The Last of Deuteronomy
O happy Israel! Who is like you, a people delivered by the Lord, your protecting shield, your sword triumphant! Your enemies shall come cringing before you, and you shall tread on their backs. Deuteronomy 33:29
Victory is a zero-sum outcome. Where there is the thrill of victory, there is the agony of defeat. Where one side is victorious, the other side is conquered. And, of course, to the victor go the spoils.
So much of history is the narrative of conflict that results in the subjugation of one people and their land by another. Poets and prophets imagine a time when people live in harmony and none make them afraid, but reality – and the metaphors we use to explain it – is about violence and vanquish.
It seems as if every few months there is a contest of some kind in which armies clash and gladiators battle. I don’t mean that literally, of course, though there are indeed such conflicts too frequently around us. Our national amusements are athletic competitions in which people in uniforms climb a pyramid of defeated opponents to claim the title of Champion (of the World or at least the National). Music, film, television, and other popular entertainments strain to reach the top of a measure of sales vying for the limited dollars and sets of eyes and ears in the marketplace. And the increasingly exhausting and expensive political campaigns that winnow out all but precious few candidates and then allow only one to lay claim to a position of power seem to occupy broadcast and social media constantly and overstuff our inboxes.
The focus on triumph in our culture is undeniable. Our generation did not invent it, to be sure. Of the many hymns to the United States that might have represented us as the national anthem, we were not bequeathed with amber waves of grain or freedom ringing from every mountainside. Instead, bombs bursting in air are the proof that we emerged victorious.
Our country did not invent it, to be sure. Abraham established himself in war, Simeon and Levi obliterated their sister’s attackers, Moses officiated over the suffering of the Egyptians and decimated them at the Sea, the Israelites knew they were in God’s favor when battles ended in their triumph and in disfavor when they themselves suffered defeat.
But victory and success are not synonymous. A leader may declare a war on poverty, or on drugs, or on a pandemic, but even lacking the troops to fight back, the poor will never vanish from the land, there will always be another high to chase, and, God help us, another virus will come to get us. No army – not even the United States Army – is always and forever victorious. Victory pretends to permanence, but it does not succeed.
One of my friends who won one of those temporary victories in a political campaign tells me all the time that she tries to avoid sports metaphors in her rhetoric. The notion that to be successful means someone has to lose just seems counterintuitive to her. Victory focuses on the battle. Success focuses on the outcome. Rather than trying to win, she suggests, we should join in a quest to find the best possible outcome. In a victory, a worthy opponent sees all efforts to no avail. In a quest, the unique contributions of all participants are put to good and productive use.
Even as I write these words, they make me uncomfortable. It isn’t that I am wrong (heaven forfend!). It is that I am inculcated as an American patriot and a knowledgeable Jew that so much of our persistence in this world is a result of our enemies cringing before us, because they certain have tried to make us cringe before them.
Precisely because we are in a position of privilege and, in so many ways, dominance, we have the capacity to shift the paradigm. Our goal should be win-win, not zero sum. As Americans, we celebrate “we the people,” we seek “the common defense,” we desire “the general welfare.” Most of our enumerated rights and privileges are collective in nature and outcome – free speech and assembly, a jury of peers, equality of citizenship – or designed to benefit the body politic – freedom of belief, suffrage, probable cause in warrants. We should not seek to tread on the backs of our defeated enemies, especially if the “enemy” is entitled to the rights and privileges we seek to preserve.
Moses was an unparalleled leader in his time and taught more truths than any one of his statements can capture, except maybe for one. When Jews gather for prayer and praise, when they lie down and when they arise, they recite that single uncompromisable truth: God is one. As creations in that image, that is how we should see each other – not as obstacles to victory, but partners in pursuing success.
The Last of Deuteronomy
You may view the land from a distance, but you may not enter it – the land that I am giving to the Israelite people. Deuteronomy 32:52
I try not to be too theological in these columns, which may be a peculiar decision since I am writing about the text of the Bible. When I do write about God, I try to avoid defending, justifying, or apologizing. First of all, God does not need me as an advocate and, more important, I am filled with more questions than answers.
But here we are, closing in on the end of the Five Books of Moses, and I can’t help but feel a sort of desperation on everybody’s part. The Israelites are tired of forty years of wandering, thirty-nine of which were without anything remarkable enough to warrant even a mention. Moses must be exhausted, having spent three different lifetimes as three different people – prince, shepherd, nomadic chieftain. And as for God? The word I most often imagine is “exasperated.” After all, nothing ever works out as God wants. That’s a terrible record for the Master of the Universe. And when you are God, you can’t quit, even if it seems to us like sometimes God is AWOL.
That leaves us, the readers, who have struggled with this collection of stories, laws, and instructions from the first chapter of Joshua (the next episode after Deuteronomy) until today. The pious among us continue to ask, “what does God want of me/us?” The impious among us roll our eyes and eat bacon cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur. And in between you can find most of us.
This denial of appeal at the eleventh hour strikes a lot of folks as enormously cruel. Moses is being denied his moment of achievement for what seems like a trivial reason against the backdrop of devoted service. He struck a rock instead of speaking to it. For goodness sakes, he took his life in his hands and overcame a speech impediment to go head-to-head with Pharaoh and then, on nothing but faith, led his people on an unexpected forty-year sojourn filled with everything from divine revelation to attacking marauders to seditious rebellion. Shouldn’t he have gotten a break?
A songwriter named Julie Gold wrote an inspired piece of music more than 35 years ago that was, before too long, recorded by Bette Midler. It was called “From a Distance,” and it won a Grammy award some five years later. The song is beautiful in its description of the long view of our world, so much so that among its many iterations was being the soundtrack for a joint American-Russian space mission. The chorus includes the repeated phrase, “God is watching us from a distance.”
I think part of the appeal of the song to people of all persuasions (except, maybe, avowed atheists) is the notion that the harmony and peace we all yearn for is visible…as long as you don’t look too closely. The fact is that everything in our lives looks a little better from a distance. Fruit. History. Skin. Childrearing. 2020. Better from a distance.
I suspect that it is natural for believers and those who want to believe to hope that God will be present in the details of their lives. (Never mind if that’s where the devil allegedly resides.) I have a friend who made a wish – actually a very silly one – that he used to “test” God and, when it came true, he turned his spiritual life around, including embracing a different faith tradition than the one in which he was raised. I am confident in affirming that God had nothing to do with the moment, which was entirely incidental and insignificant, almost as foolish as praying that your buttered toast will land dry-side down when you drop it. It meant something to him and gave his unmoored life a sense of purpose. But if God was indeed watching him close-up when this happened, I suspect that there was a metaphoric cosmic face-plant.
Instead, I choose to believe that this last lesson to Moses is actually the fulfillment of his one personal prayer forty years earlier. “Show yourself in all your glory,” younger Moses says at the very beginning of this forty-year trek. God insists that no one may see that glory and live. What God is, who God is, may not be seen up close. The fulfillment of that prayer can only come at a distance.
And what does Moses see? He does not necessarily view the Promised Land. Instead, he views the promise of the land. In that moment of fulfillment, Moses sees through God’s eyes and knows the glory of the potential of creation. Throughout this long saga from Eden to Mount Nebo, every time God has entered the story, something has gone awry. But what keeps the Holy One coming back is viewing the land(scape) from a distance. Moses does not need to visit the land for his prayer to be answered.
Sorry to be so theological, but I felt that sometimes I have been so granular in expressing myself for these many years that this once I could indulge my own belief, that which has sustained me for a long time. From a distance.
The Last of Deuteronomy
Then Moses recited the words of this poem to the very end, in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel. Deuteronomy 31:30
I was thinking about the tableau described in this verse as I watched Amanda Gorman, the extraordinary young poet who recited her work at the inauguration of President Biden. Imagine Moses, standing before the assembled Israelites who were on the very edge of their newest adventure. In pretty short order (spoiler alert), Moses would be dead, but before he stepped aside so that they could proceed, he inspired them with a poem.
Not so for the poet laureate of the inauguration. Like the Israelites listening to Moses, even if mitigated by a screen, we heard and witnessed all the words of her poem to the very end. I know that I wondered who the young woman in the yellow coat and red hairband was as the cameras panned across the attendees. But once she stepped to the microphone, there was no doubt. Her recitation was more than the composition itself – it was her voice, her presence, the moment and, without question, the yellow coat and red hairband.
I am a big fan of poetry, though I am the first to admit I do not understand it well. I can’t explain iambic pentameter or distinguish a sonnet from a ballad. I have written haikus and limericks, but I can’t remember a one of them. And I must acknowledge that if asked to provide an example of a poem, I would likely think that I shall never see or, perhaps, suggest that you listen, my children, and you will hear. Please don’t roll your eyes.
For me, poetry is most effective when it is performed. Listening to it has not made me a literary scholar, but it has made me a lover of the literature. I have books of poems on my shelf, and one of the very few high school textbooks I have saved is the book of poems from ninth grade. (“A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” by John Donne, which is over 500 years old, is the highlight, to my mind.) But as much as I like to read Rilke or Kunitz or Amichai or Pagis, I would much rather have them read to me, except maybe Cummings, whose playful typesetting is part of the experience.
The Hebrew word for poem is the same as the Hebrew word for song, shir. If there is a difference between the two in origin, it is lost to us, because we have only the lyrics and not the melody. Is reading the poem of Moses like reading the libretto of an opera? Is setting it to the music of our time (or some time between its origin and our experience) like imposing “Twinkle, Twinkle” or “Baa Baa Black Sheep” or “ABCD” on Mozart – some kind of inappropriate appropriation?
A poem in print is a record of an incomplete memory, the way singing in the shower is accompanied by a band or orchestra only the singer can hear. But the fact of the matter is, unless we have the good and accidental fortune to witness Amanda Gorman, her printed words are all that are available to us.
Late in my career as a pulpit rabbi, there were messages in my sermons that felt urgent to me. They forced their way down my arms and onto the page and then out of my mouth. One of them was about the role of music in worship. I found it embodied in the 150th Psalm, last in the book, with its timbrels and lute and violin and trumpet. Each one uttered praise to God – captured in the word “hallelujah.” But the psalm and the book do not end with an orchestral crescendo, I noted. It ends with the praise of every living soul, the praise of every breath you take, expressing the sentiment “hallelujah.” Of course, Leonard Cohen’s plaintive anthem of that name played an essential part of that sermon, too.
And that’s what I think about when imagining Moses reciting the words of this poem to the very end in the hearing of the whole congregation. Poem-shir or song-shir or Poem-Song, whichever it is, requires the living soul of the poet to bring it to full fruition. I can imagine John Donne or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but in doing so I imagine myself as them. It takes the presence of Amanda Gorman to remind me of what the poet fully contributes to her poem.
Isn’t the same thing true of life?
The Last of Deuteronomy
By loving the Lord your God, heeding His commandments, and holding fast to Him; for thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil that the Lord swore to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to them. Deuteronomy 30:20
I met many of my great-grandparents, and I was fortunate enough to have a relationship with two of them – my mother’s mother’s parents. Bobbie and Zaydie (that’s Chicago-ese for Bubbe and Zeide, the Yiddish words for Grandma and Grandpa) fought like cats and dogs and were totally in love. Bobbie took care of Zaydie, which included making sure he was fed three times a day and had a shot of whisky with most dinners. Zaydie smoked cigars and a pipe and, when I knew him, spent most of every day in a stuffed armchair with the “Forverts,” the then-daily Yiddish newspaper, close at hand.
The rumor was that the two of them had fallen in love back in the old country when marriages were mostly arranged. There was an abandoned engagement that may or may not have involved a dowry. They made their way to America (or, as they knew it, Amerike) and embraced the life wholeheartedly. I always thought it was a wonderful coincidence that Zaydie’s name was Benjamin Franklin Schwartz and that he was born on the Fourth of July. Yeah, maybe.
Zaydie was a tiny man – not a little person, but short enough that I stood eye to eye with him by the time I was ten. I knew very little about his life as an immigrant making his way in this country, but he did well enough to buy a two-flat where he raised his family and where many of his children and grandchildren lived over the course of their lives. He also opened his home to non-relatives who needed a place to stay, sometimes for years.
Zaydie loved this country and loved to vote. When he barely could walk in his later years, he nonetheless would put on a suit and shuffle off to the polling place on election day. Since this was in Chicago, for all I know he may still be voting.
He loved Bobbie, and though they spent a lot of time yelling at each other, when she died, he would frequently sit looking at her picture, sighing and crying.
But the one story Zaydie was most proud of was how he helped to found an orphanage in Chicago when he was a young man. The story shape-shifted over the years, but it involved him (and others) descending on City Hall and demanding permitting and financial backing to take in the population of Jewish orphans that had swelled due to poverty, disease, and abandonment.
The official history of the Marks-Nathan Home does not mention Zaydie, but it doesn’t matter. If he was the mover and shaker or just a small voice in a large crowd, it was the illustration of his life he chose to share with his family. It was his legacy to us. Along with cigars and Yiddish and sitting in the sukkah and schnapps and ten shiny pennies he always had for us, this was the story he wanted us all to know.
The first book of the Bible is filled with stories of the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yes, Eve and Methuselah, Noah, Rebecca, Dina and especially Joseph get plenty of verses, but the fullness of life and experience for these three patriarchs – father, son, and grandson – is there for every reader to encounter.
However, toward the end of the Five Books, their lives are distilled into their legacy: the land. Each of them had a variegated reputation, their versions of the details of my Zaydie’s life. But what became identified with them more than anything was the land to which one traveled, one settled and one returned. Arguably, it was the most important project of their lives, as evidenced by the words Moses chose to inspire the people and honor his ancestors.
What is it that will be my legacy? Will I choose the story to tell as the defining lesson of my life, or will it be chosen for me by those who decide to remember me?
I write this at a time of transition in our country when the question of legacy weighs heavily on leaders and followers alike. Some legacies are chosen by us, and some for us. But I think it pays, even from an early age, to consider what it is we do that endures.
(Just for the record, though Bobbie was a looker in her day, the photo shows my much younger sister sitting on Zaydie’s lap.)
The Last of Deuteronomy
The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law. Deuteronomy 29:28
Algorithms are sequential mathematical calculations that can arrange and rearrange all sorts of data mostly used in problem-solving by computer. If you understand that, you are ahead of me.
You are familiar with algorithms because they determine what turns up in your social media feed – advertisements, click-bait, postings by friends (that is, not necessarily personal friends, but people with whom you have a shared algorithmic connection). If you watched a video of cute little kittens, you will see other cat videos recommended to you. If you ordered a package of warm socks for the winter, you will hear from many footwear companies and apparel purveyors. And if you are reading this column on an electronic device, do not be surprised, when you next log into YouTube, near the top of your list “chosen for you” is a clip of a black-and-white game show from the late 1950s starring Garry Moore.
Algorithms are not magic. They are written by programmers, one of whom was probably the kid who programmed your VCR or hooked up your desktop back in the day. The concept is very simple. By sorting and resorting little bits of information, these calculations can provide an approximation of the answer to any quantifiable question. “What will Jack watch on Netflix” is more accurately predicted by figuring out what Jack has already watched on Netflix, which the good folks at Netflix know because there is an algorithm that tracks what Jack watches.
They are the basis of artificial intelligence (AI). And that means that they have application in all sorts of fields. For example, if you have ever used a web-based service to find candidates for employment, they have been filtered by algorithms. Especially in small companies, the ability to sort applications by appropriate criteria can be invaluable. Geography, age, education, experience – all of these variables can be considered by algorithms to reduce hundreds of applications to the appropriate few. Likewise, a consumer seeking a line of credit or a mortgage can qualify or not based on objective criteria. Or, college admissions can be evaluated on a schools standards for grades, test scores and desire for a diversified student body.
There are those who make the argument that such mathematically precise calculations help to eliminate the biases that reside in the hearts and minds of decision-makers. But unconscious bias resides in the heads and hearts of all human beings, including the creators of algorithms. With perhaps the very best of intentions, the inclusion of a zip code, a marker of illness, previous employment in a troubled company may disadvantage the applicant for financing a new car, getting favorable rates on health insurance or being considered for employment. The company may be unaware; the applicant may be unaware; the programmer may be unaware. The human aspect is missing. Well-targeted questions, opportunities for nuanced discussions, deepening the understanding of past circumstances – all of them hard to quantify and therefore considered outside the realm of the computations – cannot mitigate a circumstance that does not get past the first threshold.
A recent anecdote in the real estate section of the newspaper illustrated the phenomenon. An interracial couple wanted to sell their house near the border between their mostly-White neighborhood and a mostly-Black neighborhood. The husband, Black, was home alone when the appraiser came to value their property, and by comparing it to the houses owned by neighboring Black homeowners, offered a valuation much lower than the couple expected. The wife, White, arranged for a second appraisal and greeted the appraiser. The valuation went up $150,000 – about 35%.
And my interest in the occasional order of kosher pastrami does not prevent the company that ships it to me from offering me decidedly non-kosher selections.
The solution is not simple. Ethicists need to look at algorithms. Programmers must work among diverse colleagues. Watchmen need to watch the watchmen.
The secret things in our hearts and minds may be unknown to us and to our children. Perhaps it is not only the Holy One who can ferret them out.
The Last of Deuteronomy
These are the terms of the covenant which the Lord commanded Moses to conclude with the Israelites in the land of Moab, in addition to the covenant which he made with them at Horeb. Deuteronomy 28:69
I recently finished one of my marathon encounters with customer service at a credit card company. We got the card because it was recommended as having the best point reward program. (Our other three cards have frequent zero-point interest, no credit limit and/or a Chicago Cubs logo on the front.) These cards are mostly for security purposes (and the points) because we pay off our bills in full every month.
Of course, in order to use the cards and access the points, we had to agree to Terms and Conditions. Usually, the most important details are highlighted – interest rates, minimum payments, penalty fees, arbitration requirements. But there are pages of densely packed tiny print written, I am sure, by highly trained attorneys that set all kinds of terms and all sorts of conditions that are required by regulation and developed by the company. I never read them.
Those kind of terms and conditions also apply to health insurance, mortgages, auto loans, home improvements, computer apps, internet and data service, appliance warranties, and small electronics. I never read them.
Once, after a regularly scheduled out-patient medical procedure, the condition of my discharge required me to sign a release that, I was told, included an agreement not to sign any legal documents for twenty-four hours because of the lingering effects of anesthesia. I stared in incredulity at the nurse who presented me with the clipboard and pen who said, “I know. You are not the first one to question this. You are not even the first one today.” I signed. I never read the terms and conditions.
My four-and-a-half-hour session with four customer service reps over two days was about rebooking a flight that was canceled by COVID-19 restrictions last year. I called with new dates for the rescheduled vacation, including flight numbers and the information the company had provided on how to rebook the flights using my returned points. So why did it take so long? Terms and conditions. The very specific circumstances of rebooking were in black and white, seemingly to prevent me from ever using the credit at any convenience to myself. I never read them.
This problem is not new; it is not an invention of modern commerce and litigation. A classic legend from almost two thousand years ago imagines a confrontation between Moses and the rebel leader Korach from almost fifteen hundred years before that. Korach asks if a garment made completely of blue thread fulfilled the requirement of a blue thread in the tassels, as included in the terms of the covenant. Moses says no. He asks if a houseful of sacred books of Scripture would exempt the resident from posting a few verses of the Bible on his doorpost, as required in the terms of the covenant. Moses says no. Korach scoffs at the entire endeavor.
Mind you, this legend is told by the rabbis who held Scripture so sacred that they studied its every jot and tittle as holding some divine revelation. There were, however, things they even they found inscrutable. They chalked them up to categories they called “statutes,” divine commandments that did not have apparent logically derived rationales.
The fact that an individual may not be able to explain why the tassels must have a blue thread or the doorpost of a library must have the same verses as a bedroom without a single book did not change the terms and conditions. Neither did the excuse “I never read them.”
In a society based on personal autonomy like the United States, every set of terms and conditions must be restated for the individual and agreed to by that person. There are, of course, some exceptions. Those collective terms and conditions that were accepted by representatives of an entire generation on behalf of all subsequent generations are still in force. “We the People of the United States” for all sorts of reasons broadly stated, did “ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
In a system based on collective responsibility like many faiths, but certainly like Judaism, the terms and conditions apply without personal affirmation. Maybe that’s why there is such a preoccupation with learning (and by “learning” I mean sacred studies, not merely how to write the legal documents that I never read) in Jewish culture. The terms of the covenant made at Horeb – that is, Mt. Sinai – and Moab – that is, Moses’ instructions in Deuteronomy – are incumbent on every consumer, not just the Levitical customer service reps.
That’s why I always read them.
The Last of Deuteronomy
Cursed be he who will not uphold the terms of this teaching and observe them – and all the people shall say, “amen.” Deuteronomy 27:26
Ah, the power of the crowd. If you have ever been a part of one, you know what I mean. You go to a home-town game of your favorite sports team and the energy of thousands of fans, cheering and booing, adds to the experience. Seeing a comedy in a crowded theater (remember that?) makes the laughter more contagious (and the ill-timed silences more profound). And when the familiar opening riff of a rock-and-roll classic blasts from the stage, you, along with everyone around you, are born to run.
I leave it to scientists to explain the physical reactions that are generated by being a part of such a collective experience. I myself can report both as participant and as observer that there is an undeniable energy that emanates from an inspired crowd. The question is, what inspires them?
Back when I was a congregational rabbi, I was glad to exploit this group mentality. When I was skilled and fortunate enough to compose a lesson that engaged people, I could feel the intensity and perceive, when I brought a teaching or a sermon to conclusion, what my wife called a “quality of silence” that vibrated through the sanctuary. I had the privilege to work with a cantor whose voice had the same effect on worshipers. And on those occasions when we integrated our presentations – for example, one memorable time that I discussed and she sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” – the effect was so electric it likely violated the prohibitions of labor on sacred Jewish holidays.
But I have seen that collective energy used for less holy purposes. A couple of summers back, when we were not prisoners of a virus, I stood on the desolate parade ground on the outskirts of Nuremberg looking up at the concrete platform that hosted evil incarnate before I was born. The quality of silence in that place was of a distinctly different nature, still whispering the deafening shouts of (mostly) young (mostly) men in adulation of someone asking them to do what, in private reflection, they would most certainly know was wrong.
Somewhere between these two extremes are political rallies in this our democracy.
My college roommate, still my best friend, refuses to participate in the chanting that is so often a part of rallies. He can’t stand the exercise. While people around us were being led in “Hey hey, ho ho, [political figure] has got to go” he would just be shaking his head. I think of him whenever, in my capacity as the leader of an advocacy group, I attend a demonstration and get handed a printed list of chants to lead when I conclude whatever brief remarks I am asked to give. Rather than choosing to channel Country Joe McDonald (“gimme an F…”), I mostly decline, using my age as an excuse.
Plus, I have begun to see how dangerous this chanting business can be when the crowd is encouraged by a manipulative speaker. I guess “four more years” is innocuous enough, but “lock her up” or “stop the steal” encourages and justifies the diminishment of the social order and the humanity of those who disagree.
Reading a bill of particulars and asking people to shout a verdict is mob rule. It may be as old as the Bible, but it has a decidedly unholy purpose. It is one step away from the townspeople grabbing torches and marching on Baron von Frankenstein’s mansion, which makes for great entertainment but very bad – and very illegal – public behavior.
There is one thing that commends riling up a crowd and it is this: the Riler-in-Chief of the moment is face to face with the Rilees. The speaker must take responsibility for what comes out of their mouth, and there is collective witness (and most often a record) of what they said. Those who succumb to herd impunity cannot deny its origins. The amen-activity is attached by a string that is fixed at one end to the speaker and the other end to the actor.
It is different than the anonymous (or, at least, mitigated) rabble rousing of social media, where Q can dodge the onus by remaining Anon.
And it is because of this last technological innovation that I understand Moses reciting the imprecations and demanding the affirming chant at the end. The feedback is immediate, the effect is electrifying and the message – in this case – is essentially moral. Yet I cannot help but think that if Moses had thought it through, he would have rallied the crowd around blessings.
The Last of Deuteronomy
And that He will set you, in fame and renown and glory, high above all the nations that He has made; and that you shall be, as He promised, a holy people to the Lord your God. Deuteronomy 26:19
Early in his presidency, Barack Obama was asked by a British reporter if he believed in American exceptionalism. He responded, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” His political opponents, always on the lookout for a fault, found it in this remark. In fact, six years later, the quotation found its way into the campaign of one of the many Republicans hoping to succeed him in office.
How could an American president not believe unequivocally in the uniqueness of our national endeavor, the candidate wanted to know. A relativistic approach to this foundational value of how we see ourselves was the source of (what the candidate identified as) the decline in respect for the United States.
I sort of sit on the sidelines of this issue because a lot of the same folks who endorse the notion of American exceptionalism find the idea of Jewish chosenness to be offensive. I admit to wobbling back and forth on the question of whether I believe in it. On the one hand, it’s in the Bible, from beginning to end, starting with Genesis where Abram is told to be a blessing and that “those who bless you I will bless and those who curse you I will curse,” and ending here in an unequivocal statement. On the other hand, the equality of all people, which is clear even earlier in Genesis, has led every generation of Jewish scholars to affirm that Jews are chosen for service, not for privilege.
And certainly, every faith that has begun since Judaism has insisted that its teachings (and the adherents that follow them) have superseded the Jewish people and their Bible as God’s most recent chosen. The bickering over this title of “chosen” is like Tom and Dick Smothers squabbling over the claim “Mom always liked you best.”
So I suspect that the Christians believe in Christian chosenness and the Muslims believe in Muslim chosenness and the Baha’is believe in Baha’I chosenness, not so much as favored by God for their inherent worth, rather designated as the repository of God’s most authoritative revelation and instruction. And I equally suspect that we all harbor deep if sometimes unspoken doubts about the claims of communities that are not us.
Most recently, I have been more concerned with a different question than whether America is exceptional or Jews are chosen. The question is this: what difference does it make? Were I to discover that Luxembourg or Lesotho was exceptional, either more so or in a different way, would I change my allegiance? And though I have found much to admire and even embrace about other faith traditions, in what competition does it matter who wins the gold medal, who wins the bronze and who was eliminated in the first heat? I play for the team to which I belong, appreciating the efforts around me.
Woven throughout the Bible, and woven throughout the stories our societies tell us, are representations I believe are meant to motivate right and good behavior – and even right and good belief. This claim of chosenness stands alongside the extended sections of threats. If you break the law, the courts will punish you. If you break the covenant, God will punish you. And if you turn away from fidelity to the mission of your people, calamity will befall you.
Is it integrated into our psyches that goodness and righteousness occur only to please those with authority over us, or to avoid punishment by those with power? Must we believe ourselves to be better than others before we will be good for the sake of goodness so as not to cause doubt about our claim?
And maybe more important, does the claim to elevated status actually exempt us from meeting the standards we commend to others?
We are at the end of four years of painful reckoning of what some people consider America’s former greatness and others consider its continuing shame. The debate will not be settled soon or, perhaps, ever. But how we each confront the notion that something other than our own conduct determines the content of our character can make the arguments moot.
Some ideas, accurate or not, deserve to atrophy – preserved as history, but not as legacy.
The Last of Deuteronomy
Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary possession, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven. Do not forget. Deuteronomy 25:19
Deprived of movie theaters and live venues during this pandemic, we spend a lot of time watching movies and streaming series on television. There is a limited universe of actors, and inevitably we will recognize someone from something else we have watched. Olivia Coleman, for example, seems to be in every British production of the last ten years.
Binge-watching may be an unusual way to learn an existential lesson, but I have come to a better understanding of the difference between remembering and not forgetting (likewise, forgetting and not remembering) in the two most frequent questions my wife and I ask each other in front of the TV. The first is “did we see that already?” The second is “what was she in?”
The first question is about forgetting. If a movie or show has made a lasting impression on us, it will come to mind when we see the title or, often, any snippet from it. I can rattle off dozens of my most unforgettable movies, including “Casablanca,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Animal House” and, believe it or not, “Phantasm.” (I was so scared after a late-night showing of that movie that I drove straight home, not bothering with streets.) There is no effort in recalling what I haven’t forgotten. The pleasure or, God forbid, trauma has taken up residence in an accessible place in memory. The tragedy of memory loss includes the deterioration of that automatic response.
The second question is about remembering. With or without a hint of recognition, remembering is an active process of retrieval. Where did I see that baby-faced actor who played Benny in “The Queen’s Gambit?” There is an almost physical effort involved as I mentally scan the scenes in which his image flickers until I figure it out. (Oh, yeah. Thomas Brodie-Sangster, the kid in “Love Actually,” minus the ‘stache.) Re-member-ing literally involves putting pieces back together, some of which are more accessible and some much less.
What does it take for an experience to be unforgettable, to live close enough to the surface that it is with us constantly? There is a better chance of it when strong emotion is attached or, similarly, a profound sensory encounter.
Witnessing the desert awaken to the morning sun, the passionate telling by a friend of his conversion, the sound of laughter after reciting an original joke, the electric anticipation when my courage overcame my insecurity as I leaned into my first kiss – these are unforgettable experiences. I do not have to be instructed “do not forget.” They are resident and accessible.
So, too, are traumas, both physical and emotional. Like the hammer that misses a nail and leaves an impression on the wood, a blow to the heart or to the body makes for a visceral memory that is right at the surface. Light will reflect, liquid will pool, dust will collect differently, with or without intention.
It is logical, even sensible, to encourage someone whose memories are painful to try to forget. After all, the constancy of that unforgettable memory can take over an entire life and even lead people to repeat the familiar but undesirable behavior. An entire discipline of medicine is devoted to relieving rather than reliving.
Amalek, mentioned in the verse, was the hammer that purposely missed the nail. The trauma of gratuitous violence against the small and lesser-abled – Amalek’s crime – left its indelible mark on the generation that fled from oppression. To be sure, they would never forget. But the atrocities were visited only on that generation, and so to prevent them from being committed by some other Amalek, they had to be remembered. The story had to be told because the pain would eventually be forgotten.
It seems to be a paradox – remember so as not to forget.
The pain of our recent sufferings will not be forgotten. But if we are to prevent them from being repeated in the future, then it is important that we don’t forget to remember.
The Last of Deuteronomy
When you enter another man’s field of standing grain, you may pluck ears with your hand, but you must not put a sickle to your neighbor’s grain. Deuteronomy 23:26
When I was eight years old, my family moved from the city environs of Chicago to the village of Wilmette. Today, it’s pretty clear that Wilmette is a close-in suburb of a metro area that extends almost to Wisconsin, but in 1960 housing developments were popping up on land that had been mostly farms. The eastern section of the village had been well-populated for a long time, but we moved to a house at the dead end of a brand new street, and beyond that dead end were the remnants of a chicken coop and then a small working farm.
Even as our neighborhood expanded, the family farm remained active. Two aging sisters planted modest crops and flowers and sold them (and pullet eggs) from a roadside stand. There was no fence around the farm and only a dirt driveway onto the property.
I remember the summer day I found out that a couple of brothers from the neighborhood on the other side of the farm discovered the crops. For them, refugees from the concrete, it was miraculous that there was food growing from the ground virtually in their backyard. They proudly brought home an armload of eggplants to their mother. She was, of course, mortified and took the boys to the farm to apologize and offer to pay for the purloined vegetables. The sisters were very gracious. They all lived happily ever after.
We hear a lot of noise these days about the abandonment of Biblical values. In the very complicated discussions about the differences that technology and medical science have made in our lives, there are people with various perspectives who claim to know what Moses anticipated about transfusions, abortions, electricity and even Twitter. We don’t much hear about the abandonment of concern for one another that the Bible makes very clear.
A friend of mine, who also happened to grow up in Wilmette as a Chicago transplant, worked in Washington on federal policies involving the poor. I found his approach to be lacking a certain compassion (I say euphemistically) and told him so. He wasn’t having any of it. Rather, he claimed, the ideas he advanced were about dignity. Certainly, the unemployable needed to be sustained, but those capable of providing for themselves should have the opportunity to do so, not the excuse to have their productivity devalued. Our society values work, he said, and at least as important as income was a sense of worth.
In these two very different anecdotes there is a quiet countercultural idea. The sisters, perhaps inspired by the Biblical mandate, placed hospitality over cost. The policymaker understood financial support to be a byproduct of personal dignity rather than a substitute for it. In other words, even in this capitalist society, worth and value are not the same thing. The social contract that rightly should be presumed puts people ahead of money.
That probably borders on heretical in a free-market economy, but the Bible does not commend or condemn the various economic systems in which it has been read and studied. It originated in a time when, if you were hungry – not even starving, just hungry – it could be presumed that your neighbor or even the farmer along the road you were traveling would let you grab a pomegranate or a handful of figs or a fistful of wheat stalks and feed yourself. The caution not to abuse the privilege by harvesting what you did not plant and tend is a recognition that people have rightful claim on and pride in the fruits of their own labors.
In our country, helping yourself to an apple from a stranger’s orchard can get you arrested. Taking a bedraggled passerby into your home is considered reckless and foolhardy. Handing a stranger a dollar bill is cause for mockery.
The times we live in are certainly different than Biblical times and even those days of my childhood. There are no more neighborhood farms in Wilmette. The social safety net for the poor has been reimagined many times. Now, unfortunately, it is all about the Benjamins. We measure success by wealth and celebrate our values by charitable donations (and, often, the tax advantages they bring).
From both the grassroots and the ruling elite, only a return to hospitality toward others and a concern for their dignity will we find a more authentic religious standard for a just society.
(please note -- this week's column is posted out of order. Sorry!)