Twice over the past few weeks I was asked to make presentations to high school students about what it’s like to be Jewish on a college campus. Usually implicit in that kind of invitation is a request for me to talk to about anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment on campus. But that’s not my focus. I focus on the message I believe is most important – listening to and respecting those with whom you disagree usually leads to constructive campus environments because they identify you as an authentic partner in the quest for a common good.
I began my last such presentation with the question, “Who thinks the world is in good shape right now, and why?” Only one student raised his hand, explaining that he didn’t want all the good in the world to be swallowed up by the bad.
So, I changed the question: “What are the big issues in the world that you think need to be fixed the most?”
The answers came quickly: “lack of humanity,” “willingness to judge people just by looking at their picture,” “inability to talk to each other across differences,” and so on. I thought to myself, “why can’t these students lead our country?”
Soon they will.
As my presentation continued, the subject turned to meaningful and productive conversations. I reflected that, in my experience, most people when engaged in conversation are busy thinking about what they are going to say next rather than really listening to the other person. Most people only listen long enough to find the other person’s word or phrase they can use to segue to their own agenda without sounding foolish, instead of truly hearing and understanding what the other person is saying. The heads nodded again.
We talked about how building each other up and finding common ground are much more effective strategies on campus than tearing others down or diminishing their ideas. And we talked about how the moment we diminish those ideas or another’s right to free speech is the moment we diminish our own.
Then, at my Pesah Seder on the first night, it occurred to me that the Seder itself models what we’re supposed to do in these situations right in front of our noses – year after year.
Think of the second cup – the one associated with the telling of the story of the Exodus, and the praise of God using the words of the Hallel thanking God for our deliverance. When we get to the Ten Plagues, we remove 10 droplets of wine, and some remove another three for the acrostic of Rabbi Yehuda. Why do we diminish our most joyful cup of wine in the celebration of our national freedom?
The most well-known answer is that we diminish our cup to symbolize that we intentionally diminish our joy in empathy with the death and suffering that the Biblical Egyptians experienced as we were delivered into freedom. It refers to a Midrash in the Babylonian Talmud in Megillah (10b) where the Angels were singing joyfully along with the Israelites as they crossed the Red Sea and God admonishes them, saying “My creations are dying and you are singing songs of joy?”
Further, the Hillel movement on campuses is named after Rabbi Hillel, whose korech sandwich we eat at the Seder table. Why? He would always articulate his opponent’s position before his own – and as a result the law virtually always follows his interpretation. Could we live that way? Could we lead that way? Could the leaders of our nation and those abroad stop trying to vanquish each other and instead build each other and their democracies up by listening and respecting each other and those they represent? Can we all win by helping each other win?
Now when I’m in front of students I have an even stronger case for the value and relevance of Jewish life in today’s world. Victory (whether in military or political campaigns) does not preclude empathy. Success does not require or even desire destruction, and perhaps victory is more complete when our former opponent wins too.
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“Welcome to campus,” I’ll say, “where you choose to make the world better or to make it worse. Be one who makes it better.”
Uri Cohen is the executive director of the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale University.