A message from Rabbi Rose on recent events

Shalom friends,  

Like you, I was deeply shaken by the ugliness that burst upon the nation’s Capitol on Wednesday. What a tragedy to see the nation that gave birth to modern democracy face the halting of the mechanisms of democracy itself by a furious mob egged on by the President. How could this happen in our country? 

You know me well enough now to know my politics and to know how I feel about this President who has built a palace of lies, cruelty and demagoguery. Like many of you I found Wednesday’s events the unsurprising if not inevitable product of years of ugliness stoked by the President and his enablers.  

But I want to use my space here to focus instead on what we can learn, how we can change, in a way that might heal our community and our nation.   

The grand narratives that help us explain the world to one another and ourselves have fallen apart. Religious redemption, scientific liberation, national greatness, historic evolution: as all-embracing sets of truths embraced by an entire nations, let alone cultures, each has collapsed.   

But rather than a process of reconstruction, of attempting to discover where my understanding of the truth meets yours, Americans have turned inwards and away from one another. The result is a chaos of fractured narratives, with individuals and small communities talking past one another in cacophony of noise.  

The Jewish tradition, I think, has rich resources for guiding us in this chaotic situation. Our earliest sources are filled with argumentation, multiple perspectives, disagreements about foundational principles, anguished disputation concerning the best direction for the community. While there was acceptance of divergence and difference, there were also boundaries. There were ideas and actions that drew one outside the lines of the communal project of God’s people.  

The result was that this community of roiling debate and difference achieved a profound unity through its diversity. E pluribus unum was not an American invention. To hold these two ideas at once required a national genius that has allowed Jews to flourish in each generation. Unruly diversity gave rise to unity precisely because some ideas were “off limits” because they posed a threat to the nation’s wholeness.   

The Torah portion this week is framed by two essential questions that remain important guides. When Moses is instructed by God to redeem the people Israel, he asks, “Who am I?” And two chapters later, when Pharaoh is told that God wants the Jewish people to be free, Pharaoh asks, bitingly and rhetorically, “Who is God?”   

Moses’ question reveals the deepest and humblest curiosity to learn the path of truth. This path in turn leads him to understand that there is an entire moral order which must guide human life, and this is expressed in the Torah that remains at the heart of our lives.   

Pharaoh’s question reveals an arrogance that assumes that his power, his ideas, 
his glory should hold sway. Not even the God of truth, he believes, can stand in his way.  

Americans’ belief in the power of freedom can lead to the dangerous illusion that no fact, no law of justice, no proven truth, and no moral claim by another person should ever stand in the way of our desire to do what we want. This was Pharaoh’s error, and I believe the error of an emergent extremism in our nation that has torn the fabric of national unity.  

But of course, we all contain this power of Pharaoh to wish to see the world revolve around us. Along this path lies destruction. The only antidote is to draw on our inner Moses, to understand that there is a truth to which all are beholden, to be curious about our obligations to it, and to create the world of justice that it implies.  

The nation will not heal itself. And it certainly won’t be healed by our dancing atop the rubble of Trumpism, which has revealed all of the calamities its opponents have been warning against. Self righteousness is a dangerous illusion.   

May we be healers of our nation and our world with the curiosity and humility of Moses, standing up always for justice, goodness and decency.  

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Joshua Rose