September 17, 2019

‘Survivor’ Ethics

Sixteen strangers are left on a wilderness island to fend for themselves. They endure starvation, infestation, exposure to the elements. Each night they gather in council to vote one of their company off the island. Finally, only two are left. The castoffs are brought back as jury to choose the sole survivor. Conniving, manipulation, betrayal, deceit – that’s entertainment! And 48 million Americans stopped to watch. A media sensation, “Survivor” made the covers of Newsweek and Time and the headlines in every newspaper.

The appeal of “Survivor” is more than its voyeurism. It offers a metaphor for human existence that touches something deep in our civilization. Stripped down to its basics, “Survivor” teaches that we live in a hostile environment where subsistence is a daily challenge and brutal competition is life’s way. Success means climbing over others, leaving the weak and needy behind. Compassion is a distraction, kindness is inexpedient, conscience is a trap. Trust no one, care for no one. One’s only loyalty is to oneself. The object of life, its only meaning, is to be the last one standing – the winner, the survivor. If Friedrich Nietzsche wrote for television, “Survivor” would be his show.

We Jews know this game. We played in Egypt millennia ago and have been forced to play many times since. We learned that life on these terms is hell – empty, lonely, meaningless. Ours is a different game. In our game, winning is not about competition and exclusion but about inclusion and acceptance. The task of life is to build a heart, a home, a community, a world big enough to include everyone. You win when everyone belongs and no one is left out.

This game is more challenging than “Survivor” because you don’t vote people out. You learn to live with them. Those who are different and difficult and needy. Those you love and those you can’t stand. The game is to find the image of God in them all.

This Torah portion, Ki Tetze, sets the rules of the game. Find room for everyone: the captive taken in war (Deuteronomy 21:10-14), the child of an unloved wife (Deut. 21:15-7), the Edomite and the Egyptian (Deut. 23:8-9), the fugitive slave (Deut. 23:16-17), the destitute laborer (Deut. 24:14-15), the poor, the orphan and the widow (Deut. 24:17-22). All of them powerless, dependent, needy. All of them your responsibility.

The Torah portion lists three exceptions to this rule of inclusion which are even more instructive. According to the Torah, the Moabite has no place in the community even to the 10th generation (Deut. 23:4-5). That holds until we get to the book of Ruth, in which a Moabite woman is not only accepted but celebrated for her chesed and her loyalty and becomes the ancestor of King David, the progenitor of the Messiah. Redemption comes, according to Ruth, only when we find the way to include the other and embrace the stranger.

The “wayward and defiant son” is brought to the elders of the town. Accused by his parents of insolence, gluttony and drunkenness, he is to be stoned to death. This so shocked the rabbis that they interpreted the law out of existence. According to Talmud Sanhedrin, “There never has been a ‘wayward and defiant son’ and there never will be.” But read literally, the law is significant. A “wayward and defiant son” is the flip side of a violent and abusive parent. The Torah does not allow that parent to destroy his child. Instead, the child is placed in community custody. While the parent may fantasize of a stoning, the child is protected, reformed, educated and nurtured.

Finally, we are to remember the evil of Amalek and “blot out [their] memory from under heaven.” (Deut. 25:19) Amalek was our first national enemy, who “surprised you on the march when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.” (Deut. 25:28) Who is Amalek? They are the personification of the “Survivor” ethic – those who would destroy the weak, the needy, the stranger in order to win. This is our perennial opponent.

The game begins immediately. The challenges are infinite, but the prizes are remarkable. Care to sign on?

Ed Feinstein is rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.