Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mobs and the Potential for Good

Last week, President Obama delivered a message when President Hosni Mubarak finally stepped down from his place of power. Obama said “while the sights and sounds that we heard were entirely Egyptian, we can’t help but hear the echoes of history -- echoes from Germans tearing down a wall, Indonesian students taking to the streets, Gandhi leading his people down the path of justice. As Martin Luther King said in celebrating the birth of a new nation in Ghana while trying to perfect his own, “There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom.” Those were the cries that came from Tahrir Square, and the entire world has taken note.” These are beautiful and inspiring words of our president in the face of extraordinary change in the middle east. As Jews, we have watched the images on television, read the reports in the newspapers, and we heard Obama’s remarks. And we can’t help but have a terribly ambivalent reaction. This isn’t just any popular uprising for the sake of democracy. These are Arab countries. This is Egypt. Mitzrayim. This was our sworn enemy with whom we entered into an uneasy yet solid peace agreement decades ago. These countries can profoundly threaten the safety of the State of Israel. On the one hand, it is the common folk marching for justice, for their rights—something so very close to our Jewish souls. On the other hand, how many of those common folk would applaud and do anything to obliterate the Jewish State? What’s worse is that we’re all too aware of the threats of the mobs, particularly mobs of our enemies. We Jews bear the painful scars of mobs of crusaders, of Cossaks, of Nazis, of the mobs in Iran. We know what peril lies in mobs who have no love for the Jews or for Israel.

Indeed, in our own experience, we know from the dangers of mobs going awry. This week’s parashah is defined by the evils and dangers of mob mentality. I’m speaking, of course, of the mob of Israelites who feared when Moses didn’t come down from the mountain. The Israelites who demanded that Aharon fashion a god of gold who would go before them. The Israelites who said ‘Eileh Eloheicha, Yisrael’—this is your god, O Israel! –to the Golden Calf. God is enraged at this brazen act of idolatry. “Ata, hanichah li,” “Now, let me be,” God declares, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them. But it is at this intense and horrifying moment that something fascinating happens: Moses steps up and intercedes on behalf of the sinful Israelites. He argues for the sake of their survival. He reminds God that the Egyptians would note that this God of Israel is evil, who rescues the Israelites, only to destroy them in the desert. He reminds God of the favor incurred by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: of their loyalty and his covenant with their descendants. With this, God relents God’s anger. It’s an incredible moment: here we have the classic angry God of the biblical account. Only now, this angry God is surprisingly willing to be ‘talked down,’ by Moses.

When God says ‘hanicha li,’ “Let me be,” to Moses, and when you think about it, it’s a rather strange thing to say. God is God. God is all powerful. Why in heaven or earth would God say ‘Let me be’ to a human being, as if he were being restrained? In the Talmud,[1] we find a extraordinary teaching of Rabbi Abahu that illustrates the power of this moment: Abahu says, “this teaches that Moses took hold of the Holy One, blessed be He, like a man who seizes his fellow by his garment and said before Him: Sovereign of the Universe, I will not let You go until You forgive and pardon them.” Rashi, the great medieval commentator, presents a different perspective on this. Rashi explains: “Here God created an opening, and informed [Moses] that the matter rested on him; if he would pray, God would not destroy them.” Either way you look at it—either it’s Moses taking a hold of God’s “garment,” or God using a figure of speech to prompt Moses—this is a moment of empowering Moses to rise to his greatest nobility of spirit, to defend his people, to speak the worthiness of the people of Israel before God. And miraculously it works!

It’s especially miraculous when you compare this moment to other moments of Divine wrath in the Bible. When God wipes out the world in the great flood, there’s no discussion at all. Noach doesn’t even have a chance to speak up. When God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, at least he gives Abraham a chance to defend the potential innocent of the cities—to no avail, of course. There isn’t anyone worthy of saving there. But at this moment, the great sin of the people in worship ing the Golden Calf, there is something altogether new in the world. God says ‘hanichah li.’ Those Hebrew words, ‘Let me be,’ can also literally be translated as “Let me down:” Talk me down! In a sense, it really is an opening: God is saying, ‘Go for it, Moses. Now you can bring down my rage at them, even though they certainly don’t deserve it, I’m willing to be talked down. I am willing to forgive them, if you are truly willing to believe in them!

There’s a wonderful midrash where God literally says this point. “Whenever I win an argument with my children, as at the time of the Flood or of Sodom and Gomorrah,” says God, “I lose. Whenever I lose an argument, I win.” What this means is that at the Flood, and particularly at Sodom and Gomorrah, God won the argument, but in the ultimate sense, God loses. The rabbis of the Midrash are quick to recognize on a visceral level what we all feel when we encounter the destroying God of the Bible: God loses when people die at God’s hand, even if the victims deserved the punishment. When we human beings, however, win in the argument against God, when we talk even God down so that life itself is preserved, then ultimately God wins. God, the rigid judgmental God of old, wants to lose the argument! Our Torah reveals that God wants more than anything to lose so that the human spirit can express faith in itself to overcome our propensity to evil.

The mob of Israelites committed the worst kind of sin in the Bible: idolatry itself. And yet, God wants Moses to recognize their potential for holiness despite this sin. The reason for this is because here, unlike the Flood, unlike Sodom and Gomorroah, there really is the potential for the good. Moses speaks this potential, showing how they are the descendants of the covenant, how they bear a connection to something greater than their present limitedness, and when we human beings can own this sense of our potential, the destroying angry God willingly recedes.

It’s hard to resist comparisons between the ancient and the modern. Today, it’s not the Israelites, but the Arab peoples and the Egyptians who are the crowd whom we fear can become a mob. And now, the Egyptians have overthrown their Pharaoh. When Obama, and much of the world, and a real part of ourselves looks on this moment, we see indeed the potential for holiness in this act. But going from a mob to a holy people isn’t easy. Moses had to smash the tablets of the Ten Commandments to remind them how badly they had strayed. And indeed, in the middle east, the idolatries of Muslim Fundamentalism, of Israel-hatred and anti-Semitism often run rampant among the mobs. The precarious transitions of power can so easily be turned on an evil path. But then again, the people acted not out of hatred or a desire for violence, but out of a genuine desire for rights, for freedom, for justice in their land.

On some level, I can feel the presence of God hanging over the middle east at this moment, saying ‘hanichah li,’ ‘Talk me down.’ There is so much potential for this to go bad. And yet, God waits for the world, for us, and for the Middle Eastern peoples themselves to see and live by the potential for the good that is in this moment. We can only imagine how difficult it was for Moses to speak out on behalf of the Israelites’ potential. Like God, Moses too must have felt betrayed and filled with doubt about the Israelites goodness. And yet, he overcame his rage and doubts, and stood up for their potential. At this moment in history, we are like Moses. God has given us the opening. Can we rise to see the potential for real democracy, for a healthy and just society in Egypt and elsewhere, despite all our reasons to retreat into fear and defensiveness because of the people’s and the states’ shortcomings? Can we, like God in our Parashah, be the people of infinite compassion, despite everything, and applaud a genuine desire for the kind of democracy and blessings that we have here and in the State of Israel? Can we see past our ancient enmities, and be willing to join with the best among these people in a shared search for a more just and compassionate world? The potential is there. And the God of Israel, and of all people’s is waiting only for us to acknowledge this shared potential. May we find that potential fulfilled together. May we overcome our fears, even as we seek to do what we must to protect ourselves. And together, may the children of Israel and the children of Yishma’el join together to make the world a holier place.