We got to Disneyland’s California pretty early that day. It was a weekday in January, and my father had had the presence of mind to drive down the night before and stay in a motel nearby - me, my step-mother, my father, and my two kids, Iggy and Etta. I remember the motel had a pool and it was sort of ‘indoor outdoor’, which sounded cool, but really this pool was sort of an undersized mini pool in a partial concrete garage overhang thing next to a major thoroughfare, so it wasn’t really quite ‘California tropical vacation with daiquiris and chaise lounges.’ It was still fun.
Anyhow, bright and early the next day, we get to the park. Disneyland’s California Adventure has lots of incredible rides, but with little kids, one of the most exciting things about Disneyland is always getting to meet the characters. Once upon a time when I was a kid, the characters would be randomly strolling through the park and maybe if you were lucky you’d catch one you really liked. But today, especially for the most exciting characters, there are set times and locations to meet them.
For Disney’s most exciting characters, they literally have their own ‘ride’ where the ride is ‘wait in line, meet the character’. And a few years ago when this story took place, there was no more exciting character than Anna from the Disney movie Frozen. Even if you have never seen the movie, you would have to be living under a rock to not be aware of it. From the come-to-life snowman Olaf to the big Idina Menzel aria ‘Let it Go’, from the backpacks and lunch boxes to the fast-food happy meal tie-ins, I am fairly certain you are all familiar with Frozen. And so soon after we arrived, I knew it would be smart to take my daughter to meet Anna from frozen, because I’m clever and I knew the lines in a few hours would take forever. And so we lined for the attraction, entitled ‘Anna and Elsa’s Royal Welcome.’
Etta and I waited briefly, and then entered a hallway decorated to resemble the nordic-style palace on Arendelle. And then we were invited into a small room decorated to look like a grand hall. And there were just three people in line to meet the princess herself, younger sister of queen elsa, Anna. And as we waited our turn in line, I witnessed something amazing.
The boy in line in front of us was probably 14 or so, which is automatically something of interest, since the target demographic for Frozen fans is pretty much girls ages 3 to 7. He was skinny. He had blond and pink streaks in his longish hair, and a frozen t-shirt, shorts, and dock martins. He had on bracelets and rings.
As he approached Anna - or really, the Disney performer playing Anna - she burst out a greeting and said ‘Oh my it is so good to see you again how are you?’ Which one might immediately dismiss as one of the stock lines they are supposed to say, but when you stop and think - “good to see you again?” - how does she know that? It’s a bit strange. You should know at this point that the hallway that we came down had 6 different doors - and behind each one there are several annas or presumably Elsa's doing a meet and greet with other Disney guests. There are probably dozens of young women from Anaheim and Tustin and Huntington Beach who play Anna or Elsa. How is it possible this boy is that familiar to this particular Anna on this particular day?
They started to speak, and it began to become clear. The boy spoke with an affect in his voice often associated with gay men. As he started to speak, he told Anna all about his morning and his week and what school was like. But also, he took pains to mention to Anna all the chocolate he had eaten - chocolate for breakfast and chocolate with dinner and a chocolate snack. All that might sound either innocuous or strange to a casual observer, but for a dad that had watched Frozen 15 times with his young daughter, I knew exactly what was going on. In the movie Frozen, Anna and her sister Elsa throw a banquet - and express great excitement at all the chocolate that will be out for everyone to eat. Our young queer friend was trying to bond with Anna over their mutual love of chocolate. Anna, of course, played right along, discussing all the chocolate she had eaten and how great it would be to have another banquet in the grand hall of Arendelle where they could eat chocolate together. Our young friend excitedly gushed forth yet more mundane details about his life, and our Anna paid rapt attention. As their 2 minute meeting wrapped up, she expressed great joy and excitement that he had come once again to visit, and she gave him the biggest hug. Our friend walked out of the hall, bouncing with joy. And our Anna pivoted from that lovely but complicated interaction to meeting one of her more common royal subjects, my daughter Etta, who was 6 at the time, and was a lot quieter.
What I had surmised from the events that had just transpired was this: our young 14 year old boy visiting Anna is not only likely queer, but Autistic. Having had several friends and colleagues with autistic children, I knew that an attachment to fantasy and cartoon characters, a need to return again and again to the same comfortable places and things, and an inability to differentiate real from fantasy are all common characteristics of those with autism. A teacher of mine from rabbinic school with an autistic son once lamented to me that her boy was 16 years old and still obsessed with the smurfs. She knew he was always going to be autistic, but also deeply wished that he could mature into liking a cartoon more age appropriate than the tiny cuddly blue men that were marketed for little kids.
Our 14 year old boy seemed to express a familiarity with the cast - and they with him - that implied he visited a lot. Which probably means that he lived in Southern California, and owned a seasons pass, allowing him to literally come every day. But the Disney staff not only dutifully played along of course, but even leaned into the act.
This story stays with me as a strong memory for two reasons - first, the sudden manner in which I became aware of a boy that might otherwise be treated as an oddity or outsider in our society - a gay, autistic teenager - who likely struggles to fit in or be understood by anyone in his world. Here he was, right in front of me, being himself, and I could only assume from what I witnessed that being himself was awfully confusing for everyone else around him most of the time. I imagined that in so-called normal society, this boy would have been the object and target of ridicule. It’s hard to be a gay teen. It’s hard to be autistic in a world where people just don’t understand how your brain seizes onto things and makes sense of the world. It’s hard to be a fan of a movie for little girls when you’re a teenage boy - other people will think that you’re weird.
And second, I was absolutely stunned by how well the Disney cast member handled the situation. She treated him like family, or an old friend. She listened to him. She played along with his love of chocolate. She was compassionate and loving. She made him feel not-other, but instead made him feel special. And just 30 seconds after he was gone, she pivoted to talking to my 6 year old with no trouble at all. She went from giving all her attention to him to giving all her attention to Etta, transitioning the different modes and needs of those two individuals completely seamlessly.
This quality of radical compassion is a value in Judaism we call ‘Chesed’. It is a value that appears often in Jewish texts, and early. One of my favorite examples occurs in Psalm 89, and a commentary that follows it from Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel , the Alter of Slabodka.
In the psalm we read:
Olam Chesed Yibaneh - a world of lovingkindness will be built (Psalm 89:3).
Rabbi Nosson Tzvi comments on the verse thusly:
The Holy One Blessed Be created human in order to do good alongside God. And God blew into the nostrils of human with the breath of life - this is the great spirit of God - from the mouth of knowledge and understanding, for this breath to the nose afterwards it gave human its soul (in the language of Ramban). And on account of this human which was created in the image of the Divine, was fashioned all the creations of Chesed; a world filled with enjoyments and delights. The shefa - Divine Flow - of Chesed and goodness is such that one is able to merit the eternity of pleasures and delights that emanate from the Shechina - and to cling to God.
And by what does a person become able to merit this elevated state, that which is otherwise unseen? What is the task of one that grasps hold of the Highest State of all creation - that one is created in the image of God?
To mirror one’s maker - “Just as God is, so too you.”
Just like in all creations, in the creation of human, in the creation of the universe, the creation is according to it, the innermost point of essence is the Chesed of Hashem Yisboroch, The Holy One Blessed Be, with human: Human was created in God’s image, its being is the highest of all the creations, greater than the wise angels were they differentiated, and crafted on behalf of God’s enjoyment and pleasure - “so too you” - the human is obligated by being a mirror of its Creator; its purpose is a world of Chesed, only Chesed. That is its most lofty purpose. And only by its fulfillment under human forces will they elevate themselves to the highest level.
I think over the past few years in America, as individuals and as a collective, we have been drawing on our reserves of chesed, of lovingkindness. Our politics have become fractured, as the moderates and the reasonable ones have dwindled and been replaced by the angry shouting voices at the extremes. Our nation has been shocked by a pandemic that was not immune to this politicization, as folks battled over opening up or not opening up, going to school or not going to school, masking or not masking, and now vaccinating or not vaccinating. I read the newspaper or check in my friends, and I see hospital beds filling with unvaccinated people. I read of doctors and nurses who are exhausted with treating patients, but it’s not just medical personnel. Restaurant managers are exhausted from trying to keep their businesses afloat with no customers. Parents are exhausted from trying to manage online learning. All of us are exhausted that the pandemic, which we thought would be over after the discovery of a vaccine, drags into its 18th month. We our tired. And our capacity for compassion is exhausted as well.
I hear the rage that fills folks as they react to the hospitals filled with unvaccinated individuals. I not only hear it and read about it, I feel it too. When I see a segment of the population throw caution to the wind or ignore the advice of science and doctors, my gut reaction and my base instinct is to reply “good. They get what they deserve.” This response is of course borne of a certain rationality - actions have consequences. Poor choices have results.
However. I also know that the reasons why people do not get vaccinated are many, and complex. Yes, there are the anti-science extremists - the modern day flat earthers and faked-moon landing conspiracy theorists -who, in the face of literally thousands of expert scientists and doctors telling them the best thing to do is vaccinated have instead decided the vaccine could back you magnetic, or that it’s a plot from Bill Gates to implant microchips in us or some such other nonsense. But according to most estimates, the vast majority of unvaccinated Americans are not fanatics. They’re unsure of the science. Or they’re afraid of the side effects. Or they’re really busy and just haven’t put in the effort to figure out where to get it. Or they lack an understanding of what a vaccine or how it works. Or they somehow just think that all of this doesn’t apply to them. They won’t get sick, or if they get sick, they won’t die.
I bring up these folks because it seems entirely rational to be angry at the estimated 39% of Americans over the age of 18 who are yet to get the vaccine. It is easy to paint them as some kind of fanatics, and easy to throw up your hands and say ‘actions have consequences’. The challenge of that worldview is that it can become easy to make us callous souls to the world around us. We grow this protective shell of anger and frustration. And then we say to ourselves ‘I don’t have time for chesed. I don’t have a need for chesed. They don’t deserve chesed.’
This works on the personal scale, but it also works on a national scale. A baseline principle in America, and truly in all governmental policies around the world, is the balancing of individual liberties against the greater good of society. Another way of saying this: we are debating the extent to which we as a society are responsible for doing chesed for our fellow human. When a portion of our tax dollars goes to building a homeless shelter, that’s chesed. When I sacrifice a day of my time for jury duty so that we have a functioning legal system, that’s a small act of citizenship-based chesed. And when I wear a mask, that is an act of chesed. A recent article in the Atlantic by Silas House can be simply summarized by the title: ‘Some Americans No Longer Believe in the Common Good.’
The complex problem that is revealed is that on a micro-scale, I can say ‘we need more chesed, more self-lessness, more commitment to the common good’, and I might even convince you to believe more in chesed. But the broader problem is that chesed is in short supply nationwide. Most Americans are vaccinated and most Americans when asked will mask because they believe in doing what is in the best interests of their fellow Americans. But not all of us. And so we turn on the tv, and we see grown men and women at school board meetings, frothing at the mouth that their children, their unvaccinated children, will be required to mask. We see videos of screaming fights in grocery stores of folks refusing to mask. We see op-eds in newspapers like one in the New York Times by Sarah Smarsh entitled ‘What to do with our Covid Rage.’
Many vaccinated Americans are tired, disgusted and eager to assign blame. Public health experts and government officials, including some Republicans, have shifted from sensitive prodding to firm condemnation of those forgoing vaccination. Private conversations among the inoculated take an even less diplomatic turn: “We were so close, and these stupid, unvaccinated jerks ruined it for the rest of us.”
Fatigue and outrage are appropriate emotions, considering all that has been lost to Covid-19: lives, jobs, experiences, money, physical and mental health. But those feelings, if not properly channeled, can themselves take a heavy toll. What do we do with our anger?
Our whole society is on overload. We’re like the driver that sits in a traffic jam for 3 hours, nerves frayed, emotional balance out of whack. We are a nation that went from divisive politics to a divisive pandemic to a divisive recovery.
I am hesitant to pull one of the most familiar lines from our High Holiday liturgy out, for fear that you all might think I’m reaching for the proverbial low hanging fruit. Bu there’s a reason certain lines in our liturgy roll off the tongue with ease. Mostly because they have been set to gorgeous music. But they get set to gorgeous music because the words are so powerful and so central to who we are and who we must be.
Avinu malkeinu, our God our sovereign, channeinu v’anneinu, have grace and answer us, ki ain banu ma’asim, although we are unworthy; aseh imanu tzedakah VA’CHESED ; do us the favor of treating us fairly and extending lovingkindness to us ; v’hoshieinu. And save us.
But this act of asking God for mercy and love is a two-way street. As the Alter of Slabodka taught us earlier: ‘ What is the task of one that grasps hold of the Highest State of all creation - that one is created in the image of God? To mirror one’s maker - “Just as God is, so too you.”’ If we truly want God to grant us mercy, fairness, patience forgiveness, and lovingkindness, WE must extend mercy, fairness, patience forgiveness, and lovingkindness to everyone around us. Anger and judgement will not solve what ails us, personally or nationally. We must love bigger, be more patient, forgive more.
It is not easy. Just last week, after a series of calamities at the other synagogue I staff in which the water went out, four staff went out with Covid (I was tested - I’m fine), two rooms were damaged by a leak, the phones and internet went out, our outdoor tent was hit by an Uber driver, I was locked out of the building and maintenance left a box of prayer books out in the rain, I lost my temper at the Executive Director and expressed my total frustration at our endless predicament of woe. Yes, I apologized, but I should have been better. Literally, living with chesed is easier said than done, but we must do it.
The woman who played Anna at Disney’s ‘Anna and Elsa’s Royal Welcome’ was mostly certainly on the job, staying in character, in the moment I witnessed in which she was practicing chesed. And yet that moment - watching this woman extend infinite non-judgemental love and kindness to this 14 year old boy - will stay with me the rest of my life, because it was still true. He felt loved and accepted, and thus he was loved and accepted. I submit to you, my friends, that God wants to love us for who we are, like Anna did on that day for that boy. And God wants us to love in that way to - with patience, and tolerance, and abundant lovingkindness. Even when we have to act. Even though it’s hard. aseh aleihem tzedakah VA’CHESED v’hoshieihem ; do them the favor of treating them fairly and extending lovingkindness to them ; and they will be saved.