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Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater Headshot

Michael Jackson and 4th of July Priorities of Concern

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This has been an emotional week for many here in America and some around the world. Thousands, if not millions, of people have been mourning the death of legendary artist Michael Jackson, literally pouring into the streets in an expression of grief, while our media outlets and bloggers have been running nonstop to cover every angle, every crumb, every breath of this story. It is hard when someone who has touched millions of people with art suddenly dies. I understand that and I respect the feelings.

However, during a conversation this past weekend with some friends, a few of whom are also rabbis, the conversation turned for a moment to Michael Jackson and the whole tragedy. One of my friends was genuinely upset and felt pained at his death, and she was a bit incensed that I and another friend, were not so much. And, that we were more upset at the outpouring of grief and expression of pain at this death, rather than at any of the myriad other events this past week that could be commanding our attention, was just a total buzz kill for her! I have been thinking about this all week and as we celebrate the 4th of July this Shabbat, the day when we honor our country and all that is good and right, just and joyous about this land in which we live, I want to comment on what I feel is the tragedy within this tragedy as it relates to us as a nation.

John F. Kennedy once wrote in a letter to the publisher of Musical America, "There is a connection, hard to explain logically, but easy to feel, between achievement in public life and progress in the arts. The age of Pericles was also the age of Phidias. The age of Lorenzo de Medici was also the age of Leonardo da Vinci. The age of Elizabeth was also the age of Shakespeare. And the New Frontier for which I campaign in public life, can also be a New Frontier for American art." (Musical America, Oct. 1960) Certainly one can say today, without a doubt, that the age of cable television and the internet is also the age of a pop musical culture explosion, in which Michael Jackson is surely unmatched.

Artists have a way of entering our souls, filling our lives with meaning, offering us hope in times of despair, in a way that very few other people can. And often, as is the case with Jackson, the art becomes larger and more profound than the actual person. With the advent of music videos, and the mass market culture which grew out of the 1980s, Michael Jackson led the way toward a new crossover medium of music, dance, fashion and cultural style. His was not only the voice of a generation, but his dance moves and unique contributions to fashion, embedded him as a cultural icon like none other.

Art has always had the power to transform and elevate us as human beings; like the great artists of old, Jackson found a link to our collective consciousness that tapped into something primal in our need for connection, community and inspiration. For that, we should be grateful for his gift and mourn his death. However, what concerns me is this: why is it that the death of a musician, one man, and one with a very troubled life, brings out the passion of Americans onto the street with such force? It is not the expression of grief that troubles me, but rather the lack of expression and energy for things that are truly of greater consequence and importance in the affairs of our world.

What bothers me most is what I see as a disconnect between our emotional outpouring and the priorities of our society. So, I would not be as troubled by the reaction to Jackson's death, with people sleeping on the streets overnight just to walk by his Walk of Fame star, or setting up spontaneous vigils which draw thousands of people, in tears, if I saw the same kind of reaction and devotion to causes and issues that truly will affect the lives of people. In the same week that hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest a travesty of democratic values, Americans took to the streets for the death of a superstar entertainer.

I have to ask: where were the throngs of people when we called for support to end genocide in Darfur? Supporting gay rights as our state voted to support Prop. 8? Protesting the horrendous budget cuts that our state is facing? Speaking out for affordable healthcare? I have been reading the letters in papers, following some of the blogs and talk-radio, which along with Jackson, have been covering the mindless story of South Carolina Governor Sanford's affair, and noticed, at least in some of the letters, a tone of gratitude for the paper covering something really meaningful and important, rather than, and I kid you not, only covering news issues, like the energy bill, the effort to pass the Employee Free Choice Act and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I hope that we are aware that the draw down of troops in Iraq began this week. One would think that this would be front page news, no? No, buried somewhere inside. What is this saying about our society?

July 4 celebrates the noble actions of our ancestors who fought for freedom, stood up to tyranny and helped to create the foundation for the birth of our blessed nation. I fear that what we are spreading now is not the values of our nation but only our pop culture, a culture that elevates superstars to gods, encourages consumer capitalism based on false values and promotes a quasi idolatry. People all over the world look to America and are copying what we do; yet, are we truly aware of what aspects of our culture others are mimicking?

Do we only want the music, clothes, videos and violent components of our society transmitted to others around the globe? Do we not want people to look to America and see us rallying for justice, promoting, with strength of numbers, the values we hold dear, and actually exercising our democratic rights by voting? Will we rally on the streets to promote alternative energy? Will we rally on the streets to protest unfair and immoral healthcare coverage? Will we rally on the streets to end wars and stop violence? A generation ago, people risked their lives for causes that changed the course of our nation. Today, most of us don't risk our lives for anything, but have no problem spending a day, a week, a month, mourning a superstar, waiting in line for the newest video game machine, or trampling one another to get to the sale rack first. On this 4th of July, let us think about our priorities and assess where we stand.

I close with a rabbinic parable. A king had some empty goblets. He said to himself: "If I pour hot water into the goblets, they will burst, and if I pour cold water into them, they will crack." So what did the king do? He mixed hot and cold water together and poured that into the goblets and the goblets did not break. Similarly, when God created the world, the Holy One said, "If I create the world on the basis of mercy and compassion alone, it will be overwhelmed by sin; on the basis of justice alone, the world cannot exist. So I will create the world with both justice and mercy; that way it will endure!" (Genesis Rabbah 12:15).

Our emotional outpouring over Michael Jackson is the legacy of mercy and compassion, the hot water, and it is necessary and encouraged. Yet, if it is not balanced with an equal amount of cold water, our concern for justice and righteousness, then we are going to shatter our glasses, our world will not endure. Let us keep this message in mind the next time we are called to dedicate our time, our lives, to a cause. May the energy we give to the mercy and compassion be matched by the energy we give to justice. In that way, we imitate God and make our world an even holier and more profound place to dwell. Shabbat shalom.