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.