Rabbi's Bulletin December 2016

The Way Forward

Since the election, I have been pondering the nature of progress. Some of us are jubilant, while others are grieving. Was the outcome a giant leap forward, or a terrible setback? As a Jew, I maintain the messianic conviction that human society and the world as a whole are advancing toward perfection. I want to believe that “the good in us will win, over all the wickedness, over all the wrongs we have done,” as the poem reads in our Siddur. But who defines “the good?” I consider myself a reasonably conscientious individual. How is it, then, that I end up on the opposite side of the political chasm from so many others, whose good intentions I acknowledge, and whose moral convictions and/or religious faith I have to admit are at least as principled as my own?

A response to this quandary can be found in Psalm 19. The poem consists of three units. In the first set of verses, the psalmist praises the divine order throughout the cosmos, pictorially represented by the regularity of the rising and the setting of the sun (“like a groom coming forth from the chuppah, like a hero rejoicing in running his course”). The second grouping switches focus from Creation to Revelation. It turns out that the same unerring Law governs both the natural world and the moral universe (“the testimony of Adonai is enduring; the Torah of Adonai is perfect…”). But whose Torah, or, I should specify, whose interpretation of Torah? “The Torah has seventy faces.” You and I can read the same verse and take away radically different messages.

The final verses are key. At first, the third section seems disjointed from what came before: “No one recognizes her own inadvertent faults. O God! Acquit me of the errors that are hidden from myself. As for willful transgression, withhold Your servant from it, all the more.” Why the sudden shift from assertive praise for the divine order to self-scrutiny and self-doubt? Because the poet seeks to drive home the contrast between underlying perfection and our own human limitations. No matter how sincerely motivated our quest for moral truth (“Your servant is scrupulous in heeding the judgments of Adonai”), we inevitably have blind spots. We are incapable of seeing beyond the reach of our own headlights. Therefore, we must, above all, cultivate humility in the face of our flawed apprehension of God’s will. 

When Dr. Martin Luther King stated: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it tends toward justice,” he didn’t mean that someday, the entire world would come to embrace his vision of justice. He meant that all visions of justice, including his own, were necessarily imperfect and incomplete, but that over the long haul, they would begin to align. (Apparently, in his day, Dr. King was homophobic; if he were alive now, wouldn’t he very likely support the rights of GLBTs?) It’s not enough to admit that our society fails to live up to its own standards of justice. Our society doesn’t yet know what perfect justice even looks like.

This line of thinking helps me come to terms with the zigs and zags of social evolution. We tug back and forth on the rope of change across the political divide, as each faction attempts to enact its version of the “more perfect union” (to quote the Constitution). Eventually, our differences will shake themselves out, and we will gradually converge onto better and better approximations of the good. We will never fully attain it, however. Pure, divine truth transcends the earthly plane of existence, with its messy, day-to-day realities. Meanwhile, it is incumbent upon every citizen, whether her party is ascendant or in the opposition, to engage in the crucial social and environmental issues of our time, by promoting her cause with respect and humility. Every voice contributes invaluably to the dialectic of change.

“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to You, my Rock and Redeemer” (which is how Psalm 19 concludes). What this fervent prayer means to me is that in this conflicted society roiled with strident cries on all sides, safety and refuge ultimately reside only in God (or deep within, if you prefer non-theistic language). May our only desire be to do what is right (“God’s will”) to the best of our knowledge and capability. In moments of triumph, may we never be too sure of ourselves. And, in times of despair, may we continue to trust that, someday:

“The good in us will win, over all the wickedness, over all the wrongs we have done. We will look back at the pages of written history, and be amazed, and then we will laugh and sing, and the good that is in us, children in their cradles, will have won.”