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Me First?

The New York Times recently reported that after analyzing language and lyrics in 30 years of hit songs, University of Kentucky psychologist Dr. Nathan DeWall found “a statistically significant trend toward narcissism and hostility in popular music,” and claimed that, “Late adolescents and college students love themselves more today than ever before.” I’m no fan of such blanket pronouncements on generational issues that pop up periodically and create a fuss with representatives of the accused age group howling in protest while the older folk sigh and sing a chorus of “Kids!” from “Bye Bye Birdie.”

Coincidentally, in the past few years there has been a huge surge in popularity of the narcissism of Ayn Rand, the so-called “philosopher,” and her belief in and promotion of what she called “Objectivism,” an emotion-free reason-based concept that glorifies (in her words) “man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life …” Simply stated, in Rand’s ethic, a person’s business acumen is the standard by which to judge him and the importance of the individual vastly outweighs the needs of the community. Still highly controversial even though she died in 1982 (her body was laid out next to a six-foot floral dollar sign), Rand’s a hot commodity these days.

Have we really become so self-centered? Do we really live our lives with the philosophy that “I’ve got mine, I don’t care if you don’t get yours?” What about us Jews, whose commitment to community, the “other,” and family is supposedly legendary? Have we joined the ranks of the “me first” movement?

With great sadness, I think sometimes that we have. We expect other people to be with us in times of need or joy – to say Kaddish or to celebrate a joyful event – without understanding that if we have not made ourselves available during regular day-to-day opportunities, we have no right to expect anything from anyone else or to feel resentful when no one is there for us. We expect a community to rally around us when we need and want it without realizing that we, too, have an obligation to that community because “community” is based on mutual affection and regularly applied attention.

We Jews can and should do better. The language that defines us in prayer and ritual is strictly in terms of “we,” not “I.” We need at least 10 people to conduct official prayer business. Our life cycle events were never intended as invitee-only or solitary affairs. Celebrating, mourning or even living in isolation is simply not Jewish. Showing up as a Jew should be a daily affair, not something just reserved for the occasional momentous occasion.

Our collective memory reinforces the Jewish ethos of Kol Yisraeil aravim zeh la-zeh – all Israel is responsible for one another – and is the classic textbook definition of “it takes a village.”


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