Rabbi David Steinhardt
February 4, 2017
Several years ago, shortly after President Barack Obama was elected, he acted on something which many people, including himself, considered to be mistaken. President Obama appeared at a news conference and he said “I am sorry, I made a mistake.”
The following week I used that example in a sermon about teshuvah. I spoke about the capacity to be self-reflective and how important it is to admit wrong and apologize. I saw it especially meaningful coming from a position of power. After that service I was approached by a man in the congregation who told me that he did not appreciate my speaking about politics. Realizing that there was no defense, I said, I understand. I gave the issue a lot of thought.
I realize the thin line a rabbi walks when speaking about the events of the world in a highly charged political environment. As a result of that incident and a number of other things including the Johnson Amendment, I have been rigidly bounded and seriously committed to not speak about partisan politics. At the same time, I am deeply committed to speak about values, Jewish values.
So often the material which presents the questions to be spoken about come from events in the world, statements that come from our leaders, actions that are done by any nation be it Israel or the United States.
I believe, I affirm, that above all else, our Torah is meant to inspire righteousness and justice in our lives. That is the foundation of the covenant God made with Avraham. Frankly, I am often amazed at the coincidence of Torah lessons with the events in the world. I will always walk the line between being a darshan who extracts meaning and value from the text and also, follows the inspiration of our prophets, the prophets of Israel who reminded us of the way a society should go, the way its leaders and people should walk. They cried out against corruption and they cried out against the abuse of power…and they cried on behalf of the powerless.
In ancient Egypt the Hebrew people were enslaved. Moses went to Pharaoh and demanded Pharaoh free the slaves. He requested that the slaves be allowed to go out; men, women, and children, to serve their own God. Moses stated that which is an obvious truth today: no one has the right to enslave another human being; no nation has the moral justification for exploiting another nation. Pharaoh replied differently, if you were to question Pharaoh on this he probably would have said the following quote; “I am doing a great favor to the Israelites, I provide them with full employment, they get to live in the greatest country in the world, I am giving them food and shelter. He would say what they’re doing is not slavery rather it’s productive effort for the benefit of the entire nation.
Pharaoh had alternative facts. Pharaoh had a world view which was totally rooted in his desire to obtain power and to maintain power. That is why over and again, he changes his mind after he determines that he will let the people go. He answered to no one. Pharaoh, in fact, saw himself as God. Nobody could determine, decide or rule like Pharaoh. Trust me.
Almost all of us have read George Orwell’s classic book 1984 when we were younger. Today “1984” is flying off the shelves. 1984 envisioned the world that embraced three slogans:
- war is peace
- freedom is slavery
- ignorance is strength
What Orwell taught us was that those in power, can enforce alternative facts…War is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength. The powerful create the narrative that allows them to rule.
Different versions of reality; lies can become normative truth. Lies, then can begin to govern society. And perhaps the greatest danger is when people lose the courage to stand up against those alternative facts.
And, as we saw sixty years ago, and as we see in Russia and totalitarian countries today, the most important safeguard for information, a free press, is mocked, curtailed, abused and destroyed. Just this week a noted journalist in Russia was hospitalized with a deadly neurological condition of an unknown source.
Astonishingly, this confusion of truth and facts is something we are experiencing in our own nation. When confronted with a blatant falsehood ordered by the President, a spokesperson said that the president was not lying but was presenting alternative facts. Apparently, alternative facts are not lies. They are to be considered as a legitimate way to describe things; the way we wish to see them whether or not they are true. A spokesperson makes up an event, for example, the “Massacre at Bowling Green” and the story is carried throughout the world. And it never happened; misspeak according to Orwell.
Moses told Pharaoh that God would unleash terrible plagues on Egypt if the Israelites were not freed. Pharaoh was able to see with his own eyes the devastation that ensued. His advisors were frightened, they pleaded with him to spare Egypt from their suffering by letting the Hebrew slaves go free. Pharaoh saw the world through his own eyes. He was interested only in his worldview and his facts. He thought the plagues would create temporary discomforts on his people, not really so bad! They would survive these plagues and he would keep the Hebrew people enslaved.
You know we’re seeing in our world increased numbers of natural disasters. And we’re told that there’s nothing to get so excited about here. The disasters will pass and soon things will return back to normal. Pharaoh thought, believe me. But there are other realities, there are other facts, real facts and people were suffering from them. In the Torah these signs and wonders were sent by God to “Let His people go.” Pharaoh didn’t concern himself with the people’s suffering.
And we see the natural disasters too. And we could make a world class effort to get away from fossil fuels. Why don’t we? The science is there. However, the storms pass. Think about this; earthquakes in Oklahoma have increased by hundreds if not thousands and they are manmade, a function of fracking…they stop after a while…But continue to live with alternative facts. As we continue to lay pipelines and we continue drill.
The consequences for Pharaoh and his people were devastating. We have learned that societies and institution devoted to human power will not stand. Truth and justice ultimately prevail. That is the direction of human history. A great teacher once taught me, if it’s not just, it cannot be sustained. Unfortunately, in the meanwhile, the Egyptians and the Hebrews and others suffered.
My sense is that too many people already believe what they want to believe or what they are told to believe. Too many people don’t take the time and the effort to determine what is actually true. We do have science to inform us about our environment. We do have history to teach us about the rise and fall of nations. There are great economists who understand markets and how people can be protected. What we find is that if reality and real facts are uncomfortable, and there’s a promise of a quick solution or a promise for individual gain, the good of the society, the protection of the whole is forgotten.
We are people whose understanding is rooted in history. If we forget about history or don’t understand the nuances of trade and international relations we will be doomed… This world is too large, too interdependent, too connected to the global forces for us to isolate ourselves from others. The days of primitive tribalism are limited.
Around me I see people dependent on the blogs and writings of political ideologues and one-sided partisanship…and they refuse to search deeper. We cannot gain much understanding from cable news or press secretaries. Our understanding must come from delving into facts and reading more and more. And I believe our understanding must come from a firm foundation in our values and the literature which expresses those values.
I learned recently that this is not just a problem with political regimes, it’s connected to all extreme ideologies.
Dr. Mark Shapiro wrote a book entitled Changing The Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism rewrites its history. Shapiro deals with examples of censorship within the Haredi world. He gives examples of how texts have been altered to confirm to “religiously correct views.” Books by rabbis of previous generations are edited and reprinted and made kosher by today’s religious standards or by their own thought police.
It’s really a problem when people with power control the truth. I fear us approaching Orwell’s world where those in power can enforce slogans and values, and deny free press and the free exchange of ideas.
Truth can be very troublesome, truth can shatter illusions, truth can be abrupt and unpleasant, but once one realizes truth we should except it and act accordingly. It’s very tough to admit errors in judgment.
Today, this morning in this parshah, we read the most important story of the Jewish people. It is our root narrative, our foundational story. We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt…
Why was this chosen to be our story? Why doesn’t our story begin with the birth of a savior, a great leader or the conquest of the land? The reason is spelled out at the end of the portion. God says it is so that you should know that I am the Lord your God. God says it’s that you should know that it was with signs and wonders, and a mighty outstretched hand that I formed you and I brought you to be my people.
The purpose is to teach us that no person or nation has ultimate authority. Beyond any Pharaoh, any dictator, any Prime Minister, any President, there’s a God. From our low place, from our slavery we witnessed miracles. It taught us that all human power is to be limited.
And there’s another reason that this serves as our root story. From our affliction we internalized a responsibility to take care of the hungry, the stranger, the slave, the foreigner, the refugee, the weak and the dispossessed. Finding those values is a search for Emet. And for us, God is Emet.
We know that that God redeemed us to bring a message to the entire world. Our own experience of enslavement, our own suffering and estrangement is to be used to create a nation that is empathic and responds to human suffering.
So much is happening so rapidly as our nation changes its course. So much is happening so rapidly as relationships between nations are shifting. Most of us can feel pretty anxious in all of this, but all of us must demand the truth, all of us must seek that which is good and that which is right and that which is honest.
We must be clear on the distinction between interpretation of subjective realities and description of objective of events and facts.
So I conclude by saying we must stay engaged, keep reading, be able to separate opinion from fact and keep writing, show up when you’re called to show up and let your voice be heard…and always insist on the truth.
Because we affirm, as we read about our liberation the words of a contemporary prophet, that it is only the truth that sets us and keeps us free.
*Thanks to Rabbi Marc Angel’s reflection this week. It inspired me.