The Exodus:5 Project
When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him. Exodus 23:5
Some years ago an earthquake struck Iran with devastating results. That’s not an unusual occurrence, but this time it was in the midst of some more extreme antagonism toward the West than had become customary. Lots of people were suffering; everything had fallen down. The world’s nations rushed forward with offers of aid. Iran announced that they would gratefully accept all assistance, except from Israel.
I remember thinking some unkind thoughts about the Iranian government at that time. I believe my sentiments leaned toward a profane and physically impossible act of intimacy. Your people are dying and you are willing to turn down the help of the most skilled team of emergency responders in the world?
Shortly thereafter, an appeal landed in my inbox from an American Jewish organization dedicated to service around the world. The CEO made an appeal for relief funds to send teams to Iran to aid the victims of the earthquake. The request was well-documented and very much in line with the mission of the organization, which I had been supporting. But I was stunned. What was a Jewish organization doing supporting relief efforts for a country that, in its greatest hour of need, put hatred of Jews over the lives of its citizens?
I wrote to the CEO and made my case, expressing my admiration for the remarkable work that had been done turning this organization around from underperformance to leadership, but suggesting that this time they had gotten it wrong.
I received a thoughtful reply – nowhere near my impolite thoughts about the Iranian government. In it, the CEO expressed the hope that I would eventually come around to a different point of view, especially since the Israelis themselves went to Iran to do relief work anyway, but under a different flag.
I remembered that interaction when I was asked to contribute to relief supplies for children in Iraq during the American blockade that was part of the Gulf War. A young activist pressed me hard to contribute funds that would, as he put it, feed the starving children of Baghdad. The funds available to me at the time were modest, and there were other demands on them. Again, I declined. I was troubled by the notion of giving aid and comfort to an enemy of the United States. His reaction was that children are not our enemies.
People in conflict place an enormous burden on those around them. It does not matter if the conflict is across national borders or across the backyard fence. When suffering befalls those who are not party to the conflict – civilians, children, beasts of burden – whether it is the result of the conflict or merely the circumstances of life, making a decision to help lift the fallen of my enemy carries with it the concern that I may be participating in my own disadvantage or defeat. My concern for myself and those dear to me restrains me from reaching out to those in need who, in better circumstances, would immediately receive my support.
The verse that begins this column is a sly reprimand to people like me and promotes a psychological ploy long before the invention of psychology. My enemy has overburdened his ass; well, what do you expect from a guy like that? And the animal collapsed under the weight? That’s not my problem. But the expectation is that I will not permit this innocent beast to serve as the surrogate for my antipathy toward its owner. In fact, I must show my enemy what a great guy I am by working with him to lift the beast. Having accomplished a righteous act together, we have the accidental basis of a mended relationship.
I was fortunate to have another opportunity to see this idea in action. When the Carmel Forest caught fire in Israel, assistance came pouring in from all over the world, including those technically at war with Israel. The trees bore no more responsibility for conflict than the aforementioned donkey. This time, a little older and wiser, I had a better reaction. With a friend and colleague, I visited the embassy of every country and entity that pitched in to stop the fire. We presented a certificate of appreciation – a tree, planted in their honor, and an invitation to come see it grow.
The Exodus:5 Project
When a fire is started and spreads to thorns, so that stacked, standing, or growing grain is consumed, he who started the fire must make restitution. Exodus 22:5
The Law of Unintended Consequences is, as one pundit said, often invoked but rarely defined. Mostly, it is meant to refer to government regulations. They are often well-intended, but they never work exactly the way those good intentions hoped.
In my current line of work, the best illustration is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Almost 25 years ago, a remarkable coalition of religious activists from across the spectrum collaborated on developing a piece of federal legislation to protect practitioners of minority religions. (Of course, 25 years ago everyone other than Christians were religious minorities.)
The origin of the effort was the arrest of a Native American practitioner of his legacy tradition, which included the ingestion of peyote as a sacrament. Never mind the details. When the dust cleared and the lower courts had their say, RFRA (say “riff-rah,” like Scooby-Doo) protected the rights of Jews to wear kippot, Muslims to pray five times a day, Sikhs to wear the symbolic kirpan and lots of other people to incorporate their observances in ways that did not substantially burden government, employers and other official rule-makers.
RFRA passed almost unanimously in both houses of Congress and, a few years later, was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court except in very limited circumstances. The Court did not restrict the authority of individual states to enact their own RFRAs, and many did in pretty short order, using the model of the federal legislation. The provisions in the original RFRA are still pretty much intact in my own state, Virginia.
It sounds like a pretty good idea, right? There may be good cause for salespeople in a clothing store to look presentable, but a Muslim woman who covers her hair in modesty does not compromise that standard (as Abercrombie and Fitch discovered). Food service workers must maintain a regulated level of hygiene, but that is possible for Sikh men who go unshorn. A Shabbat-observant employee may elect to use earned time off to leave work soon enough to be home before sundown Friday.
(A nod to my secular coalition partners: sometimes accommodations for religious practice, however sensitively construed, disadvantage those who are not at all religious. As my friend Nick says, if I have tickets for college football games, why must I always work Saturdays to allow for someone to observe their sabbath?)
It took twenty years, but the Law of Unintended Consequences has set the field of religious freedom on fire. It took a while, but the people least effected by RFRA found a way to weaponize it on their own behalf. In those states that had not enacted their own protections for religious minorities back in the day, advocates and legislators from the religious right attempted to use the principles of protection to ensconce their own dominance over state law. Using the language of "substantial burden," opponents of marriage equality took the Supreme Court's expanded definition of "person" from the Hobby Lobby case to enable individuals, businesses and institutions to refuse to validate same-sex marriages by providing gays and lesbians with goods and services that straight people could access. They could claim that such actions would substantially burden them on religious grounds.
The Governor of Indiana at the time was former U.S. Representative Mike Pence, lately Vice-President of the United States. He signed the bill into law. At that point, the fields of Indiana with their corn and amber waves of grain burst into flames. Companies from Angie's List to Eli Lilly to both the NBA and the WNBA threatened to turn their objections into relocations. Investors in Indiana businesses announced they would invest elsewhere. Major cities and universities announced that they would do everything to make their residents and communities feel fully welcome and integrated.
Within nine months, the Indiana legislature rolled back most (but not all) of the legislation. Gov. Pence signed that legislation as well.
RFRA, once hailed as a great equalizer, is now widely criticized. The debates among former supporters – including some of the architects – are about whether to fix or scrap the law. The manipulation of this law has produced another casualty as well. The notion of religious freedom, once championed by every American with the smallest familiarity with the Constitution, has fallen victim to the culture wars being waged by those unwilling to accept the rule of law over the rule of personal faith.
As a kid in the Chicago area, I loved the smell of burning leaves in the fall. Homeowners would rake them into the gutter and light them to dispose of them. They smoldered for a long time, polluting the air and, untended, were dangerous. It's now illegal to burn leaves.
One day as I rode my bike home from school, staying to the far right of the street, I wheeled through an innocent-looking small pile of leaves. Suddenly, I had a hot foot. My laces caught on fire. The solution to the problem of one homeowner caused, quite unintentionally, an injury because some guy didn't want to give up the past.
Maybe I should have ridden around the pile. Maybe the farmer shouldn't have stacked the grain so close to the thorns. Maybe gay people shouldn't get married.
Or maybe persons – however defined – ought not promote what they know are unintended consequences.
The Exodus:5 Project
But if the slave declares, “I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,”
Under what circumstances do we tolerate slavery?
It is pretty clear that the Bible allows for slavery, even if the circumstances of the Israelite slave is far more tolerable than the kinds of slaves who come to mind when we think about American history. Israelite slaves earned wages, received adequate sustenance, kept their families intact, had a day off each week, and were free after seven years. In fact, many Israelites entered this slavery willingly to pay off a debt or to avoid the consequences of poverty.
(It is important to note that Canaanite slaves were not the beneficiaries of this somewhat enlightened indentured servitude.)
But I am stupefied at the permission given to the slave to continue his life. Maybe I am more influenced by the Young Rascals than the Book of Exodus, but I believe that it is the natural situation for a man (or woman) to be free. Isn’t that what the “exodus” in the “book of” is all about?
Were I a rabbi among the original generations of scholars, I would have hoped to be known by this ruling: It is forbidden for a master to treat a slave well enough that he makes the declaration that he does not wish to go free. The master must remind the slave of the degradation of his existence every day. He must restrict the choices available to him, burden him with unpleasant tasks and return no expression of appreciation or affection. In the last year of his servitude, he must say to his slave each day, “When will I be rid of your presence in my life?” Only when he has compensated his slave and declared him free may he apologize and express his gratitude for years of service.
Few if any of the slave owners of the American south could be accused of treating their slaves in a manner that inspired appreciation and loyalty. The grueling life of involuntary servitude, considered as personal property, was demeaning and degrading. Whatever dignity was attainable came from within the cohort of slaves who created social conventions and a hierarchy of values to cope with the situation imposed upon them. If, despite their mistreatment, these slaves found compassion and affection for their masters, it can be attributed to a remarkable level of character forged as they rose above the circumstances imposed on their lives.
Or, it can be attributed to something else. It is possible for one person (or one group of persons) to impose on another (or many others) injury so deep and grievous that it will not heal. It is possible for a slave to feel gratitude to the abuser who first damaged him beyond repair and then cared for him in his disability. If there is any shame deeper than enslaving a human being, it is in accepting this kind of “love.” The slave who declares, “I love my massa” deprives his master of the possibility of redemption.
We hear occasional stories of modern slavery – children imprisoned by parents or kidnappers, victims of domestic abuse deprived of the instinct to flee, foreign nationals “hired” to do work and then kept so poor they cannot escape their employers’ clutches. But most of us know neither slaves nor slaveholders.
We are, however, the descendants of slaves and slaveholders alike. The Jews in America, maybe the most abundantly blessed generations of our people in 3500 years of seeking freedom, none the less remember every year (really, every week) that we were slaves. And at least once a year, when reading this section of the Bible, we remember that we had the full permission of our liberating God to enslave other human beings.
As Americans, no matter when our ancestors arrived on these shores, we carry that legacy as well. Personally, we bought no African in the market, whipped no belligerent woman, sold no mother’s son to a neighbor, denied no ability to read because of skin color. Personally, we were not the victims of those atrocities. Thank God on both counts.
But when we romanticize those times for any reason, we revisit those injuries and demand that the wounds that persist beyond the grave be ignored. We want to hear, “I love my master.” Shame on anyone who gives credibility to the notion of the happy slaves, rescued from deprivation by the generosity of the plantation owner. And likewise, shame on anyone who believes that slavery no longer matters to today’s African Americans in a visceral way. You might as well suggest that Japanese Americans have gotten over the internment camps or Jews have come to terms with the Holocaust.
There are parts of the Bible with which a person of faith must struggle. Some of them are seemingly incidental, such as not mixing linen and wool. Some of them have an urgent resonance in our current society, including discussions of gender and sexual identity. And one of them is any level of patience with the verse that validates the statement, “I love my master.” A more grievous delusion never was and never will be.
The Exodus:5 Project
You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I the LORD your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me Exodus 20:5
Guilt – the gift that keeps on giving.
There are, of course, two kinds of guilt. When a crime or transgression has been committed, the responsibility for doing something wrong is some legal form of guilt, the opposite of innocence. However, when a person squirms under the oppression of conscience, sometimes without cause, the feeling is some psychological form of guilt.
Being found guilty generally comes with consequences that can be quantified – reparations, incarceration, restitution or other penalties. But often the only quantifiable consequences of feeling guilty are bills for therapy.
I used to deal with a lot of guilty people when I served as a pulpit rabbi. They fell into each of the two categories, but rarely both. People who were objectively guilty of crime or transgression frequently had what they considered to be an exonerating explanation, ranging from “I didn’t do it” to “I was misunderstood/set up/a victim of circumstances.” I couldn’t do much for those folks other than listen. Those who hoped for validation from me were always disappointed – the best I could do was be non-committal. To those who were lying to themselves and trying out their fabrications on me, the best I could offer was an appreciation of their frustration. I almost never had a set of facts that allowed me to be an honest broker.
But I did find words from one such individual that helped me with all the others. He had been found out in a secret that yanked out the foundations of his life. He said to me, “Did I have a secret? Yes. Does everybody have a secret? At least one.”
On the other hand, I often had some success offering a healing notion to those who felt guilty. The most profound and usual example of guiltiness was the surviving loved one – spouse, child, friend – who held him- or herself responsible for the death they were grieving. Some of them came to see me soon after a loss, others carried the guilt through life, even as they were blessed to see a third and fourth generation.
This kind of guilt was attached to “if-only.” If only I had insisted on seeing a doctor sooner. If only I had decided to stay home that night instead of going out. If only I had recognized the cry for help. If only I hadn’t been so selfish. The variations on the theme are infinite, but they all come down to the same thing.
When a loss occurs, especially by death, our careful tending of our lives is shattered. We have lost control, and whatever else we grieve, we are also bereaved of control. Better an assumption of responsibility that explains why things went so wrong than an acknowledgment that so much in life is beyond our control. If I had been more attentive, more skilled, less self-involved, smarter, less lazy, more loving…then the inevitable might not have occurred or, at least, have been postponed.
There are three possible explanations for this kind of guilt. The first is an exaggerated sense of self. People who arrogate to themselves a sense of authority do not like to be reminded of how limited their actual power is. I gently urge them not to look for reaffirmation by exercising control over others to the third and fourth generation in order to compensate.
The second is a profound sense of loss. The hole that has opened in their hearts makes these folks try to fill it as rapidly as possible. By grabbing from other places in their emotional landscape, they feel they can fill in the gap. I try to guide them to a gardening metaphor – if you try to fill a hole from the material already in your yard, you create other holes in its place that may be empty to the third and fourth generation.
But the third is most hopeful. Sometimes, maybe even most times, the cause of these feelings is faith. A sense of belief in the rightness and justice of the world is so deeply ingrained in so many of us that we refuse to be disappointed. We accept a burden beyond our capability in order to preserve the notion of goodness and benevolence on the part of God or the cosmos in terms we select for ourselves. To such dear and desperate people, I try to offer the reassurance of our people’s legacy. Guilt may be persistent – to the third and fourth generation – but compassion is more so: to the thousandth. If they will just allow themselves comfort from the true object of faith, the Holy One of Blessed Name, they will start the clock on a thousand generations of compassion all over again. And their faith (and others’) can be restored.
The Exodus:5 Project
Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine Exodus 19:5
It is a lot easier to embrace the notion of American exceptionalism when there is something truly exceptional about America. I am not talking about ideals or legacies – I mean right now. I mean living up to the higher aspirations of those who came before. Chanting “USA! USA!” is cheerleading. Battering the man-child who is President is sport, not wisdom. Demanding the protection of some rights and the diminution of others lacks a coherent American logic.
We have long believed ourselves to be a chosen people. We have laid claim to a manifest destiny and named a century after ourselves. Our right and might triumphed (with our allies) in the armed conflicts that engulfed the world twice. Our way of life outlasted the communist experiment. Our culture of self-expression (and sometimes self-absorption) is often imitated, never replicated. And while every other country and culture can claim to exceed our record of accomplishment in one or another way, taken as a whole, the reputation of the United States provokes more admiration around the world than any other country.
And that is despite our incredible failures. Small wars conducted by implacable enemies flummox our military. We can’t seem to address and overcome the staying power of our prejudices. Our wealth should make it possible for us to eradicate poverty, hunger, under-education, health care costs and pollution, but we steadfastly refuse. Until very recently, we have shaken off our missteps and gone back to work on our challenges. Our self-confidence (or, if you prefer, arrogance) was justified by our desire to live into a better tomorrow.
But today seems different in both form and substance. Back when America was allegedly great, it was only the bad guys who wanted to deny the American dream to those who had not yet achieved it. My generation – the one that has no choice but to claim our current circumstances – marched for rights and peace and clean air but threw forward too many leaders who normalized scandal and brand-building over morals and vision. Leaders in our industries and governments have encouraged the cannibalizing of our dreams: free love has become sexual harassment; religious liberty has become license to discriminate; cultural diversity has been slapped with a quota. And most important, the free marketplace of ideas now has a permitting fee and a fenced-off area for dissent.
It is easy to blame our worst examples for our collective catastrophes. President Trump is the result, not the cause, of our shortcomings. The National Rifle Association did not hand out AR-15 semi-automatic rifles to mass murderers. Harvey Weinstein, it seems, is not an outlier. They are all reflections in the national mirror.
If you are still reading at this point, I have reached the end of my screed. Still proud to be an American and still filled with hope for the future, I hope that the experience of the Jews, my people, which extends a dozen or more times farther back in history than the United States’, will prove instructive. We, too, carry the dubious moniker of “chosen.” When we were barely a people, weeks out of four hundred years of slavery, we were told that we were “treasured” among all others – a nation of priests and a holy people (which was the gold standard back then).
But there was an “if,” right from the beginning. There was a mission and an accompanying set of responsibilities that came with chosenness. We had to live into that designation, not claim it as a right. Our entire history – from the Torah, through the Bible, through the Temples, through our wide dispersion – has been populated by our most admired leaders who urged us to live into our greatness. And, more important, they refused to validate our chosenness when we chose against it.
We never lost the blessing of election, but it has never been ours except by our reciprocal choice. Indeed, making the Jewish people great again was never a matter of nostalgia, but of gleaning the best of our past and improving on our future with it. When we rely on the reputations of our forebears, it is not for chasing away strangers in our midst, manipulating wealth, deceiving family and friends or misbehaving sexually. Instead, we improve on their emulable qualities by setting a standard of welcoming, generosity, integrity and fidelity.
When we decide to be worthy of our chosenness, then Jews – like everyone else – are chosen. When we aim to be exceptional, then Americans are exceptional. But it comes with a perpetual “if,” and only those who strive to earn rather than to claim will be great today, tomorrow and in tomorrow’s yesterday.
The Exodus:5 Project
Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought Moses’ sons and wife to him in the wilderness, where he was encamped at the mountain of God. Exodus 18:5
My father died when he was my age and I was in my mid-thirties. Since that time, the pater familias in our family was my father-in-law. He lived past his 93rd birthday and died early this year during a whirlwind couple of weeks in which a series of his chronic health problems collided. Oh, and the week he died his first great-grandson was born. The baby was circumcised on Sunday, my father-in-law was buried the next day.
He was described with deep love and respect during his funeral. As is usually the case, the positives of his life were emphasized, which made me reflect on the shift in our relationship over the years. The way he reached out to me when I lost my dad was in inverse proportion to the earlier friction caused when I swaggered into his only daughter’s undergraduate life. I lived an adult life of profound gratitude and affection for him.
The best part of his relationship with our family was his connection to his grandchildren. And though he was extremely attentive to his six granddaughters, born over the course of twenty years, he had a unique relationship with his unique grandchild: his only grandson, my only son, who was born smack in the middle of the years of family growth. From the beginning, they shared a sense of humor that was grounded in all the things that boys find hilarious and that provokes girls, including wives and mothers, to express disapproval with raised eyebrows and an elongated pronouncing of the offender’s name.
(Here’s a hint for you young people out there: though it is genuinely the funniest invention of the human species, this toy will mysteriously disappear the same evening it is gifted.)
My wife and I raised our boy into an extraordinary man, but there were parts of the wilderness of growing up that only a grandfather could help him explore. I had less interest in sports than they shared. I had no expertise in the stock market, let alone the idea to ask my kid to research some stocks and then buy a couple of shares with him to start his portfolio. My son evolved from my responsibility to my favorite guy to hang out with. But he grew into respect and affection for his seniors because of the slow transition from his grandfather’s little buddy to the guy who kept him vital and active.
There are some things a father is not well-equipped to do. The complicated responsibilities that a dad has can eat into the time (and, to be honest, the willingness) to give a son his due. So much of self-image is involved in a father raising a son that, try as we might, we cannot avoid the mini-me syndrome. But a grandfather has time for the wandering that is a necessary part of growing up. He has raised his mini-mes and has nothing to prove. That's why people often say of their fathers, "He was a good dad, but he was a terrific grandfather."
I can't write about mothers and daughters and grandmothers on either side of the family. I am an observer of those relationships. When Jethro brought Moses' wife to him in the wilderness, I can imagine certain things, but I can't know the heart of anyone in that part of the story.
But I know what it is like for your father-in-law to bring your boy home from some adventure in some wilderness. I know what it is like to see the gleam in two sets of eyes, the physical exhaustion, the inside jokes, the adhesive quality of their mutual affection, the anticipation of next time. For me, it is a reminder and a promise. It is so far beyond words that even the Bible doesn't try to record Moses' reaction.
All seven of his grandchildren will miss my father-in-law in a distinct way, because he had that kind of relationship with each of them. Some things will be the source of collective amusement – he had two jokes he told so frequently that we could recite the punchline with him. But my Jethro will carry with him to the next world my gratitude for always bringing back my boy a little more of the man he has become.
The Exodus:5 Project
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Pass before the people; take with you some of the elders of Israel and take along the rod with which you struck the Nile and set out. Exodus 17:5
I love the craziness of the TV series “Mozart in the Jungle.” The complicated personal stories of musicians and others who make the music of a symphony orchestra illustrate for a listener like me that the beautiful end-product is refined from a cacophony that precedes it. There is a long process of sorting out bad notes and bad relationships before a group of people can collaborate harmoniously.
At the center of my fascination is the conductor. He’s a real character in the show, but conductors in general have fascinated me. I watched Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts” as a kid, enjoyed Danny Kaye’s playful turns on the podium and learned a series of important lessons in leadership from Israeli conductor Itai Talgam. Itai is not only a maestro, he is a student of the art. He teaches army officers, corporate executives and rabbis about leadership by analyzing the styles of famous conductors – the aloof Muti, the authoritarian von Karajan, the formal Toscanini, the passive-aggressive Kleiber and, of course, the seductive Bernstein.
Here's what they all have in common: the baton. It’s a magic staff that seems to control the ebb and flow of the music as it is deployed by the conductor. That stick holds an incredible power which is, I don’t need to tell you, no power at all. The baton is an extension of the man, and the energy that is emitted by it is generated and, well, conducted from the wellsprings of the bearer.
Certainly, I have seen conductors use only their hands as well as a variety of objects for comic effect. But without a baton, the conductor is no conductor. But the baton in and of itself is not enough.
I know this because when I was five years old, my parents took me to Disneyland. I had the chance to conduct the band in the town square, waving around the white wand placed in my hand by the bandleader. The band did an expert rendition of the “Washington Post March,” a Sousa classic. When I later saw the 8mm film that my dad shot of the moment, even at that young age I recognized that I looked like I was trying to swat a fly, and the band leader, standing discretely behind me, was keeping the time and directing the musicians.
30 years later, I talked the bandleader in Disneyworld into letting me repeat the gig. I promised I would never ask again. He let me conduct the same song. I was, again, awful. He was, again, behind me.
What is the allure of the stick, the rod, the staff, the wand, the scepter, the baton? Harry Potter and lesser magicians use them to effect spells and enchantments. Tribes use them to confer authority to govern or merely to speak. Potentates of various kinds hold them as a symbol of dominance. Stage managers use them to clear the failing act from the vision of the audience.
I won’t deny that there is something phallic about a man waving a baton, but we would reduce the symbol to ridicule if we confused the referential with the functional. And the women who have stepped up to the podium to conduct are not engaged in an exercise of borrowing male power – they have the same magic in front of an orchestra as Hermione has at Hogwarts.
Our attention is misdirected when we attribute some sort of potency to the stick. The Bible may set us up by attributing all sorts of tricks to Moses’ rod – turning into a snake, changing the water of the Nile to blood, splitting the sea and bringing water out of a rock. But it’s not the stick.
I can’t tell you by what actual power Moses did (or did not?) identify the rock and bring forth a stream of water. But I can tell you that the fictional Rodrigo, the masterful Talgam and the anonymous bandleader are responsible from within for whatever power the baton holds. It is the person who graduates from believing in the power of the magic staff to harnessing the power of internal skills and capacities who is authorized by the stick…which is just a stick.
By the way, if you want to read ahead to Numbers 20:11-12, you’ll find what we lose when we believe otherwise.
The Exodus:5 Project
On the sixth day, when they apportion what they have brought in, it shall prove to be double the amount they gather each day. Exodus 16:5
Like a lot of America, I appear to be suddenly wealthy. My various investments are benefiting from the surge in the stock market, and even a life-long market coward like me finds my few remaining bar mitzvah stocks and retirement accounts surging. I saw a story in the newspaper the other day about people my age who are withdrawing some of this unanticipated money from their 401K savings to take vacations or buy another house or live a little larger while they feel up to it.
Not me. I remember not so many years ago when acquaintances who were then the age I am now were running around with their hair on fire because these same accounts were suddenly underperforming. They believed that their future would include cat food and heavy blankets as their retirement years became the dystopian version of their earlier dreams. I am not planning on abundance or deprivation, just the sabbath of my work-life.
There are a lot of Biblical stories that we treat like fairy tales, especially when reading them with principled literalism provokes deep disbelief in the likelihood of their truth. It does not matter to me at all if manna fell from the skies six nights a week as the Israelites spent a generation or more wandering around the wilderness like flies in a mason jar. Let’s say it did, or let’s say it didn’t. Here we are to debate it; therefore, my ancestors must have somehow survived those early days so that I could live these late ones. That they lived is undisputed. How they lived is instructive.
For most of each week, they gathered food for the day. The symbiotic relationship of provider and consumer took a while to establish. Early on, some folks hedged their bets by collecting more food than they needed to survive to the next day. It inevitably spoiled. When, at the end of the week, there suddenly appeared an overabundance of food, they were reluctant to gather more than a day’s worth, believing that it would spoil. They had to rely on others the next day – Shabbat – for their sustenance.
I imagine it didn’t take more than a couple of weeks for everyone to get with the program. For five days they gleaned. For one day they put in a little extra work. And on the seventh day, they rested. Literal or not, the pattern became ingrained in the participants in the narrative and, more important to me, in the tellers of the story. Don’t overreach as you make your way through the world. Sock away that extra when it appears.
I have a dear friend with a very different philosophy. She never worries too much about money. When she has it, she spends it. When she doesn’t, she does not. She has been willing to accept a less consistent lifestyle than I have, but she is no less satisfied with hers than I am with mine. However, she indeed discovered Shabbat and in the value of preparing for it before the day arrives.
And it is good advice whether you are like me or like my friend. A week is like a life lived over and over – six days you should do all your work so that you can rest on the seventh. Six years you should plow your fields so that they can lie fallow during the seventh. Seven cycles of fallow should you observe so that you can release all debts the next year. With all these instructions, too, it does not matter to me if they were actually observed, observed symbolically through some legal fiction or just the stuff of stories told generation to generation. Let’s say they were true, or let’s say they weren’t. Here we are, descendants of the literalists, legalists and librettists, living our lives as proof of those before us.
Grabbing a handful of this temporary windfall is one way to react. Looking for a lockbox to squirrel it away is another. I don’t know that either one is right or wrong, but they both ignore the wisdom of patterns set for us before stocks and bonds and pensions and mutual funds.
Six days of work, one day of rest. A little extra effort at the end of the six to enjoy the fullness of the seventh. A good week. A good year. A good life.
The Exodus:5 Project
The deeps covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone. Exodus 15:5
There are deaths worse than fate.
More than forty years ago, there was a short-lived television show based on the comic book “Tales of the Unexpected.” It was an effort to capture the lightning that energized “The Twilight Zone,” but despite great casts and stories, it lasted only eight episodes.
I remember one of those hours vividly. It was called “The Final Chapter,” and it starred Roy Thinnes and Ned Beatty. Thinnes played a reporter doing a story on what it felt like to be on death row, and Beatty played a prison guard who had a previous grudge against Thinnes. The premise was that Thinnes was given the identity of a convicted murderer with a scheduled execution date, and one by one the people on the outside who knew his real identity disappeared from his life. In the end, only his old enemy, Beatty, knew who he really was – and he wasn’t talking.
The fateful day arrived and Thinnes was escorted to the electric chair, protesting all the way that they were making a mistake. He was strapped in and given a bite guard. The electrodes were attached to his head which was enclosed in a metal mask that held it in place. In case your TV has really delayed reception, here comes the spoiler alert. First his editor, then the warden and finally the cruel prison guard stand before him just before the switch is thrown. They confess that they cooked up the situation so he could really, deeply understand the mind of a man about to be executed. Each one apologizes, especially Ned Beatty, who admits he never really had a beef against him. They remove the mask.
He’s already dead. Boom!
Prof. Alan Mittleman of the Jewish Theological Seminary is the author of a book called Hope in a Democratic Age. With thoroughness, he traces the notion of hope through history and philosophies and comes to the conclusion that hope is not merely wishful thinking, but a virtue – an admirable and moral expectation that things will get better. It is a positive outlook on the trajectory of life, even when immediate evidence seems to point in another direction.
The poor character in the television show had lost hope. Struggling against a dilemma in which he had been complicit, he was brought to the threshold of despair and abandoned. Strapped into the chair and wired up to the generator, life lost its meaning. He sank like a stone in a pond.
It will likely surprise you that I believe this character might have been saved if he had held closely to a little bit of doubt, of skepticism. A life governed by doubt is a life of disappointment. There is no ability to be happy or satisfied because nothing is dependable. But a life governed by certainty in any value or virtue – by unshakeable faith – is a life which can be shattered in the moment of clarity that is inevitable. There is no such thing as a sure thing. That’s what Roy Thinnes’s character discovered, and it killed him.
Whenever I have seen depictions of Pharaoh’s legions drowning as the parted sea returns to its natural state, they show horses rearing on their hind legs and charioteers flailing to save themselves. Unlike the Israelites who had to be persuaded walk through the parted sea, the Egyptians charged ahead with unshakeable faith. When the waters gave way, the verse from the Song at the Sea tells us, they sank like stones. I imagine that a moment that allowed no uncertainty was fatal to the soul and maybe even the body when that certitude dissolved (quite literally).
I don’t care if you understand this story literally or not. The point is the same. A healthy skepticism is the best preventative of catastrophic disappointment. Those who allow no space between their beliefs and the many possible realities will, without a monumental amount of luck or inexhaustible supply of denial, become the victim of their own confidence.
When I listen to prominent pastors deflect the flaws of public figures out of a desire to justify their previous faith, not in God, but in the politician, I am deeply saddened. Their hope is intact, but it is hope in a false goal. Religious life in general is under a certain amount of well-deserved scrutiny fueled by cynicism and suspicion, and prominent charioteers whose destination is the past will eventually be stopped by a doubt beyond their capacity. And then, they will sink like stones.
The Exodus:5 Project
When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his courtiers had a change of heart about the people and said, “What is this we have done, releasing Israel from our service?” Exodus 14:5
I don’t know that I have made any big decision in my life without second-guessing myself after the fact. The most consequential decision I ever made was to marry. The night before my wedding, I woke up at about 3:00 a.m. and said to my brother, sleeping in the next bed, “I don’t think I can go through with this.” He spoke these words of wisdom in return: “Shut up and go back to sleep.”
When we bought a house and contracted for a renovation, I came up to it one day as the peak of the roof on the new second floor was being finished. It looked enormous and I was seized with panic – what had we done to the neighborhood?
After more than a dozen years and 100,000 miles, the car we schlepped our kids in was ready for retirement from our emerging needs – commuting, transporting older passengers, visiting our children in other cities. So we bought a car we knew would last us another dozen years with a better kind of road-worthiness. After research and budgeting we looked at the dealer’s best offer – exactly what we expected. Once again, my heart began pounding as I realized the size of the dent we made in our savings.
The technical name for these worries is buyer’s remorse. I am among the billions of human beings – probably including you – who have experienced this sense of insecurity after a major decision. There is a complicated psychological explanation for it, but it boils down to a version of something a friend of mine who is a legislator told me: you get behind a bill about 60% sure of your position and work your way up beyond 90% at the time of the vote; then you have time to think about it.
All of the examples I offer here are about consequential decisions that not only were the right decisions, but ones that were beneficial (especially the first). But reconsidering a consequential decision that was the wrong decision, or that was not beneficial, can also be an example of buyer’s remorse. What they all have in common is the need to change. If the change is for the better, we tend to come around to early acceptance. If it for the worse, then we have two choices. We can either make the best of it or try to undo what we consider a mistake.
What is the nature of the consequential decision that Pharaoh made to release the Israelites from slavery? It was not a decision of principle, that’s for sure – Egypt in general and Pharaoh in particular were exhausted by the suffering visited on them ten times. The eradication of the first-born among the Egyptians cast a darkness on every surviving soul more profound than the darkness of the preceding plague. Pharaoh capitulated. He was not convinced. And when three days had passed and the upending of a way of life settled in as a reality, buyer’s remorse was an understandable reaction.
Unfortunately, nobody said to him, “Shut up and go back to being Pharaoh.”
The same scenario has played out in our society many times. As Americans we have made lurching progress toward the grand vision we have of an enlightened democracy. My cousin Brent said to me that he worries that we have lost the desire to live into the Enlightenment values that form the conscience of the Constitution. Those are the ideas, he said, that were too big to be fully contained by the document.
Sometimes out of principle but most times out of exhaustion we have done the right thing to the native people we had chased off their land, the Africans we had stolen and imported, the women we had kept disenfranchised, the tired, poor and huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Each time we considered capitulation, we imagined it meant relinquishing something to which we felt entitled. It was hard to see the benefit of being right if it meant being less.
And here we are today, some segment of our society finding a champion for their buyer’s remorse for an America less white, less European, less Christian, less heterosexual than when it was “great” in their imaginations. Maybe they will mount chariots and chase their lost chance to dominate into the unknown. But the good guys will prevail as, eventually, they always do.
And soon the rest of us will shut up go back to being America.