we have met the enemy and they are us – cartoonist Walt Kellly in the comic strip Pogo
What is the cause of uprisings? the seed of violence? what did we see on Wednesday in Washington D.C., and all spring and summer in Portland?
Others will turn to political scientists and sociologists; to these sources of wisdom we are fortunate to add another resource: the Torah. Torah in its widest sense, which invites us to seek wisdom with which to respond to the challenges of our days thoughtfully, from our people’s experience and insights.
A new book of the Torah greets us on this Shabbat Shemot. (Even the way we name our weeks when we tell time centers Torah and its weekly offerings of consolations and challenges to our way of thinking!)
A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “look, the Israelite people are far too much for us. Let us deal wisely with them, lest they increase, and in the event of war, join with our enemies and rise from the ground.” – Exodus 1.8-10
Once, Joseph had saved Egypt from famine. But the beginning of parashat Shemot, the first parashah of the book of Shemot, called Exodus in English, describes a time long after. Now the Israelites living in the midst of Egyptian society are suspect. They seem dangerous. After consultation, Pharaoh’s ministers advised him to murder every baby Hebrew boy by throwing them into the Nile
“because they are too much for us.”
Why would the Israelites become suspect?
Why were they suddenly seen as possibly dangerous?
The Torah, and the midrash investigating the deeper meanings of its words, point to the very words: this people are too many for us, they might be our enemies. This is the timeless, fearful rhetoric of us vs. them.
The Jewish response to this is to suggest something far deeper and more difficult to fully grasp, and it is the true meaning of the Shema – that we are all One. There is no us vs them; only shifting groups that change and coalesce around thinking and feeling processes that we are only partly aware of in ourselves and around us.
Unless you are willing to try to understand that, you will never be able to grasp the insight that true monotheism offers you – the kind Isaiah tried to teach us:
יוצר אור ובורא חושך עשה שלום ובורא רע אני ה עושה כל אלה
Shaper of Light, Creator of Darkness, Maker of Peace and Creator of Evil; I HaShem do all these things. – Isaiah 45.7
To understand the central tenet of Jewish spiritual culture is harder than we might understand at first grasp. It tells us that there is no such thing as radical individualism. The mystics compare this to a drop of water in a stream; each of us is such a drop of water. We are barely aware of the ocean in which all our acts are contained, carried and influenced. We are, as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner put it in his writing, all linked by Invisible Lines of Connection.
More than one psychologist has suggested that the self was never meant to carry its own weight. We are herd animals. We would rather feel safe at home in a bad agreement than alone in righteousness, for good reasons: one who is alone is in danger of death – or the lesser death of ostracism – at the hands of the many. That is the spirit of the mob this week at the U.S. Capitol; it is the same spirit in the Klan. It is the same human spirit in a youth group and a football team and a group of anarchists breaking windows at night downtown.
We are all the same in our basic needs. We are all the same in our humanity. We are all influenced by factors in our makeup, our history, our community – and there are so many that we are completely unaware of!
It follows that there is no meaningless violence – only causes that we do not as yet understand – or do not wish to understand. We may feel a certain leaning to condemn one more than the other. In such moments we do well to remember that none of us can claim to know Truth, but only a partial truth.
As white supremacy expresses itself in police violence against Black bodies, so does alienation from social values similarly express itself – in violence that we want to distance ourselves from for our own safety.
Yet we all own all human acts, those we are aware of and those we are not, those we commit and those we witness. Yom Kippur puts these words in our mouths: for the sin we committed on purpose and for the sin we committed by mistake, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement. Atonement means at – one – ment, recognizing that we live within and among, not separate from, all that makes us recoil as well as all that makes us happy.
To believe in meaningless vandalism from individual thugs who can be punished individually for their individual stupidity or anger is the final absurdity – of which, alas, too many of us are convinced. It allows us to deny our own complicity in the state of our society.
Jewish tradition is braver than that, and in every honest moment of study and prayer we are invited to step from safe space into that brave space. Brave Space – actually a recently developed concept to improve our thoughtfulness about how we behave in diverse community – is a useful way of fact-checking the truth you feel safe with, and allows you to consider how you might grow beyond your current definition of personal safety, in ways that might allow others to feel more safe with your support. Learn more here: Fakequity
The Shema should remind us of our link to everything else in Creation every time we recite it – and if we are not Jews who daven regularly, we might be those who recite it at bedtime, and know that it has also become the cry of defiance of our martyrs. Why should it have become a sacred utterance if not because it stands beyond our ability to fully grasp, and therefore is always urging us to do better, to think more compassionately and with more humility, seeking the wisdom which our tradition tells us is the path to peace?
In this week of national horror and disgrace, to be overwhelmed is to fail in our response. The Shema is defiance because it calls us to recognize and accept our part, both in the evil and in the good that we can rally to overcome evil by our small, every day actions, and by recognizing how they add up. That’s what the gift of our mitzvot are, and they matter more now than ever. No, that’s wrong: they always matter; it’s we who must change.
Hazak, hazak, v’nithazek – let us be strong and strengthen each other