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How i sleep better at night

05/17/2020 03:34:09 PM


During these days of coronavirus, it’s not only Clorox wipes and toilet paper that have seen a rise in demand. Gun sales are also at an all-time high. 

Some people are arming themselves because they are worried about shortages leading to civil unrest.
They fear that they won’t be able to rely on the police to protect them. A gun becomes a “self-help” defense mechanism if people try to take your stockpile of food.

The idea that this crisis will turn us all into raiders looking to steal from our neighbors represents a pretty bleak view of the human condition.  

But this bleak view is nothing new. In past years, when I’ve looked at a passage of the Torah with our study group, it has generated some cynical remarks about the human condition. In the passage, we see the instruction to the Israelites to create a system in which every fifty years – during the “Jubilee” year – we hit an economic “re-set button.” Families who had been forced to sell their land and holdings because they were impoverished could get their land back again.

If you purchased another person’s land or house under this system, you could only own it for the number of years remaining until the Jubilee year.  You might not even get to have it that long, if a “redeeming kinsman” appeared to buy the property back for the person who had to sell it originally.In other words, you couldn’t buy someone else’s property and expect to own it forever.  

The Torah offers us a vision in which no one family or group would become richer and richer over the years, while others grew poorer and poorer.

When we explored this passage in Torah Study, I could usually count on someone to ask: “how could this possibly work? We are too selfish and greedy to live under that kind of system.”

How did we get this cynical view of human nature, that we are all so selfish?  How did we come to accept the view that during this time of crisis, we’d better purchase a gun to defend ourselves from neighbors looking to raid our cupboards?

I remember that during my impressionable college years, I read a novel that influenced my view of human nature.  It was William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a novel about English schoolboys marooned on an island who devolve into savagery. 

The novel ends after three boys die and the island is wrecked and smoldering.  Upon their rescue, one of the characters, Ralph, “Wept for the end of innocence…and for the darkness of Man’s heart.”

A dim view of human nature. 

But this is a novel.  What would happen in the real world? It so happens that The Guardian recently published an article written by Rutger Bregman about a “real life” Lord of the Flies.

In 1965 six boys set out from Tonga on a fishing expedition.  They were caught in a storm and drifted at sea for eight days.

The boys collected rainwater in hollowed coconut shells and shared the water equally, each boy getting a sip in the morning and one in the evening.  

Then they landed on an island, where they lived for fifteen months, enduring terrible thirst and hunger. 

But despite these hardships, the boys managed to create a commune, including a food garden, water storage system, chicken pens, a badminton court, and a permanent fire that they took turns tending.

When one of them broke his leg, the others set it with branches and leaves, and took care of him until he was better. 
The boys even created a musical instrument, beginning and ending each day with prayer and song.

Definitely not the story of the Lord of the Flies!

The question about human nature is not something that can be answered.  But we can choose the way we look at other human beings.

I choose to look at humans not as essentially selfish beings, but as creatures whose nature it is to work together, to share what we have, and to take care of each other in difficult times.  

I choose to believe that the vision of economic justice reflected in the Torah could exist if we so wished. 

I choose to think of my neighbors as people who, if I needed something, would not greet me at the door with a shotgun in hand, but would instead ask me, “how can I help you?”

My choice may not reflect the “true nature of humans,” but it enables me to view others with trust and to sleep well at night (without a pistol under my pillow). 

Thu, June 30 2022 1 Tammuz 5782