Saturday, February 19, 2011

It's All Happening:
Uprisings, Anxiety & the Possibility of Hope

[For Congregation Ner Shalom, February 18, 2011]

It's all happening.

Atzilah said this to me the other morning at North Light, as we settled into our cups of coffee. It took me a moment to place where I knew the phrase from. Then it hit me. It's from "Almost Famous," a film about rock 'n' roll groupies, who consistently greet each other with a look of wonderment and this phrase: it's all happening.

Atzilah was describing this particular moment in history, the worldwide hubbub of change. And she's right. "It's all happening" could easily have been the caption for the events of the past month and the slogan for how we all have been experiencing them: it's all happening. 

From our remote vantage-point, it seemed to start slowly. Someone, somewhere, armed herself not with a gun but with Twitter. Someone else downloaded a "how to" guide for peaceful self-liberation. Daring changemakers found each other. Then it accelerated. Before we knew it, we saw the ouster of a 23-year autocrat, not Mayor Daley, but Tunisian President Ben Ali, who saw the writing on the wall and hightailed it out of the country. It was not a strictly bloodless revolution - police killed 40 protesters, maybe more. But on the scale by which we measure "regime change," this number is shockingly and blessedly low. We saw the protesters as smart and heroic and, in a certain way, so was the government, electing to give up power rather than take more lives, which it easily could have done. 

Then it spread. When it hit Egypt, we all leaned a bit closer to our screens. This is a country that means something special to us. It is populous and powerful. It is the first Arab nation to have reached peace with Israel, a peace that has held for over 30 years. It is a country that is so full of history and mythos that you can't help but feel that anything that happens there will be larger than life.

And it was in fact larger than life. The protests in Madan at-Tahrir, the surprising shift in the soldiers' loyalties, the vain attempts of the ruler to hang on to power as the tide turned against him. It could have been an opera, and might yet be.

And all of us, watching our TVs or listening to our car radios, felt that the drama was a collective event encompassing our lives as well. Because, in these early years of this prematurely aged century, we have become a disillusioned people. Disappointed. Dispirited. We don't even bother anymore with the rhetoric of hope. Or when we do bother articulating it, as President Obama sometimes does, we don't bother believing it.

But now suddenly we were caught up in a pandemic of elation. The feeling that we the people have the power to make things better. That an individual can trigger tremendous change. That we can make ourselves better. Many of us were moved to tears to discover the now unfamiliar taste of hope in our mouths.

I, for one, found it hard to admit to how excited I was. After all, our disappointments in this world are too numerous to count. Hope is rewarded with disillusionment. So we hedge: we hasten to identify all the things that could go wrong. A worse despot could step in. Fanatics could rule the country. The violence could increase (as we're now seeing in Bahrain and Libya) and blood could end up flowing in the streets. I reminded myself of these things in order to curb my enthusiasm, fearing the scolding voice of future hindsight: "If you'd only known what was coming, you wouldn't have been cheering so loud, would you?" Reining in my joy, lest in retrospect it look like naivete.

Of course for us Jews who have a familial love/hate relationship with the State of Israel, there was even more at work. The rebellion appealed - narratively, mythically - to our own Jewish history and values: routing Pharaoh, pursuing justice. But it also raised the fear of losing one of Israel's few friends in the region, a fear that steps over our immediate concerns about Israeli policy and cuts right to our worries about Israel's continued existence. It raised the fear of new wave of anti-Semitic sentiment. And I, for one, had selfish moments of relief that although the eyes of the world were fixed on the Middle East, Israel had nothing to do with it. Yesterday at Yiddish Tish, we read a poem by Kadya Molodowsky, in which she implores God to

אל חנון
קלייב אויף אן אנדער פאלק 
קלייב אויף אן אנדער לאנד...

kleyb oyf an ander folk derveyl...kleyb oyf an ander land. 

Gracious God,
Choose another people
For a change...
Choose another land. 

And watching the Egyptian uprisings unfold, I felt some gratitude, guilty gratitude, that the great spotlight had shifted west across the Suez.

I think it is natural to predict bad outcomes to the uprisings (violence, extremism, placing power in the hands of the military - the military?). Anticipating bad outcomes stems from a longstanding and well-founded Jewish fear of mobs. Face it, we have never done well in big groups.

Even when we are the big group.

In this week's parasha, Ki Tisa (you thought I'd never get to it, didn't you?), hundreds of thousands of Israelites are encamped in the desert while Moshe goes up to the Mountain. In Moshe's absence, the people are, for all intents and purposes, self-ruling for the first time. What happens? Before you can say "idolatry" they're stripping off their jewelry and fashioning a golden calf, around which they dance and sing ecstatically. This episode is considered by Torah to be a great sin and a great shande - a scandal that reveals a communal character flaw and that haunts us for generations.

Now I know it has never been particularly popular to stand on the bima and defend the actions of the Hebrews in the Golden Calf incident. But as you know, when everyone agrees to condemn something, it's always worth another look.

What if the Children of Israel weren't small-minded or stubborn or impatient or any of the things typically attributed to them in this story? What if they were simply intoxicated with liberation, buoyed by their own freedom. They had lived their whole lives powerless, the children of generations of powerless. But now, it was different. They'd escaped Pharaoh. Seas had parted for them. God had spoken to them. They had awakened to discover that they were a people, that they were strong, that they had the ability to shape a future that had always been beyond their control. To express their jubilation, they recreated the markers of power they knew, forging a golden calf. They had witnessed true miracles, and they translated them into the ritual language they knew best, recreating God in an image familiar to them.

We are so used to this being the iconic Jewish story of group action gone wrong that we deny ourselves the chance to identify with the Israelites. But can't we imagine a little of what they felt? Any of us who marched with the Civil Rights Movement or lay down on the street in an ACTUP die-in or joined an anti-war demonstration knows what it feels like to find comrades and discover you're powerful and that you might, just might, be able to upend the existing power structure. So I'd personally like to reclaim at least a little bit of what those Golden Calf people were feeling, because it was new and it was important. It was like what we wanted to feel, even if we tried not to, as we watched events play out in Cairo and Alexandria and Suez.

Something big is happening. The media calls it a shifting of tectonic plates. It is a rebirth of hope. A realization that even when we feel powerless, we might not in fact be. An idea that we can overthrow our own limitations and reach new heights. That each of us can change, can be better than we were.

So how do we rejoice in this even when the outcomes are unknown? Even when we fear that things will not end as we desire?

We turn our fear into commitment. Commitment to making sure that what happens next is better than what happened before. Commitment to non-violence (including not beating ourselves up). And trust. Trust that if freedom isn't won, if that better thing isn't achieved, if a new Pharaoh in fact arises, then someone somewhere, maybe you, will Tweet, and others will hear, and they will meet and organize, and they will download 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action and will take to the streets and to the blogs, and we, whether we're in it or we're watching it, will again well up with possibility. So that in our own lives or in the life of this world, even when our fears ask us to say "no" to hope, we can find the strength and love to say "yes."

Inside. Outside. It's all happening.

Much gratitude to Atzilah Solot for her many insights that informed this piece.

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