I keep hearing Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words about the prophets these days. I recall especially his teaching that the prophets spoke in a voice that was an octave too high. They were so charged with righteous indignation that they always shouted or screamed. Few listened. Most turned away. We know that their contemporaries ignored their warnings and pleadings. Most could not discern the music within their charged messages. And yet it was not hidden. It was the divine voice of justice.
These days there is a lot of like-minded screaming and shouting. People have in fact accused me of similar indignation. “Who do you think you are?” is heard. I wonder if the moral outrage I so strongly feel has gotten the better of me. I question how we can truly effectuate change. In the age of Trump, one asks if our goal can in fact be the change we fight for, or instead a more modest, albeit temporary, quelling of that moral imperative stirring within our souls. Does the outrage really change others or simply solidify our own positions?
In the past weeks I have participated in more protests than in nearly a lifetime. I have written more angry and indignant missives during these past days than at any other time in my rabbinate. Has change occurred? Or, is my indignation quelled – if but momentarily? Look at all those prophets. On Facebook everyone is a prophet.
The rabbis recognized this dilemma. They kept the prophet at a distance. They advocated, although only implicitly, for adaptive change. In a community that values tradition, change must be incremental. Justice can destroy community. Truth – and even righteousness – can fracture familial bonds. How else does one read the famous rabbinic Midrash about the creation of human beings? God casts truth to the ground. God discounts the truth about our nature and creates us nevertheless. Strict justice is overturned.
And yet from the perspective of justice and truth, small, tedious, and layered changes appear incidental. What are you waiting for? This is what today demands. We must, for example, ordain women as rabbis – now. Justice demands this. The world will catch up. And yet the world, people, and communities, continue to fall behind. Some go elsewhere. Some begrudgingly stay put. Few applaud in the beginning.
We must welcome the stranger – and the refugee – now.
And the prophet remains alone. Justice leads to solitude. The bonds of community and country, can only withstand so much change – and most certainly so much agitating for change. We find ourselves increasingly isolated. Truth is cast aside. And the community endures.
Will our country likewise endure?