I’m reading a remarkable book now. It’s called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari. In the opening chapters, Harari raises the question: why is it that we have been so much more successful in conquering the earth than our closest biological cousins, the chimpanzees? After all, chimps are intelligent, they’re highly social, they love each other, and they’re capable of working together.
Many people assume it’s human language that puts us in a unique category. But, Harari thinks it’s more than that. About 70,000 years ago, humanity took a great leap forward. Harari calls it the Cognitive Revolution. And, he believes the key was our ability to work together in very large groups.
Chimpanzees develop trust by getting to know each other personally. They are constantly hugging, kissing and scratching each other. And, these are the folks they can work with. It’s rare to find a group of chimpanzees that’s larger than thirty. There could never be a chimpanzee Microsoft. Because Microsoft is just far too big for every employee to know everyone else.
What makes Microsoft possible without the hugging and the scratching? Harrari says that about 70,000 years ago sapiens developed the ability to tell a story and convince other people that it was true. Let’s take the example of America.
What is America? It’s not something physical. Of course, there is a physical land we call America which includes the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River. But, the mountains and prairies of America existed for thousands of years before America existed. So, the land itself cannot be America.
America is an idea. It’s a story that gives meaning to the communal life of 350 million people. It’s a story so powerful that it can motivate 350 million people to act in unison. We agree to go the polls every year, we agree on the basics of what should be taught in our schools, and even that there should be schools at all.
But, America has no objective reality. It’s not like Mount Rainier. Mount Rainier will exist whether I think about it or not. But, America will exist only as long as it has a hold on the minds and hearts of the American people. And, yet, says Harrari, this ability to share a common story is what it makes it possible for millions of people who never met each other to trust each other and to work together towards a common goal.
This idea is key to understanding the story of Joseph. Joseph was the first person in the Torah to be the leader of a multitude. And, not coincidentally, Joseph is the Bible’s first storyteller. Joseph is the first person to weave the pieces of his life into a meaningful story. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were driven by a deep sense of purpose. But, their purpose was essentially handed to them by God. Joseph is the first person in the Bible to seek to make sense of his life on his own.
In last week’s parasha, when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, they were terrified that he was going to exact revenge on them. But, Joseph reassures them: “Lo atem shlachtem oti heinah/You didn’t send me here. It was God. The story of my life – my dreams, your selling me into slavery, my being thrown into prison – all of this was part of God’s plan to save the Egyptian people from starvation and to preserve our family. You and I,” Joseph says to his brothers – “we were just instruments in God’s plan.”
And, in today’s parasha, when Jacob dies, and the brothers are afraid, now Joseph will take revenge – Joseph re-iterates what he had said 17 years earlier. Va’atem chashevtem alai ra’a/You intended to do me harm. But, God intended it for good. So, don’t worry. I’m not going to harm you.
Now, here is the interesting question. Is there really a Divine plan that Joseph has discovered? Or has Joseph invented this Divine plan? The beauty of this story is that it’s a little of both. Because we are human, we seek a meaning beyond ourselves. Whether as Americans, or as Jews, Christians or Muslims, we often feel that our lives are more uplifting if we are part of a story that is bigger than us. But, what Joseph teaches us is that the story can be bigger than us and at the same time, we can have some part in writing the story. And, if that’s true, that means we can also change the story.
And, here is why I think that’s so important. I saw Star Wars last Saturday night. There is a scene in which Rey, the heroine, says to the Stormtrooper: “You will loosen my chains and open the door.” And, he does. One of the most tantalizing ideas of Star Wars is the possibility of mind over matter. It’s possible to see this not as sci fi fantasy, but as a metaphor for what already makes us human.
The human imagination is a powerful force. It can move mountains. Think of the great ideas that have changed history: Zionism, the Civil Rights Movement, the American Revolution. All of human history is really mind over matter. But, there is also a dark side to this force. Powerful stories of human meaning also produced Nazism and Communism.
So, our search for meaning does not by itself produce noble behavior. It can just as easily lead to cruelty. The saving grace is that we have the ability to change the story. And, this is true even when, like Joseph, we say the story comes from God.
For example, recently, the Vatican re-affirmed and went beyond what it said in 1965. There is no Catholic mission to convert the Jews. The Jewish people can be saved without believing in Jesus. But, how can this be true? It flies in the face of all Christian teaching. It reverses 2000 years of Christian doctrine. If Jesus is the only path to salvation, how can the Jewish people attain salvation on its own? The Vatican’s answer: “You ask a very good question. Only God knows why this is true. It’s an unfathomable mystery.”
Look what has happened here. A story which Christians told for many centuries moved millions of people to acts of kindness, but some aspects of that story also moved millions of people to acts of unspeakable cruelty. So, the Catholic Church changed the story.
And, in response, a few weeks ago French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy said: Now, we need the Muslims to do the equivalent of what the Catholics have done. In other words, it’s not enough to denounce acts of terror. It’s important to change the story that captures the imagination of multitudes and makes hatred and oppression possible. Imagine an international Muslim doctrine that accepted Jewish sovereignty in a sea of Muslim states as an unfathomable mystery.
And, there are courageous Muslims who are taking bold first steps. Here is what Imam Jawad Khaki of Kirkland said last week to the Seattle Times: “When you look at Iran and Saudi Arabia, these are two leading nations of Islam – the messages we get are not messages that inspire people. So we’ve got to change that – I’ve been to Iran. It really bothers me that after each prayer, they say: ‘Death to America. Death to Israel. Death to Britain.’ After prayer, they should be saying – ‘Death to poverty, death to illiteracy.'”
There is a remarkable movement of Islamic Reformers that has emerged in Canada. Go to their website, muslimreformmovement.com and here is what you will read in their declaration:
We are for secular governance, liberty and democracy. Every individual has the right to publicly express criticism of Islam. Ideas do not have rights. Human beings have rights.
We reject tribalism, castes, monarchies and patriarchies – All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Muslims don’t have an exclusive right to heaven.
This is revolutionary – and incredibly hopeful.
One of the leaders of this movement is Asra Nomani. She criticizes Westerners for being silent about dark ideologies and even supporting oppressive religious practices in the name of pluralism. She tells us that our timidity and our silence is enabling the most reactionary version of Islam.
We are rightly sensitive about blaming an entire religious civilization every time an act of terror is committed in its name. But, history has taught us that even the most inspiring stories can have their dark side. And, unless we address that dark side honestly, we will continue to have a problem.
Joseph taught us that the story we tell about the meaning of our lives matters a great deal. It can be exclusive or inclusive. It can generate kindness or cruelty. It can cater to our darkest impulses, or it can transform us into a force for love and compassion.
Or, it can do both. And, if it’s doing both, then it’s up to all of us to fix it.