The Promise of a Better World

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft.

And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.
— Philip Larkin

In the weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av, the prophets warn us of Jerusalem’s destruction. In the weeks following, the prophets comfort us with words of consolation, love and the aspiration for return. The binding force of Jewish civilization’s most impassioned interpreters understand that the pain and devastation of exile are wounds healed by hope.

Exile and return. Exile and return. To a significant degree, this dynamic tension is at the center of the Jewish project. A yearning, a longing for an unrecoverable past bound up with an insistence on a future restoration, where finally, all is right.

In this week’s Torah portion, Eikev, Moses reminds the people that if the nation observes the rules that God commands, the covenant will remain viable and the people will be redeemed, just as God redeemed a lowly nation from the indignity and oppression of slavery in Egypt. It is a proposition that is at once hopeful and vexing. Where was the God of Redemption, the Sages ask, when Romans sacked Jerusalem? During the Crusades? The Inquisition? The Holocaust? Or, for that matter, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or The Edmund Pettus Bridge? The list goes on…

Tragedy and suffering are reasons for great theological crises. Our belief is rattled, shaken to its core by the inexplicable acts of destruction which belie the promises of faith and redemption.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who sadly passed away earlier today, writes that “there is nothing like calamity and disaster to bring the nation to its senses, to encourage soul searching.”

The Talmud in Berachot 5a explains, “If a person experiences painful sufferings, let that person examine their conduct. For it is said, ‘Let us search and probe our ways and return to the Eternal’ (Lamentations 3:40). If one examines and finds nothing, let that person attribute it to the neglect of the study of the Torah. For it is said, ‘Happy is the one whom You chasten, Eternal, and teach to that person Torah” (Psalms 94:12). These are chastenings of love, as it is said, “The Eternal loves who the Eternal corrects” (Proverbs 3:12).

Jewish teaching offers us a radical view of the world: that despite our seeming powerlessness in the face of apparently limitless patterns of destruction, we humans are fundamentally responsible for the world in which we live. It is the price we pay for our free will. Just as the first humans strove to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil — and whose eyes were thereby opened as God’s — and as a result faced exile from the Garden of Eden, so too must we face the fact of our own radical responsibility for the world we inhabit.

As Jews and Americans, we know this to be true. Though the state of Israel exists, there are still intractable issues of poverty and homelessness, unresolved issues of national security and relationships with Palestinian and Arab neighbors. And while Representative John Lewis laid in state and was lauded as a true hero for sacrificing his own body to the evils of white supremacy, there is still voter suppression, systemic racism, deep-seated injustice.

The Red Sea, so it seems, only needed to be parted once in order to bequeath to us the promise and hope of redemption. The rest is in our hands.

“Do not stand in dread” of what challenges lie before you, God says to the people in this week’s Torah portion. The dislodging of obstacles to our freedom happens “little by little” (Deuteronomy 7:21-22).

In a stunning display of rhetoric and an awe-inspiring demonstration of the scope and span of Jewish history, Moses reminds the people this week of God’s promise: that the Jewish people were freed from Egypt in order to testify to the world that empathy, kindness and sensitivity to human suffering of all kinds is at the very core of Jewish civilization’s worldview.

For the Eternal your God is God Supreme…who shows no favor, who takes no bribe. But upholds the cause of the orphan and the widow; befriends and provides the stranger with food and clothing; you too must befriend the stranger, for you too were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19).

Radical responsibility. Empathy. Love. Hope. Little by little. Each step brings us closer to the promise of a better world.