Adapted from a HART Talk at the 2016 Rabbinic Torah Study Seminar in Jerusalem.
What causes an individual or a nation to under-perform morally, to deviate from their moral identity and ethical standards?
The default answer can be found in the inherent capacity of humankind to do evil, to be moral underachievers. As Genesis Chapter 8 states: “The inclinations of the human heart are evil from its youth.” As Jews, we are not surprised by moral failure or mediocrity. This is the everlasting lesson of the Holocaust. The most advanced of societies can become the most morally corrupt. No one is immune.
But what causes this failure to emerge at particular times? Western democracies around the world are increasingly exhibiting a political discourse which is antithetical to their commitments to human rights. In Israel, over the last few years, there are a number of emerging trends which are also deeply troubling. When 50% of Israeli high school students believe that Arabs should not have a right to vote, 60% of the adult population believe that it is justified to discriminate between Jews and Arabs, and 60% of Israeli Jews believe that the soldier in Hebron should not even be tried for his actions, a warning light needs to come on. As a people who yearn to be a light unto the nations, it is critical that we reflect long and hard, lest we find ourselves falling short of who and what we yearn to be.
There are two core emotions which have a profound impact on our moral DNA: fear and hope. Contemporary Israel is being redefined by the role these emotions are now playing and our future will be dependent on our ability to re-shape them.
Fear. Fear instinctively causes us to go into defensive mode, to shift our attention to our own needs, and protect ourselves from the real or supposed dangers that threaten us. Now, moral behavior is grounded on the ability to see others, their pain, their needs, and to respond accordingly. Fear, however, is a vision modifier, moving one’s concerns from the “other” to oneself.
This move is instinctive, and is not only critical to the survival of the species, but is our core moral responsibility. To love one’s neighbor as oneself is only possible if there is a “oneself,” and in times of danger, our moral duty to ourselves takes precedence.
However, at times, fear does not merely shift our vision from the “other” to ourselves, it also changes the way we see the other. Fear can lead to anger, anger to hatred, hatred to vilification, and vilification to denigration. Fear may not only activate a heightened sensitivity of self, but can generate an “us/them” consciousness.
The Jewish tradition was acutely aware of this danger. In response to the angels, who wanted to sing a song of praise to God upon God’s drowning of the evil Egyptian army in the Red Sea, an army which sought either to kill or re-enslave the Children of Israel, our rabbis placed the following words in God’s mouth: “The creation of my hands is drowning in the sea, and you think it is appropriate to sing a song of praise?”
A human being created in the image of God does not lose that status, even when they are our enemy. While actions of self-defense are morally required, they must never lead to the denigration of the value of anyone who is God’s creation. This understanding is the core foundation of morality in war, the obligation to not merely limit our wars to wars of self-defense, but to commit to fighting those wars justly.
Today, this responsibility and sensitivity is no longer limited to the soldier in the battlefield. In our war against terror, a war in which the battlefront is in our cities and our homes, we must all develop this moral control.
But, fear, like an infectious disease, rarely rests at the individual who is the cause of the danger. It spreads to those who look like them, to those who believe like them, to those who are not “us,” to redefining who is the true and loyal “us.”
In our world, and in this neighborhood in particular, a healthy dose of fear is not merely advisable, but necessary. The challenge is how to ensure that it serves to protect us, and does not destroy the soul that we want to protect. In its most aggressive form, fear does not merely change your vision of the “other,” but ultimately comes back and changes you.
The greatest casualty of fear is our ability to hope. In a moderate dose, fear is an engine of hope. The pain it generates activates a yearning for a future free from such pain, a yearning for a new and better day. A day in which justice will reign throughout the land, and the wolf and the lamb will lie down side-by-side, at peace with each other. However, when fear leads to hatred, vilification, and denigration, hope loses the oxygen it needs to survive. If the “other” will never change, if evil is intrinsic to their DNA, if by the laws of nature, Esau will always hate Jacob, there is no hope. Not only will there not be “Peace Now,” but there will be no peace tomorrow, either.
If there is some manifestation of hope, it is only for the vanquishing and destruction of the “other,” or the search for walls and Iron Domes that will create a status quo in which we are protected from the harm that the evil inevitably hurl in our direction.
When we lose hope, however, we begin to change our DNA as moral agents. Hope, unlike fear, is not principally an emotion. It is a place, a place where not only is the world as it should be, but a place where, as individuals and a community, we are who we ought to be. Hope is not merely the repository of dreams, but the foundation of moral aspirations. If we are all sinners, and human nature is to never fully fulfill our moral obligations, we are exposed to the inclination to accept that who we are, is who we ought to be. Realism is not merely an awareness of reality as it is today, but often an establishing of what reality will always be.
Realism can excuse human failings under the banner of an imperfect universe, and can quiet the voices of a moral conscience which asks whether it is we who are imperfect.
Hope is the enemy of realism. It is dangerous if it makes you unrealistic. At the same time, it is necessary as a constant reminder of what we can be. Hope is the parallel to Shabbat. Six days a week we toil and work, and the realities of everyday life define our sense of self and others. On the seventh day, we rest and enter a day of holiness, a day in which our primary responsibility is to be different from who we were. The purpose of this cycle is not to create a schizophrenic soul, but one in which the consciousness of Shabbat slowly permeates our everyday life and erases the dichotomy. We need a Shabbat to ensure that the realities of life do not come to define and exhaust the definition of our life.
In the same way, we need hope to ensure that the realities which define our lives, do not define and exhaust the scope of our moral horizons.
We have stopped hoping. We pray for peace, but have ceased expecting its realization. Our fear has mired us into a status quo of survival. While a status quo may be a politically possibility, especially when world geopolitical interests are focused elsewhere, there is no such thing as a moral status quo. While the situation may stay the same for a while, we do not. Without hope, we are in danger of losing hope, not merely for ourselves, but about ourselves.
There are many in religious and political leadership roles who peddle in fear and hope at the same time. What they attempt to sell is a narrative that if we become fearful, then and only then, will there be hope. Instead of challenging us to rise above the occasion, and re-commit to our deepest and most noble moral responsibilities, they sell merely a hope of self-preservation in the present, even if the price is our moral character in the future.
Hope cannot be constructed from the building blocks of fear. Its foundation must be the reaffirmation of our vision of both the world as we want it to be, and ourselves as we ought to be. It needs to be fed by political discourse and policies which reflect a commitment to such a world. I know we tried in the past – and they said no. So we need to try, try, and if needed, try again. Our task is not to bring peace now, but to never allow a language or a policy which will make it impossible tomorrow. It is not in our hands alone to actualize our dreams. It is on our hands to ensure that these dreams remain alive.
We are at a difficult time in Israel’s history. The dangers are great, and naivete is even more dangerous. To live in fear but with true hope, is the challenge of modern Israel. We recognized the place of hope in enabling our national rebirth. We give homage to that hope in our National Anthem. It is time to recommit to the place of hope in our national character, not merely in the character of our ancestors, but as the foundation for our people’s future.