We Can Work It Out - June 20, 2014

Dear Friends:

I had a song that kept running through my mind all week: "We Can Work It Out", by the four bards of Liverpool. As I was reading the  story of the controversy in this week's Torah portion, I found myself humming the Beatles' tune.

I took part in a mediation session, led by a rabbi and a lawyer, which brought closure to a debate in the community which threatened to affect our sense of unity. None of the parties wished to threaten the commonweal in a zero sum game.  Eventually, we all agreed to go forward for "the sake of Heaven", thanks to the good offices of those, who like Aaron, "love peace and pursue peace."  So, too, with another situation which was thankfully mediated by a third party and concluded without rancor or a power struggle which might have impacted negatively on the life of our community. These controversies reflected  honest differences of opinion but what the sides shared in common far outweighted the differences of opinion.

A few years ago, I bought Jonathan Haidt’s new book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion”. Whether in the run-up to the Republican nomination for President or recent trends and events in Israel, there is an increasingly politicized, polarized atmosphere where we tend not to give heed to the opinions of others.  Dr. Haidt, a social psychologist, offers considerable insight into why good people are divided by politics and religion. He advises us to become aware of why we hold our moral views, and why others might hold views that differ from ours. I thought it would be essential reading.

Can we as Jews agree to disagree? That generally depends on the matter of disagreement, but there is great truth within the old joke that consulting two Jews will produce at least three different opinions. We have taken great pride in the dynamism of discourse, embracing our ability to support competing viewpoints especially because we also recognize that limits on acceptable dissent do exist.

Dr. Haidt writes: “We are deeply intuitive creatures whose gut feelings drive our strategic reasoning. This makes it difficult – but not impossible – to connect with those who live in other matrices..So the next time you find yourself seated beside someone from another matrix..don’t jump right in. Don’t bring up morality until you’ve found a few points of commonality or in some other way established a bit of trust..We’re all stuck here for a while, so let’s try to work it out”.

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Disputes arise, and often there are parties to those disputes who stake claim to being completely in the right, while others are said to be utterly wrong.  Speaking in such absolutes destroys any possibility of compromise or reconciliation. Castigating one's adversary wrongfully - especially one in a position of authority and leadership - for personal gain or advantage can destroy a community. Such was the case with the infamous rebellion of Korach and his followers in this week's Torah reading.

The obvious points are that Korach and his followers attacked Moses and Aaron out of jealousy and personal hubris. Their dispute was not a noble one; it was not designed to help the people but rather to mislead the people into a rebellion that was groundless (sorry for the pun. Their punishment was the earth opened its maw and swallowed up the rebels who went down alive to Sheol)) and ill-conceived. Tensions reached a breaking point. The lasting effects of the rebellion was to leave a permanent stain on the community that would not be cleansed until a new generation had taken its place. So deeply does deceit and disunity mar a community.

There needs to be some responsibility, it seems to me, placed upon the people themselves. Why were they so given to wicked persuasion, such that they continued to complain against Moses and about the difficulties of life in the desert? After witnessing one miracle after another, they still acted as though they had not faith in the destiny promised to them.

Perhaps the answer lies in referring to the people as "them'  rather as 'we'. Why do WE continue to allow bitter dissent and disloyalty to divide us as a people?. Why don't WE recognize the modern miracles and wonders of our world and our people..and yes, of our community - and stop the bickering and backbiting? When will WE have faith and confidence in our common destiny as a people and our ability to improve our own community and the world around us? We look at this parasha with perhaps too disconnected a lens - as observers rather than participants. We ought to take a closer look at how we go about the business of being a people.

Leaders have a responsibility to advance this quest for unity, while at the same time fostering meaningful, productive debate. We may not always agree on every issue, but our actions must serve the larger mission we share. Our community is stronger when there is participation and even disagreement for higher purpose. Too often, our community is divided by vitriol and accusations that are as damaging as they are untrue. There is never cause for deliberate, hurtful words or actions. Just as we would deem the Israelites in the wilderness as being petty and ungrateful, so too we need to look at our own reactions and behavior in the community. In the face of all that we achieve and all that we can achieve- all that we still need to do in our efforts-any other path is self-defeating.

In the Mishnah it states that "any argument for the sake of Heaven will have lasting results and any argument not for the sake of Heaven" but for self-interest is compared to Korach and his followers. In our own community there are always major issues to debate and decisions to make. How much of our campaign do we sent to Israel? How will we address concerns for our elderly? Our day schools? How do we reach the unaffiliated and encourage synagogue membership? We need to address these and other issues in the best Jewish fashion - perhaps with debate but never with acrimony. The goal is to hear different sides of the issues, and to arrive at a conclusion which reflects the best that we can be.

As a Federated system we are facing steep challenges in attending to the real and immediate needs of our people, here and abroad. We will meet those challenges, not only because we must, but because together we can. Our tradition teaches us that we may not be obligated to finish all that is before us as Rabbi Tarfon said, neither are we free to desist from it. Especially when we have the requisite talent and inspiration. We must attend to the real work of the community- not just arriving as a goal, but making sure we are equally careful about the way in which we arrive there. We will find new visions and new goals to achieve. “We’re all stuck here for a while, so let’s try to work it out.”

I am moved and heartened by the fact that although Korach and his followers are punished, such is the power of the Torah to mitigate the lesson. Midrashic readings remind us that there is always a place for repentance. In fact, we have seven Psalms which are attributed to the "sons of Korach". They are read as Psalms of praise and they represent that the community comes together, despite the breach. So while we may not be completely united, I hope we will solve all our controversies as we did this week for "the sake of Heaven."

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