Friday, August 18, 2017

R'eih: Helping to Bend the Arc of the Moral Universe Just A Little Bit

We should be able to expect progress. When we look back at the lengthy span of human history - and realize that our species has evolved from primates to ancient discoverers of fire, nomadic shepherds to primitive civilizations, feudal societies to modern cities - I think it's fair to hope, and even expect, that things would improve.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, quoting Theodore Parker, a 19th Century Unitarian Minister: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Let's face it: We've had a really rough week. The violence in Charlottesville was still reverberating in our minds when yet another terrorist used a van to attack innocent people in Barcelona. Right now, that arc is feeling longer than ever, and it doesn't feel like it's bending towards justice as much as we desperately need it to. And yet, our Torah portion tells us we have a choice.

Parashat R'eih begins with Moses declaring to the Israelites: "See, I set before you this day blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of Adonai, your God, that I command you today, and curse, if you do not obey the commandments..." (Deut. 11:26-28)
God isn't going to FORCE us to make good decisions. If any of you out there are parents, you know what I'm talking about. You can teach your children, you can encourage them to make good choices, and you can even punish them when they make bad ones. But at the end of the day, you cannot MAKE them behave a certain way, and neither can God. But God isn't even interested in TRYING to compel us! I believe God truly wants us to figure this out for ourselves, and learn from the consequences and repercussions of both the good AND the bad decisions we make. Right now, we are all watching how terrorists - domestic and international - feel brazenly emboldened to spread fear and hate. In the absence of clear condemnation and the firm drawing of lines in the sand, violence persists. But we SHOULD be able to expect something else.

Just a few verses later in our Torah portion, Moses reminds the Israelites of an important change that is coming: "[When you enter the land] you shall not act at all as we now act here, every individual as s/he pleases, since you have not yet reached the resting place and the inheritance that Adonai, your God, is giving you." (12:8-9)
Standards changed. Once they entered the land, they had to abide by new rules. And later in our history, Temple sacrifice ended and synagogues took over. The world changed too! Slavery ended, suffrage happened, and civil rights were enacted. As the arc of human history keeps bending, the stakes get higher and we must emphatically insist: You can't keep acting in these old ways. We all have a choice, sure. And we believe wholeheartedly in the freedom of speech. Some people will continue to choose curses, and pick hatred and violence over love and peace. But the rest of us need to keep insisting on society evolving; the arc must continue to bend.

So now that same choice is placed before all of us. Right now, at this moment, we are each staring at a crossroads; with blessing on one side and curse on the other. Standing still is not an option. The Israelites couldn't remain in the desert, and we don't get to wait on the sidelines any longer.
Not when there are tiki torches and rental vans being wielded as weapons to try and force us into silence and terror. I can't tell you what that choice looks like for you. But one thing I'll say is that we should all refuse to accept the new normal, where excuses are made for white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klan members. This is NOT normal, and we must REFUSE to go back to a time when it was. It may feel like progress is slowing down right now, at this moment in our history. But never forget that our history is long, and it WILL keep bending in the right direction. And as it continues to do so, we all need to make sure we're on the right side of history... and maybe help the arc bend just a little bit.

On a related note, I offered an invocation at an Interfaith service last week, in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville. Click here, if you'd like to read my invocation. Thanks!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image of Antoine Bourdelle's "Herakles the Archer," courtesy of PierreSelim oWikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Mstyslav Chernov on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of T at English Wikipedia on Wikimedia Commons

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