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The Better Angels

09/30/2016 03:18:23 PM


Rabbi Jennifer Jaech

Delivered Yom Kippur Day

I was twenty-eight years old and facing the biggest crisis of my early professional life.   The President of the United States, George H.W. Bush, had recently told the nation that the United States had launched an intensive bombing campaign against Iraq, marking the start of "Operation Desert Storm.” 

I was near the state capitol building in Olympia, Washington, when my beeper went off.   I was working as the legislative liaison for The Evergreen State College, and my beeper would go off only in an emergency.  It was an emergency:  Evergreen students had marched from the campus, forced themselves into the chambers of the state legislature, and now occupied those chambers to protest the war.

I had a little over two years of experience as the legislative liaison for Evergreen. It was not an easy job.

As a public college, Evergreen relied on the state legislature for most of its funding.  The college, established in the 1960's, was one of a number of "experimental, progressive" schools created during that turbulent decade.  From its beginning, Evergreen attracted politically active students from across the nation.  And sometimes our students did things that angered the conservative members of the state legislature.  Over the years, various legislators introduced bills to strip the college of state funding.  In my years as an undergraduate at Evergreen, I and my fellow students regularly faced the threat that our school would be closed.

It did not surprise me that our students protested “Operation Desert Storm.”  Two days after President Bush announced Desert Storm, students held a “No More Wars” concert on campus, a concert that featured a local band called Nirvana (before it was really famous).  Then, two days after the concert, about three hundred of our students forced themselves into the legislative chambers and brought the business of the Washington State House and Senate to a halt.  Evergreen students occupied the seats on the floor of the House, some of them jumping up on the desks and dancing.[1]  Others hung Iraqi flags over the railings in the balcony.[2]  That’s when my beeper went off.

I called for reinforcements.   Evergreen's president and provost would get to the State Capitol as quickly as they could.  In the meantime, though, it was up to me to placate the enraged legislators who were calling the office of Evergreen’s president, demanding to know what we were going to do about this outrageous protest by our students.

One conservative state legislator summoned me to his office.  I was scared.  I fully expected him to chastise me and threaten to close my college.  But I forced myself to knock on his door and enter his office.

What happened next was completely unexpected.  The legislator told me what he knew about the protest.  He expressed his concern over the lack of civility displayed by our students. He was worried about their divisive behavior in a time of war – and, somewhat surprising to me, he was worried about the war itself. 

Then this legislator went over to his bookshelf and pulled down collection of writings of Abraham Lincoln.  “Listen to this,” he said, opening the book.  "In times of great trouble I often turn to the words of Abraham Lincoln."  This is what he read:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.[3]

The legislator closed the book and said:  “Let’s pray together.”   I bowed my head while he said a short prayer for the unity of our nation.   After the prayer, he politely escorted me out of his office.

Only years later did I recognize the importance of our encounter.  This conservative lawmaker, so different from me and from the students I represented, did not use the student protest as an opportunity to attack.  Instead he followed the “better angels of his nature.”  He offered a gesture of unity during a time of polarization.  He did what a good leader should do.

I don’t need to tell you that we live in a polarizing time.  And in this time of division, we are about to elect leaders for our local communities, our state, and our nation.   Just as the Washington legislator did by reading Lincoln, we can turn to the wisdom of the past.  Our Jewish tradition represents a collection of human wisdom, wisdom meant to guide us in our personal lives and in our public lives.  We can look to our tradition for guidance as we consider the qualities we want in the leaders we elect this fall.

Our tradition teaches that Moses was the first leader of our people.   Moses faced a huge task:  the task of leading the enslaved Israelites to freedom, and guiding them for forty difficult years through the wilderness until they reached the border of the Promised Land.   

Yet Moses was not elected the leader of the Israelites.  He was called to be their leader.  In the Torah’s story, Moses is minding his own business (taking care of his father-in-law’s flock) when God speaks to him out of a blazing bush.  When Moses hears what God wants him to do, his first response was NOT:  “That's a terrific idea, God.  There’s nobody better for the job than me.”  Instead, Moses says to God:  “Mi Anochi? Who am I to go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?”[4]  Moses recognizes the weight of the leadership role God is asking him to take -- and his first response is to question whether he is worthy of becoming a leader.

Moses questioned whether he could be a leader because he recognized his frailties.   To do what God asked him to do would require him to appear before the king of Egypt and demand from him that he release Moses’s people from slavery – a demand that Pharaoh would almost certainly refuse.  Moses didn’t think he had the talent for his mission.  Moses says, “Please, O Eternal, I have never been a man of words…I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.[5]    This is often taken to mean that Moses suffered from a speech impediment – so how could he possibly talk Pharaoh into releasing the Israelites?  In response, God reassures Moses by telling him that does not have to face Pharaoh alone; Moses’ brother Aaron will accompany him and help him when he confronts Pharaoh.[6] 

This is not the only situation in which Moses displayed humility.  Elsewhere in the Torah, Moses is called "anav m'eod -- very humble, more so than any other person on earth.[7]

Humility is a critical quality for a good leader.  A humble leader recognizes the limits of his abilities and the limits of his power.   A humble leader knows that he alone cannot do the work of leading a people.

This is not such a popular message, especially in troubled times.  In times like ours, it can be attractive to hear a leader say:  "I alone can fix it” or “I will save you.”   We Jews have heard lines like these before --  it is the language spoken by messiahs and in support of messiahs.    This language is especially potent during times of suffering and hardship, during times when we want someone to save us from our misery. 

But it doesn’t work that way.  Our history has a number of examples of false messiahs who led their followers to a disastrous end.[8] 

A particularly glaring example of a failed messiah is Shimon Bar Kochba, who led a Jewish revolt against Rome in the 2nd century.  The Roman occupation of Judea was brutal, a time of great suffering and oppression.   It was a time ripe for messianic hopes, a time when our people looked for a savior.  Even the great sage Rabbi Akiva thought that Bar Kochba was that savior, saying of him:  “This is the King Messiah.”[9]  

Bar Kochba was a forceful general.  He was also a tyrannical ruler who sought to punish and even destroy those who did not join his movement.[10]   And at the end of his failed revolt against Rome, the Jewish people were left in circumstances far more desperate than before.   The land was ravaged, most of the Jewish communities of Judea were destroyed, and Jews were barred from living in Jerusalem for the next four centuries.[11] 

I understand why people think that our nation and our world are broken.  But we are not the first to think of our world as broken.  The expulsions and persecutions of the Middle Ages led mystical Jewish sages to fashion a new version of story of the world’s creation.   It’s a story that reflects the broken world they knew so well, and it offers a lesson for how to live in such a world.

In this story, creation begins when God contracts himself, a process that the mystics called tzimtzum.  God shrinks himself in order to make room for creation.  Then God creates the world by encasing divine light in vessels and sending them out.  But there is terrible, cosmic accident.  The vessels shatter, scattering divine sparks all over the universe.  In contrast to the story of Creation in the first chapter of Genesis, where everything created is tov me’od (very good), the mystical story is that Creation was flawed from the very beginning.

The lesson the mystics drew is that it is up to us, to human beings, to gather these divine sparks and use them to repair the broken creation, the task known as tikkun olam.  We do this through the mitzvot, through our sacred obligations to each other and to the world entrusted to our care.   It is our collective work that makes the world whole and ushers in the messianic age.  In their story of creation, the Jewish mystics of the Middle Ages remind us that one “messiah” cannot save us:  Repair of our broken world is up to each of us, as we work together.

We need leaders today with the humility of Moses, leaders who know the limits of their power.  We need leaders who understand that meaningful change can only come if we are inspired to gather the sparks of this broken world.   We need leaders who, in Lincoln’s words, will speak to the "better angels of our nature” and rouse those better angels to action.  

[1] According to Adele Ferguson, as published in the Ellensburg Daily Herald, January 22, 1991

[2] As reported to me by one legislator.

[3] I later found out that these words are from the end of Lincoln's First Inaugural Address in 1861, delivered to a fractured nation on the brink of civil war.

[4] Exodus 3:11

[5] Exodus 4:10

[6] Exodus 4: 14-16

[7] Numbers 12: 3

[8] Josephus described messianic movements that arose in the first century CE, including: Under Roman procurator Fadus, 44-46 CE, a certain Theudus led a large multitude, who brought along their possessions, to the Jordan River, which he promised they could cross after the waters parted at his command.  Many were massacred by a cavalry squadron sent by the procurator.  Theudus was killed and his head brought to Jerusalem; In the time of Felix, 52-60 CE, a man from Egypt led several thousand followers to the Mount of Olives; he promised them that at his command the walls of the city would fall and that they would enter the city where he would be installed as ruler.  Roman soldiers killed 400 and took 200 prisoner, but their leader escaped; Roman troops sent by Festus (60-62 CE) killed a man (whom Josephus does not name) and those who followed him into the wilderness, where he promised them they would find “salvation and rest from troubles”; In the last days of the Temple, a prophet proclaimed that God had commanded the people to go up to the Temple court to receive “the signs of their deliverance.”  Instead 6,000 were killed when the portico where they had taken refuge caught fire; In the period immediately after the destruction of the Temple, a weaver named Jonathan, whom Josephus associates with the Sicarii (Greek “dagger men,” rebels who assassinated those whom they saw as the enemies of the Jews) led a multitude of what Josephus called “the poor” of Cyrene into the wilderness, where he promised to show them “signs and apparitions.”  Leader eventually executed; A Samarian organized an armed multitude for an ascent of Mount Gerizim, promising them he would show them the sacred vessels which Moses had buried there; those who followed him were slaughtered by troops sent by Pilate (26-36)  Source: David B. Levenson,“Messianic Movements” published in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Oxford University Press.

[9] Lamentations Rabbah 2:4

[10] The letters of Bar Kochba offer ample evidence of his “leadership style.”

[11] S. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, Vol. II

Sun, September 22 2019 22 Elul 5779