflect on the destruction of the two great Temples in Jerusalem — the first 2442 years ago and the second 1950 years ago.

It’s 8:48 am in St. Louis.  I’ve finished my morning prayers and I’m thinking about my friend Ron Fredman.

Why?

Ron and I have very different views of the world.  In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing unrest, we’ve gotten into some heated exchanges.  But we remain friends. And I believe we know each other and even ourselves better — no, especially ourselves better — for our willingness to engage and listen and try to understand someone who believes differently from the way we do.

The sages teach that the First Temple was destroyed because the Jews were tolerant of the worst sins among their neighbors — murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality.  Their live-and-let-live philosophy was not one of brotherhood and national unity but a reflection of the shallowness of their own values. Then came Nebuchadnezzar and his army to destroy the Temple and exile the Jewish people to Babylon.  It would be 70 years before they could return to their land.

The Second Temple was destroyed for an entirely different reason. The Jews as a whole were observant, but an underlying divisiveness lurked beneath a facade of gentility, eating away at the foundations of Jewish society. Ultimately, the spiritual underpinnings of the Jewish world disintegrated. The collapse of the nation followed swiftly. The Roman legions, led by Vespasian and Titus, razed the Temple and overturned its foundations. Nearly two thousand years later, we are still trying to uproot from our hearts the senseless hatred that cast us into exile.

Tolerance of evil is no virtue; we should stand firm to defend our principles. But intolerance of differences in thought and belief brings much misery upon us. It’s easy to recognize defects in others. But the only way to fix others is to start by fixing ourselves.

It’s easy to blame others for our problems, easy because it distracts us from the hard work of taking responsibility for our own attitudes and actions.  It’s hard to navigate the gray areas of life, to pick our battles, to set our priorities, to know whether it’s time to fight or better to live and let live.

Once a year, Jews sit on the floor and reflect upon the errors of the past.  But then we pull ourselves up off the ground and turn our attention to the future.

How will I do better today than I did yesterday?  How will I take responsibility for myself before demanding responsibility from others?  How will I seek to protect the rights of others before demanding that my rights be protected?  How will I be more sensitive so that I don’t give offense without becoming over-sensitive to the benign carelessness of others?

As King Solomon says, there is

a time to tear and a time to mend,

a time for silence and a time to speak,

a time for love and a time for hate,

a time for war and a time for peace.

Sometimes we have to reach out, and sometimes we have to keep our distance. Sometimes we have to protest, and sometimes we have to hold our tongues.  Sometimes we have to fight for justice, and sometimes we have to wait patiently for the arc of history to bring justice into our lives.

Wisdom and peace of mind are the rewards we earn by struggling with these contradictions.  And by struggling, we bring the ideal of peace closer to reality.

So thank you, Ron, for your friendship, the kind of friendship that is based not on ideological agreement but on mutual respect, on civility, and on the sincere conviction that by grappling wisely with the uncomfortable realities of human existence we will hasten the bright and joyous consummation of our return from the darkness of exile.

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Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldsonhttps://www.yonasongoldson.com/
Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics, setting higher standards to earn loyalty and trust. He’s a rabbinic scholar, repentant hitchhiker, and co-host of the weekly podcast “The Rabbi and the Shrink.” He has published hundreds of articles applying ancient wisdom to the challenges of the modern world, and six books, most recently “Grappling with the Gray: an ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity.” The ninja were covert agents in feudal Japan who practiced espionage, deception, and surprise attacks. Doesn't that make Ethics Ninja a contradiction in terms? Not at all. Just as the master of martial arts turns an opponent’s strength against himself, the Ethics Ninja turns attacks against moral values back against the adversaries of ethics, exposing groupthink and double-standards through rational argument in asymmetrical battle to vanquish the enemies of moral clarity.

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2 CONVERSATIONS

  1. For a more human society it is decisive to discover that fragility is one of the main structures of life: fragility helps us to consider the value of kindness and gentleness, the value of listening and attention to others, and also the strength that derives from being in communion with suffering, with expectations and hopes of others.

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