B'reishit: generations

D'var torah given in the minyan yesterday morning.

Ten generations.

At the beginning of this parsha, God created humanity as the pinnacle of creation, and declared it tov meod -- very good. Before even the first Shabbat, Adam had transgressed the divine will and been expelled from the garden, but that didn't merit further destruction. Adam and Chava produced children and their descendants began to fill the earth, as commanded. It might not have been tov meodany more, but it was apparently still ok with God.

Ten generations later, at the end of this same parsha, things have descended to the point where God is ready to blot it all out. The world had become corrupt and lawless, filled with wickedness and violence.

Ten generations isn't a lot. Many of us are blessed to have known three or four generations of our families, maybe more. As a child I met a great-grandparent and my niece now has a child -- that's six. It's hard to imagine that the distance from my grandparents to my grand-niece spans half the distance from tov meod to unredeemable evil.

And yet... it's been roughly ten generations since the founding of the United States. The US didn't start out as tov meod -- slavery was normal, native peoples were badly mistreated, and sexism and racism were the way of the world. But the people of that generation also pursued values we would call at least tov: basic freedoms of speech and assembly and religion and personal autonomy, protections from government abuses, and fostering a society where people could live securely and pursue happiness.

Ten generations later, how are we doing? We've made progress in some areas, but we've also done a lot of harm. We've pursued the destruction of the planet we were given to care for, there is widespread corruption and injustice from local jurisdictions all the way up to the international level, crusaders on both the left and the right seek to blot out perspectives they disagree with, and we've become a polarized, combative, and intolerant society. I'm going to focus on this last one, both because it's the one we can do the most about at an individual level and because I want to avoid the appearance of political advocacy in a tax-exempt synagogue right before an election.

Within just a single generation, we've become more polarized, more isolated in our bubbles, and more certain that we are right and anybody who doesn't agree with us completely is evil. We could blame social media for filtering what we see, but aren't we complicit? There was Internet before Twitter and there was mass media before the Internet, and we've always tended to gravitate toward people like us, haven't we? And yet, we used to more easily have civil conversations with people we disagreed with; we used to be better at respectful discourse and its give-and-take. Going farther back, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai disagreed with each other on almost everything, yet they found common ground in the study hall, maintained friendships, and intermarried. They taught each other's positions, not just their own, to their students. They disagreed, vehemently, without being disagreeable.

Very few issues in our society are cut-and-dried. We can't stay in echo chambers, only hearing perspectives we already agree with, and expect to get anywhere. We need to be open to diversity. Diversity means people and ideas that aren't exactly like us. Diversity means complexity. It means setting aside the goal of "winning" in favor of the goal of understanding the human beings we're interacting with. It means having civil conversations that are nuanced and complex. It means being open to new ideas. It means asking questions rather than jumping to the conclusions that would be most convenient for us, like "he's a bigot" or "she hates America" or "you're not capable of understanding". The results won't align completely with any side's talking points, but they just might help us move forward together constructively.

Try it. Try having a conversation with someone who disagrees with you on something. It doesn't have to be something extreme and emotional.
Try asking the person to explain the reasoning.
Try asking questions.
Try to understand, and resist the urge to prepare your counter-arguments while half-listening for keywords to pounce on.
Assume your conversational partner is as principled, ethical, and thoughtful as you are.
Assume good intentions.
See how long you can keep it up. Then ask yourself: based on what I've learned, do I need to re-evaluate anything in my own thinking?

It's hard, isn't it? But what's the alternative? Can we afford to continue our descent? What comes after "uncivil"? How many generations do we have before our society is unredeemable?

Ten generations of social decay, hatred, and violence led from Adam to Noach. But that wasn't the end. After the flood, another ten generations led from Noach to Avraham. After sinking to the depths of evil, society climbed back toward tov.

Our society hasn't sunk as far as Noach's generation -- yet. We do not need to reach bottom, when only the divine promise prevents the heavens and the depths opening up again, in order to start climbing back up. At Yom Kippur we confessed to many sins including sinat chinam, baseless hatred, and we also said that we can return from our errors. We can turn from ways that are uncivil or worse – individually, one interaction at a time. We are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are we free from trying. Let's see how far we can get together.