A warm summer night in the small rural town of Central Point, Virginia – July 11, 1958. The newlyweds were sleeping peacefully, unaware that they were about to make history. In the early hours of the morning the police, relying on an anonymous tip, burst into their bedroom. The couple pointed to their marriage license, framed and hanging on the wall, showing that they had been married the previous month in the District of Columbia. The police told them that their marriage was invalid in Virginia. Then they arrested Richard Loving, a white man, and his wife, Mildred, an African American woman who also had Native American ancestry, for violating Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which made interracial marriage between whites and non-whites a crime.
The Lovings were locked up and sentenced to a year in prison, but their sentence was suspended on condition that they leave the state. Richard and Mildred were a quiet working class couple, with no desire to be involved in litigation; they just wanted to live and raise their kids in Virginia, near their families. And so they ended up going to court, contesting a law and a country that would not sanction their love.
Their case, as we all know, eventually made it to the Supreme Court, and on June 12, 1967 – 50 years ago this month – the court struck down Virginia’s Racial Integrity law and similar statutes in about a third of the states, ruling them unconstitutional. In 1965, when their case was pending, Mildred Loving told the Washington Star: “We loved each other and got married. We are not marrying the state. The law should allow a person to marry anyone he wants.”
On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court invoked the Loving case as precedent in deciding, in Obergefell vs. Hodges, that states are required to allow same-sex marriage, under both the Equal Protection Clause and the Due Process Clause of the Constitution. This weekend we mark Pride Shabbat, celebrating the anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, when at 1:20 a.m. on June 28, 1969, plainclothes officers burst into the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, and yelled “Police! We’re taking the place!” Police raids on gay clubs were common in those years. Customers were lined up, forced to show their ID, arrested and exposed in newspapers.
Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the FBI and police departments kept lists of “known homosexuals” and their associates, monitoring their activities and materials they received in the mail. Businesses catering to homosexuals were often shut down. Cities outlawed the wearing of opposite gender clothing; universities expelled instructors suspected of being homosexual. As long as laws criminalizing same-sex behavior remained in effect, gay and lesbian public school teachers throughout the nation were summarily dismissed whenever their sexual orientation became known.
Homosexuals were barred from civil service and foreign service jobs; they were discharged from the military as “unfit for service.” Thousands of gay men and lesbians were publicly humiliated, harassed, beaten, fired, jailed or institutionalized in mental hospitals. Many lived in hiding, keeping their private life secret from their family and professional colleagues. On the night of the Stonewall raid in the Village, gay people rose up and protested these affronts, giving birth to the modern gay rights movement.
Two landmark legal cases; one landmark uprising; monuments to courage and persistence in the struggle for human dignity and the human right to love and marry the person we choose. Some will celebrate this weekend by marching, renewing our commitment to address racial prejudice and gender inequality, which continue to disgrace and dishonor our country. But here in our synagogue, on this warm Shabbat summer night, I want to focus on a spiritual lesson from the Torah in honor of the Lovings and all they represent.
Here’s our question for tonight: how can all of us become more loving in our thoughts, words and deeds?
The story given to us by the Torah this week seems at first to have little to do with this question; it looks instead like a primer in dysfunctional behavior. Our portion tells the story of an uprising against Moses led by his disgruntled cousin, Korach, and 250 leaders of the people. In a fit of blazing anger, they challenge the authority of Moses, accusing him of arrogance and incompetence – charges especially ironic, given the Torah’s repeated insistence on Moses’ modesty and humility. Moses has never yearned for power or lorded it over his fellows – instead, he avoided becoming leader of the Israelites as long as he could; and he has stood up for his people and defended them whenever they faced danger. But the people are angry and ungrateful, restive in the hot desert sun, insecure and afraid of what the future may bring, susceptible to rabble-rousing by a charismatic ringleader. Moses’ loyal and modest “servant leadership” earns him the jealousy and hatred of Korach.
This is, among other things, a story about dealing with difficult people – the people we encounter in our workplaces, our neighborhoods and our families who so often make life miserable for themselves and those around them. They’re angry, critical, judgmental, antagonistic. They focus with laser-like intensity on the shortcomings of others, and regularly express disapproval and resentment. They exude pessimism, negativity, hostility and distrust.
It would be easy to approach the world with a loving attitude if everyone around us treated us with love and respect. What can we do when we’re confronted with a Korach?
Let’s first explore what Moses does. The Torah says when Korach challenged him harshly “vayipol al panav – he fell on his face.” This looks like the act of someone who’s distraught, overwhelmed, so flummoxed that he doesn’t know what to do. But we could look at it in another way. Moses doesn’t respond to Korach’s anger in kind or escalate the situation; today we might say that Korach has an aggressive communication style, but Moses is “non-reactive.” Instead of lashing out, he turns inward – he turns to God; he withdraws for a while and seeks to examine the situation with more clarity and calm. Soon enough, he responds to Korach and his band – briefly, composedly, in a non-agitated, non-defensive way: “Come morning, God will make known who is [God’s choice] and who is holy” [Num.16:4-5]. He says, in effect, “let’s cool down. Let’s wait for morning. This is not really about me, and it’s not my battle to fight.”
Disengaging from an overheated interaction, stepping back to breathe and collect one’s thoughts, setting boundaries, de-personalizing, not seeing every challenge as a personal attack – all these are good strategies that Moses models for us in this highly-charged situation. But they don’t sound very loving. Is there more that our tradition can teach us about bringing a more loving presence to our difficult relationships?
Here are three principles that I’ve found helpful in my own life. First: cultivate “ayin tova – a good eye” – a quality the Mishna calls one of the distinctive signs of a practicing Jew. What is a “good eye”? The medieval commentator Rashi says it means honoring our companions as much as we honor ourselves. Maimonides says it’s the capacity to be satisfied with our own portion in life and genuinely rejoice in the good fortune of others. Rabbenu Yonah says it means being generous, both financially and emotionally. And the S’fat Emet teaches that it means having a positive outlook that focuses on gratitude and appreciation.
Having a good eye suggests a special kind of visual acuity; it means that we look at other people from the perspective of love and curiosity, seeking to understand them and perceive the good in them. For instance, why are difficult people so difficult? What are the roots of their pervasive negativity? Quite often, psychologists say, it’s because they’re motivated by deep fears: the fear that others don’t respect them or love them; the fear that “bad things” are going to happen. These fears lead them to impute the worst possible motives to others; these fears are the source of the difficult person’s most annoying behaviors: their extremely thin skin and propensity to take offense; their critical, judgmental comments which express perpetual disappointment and disapproval; their tendency to blame others for their situation; their needy, demanding, controlling behavior; their pessimism about the future. All these behaviors might be perceived as a cry for help – unfortunately, a self-sabotaging one, for rather than eliciting the love and respect of others, difficult people act in ways that tend to drive others away. [See “Dealing with Negative People, by Raj Ragunathan; https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sapient-nature/201303/dealing-negative-people]
If we have an ayin tova -- a good eye -- and there’s someone difficult in our life whom we must encounter regularly, we’ll continually work on ourselves to remember that there’s more to this person than their dysfunctional acts. We generally meet people in the middle of their lives; we don’t know what happened before, to shape their character and behavior; and we don’t know what will become of them in the future, how they might change in surprising ways. Having an ayin tova means that we train ourselves to notice and appreciate the good that’s in them, so that we’re not just fixating on what’s annoying. For there is some good in just about everyone, though we miss it if we’re in the habit of seeing them only through a negative lens. If all else fails, we can say to ourselves: this is someone God has put in my path to help me learn patience, to control my emotions, to manage my temper.
Second principle: we can’t change a difficult person, but we can deliberately boost our own capacity for kindness. Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, has shown that just a few weeks of practicing meditation that focuses on compassion and kindness can change our brains, generating more positive emotions and a deeper sense of connection with others. Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, a teacher of Mussar, recommends that we pray for the wellbeing of others, or “bless them in our minds.” Picture the face of a person you like – or one that you don’t much like – and wish them healing. Wish them inner peace. Wish them happiness in their marriage. Wish them a good day. Wish them success. Will it make the Korach in our life sweeter and more benevolent? Maybe not – but it could well make us sweeter and more benevolent in our attitudes, and our calmer, kinder demeanor just might have an impact on our Korach.
My third principle: Yehoshua ben P’rachiya says in Pirke Avot [1:6], “Make for yourself a teacher; acquire for yourself a friend; and give every person the benefit of the doubt.” In other words: we’re required to judge others with generosity, but we’re allowed to choose the people who will be our teachers, friends and companions. We need not subject ourselves to continual abuse. We have the power to invest our time in relationships that are rewarding, not destructive. That’s a loving act, in fact – loving towards ourselves, our own health, wellbeing and sanity. Remember – in the end, Moses and Korach separate. Korach’s band is swallowed up by the earth; the 250 rebellious chieftains are consumed in a blazing inferno.
Today we might see this scenario as a gratifying, somewhat infantile fantasy – if only all the difficult people in our lives could just go away and leave us in peace! But interpersonal troubles will be with us forever. As long as we have to coexist with others, we’ll be challenged by some of their behaviors. Even in the Garden of Eden there were personality conflicts. Moses’ troubles don’t go away when Korach’s band disappears, and no convenient earthquake will rid us of ours. We might instead try a healthy dose of Moses’ greatest quality – his humility.
As Rabbi Mark Sameth writes in his “Prayer for Difficult People”: O God, Creator of difficult people, bless me with the strength, fortitude, wisdom and equanimity of spirit to deal with the difficult people You have placed in my life…..And God, Creator of difficult people, it has no doubt come to Your attention (through the prayers of others), in spite of all You know about my good heart, my good intentions, my good work, and my just overall basic goodness that I am myself at this moment considered a difficult person in the life of another one of Your creatures (maybe more; I didn’t get the whole story)….Causing pain and suffering is, of course, as You know, the last thing I would ever want to do. Help me, therefore, O God, to no longer be the difficult person in someone else’s life….”
The world is full of difficult people – people who disagree with us and disapprove of us; some even seek to deny our rights and destroy our dignity. But we can’t afford to be consumed in blazing anger, or burn out in the struggle to make a better world. We have to be here for the long haul – sustained by courage, and persistence, and the one thing that, in the end, can never be defeated. As Rabbi Jonathan Rietti says: “Ahava docheh et ha-kol. Love conquers everything. Nothing has the power to stand up to love.” So on this warm summer night let us remember those whose love made history and who fought the good fight for all of us. Let us do justice and love kindness and walk humbly together on that long, long road to a brighter future, to the world we will build with love.