These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Social Justice – Emotional Equality

Posted on December 4, 2011 by Eliyahu B.

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(Thanks to Falynn for asking me to post this)

I gave this dvar tzedek  in my Social Justice class a few months ago. I hope it is meaningful for everyone:

A fundamental tenet of social justice, to me, is equality. I believe that equality is a natural human right which should always be found among all people. Within the public domain equality is also very important, as the public domain is an equal space for all to share and as such it should be maintained for the benefit of the public good. This is what is meant and said in the passage from the Tosefta Bava Kama, where Rabbi Akiva says “Just as [a man] does not have permission to ruin, so too does he not have permission to clear stones [by way of the public domain].”

If you’ll come with me for a moment, I am going to take this assertion and flip it on its head. On the surface, from the pshat, it is speaking of the natural environment, the earth… but I am going to interpret it as a metaphor, from the drash, which in my opinion can be taken in terms of the emotional environment that we create among one another.

We all hurt sometimes, we all feel sorrow, we all know pain… but what were to happen if we shared these feelings in the public domain? The Tosefta Bava Kama goes on to state that when “a stone clearer… takes from his own field and places in the public domain, and another person comes along and is damaged by it, the stone clearer is culpable for the damage.” In this instance, and following the metaphor I am trying to make, the stone clearer can be seen as a person who is trying to clear their painful emotions, or “stones”, by way of the public domain. What happens next? Is the stone clearer responsible for the emotions they stir up in others who stumble upon it? According to this passage, the answer is yes. Let’s explore this further.

In today’s modern, technologically-based world, the best example of the public domain is Facebook. It is a place where the public can see what is going on in your mind, your heart and your life.  But what is appropriate to share without hurting others in the process? The Tosefta has an answer: Don’t clear stones. Don’t air your emotional garbage for the world to see, because who knows who will stumble upon it and feel bad for you or feel bad about themselves because it reminds them of past wounds? This causes a cycle of *more* pain in the world, and it is only destroying the public good.

The Tosefta goes on further to say that one who clears stones by way of the public domain “is like someone who is removing stones from something that does not belong to him and placing them in within what is his.” This is so true! The emotional component of the public domain belongs to and is shared by *everyone*, even if they don’t consciously realize it. We all share the same basic emotions, and we all can be affected by someone who is sharing strong emotions in public… *especially* in public, because we intuitively understand it is not just us who are affected by them. It can cause a parent or loved one great worry, and it can ultimately push people away.

To further expand on Rabbi Akiva’s mention of “removing stones from something that does not belong to [us],” my interpretation is that we are pulling these emotions from our very soul, that which does not belong to us but belongs to G-d, and we are sharing them with the public in an unhealthy way.

We live in a complex world, filled with a variety of people and a variety of feelings at any one time. Add to that the ways we have created for ourselves to communicate publicly: radio, TV, Facebook, the list goes on. We need a guide to navigate these emotional waters as human beings, so I would like to quote a central question posed in Genesis, when G-d is speaking to Cain after he kills Abel. G-d asks where Abel is, and Cain responds: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

We are all our brother’s keepers. We all share responsibility for one another’s emotions, and we can either lift each other up or tear each other down by what we say, especially in a community and especially in the public domain. That is why we need to watch not just what we say to each other, but *how* we say it, because the world belongs to all of us, and it is up to us to make it a joyful place to live in.

Thank you for listening, and may we all find the strength to love one another as brothers and sisters of one world, thus ensuring the public good for all time.