The Technology of Moral Choices
This has been quite a week of crisis over Syria. But even with immediate crisis postponed, we are left with many difficult moral questions. Last week, President Obama proclaimed that President Assad of Syria crossed a red line. He deployed chemical weapons against his own people. According to the Obama administration, 1,429 people died in that war crime, including 426 children -- and this act warranted a response because it clearly violate s the norms of the international community. In the ensuing arguments and political deals in the past few days, one question gnaws at us: why, in particular, are chemical weapons worse than all the countless atrocities that Assad has been perpetrating for years now? It’s a good question, and that’s why it gnaws at us. You see, deep down, we Jews in particular, we know well—very well—why chemical weapons cross the line from pedestrian atrocity to unacceptable horror. It was our people who were forced into the gas chambers. It was our people who were the targets of the total genocide of men, women, and children at the hands of a vicious dictator. We, in fact, know, from centuries of experience, what it is to be the innocents wiped out en masse. In our very marrow we, the remnant of Israel, live to tell the story of the evil of which humanity is capable.
As I beheld the awful pictures of the victims buried in mass graves, including the children, I couldn’t help but think not only of the Holocaust, but also of a story from the Torah that we all know well. In the book of Exodus, we read the slaying of the first-born of Egypt the night before our escape from Pharaoh. We are told that about midnight, HaMaschit—the Destroyer—came into the Land of Egypt and wiped out the firstborn, from the firstborn of the Pharaoh to the firstborn of the maidservant at the mill, and even the cattle. Our ancient rabbis explain that this Mashchit, this Destroyer, was a force of unspeakable terror: it did not distinguish between the innocent and the guilty. It simply killed. But we, the Israelites in Goshen, we had our own, very different sort of red line: we had the lamb’s blood that we spread on our doorposts and lintels. I would like to ask us all to take that famed story and just sit with it for a moment: imagine that you are an Israelite, looking from your safe place out on that dark night, when all around you are screams of terror and grief as God indiscriminately kills the firstborn of Egypt. How do you feel? If you’re anything like me, you feel horror, guilt, anger, unworthiness, alienation, powerlessness, humbled even as you are grateful to be alive.
I share this story today because, through its similarities and differences to Syria, it gives us a unique perspective. At first blush, the Maschit/Destroyer is like a Divine chemical weapon. But it’s not. It’s from God. It’s destroys, but it is there as an instrument for the good! The Maschit is a response to evil. It’s a response that works evil even as it opposes evil! Inherent in the story of the Maschit is that evil is sometimes so profound in this world that there is no way to counter it without bringing about some collateral evil. It is a profoundly challenging story on a moral level. Every year when we sit at our seder, we are forced to confront this painful truth: that if that Mashchit hadn’t destroyed so many lives in Egypt on that dark night, we would not have been saved. Indeed, we would not even exist now. And this, of course, is why we take out the ten drops of wine from our cup of joy at our seders every year.
And now we struggle over more killing in the Middle East because a red line has been crossed, and the security of the region—of Israel—is at stake. Today, I’m talking about Syria, about the intense moral challenge that Syria poses to all of us. What I’m talking about is how our every choice to do good has consequences—often good together with bad consequences. What I will show today is that, while we certainly have the moral high ground with respect to Syria—the greatest danger is for us to forget that we never, ever, have an absolute moral high ground over anyone.
In attacking his own people, even the innocent children, Assad is worse than Pharaoh. He is once again the ancient Amalek, the sworn enemy of Israel and all that is good in the world, because Assad, like Amalek, respects no rules of human dignity and life, and attacks even the defenseless. This most certainly, from a Jewish perspective, seems to be a clear open and shut case. But wait a minute. The same God who tells us never to forget the atrocities of Amalek in all generations, was also the God who commanded us to wipe out the Canaanites, the Jebusites, and other peoples living in the Land of Israel in our conquest of the land. And in that command, God had us wipe out all these peoples—the men, the women, and the children. Yes, we were commanded by God to commit mass killings! And just as in the slaying of the firstborn, I want to ask you to just sit with that for a moment: your ancient ancestors attacked and killed countless people, including children, in order to inherit the Land of Israel.
Our Torah is such a frustrating document! It would be so easy for it to be only inspiring, with a God who is nothing but love and goodness. But it just doesn’t work that way! Yes, it has plenty of inspiration and love. But it is full of horror, injustice, and a God who is so often angry, distant, cruel and cold. For generations, our people have sought to avoid all the challenging, uncomfortable parts of the Torah. As soon as we encounter God, the killer of innocents, we squirm. And we typically do anything to avoid these texts and stories. One of my teachers, Rabbi Irwin Kula, taught me that we typically avoid these texts in two ways: the first way to avoid uncomfortable parts of the Torah is the Ultra-Orthodox way. That is, if you don’t like God’s actions or commandments, it’s your fault, and it’s your problem. The Torah is perfect, so you have to be the confused one. The second way of avoiding a disturbing text of the Torah is the modern, academic, secular way of avoiding it: A disturbing text with a vengeful angry God? No problem! It’s obviously an ancient text from primitive times, reflecting barbarian values of the ancient world. The pretty, inspiring texts are more sophisticated. We’ll keep those, and reject the ones we don’t like. The problem with the Orthodox avoidance is that you get Jews who say that the Holocaust was the Jews fault because they didn’t do enough Mitzvos, and they didn’t check to make sure their mezzuzahs were Kosher (an ultra-Orthodox man once explained this to my face). The problem with the secularist avoidance of the text is that by deconstructing it, you reduce it to just a piece of literature that doesn’t necessarily have moral sway over your particular opinion.
What I say is that both these approaches are equally evasive of the Torah itself. I teach a class called Making Torah Personal (I will be teaching it again this fall in the Beit Midrash). In that class, I instruct students not to avoid, but to sit with these texts. They’re disturbing for a reason! The Torah is a technology that exists to change us, to humble us, to make us more compassionate and thoughtful people. But you can’t get there if you avoid these texts.
Last week, I talked about God. I taught how the Da’at, the deepest knowing of God is to acknowledge What-Is, to acknowledge Reality itself. This week, as we think about the painful implications of our potential involvement in Syria, we must turn to our Judaism, to our Torah, for guidance. This week, I teach that the technology of the Torah is to serve as a perfect mirror of What-Is. It’s a mirror we hold up to Reality in order to find our own moral clarity in that reflection. In that reflection, we are forced to ask ourselves: Why does God seem to kill indiscriminately? Why does God let bad things happen to good people? Why does pursuing the good sometimes lead to terrible consequences? Why does the Torah have all these things? I’ll tell you the answer: Look around at the world around you. That’s exactly What-Is! That’s the Face of Reality, the Face of God! The Reality of this life does not only contain Abraham and Moses, Gandhi and MLK; Reality also includes Pharaoh, Amalek, Hitler, and Assad. You can’t be a true moral actor in this life until you acknowledge that all our actions exist in one singular continuum, and all actions are inseparable from one another.
In light of this, the greatest Jewish response to the beautiful, terrible, awesome fact of Reality, of What-Is, is simply this: Now what? Given that good and evil are so often inextricably intertwined, what do we do next? The Torah itself rings out with a magnificent answer. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses stands before the Israelites and says “I call on heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you Hachayim v’hamavet, life and death, habrachah v’haklalah --the blessing and the curse; uvacharta bachayim, therefore choose life that you may live, you and your seed.”
When you really look deeply into the Torah, you begin to see that we’re not better than anyone else. We’re not inherently more moral. God loves us, commands and instructs us, but even these Divine acts manifest imperfectly in this imperfect world. And so, despite this incomprehensible world, uvacharta bachayim! Choose Life! With all of it, the good and the bad, the message is that we must choose the path that sanctifies life above anything else. There’s a reason we know that, deep down, Syria really has crossed a profound moral red line. If anything our thousands of years of redemption, genocide, blessings and curses, life and death has shown us, it’s that life is sacred.
Any choice we make as nations or as individuals, must be guided at its core with this simple fact of choosing life—whether it be choosing to attacking Syria verses diplomatic means, or choosing to put criminals in jail, or becoming a whistleblower, opposing corruption or speaking our mind to our loved ones. Every choice echoes out into the universe, both for the good and for the bad. And so we must be ever-mindful that our every choice upholds life and rejects death; our every choice must affirm peace and reject strife; it must affirm compassion and reject abandonment.
And even when we make our choice, we must know this: we can never, ever know in this life if it was absolutely the right choice. We can never know for absolutely certain that we are 100% on the side of life, and our adversary is 100% on the side of death. We can be pretty darn sure, but there’s a universe of difference in acknowledging and owning the consequences of our uncertainty. It is very tempting for us to reduce our world to good vs. evil, black vs. white, as all fundamentalists and dictators do. But this is not the Jewish way. The Jewish way is to choose life, and choosing life means acting with the greatest of humility, fear, and knowledge that the shades of moral difference that separate any of us human beings are so very slight…
…And yet, the Torah says Lo Tuchal Lehit’alem: you MUST act—“You must never remain indifferent.” Even with all the ambiguous consequences, the greatest sin in Judaism is not to act at all when action can be taken.So this Yom Kippur, I pray that we will do everything in our power to affirm life, to understand that we cant ever be sure, but that we must do the best we can. I believe that the last thing that God wanted was for that Mashchit/Destroyer to kill the firstborn; the last thing God wanted was to command us to wipe out the Canaanites and Jebusites; the last thing that God wants is a world with chemical and nuclear weapons, that contains the ever-present possibility of genocide. I believe that God grieves each and every desecration of the sanctity of life itself. Indeed, that’s why we’re here: to help God, to help finish Creation itself; to be God’s partners in making this world what it yet could be. In this year, 5774, may we finally come to make true God’s vision for this world, that it indeed be Tov Me’od, that it fulfill it’s potential to be very good. May we make that possibility real through the works of our hands, and the choices that we make for the sake of life.