25 January 2013
14 Shevat 5773
On the day after we inaugurated the President of the United States this week, I watched our students fill out their ballots in our mock Israeli election, knowing that 7,000 miles away the Israeli people were electing the next government of Israel. It has been a week to reflect on leadership and the sacred responsibilities we all have to shape the culture and character of our communities, our countries, and our world.
What perfect timing then to learn the well-known midrash (rabbinic story) about the crossing of the Red Sea, in which the rabbis imagine a debate between heavenly angels about whether or not God should drown the Egyptians in the sea. One angel argues for Divine mercy (rachamim) and the other for Divine justice (din). As we know from the Biblical text, God, ultimately, decides to go with the hand of justice. However, the rabbis teach us that, when the Egyptians were drowning in the sea, the angels wanted to sing in celebration, and God rebuked them: “The works of my hand are drowning in the sea and you would utter song in my presence?”
Each time I read or hear this midrash, I am moved anew by its portrayal of God’s struggle with the decision about what to do with the Egyptians. It illustrates the rabbis’ extraordinary awareness of the complexity of morality and the inner struggle of leaders who are trying to live out competing values with the humbling recognition that their choices have grave consequences for the people they lead. When faced with the seemingly irreconcilable conflict between din (justice) and rachamim (mercy), God needs to make a choice and to act, which He does. Yet, while He acts with justice, he does not abandon the principle of mercy; rather, it is as if God says: I will drown the Egyptians, but I will do so with a broken heart, for while I acknowledge the truth that they deserve punishment, I will not harden my heart to equal truth that they are still human beings, still my children.
In his inaugural address President Obama said, “We cannot mistake principle for absolutism.” As I read this midrash and feel God’s pain, I can understand why absolutism is so tempting, for it frees us from the tension, complexity, and pain of holding two competing intellectual, moral, spiritual truths. Yet, to me, this tension lies at the heart of the human condition as we strive for goodness and truth, knowing that we will never fully attain them. In this midrash God is a leader, a parent, who is willing to make a tough decision based on His principles while honoring, rather than abandoning, the moral and spiritual complexity of that decision. We can learn from this story about a habit of heart and mind which Parker Palmer describes in an extraordinary passage as the “capacity to embrace true paradox”:
The capacity to embrace true paradoxes is more than an intellectual skill for holding complex thoughts. It is a life skill for holding complex experiences. Take, for example, our encounter with “the other,” with the person who sees a different reality from ours because he or she stands in a different place. To some extent the other contradicts not only our thoughts but also our lives, and that can be threatening. If we lack the capacity to allow this contradiction to segue into a paradox – a both-and (instead of either-or) that has the potential to open our minds and hearts to something new – we will most likely fall back on our hard-wired “fight or flight” response. But if we understand the promise of paradox, our encounters with “the other” have the potential to make our world larger, more generous, more hopeful.
May we and the newly elected leaders of the United States and Israel have the wisdom and the moral and spiritual courage to act with confidence and conviction and to embrace paradox in ways that will open our minds and hearts to new, life-giving possibilities for our lives and our world.
Rabbi Marc Baker