Guest Column by Rabbi Yitz Tendler
We take them for granted, the 2,000 emoji on the standard smartphone keyboard. They increasingly are how we communicate, sharing emotions and entire narratives, much to the chagrin of those who lament the deterioration of our national literacy.
Emoji, however, are apparently serious business. Finland recently became the first country to lobby the Unicode Consortium, the secretive Silicon Valley emoji gatekeepers, to have its national identity enshrined in graphic digital characters. To do that, Finland first had to distill its 5.5-million-person national essence into a smartphone keyboard image.
Ultimately, an exhaustive process resulted in Finish identity being boiled down to four possible images. As Georgia Wells reported in The Wall Street Journal on Nov. 10:
“The Unicode Consortium, which met to decide the fate of Finland’s offerings Thursday, is no bunch of smiley-faced pushovers. The group, which standardizes computer coding for characters in different languages, wants emojis to be popular, easily recognizable with just a few thousand pixels, and open to interpretation. Its guidance is followed by Apple Inc., Google parent Alphabet Inc. and many other big tech companies.”
After a months-long wait for the nervous Finnish team of lawyers and Foreign Ministry officials, the Unicode Consortium decided that Finland’s national identity can now be tweeted, texted or emailed as either a pair of socks or a sauna.
Which brings us to a millennial take on a biblical question: If you had to boil down the life of Abraham to an essential emoji, what would it be? If we had only a few freeze frames of definitive moments of Abraham’s life, what would they be?
Would it be Abraham taking the hammer to his father’s idols, defying polytheistic orthodoxy and physically chiseling away at an accepted theological norm? Or, having left his homeland, would he be standing at the crossroads of civilizations, preaching a belief in one G-d and altering the course of history?
Would he be 100 years old, beseeching G-d for a child with his loving wife, Sarah? Or would he be pictured during his ultimate test, grasping a sword with an outstretched arm, readying himself to make the sacrifice of that same son, born from so many tears?
Thankfully, Jewish tradition has already asked this question, and the surprising answer resonates throughout history and provides an important contemporary lesson. In the Talmud (Avoda Zara 25a), Rabbi Yohanan notes that Joshua calls Bereishit (Genesis), the bulk of which is the narrative of Abraham and his offspring, Sefer Hayashar, inadequately translated as “the Book of the Straight.”
Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893), dean of the flagship Volozhin Yeshiva, asks in the introduction to his commentary on the Book of Genesis: Why, of all the adjectives available to describe Abraham, do we not describe him as a tzadik (righteous) or a hasid (pious), but instead use the far less descriptive yashar (upright)?
What does the encomium yashar even mean? What is it communicating?
Rabbi Berlin’s answer, channeling other traditional sources, is astonishing: Abraham’s ultimate praise does not lie in his piety, his righteousness, or his powerful and singular relationship with G-d and his dedication to His word. His defining praise and true character are most dramatically manifested in the way he treats those who disagree with him.
While this behavior is illustrated in various ways in the winding narrative of Abraham and his offspring, it is most starkly demonstrated in the story of Sodom’s destruction.
Abraham, on the excruciatingly painful third day after his circumcision, pauses a conversation with G-d Himself to run into the blazing sun and welcome wayfarers he presumes to be idolatrous nomads. Eventually they reveal themselves as angels, and G-d communicates through them His intent to destroy Sodom.
Sodom was a city-state that stood for everything diametrically opposed to the Abrahamic creed of “a generous eye, meek spirit and humble soul” (Avot 5:19). Guests were mistreated and molested. Charity was frowned upon. The entire society was built on abject cruelty.
When G-d tells Abraham about Sodom’s imminent destruction, we expect the response to be great joy: This is a big, dramatic win for his team. The flagship political entity that stands in Abraham’s way of spreading his faith in G-d and teaching lovingkindness will be destroyed, never to pose a theological threat again.
But Abraham does not rejoice. He does the opposite. He begs, pleads, wheedles and negotiates with G-d to spare these people. Perhaps they have some saving grace. Maybe there are 50, 40, 30, 20, even 10 righteous men (Bereishit 18:16-33)?
Abraham disagrees with and even hates what Sodom stands for, but that does not diminish his desire to see the Sodomites live and thrive.
This is the Abraham emoji: a bold statement that while belief, faith and values are seminally important and worthy of dedicating our lives to, ultimately what counts, what makes you a yashar, is the ability to profoundly disagree with but still fundamentally value your political and theological adversary.
As Americans, as Jews and as human beings, we are constantly choosing our emoji. Sometimes in the heat of a painful election cycle we temporarily change our emoji to the values our side holds dear. Our emoji may come in the form of strongly held economic, social and ideological dogmas.
But Jewish tradition enjoins us to “be students of Abraham” and have a “humble soul,” defined by the medieval commentator Rashi as “he has no categories determining with whom he can and cannot associate. … He sits with all men.”
Let’s adopt the Abraham emoji. Let’s keep the values that have always motivated us, but don’t let them cloud the fundamental desire to see the good of the other and, even when disagreeing, to do so in a way that fundamentally affirms them.
Let us reaffirm that, with all due respect to Finland, our core national identity should not be a pair of socks, changed every day, but a permanent bedrock of mutual respect and common decency.
Rabbi Yitz Tendler serves as the executive director of Congregation Beth Jacob.