Have you ever heard of Benjamin Kubelsky? If not, you may have heard of him by his show business name, Jack Benny. He was one of the most famous comedians of the 20th century.
In the most famous skit he ever did, a robber threatens him:
“This is a stickup: Your money or your life!”
Benny is silent.
“Look Bud, I said, “Your money or your life.””
Benny says, “I’m thinking it over.”
It’s a classic moment in American humor.
But now I realize: Jack Benny was making fun of all of us.
And it’s not funny any more.
We choose money over life.
Now let me tell you about the most important Jewish man who ever lived. Moses is about to die. He is standing before the people. He is about to climb the mountain toward his burial place. And at this moment, when he is between life and death, here’s what he says:
You have before you life and death.
U-vacharta bachayyim: Choose life.
I never got the power of these words before.
Who would not choose life?
The terrible answer that I’ve learned in the last year is: America does not choose life.
It chooses selfish freedom over life.
It chooses ‘what I want when I want it’ over other people’s lives.
It chooses money over life.
America thought it over and allowed the robber to kill rather than give up money.
I hear America talking.
“Nobody can tell me what to do. This is a free country. I can do whatever I want.”
I respond: But your state is at a peak of hospitalizations and deaths!
It’s the right time to re-open the state. It will be better for the economy.
But people are dying every day by the thousands!
The virus is a hoax. Fake news.
200,000 people have died!
The figures aren’t real.
Why don’t you listen to the experts?
What do they know? We know better. It’s just like Climate change. Conspiracies. And by the way, get rid of the Affordable Care Act. It’s another conspiracy.
But what about those older people trapped in nursing homes? Over 1/3 of the deaths are nursing homes residents or workers. That’s well over 60,000 human beings.
But what about all those promises to provide protective gear for health workers, and to do testing.
If you don’t test, you don’t get sick. Stop testing.
There are tight-working places like meatpacking plants that should be closed!
Listen, I own a meat packing plant. I need to get that meat out the door.
But the virus is spreading among the people at the plant.
They can come to work and get paid or not come to work and lose their jobs. It’s entirely up to them.
40% of your workers tested positive.
So we’re not going to test any more.
One of your workers died yesterday.
Sorry. Now go back to work.
America did not choose life.
It consciously did not choose life.
There were states that re-opened at their peaks of deaths and new cases.
At the same time that the deaths were rising, fanatics with big guns were storming the state capitol in Michigan and screaming: “Liberate the state!” And the President of the United States tweeted, “Liberate” and then he said, “that they’re good people.”
You mean, like those Nazis at Charlottesville?
That’s when it hit me: It’s all the same theme.
Like a kid saying: “You’re not the boss of me!”
I want my freedom
“I want my AK-47.
And I ask: Why do you need a gun that can shoot 600 rounds a minute? Do you need that gun to shoot Bambi?
Because it’s my desire to have the best gun there is.
You want to take my automatic weapon away from me? Just try it.
I ask: If innocent little kids are mowed down in an elementary school, that’s too bad? There have been 600 incidents of gunfire on school grounds in the last six years. The death tolls climb, and we don’t act. There are some marches and people say that they will keep trying. But they give up, pretty quickly. And so we live our lives with the specter of gun violence. Because we want our guns, and we want big guns that can shoot a whole lot of people in a minute.
I don’t care if you go to Heaven
S’long as I got my AK-47,
Next to me in my car
America loves freedom more than life.
Your money or your life?
We’ll take the money.
Your personal freedom or someone else’s life?
We want our freedom.
Somehow, people on the right turn every discussion into a debate about liberty. You’re trying to protect lives in Michigan? Liberate Michigan.
As my friend Josh Weissman reminded me, in The Wrath of Khan (1982), Spock says, “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
But America caters to the needs of the few who want their big guns that shoot six hundred rounds a minute.
I grant you that most gun owners are responsible and safety-conscious and they want what is best for everyone. But we cater to a small group of vocal people who emphasize their own select set of personal freedoms.
All these different themes, opening up states and the economy and meatpacking plants and attacking the Affordable Health Care Act, they all flow from choosing misguided personal, selfish freedom.
It’s amazing how debates are framed around freedom.
Take abortion. Abortion is a very complex issue. I really see both sides of the debate. When you can see that little heart beating, that seems like life to me. That embryo has everything it needs to become a human being. I understand the complexity of the issue.
Those who are anti-abortion made a great semantic move when they said that they were ‘Pro-Life.’ They were saying that if you are for a person’s right to choose, you are anti-life.
Here’s what I don’t understand: These people who say that they should have the freedom to have an assault weapon and endanger other people by failing to conform to health standards and who want to be free, tell other people what to do with their bodies!
How come so many of the so-called Pro-lifers are so accepting of so many deaths to the virus, especially in the groups that are older or black or brown?
That’s not choosing life. That’s choosing who will face death.
If you are really pro-life, should you risk so many lives so that you can go to the bar or get another tattoo?
I may not be sure when life begins, but I am sure that it does not end because you’re in a nursing home.
What happened in the nursing homes in this country was a heart-wrenching scandal. I feel awful for the families and the directors and the staffs who did everything they could with an astonishing lack of support from the federal government.
I am not sure how many weeks a fetus exists before it’s life, but life does not end because you live in an inner city.
So if you’re old or black or brown or you live in a blue state, you’re expendable?
How do those people sleep at night, after aiding and abetting policies that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people?
If I were even partially responsible for the death of one person, I don’t know how I’d live with myself.
How do they sleep at night?
That White House should be filled with guilty insomniacs!
How does anyone sleep in the White House?
Even ostriches don’t really bury their heads in the ground. It’s a myth, a misunderstanding.
They couldn’t breathe if they put their heads under the ground.
Only irresponsible humans bury their heads in the ground while others are dying.
Choosing life means caring about every life as a priority.
We all wanted the economy to re-open.
No one wanted so many people to be unemployed with all of the terrible consequences
No one wanted to be separated from our families
No one wanted kids to lose important times in their development
Every single one of us has suffered from this virus, in one way or another
Every single one of us
I don’t minimize the terrible pressure of worrying about money
I don’t minimize the hunger and the poverty
It’s been terrible
Right here in this area, the hunger and the poverty have been grueling
We’ve been running to the Hamden Food Bank with contributions all the time for the people around here who are hungry.
But contracting the economy in order to save lives was exactly the right thing.
And re-opening is very complicated and must be done very carefully.
I congratulate the State of Connecticut starting with its leaders for a serious and thoughtful approach to the pandemic and to the staged re-opening.
And I congratulate the people in our community who were responsible and careful not only for their own sake but also for the sake of others. It’s been rough.
Thank you for choosing life over money.
You knew that going too fast would hurt others.
It is all so frustrating. It is very depressing.
But it is very necessary.
And just for the record, I cannot stand the phrase: “acceptable losses.”
I learned that phrase from movies like Dr. Strangelove about nuclear war: ‘If we only lose twenty million and we take the other guys out, those are acceptable losses.’
There are no acceptable losses.
These months in crisis have made us think about what is really essential to us. As individuals and as a country, like Jack Benny with a gun pointed at him, we’ve been forced into thinking about what is really core to our lives.
In the midst of all the horror and depression, we’ve had a chance to really think about things.
If you only allow essential services, what exactly does that mean?
What are essential things that a locality must provide for its people?
Here’s a quick list of what I think are essential services: Healthcare, fire and police protection, clean water, sanitation, gas and electricity, the telephone system, radio, internet and transportation.
Essential goods are medical supplies and gasoline.
I seem to be a minority of one because I don’t think that liquor stores are essential. The debates I’ve had about this are interesting because people think alcohol is absolutely essential to people’s survival. I think about drunk driving, alcoholism; domestic abuse. But I guess I’m missing something that everyone else understands.
Non-essential services are things like tourism, entertainment, retail stores, barbershops and beauty parlors.
I’m sorry about that last one. Corona hair was a big issue for a lot of people. But coloring your gray is not worth the risk of getting sick or making someone else sick.
This crisis has made us think about what we really need in our lives.
This virus has created an existential crisis about who we are and what we really need and what our purpose is.
Let me tell you a story. Sophie calls, close to hysterical. I don’t want you to know who she is, so I’ll make something up. She taught people how to work with each other by using outdoor activities. Groups from companies would come for a day and grow by doing things together.
Her business had been destroyed overnight. With “social distancing” the norm, she was out of business and understandably afraid. She worried about her employees, her family and her future.
That’s when she called. She said: “Rabbi, I’ll be out of business in 30 days. I won’t make my rent or my payroll or my loan payment.”
I said: “You have to go ‘virtual’. You have to change the exercises you did outside to exercises that can be done inside. You have to get a Zoom account and figure out what technical things your clients will need. Tell your clients that you are developing a new model of how you will run these activities.”
Sophie had to understand that she was not really in the business of outdoor activities. Her core mission was building groups. She had to focus on what her core business really was.
Now, instead of the word ‘business,’ apply the word “life.”
This crisis has made us think about who we are and what is essential about what we do.
Let me use another example, how we continued to have services in this synagogue.
All these years, I always was against videos or photography on Shabbat. What we are doing right now was impossible for me to even think about.
But what is this synagogue’s essential service? Our core service is the service, prayer and community and togetherness.
What was the alternative? The alternative was nothing. No prayer. No community. No communication. No Shabbat together.
So I swallowed hard. And it was weird. I’d come here on Friday nights and turn on the lights and the computer and the extra cellphone and lead the service. And then I’d turn off the computer and the phone and the lights and I’d leave.
It was like a Rabbi’s Twilight Zone.
But it was the best we could do.
And little by little, we got better at it. We brought in David Margolis from Hollywood and we rigged up a way to read the Torah in a way everyone could see.
During the week, we had services every morning and evening. I always was against a minyan that did not have ten people in the same room. Now, I was the only person in the room, and the others were all on the computer screen.
But it allowed people to say the Mourner’s Kaddish. And it allowed people to pray, and talk, and be together.
At points, this was the most communication some of us had the whole day.
One woman said: “These services are my anchors.”
Another person said: “When I saw the Torahs in the Ark, I knew I could get through this whole thing.”
In April, a family came to me with a terrible problem. The grandfather had died of the virus in New York and the cemetery had no idea when they would be able to bury him because of a terrible backlog.
The grandmother was very sick with the virus herself and she said: “I want to be at my husband’s funeral before I die.”
The problem was that you can’t say the Mourner’s Kaddish before the body is buried.
But how could I let the wife die without being at her husband’s funeral?
So I stood here, and the family was on screens all around the country. And I did the funeral. And we said the Mourner’s Kaddish before the body was buried.
What was the alternative? Let the wife die without saying goodbye to her husband?
All these things I did were controversial, and frankly, they were some of the hardest things I ever did as a rabbi. I questioned myself at every turn.
But every time, I asked myself, “What is my core purpose in such a situation?”
Showing our love for those who have passed on.
And you can criticize me all you want, but I was doing the best I could figure out to do.
What is essential?
It’s a mindful, existentialist exercise.
Sort of like the High Holidays, that ask us, every year:
What’s important in my life?
Who’s important in my life?
Let’s use this crisis as an opportunity.
On these High Holidays, let’s think about our society and its priorities. Does our society prize the selfish individual over the safety of others?
Does our society prize selfish freedom over the safety of others?
Let’s also use this time to think about what we’ve learned about ourselves during this grueling period in our lives. Do we have the right priorities?
And if G-d forbid, you have a gun stuck in your ribs and you hear someone say, “Your money or your life!”
Don’t do what America did. Don’t hesitate for a second. Like Moses said, Choose Life.