Lately, I’ve been thinking about Donald Trump and Woody Allen. And, somewhere between Donald Trump and Woody Allen is where I think we should be. But, before I talk about Trump and Allen, I want to talk about two other famous people: Harper Lee and Doctor Seuss.
Harper Lee is the author of the classic “To Kill a Mockingbird”. We now know that Lee wrote a first draft which was rejected by her editor who advised her to make substantial changes. She did, and a masterpiece emerged. Now, we can also read the first draft. It’s called “Go Set a Watchman.”
In a similar vein, about thirty years ago, Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel) wrote a book called “Which Pet Shall I Get?” and never published it. We’re not sure why. But, one theory was that it was a kind of first draft for “One fish, blue fish” which Dr. Seuss liked a lot better. So, he never published the first one. But, now it is available to us.
And, when we read draft one and draft two side by side, we are impressed by the fact that there is more than one way to tell a story. The very same author can write a story that is just OK. Or she can revise it and produce a masterpiece. That’s important because we may not be famous authors, but we are all storytellers. We are all constantly in the process of writing and re-writing our own story, and how we tell the story matters very much.
Good storytelling is the subject of today’s parasha. There are many ways in which the Torah teaches us about how to be good human beings. One is by giving us laws. Another way is by telling us stories of people who did great things and horrible things. And, a third way is to teach us about how to shape our own inner life, our thoughts and our feelings.
The Torah assumes that our world view affects our moral choices. We have a way of explaining the world. And, what we think things mean will have a great impact on what we do.
The entire book of Deuteronomy is a retelling of the history of the Jewish people. Why do that? It hasn’t been that long since these events happened. It’s because in this book, the Torah is concerned with what our history means. And, God is worried that we’re going to read the wrong meaning into the events of our lives.
There are two mistakes of interpretation that Moses warns us about. The first is that we will misread our past failures as proof that we are powerless. We were slaves for 200 years. We failed in our first attempt to conquer the Promised Land. Therefore, we are weak, and we will never be able to defeat those powerful giants who live in Canaan.
The second mistake Moses is worried about that is that we will misread our success as proof of our superiority. We will say ‘kochi v’otzem yadi – “/my strength and my power have gotten me to the top of the pyramid. We will interpret our military and economic success in our new land as proof that we are the best of the best – and we can do no wrong.
Both of these versions of our story would lead us in the wrong direction. The story of our greatness would lead us to be arrogant and insensitive to the poor and the vulnerable. The story of our failure would paralyze us.
The insight of today’s parasha is that we have control over the stories we tell ourselves. Just as Harper Lee could remake the character of Atticus from a racist to champion of equality, we can revise the stories we tell about ourselves. And, the Torah offers us a tool to help us re-shape our inner story. The tool is memory.
When we are tempted to think too much of ourselves, the Torah says, “pull out that memory of the Jewish people worshipping the Golden Calf, and that should even you out a little.” And, when you are feeling panicky and afraid, “pull out those memories of the many times you were standing on the brink, and miraculous things happened and you pulled through.” Think of those spectacular ten plagues. Think of the crossing of the Red Sea. If God helped you then, God will help you again.
The Torah is recognizing that our state of mind makes all the difference in the world in how we behave. Are we feeling jealous? Are we feeling sad? Are we feeling angry? These moods are powerful. And, our becoming ethical people depends on our ability to shape our own state of mind.
Jewish spiritual practice aims to correct the distortions in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. In that way, it resembles meditation. Meditation teachers often use this example of a distorted autobiography: “You spill a cup of coffee. In your mind, you hear this voice: ‘ You are so clumsy. You always spill things. You can’t get anything right’.”
This is our Woody Allen narrative. Woody Allen always portrays himself as the classic nebbish. He is the stereotypical Diaspora Jew, who is all brain and no body. He is powerless in a world which rejects him. That’s the ‘we are helpless’ narrative that the Torah warns about.
On the other extreme is the narrative of omnipotence, the Donald Trump narrative. Donald Trump made headlines recently by calling John McCain a loser and by saying that he was not a war hero because he was captured in the Vietnam war. Trump said, “I like people who were not captured.”
Everybody condemned Trump, of course, but you know we Jews have been guilty of the same argument. In recent decades, we have argued that Israelis who won the Six Day War were heroes, but Jews who struggled to maintain their humanity in the concentration camps were not.
In 1956, there was an Israeli named Kastriner who saved over 1500 Jews in Hungary by ransoming them from the Nazis. But, he was condemned as a traitor and a coward because his heroism was the heroism of the captive who endures, the heroism of John McCain who is not in total control of his destiny, but nevertheless behaves bravely. And, captivity had been so toxic to the Jewish people, that we could not tolerate a vision of heroism that did not include total victory, that did not include total control of our own destiny.
But, this is the mistake of Donald Trump. Trump’s big mistake is that he divides the world into winners and losers. You are either one or the other. You can’t be both. But, the Torah teaches us that to be human is to be both. Only because we are winners are we capable of action. Only because we have all known failure and defeat can we empathize with the have nots of society.
We’re still struggling with this as a people. Some portray Israel as invincible. Israel is the most powerful country in the Middle East. So stop worrying about the Iranians. Stop worrying about the Palestinians, who are so weak compared to us. Stop thinking of ourselves as victims. We’re not anymore.
Others argue the opposite. Nothing has changed in history. We are still the world’s ultimate victims. Everyone hates us and we are completely vulnerable. There is no difference between now and 1939.
But, the truth is, we are neither invincible nor powerless. We are winners and losers. We are strong and we are vulnerable. Israel, thank God, is a powerful country. American Jews are a powerful group in America. We are living at a time of unprecedented Jewish power. And, at the same time, we remain vulnerable. Israel is surrounded by powerful enemies. And, our position in America can never be taken for granted.
Judaism offers us an alternative to the false choice between seeing ourselves as winners or losers. Our Tradition rejects the narrative of invincibility and the narrative of helplessness. Instead, it asks us to choose the narrative of humility.
In this story, we see ourselves as both vulnerable and strong. It is our vulnerability that makes us rightfully wary of a nuclear deal that could endanger our existence. It is our strength that enables us in the midst of our vulnerability, to see the murder of a Palestinian child as a betrayal of everything we stand for.
We need a new national narrative that sees our sovereignty as essential, but can still see the John McCains of the world as heroes. We need a new way of being Jewish that takes pride in the political power of State of Israel, and at the same time, sees the development of our spiritual side as essential to our being complete human beings.
Somewhere in between Woody Allen and Donald Trump is where our Tradition wants us to be.