The world’s oldest person, Spanish woman Maria Branyas Morera, who turns 116 next month, has some sage advice for longevity: “Stay away from toxic people.” Morera, whose Twitter biography states she is “very old but not an idiot”, tweeted at the start of 2023 that the new year was a humble celebration, a new adventure, and a moment of happiness. “Let’s enjoy life together“, she said.
This is sage advice coming from a sagely, aged woman! It’s the kind of advice the sages of Judaism often offer. Stay away from nasty neighbours they warn; the words of one of our daily prayers reads: keep us from a bad person and a bad companion. At the end of our most famous daily prayer, called the Amidah, we appeal to God to help us in the face of negative individuals: ‘May my soul be silent to those who insult me’ or, in other words, let me not be influenced by their toxicity.
In the face of poisonous people, anger and acrimonious human beings, it is hard to maintain one’s cool and equilibrium. It is even harder when your enemy seeks to kill you or destroy your environment.
We are living in dangerously aggressive and angry times. From Moscow to Myanmar, Johannesburg to Jerusalem, the world is populated by a diatribe of hatred and actions of aggression.
Last Friday night, the silent solicitude of Jerusalem was broken by the sounds of gunshot. Ordinary people, emerging from the sanctity of the Shabbat prayer, were gunned down on the street.
The photos of the seven victims tear at your heart; the grief of their families sear your soul:
Rafael Ben Eliyahu, aged 56, left three kids and a wife behind. His son revealed at the funeral that his wife had given birth to a child not long after Eliyahu was killed in the attack.
“You and mom were supposed to come to the bris (circumcision), but ultimately you were not able to hold your grandson. Instead, I’m bringing you to the cemetery. You left a giant hole in our hearts,” Kobi Ben Eliyahu said.
The youngest victim, 14-year-old Asher Natan, was laid to rest on Sunday on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
“I always wanted so much for things to be good for you. Now you’re in a good place for eternity. Asher’s father Aharon said at his funeral.
During this past week more than 100 people were killed in a suicide attack in a mosque in Pakistan. King Charles rightly called it a “barbaric assault“ of “incomprehensible brutality on our shared humanity”.
And that is what toxicity is – a reprehensible ravaging of our common bond of humanity. It assaults the very essence of our shared morality and our belief in the goodness and kindness of human beings. Attacking people in a house of peace and prayer defies the imagination.
American psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, has tried to understand the source of such evil and dehumanisation. He argues that the best and worst in us come from the same source: a tendency to form ourselves into groups, to think highly of our own and negatively of others. Morality, he suggests, binds and blinds us. It binds us to others in a bond of reciprocal altruism. But it also blinds us to the humanity of those who stand outside that bond. In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, it turns the I of self-interest into the We of the common good. But the very act of creating an Us simultaneously, creates a Them, people not like us. And that is why he goes on to say, even the most universalistic of religions, founded on principles of love and compassion, have been capable of seeing those outside the faith as the children of darkness, and have been capable of committing unspeakable acts of brutality in the name of God.
It is easy in the face of evil to give into despair, to see the world as a place of cynicism and cruelty.
And this is, of course, what drives many to religious fanaticism, fundamental nationalism, and fascism.
I would like to think that the oldest woman on Earth today would say to us: friends, don’t give in to desolation, seek not only to distance yourself from toxic people but also ensure you don’t become a poisonous person yourself. Don’t surrender to the urge to divide between you and me, us and them. You can simultaneously think highly of your group and recognise the dignity of other groups.
To conclude with the words of that early prayer: Lord our God, let not our evil impulse have power over us; let us rather cling to the good impulse and to good deeds… Grant us today, and every day, favour, compassion, and kindness,
Please feel free to join my weekly Wednesday online class from 9-10am on the Parasha or Torah Reading. The current series is entitled Join The Freedom Train, and is about the life lessons from Jewish Wisdom. To join please email firstname.lastname@example.org.