|lisbon earthquake, 1755. (wikipedia)|
Scorched earth policies were on full display last week in the Torah narrative and this week Aaron's mournful state at the loss of his sons to their own troubling fanaticism humbles us to be reminded that the Torah calls upon to serve with humility, not arrogance; and that anger and an unchecked accumulation of power can be among the most destructive internal forces with which democracies must contend.
As an historical and religious document, redacted purposefully in order to reign in rebellion, Torah has the advantage of hindsight as a necessary corrective for wayward behavior. Our nation is in a potentially more precarious position. Long gone are the days when virtually any nation will tolerate the kind of leadership Moses and Aaron were able to exercise, and so, several centuries later, we are left with no choice but to work it out, despite our differences.
Possible? It's unclear. There seems so little genuine interest in listening to one another that one can literally begin to lose hope, a state of mind which runs counter to rabbinical Judaism's greatest insight in the wake of the Roman Empire's massive destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD: Hope made manifest in a community's ability to maintain its values through Learning, Worship and Deeds of Lovingkindness remain the foundation idea of redemption.
Learning itself, as anyone who has made the dive into the deep as an adult, is an inherently dialogic process: without another voice across the table, it's pure narcissism, a dangerous idolatry of one. It requires openness, flexibility, the willingness to have one's mind changed, soul altered, life made different.
The anger and vituperations which rule our political realm today are little different from the volatile and unchecked ambitions of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron's sons, whose strange fire brought about their own demise. Their pursuits were indeed "divine" but the divinity they worshipped was an erroneous sense of themselves as gods. Precedent, history, a sequential understanding of how things evolve and change, was absent from their own ambition. Their cravings and anger were a fuel unchecked; all it took as a single match--perhaps even innocently offered on the altar of service--to ignite a most dangerous conflagration.
TV news, the blogosphere, instantaneous delivery of analysis (oxymoronic as that may seem) do little to help. Each in its own way tends to reinforce division, singular perspective and monologue.
Catharsis is nice; but still, you eventually have to wipe yourself up off the floor from the pool of your own satisfaction and evolve beyond the primordial swamp of selfhood.
The voice of Acharei Mot is about the shame and humility of an arrogant and destructive death. The voice of Kedoshim is about the pride and humility of service to a commanding voice that demands we transcend the self in service to something greater than ourselves.
I have to wonder sometimes.
As a student at Hebrew University one day, I sat in the library on Mount Scopus one afternoon, reading Voltaire's Candide. My own "come to Moses" moment occurred when Candide concludes that "we must cultivate our garden." I decided that my own efforts would best be spent in a local community, teaching and providing structures for people to meet across the divide of difference and, well, plant the seeds of a future with forms of new hope.
Voltaire's own time was a time of tremendous destruction and dislocation, eventually giving way in the American colonies to a new form of democracy that at times seems in danger of being replaced by the voice of money, anger and division rather than reasoned voice of its citizens.
This morning I woke up with an idea for the Obama-Romney debates: Base them on the Federalist Papers and an agreed upon debate about the most three most important constitutional decisions in American history. Broadcast them only on the radio. Publish the transcripts after the fact and gather citizens in synagogues, churches, mosques, public schools and libraries to parse out their meaning. It goes without saying that each candidate only accepts public financing for campaign advertising.
Then see what happens.
Impossible, you say?
So was parting the Red Sea. But the Jews are still here to testify that some ideas are so good, they can stick around for a long time and change those who humble themselves to their own inherent power and reality.